Exploring Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Helen Ochyra

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 03.10.2019

The Wild Atlantic Way does what it says on the tin. Think dramatic sea cliffs, crashing waves and windswept beaches, all joined up by road over a whopping 2500km. The route runs from Donegal in the north of Ireland all the way down the island's west coast, finishing in Kinsale in County Cork. This long coastal road has always been there of course, but now there's a shiny new sticker on it, just waiting to be added to your world road trip collection. Here's our guide for how to make the most of the Wild Atlantic Way - in and out of the car.

Remember, if you're planning on visiting Ireland, we can help! Our Tailor-Made Trips service will connect you with a local expert to plan a fully customised fly-and-drive excursion.

The north: from Derry/Londonderry to Galway

The Wild Atlantic Way begins at Derry/Londonderry (which has an international airport) and heads straight out to Ireland's northernmost point, Malin Head. Feel the wind in your hair here - as well as the Atlantic splash from the Devil's Hole.

The Donegal coast is all white sand beaches and chunky headlands. It's worth ditching the car for a bit here - for horse riding at Tullen Strand or to learn to surf at Pollan Bay, as well as to seek out local guitarist Brenton at the Corner House in Ardara for live Irish music.

Further south lies County Mayo, home to Ireland's first International Dark Sky Park. It's easy to escape light pollution for a spot of stargazing here, especially out on the remote Mullet Peninsula. There are unspoiled beaches along the calm Blacksod Bay coast here, as well as the lighthouse that sent the weather forecast that delayed - and ultimately saved - D Day in 1944.

A 90-minute drive around Blacksod Bay brings you to Ireland's largest island, Achill. Pop across the bridge here to climb Minaun, first by car and then, from the car park, by foot to a statue of Our Lady that looks down along the soaring sea cliffs to Keem beach.

Achill Island, Ireland

View over Keem beach on Achill Island © Rihardzz / Shutterstock

It's good preparation for the best climb on the Wild Atlantic Way, at Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain. The walk up takes around two hours (coming down is slightly faster) and requires sturdy hiking boots and a tenacious spirit to tackle the steep stony slopes.

Just south of Croagh Patrick you'll enter Connemara, one of Ireland's most dramatically beautiful regions. You'll want to stop for pictures in brooding Doolough Valley and at Killary Harbour, Ireland's only true fjord.

It's a short drive from here to Galway, one of Ireland's loveliest cities and set to be European Capital of Culture in 2020. Don't miss a night out on the town with the locals - there's live music in almost every pub and a busker on every corner. If you don't have time to do the whole 2500km this is also your bailout point - the fast road across to Dublin takes just 2hr 30min. Alternatively, Shannon and Knock airports are both an hour's drive away.

Galway, Ireland

Galway © Luca Fabbian / Shutterstock

Where to stay

This cosy pub is a great base for a night out in lively Ardara. Rooms are spacious and modern and the bar downstairs serves simple pub meals.

A friendlier bed and breakfast is hard to imagine. Hannah can do you dinner if you request in advance and if you stay two nights she'll throw in bike hire.

This classic four-star hotel has huge rooms and a lovely courtyard out the back for drinks. It's right in the centre of Westport too.

Where to eat

Seaview Tavern, Malin Head

Call at least a day ahead for the lobster - it's caught fresh locally and served grilled overlooking the ocean. Heaven.

An Port Mor, Westport

Plenty of local produce is on the menu here, from oysters and mussels through to chunky steaks. There's a lovely bistro-style vibe.

The south: Galway to Kinsale

Galway is worth a two-night stop, for the chance to stroll through the ancient fishing village of Claddagh and along the promenade to Salthill for freshly baked cakes. You could also take a day off from the driving by joining a day tour to The Burren and Cliffs of Moher. The Burren is a karst limestone landscape replete with ancient monuments and home to plenty of native flora, while the Cliffs of Moher are simply unmissable - running for 8km and rising up to 200 metres above the crashing Atlantic.

Further south there's more dramatic coastal scenery at Loop Head in County Clare, which stretches out to sea for about 25km. Take a clifftop stroll here and look out for dolphins.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Cliffs of Moher © shutterupeire / Shutterstock

Not far from here you'll enter County Kerry, arguably the most beautiful in Ireland. Offshore of Portmagee are the toothy islands of Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, worth a visit for the walk up to the ancient monastery on the former alone - you'll see a line-up of beehive-like domes that used to house the monks as well as plenty of gannets and, if you're lucky, puffins.

The southernmost county on the Wild Atlantic Way is Cork, where some of Europe's best whale-watching trips head out to sea. If you're visiting between late spring and early winter you might see minke, fin and humpback whales, while common dolphins and grey seals are more or less a given at any time of year.

The Wild Atlantic Way ends in Kinsale, a dreamy fishing village that sits on a sheltered harbour. This is one of the best places in Ireland for seafood and it also punches well above its teeny weight when it comes to pubs - so you can raise a few pints of the black stuff to the end of a successful road trip. It's just a 25min drive to Cork airport.

Slea Head, Ireland

Slea Head, Ireland© grafxart / Shutterstock

Where to stay

This 16th-century convent turned boutique hotel is in the heart of the Latin Quarter, with Galway's nightlife at your doorstep.

Right on the harbourfront, this 16-room guesthouse has cosy rooms and a restaurant serving local seafood.

There's bags of nautical style at this upmarket boutique hotel and you're a stone's throw from the bars and restaurants of Kinsale harbour.

Where to eat

Galway Food Tours

Head out with Sheena to the hippest new places to eat in Galway on an evening tour. Expect the likes of local oysters at Tartare and inventive cocktails at America Village Apothecary.

Fishy Fishy, Kinsale

One of Ireland's best seafood restaurants, serving freshly caught calamari, oysters, mussels and lobster on Kinsale shorefront.

Map of Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Map of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route © Tourism Ireland

Explore more of Ireland with The Rough Guide to Ireland. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Top image: Cliffs of Moher © shutterupeire / Shutterstock

Helen Ochyra

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 03.10.2019

Helen Ochyra is a Scotland-obsessed freelance travel writer and author of the critically acclaimed Scottish travel book "Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes", a Times Travel “book of the week” and one of Wanderlust’s “best travel books of 2020”. Helen specialises in British travel and is currently studying towards a Masters in British Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Helen's work has recently appeared in the Times, the Telegraph and Grazia among many others. She lives in London with her husband and two young daughters.

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