The Wild Atlantic Way runs along the entire coastline of Western Ireland. This scenic drive goes from Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland all the way down the Western coastline to Kinsale in the south.
If you have the time and want to see everything this journey can take up to a month. Unfortunately I didn’t have that long, but was able to spend a week exploring.
My journey began in Knock, and didn’t go all the way to Kinsale as we stopped in Killarney. I travelled through five counties (Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, and Kerry) and this post covers everything I saw. Warning – it’s a long one!
Knock airport (located in county Mayo) is a perfect place to start, with cheap flights from the UK. I highly recommend hiring a car as it’s easier to stop in small towns and set your own pace. You can also take buses, however this only really takes you through larger towns and can be a logistical nightmare (Although still doable if you are on a budget).
A 30 minute drive west from the airport you will reach the town of Castlebar. It is a relatively small but pretty town, and there are a reasonable amount of shops and cafes on the main street. Nearby you have Lough Lannagh, where you can go for a walk around the lake.
Another 15 minutes down the road you’ll arrive in Westport, which is right by the Irish coast. The Carrowbeg River runs through the town, which you can walk along and spot local birds.
Right by the river is St Mary’s Church, which has a double arch entrance.
Nearby is Holy Trinity Church, which has a large spire and three large stained glass windows at the front entrance.
The town center has a very quaint clock tower and a St Patrick Monument (formally Glendenning Monument), right at the end of the high street.
If you decide to stop for food or a drink I recommend the Cobblers Bar right by the St Patrick Monument. The town had some really old-school buildings, which really give it character.
Just before you leave you should stop off at Westport House. A historic house, it shows visitors life life in 16th century in Ireland. A ticket to the grounds and Westport House costs €13.50 (£11.50 – 2020).
Leaving Westport you begin to notice that major highways become two-lane roads as you head deeper into county Mayo. The drive is really beautiful, even if it’s raining, as you see the rolling green hills with sheep and cows munching away.
You could see fog settling over the tops of some of the nearby ‘mountains’. Among all the farms there are waterfalls and streams throughout the entire drive, where you can stop for photos.
I stopped at Aasleagh, where you will see the picturesque Aasleagh falls on the Eriff River where locals go salmon fishing. There is a small walkway to the waterfall.
This waterfall leads into the Killary Fjords, which form the border between County Mayo and County Galway. On both sides of the Fjords you get stunning views of the mountains (and low level fog in my case).
In a small town called Leenaun there is a viewing point for the Killary Fjords, where you can pull over and see boats docked in the fjords.
Killary Harbour is quite deep, but there are tours out on the water and being a Fjord it has calm waters and many shellfish cages floating throughout the harbour.
You can take three routes through the next section of County Galway. One continues around the Wild Atlantic Way (Coastline), one cuts around through the mountains towards Galway, and the third cuts through the middle of the County towards another section of the coastal by the lakes.
The roads go around Kylemore Lough and Pollacappul Lough in the northern parts of Galway County, which have more stunning views for you to enjoy. If you find a spot to pull over you can get some shots of Kylemore Abbey in the distance on Pollacapall Lough.
I decided to stay in the small town of Letterfrack. There wasn’t too much to see here, however it is located close to several landmarks in the area.
Kylemore Abbey has a truly remarkable history, filled with tragedy, love, learning and new beginnings.
It was built over 150 years ago as a castle by Mitchell Henry. In the grounds you will find Mitchell and Margaret (his wife) buried in their own crypt.
In 1920 Benedictine nuns arrived at Kylemore Abbey fleeing Ypres, Belgium that was destroyed in World War I. They turned the castle into an Abbey and educated women there until 2010.
The rooms throughout the Abbey give a detailed history of the region.
Along Pollacappul Lough in the grounds of Kylemore Abbey you will also find Kylemore’s Neo-Gothic Church. About 1km walk from the Abbey you will find its gardens. There are buses that take you to and from the gardens if you can not walk that far. A ticket will cost you €13.30 (£11.30 – 2020).
Nearby you’ll find Connemara National Park, which has been around since 1890, and there is a trail you can walk in the park to enjoy the rolling hills, lakes and amazing views.
