Ireland is filled with stunning vistas and scenic landscapes, but nowhere in the country is more celebrated for its beauty than the Wild Atlantic Way. The iconic tourism trail, a driving route that spans 1,600 miles, traces the western coast of Ireland, traversing destinations like Malin Head, the Aran Islands, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Dingle Peninsula. It’s popular with road-trippers who often rent a car to drive a four- or five-day stretch of the route and nature lovers who can discover endless hiking and walking trails.
For many, following the Wild Atlantic Way is a bucket list experience that allows you to see a huge scope of Ireland’s coastal areas. However, most visitors don’t undertake the entire 1,600-mile route, instead, they'll opt for a specific segment that includes sites and attractions they most want to see. While the road trip requires some forethought, the allure of the Wild Atlantic Way is that you never quite know what you’ll come upon next.
Buckle up and get ready to explore Ireland’s most famous coast: Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to the Wild Atlantic Way.
How to Get There
The Wild Atlantic Way is best experienced via car. Most international visitors arrive in Dublin or Cork, where it’s possible to rent a car and then drive to the coast. However, you can also hop on a connecting flight from Dublin or London to Galway, which will bring you to the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way, and rent a car there. Another possible entry point is Limerick, which is served by Shannon Airport. Pro tip: Book your rental car in advance and select an automatic if you struggle with manual transmission, especially on hilly, windy roads. Adding a GPS is also advisable since cell service can be spotty along the route.
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The segment of the Wild Atlantic Way you decide to follow will depend on where you want to start and end — as well as what you want to see along the way. Several established driving routes include the Northern Headlands, the Bay Coast, the Southern Peninsulas, and the Cliff Coast. If you have limited time or this is your first time driving in Ireland, heading out on a prescribed route can be a great way to make the most of your trip. If you want to see everything, you’ll need at least two weeks, if not more. Plan your itinerary so you have days off from driving, as you’ll want time to enjoy the scenery and towns.
What to See and Do
Although traveling the Wild Atlantic Way is usually done via road trip, you shouldn’t spend the entire visit in the car. There’s plenty to do along the route, from hiking and sea kayaking to cycling and shopping, to relaxing by the beach. Most activities can be self-guided, but you can also book tours in specific areas (for example, if there’s a national park or island you want to explore with a guide). To see some of the local destinations like Dursey Island, which is accessible via cable car, you’ll need to park and immerse yourself in the surrounding area.
Some of the most memorable spots along the Wild Atlantic Way include Bray Head and the Skellig Islands, the Cliffs of Moher, Keem Strand, Fanad Lighthouse, Slieve League, and the Donegal Headlands. You can also visit numerous attractions, including Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Castlegar Castle, Clare Island Whiskey distillery, Moore Hall, and Aillwee Cave. Plus, there are plenty of small towns to explore, all of which boast a local pub or two. Meanwhile, those needing a respite from the road will find plenty to do in bigger cities and towns like Galway, Limerick, and Sligo.
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Day hikes are a great way to see parts of the Wild Atlantic Way that aren’t accessible by car. Adventure-inclined travelers should seek out the Sliabh Liag Pilgrims Path, the Appalachian Trail, Wild Nephin National Park, Beara Way, and Dingle Way, which is the most popular long-distance walking trail in Ireland. Many of the trails follow the coastline, which means opportunities to spot marine life and birds. If you prefer to cycle, look for bike rental shops along the route.
Where to Stay
One of the best things about the Wild Atlantic Way is that it’s appropriate for any budget. There are camping and glamping options up and down the Irish coast, which can be a great way to save money when traveling. Travelers who prefer to rest their heads somewhere a little less rustic can select from local inns, pub rooms, bed and breakfasts, and even luxury hotels in many of the destinations. It’s a good idea to book accommodations in advance — even campsites — when traveling during the holidays or summer months, especially since many of the inns and hotels are relatively small.
Those looking for a historic stay should reserve a room at Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff, Parknasilla Resort and Spa in Sneem, or Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara. For something more unusual, the Irish Landmark Trust offers stays in unique heritage buildings like lighthouses. Even in the bigger towns, skip the chain hotels in favor of something local. It’s much more fun to bunk up in a room above the town pub than in a corporate hotel room. Consider spending more than one night in each place if you have the time.
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Many seasoned travelers suggest driving the Wild Atlantic Way from south to north rather than north to south since you drive on the left side of the road in Ireland. So, if you head north, you will be on the ocean side of the road, which offers a better view. This also makes it easier to pull off to admire the view or snap a photo.
While the Wild Atlantic Way is well-marked (it’s difficult to get lost), the roads are narrow and windy for much of the journey. That means it can be slower going than you’re used to on a road trip, so plan accordingly. Give yourself ample time to drive each leg of your selected itinerary. In addition, be prepared to stop for other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and even sheep, which are known to occasionally block the roads.
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Most importantly, be flexible. The weather in Ireland can be moody, and things don’t always go according to plan. While it’s important to know your driving route and to book your accommodations in advance, once you’re on the road, take each day as it comes. If you see a nice-looking pub, pull over and grab a bite to eat. If you pass an interesting trailhead, take a spontaneous stroll. You never know what you might discover if you keep an open mind.