Ultimate guide to the Wild Atlantic Way road trip in Ireland
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The west coast of Ireland is a fairly spectacular place. Striking, rugged cliffs, smashed by waves. Swathes of empty, white-sand beaches line the roadside. The shore is dotted with towering sea stacks and smatterings of tiny islands.
But the best thing about the west coast? The meandering path that is the Wild Atlantic Way. It might not hug the coastline as strictly as California’s Highway One, but this road takes in over 1,550 miles of scenery that make for the perfect road trip.
It’s easy to stick to its path — the blue and white signs mark the way, dipping between coastal villages and green fields, the sea never too far away. While it’s definitely possible to do it all in one trip (allow at least three weeks to do it right), most people break it into shorter sections, spending four nights in Donegal, Sligo and Mayo, or a few days down in Cork and Kerry. However you want to tackle it, this is your ultimate guide to Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
What to see
Start right at the top at Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point. This rugged spot at the top of the Northern Headlands of Donegal is one of the most dramatic backdrops you could ask for. It’s a great setting for a cliff walk and, if you’re there in the summer months, you might just spot a few cyclists finishing up Ireland’s longest cycle, the Mizen to Malin trek. Be sure to spend some time exploring the Inishowen Peninsula, taking in the pretty little beaches and keeping a close eye on the water — this is prime whale-watching territory.
Head down the coast and you’ll reach Sliabh Liag (Slieve League), the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The Cliffs of Moher might get all the attention (and the crowds), but if you’re lucky, you’ll have this spot all to yourself. Be warned, though — the path is pretty tired in spots, and there’s not too much between you and the crashing waves below.
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If you’re heading there in the winter months (and it’s highly recommended you do), then you might just be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, which often dance in the Donegal sky. And if you’re there in the summer, you’re gifted with long, languorous days — it often doesn’t get dark until midnight, which is handy for the stroll back to bed after a night spent in the local pub.
Where to eat
On the road between Sliabh Liag and Donegal town, you’ll find Killybegs Seafood Shack, serving up super fresh seafood right on the pier. Get some piping hot fish and chips and sit with your feet dangling over the harbor’s edge. For something a little fancier, Foyle Hotel dishes up some of the best food in the northwest, courtesy of TV chef Brian McDermott. Don’t be fooled by the hotel setting — this place is more of a restaurant with rooms. If you’re in the mood for more seafood, then pop into Fisk at the Harbour Bar in Downings. It’s right on the beach, and its meaty crab claws with seaweed butter are legendary.
Where to stay
Fancy something a little different? Lough Mardal has five beautiful yurts, kitted out with antique furniture and cozy wood-burning stoves. Sitting out on the deck with a glass of wine and those gigantic Donegal skies is pretty much heaven on earth. Yurts are from $140 per night.
Just outside Donegal town, Lough Eske Castle is a gorgeous five-star hotel with a great spa and excellent restaurant. Set right on the edge of the lake, there are also fabulous walking trails that you can tackle after a mammoth breakfast. Rates are from $240 per night.
Sligo and Mayo
What to see
You’ve probably seen a fair bit of Sligo on screen as the backdrop for much of the BBC series “Normal People.” You’ll recognize the dreamy, desolate sands of Streedagh Strand from Marianne and Connell’s romantic walks along the beach.
But apart from its newfound reputation among lovestruck millennials, Sligo is also the surf capital of Ireland. You can take on the baby waves in Strandhill or watch the serious surfers on the monster waves in Mullaghmore — this is the kind of place where people get choppered in to take on the big waves in the winter. If you’d rather stick to solid land, climb one of the local mountains, like Knocknarea in Strandhill or the big kahuna, Benbulben (you’ll spot its distinctive ridges from pretty much all over the city).
