Stretching from Cork right through to Donegal, the Wild Atlantic Way is Ireland's showcase scenic route and the ultimate road trip you can have on the island. At around 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) long — the same distance from Brussels, Belgium to Moscow — the coastal drive also warrants plenty of stops along the way.
The incredibly scenic drive works out to be about three times as long as California's Pacific Coast Highway. The winding route skirts the entire west coast of Ireland and takes close to 50 hours of pure driving time to complete, so many visitors choose to tackle it in sections.
If you have the time and the driving skills, the Wild Atlantic Way is a fantastic way to see a great deal of Ireland. It passes through three Irish provinces (Munster, Connacht, and Ulster), or nine counties — Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, and Donegal. All in all, depending on the amount of time you have to spend and exactly what you want to see, there are countless possible stops along the famous road trip route but you should plan on a two week trip in order to be able to see everything without too much rush.
We'd recommend doing the Wild Atlantic Way clockwise, starting in the south and working your way up north. In Ireland, cars drive on the left, so heading in this direction means that you will always be on the side of the road closest to the ocean — finding breathtaking views around each little turn.
Here is a guide to the top stops along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, stretching from south to north as you take in the entire coastal route.
Ireland is brimming with charming villages but few are as picture perfect as the harbor town of Kinsale. The name of the town means “tides head” and this southern village has a very pretty waterfront filled with sailboats bobbing in the waves. Peel yourself away from the ocean scenes to explore the narrow lanes and colorful houses which fill the village of just over 5,000 people. It is an excellent stop for a seafood lunch to fortify you for the start of the Wild Atlantic Way drive, but from museums to the haunted ruins of Charles Fort — there are plenty of things to do in pretty Kinsale.
After exploring Kinsale, hit the road for Mizen Head — the most southwesterly point in all of Ireland. These cliffs at the end of the Kilmore Peninsula in County Cork are ideal for spotting wildlife and taking in the rugged landscape. Due to its strategic location on the edge of Ireland, Mizen Head has played an important role in warning ships and communicating across the Atlantic, so there are multiple historic sites to visit as well. Pay the admission fee to visit the signal house built by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to send the first transatlantic telegraph messages, or stop in to see the light house that helped boats with a safe passage for decades. Even if you skip the visitor’s center, the seaside walks are breathtaking.
Settling into a driving rhythm, it is time to enjoy the road as you loop along the Beara Peninsula. The beautiful area which crosses from County Cork to County Kerry is one of the most picturesque but under-visited parts of the Emerald Isle. Start with the rainbow of houses lining the streets of Eyeries before winding along to the jumping off point for the gardens of Garnish Island, one of the best islands in Ireland, which is reachable by ferry from Glengarriff. History lovers should then beeline for Derreenataggart Stone Circle, which dates back to the Bronze Age. Beachgoers will probably better enjoy a break on the white sand stretch of gorgeous seaside along Ballydonegan Bay.
Park on the car at the tip of the Beara Peninsula and take a small detour to Dursey Island. The voyage requires climbing onto a cable car which was originally built to transport more sheep than humans. In fact, there are only four people who live on the island full time so the best thing to do when you arrive is to soak in the tranquil, rural atmosphere and enjoy a pre-packed picnic lunch before taking the cable car back to the Irish mainland.
Take another road trip break near Bantry in County Cork to hike along the tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. The roads along this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way tend to be narrow and winding but quiet because they are too small for the large tour buses which clog up other parts of the route. Once you arrive at the western point, the prettiest walks in the rugged landscape lead out to the postcard-worthy lighthouse set on edge on the cliffs.
One of the reasons the Wild Atlantic Way is such an incredible driving route is because it also incorporates many of the island’s other bucket list road trips, such as the Ring of Kerry. This well-known circuit along the Iveragh Peninsula is famed for good reason: along the drive, you can detour into Killarney National Park to see Ross Castle, take a short hike off the road to Torc Waterfall, or take in the valley-filled vistas from Ladies View. This section of the Wild Atlantic Way also features ancient ring forts and pretty fishing villages.
