How to Travel Ireland's West Coast Without Renting a Car
By Marla Cichowski
For many people, the Emerald Isle is high on the travel bucket list, and for good reason. Ireland is a land of endless postcard-worthy scenery, lively pubs, and memorable people. The country’s West Coast, stretching from Donegal in the north to Cork in the south, features some of the most stunning and rugged landscapes the island has to offer. While many itineraries for the popular Wild Atlantic Way require a rental car, not everyone wants to drive on the left along winding roads. The following journey allows anyone to experience the best of Ireland’s West Coast in Galway, Clare, and Mayo counties—without your own wheels.
Departing from Dublin
After landing in Dublin which is on the east coast, skip the hassle of renting a car at the airport and reserve a seat on one of the coach bus lines heading to Galway city center. There are multiple companies to choose from (try GoBus or CityLink), and departures leave the airport leave every hour. The journey to Galway takes around three hours and you can expect free Wi-Fi and power outlets on board. The cost for a one-way ride starts at around US $25 (prices can change slightly depending on the time of year), but book online in advance to save a few bucks. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the views as you head west—see if you can catch a glimpse of a rainbow, because they’re not uncommon on this often-misty island.
Galway, Quay Street
Once you arrive at the Galway Coach Station, it’s a short five-minute walk from the city center to Eyre Square, also known as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. The square is surrounded by hotels, shops, restaurants, and of course, plenty of pubs with live Irish folk music. Galway isn’t just known for music. It’s very walkable, with plenty to do and drink, but if you’re looking for something less touristy and away from the crowds opt to stay in the Salthill area.
Salthill, a short 10-minute ride from the center of Galway (many people use Hailo, a popular ride-sharing service app in Ireland), is best known for its promenade along the Galway Bay. The trail stretches for several miles passing stone beaches, swimming areas (pictured), and even an amusement park. On a very clear day you can even see the Aran Islands, more than 20 miles away. Fuel up before your power walk with coffee and scones at the Gourmet Tart Company or O’Connor’s Bakery on Upper Salthill street. At night, hit the historic O’Connor’s Famous Pub, one of the first singing pubs in Ireland, where local musicians perform traditional music.
Cliffs of Moher
There’s a reason why the Cliffs of Moher are considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Without a car, you can easily book a day trip from Galway to see them—plenty of local tour companies (your hotel can recommend a few) operate this extremely popular itinerary daily and will pick you up. The full day tour, which will cost around US $30, lasts around 9–10 hours, passing through small villages in Clare County, including Lisdoonvarna, the town that’s home to the annual Matchmaking Festival in September.
Doolin Cliff Walk
If you love hiking, go with the full-day Cliffs of Moher tour so you can maximize your time at the cliffs and avoid feeling rushed. If you’re up for an adventure and are not afraid of heights, opt for the Doolin Cliff walk (local Pat Sweeney will give guided tours), a roughly three-hour trail (just under five miles), clearly marked along the coast from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher visitor center. Remember that this is Ireland, so it will likely rain at some point during your trip. Best to wear layers and bring rain gear in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. The views at 700 feet above the ocean are stunning regardless. You will probably hear about some boat cruises to the Cliffs of Moher, but keep in mind you will see the same view by booking a standard ferry ride to one of the Aran Islands—our next stop.
Explore the Aran Islands
From Galway’s city center, hop on a bus to the coastal village of Doolin (one way: about US $12). Once you arrive, walk to the port (the town is tiny, so you can’t miss it) and book a ferry to explore one of the three Aran Islands, situated at the mouth of Galway Bay. From west to east, the islands are: Inishmore, (Inis Mór; the largest island), with population of 840; Inishmaan (Inis Meain; middle island); and Inisheer (Inis Oirr; east island), the smallest. You can also book online in advance. Sailing time typically takes 30-45 minutes one-way to Inisheer, the closest of the Islands. Keep in mind the ferries do not operate in inclement weather, so it’s best to check the forecast in advance. Also remember the water can be choppy depending on the wind—obviously it’s no fun getting sea sick when you’re on vacation.
Aran Islands: Inisheer
Inisheer (population 250) is manageable and picturesque. Once you arrive, rent a bike and ride to the old lighthouse (1857) for panoramic views. Or explore what remains of O’Brien’s Castle, built in the 14th century. Just be prepared for some steep hills. The ancient stone walls that crisscross the island make you feel like you’re walking through a scene out of Game of Thrones. After you work up an appetite, grab a bite at Ostan Inis Oirr, the town pub (which doubles as a hotel) and relax on the sandy beach with a good book until it’s time to jump back on the ferry to Doolin. Make time to drop in at one of the pubs in Doolin to listen to traditional Irish music while you wait for your bus ride back to Galway. There are also tours that sell this itinerary as an organized day trip from Galway.
Galway to Westport, Mayo County
From Galway, head north to Westport and scenic Mayo County with Bus Eireann (one way, about US $16). The trip takes just shy of two hours, including a few stops along the way, and leaves from the bus station across from Eyre Square. You’ll arrive in the center of Westport where you’ll easily find hotels, shopping, and restaurants within a 5–10 minute stroll. The best part of walking through the streets of Westport (no map required) is stumbling upon local gems like Willow Café Tea Room and pubs where you’ll find more locals than tourists. Those include Moran’s on Bridge Street—don’t let the grocery store in the front fool you. If you’re visiting on a weekend, expect to enjoy a lively and crowded pub scene as Westport tends to be a popular place for bachelor and “hen” (bachelorette) parties.
Great Western Greenway Trail bike ride
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Mayo County is along the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. Walk to one of the local bike rental shops in Westport and book a full-day or half-day ride (just check the forecast beforehand or risk riding in the wind/rain). The Greenway trail from Westport to Achill follows the path of the old railway that closed in 1937. How far you ride is up to you. The rental company drives you in a shuttle van to your start location and fits you with a helmet and safety vest. At the end of your ride, a driver picks you up from a designated location, where you drop off the bike and brings you back to your hotel in Westport, where you’ll no doubt be ready for a hearty Irish stew and a pint or two.
Train from Westport back to Dublin
Once it’s time to say good-bye to charming Westport, either walk (10–15 minutes) or take a taxi to the Westport train station (pictured) for your trip back to the heart of Dublin. Trains run five times daily (from US $45) and take just over three hours. Best to reserve seats online and print your ticket at the station. Once at Dublin’s Heuston train station, either grab the bus (lines 747 or 717; about US $6 one-way) to reach to the Dublin airport or extend your stay in for a few days and explore the capital city’s history, culture and lively music scene. Slainte! Cheers!