Just north of Connemara National Park there is a small peninsula where you’ll pass two towns – Tully Cross and Rinvyle – where you’ll see some quirky houses that were built into the rocks to protect them and the people living there.
Once you reach a point in the peninsula that seems like a loop you will see some amazing views of the stone beach.
Sitting on top of a nearby hill you will see the remains of Rinvyle Castle. There isn’t much left, but it gives some stunning views.
Around the corner is Cashleen, Church of the Seven Daughters. If it’s wet the roads leading to there will be very muddy. The ruins of the church are made out of the same stone you see across the entire country. The ruins are surrounded by an old graveyard.
Back on the road you’ll pass many small towns and even more stunning viewpoints. My favourite little stop along the way was a complete fluke. In the town of Recess Google maps will show a 1897 Happening landmark. Little do you know when you pull over there will be a statue and the sign will say: ‘On this site in 1897 something happened’
I couldn’t stop laughing. This “landmark” was actually created by the owner of Mrs. Joyce’s Craftshop as a means to get people to stop and see the shop… it worked… well done!
Galway is the next major city on the Wild Atlantic Way, and you can also fly in and out of here.
The fourth largest city in Ireland, it has a population of around 80,000 (2019) and has a young feel as it is a university city.
A great place to start is Eyre Square, a chilled out area with monuments and sculptures to enjoy, surrounded by cafes and close to the high street.
On this high street you will see an odd sight of a bronze Oscar Wild sculpture looking like he is talking to Estonian writer Eduard Vilde, even though the two are not related and have never met – they were just both writers.
The River Corrib flows through the city of Galway and there is a walkway and bike path around sections of it that lead out to the docks. Along the path there are small locks to slow parts of the river down as the current does seem very fast.
Your walk will take you by The Fisheries Watchtower Museum, which was once a watchtower into Galway but now contains fisheries memorabilia and old photos.
The pathway also leads to the Spanish Arch. These are the last two remaining arches that were part of the city wall built in 1584, and in 1755 part of the walls were destroyed by a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Lisbon. During my visit there was a hurricane the week before, so there were flood barriers in the middle of the arch.
Attached to the Spanish Arch is Galway City Museum, which hosts a variety of exhibitions with some on Medieval Galway, Prehistoric Galway and the wars of the Empire.
Some other sites you’ll want to visit during your stay in Galway include the Galway Courthouse and the Townhall Theatre. These two historic architectural buildings are right by each other and really show some of the city’s history.
Your final stop should be Galway Cathedral, which is free and is also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas. It is the largest building in Galway.
It was completed in 1965 and was once the old city prison. It is the last stone-built cathedral in Europe. The halls are huge and there are lovely stained glass windows across the entire Cathedral.
There are lots of other places for you to explore in Galway and you could spend an entire day seeing everything. It is a great gateway into other parts of County Galway and County Clare (just below Galway).
Back on the road I headed towards the border of County Galway and County Clare, and came come across Dunguaire Castle. This 16th century castle sits on the shores of Galway Bay, which has some amazing views if you walk around the castle or go up to the tower.
Even if the castle is closed you can walk around the outside for views of the bay.
The Wild Atlantic Way now makes its way through County Clare. This is one of the most famous sections of this road. You could take many routes around this county to see the following sites. It is well worth it.
I started my journey in the town of Doolin. This section of the County Clare was really worth staying in. There are quite a few options to choose from. If you are on a budget you can stay in the local hostel, or there are many bed and breakfasts. In the summer I recommend booking well in advance.
I suggest you visit McGann’s Pub for some food. It has fish and chips from local fisheries and a pint of guinness that won’t disappoint.
This is a great area to stay, especially if you want to make your way to the Cliffs of Moher the next morning.
Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions, with tours coming from every major city. The reason I suggest you stay close to the Cliffs of Moher is to go as early as possible, before the crowds arrive.
Entry costs €4.00 (£3.40) online, which I was able to buy in the car on the way (I did go during the off-season so tickets were more available, maybe don’t do this in peak season). It is more expensive to buy at the gate. While I was there the winds were roughly 70 km an hour and they close off certain sections for safety reasons.
