Ireland’s Seaside Cliffs & Historic Hamlets Were Made for Road Tripping

The ultimate Emerald Isle drive spans Dublin's metropolis, Northern Ireland's Giant’s Causeway, the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, and so much more.

Travelers, start your engines: You are now entering The [Scenic] Route, a rip-roaring exploration of the world’s most incredible international road trips, from lush Rwandan jungles and ancient Peruvian mountains to seaside Irish villages, dreamy Japanese forests, and twisty Romanian hillsides. For more reasons to hit the pavement—plus tips, interviews, and a custom road-ready playlist—cruise over to the rest of our coverage here.

What it lacks in size, Ireland more than makes up for with a bushel’s worth of other endearing traits: friendly people, centuries of recorded history, captivating architecture, and landscapes that seem to go on forever. Ireland has it all—except the weather, of course; but let’s be honest, nobody visits the Emerald Isle for the balmy climes. It’s more of a romantically cloudy mood, made all the more magical when the sun actually does appear. But the country’s modest proportions are exactly what make it ideal for driving across the island by car, sunshine or not.

Whatever your poison, it can probably be found somewhere on the open road in Ireland. Fancy checking out a puffin colony? We got you. Want to cross a rope bridge 300 feet above the Atlantic Ocean? No problem. Or maybe visiting a 5,000-year-old tomb that’s older than the pyramids and Stonehenge is your thing? Easy as pie. Ireland might be small, but we sure are mighty.

A word of warning: Some parts of rural Ireland exist in their own vacuum, as if holding secrets only heard by regulars. The roads can be narrow and sometimes uneven, might have a distinct lack of road signs, and are quite often shared with rambling sheep who don’t usually obey traffic rules. My advice? Dig deep and embrace it all, or as we say in Ireland, tóg go bog é (take it easy). After all, it’s all good craic. Here’s the ultimate road trip guide to traversing both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

drive ireland
Causeway Costal Route | Nahlik/Shutterstock

Renting a car and other important tips in Ireland

To experience any part of this epic route, you’ll obviously need a set of wheels, so renting a car is the way to go. Car rental companies are generally based in airports and cities, so you can easily begin your holiday as soon as you arrive in Ireland.

One option is to fly into Londonderry and get your car there, then fly out of Dublin, though the rental would cost more. You could also go round trip in and out of Dublin, starting by driving north to Ballycastle and Giant’s Causeway, then continuing on to Londonderry on the Causeway Coastal Route. Either way, you’ll be driving across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, so you’ll need to let the car rental company know and get additional insurance.

You don’t need an international driver’s permit to rent a car in Ireland, so you’ll just have to bring your regular licence and a credit card. Most car hire companies will only rent to drivers over 25, and many offer hybrid or full electric vehicles—you’ll find charging points all over the island if you choose to go down this route. Modified and hand-controlled cars can be rented for those with reduced mobility. If motorcycles are your wheels of choice, you must have passed a specific motorcycle driving test. To hire a camper van, you’ll need to have held a license for at least two years.

The majority of rental cars available in Ireland are standard shift (manual transmission), so if you're looking for an automatic transmission, book ahead to make sure you can get one. Unlike most of Europe, Ireland does like the UK: vehicles drive on the left-hand-side of the road and overtake on the right. You may want to practice the difference a bit, though luckily many of these rural roads aren’t too hectic with traffic, other than the occasional sheep crossing.

drive to Giants Causeway
Giant's Causeway | DieterMeyrl/E+/Getty Images

Start with a giant bang on the Causeway Coastal Route between Ballycastle and Londonderry

We can (and will) wax poetic about so many landscapes in this part of the world, but the Causeway Coastal Route is particularly striking. Stationed between Ballycastle and Londonderry, the 195-mile route follows the coast road through nine valleys, called the Glens of Antrim, with a highlight at the unmissable Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO world heritage site has 40,000 basalt columns, making it a magical natural phenomenon to explore. You really should allow at least two days for this route, as there’s so much to see and do around the historical sites and colourful villages dotted along the coastline.

If you’re driving the three hours to Ballycastle from Dublin and want to grab a bite to eat before crossing the border into Northern Ireland, stop in the medieval town of Carlingford. Their world-famous oysters are reason alone to visit. After getting fueled up and walking around the castle ruins, it’s just two hours to Ballycastle.

Ballycastle is known as the gateway to the Causeway Coast, a small town on the Antrim coast with pristine white beaches, forests, and heather-covered mountains. From here, you can take a ferry to Rathlin Island, the only inhabited offshore island in Northern Ireland, which is home to an entire colony of puffins plus a puffin sanctuary. Take some time to marvel at Rathlin’s unusual upside-down lighthouse, where the rocky cliffs and wild sea stacks make perfect vantage points to spot the puffins. Rathlin Island is also home to the West Light Seabird Centre, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, so the bird-watching opportunities are endless.

