Because of how easy it is to navigate, its relatively small size, and above all, the breathtaking scenery, Ireland is the perfect destination for a truly unforgettable road trip. Our 12 day itinerary allowed us to drive around virtually the entire island, taking in many of Ireland’s most famous landmarks along the way.
It was one of the most exciting adventures we’ve been on yet, partly because it’s completely different to how we usually travel – we will definitely be going on more road trips in future. We spent a long time planning the best route, as well as what to see and do whilst we were there, and came up with what we think is the ultimate Ireland road trip. So get your driving gloves on and strap in for the ride of your life.
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Hiring a Car in Ireland
Without doubt, by far the best way to get around if you are planning your own ultimate Ireland road trip is to hire a car. There are plenty of tour bus companies that provide routes to all of the popular destinations, but we found that having our own car gave us complete freedom to explore places we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to visit. It’s a totally different experience to a package tour and we loved being able to just follow any path that took our fancy. There are so many interesting castles, churches, beaches and viewpoints that we found completely by chance, and only thanks to having our own transport. And let’s face it, it couldn’t be the ultimate Ireland road trip unless you have your own ride!
We hired our car through Auto Europe and the process was beyond easy. We simply turned up at the relevant desk in Knock airport where we were greeted with an amazing Irish welcome, given our keys and directed to our car. We were then away and on the road within 10 minutes. Simple. We’d wholeheartedly recommend Auto Europe if you’re looking to rent a car in Ireland.
Our 12 Day Itinerary for the Ultimate Ireland Road Trip
We flew from England in to Knock airport, and though we were originally planning on starting and finishing in Dublin, the flights to Knock worked out significantly cheaper which swung the decision for us. We paid just £43 for both of our return flights combined, we found the deal on Kiwi.com which is our go to flight search engine, precisely because we regularly find these sorts of deals on there. Knock is not a destination that we knew anything about, and after researching it we decided to bypass it and make Galway the first stop on our ultimate Ireland road trip.
The Connemara Loop & Galway – 2 Nights
Galway is only about an hour away from Knock airport, but rather than head straight there we took the opportunity to drive the scenic route through the magnificent Connemara Loop. It was a brilliant decision and a fantastic introduction to the type of landscapes we could expect from the rest of the Emerald Isle on our road trip. We came across castles, cathedrals and deserted beaches that we had all to ourselves. Don’t miss a stop off at the stunning Kylemore Abbey!
Galway itself is a lively, youthful, musical city is one that must make it onto your road trip list. It really oozes the essence of Ireland with it’s fun, colourful and welcoming atmosphere, and there’s plenty to see in Galway as well as enjoying the legendary craic. We spent two nights here, arriving late on the first evening due to enjoying driving around the Connemara Loop before heading straight out to enjoy some of the nightlife. There are more pubs than you could believe so though it’s easy to find one, it’s harder to pick which one to settle in. Naturally with so many pubs there’s also lots of tasty typical Irish food knocking about. Our second day, and only full one in Galway, was spent seeing the sights before enjoying some more of the nightlife and visiting a couple more pubs. Check out our full post on Galway here.
Cliffs of Moher & Killarney – 3 Nights
We set off early from Galway to carry on down the Wild Atlantic Way to our next stop in Killarney, and on the way we visited the fabled Cliffs of Moher. The drive took us through various incredible landscapes, from rolling green hills full of giant brown cows to a barren, craggy lunar terrain that felt like we’d just landed in space.
It’s an unbelievably picturesque coastal route, but somehow the imposing site of the Cliffs of Moher dropping 200 metres into the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean manages to stand out. We spent a couple of hours walking around the cliffs and in the (very average) visitor centre before carrying on to Killarney.
We had only originally planned to spend 2 nights in Killarney, but we were having such a good time here and found so much to do that we booked in for an extra night. The first day we arrived late so didn’t have the opportunity to do much apart from plan our route around the Ring of Kerry for the next day. The wild, rugged, scenery of this corner of Ireland is nothing short of sensational, we spent about 8 hours driving around the peninsula but could easily have taken far longer.
The reason we decided to spend another night here is because we hadn’t managed to explore any of the Killarney National Park yet, but had heard from lots of people we met that it was something we should make time for. We’re glad we listened as the lakes, churches, stately homes and waterfalls we encountered on the third day were worth the extra night. It also gave us the opportunity to sample Killarney’s nightlife. Check out our full post on Killarney and the Ring of Kerry here.
Cork – 1 Night
We headed down to Cork for one reason and one reason only, to check out the Jameson Distillery in Midleton. The little we did see of Cork City was very pretty, but spending an extra night in Killarney meant we had to compromise on exploring here properly. The Jameson Experience was excellent though, and even if you’re not a whiskey fan, a really worthwhile tour which may just convert you to liking the amber nectar. If you’re considering going read our full post on the Jameson Experience Midleton here.
Blarney Castle & Dublin – 1 Night
The route from Cork to Dublin cuts right the way across from the South West of Ireland to the East Coast. This was the longest driving stint that we did between locations on our ultimate Ireland road trip, so we decided to break it up with a trip to kiss the famous Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle. It’s one of those things that people go out of their way to do because of the history attached to the stone, but with hindsight it probably wasn’t worth the £30 in entry fees we paid for both of us to get into the grounds of the private castle.
