One of Ireland’s most beautiful roads, Slea Head Drive, is an awe-inspiring experience. While the whole of Ireland is simply stunning in its raw natural beauty, Slea Head Drive features in the country’s top five scenic routes, in my opinion.
The Ring of Kerry definitely features in there too, but it’s more touristy, which can take away from the place’s beauty for some. At the same time, Slea Head Drive offers more than just landscape – there’s so much local culture to experience along the route.
Slea Head Drive is a 48 km-long ring road that takes about 1 hour without any stops. But I guarantee the dramatic coastlines with steep cliffs, sandy beaches, endless green pastures, stunning hills and islands, and historic sites will have you spending far more time along the way – maybe just to stop and take in the beauty or explore all the many things this ring road has to offer.
It is well-mapped by road signs so you don’t have to get out your google maps on your phone.
Dingle Town: The Start and End of Slea Head Drive
The drive begins and ends at the quaint and gorgeous fishing Dingle town. The town is peppered with eclectic shops and local pubs that offer visitors a glimpse into real Irish culture.
You can sit back and enjoy some absolutely brilliant seafood at one of the many excellent restaurants in the town or grab a beer and enjoy traditional Irish music at a pub so you’re sure to get a first-hand experience of the famous Irish hospitality either way.
Take a left 2.5 km from the bridge in Dingle, followed by another left a little ahead to join the Slea Head Drive. You can see Ogham stones around here, which are stones with short, diagonal marks on them, typically on the edges.
Ogham is a medieval alphabet used to write Old Irish, and interestingly, it is read from the bottom to the top.
It would be a great souvenir. My wife & I have our names written in Ogham on Valentia Slate. The person who did it for us is Ken Bolger & he is in Ballyferriter. Once you’re on Slea Head Drive, you’ll reach Ventry Village, the first village along the trip, less than 3 km.
Ventry, a picturesque village, is located along a crescent beach with clear, calm waters. About 1.5 km to the northwest of Ventry is Rahinnane Castle, a 16th-century structure that features the ruins of a rectangular tower inside a 9-meter deep ditch.
You have the Dunbeg Fort around 6 km to the west of Ventry, but much of the promontory fort built during the Iron Age has been lost to sea storms in the last few years.
Ventry Village is serene and quiet and a great escape from the bustling Dingle town during the busy months. It has a Blue Flag beach, a few pubs, restaurants, and shops along with a church and a statue that commemorates its famous resident, Paidí O’Sé, a Kerry footballer.
You can visit the famine cottages and sheepdog trails or go horse riding or trekking in this lovely small village.
Less than 5.5 km from Ventry, you’ll come across a river flowing across the road. At this point, the road is very narrow, and only one car can pass at a time. Head straight for another 200 meters to reach the beehive huts
Beehive Hut (Tóchar Maothaithe), Fahan
A little more than 6 km from Ventry Village, you will find beehive huts. These huts are engineering marvels that have lasted centuries. There’s an entry fee of €3 so I only recommend it for those who are very keen on this sort of thing.
Similar huts feature in the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi, which makes them a cool sight for fans. You can also see them on the Skellig Islands. See my web page on Skellig Micheal here.
Around 6.5 km ahead of Ventry Village, you will come across Cashel Murphy, an ancient ringed stone settlement. Some parts of the structure are reportedly more than four millennia old. €3 entry as well.
I recommend a visit to these early Celtic settlements of the Iron Age for those interested in history and archaeology. It is a great place to take a picture of Dingle Bay and the Iveragh Peninsula.
Another 1 km, you will see a white crucifix, which is the boundary of two church parishes. The crucifix also marks Slea Head itself, from where you can enjoy breathtaking views of South Kerry and the rugged coastline of Dingle bay.
Another 340 m from Slea Head, and you will come across a viewing point approved by Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board. Here you can see Coumeenoole Beach to your right, one of the most beautiful sights along the drive.
