The west of Ireland is world-famous for quaint villages, the lilt of the Irish language, and spectacular outdoor beauty. You’ll find some of the best of all three in County Clare.
The largest town in the county will probably be your first stop after your arrival at Shannon Airport on your way north. Take some time to visit the old High Street and stop in for a drink and a few laughs at one of the city center pubs. On summer and autumn weekends, see if the local county clubs are playing hurling or Gaelic football (Ireland’s national games) at Cusack Park, County Clare’s Gaelic sports headquarters.
The Burren National Park
Brain-like limestone karst rolls over a lunar landscape in this unique national park. The limestone beneath much of County Clare was formed by layers of coral and calcium-rich seashells when what is now western Ireland was at the bottom of a shallow, warm sea. When you visit, look closely at the white, alkaline stone, peppered with fossils.
Geologists and archaeologists suggest that these bare hills were once covered with native oak forest, but unsustainable farming practices by Ireland’s earliest inhabitants caused erosion and soil loss, exposing the limestone beneath. Today, the high pH limestone is home to some subtle-but-unique flora and fauna – look for the crawling lichen and understated purple flowers.
The national park is great for a drive-through visit or a hike, depending on your schedule. If you decide to tackle one of the park’s more ambitious trails, be prepared for some steep climbing over very rough terrain.
When it comes to scenic (but still easily accessible) coastal views, Clare is among Ireland’s best. Many driving sightseers take the coastal route around Galway Bay from the Cliffs of Moher all the way to Galway city, passing the western hills of the Burren (carefully navigating the aptly named Corkscrew Hill), getting great views of the Aran Islands, and visiting the shops, churches, castles, and pubs of the traditional villages in between.
This tiny seaside village is a perfect stopover for the Clare visitor, whether it be for an overnight hiking trip or a quick pint on the way through. The public beach is open through the summer for brave bathers looking to take a dip into the icy North Atlantic, and the small main street pubs are lively with traditional music every night. Doolin is a short, scenic drive around the bay from Galway, just a few minutes from Burren sights like the Polnabrone Dolmen, and seated at the very foot of the Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs of Moher
The most popular destination in Clare, by far, is the seven-mile stretch of these nearly vertical limestone cliffs, topping out at over 700 feet from the crashing Atlantic below. Most visitors see the cliffs from the new visitor center, built underground so as not to ruin the view of the cliffs. The only structure on the summit is O’Brien’s Tower – now part of the visitor center experience, but with an extra admission fee – built more than 100 years ago by an enterprising landowner looking to make some money from the growing crowd of Victorian tourists coming to see the cliffs.
If you have some flexibility in your schedule, consider walking the Cliffs of Moher Trail from Doolin. There is no charge, and you’ll see the cliffs from angles missed by those who just stop in for a quick glance at the visitor center. If you choose to hike, be prepared for some steep trails and stay well clear of the edge; the cliffs are still eroding, and fatal falls aren’t uncommon.
When planning your Irish road trip, consider passing through County Clare for a taste of traditional and modern Irish culture and some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland.