You know it’s about to be really good when a local tells you it’s his favorite drive in all of Ireland. I was cozied up to the bar at a little pub in Connemara, map spread awkwardly all over the bar top, attempting to plan a route from Galway to Clifden that would take quite a bit of time since getting there was really my only task for the day.
The bartender placed my steaming cup of soup in front of me, turned my map around to face him, and asked me how he could help. Once I described my general “lack of a plan” plan, he quickly grabbed my pencil and traced a route on the map that would take me from the small town of Oughterard to my destination, Clifden, with what he claims is “the most scenic drive in all of Ireland” in between.
That’s a pretty lofty claim all in all, I mean, Ireland is pretty big and, well, gorgeous through and through.
But, I’m not one to ignore such a strong recommendation; I finished up my bowl of soup (partnered with a huge slab of Irish brown bread that makes me tear up with joyous memories, actually), thanked my helpful bartender and set out to drive the R344 through the Lough Inagh Valley and then down to Clifden (this drive is also touted in the Lonely Planet come to find out).
Within minutes of turning off of the N59 I was greeted by craggy hills and a decidedly different landscape then the lush verdant greens of the south. Instead of the bright green hues of Killarney and Dingle, the mountains are a muted green and with brown-rocky hillsides.
The sun was intermittent, so instead of rushing through the drive I pulled the car over and went for a bit of hiking around the lake, waiting for the sun to emerge once again. This is about the point on the trip where it hit me that my RTW travels weren’t going to last forever.
I’m just sitting there on this lightly used road, accompanied by a bunch of sheep alternating between extreme annoyance and purposeful indifference at my presence. And I can’t help but acknowledge that this really is an incredibly pretty area, perhaps you could even go so far as to call it the most picturesque of the trip (although Dingle’s Slea Head Drive fights hard for that title).
But my conclusion was that it’s a bit lonely to sit on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, with only the bleating of sheep for company. I did a good deal of my trip solo, and I really wouldn’t change that at all – I loved having Laura’s company in SEA, and Helen throughout India and Nepal, but traveling with other people brings its own issues and difficulties and sometimes massive headaches.
But so does traveling solo.
Given the choice, I think I’ll stick to solo travel but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get lonely on the road. I love the freedom that I have on my own, the ability to really indulge my every whim, and to easily part ways when “new friends” start to wear on my nerves.
With a bout of loneliness creeping in I oohed and ahhed through the Lough Inagh Valley, passed by the Kylemore Abbey, which I visited four years ago on my last trip to Ireland, and landed at a bustling but remote hostel with new friends and eight days to camp out at one place, get to know some new people, and hike through the adjacent Connemara National Park.
Any great tips for fighting the blues on the road?
The local residents living in the Aran Islands are as unique as the topography of this small chain of limestone islands lacing across the top of Ireland’s wind-swept Galway Bay. Known across the country as the cultural heart and soul of the Emerald Isle, the Aran Islands boast not only a prehistoric, but also some of the finest, toe-tapping Irish music around. Having planned three nights on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, I had ample opportunity to spend my days exploring the craggy landscape and my evenings listening to phenomenal local jam sessions.
Going Local on the Aran Islands
Half of the town’s residents had already materialized around the dance floor of the Kilronan town hall when I arrived—early by my estimation, but clearly the locals were eager to get the party started! Three weathered old men jammed on their instruments in a raised stage to one side, and the melodic strum of the Irish fiddle beat a tune that had me itching to join the dancing. Animated chatter emanated from every corner of the room as locals caught up on gossip, and a smattering of tourists like myself filed in to the chairs lining the room, all of use awkwardly waited for “it” to happen.
So, what is this mysterious “it” you might ask?
The dancing of course!
Saturday nights in Kilronan mean an authentic Irish céilidh (also called céilí dancing); it’s akin to a barn dance in the states. It’s local, partly unscripted, and wildly entertaining. A céilidh is more than a type of dance, it’s code for a social event that contains everything the Irish hold dear: stories, music, singing, and folk dancing. To witness one is person is something worth planning a trip around—it was something I had desperately hoped to find during my three week road-trip of Ireland, and it now remains among my favorite memories.
Hunting Down the Best Music in Inishmore
The hostel owner recommended that we spend out first night on Inishmore at Joe Wattys pub, and he was not mistaken. It was positively hopping. Sadly, there wasn’t a single note of Irish music to be found! Although Joe Watty’s is synonymous with craic and good Irish tunes throughout the tourist season, I had planned my Irish road trip for September, and by the end of the month it was well into the off-season. As such, local musicians played rock inspired modern songs, and every single islander and tourist alike still seemed to have found their way to the pub for the evening.
Regardless, my friend Laura and I managed to locate a lively group of locals our age and we all became fast friends. On our second night on the island, as the night wore on, they warned us to save our energy because the town’s weekly céilidh dance would begin at midnight!
Side-stepping through the crowds of the local céilidh was like stepping into a movie—it was just so typically Irish. It was essentially everything I could want from a visit to the Emerald Isle. Within minutes of entering the small town hall, locals young and old grabbed partners and began whirling people at a rapid pace.
Tourists were welcome to join the fun and I was quickly pulled onto the dance floor by a series of locals seeking nothing more than a dance partner willing to give it a go with the fast-paced and sometimes frenzied traditional dancing.
The céilidh was, in its entirety, my favorite night in Ireland. The experience completely encapsulated the experience of traveling to Ireland and seeking authentic Irish culture. I had visited Ireland during the high-season years ago and the pubs were flooded by tourists—this was another thing altogether.
