How to plan a road trip through Ireland's Connemara region

This region on Ireland’s wild, western coast has long inspired artists and poets. Discover its dramatic scenery on an epic road trip.

A winding road meanders along the coast near Clifden.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Olivia McLearon
Published 14 Nov 2022, 17:00 GMT

Oscar Wilde once described Connemara’s majestic landscape as a “savage beauty”, and the region’s untamed terrain and soft yet striking colours continue to inspire creatives to this day. While winter brings rain and cool temperatures to this coastal part of western Ireland, it still offers plenty to visitors, including a dazzling array of wildlife, incredible food and scenery that evokes a painting. Hikers will be rewarded with expansive sea views and fields of green that give way to misty mountains, along with boglands, grasslands and woodlands. Horse-riding and wild swimming are also very much on the agenda in this part of Galway.

This trip takes only around an hour to 90 minutes in the car, but with so much to see you can split it across two days, spending the night somewhere along the route. Luckily, there are plenty of welcoming B&Bs, coastal cottages and charming country hotels to choose from.

1. Connemara National Park

Not only is the almost 5,000-acre reserve a beautiful spot to walk, home to the Twelve Bens mountain range and its purple moor grass, but it’s also a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts. Here, you’re likely to glimpse stoats, shrews and a multitude of birds including kestrels, along with the Connemara pony. There are a variety of trails suitable for walkers of all levels, with routes taking around 15 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. The sweeping views, which include the Atlantic on a clear day, are well worth it. 

2. Letterfrack

Stay in the national park and make your way to this small village for lunch. Visit Kylemore Abbey first, with large walled gardens and a gothic church. A self-guided tour tells the history of this Benedictine monastery, but if you want to work up an appetite, there are a variety of local woodland, lakeshore and riverside walks to choose from. Stop for food two miles away at Cloverfox and indulge in a feast at the Seafood Bar. You can’t go wrong with the Queen of Platters: smoked salmon, crab and king prawn

3. Knockbrack Tomb

A short drive from Letterfrack brings you to Knockbrack Tomb, a megalithic monument up on Cleggan Head that overlooks Sellerna Beach. Park at Sellerna Bay and take a short walk along the beach before making your way up the bank to this burial chamber. While this 13-foot wedge tomb is undoubtedly impressive, a stop-off here also provides the perfect viewpoint, with knockout vistas of the sea and the island of Inishbofin in the distance.

4. Omey Island

Swap hiking boots for riding footwear or sea shoes with a visit to the mainly uninhabited Omey Island. If you’d rather skip beach horse-riding and a bracing cold-water dip, explore the medieval church of Teampaill Feichin, which was buried in sand for centuries and is surrounded by the ruins of a semi-submerged town. Be warned: Omey is a tidal island, so check tides before visiting and adjust your times if needs be to avoid getting marooned there.

5. Sky Road

No road trip to this part of Ireland would be complete without a drive along the Sky Road. The road itself is only around 12 miles, but give yourself plenty of time to stop and take in the jaw-dropping scenery of glass-like lakes and miles of mossy green fields. The popular route, which is part of the Wild Atlantic Way and has an Upper and Lower Road, takes drivers up among the hills for more panoramic views, this time of Clifden Bay and its offshore islands, Inishturk and Turbot.

6. Clifden

Finish your grand tour with a visit to the capital of Connemara. This pretty town has sandy beaches, (more) swimming opportunities and some excellent restaurants — as well as the option to finish your hiking trip with a walk up to Clifden Castle. If, after all that hiking, an old-fashioned pub is more appealing, swing by Lowry’s Bar. Known as one of the most traditional bars in Ireland, it has live music seven nights a week. 

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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