The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic driving route along Ireland's west coast.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic driving route along the west coast of the Republic of Ireland, covering over 2500 km / 1550 miles from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Old Kinsale Head in Cork. When it was launched in 2014 the initial concept was to emulate routes like the US Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 66, to be done as a single itinerary. They obviously had high hopes for the rental of Harley-Davidsons and prestige cars, and you can imagine the TV cookery and antiques programmes that might be spun out of it. However a second concept, which may have delivered more value, was to create a unified marketing brand, especially for the small coastal towns and villages. Galway needs little introduction but who's ever heard of Dungloe, Kilkee or Castletownbere? The Wild Atlantic Way gives them more chance of being noticed in a crowded travel and tourism marketplace - and they deserve it.
So it's a brand rather than a fixed route, and the standard of waymarking varies. The Atlantic coast of Ireland twists and turns and winds. There's generally a main highway a few miles inland, with loops or dead-end lanes branching off to coves, fishing villages and headlands - and even to some islands that are linked by causeway. Feel free to branch off or stay on the main road as time, weather, fuel gauge and your inclination persuades. Make time also to see the many inland sights along the way. Above all remember that you're in the west of Ireland, take it easy, if you wanted to blat along with one eye forever on the stop-clock you'd have gone to the Isle of Man TT.
See also Tips for road trips. You're unlikely to want to do this entire route in a single trip: how many rocky inlets could you enjoy back to back? (There are hundreds if not thousands along this fractal coastline.) More likely you'd base yourself in a particular area: there are lots of inland attractions that you shouldn't miss, even in the remotest areas, eg prehistoric sites and scenic mountain tops. And you may also want to see some of the islands, which means leaving the car ashore for a day or so.
The route lies entirely within the Republic of Ireland and it's not necessary to enter Northern Ireland ie the UK, but the northern stretches in Donegal and Sligo might be easier to access via the UK. The border is entirely open and unpatrolled but you need to ensure that your personal and car documentation will be valid.
See below for road tips. Since country signage is variable, if you're staying somewhere remote, use Google Street View or similar to scout your route. You might be arriving in darkness.
From further afield you have to fly in and rent a car. Dublin or Shannon will usually work best, other options are Cork, Knock, Derry and Belfast. Rental from the airports will offer more choice of provider, hence price competition, than rental from a base city. One-way rentals are expensive so consider whether you'll retrace your route to the airport or create a triangular itinerary.
A car is the only viable option for substantial distances but individual city pages describe short sections that can be done by bike, and places you can hire or repair them. Very few stretches can be explored by bus, though one example is from Galway to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher, if you don't mind seeing them through mud-streaked windows.
The Wild Atlantic Way passes through several counties, each with accommodation, eating places, and things to see and do. The following only lists the main towns, north to south, where you're likely to stop over. Look within each individual county for more towns on or off the route. Focus down closer on the individual towns for accommodation and other facilities - in rural parts the nominal "town" may be a small village in a large tract of countryside.
- County Leitrim has just a few miles of coast, and its inland sites are better accessed from Sligo.
- County Sligo
- County Galway
- County Clare
- County Limerick can be bypassed via the Shannon ferry, but Limerick city makes a good base.
- County Kerry
Think twice about picking up a car straight off a long-distance flight then immediately trying to reach the west. The first couple of hours on the motorway from Dublin are fast but monotonous, you risk being lulled to sleep. Then you come onto the ordinary roads and slow right down. The main roads are good quality, well-signposted undivided highways, with lots of blind turns and hills, and busy with few places to overtake. Towing a caravan will be heavy work. The back lanes are very narrow and twisty, and there may not even be room for vehicles to pass. ("Drive on the left!" they said at the rental desk, but now the bracken is brushing your wheels on both sides.) Always assume that around the next corner will be an oncoming truck, loose sheep, or a parked van. A pair of narrowly-set headlights seen at dusk will turn into a tractor towing something very wide and extremely dirty. Its driver is the only one who knows where your accommodation is, since his daughter owns it.
- Two other rural areas of Ireland have been promoted in a similar collective way. "Ireland's Hidden Heartlands" are the upper catchment of the River Shannon, from Lough Derg (dividing Counties Clare and Tipperary) to Athlone, Carrick-on-Shannon and Cavan. "Ireland's Ancient East" covers just about everything else, a huge trapezoid from Cork to Monaghan to Wicklow.
- Dublin is the fourth of these tourist promotion areas, but you'd probably already heard of that one.