Ireland’s West Coast is home to many of the country’s most striking vistas. The best (and most economical) way to experience them is by car, following the Wild Atlantic Way. The route maps more than 1,000 sights (most of which are free to enter) along the jagged 1,553-mile coastline. It is the longest defined coastal drive in the world.
Rent a car from Dublin Airport for as low as $15 per day, and make sure to pack a backup camera battery and charger — you’re going to need them.
1. Malin Head, Donegal
Ireland’s northernmost tip, Malin Head, is a stunning system of cliffs and rock formations that pierce the torrent sea. Still relatively untouched, the region affords panoramic views of green hills covered in seagrass and heather and sandy paths that seem to lead to the end of the earth. Almost other-worldly, it’s no surprise that Malin Head was a shooting location for Star Wars Episode VIII. Noteworthy spots include Hell’s Hole, a subterranean cavern that fills with rushing sea water; a natural arch called Devil’s Bridge; and Banba’s Crown, from which — on a clear day — you can see the Scottish hills, and at certain times of year the Northern Lights. The wind up here is fierce, so be sure to pack a jacket and sunglasses.
While there, don’t miss the idyllic Five Finger Strand, home to some of Europe’s largest sand dunes. You can go mining for shells and, in the warm months, lay out. Afterward, grab a pint at Farrens Bar, Ireland’s most northern pub, or spend the night in the colorful and quaint Malin town, where Lily’s Bar has traditional Irish music on Thursday nights.
2. Slieve League, Donegal
The sea cliffs at Sliabh Liag, or Slieve League, stand at nearly three times the height of those at the more famous Cliffs of Moher and are far less touristy, despite being among the tallest in Europe. At nearly 2,000 high, they offer sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal Bay, and the Sligo Mountains. Daredevils may walk One Man’s Path, a three-mile knife-edge along the peak, but be mindful of the weather, which changes unexpectedly and can cause treacherous conditions. Should you muster up the courage, the walk will surely be one to remember.
To get the full scenic experience, hike the mile or so up, leaving your car at the lower parking lot. Alternatively, pay the kid holding the gate a Euro or two to drive to the upper car park beside the viewpoint. Admission is free.
3. Mullaghmore Head, Sligo
One of the best big-wave surfing locations in the world, Mullaghmore Head frequently sees 50-foot waves, with the tallest on record at 67 feet in 2011. In the backdrop is the imposing monolithic Ben Bulben mountain. Shaped during the Ice Age when Ireland was under glaciers, the flat-topped mountain has a vertical drop to one side. It is possible to climb — and fairly easy if you approach from the south side. Those who make it up will be rewarded with an astounding view of the ocean and Yeats Country, named for the late poet whose work featured Ben Bulben prominently.
4. Downpatrick Head, Mayo
Downpatrick Head, a stretch of electric green land that juts out into the ocean at just over 130 feet above the waves, offers picturesque views of the Atlantic and the Staggs of Broadhaven islands. The best view is of Dún Briste — a sea stack formed around 350 million years ago, which was severed from the mainland to reveal a colorful spectrum of layered rock. Today, it is a haven for rare birds, including Puffins, due to its isolation from land predators.
Other photo-worthy spots are Pul na Sean Tinne, a blowhole which — during stormy weather and rough seas — expels foam and vapor; and the ruins of a church, holy well, and stone cross established by Ireland’s patron saint Patrick. Pilgrims flock here each year to attend mass on Garland Sunday, the last Sunday of July. All sites are free to enter.
5. Clare Island, Mayo
Clare Island is most famous for having been the home of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s infamous pirate queen. You can see her imprint at the Granuaile’s Castle ruins on the eastern edge of the island, and at Clare Island Abbey, which contains the O’Malley Tomb. Inside the abbey, rare medieval paintings — which resemble ancient cave art — cover the ceiling.
