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)
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 (“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)
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.
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.