THINGS TO DO IN CONNEMARA IRELAND
If you want an introduction to off the beaten path Ireland, the Connemara peninsula in County Galway is a wonderful place to begin. It’s a fairly remote area, and we found there are enough things to do in Connemara to stay for a few days and, just as importantly, yearn to return time and again.
Connemara is best known for the dramatic Twelve Bens mountain range and endless miles of indented coastline, with vast bays, coves, beaches and offshore islands. On our first Ireland trip, my wife Faye took me to stunning windswept Achill Island before heading south to Connemara and Galway. I’d have to say that Connemara is one of the best places to visit in Ireland, an area of incredible beauty.
It takes around three to four days to get around most of the things to see in Connemara, unless you visit some of the islands of Ireland as well. It’s one of those places that lingers long in the soul, somewhere we’d love to return to at some point. We hope you enjoy our guide to what to do in Connemara.
Where is Connemara, Ireland?
The Connemara peninsula is in the north-west of County Galway, around halfway down – or up, depending on your perspective – the western coast of Ireland, facing the Atlantic Ocean.
What is Connemara Like?
Connemara is among the most beautiful places in Ireland. It’s an area of wild, desolate beauty, the inland part of the peninsula is dominated by the Twelve Bens, a superb range of over twenty bare, rugged peaks, many of which are connected by ridge walks. The highest of these Connemara mountains, Benbaun, is 729 metres (2,392 feet). It also has many lakes and peat bogs – it’s a dramatic green landscape given a regular watering by rain coming in off the Atlantic.
The Twelve Bens make for a dramatic sight from the nearby coast. The mountains are no more than 10 miles (16 km) from the Atlantic Ocean, so the coastline has amazing views wherever you look. The best place to appreciate the Connemara landscape is from Bertraghboy Bay, to the south of the village of Roundstone.
I usually hesitate to compare places with each other as everywhere is unique, but Connemara does remind me a little of the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, which borders the Snowdonia National Park. Both have a wild, untamed beauty, with amazing coastline and mountain scenery. The area to the west of Galway including parts of Connemara, is known as the Gaeltacht, as Irish Gaelic is spoken widely there. Similarly, Welsh is the first language for many living on the Llyn Peninsula.
Drive the Sky Road Clifden
Clifden Ireland is best known for the Sky Road, a 16 km (10 mile) scenic road that climbs above the estuary at Clifden to give stunning views of the Connemara coast, its many inlets and islands, and the Atlantic Ocean. Take the more elevated road for the more spectacular views – eventually you reach an open area where you have unforgettable views out to sea, with easy access from the road.
The Sky Road loops around to the N59 which leads back to Clifden, but we also recommend venturing further along the coast to the north, in the direction of the village of Clerggan.
There are over twenty Bens rather than twelve, but twelve is all you can see from the south, so that is what they are called. The Twelve Bens may not be the most imposing mountains you’ll encounter, but there’s a mystical beauty about them, visible on the horizon from almost everywhere you look. Some of them are included in the tiny Connemara National Park. These Connemara mountains also have some of the best hiking in Connemara, with the Glencoaghan ridge walk (16 km – 10 miles) one of the best hikes in Ireland.
Derryclare Lough is one of the most beautiful lakes in Connemara. You’ll probably see it on a calendar or postcard before doing so in the flesh, and it couldn’t look more picture-perfect. The peaks of the Twelve Bens glower beneath a dramatic sky, a tree-filled island near the shore of the lake reflecting in the still water of the lough to create an unforgettable scene.
Not somewhere I’d put a row of pylons, but somebody did!
Bertraghboy Bay in the south of Connemara is one of the best places to see in Ireland. It’s a short (20 km – 13 miles) drive south-east from Clifden, Connemara via Dog’s Bay, one of the best beaches in Connemara to the bay. This is one of the most scenic places in Ireland, with brightly painted boats hauled up onto the shore and the mountains of Connemara making for a perfect picture. It’s one of the best drives in Ireland, the R341 road passing through Roundstone (more of which in a moment) before following the shoreline to the quieter eastern side of the bay.
Roundstone is a small village on the west side of Bertraghboy Bay, with a busy fishing harbour and main street. It’s a natural draw because of the views of the Connemara hills – most of the boat shots in this article were shot close to the village – and its pubs and restaurants. O’Dowd’s is a great local seafood restaurant next to the harbour, and the Shamrock, a few doors up the street, serves an excellent pint of Guinness.
One of the top Connemara things to do is a visit to Kylemore Abbey – formerly Kylemore Castle – near Letterfrack, in the north of the peninsula. The building’s setting is magnificent, by the shore of a lake with a mountain towering behind. It was originally a vast private house for Mitchell henry, a doctor from London with a wealthy family background in the Manchester textile trade. It was later sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, and after World War I was bought by Irish Benedictine nuns. The Abbey is open for guided tours, which also include the small Gothic church and walled gardens.
Killary Fjord Cruise
I had always hoped to do a fjord cruise at some stage, and finally got my wish on my tour of Connemara, rather than Norway as envisaged. Ireland has one fjord – a glaciated u-shaped valley filled by the sea after the glacier has retreated. The Killary fjord cruise runs up to four times a day in the June to August peak season, three times daily in April, May and September and twice daily and once a day in November. The boat takes you out to the mouth of the fjord, and back to the jetty at Nancy’s Point, Leenane. It takes around 45 minutes each way,and adult tickets cost 21 euros per person.
Cong is one of the most beautiful towns in Ireland. It’s the northern gateway to Connemara, and makes for a great day trip or a night or two in the countryside. It’s known for two things, the first of which is Cong Abbey, a ruined church of the Augustinian Order which dates back to the 13th century. Also known as the Royal Abbey of Cong, it has some of the best early Gothic architecture in Ireland.
Cong ‘The Quiet Man’ Movie Locations
Cong still receives visitors keen to see locations where John Ford’s classic 1952 movie The Quiet Man was shot. There’s a statue of the film’s two stars, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, a Quiet Man Museum, and various film locations around the village which are covered on a walking tour run by the Museum. I’ve recently watched the film for the first time, and the town hasn’t changed much since it was shot almost 70 years ago.
Joyce Country Connemara
Joyce Country is dramatic, isolated upland country to the west of Cong, between Lough Mask to the north and the massive Lough Corrib to the south. We followed the R345 road from Cong into County Galway, before turning onto the R336 at Maum, eventually joining the main N59 road to the south. We didn’t stop anywhere flor long, but loved the journey – one of the most scenic drives in Ireland that we did.
Cleggan is a small fishing village in the north-west of Connemara, which is also the departure point for the local ferry to the island of Inishbofin. It’s a real step back in time, with a few very quiet beaches (Sellerna is the best one we came across). The shores are dotted with old fishing boats, the lanes around have beautifully dilapidated old barns, and the views of the Twelve Bens are magnificent. Welcome to the Wild West of Ireland.