The Cliffs of Moher are over 350 million years old and have been carved by mother nature, with winds and waves pounding against them. They have been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2015 and receive around 1.5 million visitors each year.
There are stunning views of various parts of the cliffs, from the sea stacks to the 200 meter drop to the waves pounding against the rock. In the first section, just past the visitors’ center, you will see O’Brien’s Tower which is an observation tower built in in 1835 that overlooks the Cliffs. On the horizon, you’ll see the Aran Islands.
There are many tours that leave from Doolin port just north of the Cliffs, which head out to the Aran Islands as day trips.
There are two hiking routes you can take from O’Brien’s Tower – one that goes north along the coast and one that goes south to Moher Tower at Hag’s Head. With the high winds the north route was closed, so I went to Moher Tower.
There is a path you walk along that is quite muddy (it’s alongside sheep fields) and there are sections that don’t have a barrier between you and the cliff edge. Just make sure you are careful and don’t go to close to the edge (even for instagram!).
This route is beautiful. There are many viewing points and you could find yourself here for several hours taking it all in.
This section of County Clare is also referred to as the Burren. It is a landscape abundant in limestone that has formed unique geological sites across the county. Between the areas of Tullykyne and Carnsefin you will come across the Blackhead slates. This geological landscape was stunning, and you can see how the the hills behind you have been carved by the elements.
Bothar nA hAillite is another geological landscape that you can walk out onto and watch the waves crash against the rocks below.
The Atlantic coast is filled with beaches where you can stop your car and enjoy.
There is a large network of caves throughout the Burren, formed by river systems under your feet. One place you should visit is Doolin Caves. These sets of caves are on the western edges of The Burren, just north of Doolin.
They were discovered by J.M.Dickenson and Brian Varley in 1952, who were cavers and went through a tiny hole through to the sections you see through today (but more easily with stairs!).
Tickets cost €12 (£10.30 – 2020) and you’ll get a 45 minute tour of the cave and get a historic and geological tour of the cave system. The key site within Doolin Caves is the 7.3 meter great stalactite.
This is the third largest stalactite in the world and is the largest one you can physically see as a non caver. It was magnificent.
Castle ruins are prominent in County Carey. They scatter the landscape and most are abandoned or hard to reach. Doonagore Castle is a 16th century tower house and is not accessible to the public. The name derived from Dún na Gabhair, meaning “The Fort on the Rounded Hill” as it overlooks the coastline. To stop and get some shots of this castle is quite tricky. There are some small pull-in points on the narrow winding road that leads past the castle, but you will have to make it quick as you may block traffic.
Ballinalacken Castle is a 15th century tower house that sits on a limestone outcrop in the Burren. You are able to get a closer look, however it is on private property (a hotel – right near the castle). If you ask the owners they won’t mind you stopping to take some photos.
Leamaneh Castle is located in the town of Leamaneh and looks more like a large manor made from traditional castle stone. It dates back to 1480-1490. The mansion section of the castle was built in the 17th century. This is another one you can’t go inside, however, there are spots to pull over and take photos by its fence line.
There are several other castle ruins for you to explore in County Clare, depending on what route you are taking:
· Dough Castle
· Inchiquin Castle
· Ballynagowan Castle
· Ballygriffy Castle
· Tromra Castle
· Doonbeg Castle
· Bunratty Castle
· Knappogue Castle
County Clare has two spots for you to visit lighthouses. In the north there is the Blackhead Lighthouse. Located on the north west bend between Tullykyne and Carnsefin this fairly modern lighthouse is out on the rocky coastline. This is a spot where locals like to go fishing.
Loop Head Lighthouse is on the south west tip of County Clare and was built in 1670. Surrounded by lush green grass by the cliff edge you can get a tour of the lighthouse for €5.00 (£4.28 – 2020) and see these wonderful views of the North Atlantic on the tower balcony.
Being Ireland, there are countless churches across the country (in use and run down). One in County Clare that gave a bit of history was Carron Church. This run-down medieval church dates back to the 15th century and is located in the village of Carron. I It is said that the upper levels of this church were a home, with the downstairs a monastery. Today the grounds are filled with gravestones.
