Ireland may be small in size, but it more than compensates with a plethora of charming qualities: hospitable locals, centuries of well-documented history, enchanting architecture, and seemingly endless landscapes. The weather may not be its strongest suit, but that’s not why people visit the Emerald Isle. Instead, they come for the dreamy, cloud-covered atmosphere that becomes even more magical when the sun decides to make an appearance. Ireland’s modest dimensions make it the perfect destination for exploring by car, regardless of the weather.
No matter your preference, you’ll likely find it on Ireland’s open roads. Interested in observing a puffin colony? We have you covered. How about crossing a rope bridge suspended 300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean? Not an issue. Or perhaps visiting a tomb that’s over 5,000 years old, predating the pyramids and Stonehenge? Piece of cake. Ireland may be small, but it is undeniably mighty.
A word of caution: Some areas of rural Ireland seem to exist in their own bubble, harboring secrets known only to the locals. The roads can be narrow, occasionally uneven, and may lack proper signage, often shared with wandering sheep that tend to disregard traffic regulations. My advice? Embrace the experience wholeheartedly, or as they say in Ireland, tóg go bog é (take it easy). After all, it’s all in good fun. Here’s the ultimate road trip guide to discovering both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Car Rentals and Essential Tips for Traveling in Ireland
To fully appreciate the beauty of this incredible route, you’ll need a vehicle, making car rentals the ideal choice. Car rental agencies are typically located at airports and in cities, allowing you to start your Irish adventure as soon as you arrive.
One possibility is to fly into Londonderry, rent a car there, and then depart from Dublin, though this option may be more expensive. Alternatively, you can fly in and out of Dublin, beginning your journey by driving north to Ballycastle and Giant’s Causeway, and then proceeding to Londonderry along the Causeway Coastal Route. Regardless of your choice, you’ll cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so inform the car rental company and obtain additional insurance.
An international driver’s permit is not required for renting a car in Ireland; just bring your standard license and a credit card. Most car rental agencies rent to drivers aged 25 and older and offer hybrid or fully electric vehicles. Charging stations are conveniently located throughout the island for these eco-friendly options. Modified and hand-controlled cars are available for individuals with limited mobility. If you prefer motorcycles, a specific motorcycle driving test is necessary. To rent a camper van, you must have held a license for at least two years.
The majority of rental cars in Ireland feature manual transmission, so reserve an automatic transmission vehicle in advance if needed. Like the UK, Ireland has left-hand-side driving and right-hand-side overtaking. Familiarize yourself with this difference, but rest assured that rural roads are generally less crowded with traffic, save for the occasional sheep crossing.
Begin Your Adventure on the Causeway Coastal Route between Ballycastle and Londonderry
While there are countless breathtaking landscapes in this region, the Causeway Coastal Route is particularly stunning. Stretching 195 miles between Ballycastle and Londonderry, the route follows the coastal road through nine valleys known as the Glens of Antrim, culminating in the remarkable Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage site, with its 40,000 basalt columns, is a mesmerizing natural wonder worth exploring. Allocate at least two days to this journey to fully appreciate the historical sites and vibrant villages scattered along the coastline.
If you’re driving the three-hour trip from Dublin to Ballycastle, consider stopping for a meal in the medieval town of Carlingford before crossing into Northern Ireland. The town’s world-famous oysters alone make it worth the visit. After refueling and exploring the castle ruins, Ballycastle is just two hours away.
Known as the gateway to the Causeway Coast, Ballycastle is a quaint town on the Antrim coast, boasting pristine white beaches, lush forests, and heather-covered mountains. From here, you can take a ferry to Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island. It’s home to a puffin colony and a puffin sanctuary. Admire Rathlin’s unique upside-down lighthouse, where the rocky cliffs and wild sea stacks provide the perfect vantage points for puffin-spotting. The island also houses the West Light Seabird Centre, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, offering endless bird-watching opportunities.
As you return to Derry, visit the original Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, built by salmon fishermen in 1755 to connect a small island to the mainland. Now made of sturdy wire, the bridge hangs 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Glance below for an adrenaline rush, as ancient caves and caverns lie far beneath. Alternatively, focus on the horizon for more bird-watching and views of Scotland.
Onward to Londonderry, don’t miss Dunluce Castle, one of the coast’s most impressive castles, constructed between the 1400s and 1600s. Walking around the ruins is an ideal way to stretch your legs after a long flight, and be sure to catch the informative historical multimedia presentation at the Dunluce welcome center. Whiskey enthusiasts should visit the Old Bushmills Distillery, which celebrates its 415th anniversary in 2023 with the opening of a second distillery for even more malt-filled delights.
Explore the Wild Atlantic Way from Londonderry to Dingle
The Wild Atlantic Way, the world’s longest coastal touring route, stretches for 1,500 miles along the breathtaking Irish shoreline. Beginning at the stunning Inishowen Peninsula just north of Londonderry, the route winds through nine counties and culminates in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland’s culinary capital. Spend anywhere from 10 days to 10 months discovering the route, but remember, your journey has only just started.
Visit Yeats Country in County Sligo, where famous poet W.B. Yeats spent his childhood. Nearby, Mullaghmore Head is a top surfing spot for water sports enthusiasts. In picturesque Connemara, visit the majestic Kylemore Abbey at Connemara National Park‘s edge. Founded in 1867, the abbey is now home to Irish Benedictine Nuns and attracts over 500,000 visitors yearly.
