How to see the best of Ireland's West Cork coast on a four-day road trip

Lonely Planet writer Joe Davis has visited West Cork in Ireland at least once a year since he was born, and he has compiled the ultimate road trip itinerary to help you sample the best of West Cork in just four days.

I didn’t get to drive this route myself until I was 21, but over the last eight years I’ve made up for it, tracing almost all of the 1000km of craggy coastline County Cork has to offer. I’ll let you in on a secret: follow the coast and you can’t really go wrong.

A rugged beach scene; the sky is bright blue and has wispy clouds, and craggy hills can be seen in the distance. Writer Joe Davis, wearing swimming shorts, is walking out into the calm water, his arms outstretched.
Plenty of stunning rest stops await on a road trip along Ireland's West Cork Coast © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

I usually fly into Cork Airport and hire a car, which is essential as there’s little to no public transport in rural Ireland. Most places featured on this itinerary are on or near the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route which at 2500km is, impressively, the longest uninterrupted coastal route in the world. If you’re short for time, don’t let that put you off; instead, consider skipping a peninsula or two. If you have more time I’d recommend following the route northwards towards Donegal.

One of the best things about driving in rural Ireland is that you rarely have to worry about parking. The majority of towns allow free street parking in the centre, so you can pull up, hop out and explore with minimal fuss.  

Discover Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

Day 1: Cork City to Clonakilty

Driving time: 60 mins

Arrive in Cork City and, in the evening, head straight out to a traditional Irish music session at authentic Sin É. On my most recent visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see a surge in independent businesses since I was last here around five years ago, such as popular coffee shop Cork Coffee Roasters and craft beer stop Franciscan Well Brewery.

Due to the airport’s proximity to the city, Cork is an easy starting point but, if you’re short for time, skip it. Where this road trip excels is with its rural landscapes, coastline and towns. Just a short drive away there’s so much more to see, so hit the country roads.

Inside a dimly lit pub, a group of folk musicians are playing around a table, as an audience looks on. Colourful fairy lights are hanging overhead.
David Bowie and Bob Dylan have both played at the renowned De Barra's Folk Club © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Award-winning Clonakilty is Irish charm at its best. Sitting somewhere between run-down rustic and the cusp of cool, the welcoming high street is often adorned with bunting and hanging baskets. Try to time your stay in Clonakilty over a weekend or a Monday for the best chance of catching a traditional music session. 

De Barra's Folk Club is a must-visit music destination. Squeeze past the queue at the bar and make your way to the back, where it opens out into an indoor greenhouse with a stage. A mass of music memorabilia covering the walls includes the faces of Bowie and Dylan, who’ve played here in the past. Attend the Monday night ‘trad session’ and you’ll see why it’s my favourite night; the event has been running for 30 years and is led by a bearded local with a dog on his lap. Get there early to grab a seat. 

I always make time for the short drive out to Inchydoney Beach, which passes vast tidal flats that are home to a multitude of seabirds. The seemingly endless beach spans either side of a small peninsula when the tide is out. For panoramic views I drive to Dunmore House Hotel, which overlooks the waves.

Stay: Macliam Lodge Guesthouse
Don’t miss: Inchydoney Beach
Eat: Seafood at An Súgán

A tranquil view of a calm body of water on a bright day. In the distance is a pale sandy beach with a backdrop of rolling green hills; in the foreground is a large patch of bright yellow dandelions.
The vast tidal flats by Inchydoney Beach are home to a multitude of seabirds © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Day 2: Clonakilty to Bantry

Driving time: 90 mins

From Clonakilty, drive west on the N71 towards Warren Strand. It’s worth stopping here for the short cliff walk – if you're lucky you might spot a puffin or even a breaching whale.  

Next lies atmospheric Drombeg Stone Circle, hidden in a sunken field. Minutes away is the picturesque village of Glandore which overlooks a spectacular inlet dotted with yachts zig-zagging around fluorescent buoys. I try to get an outside table at Hayes Bar or The Glandore Inn (the only two choices) and always order the open salmon sandwich. The salmon is caught fresh from Union Hall, the next village along.

