The Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic driving route along Ireland's west coast, 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 idea was to emulate routes like the US Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 66, to be done as a single itinerary. They had high hopes for the rental of Harley-Davidsons and prestige cars, and you can imagine the TV spin-offs: the episode of Top Gear, the celebrity travelogues, the food and antiques programmes. 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 no 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 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 several 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.
While the Wild Atlantic Way was initially conceived as a driving route, there have been a lot of improvements to bus services along the route in the years since it launched, in an attempt to open up the route to more types of travellers. Most of the route can now be travelled by bus, although there are still some sections where the service is limited, seasonal, or where a diversion inland is required. Travelling by bus provides a different experience to driving, with less flexibility as to where and when you can go, but with more time to sit back and admire the view instead of concentrating your eyes on the road ahead. And if you're an Irish or Northern Irish resident aged 66 or over, it can be a very cheap option, as you can travel free of charge on all public transport under the Free Travel Scheme.
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, such as prehistoric sites and scenic mountain tops. 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 must ensure that your personal and car documentation will be valid. The rules on this changed in 2021.
See below for road tips. Road signage in Ireland is good but if you're staying somewhere remote, use Google Street View or similar to scout your route. You might be arriving in darkness.
If travelling by public transport, plan ahead and check the timetables of any routes you plan to use. While some sections have good flexibility with regular services running several times per day, other sections may have a limited service, and it's these sections which you'll need to plan your journey around. The main bus routes covering the Wild Atlantic Way are listed below, and an unofficial summary timetable is available here, but if you want to customise your route and see other places too, the Transport for Ireland Journey Planner is the best place to start.
The predominant bus operators along the Wild Atlantic Way are Bus Éireann and Local Link. Bus Éireann fares are available in the fare finder on their website, and can be paid to the driver in cash, or at a 30% discount if you use a rechargeable TFI Leap Card. Bus Éireann also have an Open Road Tourist Travel Pass, which allows unlimited travel for a certain number of days, but it's probably not worth it if you're only making short trips at a time. Local Link fares are indicated in each route timetable, and can only be paid to the driver in cash.
While the buses get to most main places, there's a few places where they don't reach, where you'll need to get a taxi if you want to see. While taxis are available across rural Ireland, they are nowhere near as plentiful as in the main towns and cities, so don't expect to be able to find a taxi whenever you need one. Search for the phone numbers of local taxi and hackney drivers online, and keep a list to hand in case you need one. For any journeys where you'll be relying on them, plan ahead and make a booking with a local driver in advance.
From Great Britain or the near Continent, you could bring your own car by ferry. Dublin is usually the most convenient landing point, the other major ports are Belfast, Rosslare and Cork. Direct ferries from Europe expanded in 2021: these are longer sailings more at the mercy of the weather, but they avoid exiting then re-entering the EU via the British "land-bridge".
From further afield you have to fly in and rent a car. Dublin or Shannon usually work best, other options are Cork, Knock, Derry and Belfast. Rental from the airports offers 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.
With public transport, train is the easiest way to access the Wild Atlantic Way. As Ireland's rail network nearly entirely radiates from Dublin on the east coast, this makes it impossible to travel along the west coast by rail, but very easy to get from Dublin to any of the main towns and cities along the west coast (Derry, Sligo, Ballina, Westport, Galway, Limerick, Tralee, Killarney and Cork), by direct train or just one interchange. Fares are significantly cheaper if you book online well in advance.
If your entry point will be along the west coast, there are express bus services connecting the main towns, cities and airports, which can take you to your starting point. Expressway route 64 covers the northern half, connecting Derry, Letterkenny, Sligo, Ireland West Airport Knock and Galway, while Expressway route 51 and Citylink route 251 cover the southern half, connecting Galway, Shannon Airport, Limerick, Cork and Cork Airport. There are also trains between Galway, Limerick and Cork. The Citylink bus is over an hour shorter than the train or Expressway bus.
Individual city pages describe short sections that can be done by bike, and places you can hire or repair them.
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 along the route. Focus down closer on those 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 kilometres of coast, and its inland sites are better accessed from Sligo.
- County Sligo
- County Mayo
- 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.
- The Wild Atlantic Way covers the entire west coast of Ireland, but why stop there! There's plenty to see along Ireland's east coast too, and unlike the rugged Atlantic coast on the west with its many peninsulas and headlands jutting out, the Irish Sea coast on the east is much straighter and smoother, and can be travelled in a much shorter amount of time.
- If driving, continue along the coasts of east County Cork, County Waterford, County Wexford, County Wicklow, County Dublin (and through Dublin City), County Meath and County Louth to the border with Northern Ireland. Once inside Northern Ireland, you can follow the A2 road the whole length of the Northern Ireland coast back to the start point of the Wild Atlantic Way on the Irish border near Derry.
- By public transport, take Expressway route 40 from Cork City along the south coast via Youghal, Dungarvan, Waterford and New Ross to Wexford and Rosslare. From Rosslare and Wexford, you can take a train along the east coast via Gorey and Wicklow Town to Dublin, take another train onwards via Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry to Belfast, and a final train across the top of Northern Ireland via Ballymena and Coleraine back to the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way in Derry.
- The rest of Ireland is 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 in the Republic, a huge trapezoid from Cork to Monaghan to Wicklow. "Embrace a Giant Spirit" covers Northern Ireland, easily combined with a visit to Donegal.
- Dublin "Surprising by Nature" is the other tourist promotion area, but the surprise would be if you hadn't already heard of the place.