A road trip around Ireland is like poetry in motion. Wind your way through breathtaking scenery, watch thousands of years of history unfold before you, and discover charming towns and villages in between. Of course, in Ireland a road trip is just as much about the extraordinary people you’ll meet along the way; their warmth, lively banter, unique heritage and rich cultural traditions will make your journey a memorable one. Here are three spectacular touring routes to get your motor running. Writes Megan Arkinstall.
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Ireland’s Ancient East
Many locals will start a conversation by asking: “What’s the story?” Storytelling is ingrained in Irish culture, and what tales there are to tell, with remnants of Ireland’s past dating back further than the Egyptian Pyramids.
This astounding history is showcased in Ireland’s Ancient East: a living, breathing museum spanning some 5000 years. Even the most astute of history buffs will be in awe seeing sites such as the sixth-century monastic site of Glendalough, which comprises a beautifully preserved 30-metre round tower built 1000 years ago, as well as extensive ruins of churches and a cathedral ; the medieval town of Carlingford which has traces of Viking and Norman history; and the Rock of Cashel, a collection of remarkably preserved medieval buildings perched on a rocky limestone outcrop.
However, possibly trumping the lot is Europe’s most significant collection of megalithic art, Brú na Bóinne. This concentration of prehistoric passage tombs (including Newgrange, a passage tomb built in 3200 BC) is scattered across the Boyne Valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is more than a trip down memory lane; it’s a discovery of Ireland’s rich cultural and architectural heritage, a region where history and storytelling collide.
Newgrange, Castletown House, Rock of Cashel, Kilkenny Castle, Hill of Tara, Glendalough, Waterford City, Blarney Castle, Clonmacnoise.
The Wild Atlantic Way
Wild, yes, but beautifully so. Stretching from Kinsale in County Cork to Malin Head in County Donegal, the Wild Atlantic Way is 2500 kilometres of rugged coastline in Ireland’s west, the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. Comprising six regions, this unforgettable road trip promises some of the island’s most sensational scenery, but it delivers so much more.
Start your journey at the sparsely populated Northern Headlands region where you’ll find some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs rising out of the foaming waters below, alongside evocatively lonely lighthouses, and nights when the endless sky is painted with the luminous hues of the Northern Lights.
Many visitors are surprised to find out that Ireland has a thriving surf culture that is centred on the Surf Coast, the next stop on the journey south; the region attracts dedicated surfers from around the globe, not only for its wave action but also for its secluded, pristine beaches and unique seaweed baths (a traditional, relaxing treatment said to soothe muscles and leave skin moisturised).
Back behind the wheel, adventurers will love the Bay Coast, which runs from the energetic city of Galway, also known as the ‘City of Tribes’, to Connemara, a region of beautiful contrasts from the rocky landscape of the Twelve Bens to its unspoiled and tranquil islands
and inlets. Impressive Clew Bay boasts 365 islands, the biggest being Clare Island, boasting a history of shipwrecks dating back centuries.
Home to the iconic Cliffs of Moher and The Burren, the Cliff Coast’s panoramic scenery is rich with wildlife and rare flora. The Cliff Coast is described as having a ‘hard land, warm hearts’. Doolin is the epitome of this with dramatic landscapes and welcoming locals; in this small, picturesque village, traditional music is alive and well with plenty of craic to be had. The same could be said for Lahinch, just down the road, a village also known for its championship golf course.
“Next parish, Manhattan” is how the locals explain the remote vibe of the Southern Peninsulas, the penultimate region reached by a Wild Atlantic Way drive. With numerous walking trails hugging the coast, this is the perfect spot to stretch your legs while indulging in the feeling of being at the ‘edge of the world’. Adventurers can embrace wild coastal scenery, picturesque landscapes, historical sites, and varied flora and fauna on the epic 42-kilometre Seven Heads Walk that follows the rugged coastline. Though, if you’re short on time (and energy), there are many shorter sections you can tackle. Or take yourself to the highest point in the Ring of Kerry, up Geokaun Mountain along two kilometres of pleasant walking trails. You’ll be able to view Skellig Michael from here; a UNESCO World Heritage-listed ancient monastic site that is only accessible by boat and ascending a 1000-year-old stairway. Indeed, visitors to this region can catch breathtaking scenery long after the sun sets, at the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve where, on a clear night, you can view many astronomical sights with the naked eye, including the Milky Way.
Last but in no ways least, the transformative journey from north to south ends at the Haven Coast. This southernmost region has a temperate Gulf Stream climate, which makes pursuits like whale-watching, sailing, fishing or just beach combing along pristine beaches all the more enjoyable. The area is well known for its artisanal food scene, as well as a thriving calendar of festivals; combine the two at the Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival each October.
Northern Lights, Twelve Bens, Clew Bay, Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, Ring of Kerry, Skellig Michael, Dark Sky Reserve, Connemara, Dingle Peninsula.
The Causeway Coastal Route
Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route is known as ‘one of the world’s greatest road journeys’. Following the north-eastern coast between the cities of Belfast and Derry-Londonderry, this region is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Giant’s Causeway, a natural wonder consisting of 40,000 basalt columns resembling stone steps, with a compelling legend to go with it – that of the 16-metre-tall giant Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill).
The route, which is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops along the way, is dotted with important historical sites such as the 12th-century Carrickfergus Castle, Ireland’s best-preserved medieval structure.
Further up the coast you can summon your inner thrill-seeker at The Gobbins, a cliff-face path that has been conquered since the early 20th century, with suspension bridges, steps and tunnels. Walk alongside sheer cliffs, over a rugged coastline with crashing waves, into hidden caves, and spot some unique birdlife – Northern Ireland’s only mainland colony of colourful puffins resides here, one of the many reasons The Gobbins is an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a paradise for twitchers.
Those who prefer gentler pursuits will be enchanted by The Glens of Antrim, nine pretty villages nestled in deep green valleys. You’ll find an extinct volcano, beautiful waterfalls, wonderfully preserved cottages, and friendly folk who’ll give you an insight into traditional Irish life.
Having tested your head for heights at The Gobbins, you can amp up the adrenaline by taking the rope bridge challenge across to Carrick-a-Rede Island. First erected by salmon fishermen more than 350 years ago, today it is a cliff-top adventure that sways and hovers 30 metres above a dramatic chasm below.
Reward your bravery at the next stop: Old Bushmills Distillery is the island’s oldest working distillery, which has been producing whiskeys using traditional methods for more than 400 years. You can do a tour and sample the wares; flip a coin to see who will be the designated driver on the last leg of the trip into Derry-Londonderry.
Giant’s Causeway, Gobbins Cliff Path, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Old Bushmills Distillery, The Glens of Antrim, Carrickfergus Castle.
For more information: Tourism Ireland