The Dingle Peninsula is one of those rare roadtrip destinations that rewards visitors with both stunning scenery and the charm of being relatively undiscovered. Once visitors drive over the Conor Pass and into Dingle, you begin to feel far away from the bustle of Dublin or Galway or even Killarney. Dingle is an intimate, affable, and colorful town. Past that, the rest of the peninsula feels relatively untouched by time. It’s quiet here – a place where it’s easy to feel one with nature. The hills are dotted with cattle and sheep, and whether you are biking or driving, it’s possible you’ll hardly pass more than a handful of other visitors.
Don’t simply come to the town of Dingle for a day – stay and explore the entire peninsula. While many visitors flock to the Ring of Kerry in the south, Dingle offers arguably better scenery with less traffic. The main road around the western end of the peninsula is the Slea Head Drive (Slí Cheann Sléibhe) – a circular route that both starts and ends in Dingle town. It’s only about 47 km (30 miles) long, but you’ll find some of the most beautiful and remote landscapes in all of Ireland here. Despite the short distance, you’ll want to plan at least half a day to explore the drive. Out here on what feels like the world’s edge, you’ll curve along the cliffs and coast down one-lane roads and narrow switchbacks. But don’t worry, there are plenty of turn-outs to stop and take in that picture-perfect view.
Dingle Whiskey Distillery + Ventry
It’s recommended to travel clockwise when driving Slea Head, to avoid any tour busses that are traveling in the opposite direction during busier seasons. As you head out of Dingle, you’ll cross the Milltown Bridge and pass the Dingle Whiskey Distillery where you can even stop for a tour and tasting! Although on second thought, maybe hit that on the way back into town if you’re driving. Beyond that you’ll pass through the quaint town of Ventry and Paídi Ó Sé’s pub, owned by the Gaelic football legend from Kerry – but you may want to brush up on your Irish before you grab a pint here. Since the peninsula is a gaeltacht, or region where traditional Irish language and culture has been well-preserved, Ventry is one of Ireland’s few Irish-speaking towns.
Dunbeg Fort + Beehive Huts
Beyond Ventry, the route passes Dunbeg Fort (An Dún Beag), a promontory fort dating back to the Iron Age (500 B.C.–A.D. 500). Visitors can park roadside and for €3, trek down to visit the fort where it is perched on the cliff side, although it is practically falling into the sea.
Further ahead is another turnout, where visitors can pay €3 admission to climb up the hill to a cluster of beehive huts. Ringforts like these are common around Ireland and were once inhabited by farmers dating from ancient times to 1200 AD. These particular igloo-like stone huts, or cashels, are known as Caher Conor (Cathair na gConchúireach). It’s fascinating that they stand as if they’ve been untouched, a glimpse into the past. There is also a chance to visit a thatched cottage that was abandoned during the great famine. Both serve as a reminder that time feels irrelevant on the peninsula.
With any luck, you won’t find much traffic on these remote stretches of road, despite it being a single lane. It seemed every few seconds there was another space to turn out, and the coastal views of crystal-blue waters crashing up onto rocky cliffs were rewarding at each. At one point, you’ll even pass over a stream that runs directly over the road down towards the sea, cleverly known as the ‘upside down bridge’.
Further along, you’ll reach Slea Head itself. This western-most curve in the coast is marked with a life-size crucifixion scene. From here, you can catch your first good look at the Blasket Islands.
Dunquin + the Blasket Islands
From Slea Head, the route curves to the north towards the small village of Dunquin (Dún Chaoin). Dunquin is often referred to as the next parish to America and is the most westerly settlement in Ireland. It’s possible at this point to turn off to the left and follow the road down to the coast. It will dead-ends into Coumenoole Strand beach. Continue on the path, however, and you’ll soon come to the most famous postcard view of the peninsula – Dunquin Pier.
Dunquin Pier and Harbor is unique in its steep and winding design, snaking its cobblestone way down to the sea. The pier itself isn’t visible from the road, but there is a turn-out for parking. Follow the path down the pier to the small harbor – it’s a steep hike back up, but the incredible views are worth it! To find that picture-perfect view, however, walk past the pier from the parking lot and out onto the small cliffs above.
From the pier, the islands sit three miles off shore. The Blasket Islands (Na Blascaodaí) were once inhabited, but sadly were abandoned in 1953 due to emigration. Visitors can explore the islands’ remote natural beauty and the history behind its people and culture. There are also ferries that run from Dunquin Pier to the Great Blasket Island during the spring, summer, and autumn, weather permitting. Ferries can also be boarded from Dingle Harbor.
As you pass through the town of Ballyferriter, follow signs for Gallaras. You’ll pass the ruined remains of Reasc Monastery (Mainistir Riaise). Following the signs, you’ll reach Gallarus Oratory. Near the parking lot, you’ll find a visitor’s center and cafe. Gallarus Oratory is Ireland’s best preserved example of an early Christian church. Often referred to as resembling an upturned boat, this archaeological relic was built of stone and dates back to the 11th or 12th centuries.
From Gallarus, follow signs back to the Slea Head Drive. You can continue on the route – however, a detour will lead you to some hidden gems. You’ll find two forks in the road and if you take a right at each, you’ll leave Slea Head drive for an alternative route back to Dingle. This route will pass Kilmalkedar Church (Cill Mhaoilcéadair).
Kilmalkedar is a stunning early-Christian and medieval ecclesiastical site often associated with St. Brendan. The remains of St. Brendan’s House is located just down the road past the church. The chapel itself dates back to the 12th century and was built in the Romanesque style. A sprawling graveyard surrounds it. Inside you’ll find antiquated artifacts such as a stone cross as well as an ogham stone and sundial – evidence of the old monastic settlement that the church was built upon, dating back another 900 years or so. Inside the church is an alphabet stone. There is a hint of magic in standing surrounded by such ancient relics. You feel connected to another place, another time. It was hardly surprising when we left the chapel to find a stunning rainbow stretching over us.
Mount Brandon + Brandon Creek
From Kilmalkedar, you can continue on the shortcut to Dingle, or backtrack and rejoin Slea Head Drive. Doing so will drive you past Mount Brandon. Standing at 3,130 feet (952 m), it is Ireland’s second-tallest peak. You’ll also cross Brandon Creek (Cuas an Bhodaigh), and it’s legend that St. Brenden the Navigator began his journey here, a voyage that led him to America long before Columbus.
Finally, the Slea Head Drive circles back and joins the main road into Dingle, ending where it began. Despite the road only being 30 miles long, you’ve no doubt spent hours stopping and exploring. Not to mention that driving on the left on a one-lane road winding its way along cliffs can be a little harrowing. Weather is often a force to be reckoned with on the peninsula. Reward yourself by cozying into a snug at one of the pubs in town with a pint of the black stuff.
What’s your favorite stop on the Slea Head drive?