In ancient times, Ireland’s dramatic western seacoast was thought to be the edge of the world. Now a 1,500-mile touring route, the Wild Atlantic Way, hugs this same terrain, connecting more than 150 “discovery points” worth exploring, from MalinHead in the north to Mizen Head in the south.

Here are some of the most stunning spots along the way, paired with nearby out-of-the-car adventures so you can experience Ireland’s wild seascapes on your own terms.

> Scenic Spot: Grianán of Aileach (County Donegal)

The stone fort of Grianán of Aileach sits on a hilltop in Inishowen, County Donegal. (Photograph by eriksens, Flickr)

The stone fort of Grianán of Aileach sits on a hilltop in Inishowen, County Donegal. (Photograph by eriksens, Flickr)

This massive circular stone fortress dating to 1,000 B.C. tops a hill with views of Lough Swilly on one side and Lough Foyle on the other. St. Patrick baptized the O’Neill chieftain here in the fifth century A.D. Grianán of Aileach (which translates, roughly, to “stone palace of the sun” in Gaelic) was so well known in ancient times that Greco-Roman polymath Ptolemy placed it on his version of a world map. Circle the inside wall to take in the full panorama.

Up for an adventure? Bicycle on Malin Head, the northernmost tip of the Irish mainland, where jagged rock pinnacles seem to taunt the sea. “I love to travel by bike; you can see so much more,” says Blaise Harvey, co-owner of Cycle Inishowen, which offers guided tours of the area starting in Carndonagh. En route, cyclists encounter Five Finger Strand and the Ulster village of Culdaff before stopping off for lunch at Seaview Tavern in Ballygorman. Everyone takes photographs from Banba’s Crown, Harvey says, but you can’t possibly capture the expansive view in one frame.

> Scenic Spot: Slieve League (County Donegal)

The cliffs at Slieve League are among the highest in Ireland–and in all of Europe for that matter. The more famous Cliffs of Moher top out at just over 700 feet, while the rock formations at Slieve League stand at nearly three times that height. Visitors can see the spectacle from a viewing platform or hike the trail along the cliff edge; the section known as “One Man’s Pass” is aptly named for its narrow width along a sheer drop. Stop by the Slieve League Cliffs Centre for a primer on the history of the region.

Up for an adventure? Hop aboard the Nuala Star, a passenger boat based in Teelin, to get a water-level perspective of the towering cliffs. Bonus: passengers often see seals on the rocks heading out of the harbor, and dolphins or basking sharks in deeper waters. Skipper Paddy Byrne, a former fisherman, is full of stories about his days spent making a living from the sea. After docking, head to Tí Linn where co-owner Siobhan Clarke serves up handcrafted cuisine and divine desserts.

> Scenic Spot: Downpatrick Head (County Mayo)

 

Dún Briste, a striking "sea stack" just off the coast of Downpatrick Head  (Photograph by diego_sideburns, Flickr)

Dún Briste, a striking “sea stack” just off the coast of Downpatrick Head (Photograph by diego_sideburns, Flickr)

Dún Briste (“broken fort” in Gaelic) is the photo opportunity of choice on Downpatrick Head. This impressive sea stack was separated from the mainland by battering seas in the 14th century, though local legend dictates that St. Patrick struck the ground with his staff to isolate a devilish entity. Local archaeologist Seamus Caulfield says the scientific and folkloric explanations each hold value; a statue marks the spot where Ireland’s patron saint erected an early church.

Up for an adventure? Sign up for a foraging foray with Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours, where owner Denis Quinn will take you to Killala’s tidal edge, rock pools, meadows, and hedgerows to reap a harvest for a later feast. Scour isolated strands for bivalves; pull in edible seaweed from the rocks; and pick wild herbs. Along the way, check out the blowholes, see ancient sites, and learn about local folklore. “I love the surprise element on a foraging trip, when a hare runs off startled, or you find tiny wildflowers to add to a salad,” says Quinn.

> Scenic Spot: Renvyle Castle, Connemara (County Galway)

Loop Head Lighthouse (Photograph by gordieryan, Flickr)

Loop Head Lighthouse (Photograph by gordieryan, Flickr)

Renvyle Castle, a ruined 15th-century tower house where “pirate queen” Grace O’Malley once lived, is the highlight of the Renvyle peninsula drive north of Clifden. “From the castle there’s a gorgeous ocean panorama taking in Clare and Achill Islands with the mountains behind you,” says Michael Gibbons, a local archaeologist and guide.