While on the island, take a day hike across the Green Road — an electric-green pass through hilly farmland — and the scenic coastal route. Surrounded by incredible cerulean sea, you’ll get unparalleled views of the mainland and nearby islands Inishturk and Caher. Bikes are another good way to see the island, and can be rented beside the pier for 10 euro (or $11.74 USD) per day. The now-defunct Clare Island lighthouse (which dates to the 1800s) operates as a guesthouse, there are a few bed and breakfasts, and a yoga and meditation center. At night, the community center puts on traditional Irish folk music, poetry, and Irish dance. You can reach Clare Island in 10 minutes by ferry, which runs daily from Roonagh Pier near Louisburgh (tickets are €17, or about $20 USD roundtrip, and include a map).
6. Aran Islands, Galway
These three rocky islands at the mouth of Galway Bay are home to ancient sites, including the prehistoric hilltop fort Dún Aonghasa; the ruins of the medeival Seven Churches; and remarkable early clocháns — dry-stone beehive huts from the early-Christian period. There are also natural wonders, such as a natural rectangular pool called the Worm Hole, which is used in the Red Bull Cliff Diving Competition; and the cliffs of Inis Mor, which span the entire western side of the main island. Ferries operate to all three islands from Rossaveal in County Galway (year-round) and Doolin in County Clare (seasonally). There are also flights available on Aer Arann Islands from Inverin.
7. Cliffs of Moher, Clare
The Cliffs of Moher are one of the country’s most photographed vistas — and for good reason. The five-mile stretch of undualting cliffs extend toward the horizon and have a shear vertical drop. You’ll want to wear sneakers, as even the easy paths require a lot of walking. Serious hikers can try the 12-mile Coastal Trail. From O’Brien’s Tower (c. 1835), you can spot the Aran Islands to the west and the mountains of Kerry to the south. For an alternate view, hop aboard a boat tour (daily, from $17 per person), which circle the base of the cliffs. The best time to go is at sunset when the crowds start to thin-out and admission is free, and the cliffs are bathed in golden light.
8. Skellig Michael, Kerry
Some 1,300 years ago, Gaelic Christian monks built a monastery atop this jagged ocean crag. It was abandoned in the late 12th century, but traces of the structure have survived, along with the ancient beehive huts the monks lived in — together, these helped Skellig Michael claim UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996. The rocky isle was recently used as backdrop for the last scene of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens and will appear in the upcoming Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The steps up to the monastery are rocky, steep, and crumbling in parts — climbs are treacherous year-round and are not permitted during wet or windy weather.
Boat tours depart for Skellig Michael from Portmagee around 9 a.m. daily from May through October, weather permitting. Stay for the night near the marina: one of just three Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserves, the stars and constellations here rival the best in the world.
9. Dursey Island, Cork
Accessible by Ireland’s only cable car, Dursey Island has a scenic walking trail that offers the chance to see rare birds. Other points of interest are the ruins of O’Sullivan Beara’s castle and a 200-year-old signal tower that look out to Skellig Michael and Mizen Head. However, the most beautiful view is from the cable car itself. More than 800 feet above sea level, the car carries six people at a time on a 15-minute ride during which you’ll have continuous photo-opps. Stay on the island for sunset — as one of the most westerly points in Europe, it is considered the best in Ireland. The cable car runs daily; check the schedule here.
10. Mizen Head, Cork
End your road trip in Mizen Head — the most southwesterly point of Ireland. The tip of the peninsula is cut off by a deep chasm, now connected by an arched suspension bridge. Visitors can still climb the 99 steps — supplemented by a series of paths and viewing platforms — that were part of the original access route to the old signal station turned museum, a weather station, and a lighthouse. From here, you can see Fastnet Lighthouse, which sits on “Ireland’s Teardrop” — the last slice of Ireland that emigrants saw on their sail to America during the Great Famine. It is also a renowned spot for viewing wildlife, including dolphins, whales, and seals; the bird migration flight path is just a mile off shore.