Down along the coast is the underrated county of Mayo. When you drive the Wild Atlantic Way, the road is punctuated with jagged bronze wayfarers, pointing out a spot that’s dramatically beautiful and worth pulling in for. There are more than 150 of these Discovery Points, but a huge chunk of them are along the Mayo coastline. One of the best is Downpatrick Head, a chunk of headland that’s peculiarly bouncy — like walking on grass Tellytubby domes. The sea stack at its edge is particularly gorgeous. The best way to see it? Crawl up the cliff’s edge and lie on your belly. It’ll make your knees tremble, but it’s an unbeatable view.
Where to eat
In Sligo, you can’t beat Eithne’s by the Sea, in Mullaghmore. Overlooking the harbor, you’ll find platters of local shellfish and catch of the day. In the chichi beachside village of Rosses Point, The Driftwood is a brilliant spot for a huge plate of lobster doused in smoked garlic butter. It has cute bedrooms upstairs, too.
Where to stay
If you have loyalty program points to spend, the Radisson Blu Rosses Point is a fabulous hotel with a fantastic restaurant and plenty of al fresco seating. The spa is pretty nifty, too. Rates are from $185 per night or 57,000 points.
Down in Mayo, Ashford Castle is one of the finest hotels in the whole country, a dreamily luxurious spot on the lakeshore with a classically Irish sense of luxury – you’ll get top-notch service, but with a cheeky wink. Oh, and it has two resident Irish wolfhounds that you can walk each morning, too. Rates are from $408 per night.
Galway and Clare
What to see
Down in this neck of the woods, it’s all about the beaches. Leaving Mayo and coming into Galway, you first catch a glimmer of the impossibly gorgeous Connemara landscape with its wide expanses of rock-strewn fields rolling down towards the sea. Make sure you take in the pretty coastal villages of Roundstone and Clifden — they may get busy with tourists in the summer, but they’re still worth a pit stop.
If you have a little more time to spare, then it’s worth exploring some of the islands dotted off the coast — the easiest is probably Achill (though this is up in Mayo, it’s the only island accessible by bridge). If you have a full day or two, the Aran Islands are almost otherworldly, with their crumbling stonewalls and beaches that belong in the tropics. Inis Oirr is the understated favorite, if only because of its resident dolphin Dusty and the ale named after it (Inis Beer).
Where to eat
In the village of Roundstone, a visit to O’Dowd’s is pretty much mandatory. In the winter, the tiny pub is filled with the scent of smoldering turf on the fire. In the summer, you can take one of the outdoor seats and sit in the sunshine (if it’s there). But either way, you simply can’t beat a platter of oysters and a pint of Guinness — it’s a match made in heaven. If you’re driving to the Connemara National Park, stop into Misunderstood Heron by Killary Fjord. This little food truck serves up the best mussels around, plucked from the very waters a few feet away.
Where to stay
When it comes to glorious Connemara boltholes, you simply can’t beat Ballynahinch Castle. An absolutely beautiful spot right on the water, this is the epitome of countryside coziness, with beautiful heritage rooms, captivating views and fireplaces around every corner. The restaurant is one of the finest in the country, too. Rates are from $276 per night.
What to see
Of all the counties around Ireland aside from Dublin, Kerry is the one that’s probably most flocked to by visitors. And who can blame them? This is a county that has it all — striking lakes, perfect beaches and mountains that look like something out of a Toblerone advert. Cut in from the coast a little and drive the Ring of Kerry and through the Killarney National Park, stopping whenever you can to take in the view. Check out Gleninchaquin Park, too — it’s where Annie Leibovitz shot “Star Wars” star Adam Driver for Vogue.
Along the coast, hang around for a glimpse of the Skellig islands (you might recognize them as a Jedi sanctuary from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”). If you have the time and the weather is on your side, then head out to Skellig Michael, a seriously impressive structure with steep, weather-worn stone steps leading to a monastery almost 1,500 years old. If you fancy a real adventure, climb Carrauntoohil — it’s the tallest mountain in Ireland, but there are several routes up to the top, Devil’s Ladder probably being the most accessible. It’s probably best to go with a guide if you’re not an experienced hill climber.
