Road trips are an excellent way to see a variety of different locations without being tied to a particular schedule. You get to go at your own pace, customize your itinerary and it allows for flexibility. Even before I booked my flight to Ireland, I knew I wanted to rent a car and drive on my own. I didn’t want to be limited to tour stops and I wanted to be able to stop as I pleased. I had never rented a car in another country and was a bit apprehensive about driving on the other side of the road but I decided to go for it! Keep reading if you’re interstate in learning more about road tripping Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Renting a Car
I got off a plane in Dublin and headed to the Hertz rental car counter. I had made my reservation about a week before. I decided to rent an automatic since driving on the other side of the road and navigating was already going to be too much for my brain to handle. Renting a car in Ireland was the easy part, driving a car in Ireland took a little bit of time to get used to it but I managed to make my way from Dublin to Galway. I missed a few exits and got lost in a couple roundabouts but I made it.
Visiting Galway’s Pubs
Galway is a quaint town filled with live music, pubs, canal walks, restaurants and more. It’s easy to walk around in the city. I arrived after 9pm so I decided to go to a pub. Most the pubs have live music which is something I wanted to see. The people are friendly and the atmosphere is inviting. One pub I visited was called O’Connells. You think you’re going to a tiny pub and then you go towards the back and it opens up to an outdoor space with old shop facades. I highly recommend experiencing the pub culture. Even if you don’t drink, sit back and enjoy the music. Galway pubs are an absolute must!
Galway’s Musicians and Dancers, Visiting Galway Cathedral
The next day it was time to explore the city. I walked passed Eyre Square and into the pedestrian walking area that was filled with shops and cafes. There are musicians and dancers performing along the streets and I’ve been told there are even more in the evening. You can walk along the canal towards Galway Cathedral and then head back towards the Spanish Steps.
Cliffs of Moher and Dunguaire Castle
From Galway, it’s about an hour and a half drive to one of Ireland’s main tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher. It’s absolutely beautiful but so are so many other places and natural wonders in Ireland that really stole my heart. Definitely, go see the cliffs if they’re on your list, they are stunning, but also explore more of the Wild Atlantic Way. And on your way to the cliffs, you can stop at Dunguaire Castle. I believe it was €6 to go inside and up the tower but I decided just to snap some photos and carry on with my trip to the cliffs.
Driving the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 2,500km of coastal road that is, you guessed it, on the Atlantic Coast side of Ireland. It goes through nine different counties and is a spectacular drive full of breathtaking views. There is so much time that can be spent on this road alone and a variety of routes to take. Discover more about driving the Wild Atlantic Way and you’ll be convinced to rent a car when you’re visiting.
Strandhill Beach in Sligo
After the Cliffs of Moher, I headed towards Sligo and stayed the night at Strandhill Beach. On the way, I stopped at a couple places including a cemetery. Ah, the luxury of stopping and going as you please!
Strandhill is a charming coastal town. It’s tiny in size but there is a lot to do. There are a variety of hiking trails along the coast and also a trail that leads up to Knocknarea Mountain. One of the trails will take you to the Sligo Airport’s runway. If you’re lucky you can catch a plane flying in or out.
Strandhill Beach Food
After walking around for a bit it was time for dinner. I decide to go to a restaurant and have some dinner and a local beer. I asked the server to surprise me on the beer and she brought me Little Fawn. It was an IPA from a local brewery called The White Hag. I’m not a fan of IPAs but this one was the exception to the rule. It was quite good. There aren’t many options when it comes to food in the immediate area of Strandhill Beach and it’s important to check the times of the restaurants to ensure they are still serving food. There is a small market about a seven-minute walk from the beach where you can pick up some groceries. There’s also an ATM inside.
Strandhill Hiking and Irish Seaweed Baths
Strandhill really had my heart. It was on the beach and offered many hiking options. I, of course, enjoyed my time hiking and after that, I got an Irish seaweed bath at Voya Seaweed Baths. I had read about seaweed baths in this region of Ireland and so badly wanted to do it. I booked an appointment that morning and they were able to get me in. It was an incredible experience and my skin felt as smooth as butter after. I thought the seaweed would feel weird since it always feels like a slimy creature when it brushes up against you when you’re in the ocean but that wasn’t the case at all.
Surfing Strandhill Beach
Once I felt pampered and fresh it was time to get ready for my surf lesson. That’s right, I surfed for the very first time in freezing cold water however the wetsuits really do keep you warm. I was a bit weary but quite surprised. If you’re interested in surf lessons in Strandhill, check out SUP and Surf Hostel.
After my surf lesson, it was time to head out and try to make it to the Sligo Abbey before it closed. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it. But it was okay because at least I saw it from the outside (trying to be optimistic here). I parked in a lot across the street. I paid for my parking at a machine inside the lot. I can’t remember exactly how much it was per hour but it was about €1 or less. Remember to follow the rules and pay for parking. I saw something with a parking ticket and you don’t want to be “that person.”
It was back on the road for me. I made my way to Glencar Waterfall because I had to see at least one of the waterfalls of Ireland. This one I came across the night before when searching “things to do.” It was something that I saw while searching Google Maps and I just added it to the road trip itinerary for the day.
The journey to Glencar was lovely. I wasn’t too far from the Sligo Abbey and as I got closer I was one a more narrow road which was residential on one side with a lake on the other side. I stopped to enjoy the views and proceeded on. There’s a parking lot for the park where Glencar in located. You’ll see plenty of farm animals in the immediate area. And it’s just a short walk to the waterfall from the parking lot. If you’re hungry, there’s a cafe across from the parking lot.