The castle and grounds are nice enough, but we saw dozens of far more impressive ones during our ultimate Ireland road trip. Hanging upside down and kissing the Blarney Stone itself is a fun experience, but it’s over in seconds, and unfortunately the gift of the gab that the myth says it imparts doesn’t appear to have materialised yet.
With Dublin being such a huge city, we decided to cut our losses and just spend one night here with the intention of returning at a later date to stay for longer and really get to know it. So what do you do when you have one night in Dublin? Get out and enjoy the craic of course! We went to Temple Bar to drink in some of the city’s most historic pubs and thoroughly enjoyed it. The following morning we squeezed in a free walking tour which gave us a brief overview of Dublin’s history and took in many of the most famous landmarks. It was a whirlwind and we’ll definitely be back for more.
Belfast & The Giant’s Causeway – 2 Nights
Belfast is just two hours from Dublin so it was a short journey across the border into Northern Ireland. We arrived in the late afternoon so took the opportunity to explore the Botanic Gardens area we were staying in and headed out for a meal and a couple of drinks. The following day we did one of the best walking tours we’ve ever been on, the Dead Centre: A History of Terror Tour which focussed on the Troubles that had such a massive effect on Belfast’s recent history.
We spent the rest of the day visiting some of the most significant sights of the city and admiring the impressive architecture – don’t miss the Titanic Belfast, and whilst you’re down there stop for a coffee and a snack at the Dock Cafe, a little gem we discovered where there are no prices and you pay what you want.
The next day we set off again for the world renowned Giant’s Causeway which lies an hour or so north of Belfast. These mystical hexagonal columns extend like steps way out into the sea making it easy to understand why there are so many myths about their formation and provides an explanation for their fantastical name.
We spent a couple of hours at the Giant’s Causeway, we were blown away by its beauty, and very nearly blown away by the bitter winds that whipped around us and eventually cut our visit short when they brought sleet pelting down with them. Dress warmly no matter what time of year you visit them as they’re renowned for the changeable weather! After making it back to our hire car, we set off to our next destination of Derry.
Derry – 1 Night
We arrived at Derry in the late afternoon and were taken with it straight away. It has a walled city, some wonderful pubs and far more to do and see than we’d ever imagined! That’s before you take into account it’s rich history and poignant reminders of it all over the city.
We spent the evening watching live music and speaking to Derry residents on Waterloo Street, and then the next morning we visited the Free Derry Museum, took a tour of the Bogside and walked the city walls. Check out our full post on Derry here.
Sligo – 1 Night
Sligo was the most unexpected surprise on our entire trip as we initially only started looking at it because of its proximity to Knock Airport making it a convenient final stop. But Sligo is undoubtedly going to become a real favourite for visitors to Ireland and turned out to be the perfect way to end our ultimate Ireland road trip.
It’s a laid back seaside town that is often overlooked as a visitor destination, but when you scratch the surface there are so many attractions here. If you’re into surfing, hiking, or just up for spending some time in a quaint and colourful town centre with lots of quality eateries and pubs then you’ll love it.
Ireland’s Incredible Wild Atlantic Way
Nearly half of our ultimate Ireland road trip followed the Wild Atlantic Way which runs the entire length of Ireland’s dreamy West Coast. It’s over 1500 miles of road that showcases the most astonishing bits of the 6 regions and 9 counties it passes through and provides one of the most thrilling drives we’ve ever experienced. The Wild Atlantic Way is extremely simple to follow as it’s clearly marked the entire way with thousands of signs meaning we didn’t even need to use a satnav or map to get from place to place.
The roads are generally very well kept and smooth, but they are winding and single laned so you do have to concentrate fully. There are points to pull over, admire the views and take photographs every couple of hundred metres in many parts so don’t take the risk of taking your eyes of the road if you’re the designated driver. As most of the paths are rural you will encounter a lot of tractors, farm animals and wildlife, so take your time and be patient. It’s also important to get familiar with the Ireland road signs before you go as unless you’re from Europe they will be completely different to what you’re used to.
What to Pack for Ireland
Ireland is renowned for its changeable weather, and it’s said that you’ll often experience all four seasons in one day. We saw this unpredictability first hand in Galway when we awoke to a snowstorm, with flakes being driven at a 45 degree angle by the swirling wind. We battled our way into town and miserably trudged around the sights, ducking in and out of pubs and shops for a bit of warmth. By early afternoon the skies had completely cleared and the sun was out in full force!
Off came the woolly hats and gloves and away went the umbrella as we took the opportunity to visit all of the attractions we’d just seen in the morning again, this time in the sunshine (believe us, it was far more enjoyable). We were thankful that we’d read about this and packed some warm clothes accordingly, so it would be remiss of us not to pass that on and tell you to pack for any and every weather eventuality when you visit Ireland.
We absolutely loved our tour around Ireland and would go back in a heartbeat to explore even more. We think that this is the ultimate Ireland road trip, but maybe we’ve missed out your favourite place or thing to do. What’s your favourite place to visit in Ireland or where would you most love to go? Let us know in the comments down below.
Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.