There are some must-see tombs in County Clare, that have been here for thousands of years. The Poulnabrone Dolmen is a portal tomb that dates to the stone age between 3,800 BCE and 3,200 BCE. Comparing with all the other ancient landmarks across Ireland this has the potential to be the oldest.
It truly shows that there are things dating back to the ancient world that will outlast a lot of what we create today, and the sheer ingenuity they had long ago.
A two-minute drive down the road from Poulnabrone Dolmen is Caherconnell Stone. You can see this medieval stone ringfort for €6.00 (£5.15 – 2020) and the owners provide an audio guide that goes into its detailed history.
The largest town in County Clare is Ennis. With a population of just under 30,000 this town will feel huge compared to the small towns and communities you would have driven through.
The main landmark in the town is the Ennis Friary. This 13th century friary is in a Franciscan style and sits in the north of the town. It is a ruin and is not used for religious reasons. Entrance costs €5.00 (£4.28) and you’ll be able to walk the grounds and inside the friary, explore the old sculptured pieces within and admire the craftsmanship of the stonework.
With a bustling high street with many cafes, restaurants and antique shops there is plenty to keep you occupied in Ennis. My favourite stop was a local craft shop called ‘Craft Works’ on Parnell Street that sold art from local artists from across County Clare. These are the sort of things I like to purchase on my travels to display back home and remind me of my travels.
In the center of town, you’ll notice the Daniel O’Connell Monument. This is an old roman Doric column made around 1867 of an Irishman (Daniel O’Connell) who won the Clare election back in 1828 during British rule.
Some of the other major religious sites include Saint Columba’s Church, which was built in the late 1800s, and the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral that was built in 1842 and is the main place of worship in Ennis.
The town of Ennis sits on the River Fergus, which has some walkways for you stroll on and enjoy the views of the town, while leading you to the old Mill Water Wheel. Constructed in the 1830s, the mill has been restored and operates as a tourist site within Ennis.
Now a hotel, the Temple Gate was a 19th century convent where priests and people of faith would live.
County Limerick is one of the smaller sections you drive through on the Wild Atlantic Way, and is home to the city of Limerick. Limerick is the starting point or finishing point for some travellers as there is an international airport located in Shannon which is roughly a 30-minute drive away.
I recommend a day trip that isn’t a Sunday or a public holiday to see Limerick at a slow pace. Limerick sits on the River Shannon, with multiple bridges across the city. Thomond Bridge is the most historic bridge dating back to 1185 (The original wooden bridge has gone and now consists of many stone arches) and has been rebuilt many times over the centuries.
On the west side of the river (by Thomond Bridge) you will find the Treaty Stone. This stone is said to be the signed Treaty of Limerick dating back to 1691 for the end of the Williamite War between the Jacobite’s and the supporters of William of Orange, ending the siege of Limerick Castle. You can learn more about this point in Limerick’s history at your next stop.
To the east side of the river is King John’s Castle. This castle dates to 1210, with the site itself dating back to 922 when the Vikings lived in Ireland. The castle was built under the orders of the Norman king, John. In the castle tour you will get a chance to see some of the excavated Viking remains.
This castle has a facinating history, and the tour covers the history of King John’s Castle, the people that lived here and the ever-changing rulers. Tickets are 50% cheaper online at €11.70 (£10.00 – 2020).
In your ticket you’ll be able to roam the castle, and have a medieval experience in the castle grounds. There are two turrets you can climb that give you great views of the River Shannon and the northern parts of the city.
Right outside the castle you will find The Toll House, which dates to 1840 and is gothic in style. It was used to collect tolls for people crossing the Thomond Bridge.
If you have a city map it will point out key stopping points, big or small from a variety of points in the history of Limerick. Several can be found around King John’s Castle.
The Hunt Museum was once a former customs house is now a collection of ethnographic treasures, costing €7.50 (£6.40 – 2020), and is a great opportunity to learn more about the history of Ireland.
