You’ll love Dublin – almost everyone who visits does, once they get past the hefty prices – but it’s the rural side of the island that tends to wrench hold of visiting souls and have people vowing to return. There are certain trips that encapsulate the magic, some well-known, and others the preserve of locals and miles off the tourist trail. Here are our favourite winding drives into the ‘real’ Ireland.
Let’s get the epic and obvious one out of the way first. Consisting of essentially all the Irish Atlantic coastline, The Wild Atlantic Way is very much the brainchild of the Irish government’s recent tourist drive, but its current ‘golden child’ status certainly shouldn’t put you off. There’s something for everyone along its 2,750-kilometre (1,700-mile) path, from the sites of Game of Thrones and Star Wars scenes to towering cliffs, essential hikes, adventure parks and island asides. Allow a couple of weeks to see it all; this is a monster. Find a map here.
The East Coast’s answer to The Wild Atlantic Way, ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ isn’t quite on the same scale in terms of acclaim, but the route will have history lovers absolutely fawning. Rather than trying to explore the entire drive, we’d suggest cutting to the chase with the Boyne Valley Loop. It’s a pathway around Meath, north of Dublin, taking in Newgrange (a 5000-year-old passage tomb that pre-dates the pyramids), Trim Castle (which stars in Braveheart), and a legendary part of St Patrick’s story, The Hill of Tara. Find a map here.
A dream route for those into hiking, hillsides and dramatic coastlines, the Ring of Kerry is an intensely popular 179-kilometre (111.2-mile) tour of the western Iveragh Peninsula, incorporating much of the country’s most ruggedly spectacular terrain. Popular with drivers, cyclists and walkers, the former can complete the route in a day, but given the abundance of tiny villages, castles, hillside roads and sea views, it’s still better if given at least two days. All the tour buses run counterclockwise, as it’s difficult for buses to fit side-by-side on the narrow roads, so head clockwise from Killarney to largely avoid the crowds if you’re self-propelled.
Having explored the dark conflict tales and taken in the Titanic Museum in Belfast, head to Derry via Giant’s Causeway (which is smaller than many expect, but nevertheless spectacular) and the cliffside trails of the island’s north-east corner. Stop at Dunluce Castle and the dodgy looking Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, before grabbing a whiskey in the Old Bushmills Distillery, and finish up exploring more divisive Northern Irish history in the Bogside of Derry-Londonderry. We’ll leave that contentious double-naming (it’s one place) as something to uncover when you arrive. Find a map here.
A famously barren bit of land in the east of Ireland, The Burren’s strange area of 250 square kilometres (96.5 square miles) of ‘karst’ landscape is made up of craggy limestone coating the surface of entire coastal hills. The almost lunar-feeling location captivates visitors, and many spend most of their time in the County Clare region simply strolling the rock formations. There’s also the ancient tomb Poulnabrone, Newtown Castle, Father Ted’s House and the nearby Cliffs of Moher to explore.
Many Irish people will be quick to list Kerry town Dingle as one of their favourite parts of the country. The town – which has a dolphin resident in the harbour – is home to gorgeous little attractions such as homemade salty ice cream, pubs that double up as hardware or bike-rental stores, and artisan cheese. The entire peninsula is the kind of sublime rugged that keeps people coming to Ireland. You’ll need to drive slow – the streets are almost ridiculously narrow – but when you get to the tiny harbours and trickling waterfalls flowing over the road, you’ll choose to crawl along too.
The chunky Mayo island – a spot that recently made the news for the almost miraculous return of its beach after more than 30 years – has only one road in and out, but plenty of exploration once you arrive. At the Atlantic end of the island, towering hills cascade into the ocean. Elsewhere, you’ll find tiny, alluring villages, plenty of native Irish speakers, and dozens of square kilometres of peat blog. It’s out of the way, but with over 161 kilometres (100 miles) of coastline to its name, the island is a worthy detour.
Head for the two main gaps between the hills of Wicklow, the garden county just a half hour drive south of Dublin city centre. Wicklow is by far the most accessible of these drives for those heading in from the capital and hides gems such as the lakes and monastic settlement at Glendalough, as well as stacks of walking trails and the prettiest commuter towns you could hope to find. The ‘mountains’ tag is a touch generous (nothing here tops 1,000 metres of 3,280.8 feet), but it’s nothing less than stunning.
Involving a car ferry, gorgeous beaches and a trip to the 13th-century Hook Lighthouse, this little tour of Ireland’s south-east corner is one more frequented by locals than tourists. Wexford is known for its strawberries, seals and gourmet restaurant scene, while Waterford offers the famous crystal, giant stone churches, river vistas and museums delving into the Ireland of yesteryear.
Cork people are notorious for their love of their own county, the ‘rebel county’ – so much so that perhaps Ireland’s most famous meme is a map of the country labelled simply ‘Cork’ and ‘not Cork’. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, head to the west, where rustic old villages and gorgeous hilly scenery dominate. You’ll get a taste of Atlantic culture here, with Skibbereen, Kinsale, Mizen Head, rural cheese makers, tidal lakes, and ancient stone circles all on the agenda.