The west and north-west of Ireland offers some of the most stunning scenery in the world. This 5-day road trip takes you from Galway to Donegal, taking in some of the highlights along the way. It follows the Wild Atlantic Way for most of the route, apart from a few shortcuts and interesting diversions. Use it as inspiration and modify as your interests and moods take you.
DAY ONE: Galway to Leenaun
Galway City is a lively spot to start from. After a (not too late!) night out in the town, head west through Salthill, where you can take a short walk on the prom and get some brunch before your journey.
The coast road offers spectacular views of Galway Bay, and eventually, the Aran Islands come into sight. At Spiddal, you can visit the beach and craft centre. Turning inland towards Maam Cross, you’ll pass mountains and lakes — a wilderness that has inspired many travellers and writers.
Clifden is a pleasant spot for a break, as well as the starting point for one of Ireland’s most scenic drives: the breathtaking Sky Road. North of Clifden is the Connemara National Park. If you’re feeling energetic and the weather plays nice, you can take one of its many walking trails.
The lovely Killary Harbour forms the border between counties Galway and Mayo and is Ireland’s only fjord. Finish your day in one of the Bed and Breakfasts in Leenaun, or treat yourself to a stay at the plush Delhi Resort and Spa.
DAY TWO: Leenaun to Achill
The road between Leenaun and Louisburgh is one of Ireland’s most beautiful — and most tragic. In 1848, hundreds of famine victims followed this road in a desperate attempt to find food, with many dying along the way (see https://taleswildatlantic.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/louisburgh/). A stone cross commemorates “the Hungry Poor who walked here in 1849 and walk the Third World today”.
Travelling from Louisburgh to Westport takes you past the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick and along the shores of Clew Bay. Stop at Westport House, which has a rich history — and a theme park for the kids. The hundreds of islands in Clew Bay are partially drowned drumlins, formed by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The area was once the haunt of the pirate queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile).
Cross the bridge to Achill Island, where you are spoiled for choice of beaches: the long sands of Keel, the horseshoe beach at Keem Bay, or the Golden Strand on the north coast. If you’re lucky, you might spot dolphins or basking sharks in these waters. Spend the night on the island or on the mainland at Mulranny.
DAY THREE: Achill to Sligo
Historic North Mayo
Head for the north coast of Mayo and the unique Ceide Fields, a 5,500 year-old Neolithic site. Nearby is the windswept coast walk that leads to Downpatrick Head, where Saint Patrick is believed to have founded a church. If you haven’t had enough history, continue on to the ruins of Moyne Abbey near Killala.
Cross into County Sligo and stop at Enniscrone to walk along its long sandy beach. You can also visit the quirky “glamping” site, where visitors sleep in double-decker buses or a Boeing 747. Or maybe you’d like a nice soak in the seaweed baths.
Yeats Country (Part 1)
Take the lovely looped drive around Lough Gill, where you can see W.B. Yeats’ famous “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the historic Parke’s Castle. Finish up in Sligo town, in the shadow of Ben Bulben, where you’ll find plenty of good food and lively pubs.
DAY FOUR: Sligo to Ardara
Yeats Country (Part 2)
Just north of Sligo are two more places associated with Yeats. At Drumcliff, you can find his grave, with the inscription “cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, and pass by.” Lissadell House was also immortalised in a Yeats poem: “The light of evening, Lissadell, Great windows open to the south, Two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle”. The “two girls” were the Irish rebel Constance Markievicz and the suffragette Eva Gore-Booth: sisters who grew up here.
Slieve League Cliffs
Head up to Donegal Town, and take the coast road to Killybegs and the spectacular Slieve League cliffs. Although they get a fraction of the visitors of the more famous Cliffs of Moher, the cliffs at Slieve League are three times as high! The most popular spot for shutterbugs is the viewpoint at Bunglass.
North of Slieve League, take the road through the picturesque but hair-raising Glengesh Pass. In Ardara, you can have a well-earned rest for the night.
DAY FIVE: Ardara to Malin Head
Glenveagh National Park
Head inland to Glenveagh National Park. The stunning surroundings are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, while the splendid castle and gardens are well worth a tour. However, it’s the scene for yet another tragedy from Irish history: in 1861, the landlord evicted over 200 of his tenants and turned them out on the road.
You could choose any of Donegal’s peninsulas to end your journey, but Inishowen offers more than its fair share of sights, including Glenevin Waterfall and the Doagh Famine Village. There are unforgettable beaches at Buncrana, Culdaff, and Dunree Bay.
Finish at Ireland’s northernmost point, Malin Head. As you look down on the Atlantic, you might wonder at how far you’ve come and all the astonishing sights you’ve seen along the way.