Make a break for Sligo & Leitrim
Updated: Jun 25
It's hard to beat Sligo for a few days away. It's got everything you could possibly want: stunning beaches, mountains, walking trails and some truly remarkable scenery, all packed into a relatively compact area. It's a dream for walking and hiking enthusiasts, not to mention surfing fans and water-sport lovers, and there are any number of fantastic restaurants to whet your appetite. Add in a few detours across the border into lovely Leitrim and you'll start to think that the west definitely is best.
Where to stay:
Look no further than the two fabulous self-catering apartments at Milk Harbour Holidays where you have a choice of staying in a luxuriously converted Forge or a Boathouse in the most idyllic of locations - right on the sea between Streedagh Beach and Mullaghmore.
This time around we were in the Boathouse but we've already booked a return visit to the Forge. Yep, it's that good. Huge windows take full advantage of the spectacular views on all sides, and seats are strategically placed to enjoy those glorious sunrises and sunsets. The owners Geraldine and Steve have carried out the renovations with love and it's this attention to detail that will make you want to return again and again.
A delightfully comfy bed felt like sleeping on a cloud after an active day's walking, and there are plenty of books for you to enjoy. Yoga mats are provided for guests' use and the kitchen is well equipped with every mod con. A welcome pack including a bottle of wine, flapjacks, local jams and apple juice was the icing on the cake. A bench outside takes full advantage of the sea view: sit and enjoy your morning coffee and breathe in that sea air - it's an easy place to be mindful. Be warned though - with views like these, you won't want to leave...
Rates: from €130 p/night for The Forge and from €110 p/night for the Boathouse. Minimum 3-night stay
What to do
Lakeside walks & trails
Lovers of the great outdoors will be spoiled for choice when it comes to walking and hiking trails and there are plenty of family-friendly options for all levels of fitness. A good place to start is the lovely Hazelwood Forest Walk, just a few kilometres from Sligo town on the shores of Lough Gill. Starting at the car park, this is an easy looped trail of 3 km with shorter alternatives available. It starts at the car park and follows the lake shore - the initial views of the lake are quite jaw-dropping and it's a lovely spot to sit and watch the ducks float past.
Lough Gill is well known for its associations with W.B. Yeats. It is home to a number of small islands including the Isle of Innisfree, made famous in his poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. As you follow the forest trail, every now and then the trees give way to natural clearings with gorgeous views of the lake and islands beyond.
From here, it's worth a short trip over to the Leitrim side of the lake. A nice easy stroll up O'Rourke's Table, a hill which overlooks the lake, has some of the most spectacular views imaginable, especially on a cracking blue-sky day like this.
Lough Gill, or Loch Gile means 'bright or white lake' and from up here, it's easy to see why. The lake appears to shimmer and gleam in the sunshine. From a certain vantage point you should be able to see the range of hills which make up the famous silhouette of the Sleeping Warrior.
Staying Leitrim-side, a visit to Glencar Waterfall is non-negotiable. Situated on the northern side of Glencar Lake and romanticised by W.B. Yeats in his poem ‘The Stolen Child’, it's an impressive sight as it thunders down from a great height above the viewing platform on the short but lovely wooded walk. There are lots of facilities on site including a car park, picnic area, public toilets, a playground and a tearoom.
Just a short distance up the road on the Leitrim / Sligo border is the Devil's Chimney, Ireland's tallest waterfall and a strange natural phenomenon. The Irish name for it is ‘Sruth in Aghaidh An Aird’ meaning 'stream against the height': when the wind blows from the South, the waterfall is blown upward and back over the cliff from which it falls. Sadly it does not flow during periods of dry weather so we missed out on this occasion. Apparently it is quite spectacular during or immediately after periods of heavy rainfall.
Park up at the viewing point at Glencar Lake and take a breather shore-side. Particularly after a rain shower, the vibrant greens of the surrounding hills seem almost luminous. It's incredibly picturesque and peaceful with a natural wildness that's very appealing.
Bartyes Mill Woodland Walk
Close to the Benwisken Centre near Cliffoney, you'll find the site of the 19th century Bartyes Mill on the way to the Gleniff Horseshoe. A lovely woodland walk has been developed with a quirky sculpture trail which kids will love. The walk takes you under native Irish trees with detours to a series of little streams and waterfalls. On a sunny day, it's a fab spot for a picnic.
A short distance from Cliffoney and you'll feel like you're in another world. With views to blow your socks off, the Gleniff horseshoe is an 11km looped walk or drive taking you through some of the most dramatic scenery on the western coast. It's all encompassing as you follow the quiet road, surrounded on all sides by imposing masses of rock, cliffs and the Dartry Mountain range of Tieve Baun, Trushmore, King's, Benbulben and Benwiskin.
If you're in a car, just beware. You'll have to stop around every bend as the scenery gets more and more magnificent. It's hard to take it all in - the views are utterly intoxicating and life-affirming, though you feel very insignificant in the presence of such giants.
Hikes with a view
This is the view from above Glencar Lake. If you're feeling active, the Doneen's and Hudson's Trailhead walk will take you right up to the cliffs above the waterfall. It's utterly spectacular, surrounded by mountains with 360 degree views of Sligo Bay with Knocknarea in the distance. This is very much a local's secret - hardly anyone goes up there so you'll most likely have it to yourself, as we did.
