County Sligo is one of the most underrated holiday destinations in Ireland. It’s a real pity since Sligo has so much to offer, including fairy-tale-like forests, gorgeous beaches and hills with striking cliff-faces. Also, many of these gorgeous locations are within short distance of each other, making them perfect for a longer weekend break. There are also many free things to do in Sligo, which makes it a good budget destination.
Yet, Sligo is hardly found in any travel guides but if you talk to locals they’ll all agree that this region on the West coast of Ireland is worth a trip. To add to its mystery Sligo also likes to refer to itself as Yeats county. That’s because renowned writer and Nobel Prize Laureate W. B. Yeats is closely linked to the county. He wrote many poems inspired by Sligo’s beauty. Once you see these landscapes up close, you’ll understand why he found them so inspiring.
On our five-day trip to Sligo, we visited many must-sees as well as some more hidden spots. Firstly, we started off with the Stairway to Heaven atop Cuilcagh on the border with Northern Ireland. Then we visited Coney Island, a tidal island, in Sligo Bay. We did the classics of getting up close to Benbulbin and viewing Glencar Waterfall, as well as the lesser-known Devil’s Chimney Waterfall, which is the highest in Ireland. Finally, we climbed Knocknearea and visited Queen Maeve’s Grave, before exploring the popular surfing village Strandhill close-by. In-between we also explored the town of Sligo. Here’s the itinerary of how you can make a trip like this happen as well.
Day 1 – Travelling to Sligo by Car
If you’re travelling to Sligo by car, especially from a place like Dublin, you could stop by the Stairway to Heaven at Cuilcagh. Although Cuilcagh is located on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, access to the Stairway to Heaven is only from Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. It’s an easy detour on the way to Sligo and you can say you technically visited two countries on your trip. Remember to bring pounds though, if you’re planning to hang out longer in the area. Once you’ve completed the walk it’s only a one-hour long drive onwards to Sligo.
Cuilcagh Stairway to Heaven Boardwalk Trail
There are two car parks at which you can park. The first one costs 5€ and has a toilet. However, it’s further away, which means you’re adding onto an already long walk. The second car park costs 6€ and is closer. But the downside is that it has no bathrooms. You pick which car park you prefer but be prepared to pre-book the second car park on days where the trail gets busy.
Once you’ve arrived, there’s a considerable walk to the boardwalk, which already includes some elevation. There are also some gates, which you will need to climb over, to contain the sheep who will watch you struggle walking uphil. Once you reach the boardwalk the trail is flatter for a while with an occasional stair. However, then the number of steps starts increasing until you hit the finishing stretch, which will make you feel like you’re climbing the stairs of a tall building. You can always stop in the staircase to pretend you’re admiring the view, which is gorgeous, while you catch your breath. Bring a snack, so you can refuel while taking in the panorama from the viewing platform at the summit.
Oftentimes going down is much easier than ascending a hill. Because of the number of stairs, especially the stairs which are interspersed at a few metres’ distance, going down can be more challenging than you’d expect. Plan in enough time to take it easy and to do some stretches if needed.
Day 2 – Walking to Coney Island
Coney Island is a tidal island located close to the beach in Sligo Bay. Tidal islands are special because during low tide it’s possible to walk across the seafloor to the island. Once the tides rise, the path becomes submerged in water and the tidal island is once again like any other island, surrounded by water. In the case of Coney island the path, which is revealed during low-tide, stretches for 5km. This path is the shortest and safest way to cross, marked by 14 stone pillars. Otherwise you could easily lose your sense of direction and end up walking a much longer distance to somewhere further down the shore.
The crossing can be made by foot or by car. Keep in mind that the seafloor isn’t always completely dried out and puddles can remain. It pays off to have water proof shoes and perhaps carry and extra pair of socks. Alternatively, you could also just take off your shoes to cross on a warm day. The most important thing about crossing is that you only do so when it’s safe. You really want to avoid getting stuck along the seafloor in rising tides since you may be surrounded by water much faster than you expected or your path further down might get blocked. You’ll also want to avoid getting stuck on the island since the next low tide may be in the middle of the night or the following day. The best way to obtain safe crossing times is to text ‘Coney’ to 51155. This is a free text service by a charity called RNLI. You’ll receive a text response with the safe crossing times for that day.
Crossing the seafloor is part of the fun. But there’s much more to do on the island. There are several paths around the island. Following the path North through the village, you get gorgeous views of Benbulbin and Sligo Bay. There’s also a pub, which may or may not be open, depending on the owners’ spontaneous decision. At the back of the island, there’s an extensive beach. From there you will find a path that leads back towards you starting point. This makes it easy to walk in a loop, before having to cross back to the mainland f you’re running out of time. If the weather is agreeable and the crossing times are convenient, you can also arrive during the first safe crossing time and return during the next crossing time. Keep in mind, however, that you’re stuck on the island once the safe crossing time has passed and there are no shops or anywhere to seek shelter if it rains. You may also want to bring plenty of food and water.
Day 3 – Benbulbin, Glencar Waterfall and the Devil’s Chimney
The first two of these three sights may be the classic tourist attractions for the area but they’re classics for a reason. They offer some of the most gorgeous views and stunning sights. You can do these three stops in any order. They’re all relatively short drives from each other and from Sligo town. When planning your journey, keep in mind that Glencar Waterfall is just a short walk, which makes it easier to schedule for the part of the day that might have rain. It’s also the only place with a café immediately next to it, which makes it a good destination for around lunch time.