Up for an adventure? Call on Clifden-based Michael Gibbons Archeology Travel for a private day tour of Inishbofin, a small island that has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Stone walls, cooking mounds, and structures that haven’t been seen in millions of years emerge from the bog lands here. Other points of interest on the island include the 13th-century St. Colman’s Abbey and a Cromwellian star-shaped fort that dominates the harbor. The top of the hill offers one the greatest views of the Atlantic in Ireland, says Gibbons.

> Scenic Spot: Loop Head Lighthouse (County Clare)

Lighthouses are purposely sited on commanding spots, and that’s certainly true at Loop Head; Views from the top extend from County Kerry to Connemara. You can stay overnight in the 19th-century lightkeeper’s house run by the Irish Landmark Trust. And the 17-mile Loop Head Drive around this peninsula has plenty of jaw-dropping views, yet few people.

Up for an adventure? Watch dolphins surfing the bow waves near the mouth of the Shannon River. Captain Geoff Magee, owner of Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt, says this estuary is “dolphin central,” with scores of the bottlenose variety in residence, the largest population in Irish waters. While dolphins are the main attraction, Magee is quick to point out mountain goats and grey seals, as well as Guillemots, Razorbills, and other seabirds nesting on rocky ledges.

> Scenic Spot: Geokaun Mountain & Fogher Cliffs, Valentia Island (County Kerry)

Some of the most incredible views in Kerry can be found at Geokaun Mountain, the high point of Valentia Island. Cross the bridge back to the Moorings Portmagee for fresh local seafood, traditional music sessions, and accommodation. If you stay, take the morning boat out to Skellig Michael, an early Christian monastery and World Heritage site.

Fastnet Lighthouse is known as the Tear of Ireland. (Photograph by phullmann, Flickr)

Fastnet Lighthouse is known as the Tear of Ireland. (Photograph by phullmann, Flickr)

Up for an adventure? Go horseback riding on Rossbeigh Beach along the Ring of Kerry. This is the place to get a real sense of Ireland, says Gerard Burke, co-owner of Burke’s Beach Riding. “The country is known for horses,” he says. Riders can walk, canter or gallop in the shallow water along this seven-mile sand peninsula. Opt for a longer trek into the hills for even broader views of the bay and Glenbeigh valley while riding along forest trails and country roads.

> Scenic Spot: Mizen Head Signal Station (County Cork)

Crowning rugged promontory cliffs, this historic signal (weather) station, now a museum, boasts several viewing platforms where visitors can take in the dramatic cliff scenery and spot whales and sea birds. Tour the keeper’s quarters and Marconi radio room to learn about the important role this station played in early transatlantic communications.

Up for an adventure? Voyage to Fastnet Lighthouse, an engineering marvel located on a rocky crag about eight miles off the mainland. Take the Fastnet Tour to Cape Clear Island where the Heritage Centre explains the history of the lighthouse and the epic yacht race that has long been associated with it. In calm seas, cruise to the rock to experience the lighthouse–known as the Teardrop of Ireland because it was the last sight for many 19th-century emigrants leaving for America–firsthand.

Writer Kathleen M. Mangan takes advantage of her dual Irish citizenship by spending her summers in the emerald isle.

Comments

  1. Rachel Saunders
    Ireland
    May 2, 9:11 am

    Great post, West Cork is one of my favourites along the Wild Atlantic Route. The scenery along the Beara Peninsula and West Cork is amazing. We plan on visiting again next year. There are plenty of great hotels in west cork also to choose from which is great!

    • Kathleen M. Mangan
      May 10, 7:57 am

      There are excellent looped walking trails in West Cork, including Beara Peninsula. One of my favorites is the five-mile Ardnakinna Lighthouse Loop on Bere Island just off Beara. Take the short ferry ride from Castletownbere to Bere Island and walk through the rugged landscape to the southern point marked by picturesque Ardnakinna Lighthouse. Built in 1850, it’s 200 feet above the water and offers incredible views. Check out the Looped Trail System at http://www.walking.ireland.ie.

  2. Marie
    Belgium
    May 6, 12:19 pm

    Just back from Killala, Co Mayo,,,had a few great walks with Denis Quinn of wild Atlantic Tours

  3. Derek O'Flaherty
    Mayo, Ireland
    May 6, 6:41 pm

    I’ve been foraging with Denis Quinn and it’s a fantastic experience. And you have an incredible, somewhat eclectic, meal at the end of it.