For food there is the high street in Limerick which has countless well known restaurants and high end shops for those that want to do a bit of shopping. However, the Milk Market is a must-see when visiting Limerick. Check opening times before you go, but this market has diversified over the years and sells locally produced goods and foods for you to keep your energy up. There are also some trendy cafes outside the Milk Market.
Again, there are a bunch of religious landmarks to visit if interested. St Mary’s Cathedral was founded in 1168 has very large stained-glass windows and when it’s time for mass those bells ring… for what seems like forever!
St John’s Cathedral is relatively new compared to St Mary’s Cathedral, being built in 1861, and holds the country’s tallest cathedral spire. Right by the Cathedral is St John’s square where you’ll find St John’s Church.
Other churches across the city include Saint Munchins Church, which is situated right by the Treaty Stone, and The Red Church (which as you’d expect is red).
There are many other art installations and historical finds across Limerick that you’ll see on any city map. They give you information on hidden gems like The Widows Alms Houses, which were built in 1691 for those who lost their husbands in war.
Back on the road again heading south you’ll find yourself leaving County Limerick quite quickly and entering another famous County known as County Kerry. Most people know of this county due to the Ring of Kerry.
I won’t go through everything in the county, but will highlight some amazing finds you’ll not want to miss. I was making my way to the Dingle Peninsula, but my first stop led me to a small village called Blennerville.
This village doesn’t have a lot within it, but the Blennerville Windmill certainly is beautiful and a great spot to stretch your legs and get some snaps. This windmill is from the 1800s but has been restored and turned into a historical exhibit.
When you head onto the Dingle Peninsula don’t take the route that tells you to go straight to Dingle, continue west bound on the northern ridge of the peninsula and you won’t regret it. Along this road you can pull over on several occasions to get amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Dingle Peninsula has unique geology, with beaches and cliff faces around the outskirts and mountains through the center. Follow the road until you see a sign saying Conor Pass.
Conor Pass is a scenic drive through these mountains, giving you amazing views as you steadily climb and look down into the grass valleys below. At times the roads will become very narrow (almost not big enough for one car).
There are two scenic outposts on this drive that give you breath-taking views. At the first one you can climb up the rocks by the car park and go on a little hike to get higher. Even though there are others pulling over to get photos as well, there is a sense of peace.
The second outpost, also known as Giant’s Grave, is very windy as the mountains open to the south allowing the Atlantic winds to blow through the valley. You can also hike here. This drive is certainly worth the extra time it will take to get to Dingle.
Dingle is the largest town on the Peninsula. This fishing port is a harbour protected from the elements and is home to around 2,000 residents. All roads on the Dingle Peninsula lead to this town. There are plenty of places to stay and eat (You should try the fish and chips in the area as the fish is brought in daily), and it is a great spot to set up base.
This next section of the Dingle Peninsula has some of the historic hidden gems you should see.
Kilmalkedar Church is a medieval national monument and is associated with the local saint Brendan. The church itself is hidden away on a side road. It is in ruins now, dates to the 12th century, and was known as an assembly point for pilgrims who were following the saint’s road.
St Brendan’s House is just by Kilmalkedar Church. The house is medieval, but not much more could be found about it. You cannot go inside the historical site, but you can see it from the outside.
This historic landmark is a five-minute walk down a small road, and most people completely miss it as there is no signage. St Brendan’s Oratory (Teampaillin Breanainn), is a small chapel made of limestone blocks that is well structured. It is very simple and sits on its own in the middle of a field.
My next stop was Gallarus Castle. Many ruins have been immersed into local communities or onto private property, so you may feel awkward to go up and take photos. Gallarus Castle is one of these, with signs pointing to its location but a couple of houses surrounding it. This castle was built in the 15th century and has been restored with a new wooden door.
Around the small street corner you will come to Gallarus Oratory (Séipéilín Ghallarais). It dates to the 7th or 8th century and is in the shape of an inverted boat. It truly shows the ingenuity of the era, and time has been kind to it.
I then made my way west to see the natural beauty the Dingle Peninsula, the westernmost point in mainland Ireland.
Here you’ll find Clogher Strand. This viewpoint has amazing views of the waves crashing against the rocks below. This portion of Ireland is very windy all year round, so please be careful.