We started with Benbulbin, one of Sligo’s most notable landmarks. You can see the flat-topped rock formation from almost everywhere in Sligo Bay and as you drive around. It may sound impossible but the closer you get, the more majestic it looks. For the full experience, you could, of course, climb it. However, for a much easier walk and fantastic view of the rock formation itself, there is a lovely forest walk close-by. The walk is 5.5km long without much elevation. The signpost at the entrance suggests the walk will take you two hours. This seems like a very generous estimation but we soon realized it was spot on. There are so many amazing views that we just had to keep stopping to take pictures. So, in the end the walk did take us much longer than we had anticipated.
Along the walk you get great views of Benbulbin’s side profile. Then the path leads you through a forest so magically green, you wouldn’t be surprised to discover fairies lived there. The loop then turns around to a vast view of Sligo Bay and into the distance. As you keep walking towards the car park, you may hear gunshots. It turns out there is a shooting range close-by but it’s safe to follow the path, even if it feels weird to be walking towards gunshots. The path passes a historic ringfort, before brining you back to the car park.
The Devil’s Chimney
This waterfall gets not nearly as much attention as Glencar Waterfall, although they’re fairly close next to each other. In fact, there’s a sign next to entrance to the path specifying that this is not Glencar Waterfall. It’s lack of popularity is surprising because the Devil’s Chimney is Ireland’s tallest waterfall at 150m.
The walk to the viewing platform is a deceptively short at 1.5km. However, the 130 meters which you need to ascend make it quite strenuous. Depending on the parking situation directly in front of entrance to the trail, you may also have to walk a little further from the closest car park by the lake.
Once you arrive at the viewing platform, you can take a moment to rest and take in the beauty of the waterfall. It looks most impressive after heavy rain. Depending on the wind, you can watch the water get swept sideways and sometimes even upwards by the breeze.
Because of its fame, Glencar Waterfall is by far the most touristy location on the list. This can be an advantage. There is a large car park, public bathrooms and a café with a decently large menu. The downside is that it can get a bit crowded. It’s only a few minutes’ walk to the waterfall, which although much smaller than the Devil’s Chimney, is much stronger and majestic in its own way.
Day 4 – Free Things to Do in Sligo Town
Sligo city centre is concentrated along the riverside, which makes it very walkable. There are, indeed, plenty of walks to be had. There is a Sligo Street Art Trail. It’s a great way to learn more about the town and people associated with it as well as enjoy some beautiful wall art. There’s also a riverside walk with the Doorly Park Riverside walk.
If you’re following this itinerary, you’re also likely to spend time simply strolling through Sligo’s streets in the evenings. There are many restaurants located around the city centre area and you’ll be spoilt for choice for what to eat for dinner. Our favourite spot turned out to be an Italian restaurant called Rugantino.
Day 5 – Knocknearea, Queen Maeve’s Grave and Strandhill
Knocknarea – Queen Maeve Trail
This is a day trip from Sligo town, which can also be done by bus. You can even use your LeapCard on the local buses, just like you would on a bus, for example, in Dublin. The local S2 bus, which comes once an hour, takes you to Dorrin’s Strand. Next to the stop there is a gas station with a Centra shop. This is where you can buy sandwiches or snacks for your hike. The trail starts across from the gas station, a little further down the road.
The trail is quite steep from the start. On the plus side, that means you start getting some gorgeous views across to the beach and the sea very quickly, whenever you turn around. The path then continuous into the forest via a boardwalk. By boardwalk we mean a lot of stairs. The boardwalk is relatively narrow, wide enough for one person to walk on at a time. However, there are also little extensions to the platform every now and then to make it easier to let others pass. For parts of the boardwalk, there is also a rope you can use as a railing. Make sure you take the time you need and walk carefully.
Once you leave the forest and ascend towards the grave, you’ll be greeted with stunning views on all sides. You may very well end up walking several times around the tomb just to take in the panoramic view. So, make sure you’re dressed warmly and perhaps bring a hat since it can get very windy outside the forest. Although there are various walks down the hill, you probably will have to descend the same way you came since you’ll need to return to your car in the car park or the bus stop, both of which are on opposite sides.
Free Things to do in Strandhill
While you’re in the area, you should definitely stop in Strandhill. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the bus stop to the beach. Since it’s a popular surfing spot, it’s a busy area. There are various food places, ranging from ice cream or coffee to full-meals. After you’ve recovered from your hike, there’s more walking you can do. There are walks along the beach as well as an entire network of walks, like the Killaspugbrone walk. This walk leads from the restaurants at the seafront to the ruins of a church and graveyard overlooking a beach. On the way, you walk through sandy dunes and, quite uniquely, the end of an airport runway. While crossing an airport runway may seem scary, there are signs with instructions and lights, which clearly come on when you’re not supposed to cross that particular section of the path.
If you enjoyed this itinerary also check out other places we’ve visited in Ireland on our YouTube channel. If you’re now wondering whether Sligo would be a good place to live, we’ve also got you covered with a tour.