The next stop is Lough Hyne, a rare inland saltwater lake and an oasis for marine life. 

Make sure you don't miss the turning – it's signposted but sharp. I come here to swim; if I’m feeling brave I jump straight in and the cold soon passes. I warm up with a 2km hike with aerial views of the lake.

Standing on a grassy hill, with the sea just visible in the distance, is a collection of ancient standing stones, arranged in a circle.
The atmospheric Drombeg Stone Circle is a worthwhile pitstop © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

If you have time, make a detour to the small fishing village of Baltimore. There’s nowhere better to sit with a Guinness and watch the boats go by. From here you can get a boat out to one of the surrounding islands or head out on a whale watching tour.

Next, follow the coastal route to Bantry. I love Bantry for its quaint pubs and restaurants that serve fresh seafood and it’s the perfect base for exploring the surrounding peninsulas. Ma Murphy’s is a strange hybrid between an old grocery store and a pub with a huge garden, and The Fish Kitchen serves a warming seafood chowder, perfect on a drizzly day.

Bantry is where the Sheep’s Head Peninsula begins. I’ve driven it in an afternoon and, if visibility is good, The Tin Pub in Ahakista and Finn Mac Cool's Seat are totally worth the detour for unbeatable views.

Stay: A local B&B or hotel
Don’t miss: Lough Hyne
Eat: Union Hall salmon in Glandore

A variety of trees in different shades of green surround a Mediterranean-style terrace that has an attractive sandstone arch at one end, and a rectangular pond stretching towards it.
The gardens on Garnish Island add a touch of the Mediterranean to the coast © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Day 3: Bantry to Allihies

Driving time: 90 mins

Glengarriff sits just along the water from Bantry. This drive passes seaweedy inlets and, as on the entirety of this route, you can pull over wherever you like to admire the unspoilt views. Due to the Gulf Stream, Glengariff has its own microclimate; you’ll notice the flora here is dense and tropical. The real highlight is the woodland walk and swimming around the Blue Pool. It’s up there in my list of favourite places in the world to swim, it’s surprisingly warm in summer and the surrounding mountains make the perfect backdrop. Don’t miss the short boat ride over to Garnish Island for seal spotting and spectacular gardens that wouldn’t look out of place in Italy.

Glengarriff is the ideal point to start the Beara Peninsula drive. Overshadowed by its well-trodden neighbour, The Ring of Kerry, it’s shorter and equally scenic, with dramatic cliffs and beaches you wouldn’t believe were in Ireland. I like to stop in the small fishing town of Castletownbere before continuing to Ireland's only cable car at Dursey Island. I recently discovered a tiny hidden beach here called White Strand, with vistas rivalling the Mediterranean. Nearby, Ballydonegan Beach is perfect for summer swimming and walking distance from Allihies, which has a handful of guesthouses and colourful O’Neill’s pub with weekly traditional music sessions.

Stay: Beachview Bed and Breakfast, Allihies
Don’t miss: Dzogchen Beara Meditation Retreat Centre for unique views
Eat: The Fish Kitchen, Bantry

A narrow, winding road snakes over hilly landscape of grass and rocks.
You may not meet too many other drivers on the extraordinarily peaceful Healy Pass © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Day 4: Allihies to Cork City

Driving time: 3 hours

Your sat-nav will direct you back the way you came towards Cork but ignore it and continue around the peninsula, passing through rainbow-coloured Ardgroom and Eyeries and briefly hopping across the border to County Kerry, where hairpin bends hug the coastline. At the village of Lauragh, follow the signs for The Healy Pass and trundle along this extraordinarily peaceful mountain route, accompanied only by flocks of sheep.

Gougane Barra Forest Park is my final suggested stop. It’s not the most direct route to get here but the detour pays off if you like sweeping mountains and waterfalls. The tiny St Finbarr's Oratory sits out on the choppy lake, dwarfed by its dramatic surroundings. Park up for free and walk down past the barriers to an array of signposted hikes – a tranquil end to a whirlwind road trip.

Don’t miss: The Healy Pass
Eat: Homemade soup and soda bread at Cronin’s Cafe

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