My sad confession of the night: Even though I was a competitive Irish dance experience a decade ago, that did little to help me keep up with the the rapid pace of the ceili dancing. As I switched partners and kept time with the music, it was pretty obvious that I was terrible.
To give myself a break though, the Guinness didn’t help the situation all that much!
The party lasted well into the night, but as dawn approached it was time to say adieu to our new friends—after all, we had a full day of sightseeing and then another night of music planned before we had to leave the magical experience that had become our time on Ireland’s magical Aran Islands.
Quick Tips: Visiting the Aran Islands
One general note for travelers is that this is fairly remote compared to the rest of Ireland. The ferry ride wouldn’t suffice in a real emergency if you needed medical care, and although there are daily flights to and from the island, it’s the type of place you want to have solid travel insurance (here’s why I recommend World Nomads).
Why Visit the Aran Islands
If a rolicking good and access to the heartbeat of Irish culture is high on your list, then plan to visit Kilronan, an itty-bitty town on Inishmore. All three islands are the purest Irish speaking places in the world; Irish is their first language in school, and while they definitely speak English, random conversations around town are bandied about in full Irish. Although most tourists visit the Aran Islands as a day trip, Laura and I spent three days on the small island—what a wise choice! In addition to the ceili, there are fascinating bike routes to ring forts, towers, and cemeteries, all with a helping of quintessential Irish charm. The Washington Post published a beautiful article about the islands in the 90’s, and nearly 30 years later it’s still as quaint and charming as it was then.
How to Get to the Aran Islands
Seemingly an isolated set of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, they are easily accessible now thanks to modern tourism. Most travelers visit on the ferry from Galway, but there is also a ferry in Doolin. Since I highly recommend travelers stay at least a night in Doolin when visiting the Cliffs of Moher, the harbor there makes an easy launching point (and if you haven’t rented a car, which you would then need to park at the docks, you can actually take your return ferry straight to Galway!).
Several daily ferries depart from both locations during the high season, with more limited schedules as the weather changes and when the water gets rougher. From Rossaveal (an hour outside of Galway) it’s a simple 45-minute ferry ride to Inishmore, and on Doolin Ferries it takes 1 hour and 20 minutes. You can also just book a scenic ferry ride around the closest island if you’re in too much of a time crunch even for the day tours!
Where to Stay
In summer season, book well in advance to secure a spot at any accommodation on the island. Budget travelers should look no further than Kilronan Hostel on Inishmore—it’s phenomenally well-located by the pier, the staff are so friendly, and it offers easy bike rentals. Mid-range travelers couldn’t go wrong with a night or two at Ard Mhuiris B&B or Ard Einne House, which are both walkable to anything you might want to do in town.
Best Things to Do on Inishmore
Because of the island’s popularity with daytrippers, you might think there’s little to see beyond the prehistoric fort. You would be wrong. A trip to the Aran Islands is about so much more than the sights, it’s the entire experience. Here are the four best things to do on Inishmore (besides attending a ceili, of course!).
Visit Dún Aonghasa Fort. OK, obviously you have to do this! Dun Aengus fort dates to 1100 century BC (holy-schmoly, that’s old), and it features a terrifying sheer cliff face that will test your willpower. I could only look over the edge by commando crawling on my belly to peer over at the water.
Bike the countryside. Biking the island was both harder and more rewarding than we had anticipated. There are some no-joke hills, but also quaint villages, stone walls, grazing sheep, and gorgeous panoramas of waters and cliffs and so much pretty. It’s also the best way (although a lengthy day) to visit the Seven Churches ruins on the western side of Inishmore.
Take a good long walk. Locals offer fascinating walking tours, or you can bring along your guidebook (I used and loved the Rick Steves’ Ireland). The Worm Hole is walkable from Kilronan and good craic for anyone fancying a swim (not for casual swimmers though, most travelers just go for a gander at low tide!).
Reminisce about your day at Joe Watty’s. Even when there’s no traditional music (low season), this is the number one spot to go for a memorable evening in town. This holds doubly true in high season, it’s nigh unforgiveable to skip a night here when the Irish music’s playing!
After arriving in Doolin, a charming town on the western coast of Ireland, I learned an important travel lesson from my host. He put it to me straight, noting that there are two ways to set out on any great travel adventure:
the way the guidebook recommends
the secret map hand-drawn for you by a local
I mean really, is there even a choice?!
My new friend Laura and I were ready to tackle the famed Cliffs of Moher and Carl—the owner of the truly lovely Aille River Hostel in Doolin, Ireland—let us in on a little secret. As long as you don’t park your car on the main road leading to the Cliffs, they won’t ticket you and you don’t have to pay the €8 fee or use of the parking lot and facilities.
That sounded pretty great to us budget backpackers, but to further sweeten the deal, in addition to this parking tidbit he recommended a two-hour hiking path from the tiny little town of Doolin. The path hugs the cliffs and drop-offs leading up the main site of the Cliffs of Moher.
Many travelers visit the Cliffs of Moher as a day-trip from Galway, but there are two reasons to dedicate an overnight here: the town of Doolin has phenomenal Irish music at the local pubs each evening, and the dangerous and cow-filled hike to the Cliffs is a worthy memory for those up for the adventure.
Carl instructed us to park on a small road a couple of kilometers before the car park for the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center. I marooned my tiny European rental car (that wouldn’t even be road-worthy and legal in the U.S.) on a grassy bank off the side of the road. Then Laura and I set off to follow Carl’s lightly detailed map—just enough details to get us there, but not enough that it was a cake-walk!
