As Ireland tourism’s new, marked tourist trail down the entire west of the country, The Wild Atlantic Way was long overdue, offering the ultimate glance at rural Ireland, taking in many of the Emerald Isle’s best natural sights. You’ll cruise through the craggy bays and tiny towns of Kerry, the looming Cliffs of Moher, the ancient culture of Connemara, Sligo’s literary history, the best night out craic the country has to offer in Galway, and sublime, rustic Donegal. This is the route to base a trip around, and it doesn’t go within 200kms of the capital.
An often overlooked county town in the south east, Wexford is small but perfectly formed. Its quaint streets contain some of the best foodie offerings in the entire country, while the substantial harbour hides seals by the hundreds, with the boat ride out to the sandbanks they lounge on a tourist must-do. The county’s famous for its strawberries, which in early summer pack twice the juice and flavour of supermarket staples, and are well worth picking yourself in various nearby open farms. The beaches are great, too.
Known as Ireland’s garden, the Wicklow Mountains are so close to Dublin that you can comfortably drop down for a day trip, something capital locals take full advantage of in the summer. Its rugged hills contain endless hiking opportunities (including the multi-day Wicklow Way), the ancient lakeside round tower settlement of Glendalough, and a sudden sense that you’re a long, long way from Dublin’s bustle.
Unquestionably Ireland’s most attractive and original shopping option, the English Market – in the heart of Cork city – is the place to stock up on the local farm and sea products. Set in a mid-19th century hallway, the artisan food here had chef Rick Stein calling it: “The best covered market in the UK and Ireland.” Don’t eat before your visit; this is a spot to go overboard on an empty stomach.
Kerry’s long-established tourist route taking in the gorgeous cliffsides around Kenmare and Sneem, as well as throwback seaside villages, the Ring of Kerry is a trip the Irish themselves still indulge in, and that says all you need to know. The more ambitious will find ample walking opportunities around the 179km route. For the rest of us, the rugged hillsides, hidden beaches and a glance at Star Wars island (and 7th-century monastery) Skellig Michael are more than enough.
A collection of islands located in the Atlantic off the County Galway coast, the Aran Islands are as authentic a look at the Ireland of yesteryear as you could hope to find. Alongside the tiny towns – home to great rural food fayre and local pubs that top the best Hollywood could have come up with – there’s also the picturesque, rusting ruin of fishing boat MV Plassy, the imposing Dun Aonghasa fort and some memorable cycling adventures down winding, walled roads to be had.
A medieval fortification that dates back to the 15th century, the Blarney Castle has become part of Irish folklore thanks to the legend of the Blarney Stone. Tourists hang upside down over a large drop to kiss a certain spot on the ramparts (secured with metal railings), as doing so is said to give the ‘gift of the gab’ – the famed Irish eloquence. The extensive gardens contain an educational poison garden, while ornate Blarney House, nearby, is well worth a detour, too.
Donegal is an often overlooked spot, tucked away in the north west of Ireland, but offers rural allure that’s a match for even County Kerry. Bundoran, though, is a world class spot for surfers, cited in the top 20 locations in the world by National Geographic back in 2012. Waves here can have the weight of the Atlantic behind them, and many visitors spend hours learning to stand on a board on the kilometres of sandy beach. There’s also a natural pool and the views of the Roughey Cliff Walk to enjoy.
Right on the border with Northern Ireland against the East coast, Carlingford has a startling history as a hideaway for IRA folks needing to escape the north to safer harbours. These days, it’s more of an activity centre, with the lough and stone-wall harbour hosting water sports, while the hills attract hikers and host adventure rope walkways, ziplining and paintballing. Carlingford’s Easter leprechaun hunt and daft leprechaun-themed cave attraction give the place colour.
The Cliffs of Moher are so famous in Ireland they’re known simply as ‘the cliffs’. Soaring 200 metres above the Atlantic, you can stroll right up to the edge and stare through a terrifying amount of thin air from the cliff top walkways, watching the birds come and go from nests in jutting crags that head towards the horizon. There’s a boat trip to the base, too, and while you’re here, the nearby Burren – a crumbling stone plateau – is a landscape so unusual it can’t be passed up.
This port town in Kerry is an absolute tour-de-force when it comes to gorgeous settings and quirky attractions. As well as hosting probably the best music festival in the country in its 80-capacity church (Amy Winehouse, The National and Bob Geldof have played Other Voices), Dingle’s attractions include a load of pubs that also serve as other things (including a pub/hardware store, and a pub/bicycle rental shop), sea salt ice cream, and a dolphin resident in the harbour. The countryside, unsurprisingly, is that gorgeous kind of rugged that just begs to be photographed.