Cruising, winding and zigzagging down the rugged, windswept west coast for 2,500km, from the crest of Northern Ireland to the southernmost tip of Eire, you could easily spend weeks or even months driving the Wild Atlantic Way and still yearn for more time.
But the well-marked route can be explored in bite-size portions, too. From Dublin Airport, it’s around a two-hour drive to Galway, which sits halfway along the route. From there, you can choose which parts to explore.
Here’s our guide to the route’s six distinct regions, from north to south.
This is where the road begins (or ends, for those who decide to complete the journey south to north)—the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, whose sheer granite cliffs seem to loom at the edge of civilization. The place names are as enchanting as the scenery, from Sliabh Liag (home to those vertiginous cliffs) to Inishbofin Island, a rugged speck off the coast.
With 11 lighthouses and, in winter, the chance to spot the aurora borealis (northern lights) swirling dreamily through the sky, this route has a beauty that’s truly timeless.
Stay at cute pub Annora, which overlooks Portnoo’s quiet beach, or elegant, 17th-century Lough Eske Castle.
How to get there: If you’re picking up your rental vehicle in Dublin, take the M3 north and you’ll arrive in this windswept corner of the island in around 3 hours
You don’t have to surf along this windswept, wave-crashed stretch, from Donegal to Erris—but nor can you avoid the sport altogether. If you just want to feel the salty wind in your hair, find a spot at Bundoran, Mullaghmore Head, or copper-hued Strandhill Beach—and watch in awe as wetsuit-clad warriors battle with the ocean.
Recover from all that (in)activity at Eithna’s By The Sea. Overlooking Mullaghmore’s harbour, this family-run restaurant serves just-caught mackerel, squid and clams.
The town of Ballina, known for its salmon fishing, is a lovely overnight stop. Stay at chic Ice House Hotel & Spa, perched on the banks of the River Moy.
How to get there: Erris is a couple of hours drive away from Dublin if you take the N4, from there you’ll be catching waves at the beach in no time. Alternatively, collect your car at Knock Airport.
For those with saltwater for blood, this is the motherland. For everyone else, it’s an outdoor playground with limitless opportunities for fun, from kayaking around Clew Bay’s 365 islets to pony-trekking on sandy beaches.
Park up and cycle a portion of famous Great Western Greenway, hike Croagh Patrick mountain, or see Derrigimlagh Bog, a patchwork of lakes and peat islands with an impressive claim to fame—the first transatlantic flight landed here.
Known as the ‘City of Tribes’, Galway City’s cobbled streets weave medieval history with modern culture, nightlife and art. Stay at The g Hotel, a stylish sleep with upscale, super-comfy rooms and afternoon tea served in lounges designed by milliner Philip Treacy.
How to get there: After collecting your rental vehicle at Knock Airport take the N5 west towards the Clew Bay area to begin an awesome road trip that will take you from the wilds of Achill Island to bohemian Galway city.
Puffins swoop down the sheer Cliffs of Moher, bottlenose dolphins leap and dive around the mouth of the Shannon, and natural limestone arches curve over the surf. This stretch, Galway to Ballybunion, has perhaps the route’s most dramatic scenery, despite some pretty stiff competition.
Cruise Loop Head Peninsula (a road trip within a road trip) to see a lighthouse and the Bridges of Ross, park up for bracing clifftop walks, or go fossil-hunting on the beach at Flaggy Shore.
Fishing village Doolin is as laid-back and charming as it sounds, and its buzzy arts and music scene makes it worth staying a night or two. Roadford House B&B is a cute, cosy option, with an acclaimed, traditional Irish restaurant attached.
How to get there: Start in Galway’s cobbled streets, then head out for panoramic views, dramatic cliffs and exhilarating sea air. Shannon is the closest international airport and a convenient spot to collect your hire car.
Between South Kerry and West Cork, these five peninsulas reach into the ocean like spindly, craggy fingers. The views, from the car or on foot, are endless—mountain peaks, flawless white-sand beaches, and, in the near-distance, the sea crags of the Skellig islands.
Stay at the grand Liss Ard Estate, near colourful market town Skibereen. This elegant Georgian country house has modern rooms, huge grounds with manicured lawns, woodland and a lake, and a restaurant showcasing West Cork produce.
How to get there: With miles of awe-inspiring views, an Avis rental car will give you to the freedom to explore this wild coastline at your own pace. Collect your car at Kerry airport, and begin your exploration of the south-west in Tralee, taking in the five stunning peninsulas of Dingle, Iveragh, Beara, Sheep's Head and Mizen before arriving at Skibereen
From the home of the famous black pudding (Clonakilty) to picture-perfect Kinsale, this portion makes for a fascinating and delicious finale.
Don’t miss the Old Head of Kinsale, a peninsula with a striped lighthouse and views over the Celtic Sea. To travel any further south, you’d have to get on a boat—which you can, from Baltimore Harbour. Boats will take you out to spot minke whales and harbour porpoises, or scuba-dive among shipwrecks.
Stay at upscale Trident Hotel overlooking Kinsale’s serene harbour. And maybe head out to one of the cosy pubs nearby, to raise a glass to the ultimate Irish road trip.
How to get there: This part of Ireland is a foodie-paradise, and Kinsale is known as the “gourmet capital of Ireland”. With your own wheels your free to stop at every food market, café and restaurant that takes your fancy along the way. The closest airport to the Haven Coast is Cork, where you can collect your hire car and head off for the 25-minute drive to Kinsale.