Now, there is a newer Coastal Walk that leaves from Doolin and includes the route to the Cliffs. But for the 2009 version, this is what it looks like to take an off-the-path hike to the Cliffs of Moher.
How to Hike to the Cliffs of Moher from Doolin
Step 1: Jump a Gate to Leave the Road Far Behind
Both Scotland and Ireland are tolerant to tourists (and locals for that matter) wandering through sheep and cow pastures. At first, Laura and I felt a little weird jumping the first fence since the owner was right there. He was just finishing up with his bull and gave us an encouraging smile when he saw our plan.
He really didn’t mind! He even pointed out the easiest spot for us to jump the fence to avoid mud, cow dung, and wires.
Step 2: Walk Parallel the Fence Until You Reach the Cliff’s Edge
Once inside of the cow pasture, it’s pretty messy. We hiked along the fence, occasionally venturing away from the fence if it looked like the grass was less of a muddy, gooshy, sopping mess of churned earth and sludge. It never was.
At one point, we spotted salvation on the other side of a pass-fence—it looked so dry and firm on that side. Well, let me tell you: The grass isn’t always greener on the side. After sinking ankle deep into thick mud, we decided to make a messy break for it and we sprinted to the Cliff’s edge.
Step 3: Avoid the Cows
One key problem with tromping through active cow pastures is the cows. Seems logical, but we didn’t consider that facet of our hike until we were already en route to the Cliffs of Moher!
One friendly farmer was a bit snippy with us as we carefully picked our way across his field because he was herding his cattle through the fence and we were messing up his rhythm. He wasn’t mad, just firm that we needed to get on with ourselves and get out of his way.
Step 4: Tread Lightly and DON’T SLIP
The cow pasture portion of our hike to the Cliffs of Moher was all about mud. That was short-lived though, and we eventually made it into the county-owned land that led to sloped upward a bit toward the Visitor Center and the lookout points.
Once at that point though, it’s a grassy, overgrown path that sits about three feet from a 500 foot drop. At that point, you need to slow down and all I thought about was keeping perfect balance as we made our way through the field.
The caution sign might deter less adventurous hikers, but Carl’s adamant insistence that this route offered the best views of the Cliffs encouraged us to walk right past the sign and continue hiking up the steep path.
Step 5: Enjoy the Spoils of Your Off-the Path Hike
By the time we reached the grassy pasture at the top, Laura and I took a few minutes to merely sit in the near-silence, listen to the waves crash, and look into the distance at the rugged Cliffs of Moher. This was why we had taken the more adventurous route.
The soft tread of our feet on the grass disturbed birds resting under the cliff face and every few minutes, a startled flock of gleaming white birds flew out from below us and fanned out across the blue ocean. Their frantic wings beat a rhythm that competed with the rushing waves slowly wearing at cliffs, together creating a beautiful soundtrack for our hike.
Step 6: Jump the Fence & Gloat
About two hours after leaving on our adventure hike to the Cliffs of Moher, our small path abruptly ended at a wire fence intended to keep the paying tourists from heading off on the very hiking path we had just used. We ignored the few curious looks from others as we dodged a glance around before catapulting over the fence. Then we were just one of the many tourists enjoying the gorgeous vistas.
On a sunny day, it’s a striking site to behold as the sheer size of the Cliffs contrasts beautifully with the vibrant green Irish countryside and deep blue ocean. There is no denying that the Cliffs are one of Ireland’s most prominent attractions and I’d go back all over again given the opportunity. Of course, if I did it again, I’d still take the adventurous path all over again!
Quick Tips: Hiking to the Cliffs of Moher
Where to Stay
Budget travelers should look no further than Aille River Hostel in Doolin. Doolin is the best town from which to organize a trip to the cliffs since it’s close, it has a range of accommodation options, and the local pubs jam out with traditional Irish music in the evenings. Mid-range travelers couldn’t go wrong with a night or two at Fairwinds B&B, which is walkable to the pubs.
Best Doolin Pubs for Irish Music
McGann’s Pub Doolin and Gus O’Connor’s Pub should both be on your list and although I recommend checking out both pubs. Doolin was once a quaint fishing village and it still holds onto its traditional roots. Music sessions start around 9 pm every evening at Gus’.
And while both locations serve food, McGann’s gets top marks for a selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options for travelers with dietary restrictions. Once you arrive, to truly be sure you find the best music in town, ask your guesthouse for recommendations as some pubs might offer alternating music nights if you’re visiting in shoulder or off-season.
Other Things to Do in Doolin
There’s more to Doolin than just a launching point to the Cliffs of Moher. If you’re in the area, you should explore more.
Visit the Doolin Cave. Measuring 23 feet (7.3 m), this cave offers the longest free-hanging stalactite in the northern hemisphere. It’s a mere 4 km outside of town and is easily the second most popular local activity after the cliffs visit.
Venture along the 18 km Coastal Walk from Doolin to Liscannor. If you want something a bit more adventurous than the mere two hour hike to the Cliffs, this is a quiet route that includes the Cliffs portion, and then continues further along the coastline. It’s long though, so be sure to pick a day with good weather and start early!
Sip microbrews at The Burren Brewery. I can’t resist the microbrewery trend and you can’t go wrong with stopping for a pint or two in Lisdoonvarna village, which is a mere 10 minutes from Doolin.
Drive the Burren. Burren National Park is worthy of a day trip all of its own. This rugged, rocky limestone landscape is unlike anywhere else in the country and is an easy drive from Doolin.
