Top O’ the Mornin’! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Winding Along the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is Ireland's first long-distance driving route, stretching for nearly 1,600 miles along the country's windswept western coastline. This epic road trip takes you through some of the Emerald Isle's most spellbinding scenery, from the rolling green hills of County Mayo to the craggy cliffs of County Cork.
One of the highlights of the Wild Atlantic Way is the remote and rugged beauty of County Donegal. This northernmost county feels far-removed from the rest of Ireland, with its own unique culture rooted in the Irish language and music. As you drive along sheer sea cliffs, stopping to marvel at sights like the precariously placed ruins of 15th century Donegal Castle, you'll begin to understand why National Geographic named Donegal the "coolest place on the planet" in 2017.
Continuing south, the landscape transforms into the soaring mountains and deep-cut valleys of Connemara in County Galway. Pull over to stretch your legs on the Kylemore Loop Walk for views of thatch-roofed Kylemore Abbey reflected in a still mountain lake. Further inland lies Connemara National Park, where trails wind through heath and bog, offering the chance to spot native wildlife like red deer and Connemara ponies against the backdrop of the Twelve Bens peaks.
No road trip along Ireland's west coast would be complete without a stop in County Kerry. The Ring of Kerry is one of the country's most famous driving routes, traversing emerald pastures dotted with sheep and century-old stone churches. The most coveted photo op comes at Ladies View, where the lakes of Killarney shimmer below. End the day on the pint-sized Skellig Ring, edging close to the precipitous clifftops of Skellig Michael, a rocky island refuge for medieval monks.
As you make your way south towards County Cork, the terrain shifts to softer, rolling hills that meet the sea. Blarney Castle is an unmissable stop, whether you're brave enough to hang upside down over a 60-foot drop to kiss the Blarney Stone or not. Nearby in the seaside town of Kinsale, you can indulge in a feast of Irish smoked salmon, buttery crab claws and grass-fed steaks.
What else is in this post?
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Winding Along the Wild Atlantic Way
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Over the River and Through the Glens
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Castle Hopping Through Medieval Towns
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Finding Fairies and Leprechauns in the Countryside
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Putting Another Shrimp on the Barbie in Kinsale
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Kissing the Blarney Stone for the Gift of Gab
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Playing a Round of Golf on Legendary Links
- Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Sipping Whiskey at the Origins of Your Favorite Pub Songs
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Over the River and Through the Glens
Beyond the rugged western coast, the interior of Ireland beckons with rolling green hills and winding rivers carving through ancient glens. This bucolic landscape shaped by Ice Age glaciers provides a softer contrast to the dramatic cliffs along the Atlantic. One of the best ways to experience Ireland's inland beauty is on a drive between two of its lively cities – Galway and Cork. This route showcases verdant countryside, medieval castles, and charming villages linked by meandering backroads.
Leaving Galway City behind, the first highlight along this route is the Burren, a unique rocky landscape that resembles a moonscape more than the green Ireland of postcards. Stretch your legs on a hike through its limestone pavements, climbing over boulders and spotting rare arctic and alpine flowers that thrive in this habitat. Further on, you'll cross the River Fergus, gaze up at 13th century Bunratty Castle, and stop for a bite at Durty Nelly's pub for smoked salmon on homemade brown bread.
The road winds onward into County Tipperary, following snaking rivers past Cahir Castle, an imposing stronghold dating to 1142 perched on an island in the River Suir. In the village of Adare with its thatched roof cottages, you can sip tea at the Adare Tearooms, strolling through the blooming walled garden after.