The beach and the surrounding cliff offer magnificent views. Take a walk along the beach to enjoy the pristine water and soft sand. You can even drive down to the beach if you have mobility problems (not a big car though, the road is narrow).
Coumeenoole is not a swimming beach; the undercurrent is strong, and the ground slopes down quickly in the water. I recommend a walk on the beach, make time for a quick stop to enjoy its sheer beauty.
Dún Chaoin Pier
The next stop on the road is Dún Chaoin Pier and it’s just off the main road. Follow the signposts. Park at the designated area for boat tours to the Blasket Islands. You can walk along the coastal cliff around the pier for a broader view of the narrow road that leads to the pier.
The pier itself is a sight to behold; it’s dramatic in the extreme. The two sharp triangular cliffs jutting out of the water make the scene something truly out of the ordinary.
You don’t want to miss this one, especially if you’re addicted to getting the best pictures (I’m particularly referring to those who love Instagram).
The pier is one of the most photographed on the Dingle Peninsula, and it features on many postcards. It is a popular place between tourists and locals.
You want to be extra careful here. Don’t take the car down the pier – it will get stuck, no two ways about that. Instead, take a stroll down the pier and look at the scenic views. You are at the western end of the Dingle Peninsula now.
The Blasket Islands Center
A short stop can be visiting the Blasket Islands Centre. It has interactive displays and artifacts focusing on the lives of residents on the islands before they were evacuated in 1952. The centre also has a restaurant and restrooms, so you can stop for a convenience break.
Get a Ferry to the Great Blasket Island
Take a ferry to the Great Blasket Island and enjoy a hike amid beautiful landscapes. There are several ruins and a cottage on the island, along with plenty of rabbits and seals. Apart from the tourists, it’s a ghost town with no residents. There’s a small café; with toilets, so the trip is certainly convenient.
Another 1.7 km on the road, followed by a 500 m walk up a hill will bring you to Clogher Head. A headland from where you can enjoy stunning views of Clogher beach, Sybil Point (the filming location where some scenes for Stars Wars: The Last Jedi were shot), the Three Sisters, and Mount Brandon.
Straight ahead, you can enjoy views of the Blasket Islands.
You will need hiking boots for the hike up the hill to Clogher Head as it is steep and can get slippery. A windcheater or something warm is also a great idea as the winds can be deceptively calm one minute and start raging the next.
The last time I went there, it was wildly windy up above, with not even a puff of wind when I was leaving the car. When you’re back at the car, find the viewing point, and have a look through the Tower Viewer to check out the site where some scenes from the Hollywood film The Last Jedi were shot. It will cost you €1.
The headland Clogher Head is located near its namesake Clogher fishing village, which features the pristine port beach. There is always a huge swell on that beach (2 pictures above) so don’t go swimming in the water. There are cross currents and you might be swept out to sea. Just walk on Clogher Strand.
About 6 km from Clogher Head on Slea Head Drive will bring you to Ballyferriter, a Gaeltacht village. Grab a bite and the passengers can have a chilled glass of beer at one of the pubs here. Please don’t drink and drive.
Around 10 km ahead on the road, you will reach Gallarus Oratory, an ancient Romanesque stone church. The exact date of construction is unknown, but estimates hint at some time in the 12th century. The iconic structure is one of its types and resembles an upturned boat.
Made of large-cut, locally sourced stone, the oratory is 4.8 m by 3 m wide on the inside, with only a small window on the west wall opposite the entrance.
A local tradition is that anyone who climbs through this tiny window is guaranteed access to heaven. The window is only big enough for children to be passed through.
Gallarus Oratory has stood the test of time; despite its ancient construction, the structure is still waterproof and offers an old-world charm for archaeology enthusiasts. Outside the oratory, you can see a 3 foot tall stone that reads ‘Colum Mac Dinet’ marked with a circled cross, which hints at a grave.