Day trip to the Aran Islands. I actually stayed in the Aran Islands for a couple of nights, but many travelers leave from Doolin just for the day and explore.
“Umm, did you hear that sound?” I oh so casually asked Laura as we drove from Doolin—a quaint and inviting village on Ireland’s wild west coast—toward the Cliffs of Moher.
Laura, partially deaf in one ear, paused to consider and definitively shook her head before re-launching into her story. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling like something just happened to my tiny rental car after I had unceremoniously ploughed through a massive pothole at 55 kilometers an hour.
With an ear tuned toward Laura’s story, I continued carefully navigating my go-kart-like car up a thin, curvy road away from the coast. Not able to shake the feeling like something had happened, I glanced in my rearview mirror, hoping that I was just a unduly worrying.
My mouth dropped open, flabbergasted. One shiny, round hubcap glittered and twinkled in the sunlight as it rolled down the steep road at a clipped pace away from my car.
With something between a horrified gasp and a strangled laugh, I slammed on the brakes. Laura glanced at me concerned, and I just pointed out the back window with tears of laughter in my eyes. She quickly caught sight of the hubcap as it, thankfully, ran out of steam.
We both paused and burst into laughter. Even with thoughts of huge fines from the rental car company dancing in my head, it was just too funny to watch your hubcap roll down a hill away from you.
Traffic was thankfully sparse, so I yanked the car to the side of the road, punched on my hazards, and did what could only be called a spastically wild dash down the steep road to save my gleaming, silver hubcap (my bank account).
Then, because it wasn’t enough for Laura to witness my mad scramble to save my mercurial hubcap, a car turned the corner and aimed itself right for my little round hubcap. With frantic waves from the dead center of the road I motioned for the car to slow down. Baffled, the driver stopped as I sprinted the last 200 meters to rescue my hubcap, which beckoned me from the middle of the road.
Laura decided the moment simply could not and should not be forgotten.
The photo is blurry because she couldn’t stop laughing at my ridiculous hubcap victory dance, which she documented for all of time.
I skipped back up the road with the weirdest mix of enthusiastic, joyous moves—something between hip-hop, booty-shaking, and the “Elaine dance.” I was just happy no one had run over my hubcap, and didn’t even mind the that the bright sunshine glinted off tears of laughter streaming down the faces of other cars passing me on the 300 meter dash back up the road.
Laura had doubled over laughing as I made it to the car. By this time, the cars were stacking up behind my parked car, so I threw my “hubcap of joy” into the backseat, wiped my now greasy hands on my pants, and peeled out.
I would really like to say that my driving improved after this incident. In fact, it didn’t. Any other backpackers who were brave enough to sit in my passenger’s seat couldn’t help but anxiously wring their hands as I grazed the brick walls, ditches, and green shrubbery lining the sides of nearly every narrow Irish road (thank the Universe for full-coverage insurance!).
It didn’t help matters that even after three weeks of driving, I never lost the habit of holding my breath and rigidly tensing my body as large oncoming cars whooshed by on the small roads.
And confession: I’d love to say that I only lost the one hubcap, but it was two. We must now take a moment of silence and mourn the passenger’s side front hubcap, which is permanently living somewhere on the coastal road between Letterfrack and Clifden in Connemara, Ireland. Locals assured me it that it was customary to, once found, hang it from a nearby tree. Some somewhere in Ireland’s never-ending green my hubcap dangles in the wind.
In addition to Ireland’s most scenic coastline and sights: Slea Head Drive, and Fungie the Dolphin in Dingle town harbor, there are two other parts of the Dingle Peninsula that I really loved. Spending several days in Dingle town, and then driving the Dingle Peninsula were among my favorite experiences in Ireland (and the sites on Dingle rival that of the Ring of Kerry in a big way).
Forging Conor Pass in Dingle
My photos from Conor Pass don’t even look real, and I swear to you they are unaltered. I was emphatically warned about attempting the Conor pass since I’m not particularly skilled driving on the left side of the road (so sue me, I’m an American, we don’t drive on that side!). I almost considered skipping this part of the Dingle Peninsula based on the warnings from locals. Conor Pass is the highest mountain pass in all of Ireland, sitting at nearly 1,500 ft (456 m) and looking out over impressive coastline.
Truthfully, it’s not all that bad! OK, it is bad—but it could have been worse. I piled into my tiny rental car a few other backpackers and drove through narrow Conor pass during good weather—if you do the same and you’re a shaky driver, then also time the drive well! Ireland was gifting me unseasonably dry skies during my time in Dingle, and a mere smattering of clouds bathed the pass in sunlight. It created stunning contrasts between Ireland’s famous greens, the blue glacial lakes, and the cornflower colored skies.
The pass narrows to a thin road wide enough for one car at a time. Then, we literally forged a small river while hugging a precarious “protective fence barrier”—a sneeze would have blown it over! Despite jittery nerves, we made it through the confined mountain passage and were able to creep down the steep, winding road.
But you know, once you get through all that you’re totally fine! My only regret is that I was the driver and therefore didn’t get to gawk at the beautiful landscape as we descended the combe, or rather the amphitheatre-like valley formed by glaciers.
Walking Stations of the Cross on Mount Brandon
Arguably the most impressive hiking route along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, Mount Brandon was something I added in at the last minute and I should have made this a priority—it’s a must visit.
Gentle green hills cover most of the Dingle peninsula, meaning the views from Mount Brandon are particularly beautiful—the side of the mountain with the walking path looks out over the ocean at the Three Sisters (visited on the Slea Head Drive) and the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean glitter in the near distance. It has religious significance too, as pilgrims have long walked the path to the top, following the 14 Stations of the Cross, in search of cures for their ailments.
