Unless you take a month off, the 2500km-long Wild Atlantic Way is almost impossible to explore in one holiday. So why not stagger it out and visit just parts of it bit by bit to get the full experience?
Sligo and Mayo both offer a fantastic mix of sights, whether you are interested in culture, activities, or food. It offers some of Ireland’s best surfing spots, but also the beautiful, wild countryside at every turn. Along the way I’d recommend you to stop at the small villages that will convince you with their charm and make the perfect place for a relaxing break.
Sligo is at the heart of the Surf Coast. With everything from gentle sandy beaches and sheltered coves to the ever-present Prowlers lurking in the Atlantic, it’s easy to see why this corner of the Wild Atlantic Way draws in surfers from all over the world.
Let’s start high up north at Mullaghmore Head in Co. Sligo. One of the best spots in the world for surfing, you can either be a spectator of those water acrobats and watch them tackle the up to 30 metre high swells, or try paddling out yourself if you’re an advanced surfer. If that’s not the case, how about a leisurely stroll along the beach, or even take a boat out to Inishmurray Island? Situated roughly 7km off the Sligo coast, this uninhabited island is home to the ruins of a monastical site that was ransacked by Vikings in the 9th Century. You’ll also see traces of the small village that used to be here as well – the last inhabitants left the island back in 1948, though you’ll still see a few cottages and even the school that once served the community.
While you’re at Mullaghmore Head, you’ll also catch a glimpse of some of Sligo’s most iconic views. Looking south from Knocknafaugher, you’ll be able to see Classiebawn Castle rise up in front of Benbulbin, Sligo’s famous mountain ridge. The perfect start to a road trip if you ask me!
Lissadell House & Gardens
Another stop along your Sligo-Mayo road trip that I can highly recommend is the Lissadell House & Gardens, located in Ballinafull just 10 minutes south of Mullaghmore Head. This stately mansion is the childhood home of Constance Markievicz who played a huge role in the 1916 rising and has become an inspiring figure of the women’s rights movement. The house that she grew up in is now privately run and was wonderfully restored. What’s more, you’ll find exhibitions that look at Markievicz’ life as well as W. B. Yeats, a frequent guest at the house.
If you’re feeling peckish, be sure to stop off at the wonderfully decorated tea rooms where you can sit down for an afternoon tea or lunch. Stunning to wander through are the Alpine Gardens, created all the way back on 1740. Fertile soils and several rockeries have allowed countless species of flowers, shrubs and conifers that are rare across Ireland to flourish. An absolute dream for botanists and a wonderful place to take a break from driving!
Only a 15-minute drive further down you will find Sligo Town. You can best explore Sligo by following the Walking Town Trail that you will find signposted everywhere and takes about 90 minutes. Along this walk you will also pass Sligo Abbey, dating back to the 13th century. It has been damaged by fire and the impact of the 1641 rebellion but has always been restored again and today you can visit this impressive piece of architecture in the heart of Sligo. The path will also shine a light on the literary past and present, as Sligo so heavily inspired William Butler Yeats in his literature. Or how about literally getting a taste of Sligo with one of the many food tours that are offered? Freshly-caught lobster, salmon and oysters will spoil your taste buds and you can look forward to visiting one or two artisan food and craft markets. Sligo is definitely your town if you’re a foodie.
From Sligo we now come to Mayo, where the Surf Coast meets the Bay Coast. There’s countless opportunities to unwind or stay active in some of the most pristine coastal landscapes going.
Downpatrick Head is another highlight along the route. The cliffs, reaching out almost 40 metres out from the ocean, it is a stunning place to find yourself it. The view across the Atlantic is incredible and you can view the sea staggs – huge rock formations rising out from the water, their highlight being Dún Briste sea stack with its many layers of coloured rock. Nevertheless, Downpatrick is also a heritage site where you can find the ruins of an old church that date back to another church Saint Patrick has founded there (hence the name Downpatrick). After this scenic stop, take a bit of a detour and drive down to the Connemara Loop in Galway to take in another breathtaking piece of Irish scenery.
The Great Western Greenway
After spending a lot of time in your car you might want to do something more active. The Great Western Greenway is a 42 metre car-free cycling path built on the former Achill Island Railway tracks making its way around Clew Bay. You could start it in Westport and drive up to Achill via Newport and Mulranny. The stretches are divided into 4 legs, so you could also decide to just cycle part of the trail, whatever route sounds most appealing. From Westport to Newport, e.g. you’d cycle only a 11km route. You find official access points in the towns that will lead you safely onto the trail. Bike hire is also possible in all 4 towns.
If you have made it to Achill, by car or bike then of course it only makes sense to pay a visit to the country’s largest island. Achill Island is home to five beautiful sandy beaches, 148 square metres of bogland, high cliffs and mountains. It is one of the most popular places to visit in the whole country and it is easily accessible by car via Achill Sound Bridge. Take the 40 km drive along the coast of Achill Island to get amazing views across the ocean and the island itself. There are many walkways that will make it easy to explore Achill in-land. Look forward to kayaking, hiking or attend one of the many festivals taking place on the island.
Make your way back to wonderful Westport. This quaint little town, set at Clew Bay, is one of my favourite in the west, also because of its great restaurants. I can highly recommend eating out at Sage, offering fresh seafood in a cosy atmosphere. Westport’s town centre explodes with colour and great craft shops – the town actually looks like something from a movie. At the same time the place and the people are super authentic and friendly. Westport is also a great starting point for hiking up Croagh Patrick, most famous for its pilgrimages. Each year numerous people hike up the mountain in honour of Saint Patrick, who is said to have fasted on the mountain for 40 days.
Start planning your next road trip
With wild landscapes and gorgeous scenery at every turn, the Wild Atlantic Way never fails to take my breath away. Nothing beats a great few days getting off the beaten track and discovering some new amazing gems you might have otherwise missed! I’ve always got my eyes peeled for great hotel deals along Ireland’s west coast, so be sure to take a look at my most recent deals in case you’re fancying your own wee getaway in the great outdoors.