The final stretch leads through County Cork, where you can detour to kiss the Blarney Stone or explore medieval Kilmallock. The rivers now open up into vast estuaries leading to the sea. You'll want to have your camera ready for breathtaking views over the River Lee as you cross both the Carrigrohane and Inniscarra Bridges on the way into Cork City, past riverside castles shrouded in mist.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Castle Hopping Through Medieval Towns
From craggy cliffside ruins to sprawling strongholds beside glassy lakes, Ireland is a land defined by its castles. These medieval fortresses range from crumbling 12th century ruins to opulent manor houses built in later centuries when castles became more palace than fortress. Some perch precariously on rocky islands only accessible by boat, while others have been meticulously preserved and filled with period furnishings that transport you back through the centuries as you wander their great halls and bed chambers.
Hopping from castle to castle provides a vivid immersion into Ireland's history, revealing how these structures shaped the fates of both great lords and common folk across the country. As you explore Ireland by car, a trail of formidable castles rises from the misty green landscape, standing as silent sentinels toBattles fought and loves lost within their walls.
At Bunratty Castle in County Clare, costumed guides bring the 15th century to life as you stroll through the restored interior and try your hand at medieval games like horseshoe throwing in the sprawling grounds. Further south, lords of the Butler family gazes down from portraits lining the rooms of Kilkenny Castle, an emblem of their power since the 12th century. In County Tipperary, Cahir Castle seems to sprout from its rocky island refuge in the River Suir, a landmark of the region since the 13th century.
Some of Ireland’s most iconic castles require effort to reach them, enhancing the experience once you finally stand atop their windswept battlements. Perched on sheer cliffs along the coast, Dunluce Castle in County Antrim tells tales of mystery and legend, linked to shipwrecks in its perilous coves below. For history woven with myth, travelers brave choppy seas to reach rugged Skellig Michael, where medieval monks tenaciously built their beehive stone huts in the 6th century AD. The boat ride out and climb to its crest rewards you with vertigo-inducing views.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Finding Fairies and Leprechauns in the Countryside
Beyond the craic and ceol in Ireland's famously spirited cities lies a silent, mystical realm in the deep green hills and glens of the countryside. This is the secret domain of Ireland's fairy folklore, a place where the veil between our world and that of leprechauns, pookas, banshees and other fey beings grows thin. Seeking out sites linked to these mischievous spirits provides a uniquely Irish experience, revealing how the wee folk still seem to linger if you know where to look.
One excellent way to connect with Ireland's fairy tales is through meeting a local storyteller, a tradition called seanchaí in Irish Gaelic. County Galway's Loughrea has its own designated town storyteller who spins wondrous tales of changelings and fairy trees over steaming cups of tea by the fireplace in Tigh Neachtain pub. Across the country in Ardara, County Donegal, master seanchaí Eamon Kelly memorably brings Irish folk stories to life during storytelling events at Nancy's Bar.
Out in the open air, fairy forts and lone hawthorn trees dotting the fields take on an eerie beauty when you view them through the lens of fairy legends. Circular earthworks built by ancient Irish tribes, known as fairy forts or raths, are said to serve as gateways between our world and the otherworld of fairies and spirits. Locals warn never to disturb or damage these sites, lest you anger their fey guardians. Glencar Waterfall in County Leitrim features a prominent fairy fort, enveloped in mossy green woods where Ireland's little people may lurk.
Meandering down an empty country lane, keep your eyes peeled for a solitary hawthorn tree, especially one festooned with rags, ribbons or various offerings. Known as fairy trees, lone hawthorns often indicate an unseen fairy presence according to Irish folk belief. Locals traditionally leave small gifts at these makeshift fairy shrines to appease their supernatural inhabitants. You just may feel an uncanny stillness settle around you when in the presence of a fairy tree.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Putting Another Shrimp on the Barbie in Kinsale
The idyllic harbor town of Kinsale enjoys a scenic perch on the southern coast of Ireland, where the River Bandon meets the Celtic Sea. With its cobblestoned streets, candy-colored cottages, and old stone warehouses converted into gastropubs, Kinsale charms visitors. Yet there’s much more to this village than postcard looks. Kinsale has steadily gained renown as one of Ireland’s top culinary destinations.