  4. Carole
    Luxembourg
    May 7, 10:40 am

    Killala bay, county mayo, is a hidden gem and Denis Quinn is the icing on the cake. Great guide and knowledge of Irish heritage and a mind of information on foraging as well. A very pleasant surprise for my first venture into the Irish countryside and I will definitely be back.

  5. Auriel Robinson
    Sligo
    May 10, 6:49 am

    Kathleen..you should come to Sligo and try a Seatrails walking tour. We will show you incredible archaeological sites including that of the three Spanish Armada shipwrecks which sank in 1588 at Streedagh Strand. We have the oldest tombs in Ireland at Carrowmore. http://www.seatrails.ie You’re invited!

    • Kathleen M. Mangan
      May 10, 7:42 am

      The coastline of Sligo is gorgeous, and I love walking the long beaches and watching the surfers. Guided walks are even better because you learn the stories behind the landscape. I’ve explored the curious stone megalithic tombs at Carrowmore, but I want to do your walk that combines this site with the massive burial cairn of Queen Maeve at the top of Knocknarea where she was buried standing up in battle armor facing her enemies to the north. Then finishing the day queen-style with a seaweed bath at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill. That would be an epic day.

  6. John Brennan
    Kenmare
    May 13, 3:13 am

    One of the most majestic coastal roads in the world and a unique experience awaits. If passing Kenmare in Co Kerry call to The Boathouse at Dromquinna Manor for some great food on the water. http://www.dromquinnamanor.com/. Also some Luxury Camping for those who want to get close to nature in luxury. Happy holidays.
    For a total indulgence try the Park Hotel Kenmare. Also in Kenmare and overlooking the water, the hotel with its renowned restaurants, Destination Spa and 18 hole golf course borders the Heritage Town so perfect location to sample the best of Kerry.

    • Kathleen M. Mangan
      May 13, 4:22 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. The luxury safari tents at Dromquinna are a wonderful experience in glamping, where you can walk to the edge of the calm bay, take the seal safari from the dock, and enjoy a glass of wine on the deck of The Boathouse overlooking the water at sunset. There are few restaurants on the water in Ireland, so this one is a treat.
      The Park Hotel Kenmare is the grand dame of iconic hotels in Ireland, and is run by the Brennan brothers who star in a hotel make-over reality TV show in Ireland. They are the epitome of good taste. This stone hotel overlooking the bay is filled with antiques and art, has an incredible tasting menu paired with wines, and a whiskey bar with live piano music in the lounge to end the evening.

  7. Liam Doherty
    Donegal
    May 13, 6:17 am

    When you are visiting Slieve League and Donegal, make plans to visit Glencolmcille to learn real Irish culture and some of the Irish language at Oideas Gael (www.oideas-gael.com), as well as see the folk museum, see the megalithic sites, do the pilgrimage route of St. Colmcille, walk the empty beaches and listen to an Irish music session in the pubs at night.

    • Kathleen M. Mangan
      May 13, 4:15 pm

      I have been to Oideas Gael in late July for language and culture week, and it’s one of the most authentic experiences to be had in Ireland. You learn how to pronounce Gaelic words and engage in conversation in the morning, then in the afternoon you choose among a variety of activities, from playing bodhran or tin whistle, to Irish dancing, hill walking, and so much more. You stay in thatched cottages in the village, and in the evening there are lectures and concerts, followed by informal music sessions in the pubs with the renowned Donegal-style fiddle players. I also am a huge fan of the archaeology school the following week featuring Michael Herity, an archaeologist and college professor who wrote the book on the massive megalithic stone structures littered around the region, as well as the early Christian monastic sites in the valley. This is the chance to learn from the master out in the field. In the evening, the pubs are buzzing with music as the fiddle school is running at the same time.