From there it was on to Benbulben (also spelled Benbulbin). It’s known as Sligo’s Table Mountain and if you’ve been to Table Mountain in South Africa or have seen photos you might not completely agree but you can see why it’s called that. It is a part of the Darty Mountains and was formed during the Ice Age.
You can view Benbulben from a distance but I chose to drive up closer. Driving to Belbulben lead me down a single lane dirt road that then turned back into a paved road and ran into some animals along the way. If you have some time definitely hike around the lush area. I came across a charming stream of water with lots of mossy rocks. After snapping some photos and a brief walk it was time to move on.
The next stop was Classiebawn Castle which is right on the coast. My intention wasn’t to go inside the castle (it’s privately owned and isn’t open for tours), my hope was to capture the castle in the distance and enjoy the views. If you want to drive to find a Classiebawn Castle viewpoint drive passed the castle entrance and veer to your left. Keep driving towards the ocean. As you approach the water, veer to your right.
I was across the water and the waves were crashing against the drop-off cliffs. It was a moody setting but the sun was also shining bright which had been rare during my entire trip. It’s a breathtaking stop, the views are worth the visit.
The last stop of the day before heading to the market then my Airbnb for the night was Donegal Castle (there’s an obvious theme here). I got to the castle and it had already closed. I decided to walk up to the property anyway and snap a photo from the outside. Unfortunately, it’s gated off and you don’t get to see much of the outside on the other side of the gate.
Fanad Head Lighthouse
I stayed the night in Letterkenny and the next morning I was on to Fanad Head Lighthouse. The lighthouse is located on the Fanad Peninsula on the Wild Atlantic Way. You can visit and tour the lighthouse or drive up and get photos from the outside like I did. It was a beautiful day and I was happy just see it from the outside. I learned later that you can stay the night there starting in the €600s. If that’s a bit out of your price range (as it definitely was for me) there is a wide variety of B&Bs in the surrounding area.
Now that I got to see a lighthouse it was on to another (you guessed it) castle. I didn’t know much about Doe Castle but of course wanted to see another castle while making my way to Northern Ireland. The castle is open to the public and admission is free. There is also a small coffee stand located right next to the parking lot. The castle sits on a bay and is surrounded by water on three sides.
Ireland/Northern Ireland Border
Now I was en route to Northern Ireland! I crossed the “border” which isn’t marked until you realize that there are signs that have the £ sign instead of the € sign. So if you’re wondering “is there a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” well, yes, there is a border but there is no official border control stopping you as you enter.
Upon crossing into Northern Ireland I headed to the Bushmills Distillery, Ireland’s Oldest Distillery (yes, it’s in Northern Ireland but the countries didn’t separate until 1921 and the distillery was founded over 400 years ago). I didn’t plan much in Ireland and Northern Ireland before heading to the country but Bushmills (and the Game of Thrones locations) was definitely on the list!
There are different experiences you can choose from at the Bushmills Distillery and the main ones are a tasting from their range of whiskeys and a tour of the distillery. I arrived about an hour before closing and although I could have done both (but would have been a bit rushed with my tasting) I decided to go with just the tasting.
Bushmills Whiskey Tasting
You buy a ticket for the tasting in the main building. Once you pay you’ll see where to head in and purchase a ticket. You would also purchase a ticket for the tour in the same place. Then you head to the Bushmills tasting room and present your ticket at the bar. The bartender will pour your whiskeys and explain each one. You can also get a cocktail at this same bar although I’m not exactly sure if you make the purchase there or have to get a ticket somewhere else. Enjoy your whiskey in the seating area and after check out the gift shop (they’re connected by the way).
Bushmills Distillery Tour
I didn’t do the tour but I will tell you if you want to get the distillery experience but aren’t a huge fan of whiskey but wouldn’t mind trying just one, then you should definitely do the tour. After the tour, you end up in the same bar area and you try one of the whiskeys.
The Gift Shop
I mentioned the gift shop but one important thing about the gift shop is that they sell one of their whiskeys that you can only get at the distillery. If you’re a whiskey aficionado then this is a must! They also can ship bottles to anywhere in the world so if transporting bottles is a concern then there’s a solution.
Oh, and there is also food on site! It was around closing time so there wasn’t any hot food available anymore but I did have a delicious whiskey cheesecake and tea.
Game of Thrones Locations
It was off to some of the Game of Thrones locations which I previously wrote about and you can read here. I visited Giant’s Causeway then Dunluce Castle before heading to Portrush where I stayed for the night. It’s a quaint city with a family friendly boardwalk feel and it’s in the Coastal Causeway Route.
I got up early to check out then head to Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, Ballintoy Harbour and then the Dark Hedges before making my way back to the airport in Dublin. Again, you can read all about the Game of Thrones location in Northern Ireland here.
It was an amazing road trip and I would do it again! I didn’t have anything planned except my rental car and first night reserved which I found worked in my favor. I had an idea of the route, I definitely wanted to road trip the Wild Atlantic Way and work my way to Northern Ireland. Many of the locations were a lot of the times things I would come across on an online search the night before or by looking at Google Maps, recommendations from locals, and stops that I would make while driving.
I hope you enjoy your trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. There is so much beauty to be seen.
If you’ve road tripped around Ireland please share your favorite stops in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please Pin it!