Causeway Coastal Route
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge | Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images

On your way back down to Derry, check out the original Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, constructed by salmon fisherman in 1755 to link a small island to the mainland for more fishing opportunities. Today, the bridge is made from sturdy wire, but still hangs 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll get a serious adrenaline rush if you look down too: There are ancient caves and caverns far below. If you prefer to keep your eyes squarely on the horizon, though, there’s plenty of birdwatching to be had, and you can see Scotland from up here.

Continue towards Londonderry, and don’t miss Dunluce Castle, one of the finest castles on the coast, built sometime between the 1400s and the 1600s. A walk around the ruins is the perfect way to stretch your legs after a long flight in, and try to catch the excellent historical multimedia presentation at the Dunluce welcome centre. Whiskey lovers should plan a stop at the Old Bushmills Distillery, celebrating its 415th year in 2023 with the opening of a second distillery for even more malty goodness.

Dunquin Pier
Dunquin Pier | Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Moment/Getty Images

Skirt the coast on the Wild Atlantic Way between Londonderry and Dingle

The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest coastal touring route in the world, hugging 1,500 miles of rugged Irish shoreline. The route extends from the beautiful Inishowen Peninsula just north of Londonderry, down south through nine counties, and finishes up in the gourmet capital of Ireland, Kinsale in County Cork. You could spend anywhere from 10 days to 10 months exploring the route, but try not to get too carried away—your journey has only just begun.

Visit Yeats Country in County Sligo, where renowned poet W.B. Yeats grew up. Nearby, Mullaghmore Head in is also one of the best surfing spots in the country, if you’re into water sports. In beautiful Connemara, swing by the regal Kylemore Abbey at the edge of Connemara National Park. The original castle dates back to 1867, but nowadays, it’s home to the Irish Benedictine Nuns. The abbey is one of the most visited attractions in the West of Ireland, with over 500,000 visitors annually.

Dingle peninsula | Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

A few hours south in County Clare, take time out to explore The Burren, another world heritage site in one of Ireland’s most captivating landscapes. The Burren and the adjacent national park comprises over 155 miles (250 kilometers) of ancient limestone paths and dramatic rock formations. Stop off at the Aillwee Caves, reputed to be over 1 million years old, where you can see a vast array of stalactites and stalagmites, plus an underground waterfall. The Poulnabrone Dolmen is also highly recommended, as it’s one of the largest and best preserved examples of a portal tomb in the world and is believed to date back to the Neolithic period.

Before moving on, make sure to pull over to marvel at the Cliffs of Moher. After all, they’re the Republic of Ireland’s most-visited natural attraction, and for good reason. Take in postcard-worthy views of the Aran Islands and the dramatic sight of the Atlantic ocean crashing around the cliffs. Also, you can get in touch with your inner Potter stan: This is where Harry Potter and Dumbledore destroyed a Horcrux in The Half Blood Prince movie.

Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher | Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Moment/Getty Images

Stomach grumbling? On your way down to Kerry, schedule in a trip to Limerick’s Milk Market, open since 1852 and stocked with dozens of creameries, bakeries, and the “Mushroom Man,” a.k.a. Peter McDonald. He grows a bunch of varieties at a nearby facility, which you can try in every possible form, from barbecued to soups. Also, be sure to pick up a salmon and haddock pie (or any of the other five savory pie varieties) from Piog Pies before departing.

Lastly, you must finish off this stretch with a stop in Dingle, a town full of colorful shops and dozens of pubs. Along the Dingle Peninsula, you’ll skirt right next to the edge of the cliffs between Slea Head and Dunmore Head. Stop your car and get out at Dunquin Pier, where you can switch over to your legs for the winding walking path edging the bluffs overlooking the sea.

Ring of Kerry
Ring of Kerry | maydays/Moment/Getty Images

Tie a bow around County Kerry from Dingle to Waterville

Starting about an hour from Dingle, the Ring of Kerry is one of the island’s most visited routes. Because it’s so rich in ancient Celtic history—and of course, natural beauty—County Kerry is literally called “The Kingdom” by locals.

Set your basecamp in the town of Killarney, which is full of shops, restaurants, and historic sites like Muckross House, a Victorian mansion, and traditional Irish farm. It’s right next to Killarney National Park, an extremely scenic 25,000 acres worth exploring.

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael | Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

Then use up 5GBs on your camera’s memory card shooting the glacial valleys of Moll’s Gap. After you’ve basked in the fresh air, continue onwards to fill up on locally caught seafood in Waterville.

If you have the time and are feeling adventurous, ditch your wheels and hop a boat out to Skellig Michael; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of two small islands off Valentia Island. Climb the 600 ancient steps to the top to check out 7th-century monastic ruins, plus 360-degree-views of the Atlantic Ocean and the jagged rock formations of its sister island, Little Skellig. Be sure to take a moment to snap your Luke/Rey cosplay photo; they filmed the last scene of The Force Awakens right here.

drive to cork
Cork City | Walter Bibikow/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Go on a food tour of southwest Ireland from Waterville to Youghal

After all that sightseeing, you’re probably ready for a good meal—or 20. Luckily, the towns and cities along this route are teeming with food halls, serving up goodies like artisanal cheese, charcuterie, and the freshest seafood. No matter how long you decide to spend on this portion of the trip, you’ll want to make sure to bring stretchy pants.

