There is simply nothing like getting into a car and exploring the coast of Ireland. This gem of an island is framed by rugged cliffs and endless sweeps of pristine sand, making renting a car in Ireland the ideal way to make the best of your holiday here. Here are our favourite seaside driving routes in Ireland:
The Causeway Coastal Route
We can’t think of a better way to start your rental car tour of this land of myth and magic than with a legend: Northern Ireland‘s Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of almost 40,000 hexagonal columns crystallised some 60 million years ago, but legend has it that mythical warrior Fionn MacCumhaill summoned all his heroic strength to build a bridge across the Irish Sea to attack his enemies in Scotland.
The Causeway Coastal Route extends 160km between the cities of Belfast and Derry, encompassing a spectacular coastline of which the Giant’s Causeway is just one highlight. Begin your drive in Belfast and head north on the A2 to the seaside town of Carrickfergus.
You will pass the nine Glens of Antrim – valleys of picturesque villages and forest-clad hills – with the most scenic part of the route lying between Ballycastle and the Giant’s Causeway.
Look forward to sea cliffs of striped black basalt and white chalk, attractive harbours, and swathes of sandy beach. Steady your nerves to cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, before relaxing with a visit to the UNESCO-listed Giant’s Causeway.
Take an inland detour to the village of Bushmills, site of the oldest working distillery in Ireland before returning to the coast road and finishing the route in the city of Derry.
Right at the other end of the island is an equally magical coastal gem. From jaw-dropping coastal scenery and ancient archaeology to a vibrant traditional music scene and superb local cuisine, the Dingle peninsula in west Kerry offers a unique experience.
Soak up its near mythical beauty, incredible history, and inspiring culture, by driving your hire car around Slea Head – the most westerly point in Europe.
You’ll need a day to really appreciate the Slea Head drive, a clockwise 46km route that begins in Dingle town and hugs the coast before looping past a variety of stunning beaches and historical attractions back to Dingle town.
From the village of Dun Chaoin, 15 km from Dingle, the magical Blasket Islands are just a 20-minute ferry ride away, but they feel a world away in their timeless appeal. Inhabited until 1953, the island had an exclusively Irish-speaking population, who maintained a unique culture that has been extensively celebrated in local literature.
Take a minor detour from the Slea Head drive to visit Gallarus Oratory, a tiny early Christian church that resembles an upturned boat with its sloping side walls. Built using a system called corbelling, the oratory has withstood the harsh Atlantic weather for at least ten centuries without the need for mortar and continues to exert a powerful spiritual influence today.
The inland section of the drive runs along the base of Mount Brandon, Ireland’s second-highest mountain and site of a popular pilgrimage route.
Galway to Westport
This 66km introduction to Ireland’s breathtaking western seaboard starts in the Galway town of Clifden. Framed by the 12 Ben Mountains and a beautifully rugged coastline, Clifden lies at the heart of the Connemara area. If you can, explore the Sky Road, a circular 11km route west of Clifden that encapsulates the combination of exceptional light and heartbreaking scenery that makes this region so unforgettable.
The route from Clifden to Louisburgh in County Mayo leads through landscape that feels untouched since the dawn of time. The road winds its way between the Atlantic and a glittering string of lakes and sleepy towns before you see the distinctive cone shape of Croagh Patrick.
Saint Patrick is said to have spent 40 days fasting and praying on the mountain, and it has been a pilgrimage site ever since, particularly on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July every year, when some 25,000 people climb it.
Just outside Westport, Clew Bay unfolds, complete with its many islands. (Legend has it that Clew Bay has 365 islands, but, sadly, the actual number is 117). Your ultimate destination is Westport, a planned town in the elegant Georgian style, with wide streets lined with mature trees, a charming river, and an octagonal central plaza.
There are some excellent restaurants and bars, and the town is a good base for exploring places like Achill Island and Belmullet.
Discover Waterford’s mining history on the Copper Coast Drive. Set off from Tramore on the R675 and drive 41km, taking in the villages of Fenor, Annestown, Dunhill, Boatstrand, Bunmahon and Stradbally. The drive brings you along a coastline that was central to the copper mining industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Along the way you will discover eight family friendly beaches, some of which are popular among surfers and divers. Stradbally Cove, the Blue Flag beach at Bonmahon and the amusements of Tramore are among the attractions. Guided walks and family events take place during the summer.
Inishowen 100, Co Donegal
We’re back at the top of the island for our next recommended drive. So called because it is about 100 miles (160km) long, the Inishowen 100 starts in Bridge End and follows the R238 past Tullyarvan Mill, an interpretive centre that tracks the development of the textile industry in Buncrana over 250 years.
You then point your rental car north, in the direction of Mamore Gap, which offers heart-stopping views of the northern coastline before descending 245 metres through the village of Dunaff and past the beautiful beaches at Clonmany and Ballyfiffin. Check out the historic monuments at Carndonagh, before arriving in Malin and crossing the 10-arch bridge spanning Trawbreaga Bay.
Having stopped to admire the fierce beauty of Ireland’s most northerly outpost, continue around Malin Head, past the meteorological station to the Wee House of Malin, a hermit’s rock cell carved out of a cliff. Then rejoin the Inishowen 100 drive through the resort village of Culdaff and continue through Greencastle, Moville, and via the R328 to Redcastle.
You will be able to glimpse Derry City on the southern section near Muff. Follow signs for Burnfoot and Bridgend on the R239. At Burnfoot, return to Letterkenny.