The cause for this foodie fame? Kinsale’s long history as a fishing port made it a natural epicenter for superb seafood. Oysters, mussels, lobster and silky Atlantic salmon arrive daily on fishing boats eager to supply the town’s restaurants and fill market stalls. Yet cuisine here goes far beyond the fruits of the sea. Award-winning eateries are putting innovative spins on traditional Irish fare as well.
Leading the local food revolution is acclaimed chef Martin Shanahan and his namesake restaurant Fishy Fishy Cafe. Shanahan sources seafood so fresh that some diners claim they can still taste the salty ocean breeze. House specialties include steamed mussels in a white wine broth brightened with tarragon and cream. For those who can’t choose, the Seafood Symphony delivers a bounty of salmon, cod, oysters and shrimp - with roasted rosemary potatoes on the side.
Nearby, the warm, woody interior of Jim Edwards Bar & Restaurant is filled nightly with lively conversation as locals and travelers alike tuck into steaks from grass-fed County Cork beef. You can also opt for their signature seafood platter, piled high with plump shrimp, smoked salmon, buttery crab claws and chilled oysters fresh off the boat. Wash it down with a pint of stout from the tap.
While Kinsale’s white tablecloth venues rightfully earn accolades, don’t overlook the humble fish and chips shops clustered around the harbor. The hands-down local favorite is Tony’s Bistro, run by owner and head fryer Tony Cierans since 1978. There’s nothing fancy about this counter-service spot. Newspapers spread atop cafe tables, vinegar at the ready to drizzle on piping-hot fish and chips made from locally caught haddock or cod.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Kissing the Blarney Stone for the Gift of Gab
Hanging upside down from the battlements of a 15th century castle to press your lips against a block of limestone may seem an odd travel pursuit. Yet kissing the legendary Blarney Stone remains one of Ireland’s most enduring traditions. According to folklore, those who manage this feat are rewarded with the ‘gift of the gab’ - eloquence or skill for flattery and persuasion.
Each year, legions of visitors to Blarney Castle brave dangling over a 60-foot chasm to pucker up for good luck. My curiosity piqued, I decided to join their ranks and discover why people risk life and limb in search of a silver tongue. After a 20 minute walk from the village, I gazed up at the formidable stone walls of Blarney Castle draped in ivy. Past the dungeons and spiral staircases lies the roof parapet known as the Stone of Eloquence. There I was, looking at the weathered block built into the battlements that countless lips have met before mine.
Luckily, health and safety measures have improved since the olden days. Rather than being held by your ankles like earlier generations, you now lie on your back atop a grate while helpers assist. After receiving firm instructions not to move, I tried my best to relax as they lowered me backward until I was dangling with the Blarney Stone upside-down before my face. I maneuvered into position as the attendant held my waist for security. Upending myself to reach the cold limestone block felt unnerving. Yet once my lips made contact for the traditional wish for eloquence, a sense of exhilaration washed over me.
Successfully achieving this quirky travel goal gave me bragging rights. As I toured the extensive castle grounds afterwards, lightheaded from the rush of dangling upside-down, I contemplated whether powers of persuasion might start manifesting themselves. The custom itself fascinates for how enduring it remains after centuries. Historic references to the Blarney Stone date back to the 16th century. Diarist Francis Brosnahan noted hundreds kissing the stone when he visited in 1843. Today, over 400,000 people annually choose to dangle from the Blarney battlements like I did.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Playing a Round of Golf on Legendary Links
For golf enthusiasts, a pilgrimage to the emerald links of Ireland offers the chance to walk in the footsteps of legends and play the same hallowed holes challenged by the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy. Survey the ripple of the grass, feel your feet sink into the dunes, and breathe deep the salty sea air - this is golf as it began over a century ago.
The value of playing Ireland’s legendary courses transcends tallying up your score. This is all about surrounding yourself in the living history of the sport, sensing the soul of a place that gave golf its rhythm and roots.