My last day in Dingle was the start of some magnificently warm and unnaturally sunny weather that followed me up the entire Western coast as I explored the Cliffs of Moher, Connemara, and more. Since we had such gorgeous weather, at the recommendation of the fabulous owners of the Hideout Hostel, several of us took advantage of the clear day and walked/hiked Mount Brandon on our way off of the Dingle Peninsula.
This was a moment I was so glad to have not gone the backpacker route and just bused around Ireland, because my rental car came in handy for spontaneous adventures. Three other women joined me on our Mount Brandon and the day-long drive to Doolin, so it was a tight squeeze in my tiny Nissan Micra, but what we lacked in space we made up for in bodily contortions, backpacker enthusiasm, and a thirst for travel adventures.
There are two key paths up Mount Brandon, The Saints’ Road (the easier of the two lasting three to four hours) and The Pilgrims’ Path (scenic but harder and takes four to five hours). Stations of the Cross mark the route up the mountain, interestingly enough, and every Easter locals (children, grandmas, and everyone) hike to the last station on Mount Brandon for Easter celebrations.
My ragtag group and I only made it to the sixth station. That makes me feel out of shape because even grandmas can make it to the top of Mount Brandon (which comes in at 3,122 ft (952 m)). I am only glad that I wasn’t our weakest link—our whole group turned around at the halfway point (station six is about halfway since the crosses don’t start for a mile up!). We just weren’t making good enough time to finish the hike in the anticipated five hours round-trip, which would have prevented us from catching the last ferry over the Shannon River and the drive from there to Doolin.
Do I regret hiking the mountain even though I had to turn around? Not one bit. We lunched at the sixth station and had sweeping, panoramic views of the surrounding country. I welcomed sunshine warming my bones as I munched away on my lunch.
Dingle’s just about one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen, so I was a bit sad to leave it behind. Since I would love to make it to the top, and because this area has left me completely charmed, I will be back one day.
Quick Tips: Exploring the Dingle Peninsula
What to bring: For your walk, you certainly can wing it with whatever you have handy, but note that you’ll likely prefer waterproof shoes, a nice rain jacket (that can double as a windbreaker), and walking sticks to help with the rocky descent.
Where to sleep: For budget travelers, Hideout hostel in Dingle, Ireland is one of the best hostels from my trip. (Note, the hostel is listed on Airbnb, and ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking)! If the Hideout is booked, then Rainbow Hostel is a great alternative. The Hillgrove Guesthouse is ideal on a midrange budget, and or splurge on the An Capall Dubh B&B.
What to do: You should absolutely spend an entire day seeing the best sights on Slea Head Drive—it is, in my humble opinion, even pretty than the more popular and visited Ring of Kerry. You can visit Fungie the Dolphin on a day tour, or go independently down to the harbor for the lucky chance of a sighting.
Dingle is a small town on the southwest tip of Ireland, it’s a port town on the Dingle Peninsula, which sticks out of the mainland like a finger reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. And although Dingle town is cute as can be and filled with the sort of deep culture that can be overlooked in busier cities like Dublin or Galway, no trip to the area is complete until you just take in the prettiness and history Slea Head Drive, which is a clockwise, circular route that often hugs the gorgeous coastline for 30 miles (47 km). This is one of Ireland’s most scenic drives (it’s also a part of the stunning Wild Atlantic Way route) and contains several of the oldest sites in Ireland, all contained in one small area. I filled my rental car with two other women I met at my hostel, Amber and Laura (they were with me for the Fungie the Dolphin sighting as well as the gorgeous Mount Brandon hike).
Top Sites on Slea Head Drive
The drive should be undertaken clockwise from Dingle Town as this avoids oncoming busses (which is a terrifying prospect on narrow Irish roads). It’s really not possible skip any part of the drive, since it’s a circular route, but you could surely go faster if you didn’t slow down, hike around, and make an afternoon of it. But why would you do that?! This is an area worth exploring, getting out of the car, and really wandering through the history, and taking in the sights. It can be done in less than two hours, but if you pack a picnic lunch and enjoy yourself, plan for at least three hours (and if you’re a cyclist, have fun, no idea, but we definitely saw some tourists enjoying it that way!). Also, before you set out, know that the route is called Slí Cheann Sléibhe in Irish—remember these words! Some signs toward the end of the drive are only in Irish and you’ll want to continue navigating the correct route! These were my five favorite stops along Slea Head Drive.
Perched on the very edge of the cliffs is the promontory fort of Dunbeg, ruins date from the Iron Age, with a piece of ancient wood under one fort wall dated to about 580 BC, meaning the fort was built after that time period. Dunbeg Fort is small and mostly grass-covered for protection, and until it can be further excavated. This places actively changes ever single year as the sea reclaims the land and the fort actually tumbles from the cliffs regularly.
The sweeping views of the ocean and straight drop down to the jagged rocks are gorgeous, and no visit to Ireland is complete without scrambling around some ruins, and this is a good spot for it!
Called clochán in Irish, these family dwellings and small community of huts could go as far back as the Bronze Age (think 2000 BC). Today, there is no archaeological evidence dating them earlier than AD 700, but archaeologists believe they were introduced earlier than that. These type of dwellings were continually built for thousands of years throughout Scotland and Ireland.
The first thing you’ll notice is that people must have been significantly shorter back then, because these beehive huts are tiny! They are not for the tall, and I had to continually watch my head through the doorways.