Where to eat
Kenmare is a great little foodie stop, with a number of brilliant restaurants and cafés. The cute Boathouse Bistro is a short hop out of the town, perched right on the water with a cool maritime feel. The fish and chips are exceptional (as are the fish tacos and selection of rosé wines). Don’t skip a visit to Kenmare Ice Cream either, where classic flavors are whipped up with local cream.
Where to stay
One of Ireland’s most beloved hotels, the Park Hotel Kenmare, is just a couple of minutes walk away from the town but has the feel of a palatial country manor. Its spa is one of the finest you could hope for — numbers are limited so it’s never crowded, and the outdoor infinity hot tub is set right in the trees for a truly magical soak among nature. Rates are from $285 per night.
Along the road by the Boathouse Bistro is Dromquinna Manor, with some cool glamping options — you can stay in an ultra-chic converted Potting Shed or a sleek safari-style tent. Both are kitted out with sumptuous bedding, antique furniture and every little luxury you could ask for. Rates are from $240 per night.
What to see
Cork is an absolute beast of a county, so don’t try to do it all too quickly. Kick things off in West Cork, home of giant, blue-flag beaches and whale-watching tours. One thing you definitely shouldn’t miss? Night kayaking in Lough Hyne, a saltwater lake close to the town of Skibbereen. You’ll set out at dusk and before long, you’ll be paddling under the night sky. But it’s far from dark below the water — move your oar through the lake and you’ll see the dazzle of bioluminescence. It’s a magical sight.
Read more: The ultimate guide to visiting Cork, Ireland
For a poetic end to the Wild Atlantic Way, head to Ireland’s most southerly point, Mizen Head. There’s a cool suspension bridge and great lighthouse views, plus the waters that surround it are often filled with minke, fin and humpback whales. If you want to head out to the furthest point, take a boat to Fastnet Rock, a dramatic little island that’s known as Ireland’s Teardrop — it was the last patch of Ireland that emigrants would see as they sailed off to America.
Where to eat
The food scene is huge in West Cork, with plenty of Ireland’s best producers supplying the rest of the country with the best artisan cheeses and charcuterie. That means there are Farmer’s Markets aplenty, so you’ll never be short of picnic supplies. Head to Toonsbridge Dairy for its killer halloumi and smoked scarmorza or nab a pizza fresh out of the clay oven, smeared with spicy ‘nduja.
Kinsale is a paradise for food lovers, so you’re never short of a good bite there. Cork is also home to some of the newest Michelin stars in Ireland — Mews Restaurant in Baltimore and Chestnut in Ballydehob are two of the best spots in the country, as is new recipient Bastion in Kinsale. In Cork city, Chef Takashi Miyazaki’s incredible tiny Japanese spot Ichigo Ichie is one of the hottest tables in Ireland, let alone Cork.
Where to stay
If you want to make the most of the water, stay on Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa, where the ocean is basically on your doorstep. It’s the best place for sea kayaking, so make sure you book a paddle when you’re there. Rates are from $212 per night.
For a cooler B&B vibe, try Roseville in Youghal — it has two completely self-sufficient rooms in the walled garden, which come with a pantry stuffed to the brim with local bread, cheeses and yogurts. Rates are from $137 per night.
How to get there
The main airports along the coast are Shannon (SNN), Kerry (KIR), Ireland West Knock (NOC) and Cork (ORK). From there we definitely recommend renting a car.
A nice long road trip is a great way to experience the delights of a new country without coming into contact with too many other people. The scenery on the west coast of Ireland is fantastic, varied and exciting, and the island is small enough that you can do it over a leisurely week or two. Bear in mind some of our insider tips of where to stay and eat and you’ll have the road trip of a lifetime.
Featured photo by John Carey 2011/Getty Images
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