You can get light refreshments, such as drinks and cakes, at the visitor centre, and the gift shop offers souvenirs at reasonable prices.
Once you depart Gallarus Oratory and travel up the mountain, you have great views of The Sleeping Giant (The Blasket Mór). The outline of the island resembles a man lying down in the water, which gives it the name. As you descend the mountain, you’ll circle back to Dingle, marking the end of the Slea Head Drive.
Slea Head Cycle
One of the Dingle Peninsula’s stunning routes, Slea Head Cycle offers majestic views of the Atlantic coastline. The 55-km route starts from Dingle and should be toured west to east, from Ventry to Slea Head, Dunquin, Ballyferriter, Feohanagh, Cuas, and back to Dingle.
It is clearly labeled with rolling roads that make it doable for almost all fitness levels but not anyone under the age of 18. While you can complete it in a few hours, I recommend you spend an entire day giving yourself a chance to enjoy all the stops along the way.
Where to Stay and Eat
There’s no doubt that Dingle is the best location to set as the base if you want to explore Slea Head Drive, with many splendid dining options (Out of the Blue, The Chart House, Fenton’s of Dingle, and Reel Dingle Fish) and accommodation options (Greenmount House, Tower View B&B, and The Waterfront Dingle).
If you plan to spend a day on the road, there are many places where you can grab a bite or simply relax with a beer or Irish coffee. Please don’t drink and drive.
Quinn’s Pub (Ventry): Good food with seating overlooking Ventry beach.
Páidí Sé’s Pub (1.7 km ahead of Ventry): Great food at a reasonable price.
The Stonehouse Restaurant (5 km ahead of Ventry/Adjacent to The Famine Cottages). I stopped here to look at the fine view of Dingle Bay. We ate here. Excellent food and service in a homey cottage-style restaurant.
Teac Couminole Café; (5 km ahead of Ventry): Quick stop for a snack.
Dunquin Pottery and Café; (Near Dún Chaoin Pier): Homemade food and pottery.
Louis Mulcahy Pottery (1 km from Clogher Head): Stellar sandwiches and cakes served on beautiful ceramics from the studio (Great place to buy unique presents or even try your hand at pottery and they deliver the finished product later)
You can even choose to stay somewhere apart from Dingle if you want an experience that’s more about nature and less about the shops and restaurants around. There are plenty of B&B’s around, and Airbnb has some fabulous listings for all budgets.
Things to Keep in Mind
You can complete Slea Head Drive in 1 – 2 hours, but I strongly suggest you allocate at least 4-5 hours to really enjoy the sights and stops. If you’re planning to take a ferry to the Great Blasket Island, then you will need about a full day instead.
Drive clockwise and be mindful of cyclists, especially during the narrow stretches. There are plenty of places to pull over and park to enjoy a view, so be mindful not to pull over randomly and obstruct traffic.
The road signage is on point; you can easily follow directions for Slea Head Drive (officially R559) without having to rely on your navigation system.
You can even go horse riding or check out the amazing pottery at one of the several potteries en route.
The drive is comfortable for most despite the narrow stretches. You can manage by yourself at all times, so a guide is not necessary. But hire one if you’re looking for something more than ‘point and drop off.’
I suggest you talk to the guide beforehand and see what more they can offer – may be a more authentic local experience. I recommend Sciuird Archaeological Tours, a small family-run business.
What makes the landscape yet more beautiful is the well-preserved culture and archaeology. You can step into villages where Gaelic is the commonly spoken language among locals and observe the local way of life in its true, humble form, with traditional fishing and farming a stone’s throw away no matter where you are.
Forts and small structures from centuries ago transport you to a time long gone. Be it the 12th-century Gallarus Oratory or the relatively recently abandoned Blasket Islands, you can experience how others lived back in the days. A truly fine experience for any history fan.
If you’re in Dingle, spare half a day or more for this scenic drive; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.