Ireland is an enchanting place and a celebration of nature, history, and culture. Its vast and verdant plains have earned it the nickname the Emerald Isle, and the 2,000 miles of scenic ocean just off its west coast draw thousands of visitors every year.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a spectacular stretch of road that winds along Ireland’s coast. It’s a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of Dublin and appreciate the country. The best way to traverse the coast is by rental car, and you can pick one up at any airport on the west coast. You’ll have complete freedom to linger as long as you’d like in any of Ireland’s picturesque seaside villages.
Don’t miss these 10 gems on Ireland’s Atlantic coast on your next ramble through the country.
Killybegs sits at the far northern end of the Wild Atlantic Way in County Donegal, and you would be hard-pressed to find a quainter or friendlier fishing town. Visitors can sample fresh seafood while taking in a stunning sunset, or try to spot dolphins frolicking in the surf.
Those interested in Irish history can visit the Glencolmcille Folk Village, a replica clachan. This living museum is a great place to buy authentic souvenirs and savor a cup of hot tea.
Killybegs is a slow-paced, idyllic place that fully embodies the spirit of the Irish countryside.
Charming Westport is steeped in pirate lore -- it was the stomping grounds of Grace O’Malley, a famous pirate queen and scourge of the British Empire. Today, O’Malley’s legacy lives on at the Pirate Adventure Park, a family-friendly amusement park that plays up Westport’s swashbuckling past.
The clear Atlantic waters surrounding Westport are perfect for all kinds of water-related activities. The town boasts several Blue Flag Beaches, or beaches that meet specific environmental and cleanliness standards. Take a dip, or try your hand at sea kayaking.
Westport is a whimsical historic spot like no other.
Sligo is posh and exciting, a fine mixture of luxurious spa options, foodie delights, and plenty of outdoor activities. Since it’s located right on the rugged Atlantic, Sligo has some of the best hiking and walking trails around. It’s also one of the best places in the country to head out on the open sea with your surfboard. Sligo’s unique topography supports both novice- and expert-level swells, and surf schools and private lessons are available for everyone.
The mix of activities available in Sligo makes it one of the most unique destinations on the Wild Atlantic Way and a must-see for anyone traveling the Irish coast by car.
Spiddal is a terrific treasure where Gaelic is spoken more often than English and life is slower and sweeter. Don’t worry if you can’t speak Ireland’s native tongue, though -- many folks in Spiddal are bilingual.
County Galway’s prettiest fishing village is also a hot spot for tourism and a popular resting point on the Wild Atlantic Way. Stroll the beaches of Spiddal, or make your way to the famous Ceardlan Spiddal Craft Village, where you can learn about Irish handicrafts and pick up a souvenir or two to take home.
The real beauty of making your way down the Irish coast by car is being able to stop in places like Spiddal. Coming across this village is like stepping into a dream, or finding your own piece of Irish paradise.
If you only stop in one place on the Emerald Isle’s west coast, make it Ballyvaughan. This stunning town on Galway Bay sits against the backdrop of the Burren, a riotous celebration of wildflowers and fascinating limestone formations that will make you think that you’ve been transported to another world.
Ballyvaughan is the Ireland of legend: a magical place set against the roiling Atlantic Ocean. Explore the Burren above, or head below to Aillwee Cave, a captivating system of underground caverns that will give you a whole new take on the limestone features that make up Ballyvaughan’s unique landscape.
Ballyvaughan is also a wonderful place to sample some of Ireland’s famous hospitality. There are plenty of cute pubs and bars where you can get a hot plate of stew and a cold pint.
Many travelers overlook County Clare’s Fanore, but this appealing seaside village is a first-rate place to recharge your batteries and soak in the sea between Ballyvaughan and Doolin. Both Gaelic and English are spoken in Fanore, and there are a few restaurants where locally sourced seafood is humbly but deliciously prepared.
Fanore’s real draw is the beach. Stroll along the pebbled shores and soak in uninterrupted views of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. You can also enjoy hiking and cycling along the seaside. Diving is a popular activity in Fanore, although the sea temperature can be fickle in the winter months.
When you imagine an Irish village, you’re probably picturing Doolin. This colorful town is one of the most popular stops on the Wild Atlantic Way and is simply bursting with lively pubs, authentic restaurants, and charming shops where you can pick up souvenirs for everyone on your list.
Doolin is also close to the Cliffs of Moher, an astonishing natural wonder comprising sheer cliffs facing the Atlantic Ocean. The Cliffs of Moher have been featured in blockbuster films like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Princess Bride and draw thousands of tourists every year. Plan to spend at least a few hours soaking in the cliffs and walking along the rugged edge of this fascinating natural formation.
Like Galway, Doolin is a place from which you can take a ferry to the Aran Islands. These starkly beautiful islands perfectly encapsulate wild Ireland and are the ideal place to break in your hiking boots and see the country from a new vantage point. Tickets to the Aran Islands generally sell out months in advance, so if they’re on your Emerald Isle bucket list, you will want to plan accordingly.
Like Doolin, Dingle is bursting with brightly colored buildings and Irish hospitality. Located on the charming Dingle Peninsula, this town is a fun and festive stop on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Full of pubs and restaurants, Dingle is a welcoming place where you could easily settle in for a night or two. In addition to the pints and plates of hearty Irish fare, Dingle also boasts the biggest aquarium in Ireland. Dingle OceanWorld highlights mysterious creatures of the deep and is a great family-friendly experience. Plan to spend at least several hours at the aquarium.
For a decidedly more adult adventure, head to the Dingle Distillery, an inviting place where you can learn all about Irish whiskey -- and sample a few blends yourself.
Vibrant Eyeries might be a small town, but it certainly has a big personality. This village on the Beara Peninsula embraces nature in all of its glory, with plenty of eco-walks and hiking trails. Although there are trails for every skill level in Eyeries, some might find the terrain challenging and uneven.
Eyeries is a haven for artists, and the Anam Cara Writer’s & Artist’s Retreat is a lovely spot for creative types to recharge their batteries and produce excellent work. Foodies will also appreciate Eyeries, if only for the abundance of fresh seafood and whimsical bistros and cafes.
Eyeries is a lovely little town with a relaxing and restorative air about it. It’s a must-see on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Kenmare is one of the larger towns on our list, but it’s just as alluring and full of Irish charm as the others. Situated on the dazzling Ring of Kerry, Kenmare boasts some of the best views in Ireland. It’s also famous for its elevated Irish cuisine, excellent accommodations, and phenomenal hiking.
Those interested in elegant architecture can visit Holy Cross Church, one of Kenmare’s loveliest and most iconic buildings.
Kenmare is also known for its horseback riding and miles of bicycle and jogging paths. Animal lovers can get out on the water and try to spot some seals or eagles. Kenmare sea tours book up quickly, and it’s a good idea to reserve your space at least a month in advance.
Another exceptionally popular activity in the area is golfing. The Ring of Kerry’s lush landscape is optimal for golf enthusiasts, and Southern Ireland’s mild climate is perfect for getting a few rounds in without breaking a sweat.
Ireland’s west coast is arguably the most enchanting part of the country, and the best way to fully enjoy it is by making your way up or down the Wild Atlantic Way. Each dynamic town or sleepy village puts its own spin on Irish culture and hospitality, and your Emerald Isle road trip will give you a fresh perspective on the country that you will cherish forever.