Next stop was Dunquin Harbour. The town of Dunquin is the most westerly settled town in Ireland, and the cliff faces with the stairs down to the pier are very dramatic and photogenic.
The pier is the calmest point on this part of the island. Right by the stairs down to the pier are two huge rock formations that look like they were sculpted and placed here for photos.
Further south along the coast you’ll reach Coumeenoole Beach. This beach isn’t where you’d take your kids to swim, as the waves look monstereous and powerful.
This beach was by Dunmore Head. Some people will recognise the area as it is where they shot parts of the new Star Wars movies (Episode 9 – I am a huge Star Wars nerd!).
Dunmore Head allows you to go on a little hike up the face of a small hill that is the westernmost point in Ireland.
Boy, the views of the Blasket Islands did not disappoint! It was sunset when I was here and I was the only person on the entire Dunmore Head. The winds were insane and I almost lost my footing a couple of times, so didn’t go to the very edge.
I took several moments to sit there and enjoy the view.
This area is well known for its homemade pottery. I stopped at Louis Mulcahy Pottery on the Dingle Peninsula and bought some great pieces. I certainly recommend taking the time to stop at one of the many pottery shops along the route to see if there is anything worth bringing back from your trip.
The route takes a more inland route as you head off the Dingle Peninsula. Before you leave this spectacular area, be sure to stop off at Inch Beach. This is a surfers’ beach and is a thin strand that stretches off the coast.
I managed to get here for sunset and it was beautiful, reminding me of the beaches we have back in Australia.
If you have half a day (or just over) left to explore the Wild Atlantic Way, or know you don’t have enough time to explore the full ring of Kerry, then I suggest you head to Killarney National Park. This National Park is open all year round and it circles Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. There are many walking tracks around the entire National Park that are flat so they are suitable for all ages.
Within Killarney National Park you will see Torc Waterfall. The waterfall itself is about 200 meters from the car park and is roughly 20 meters high. It’s no Victoria Falls but is beautiful to witness.
There are also some more inclined (steps) walks around the Torc Waterfall if you are looking for a hike with a bit more difficulty.
Muckross House is roughly a 1 km walk from Torc Waterfall. Built back in 1843 by a British Architect, this place has 64 rooms in a Tudor style. In 1932 the mansion and its grounds were presented to the Irish Nation, becoming the first National Park for the Republic of Ireland. Entry costs €9.25 (£7.90 – 2020) and you can tour some of the 64 rooms and can learn about its history.
Further into the National Park is Muckross Abbey, which was founded in 1448 and was built in a Franciscan style. This Abbey is free to enter and from its ruins you can see it has had a violent history, being rebuilt in sections many times over history.
What really stood out in the abbey was the large yew tree in the center of the courtyard, which give it a mysterious Hogwarts-film-set vibe.
Your final stop in Killarney National Park will be Ross Castle. The tower was built back in the 15th century and sits right on the shore of the lake. Tickets to walk the halls cost €5.00 (£4.28).
Most people who hire a car usually return it at Kerry airport, however I decided to return it in Killarney so I could explore the town before the end of my Wild Atlantic Way adventure.
Like many other Irish towns there are plenty of shops to browse and places to eat. I found a really amazing art dealer’s studio, where the photographer had taken some stunning pictures around County Kerry. This certainly inspired me to want to come back.
In Killarney there are three major religious sites you should visit. St Mary’s Cathedral is the largest of them, dates back to 1855, and certainly towers over the landscape of the city.
St Mary’s Church dates back to the 1870s and is located more centrally in town. Finally there is the Irish Franciscans Friary, which dates back to 1867.
If you have dropped off your car in Killarney or your tour ended here, you can get a bus back to Kerry airport very easily in under 30 minutes. The Line 14 bus takes you straight to the airport for €4.51 (£3.85 – 2020).
This brings my Wild Atlantic Way adventure to a finish. These were all the amazing landmarks and places I got to visit on my week-long trip, and by no means did I cover everything. The great thing about this part of Ireland is that you can start, end and cover as much as you want in the time frame you have.
I hope some of the stops and landmarks find their way into your itinerary soon.
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