The Blasket Islands were inhabited until until 1953 by an Irish-speaking population, until the locals were forced to evacuate. If you’re enjoying Slea Head Drive on a traditional Irish day—wet and windy—then you’ll look out to sea and wonder that any human being could live on such remote and rugged islands. Although the islands are only slightly offshore from the coast of the Dingle Peninsula, it was incredibly windy out on the peak and you’d have to be a very hearty person to survive the icy-cold and wet winds.
Although there are daily boat trips during high season out the islands (and some people even camp!), my backpacker budget instead sent me to the very tip of the mainland, where I could gaze out at the gorgeous seascape. Just past the sandy beach is a fairly large carpark with a worn and grassy path leading up a steep, sheep-poo filled hillside. In true Irish style, the path is only meant for the adventurous—I laced my fingers together to give Laura a boost over the rock wall (she’s pretty short!) hopped it myself, and we threaded amongst the grazing, sleepy sheep to look out over the Blasket Islands and gaze across the Atlantic toward the US.
The view is stunning and because we went a bit “off the path,” we were the only ones up there for about 30 minutes (which was perfect because each of us were forced to brave the heavy wind and pop a squat!). Although the boat tour is supposedly spectacular, I can’t imagine having missed this short hike either.
There is no consensus on how old this church is as archaeologists can’t find a way to date it, and some claim it was built as late as the 12th century, while others contend it was an early Christian church built between the 6th and 9th centuries. So, now called the Gallarus Oratory, it was built in a similar style to Dunbeg Fort and the Beehive Huts, which means constructed without mortar. The stones are gradually stacked to reach the top, a form of construction that made it surprisingly airtight inside!
A torrential downpour caught up with us when we reached the Oratory so we huddled inside for some time, giving a good test to this ancient church. We were all amazed that it completely protected us from the strong winds and rains even after all these centuries since it was first constructed.
Three Sisters & The Sleeping Giant
Near the village of Ballyferriter, the Three Sisters are a set of three peaks associated with a number of Irish legends and stories. The Irish do love their myths and legends, so it’s perhaps no wonder that the natural landscape inspired many. One local legend even goes so far as to claim that Lindbergh’s first sight of land after crossing the Atlantic was the three jagged peaks of land known as the Three Sisters.
Meanwhile, the Sleeping Giant is fun to witness on the horizon, he’s easy to spot as the land makes it look as though he is lynching on his back, resting on the top of the ocean.
Perhaps the best tip I can offer for driving Slea Head Drive around the Dingle Peninsula is to memorize the Irish name for Dingle town, An Daingean. Although it’s controversial that there’s no English name on the sign, that’s the way it is here and it’s one of the most charming parts of traveling through this region of Ireland. The Dingle Peninsula is an Irish speaking region, and though it can get confusing to only see road signs in Irish, it’s still lovely. But with that in mind we had to be prepared for the Irish when making our way back to our Dingle hostel for the night when all of the road signs only pointed toward An Daingean!
Quick Tips: Enjoying Dingle
Where to sleep: I stayed at the Hideout Hostel, which has small room dorms and was just completely lovely. Highly recommend it. It also offers private doubles, which would make a fantastic option for couples who want the social aspect of a hostel without the lack of privacy from shared dorms. These links go to the property’s Airbnb listing, and if it’s your first time on the service, ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking. If the Hideout is booked, then Rainbow Hostel is a great alternative. The Hillgrove Guesthouse is ideal on a midrange budget, and or splurge on the An Capall Dubh B&B.
Where to eat: While you’re driving Slea Head, you can stop in Ballyferriter if you haven’t packed anything, this small town has a lot of options. In Dingle Town, you must eat at Murphy’s Ice Cream. Vegetarians will find two options at Marina Inn, a full menu at Adh Danlann Gallery Cafe, my dorm mates loved the chowder at John Benny’s Pub, and seafood lovers will drool over the recommendations in this piece from Saveur on Dingle’s best cuisine.
Best place for Irish music: You absolutely want at least one night in Dingle Town so that you can enjoy the live music at most local pubs and restaurants. Head out by 9pm to find a spot and have a chance to really enjoy the music. Everyone at our hostel went out together several nights and truly loved the vibe. We had an amazing time at Dick Mack’s, which was recommended by the hostel owner, and O’Sullivans Court House Pub had an awesome mix of locals and tourists alike. O’Flaherty’s Pub is the go-to recommendation from many, but it was one that people either loved or hated—we didn’t visit.
Read: Although I carried the Ireland Lonely Planet, Laura was carrying the Rick Steves Ireland and, in the dual of “which one is better,” her’s won. Although I liked the LP for accommodation and transportation recs, her guide had a detailed accounting of this drive. It had us start our trip-meter when we left Dingle, and then it offered tidbits we could read as we drove along, each fact corresponded to the mile markers and what we were seeing on the drive. It was a lot of fun and provided heaps of history and facts we would have otherwise missed.
Dingle is a true travel gem, and I usually hate using that phrase. This quiet, unassuming peninsula lies just north of the well-touristed Ring of Kerry, but is a world apart in terms of pace and welcome. And although nearly all the Irish you meet anywhere in Ireland are ready with a warm “hello” and a bit of friendly chat, the genuine welcome on Dingle Peninsula is particularly evident.
Most of the Dingle peninsula is a Gaeltacht area, which means that Irish is the first spoken language. That’s what makes it so fantastic. Everyone still also speaks English, but in this tiny pocket of Ireland, Irish is a first language and spoken in the homes, at the pubs, and around town.