A few hours south in County Clare, explore The Burren, another world heritage site with a captivating landscape. The Burren and the adjacent national park span over 155 miles (250 kilometers) of ancient limestone paths and striking rock formations. Visit the Aillwee Caves, over 1 million years old, to see impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and an underground waterfall. Don’t miss the Poulnabrone Dolmen, one of the world’s largest and best-preserved portal tombs, believed to date back to the Neolithic period.
Don’t leave without admiring the Cliffs of Moher, the Republic of Ireland’s most-visited natural attraction. Enjoy stunning views of the Aran Islands and the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the cliffs. Harry Potter fans can relive the moment when Harry and Dumbledore destroyed a Horcrux in The Half Blood Prince movie.
Feeling hungry? Stop by Limerick’s Milk Market on your way to Kerry. Open since 1852, it offers a variety of creameries, bakeries, and the “Mushroom Man,” Peter McDonald. Try his mushroom creations, from barbecued to soups. Grab a salmon and haddock pie (or one of the other five savory pie varieties) from Piog Pies before leaving.
Complete this section with a visit to Dingle, a town filled with vibrant shops and numerous pubs. Along the Dingle Peninsula, you’ll drive alongside the cliffs between Slea Head and Dunmore Head. Park at Dunquin Pier and walk along the winding path overlooking the sea.
Explore County Kerry from Dingle to Waterville
About an hour from Dingle, the Ring of Kerry is one of the island’s most popular routes. Rich in ancient Celtic history and natural beauty, locals refer to County Kerry as “The Kingdom.”
Set up your basecamp in Killarney, a town full of shops, restaurants, and historic sites like Muckross House and a traditional Irish farm. Explore the nearby scenic 25,000-acre Killarney National Park.
Capture the glacial valleys of Moll’s Gap with your camera, then enjoy locally caught seafood in Waterville.
For an adventure, leave your car and take a boat to Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage site off Valentia Island. Climb 600 ancient steps to see 7th-century monastic ruins, breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, and jagged rock formations of Little Skellig. Star Wars fans can recreate their favorite Luke/Rey scene from The Force Awakens.
Embark on a culinary journey through southwest Ireland, savoring the flavors from Waterville to Youghal
Prepare for a gastronomic experience as you explore towns and cities along this route, brimming with food halls offering artisanal cheese, charcuterie, and the freshest seafood. Remember to wear stretchy pants for this culinary adventure!
En route from Waterville to Cork, make a detour in Clonakilty for some black pudding, an Irish breakfast staple that local chefs creatively incorporate into various dishes, such as pairing with fresh scallops.
Next, head northeast to Cork City’s English Market, a Victorian marketplace over a century old. Sample award-winning pâtés from On the Pig’s Back or traditional Cork dishes like tripe and drisheen from Farmgate Café. Continue along the coastline to the fishing port of Youghal, where you can savor seafood dishes like steamed Glenbeigh mussels.
Discover Ireland’s Ancient East from Youghal to Newgrange
Ireland’s Ancient East is an often-overlooked gem. Rich in myths and legends, this region includes tranquil bays, rolling green hills, charming towns, and deep waters, framed by the River Shannon and the Irish Sea. Delve deeper to uncover a region with over 5,000 years of history, spanning 17 counties and divided into three distinct areas: The Land of 5,000 Dawns, The Historic Heartlands, and The Celtic Coast.
Begin your journey in Waterford, about an hour’s drive north of Youghal. Visit the newly refurbished Mount Congreve House and Gardens, an ideal stop for garden enthusiasts or those seeking a peaceful walk. Reward yourself with tea and scones at The Stables Café. Experience stunning views along the Celtic Coast with a visit to Europe’s oldest lighthouse on Hook Peninsula in Wexford before continuing the route through the country’s center.
Next, explore the Hidden Heartlands, a beautifully preserved region full of medieval castles, including the Rock of Cashel and the medieval Birr Castle in County Offaly. Birr Castle is famous for its photogenic gardens and a massive telescope called Leviathan. The Great Telescope, built in 1845, was the world’s largest for decades and played a crucial role in discovering the spiral form of galaxies. Further north, the 6th-century Clonmacnoise monastic site in County Offaly is a must-see. Situated on the River Shannon’s banks, it was once a leading European learning center and now features picturesque ruins.
The highlight of the Land of 5,000 Dawns is Newgrange in County Meath. This world-famous tomb, built in 3200 BCE, predates the Pyramids and Stonehenge. While in the area, visit Slane Castle for glamping, whiskey tasting, and perhaps an outdoor concert.
Return to Dublin for a city farewell
Dublin could easily fill an entire trip with its museums, historic pubs, and culinary delights. However, a road trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Dublin’s neighboring towns before heading home.
Travel an hour south of Newgrange to Howth Head‘s northern peninsula, where the suburb of Howth boasts over a thousand years of history amid wild hillsides. Drop your bags in Dublin before heading to Dalkey, a celebrity seaside retreat at Dublin Bay’s southern crescent, offering various walkable tours.
County Dublin’s coastline is full of charm. Visit nearby Killiney, a beach resort with stunning views. Photographers, bring your wide-angle lenses!
Approximately 12 miles south of Dublin, Powerscourt House is a Palladian estate housing Ireland’s largest waterfall. Wander through the garden’s winding paths, admiring statues from Rome, Parisian fountains, and hundreds of plants and flowers.
Before returning to Dublin, stop at Glendalough, a village nestled between two lakes with a 6th-century monastic site in its center. Located in the Wicklow Mountains, 80 miles of hiking trails provide the perfect opportunity to stretch your road-weary legs. You’ve certainly earned it!