  8. Blaise Harvey
    Carndonagh, Donegal
    May 13, 10:01 am

    Delighted to have made it onto your list Kathy! I love taking people on that tour, it’s always so enjoyable. Inishowen is not only great for cycling but is coming down with amazing beaches and is a great place for spotting the Northern Lights!
    Ye can’t beat it… :)

  9. Paddy Byrne
    Sliabh Liag Boat Trips Donegal Ireland
    May 13, 12:15 pm

    Thank you for the mentioning Sliabh Liag Boat Trips
    Kathleen you are welcome on our boats any time

  10. Karen McDonnell
    Ballyvaughan Co Clare
    May 13, 1:29 pm

    One of the most wonderful views is travelling the coast road north from Doolin back through Fanore to Ballyvaughan. The best day, funnily enough, is not a pure-blue sky day. It’s when there’s a few fluffy clouds moving across the silver of the limestone mountains that roll down in small peninsulas to the sea. As the road comes around each curve you see Finavarra and Ballyvaughan bay in the distance, with the clouds creating shadow-work on the hills. Sometimes, looking out to the left you feel you could reach out and shake hands with the people on the sandy beach on the nearest Aran Island. I live here – and I never tire of the view!

  11. Christy Sinclair
    Co. Clare
    May 14, 9:23 am

    A chara kathleen,
    It seems you missed a big part of The Wild Atlantic Way in not mentioning The Burren. An iconic landscape with fantastic flora, more archeology per square foot (and it is almost every foot!) fantastic scenery and lots of excellent award winning food producers.
    I know it’s a long route but next time make sure you have a few days with us, as a network of ecotourism certified businesses we will have plenty for you to see and do.
    Le meas,
    Christy Sinclair. Chair, Burren Ecotouriam Network

  12. Sarah
    Brussels, Belgium
    May 14, 9:53 am

    Had a fantastic week in Killala and Denis Quinn of Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours is an excellent guide. Went foraging and walking on Kilcummin Head, visited an old priory and holy well and Ceide Fields. Also lovely walk in Carratigue, North Mayo where Denis pointed out all the bird life. Fantastic guide with lots of local knowledge. Amazing scenery and coastal drives. Killala and North Mayo from Killala to Belmullet is the place to be this summer. Thanks Denis.

  13. John Nestor
    Achill, Co. Mayo
    May 14, 4:08 pm

    One of the hidden treasures along the Wild Atlantic Way is Co. Mayo and in particular Achill Island. The island , bridge-linked to the mainland offers fantastic scenery, activities and accommodation. Keem Bay and the high coastal road to get to it, takes your breath away every time.

    Great selection of accommodation from hotels to hostels. Also a 4 star caravan and camping park in Keel overlooking a 3 mile golden sandy beach with a blue flag.

    Go GLAMPING in a horse-drawn caravan, which is parked at the beach-side campground with views of the breakers and the sounds of the Atlantic to lull you to sleep. Next time you’re passing make sure to call in and say hello.

  14. Kathleen M. Mangan
    May 14, 11:37 pm

    I did a horse-drawn caravan trip last spring on small roads through the bogs and farmland of inland Mayo, in the region of Ballintubber Abbey, an atmospheric old church. The clip-clopping of the horse on the country roads was so peaceful, and all the horses in the fields ran along side us in joyful companionship as we made our way down the road. A great way to experience the west coast — by traditional Irish caravan. Go with Mayo Horsedrawn Caravan Holidays. Or, just stay in one right at Keel Beach instead.

  15. Siobhan Comerford
    Achill
    May 15, 11:03 am

    What better way to wake up in the morning than with the sound of the waves breaking on Keel Beach?? A great way to start a day exploring the dramatic landscape of Achill Island :) Achill boasts spectacular views and unrivaled adventure….we even have the highest cliffs in Ireland at 688m (don’t tell the Slieve Leaguers!!) check out all the fun on http://www.achilltourism.com

  16. Maire
    Galway
    May 20, 8:00 am

    Kathleen thanks for the post, very informative. Also one to add to the list I think is Galway City. As well as the scenic and unspoilt scenery of Connemara, Galway city itself is worth a look. It has the missguided reputation as being a bit of stag party destination in Ireland but it is definitely a lot more than this. Heaps of character can be found. Mizen Head is another one which you have also noted- just stunning. Thanks again Kathleen :)

  17. Tourireland
    Ireland
    May 23, 8:31 am

    This is such a great post! Delighted you mentioned Grianan Aileach one of my favorites spots along this fantastic route!

  18. conal mcginley
    Glencolmcille
    June 1, 6:52 am

    Thanks kathy for your article on the irish coastline and especially on Glencolmcille,iknow you have been coming to ireland for many years studying our ways and landscape . Its so refreshing to hear from someone with such an informed opinion . thanks again