When it was launched in 2014 the idea was to emulate routes like the US Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 66, to be done as a single itinerary. They obviously had high hopes for the rental of Harley-Davidsons and prestige cars, and you can imagine the TV spin-offs: the episode of Top Gear, the celebrity travelogues, the food and antiques programmes. However a second concept, which may have delivered more value, was to create a unified marketing brand, especially for the small coastal towns and villages. Galway needs no introduction but who's ever heard of Dungloe, Kilkee or Castletownbere? The Wild Atlantic Way gives them more chance of being noticed in a crowded travel and tourism marketplace - and they deserve it.
So it's a brand rather than a fixed route, and the standard of waymarking varies. The Atlantic coast twists and turns and winds. There's generally a main highway a few miles inland, with loops or dead-end lanes branching off to coves, fishing villages and headlands - and even to several islands that are linked by causeway. Feel free to branch off or stay on the main road as time, weather, fuel gauge and your inclination persuades. Make time also to see the many inland sights along the way. Above all remember that you're in the west of Ireland, take it easy, if you wanted to blat along with one eye forever on the stop-clock you'd have gone to the Isle of Man TT.
See also Tips for road trips. You're unlikely to want to do this entire route in a single trip: how many rocky inlets could you enjoy back to back? (There are hundreds if not thousands along this fractal coastline.) More likely you'd base yourself in a particular area: there are lots of inland attractions that you shouldn't miss, even in the remotest areas, such as prehistoric sites and scenic mountain tops. You may also want to see some of the islands, which means leaving the car ashore for a day or so.
The route lies entirely within the Republic of Ireland and it's not necessary to enter Northern Ireland ie the UK, but the northern stretches in Donegal and Sligo might be easier to access via the UK. The border is entirely open and unpatrolled but you must ensure that your personal and car documentation will be valid. The rules on this changed in 2021.
Road signage in Ireland is good but if you're staying somewhere remote, use Google Street View or similar to scout your route. You might be arriving in darkness.
You can reach the main towns along the route by public transport. Exploring the WAW between them is possible by public transport along some sections, the best example being Galway - Ballyvaughan - Doolin - Lahinch across County Clare. This will need extra preparation and all your patience. See individual town pages for bus routes, and check the timetables with the operator websites or Transport for Ireland, which is comprehensive and up-to-date. You might also want to note down some taxi and back-up accommodation phone numbers in case connections come unstuck. For the most part however, buses get you between the main towns but run inland, leaving you squinting through mud-streaked windows at a humdrum highway.
From Great Britain or the near Continent, you could bring your own car by ferry. Dublin is usually the most convenient landing point, the other ports are Belfast, Larne, Rosslare and Cork. Direct ferries from Europe expanded in 2021: these are longer sailings more at the mercy of the weather, but they avoid exiting then re-entering the EU via the British "land-bridge".
From further afield you have to fly in and rent a car. Dublin or Shannon usually work best, other options are Cork, Knock, Donegal, Derry and the two in Belfast. Rental from the airports offers more choice of provider, hence price competition, than rental from any of the cities or towns along the way (if indeed they have any). One-way rentals are expensive so consider whether you'll retrace your route to the airport or devise a triangular itinerary.
Individual city pages describe short sections that can be done by bus, bike or hiking, and places you can hire or repair bikes.
The Wild Atlantic Way passes through several counties, each with accommodation, eating places, and things to see and do. The following only lists the main towns, north to south, where you're likely to stop over. Look within each individual county for more towns along the route. Focus down closer on those individual towns for accommodation and other facilities - in rural parts the nominal "town" may be a small village in a large tract of countryside.
- County Donegal
- County Leitrim has just a few kilometres of coast, and its inland sites are better accessed from Sligo.
- County Sligo
- County Mayo
- County Galway
- County Clare
- County Limerick can be bypassed via the Shannon ferry, but Limerick city makes a good base.
- County Kerry
- County Cork
Think twice about picking up a car straight off a long-distance flight then immediately trying to reach the west. The first couple of hours on the motorway from Dublin are fast but monotonous, you risk being lulled to sleep. Then you come onto the ordinary roads and slow right down. The main roads are good quality, well-signposted undivided highways, with lots of blind turns and hills, and busy with few places to overtake. Towing a caravan will be heavy work. The back lanes are very narrow and twisty, and there may not be room for vehicles to pass. ("Drive on the left!" they said at the rental desk, but now the bracken is brushing your wheels on both sides.) Always assume that around the next corner will be an oncoming truck, loose sheep, or a parked van. A pair of narrowly-set headlights seen at dusk will turn into a tractor towing something very wide and extremely dirty. Its driver is the only one who knows where your accommodation is, since his daughter owns it.
- Inland sights in the west of Ireland are often old religious centres - Knock, Tuam, Athenry - or market towns such as Ennis or Mallow.
- The other regions of Ireland are promoted in a similar collective way. "Ireland's Hidden Heartlands" are the upper catchment of the River Shannon, from Lough Derg (dividing Counties Clare and Tipperary) to Athlone, Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle and Cavan Town.
- "Ireland's Ancient East" covers just about everything else in the Republic, a huge trapezoid from Cork to Monaghan, Dundalk to Wicklow and Wexford.
- "Embrace a Giant Spirit" covers Northern Ireland, easily combined with a visit to Donegal.
- Dublin "Surprising by Nature" is the other tourist promotion area, but the surprise would be if you hadn't already heard of the place.