County Kerry’s Ballybunion Golf Club conveys that atmosphere of authenticity from the first tee. With the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean bordering its left side, Ballybunion’s Old Course immediately transports you back to Irish golf’s early days. Play these windswept links and you'll soon understand why Ballybunion has hosted both the Ryder Cup and the Irish Open Championships.
Many esteemed golf architects left their mark here, including avant-garde designer Alister MacKenzie of Augusta National and Royal Melbourne fame. Yet Tom Watson sums up Ballybunion’s enduring spirit best - "Ballybunion: It's the essence of the game of golf captured in a place."
For equally legendary links forged from ocean dunes, County Antrim’s Royal Portrush Golf Club has hosted The Open Championship and stood as the only venue outside of Scotland and England to do so. Completely routing your ball through its undulating fairways framed by yellow gorse requires precision shot-making. tenacity and Irish luck. Expect your skills to be tested to the limits.
Yet some holes will forever linger in your memory here. The 5th presents a downhill plunge between dunes. Arriving at the precipice of the clifftop 7th hole overlooking White Rocks Beach conveys the thrill of linking the ocean with the origins of the game. Let your mind wander back centuries as you gaze out at waves crashing against limestone shaped through epochs of time.
Beyond its two acclaimed courses, Royal Portrush exudes an welcoming spirit that keeps golfers returning. An overnight stay in the onsite Golfer’s Lodge provides views of the putting green and time to recount shots made and missed over a dram of whiskey as the sun sets.
Top O' the Mornin'! The 10 Most Epic Road Trips to Take in the Emerald Isle - Sipping Whiskey at the Origins of Your Favorite Pub Songs
Ireland's iconic pubs don't just serve perfect pints of stout. These atmospheric venues provide a living link back to the origins of the country's most beloved musical traditions. Night after night, the island's pubs resound with instruments struck and voices raised in song. The ringing melodies transport you back centuries while also celebrating Ireland's thriving contemporary folk scene.
To truly appreciate this rich musical heritage, you need to visit the birthplaces of these euphonious pub songs. In cozy, candlelit snugs around the country, you can sip Irish whiskey as storied songs ring out that were first composed in that very county, town or perhaps that same smoky corner centuries ago.
Take "The Star of the County Down," one of Ireland's most famous ballads, with versions recorded by artists as diverse as Van Morrison to Loreena McKennitt. You can still hear its nostalgic lyrics of courtship and loss played in the Northern Irish pubs of its 18th century origin. Tuck yourself into the seats of the Merchant Hotel's sumptuous Great Room Bar in Belfast as their live music celebrates County Down's lyrical legacy. Let the transportive refrain "my love and cottage by the sea..." stir visions of windswept Irish romance as you contemplate Bushmills single malt poured from a crystal decanter.
In lively Dublin, the storied Brazen Head pub provides the perfect atmosphere for connecting Ireland's drink and music culture. Reputedly the country's oldest pub, its dimly-lit rooms hosted crusading knights and rebellion plotters since 1198 AD. Now their time-worn walls absorb the lilting notes of classic folk songs as musicians play nightly. Sitting in an alcove with a tumbler of Jameson Irish whiskey warm in your hand, you may hear ballads like "The Auld Triangle" featured on the soundtrack of 1992 film The Commitments. Brendan Behan himself likely lifted a glass within these walls, as he wrote that stirring ode to prison life in the mid-20th century.
Venture along the Wild Atlantic Way to hear plaintive melodies carried on sea breezes in Counties Clare and Galway. At picturesque bar and music venue Gus O'Connor's in Doolin, cozy decor evokes the set of 1960s sitcom Cheers. Nightly live acts showcase tunes like nostalgic emigrant ballad "Red is the Rose." At nearby O’Connor’s Pub in Leenane, trad musicians may strike up “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” within view of glassy Lough Nafooey.