Break away from the traffic along the Ring of Kerry to escape to the County Kerry countryside on the Dingle Peninsula. All of the Wild Atlantic Way offers amazing scenery but the views along this stretch of the drive are some of the best in the country. Pause to stretch your legs and watch the surfers along Inch Beach before continuing along to the ruins of Minard Castle. Spend the night in Dingle Town to have more time to leisurely explore the lovely town and all its foodie offerings or to spot Fungie the Dolphin, a marine creature who has a serious fan base across Ireland. After recouping in the beautiful seaside village, you will be ready to try to decipher the mysterious Gallurus Oratory, before tackling the cliffside hairpin turns which lead off the peninsula (but have the advantage of offering unrivaled views of the nearby Blasket Islands which lie just off the coast).
Set on the banks of Galway Bay, Dunguaire Castle was first built in 1520. Over the years, the fortified tower house has become less of a fortress and more of a sensation and is now one of the most photographed castles in Ireland thanks to its lovely setting and strategic position along the Wild Atlantic Way. Pop in to visit the small museum inside or stay for the medieval-themed dinners which are held here in summer.
Known for its buzzing pubs and live Irish music, Galway is still a university town at heart with plenty to do and see. The student life circulating through town adds vivacity to the medieval streets in the pedestrianized center. The best examples of Galway’s long past may be the Spanish Arch down the banks of the Corrib, but you can also spot the fortified, centuries-old home of Lynch's Castle on Shop Street. When the weather is nice, walk down to Salthill to watch swimmers plunge off of Blackrock diving tower. Before leaving town, explore the church of St. Nicholas, where Columbus supposedly prayed before leaving Europe behind to discover the New World.
The stunning Cliffs of Moher in County Clare are one of the most incredible places in Ireland. The windswept cliffs jut out into the Atlantic, offering sheer 700-foot drop-offs and unforgettable views. The best place to take it all in is from O’Brien’s Tower, a historic lookout point set on the edge of the cliffs by an enterprising Victorian politician. There is also a visitor’s center that can educate you more on the geology of the area — but the best way to experience this natural wonder along the Wild Atlantic Way is to go for a walk along the paths that skirt the drop-offs and take in the incomparable Irish landscape.
Connected to mainland Ireland via a bridge in County Mayo, Achill Island is one of the best islands in Ireland and a top stop while cruising along the Wild Atlantic Way. It is also the largest island in Ireland and has plenty to offer visitors, including the 15th century fortified tower of Carrick Kildavnet Castle, five blue flag beaches, the former home of Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, and Neolithic ruins. It also has rural charm and excellent walking opportunities.
This luxe estate in the Irish countryside is well worth a stop on a grand tour of the Wild Atlantic Way. The incredible mansion, reflected perfectly in the still waters of Lough Pollacapull, was once the idyllic home of the well-heeled Henry Family, who built the 33-bedroom castle in the 1860s. The London-based family loved to escape to this Connemara retreat, which includes beautiful walled Victorian gardens and numerous nature walks. These days, the mansion belongs to a group of Benedictine nuns who use the setting as a tranquil abbey. The first floor of the home has been fully restored and can be visited along with the extensive grounds and a neo-gothic church built to honor Margaret Henry, the wife of the original owner.
Overshadowed by the more southerly Cliffs of Moher, the real stars of the Irish landscape show are the Slieve League. This stop along the Wild Atlantic Way offers the highest sea cliffs in Europe, towering 2,000 feet above the turbulent ocean below. This rural part of Donegal is rarely crowded, meaning you can take in the mesmerizing landscape without jostling for the best view. Walk along the edges with care and savor the break from the road while enjoying the wild natural setting.
It is common to say that Ireland stretches from Mizen Head to Malin Head, and once you reach this northernmost point on the Emerald Isle, you will know that you have completed the drive. The rocky coastline is a wonder in its own right but you can also explore the history of the area by seeking out the WWII era tower at the tiptop of Banba’s Crown or the rocks spelling out EIRE which was meant to signal to passing planes that they had reached neutral Ireland during the war. Celebrate the end of your epic road trip with a walk down to Hell’s Hole, a craggy sea cave where the truly wild Atlantic crashes against the rocks.