On your way from Waterville to Cork, veer off in Clonakilty for a hearty dose of black pudding. It’s an Irish breakfast staple that local chefs are using at all times of day and in all kinds of ways, like pairing with fresh scallops.

Then, point your car northeast to Cork City’s English Market, a Victorian marketplace that’s been open for over a century, where you can sample award-winning pâtés from On the Pig’s Back or tripe and drisheen (a.k.a. classic Cork dishes) from Farmgate Café. Continuing along the coastline, take a quick side quest to the fishing port of Youghal (where seafood dishes like steamed Glenbeigh mussels pop up on local menus). You won’t be sorry.

drive to Rock of Cashel
Rock of Cashel | Thomas Bresenhuber/Shutterstock

Step back in time in Ireland’s Ancient East from Youghal to Newgrange

Often overlooked, Ireland’s Ancient East is a bit of a dark horse. A land of myths and legends, this stretch of the country covers tranquil bays, rolling green hills, charismatic towns, and deep waters, all bordered by the River Shannon and the Irish Sea. Dig a little deeper, and you'll discover a region that is steeped in over 5,000 years of history, and that’s just the tip of the metaphoric iceberg. The region covers 17 counties in total and is split into three unique areas: The Land of 5,000 Dawns, The Historic Heartlands, and The Celtic Coast.

Your journey begins in Waterford, about an hour’s drive north of Youghal. Here, the newly refurbished Mount Congreve House and Gardens (which just opened this year) is a must for those with even the palest of green fingers or anyone who enjoys a walk around a gorgeous and tranquil garden. Tea and scones in The Stables Café after a drive is a worthy reward. Afterwards, take in breathtaking views along the Celtic Coast with a visit to Europe’s oldest lighthouse, located on Hook Peninsula in Wexford, before doubling back to continue the route up through the center of the country.

drive to Newgrange
Newgrange | MNStudio/Shutterstock

Your next stop is the Hidden Heartlands, a beautifully unspoiled part of Ireland full of medieval castles. This includes the Rock of Cashel, a sacred rock and one of Ireland’s most iconic castles that was sacked in 1647, like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones. Moving north along N62, the medieval Birr Castle in County Offaly is known for its seriously 'grammable gardens and a giant telescope nicknamed Leviathan. The Great Telescope (to use its formal name), built in 1845 by the Third Earl of Rosse, was the largest in the world for decades and helped discover the spiral form of galaxies. Not a terrible resume. A bit further north, County Offaly’s 6th-century Clonmacnoise monastic site is another must-see. Located on the banks of the River Shannon, it was once largely considered one of Europe’s leading centres for learning and is now a site of lovely ruins.

Now it’s time for the big guns. The main attraction in the Land of 5,000 Dawns (which isn’t the setting of a D&D campaign, but surely just as epic) is Newgrange in County Meath. The world-famous tomb was built in 3200 BCE, making it older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge. While you're in the area, swing by nearby Slane Castle for glamping, whiskey tasting, and maybe even an outdoor concert.

road trip dublin
Glendalough Valley | essevu/Shutterstock

Circle back to Dublin for a big city farewell

Did we save the best for last? Possibly. If you wanted to, you could easily spend an entire trip in Dublin, visiting museums, ordering up a pint at an endless number of historic pubs, and eating your way through town. But it wouldn’t be a road trip without squeezing in a trek to some of Dublin’s neighboring towns before catching your flight home.

An hour south of Newgrange lies the northern peninsula of Howth Head, where the titular suburb of Howth hosts over a thousand years of history (much of it nautical) amid the still-wild hillsides that characterize it. Detour over to Dublin to drop your bags before travelling down to Dalkey at the southern crescent of Dublin Bay, a seaside retreat for celebrities with lots of walkable tours whether you’re into nature or history (or people-watching).

drive to Killiney Hill
Killiney Hill | David Soanes Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

If you want to be stunned by the powers of the sea, County Dublin is particularly rich in coastal charm. The allure of nearby Killiney stretches so far back, this place was a beach resort back when people didn’t even get days off from work. Come for the hikes, but stay for the view—photographers, bring your wide-angle lenses.

About 12 miles south of Dublin, as the crow flies, sits the Powerscourt House, a Palladian estate that also is home to Ireland’s largest waterfall. You can roam through the garden’s winding walkways and see statues from Rome, Parisian fountains, plus hundreds of different plants and flowers.

Your last stop-off before rounding back to Dublin is Glendalough. Stashed between two lakes, the village that’s charmed visitors for eons boasts a 6th-century monastic site right in the middle of town. Plus, it’s perched in the Wicklow Mountains, where 80 miles of hiking trails provide the perfect excuse to stretch your road-weary legs. You’ve definitely earned it.

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Christie Rotondo is a contributor for Thrillist.

Ciara McQuillan is a contributor for Thrillist.