Now on the flip side, to be honest, Dingle drowns with tourists during the high season, and that has made it all a bit more showy in Dingle town itself.
But even so, Dingle charms are many. The town is best known for two things: Fungie the Dolphin, and the numerous number of pubs. And when I say pubs, I mean pubs-cum-shops-cum-hardware stores.
That’s right, all the pubs in Dingle started out multi-purpose and a few even remain that way. Fancy some hardware? The pub has you covered. Looking for outdoors clothes? Still covered! Locals head to the shops to buy screws and nails, and then head back in the evening for a pint or two, crackin’ local music, and a lot of friendly chatter.
I camped out in Dingle for several days at an amazing hostel, the Hideout (hostel details at the bottom—and by camped-out I mean I slept in a very cozy bunk bed inside!). With a cozy place to sleep each night, I focused on exploring the many things to do in Dingle.
Who is Fungie? Playful Interactions with Dingle’s Famed Dolphin
Fungie, a gray bottlenose dolphin, is a huge tourist attraction in town. He’s been living in Dingle Harbor of his own free will since the early eighties—the locals love him and he is Dingle town’s icon. The animal is arguably wild but friendly and playful—Dingle offers boat tours and even swimming opportunities with their beloved Fungie.
Rather than pay for the tour boats though, since several boats sometimes circle him and it seems a tad invasive, you have some options. I instantly bonded with A new friend, Laura, who I met in the hostel. We both agreed to make an adventure of seeing Fungie by skipping the tour boats and independently going to the water’s edge and seeing if we could entice him to come visit with us!
We easily hiked to the lighthouse at the tip of Dingle Bay—this is where the hostel owner mentioned that could potentially spot Fungie for free.
The walk to the tip was incredibly muddy. And the chilly wind biting through our jackets was fierce at times, but we sat down on the rocks under the petite white lighthouse at the very mouth of the bay and relaxed for some time, wondering if Fungie gift us with his lovely appearance.
Just when we were about to give up, Fungie leaped out of the water in a full arc just meters from where we were sitting!
We had tapped the water for a while before setting up our vigil and just when we thought to give up hope, he appeared. He hung around for about twenty minutes to interact with a tourist boat that came puttering over several minutes later. But for those first precious minutes, Laura and I had Fungie and the bay all to ourselves. The entire moment was so uplifting—we had this huge blue sky above us, a crisp, clean breeze, and a playful dolphin ready to frolic for our viewing pleasure.
Best Pubs in Dingle for a Friendly Pint & Live Music
Pubing and music is pretty much the supreme nighttime activity in all of Ireland and Dingle is certainly no exception.
After the independent hike to see Fungie, we were very ready to warm ourselves with a rich, steaming cup of hot chocolate from Murphy’s Pub. Laura and I connected with some other fun companions from our hostel and that evening we headed to the pubs for some more Irish adventures.
Dick Mac’s Pub is perhaps the best known of Dingle’s pubs, mostly because of the many celebrities who have also enjoyed a pint at the counter of this former leather shop. (Julia Roberts is apparently one of the several who have passed through the pub).
Truthfully, although the old leather scraps and dusty, half-soled shoes in cubby-holes on the wall make for an incredibly quaint and atmospherically intimate setting, we were a little disappointed—no music that night and only one other person in the bar!
We made some of our own entertainment at the ancient upright piano before heading to a nearby pub that was jam-packed with locals perched on or near the bar while the tourists wedged in the adjacent room with live traditional music.
You absolutely must go out for music when in Dingle Town—despite our bad luck at first, most local pubs and restaurants have live music and you are sure to find one any day of the week. It gets crowded though, even in shoulder season (I was there mid-September), so leave by 9pm so you can find a spot and really enjoy the music. Everyone at our hostel went out together several nights and truly loved the vibe. O’ Sullivans Court House Pub had an awesome mix of locals and tourists alike and O’Flaherty’s Pub is the go-to recommendation from many, but it was one that people either loved or hated—we didn’t visit.
Evenings exploring Dingle town are a lot of fun—locals are open and friendly and the music is catered to what you’d expect to a big degree: pub songs slid between a many traditional sets of foot-stomping Irish tunes. Between Fungie the oh-so friendly dolphin, the amazing hot-chocolate, and some fun pub action, Dingle town itself is warrants a two day enjoy all the various things to do!
Slea Head Drive
Since you’re likely going to want to spend the whole day doing the spectacular Slea Head Drive, you’ll definitely want to book a place to stay, and potential plan for two nights. That way you can arrive and enjoy the town, start early the next morning on Slea Head Drive, jam out to great Irish music that night, and then in the morning you can visit Fungie the Dolphin, wander the town, etc.
And with a third night, you can hike Mount Brandon, which offered stunning views of the Dingle Peninsula!
Quick Tips: Where to Stay in Dingle, Ireland
Budget accommodation: The Hideout hostel in Dingle, Ireland is one of the best hostels from my trip. The hostel offers wifi, small four-bed dorms, singles, and doubles with comfy beds. The people running the hostel are so welcoming and full of tips. The kitchen is fully stocked and I just loved camping out in the cozy, firelit sitting room listening to a local Irish storyteller share Dingle legends. The hostel’s on Airbnb, and ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking! If the Hideout is booked, then Rainbow Hostel is a great alternative—we met happy backpackers staying there while out pubbing!
A gentle sprinkle of rain dusted the windshield of the car as the smell of wet grass leaked through the air vent of my rental car—I was slowly puttering my way around the Iveragh Peninsula in Ireland, more popularly known as Ireland’s stunning Ring of Kerry.
