The Burren

Bleak and Bare in County Clare

Limestone landscape of the Burren in Clare on the west of Ireland.
Peter Unger / Getty Images

Often overlooked when visiting the main sites in the west of Ireland, the Burren is a true natural wonder. No one comes to this corner of County Clare expecting exciting modern attractions - the bizarre landscape is itself is the attraction her.

What awaits the adventurous traveler is a bleak, scarred limestone plateau that is often (falsely) compared to the moon's surface, with few plants growing and only the occasional sheep navigating the crevices for another lump of grass. Covering a vast stretch of land south of Galway Bay and running right to the shoreline, the inhospitable Burren is one of the top attractions you should see in Ireland. The limestone formations offer a stark contrast to the famous green landscapes of the Emerald Isle. If you can, try to avoid the busy summer season to experience the desolation that makes the national park so famous.

Visiting The Burren

When you think of stunning landscapes, most people would prefer green, lush areas with colorful plants and wildlife. In the Burren (the Irish word literally means "bleak area") you get 40 shades of gray with only a bit of green thrown in. And this is exactly what makes the Burren so captivating - and strangely attractive.

There are only a few roads crossing the limestone plateau, and in summer thousands of cars and tour buses crawl along these roads. If you have the chance, come at another time. With only a few hardy sheep to keep you company, the Burren is best experienced in a small group or alone. Park the car at a convenient spot and walk a few hundred careful steps away from the road, negotiating fissures and the occasional loose rock. Then look around you and experience the sensation of being the first explorer on another planet.

However, Burren has more to offer than loneliness. Much of the area has been turned into the Burren National Park - one of six wild protected areas in Ireland. Several ancient monuments are signposted, with the Poulnabrone Dolmen being the most spectacular of them all. Other graves and a stone-age fort are nearby.

Between Poulnabrone and the picturesque Black Head lighthouse, you'll find Aillwee Cave, one of Ireland's few showcaves. Tours explore the Burren "from below" here, and a very good farm shop is justly famed for its cheese. Or make your way to Kilfenora. This tiny town boasts a very small cathedral, high crosses and the interesting "Burren Centre". Here you will learn that the Burren is not as lifeless as it may seem, both flora and fauna are worth a second, closer look.

Unfortunately, there is no visitor's center inside the park itself, but exploring at your own pace down one of the seven marked trails is the best way to visit the Burren.

How to Prepare

Driving through the Burren and finding a proper space to park has long been a tricky part of visiting, but this aspect has greatly improved in recent years and you will be able to stop without risking damage to nature or to your car. Drivers should, however, bear in mind that there are no services on the Burren and even mobile phone coverage can be patchy - check fuel and headlights before you go, at least.

Again a note regarding preparation - should you wish to explore the Burren with your rental car, make sure to have a tank full of gas before setting out.

What Else to Do Nearby

It might also be a good idea to combine the trip with a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. Both can be easily done in a single day and go hand-in-glove.

In fact, the cliffs sometimes overshadow the Burren thanks to their dramatic sea views, but the limestone formations of the Burren were created by a much longer process. The Burren deposits took over 20 million years and were formed while Ireland was covered by a warm, tropical sea. Much of the rock is made up of broken fossils. Moher, on the other hand, was created in a much more rapid process when a huge amount of silt was washed out to sea by a now-extinct river. The two geological wonders show some of the true diversity to be found in Ireland.

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