It’s no secret that I love Ireland—I have waxed poetic about everything from the toe-tappingly good Irish music in pubs to the beauty of Connemara to those special days getting lost and that unnameable something special that just exists in Ireland. Of all the places in the world that I have traveled, and the list is long, Ireland stands out as a place that consistently delivered the coziest of memories, the most intriguing of local interactions, and the prettiest of natural scenery. And that’s where Dingle’s Slea Head Drive comes into play.
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.