How & When to Drive the Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is an extremely popular tourist destination—overrun with tourists, in fact, during peak season. But drive it even slightly off-season, like I did during mid-September, and the 111 miles along the Ring of Kerry is a sedate undertaking. During the drive, I only encountered one large oncoming tour bus careening a sharp corner on a skinny country road (note that I took the route clockwise so that I was not behind these buses, but instead able to pull into the bushes on tiny roads and let them pass).
Although most travelers spend one day (about six to seven hours if you make some stops), it’s also a lovely experience spread across two or more days. I met a backpacker in Cork, and he decided to hitch a ride with me, agreeing that we should take it slow, to really sink into the beauty throughout two full days. By going slowly, as the driver I was able to ensure I could take in the magical vistas you encounter all along the Ring of Kerry, rather than rush through focusing just on the road ahead of me.
Because we had the rental car, which I highly recommend, we made a point of finding the smallest, quaintest Irish towns we could manage—then we’d step out of the car and take a bit of a wander.
Best Places to Stop on the Ring of Kerry
There are no shortage of places you can pull over and take in the fresh breezes and pretty views. With castles, trekking paths, and cute towns, it’s all practically begs you to embrace slow travel.
Stopping in Sneem turned out a brilliant idea. It’s a perfectly tiny Irish town (just 600 people) with one of everything you might possibly need, and a beautiful, huge river also gushes through town.
The ice cream is noteworthy, and slippery stone steps lead down to one portion of the riverbed. This was a perfect place to perch and devour our fresh ice cream. With a sugar high coming on, we stretched our legs by following the river for a bit. I eagerly straddled gaps and jumped rocks to make it to the center islands, each abloom with a riot of purple heather and brilliant yellow flowers.
My secret confession to you? I’m not adept at jumping and balancing on slick rocks. I left the river with one side of my body drenched from a failed attempt to launch myself between two hulking rocks. This is a reoccurring incidence in my life—picture me slipping and sliding through the San Gabriel River with many pounds of camping equipment strapped my back in the Lost Angeles National Forest . . . that happened just before I left LA to begin my round the world travels!
After puttering around Sneem for a bit and relaxing to the sound of the rushing river, we headed toward the more rugged and less-traveled Skellig Ring. Couldn’t begin to tell you why more travelers don’t head down the 18km route linking Portmagee, Valentia Island, and Waterville—it’s lovely. Featuring vistas of Skellig Michael (Star Wars fans will love this spot) and pretty islands—and it’s an Irish-speaking part of the Ring of Kerry—it’s doubly fun to stop by and pop into any small villages you find!
We had planned to sleep in one of these small towns, but we learned a hard lesson: Many hostels and B&Bs close in off-season!
Our plans for the night were foiled and we instead continued driving along the route, eventually staying the night in Caherciveen—what a happy chance encounter because you should absolutely stop in Caherciveen, too! You can then wander Ballycarbery Castle and the Old Stone Barracks, and then marvel at a seventh-century stone fort.
We bunked at Sive Hostel we both loved, and the town had plenty of other accommodations, too. Plus it’s a small town but not without libations, so we enjoyed a couple of pints to the jumping, lively sounds of live Irish music—it was the perfect reward after a long driving day.
Visiting Killarney National Park
The Ring of Kerry is gorgeous and ends in the Killarney National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and encompasses a huge portion of the land around the city of Killarney. There are many bus tours in the area, but I opted to park and walk through the small, lightly marked tourist trails. By visiting independently, it’s easy to find tiny paths leading away from the Muckross House, and other key attractions.
My efforts to escape the crowds were rewarded when I spotted two red deer—Killarney National Park has Ireland’s only remaining herd of the red deer, so I felt pretty lucky to spot him. We had a staring contest for several minutes (that could be a lie—it felt like several minutes, but was probably closer to 30 seconds!) before he scampered off.
Killarney’s lakes on a sunny day are the perfect place for a picnic, and although I only had trail mix, I hunkered down in the rare, sunny weather. The lakes here are magnificently pretty, with deeply blue and brown peaty waters contrasting with the bright, almost unnatural green grass surrounding the lakes.
The weather only partially cooperated during my drive of Ring of Kerry, so I spent the better part of several days slightly damp but surrounded by wet, lush, green Irish countryside. But after seeing the natural beauty Ireland has in spades, I have little room to complain too much. ;-)
Quick Tips: Driving the Ring of Kerry in Ireland
Where to stop: Kenmare has the most things to do, but in high season you can guarantee this is where you’ll find the most other tourists. If you’re stopping along the way, try the tiny towns like Sneem, and absolutely drive the Skellig Ring—these towns will also have fewer people but the same great views, classic Irish pubs, and fantastic ambiance. I loved Caherciveen and consider it one of my best accidental finds.
Where to sleep: In high season you should absolutely book your accommodations before setting out on the drive. Although it means less flexibility in stopping whenever you find a spot you love, it’s essential to ensure you find something with your budget. Booking.com has the best app when you’re actively traveling, and I also love Airbnb for finding great accommodation.
What to pack: You definitely want a nice rain jacket! Even on a sunny day, the weather can change fast. View my full packing list here.
Best guidebook: The Rick Steves Best of Ireland bests the Lonely Planet and I highly recommend it for its great blend of practical advice and great historic and cultural information.
Heading to the Dingle Peninsula? I drove that too and have a complete guide to the best sights on the Dingle Peninsula—I consider it unskippable and you should absolutely opt for it over the Ring of Kerry if you only have time for one drive.