Just a word of caution - this is not an easy climb and you'll require a moderately good level of fitness. You have two options: park up at Glencar Lake car park and you can make your way on foot from there. Link here to trailhead start.
Alternatively you can drive a little way up (even though it's only wide enough for one car) until you come to a bay. Park at this spot and walk from there - it'll save your calves. It's a very steep uphill climb for a few kilometres but I promise you, those views are totally worth it. Here's a little video to convince you.
Knocknarea is an iconic feature in the Sligo landscape, its flat-topped hill dominating the western skyline of the county.
Climbing up to Queen Maeve's cairn at the summit is another rewarding hike.
Believed to be the final resting place of the legendary Queen of Connaught, the Neolithic passage tomb is one of the largest in Ireland and is visible for miles, measuring 55 metres wide and 10 metres high. There's a real sense of our ancient history up here: the Queen is rumoured to be buried standing up in order to keep watch towards her enemy of Ulster. It's an extraordinary feat of engineering and impossible to fathom how they managed to construct a monument of such magnitude at this location.
Taking the paved path from the car park, a steep uphill climb to the summit takes about 30-40 minutes. Again it requires a good level of fitness but oh my, those views are worth it! There's a 360 degree panorama taking in the Ox Mountains, Benbulben and across to Sliabh Liag in Donegal. You can also see the Glencar valley and Lough Gill, and across to Strandhill, Coney Island and Rosses Point. It's quite remarkable.
BEACHES AND COASTAL WALKS
With one of the most impressive coastlines on the Wild Atlantic Way, there is no shortage of gorgeous beaches in Sligo and Streedagh is up there with the best. A 3 kilometre sandy beach beloved of swimmers and walkers alike, it was one of the filming locations for Normal People, as well as the brilliant 2014 film Calvary. Another bit of trivia - three of the Spanish Armada ships were wrecked on Streedagh Beach in 1588.
Mullaghmore looped walk
Mullaghmore is the northernmost point in Sligo, beloved by locals and tourists alike with its picturesque harbour, brightly coloured boats and long sandy beach which is perfect for swimming. If seafood is your thing, bag yourself a table at the terrific Eithna's By the Sea overlooking the harbour.
The 8km looped walk is an easy one - start from the car park at the marina and prepare to be blown away by some of the most awesome sea views imaginable. Stand at Mullaghmore Head and feel the sublime power of nature as the wind whips your hair and the waves come crashing against the rocks below. It's a vast panorama across Donegal Bay and out to the wider Atlantic with views of Benbulben and the Dartry Mountains in the distance. On the western side of the promontory, the imposing Classiebawn Castle, once the holiday home of Lord Mountbatten, dominates the skyline from its isolated and quite spectacular location.
Cliffoney Beach is a deceptive one. Hidden from view by some monumental sand dunes as you approach from the roadway, expect to gasp out loud when you get your first glimpse of the sea. A vast, unspoiled sandy beach stretches out in front of you for miles with views of Mullaghmore and Classiebawn Castle to the north. And the best bit - you'll most likely have it to yourself. Due to strong tides, swimming is not advised but its conditions are perfect for surfing, and it's far less busy than Strandhill. A little gem.
A mecca for surfers, Strandhill has Atlantic views that are hard to beat with Knocknarea and Benbulben in the distance. A lovely little seaside village, it has plenty of cafés, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating to take best advantage of the scenery. One of the best loved is Shell's Café and Bakery, right on the seafront. Their lemon rosemary chicken burger is divine, as is the veggie burger with halloumi. And as for the chips with basil mayo - non-negotiable! For some relaxing downtime, try one of the fabulous organic treatments at the Voya Seaweed Baths.
Insider tip: take the road less-traveled and instead of following the masses towards Culleenamore Beach, turn right along the coast instead. A couple of kilometres' walk will bring you through some dunes and, bizarrely enough, around the runway of Strandhill airport to the tiny bay at Nun's Beach. The sea is much calmer here than at Strandhill and there are fabulous views of Benbulben with Maguins and Coney Island across the way.
On approach you'll see the striking ruins of the 12th century Killaspugbrone Church and cemetery. A waymarked walk brings you right to the site entrance where an information panel references its earlier origins as a 5th century monastic settlement with connections to St. Patrick. It's currently undergoing a preservation initiative by the Killaspugbrone Preservation Society.
HISTORY & ARCHAEOLOGY
Drumcliffe and Yeat's Grave
A trip to Sligo is not complete without a visit to the final resting place of W.B. Yeats in the grounds of this peaceful churchyard at Drumcliffe. While the poet died in France, it was his wish to be buried here at the foot of Benbulben, laying out his request in his poem Under Ben Bulben - "Under bare Ben Bulben's head, In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid". The last three haunting lines of this poem are engraved on his headstone.
Drumcliffe round tower and high cross
A short distance away, a beautiful ruin of a round tower and three high crosses are all that remains of the 6th century monastery founded by St Colmcille in the 6th Century. One of the crosses is highly decorated with engraved animals and scenes from the bible. Unusually it features a representation of a camel.
Creevykeel Court Tomb
This remarkable monument is one of the best examples in Ireland of a full-court tomb. Dating from the Neolithic period (c. 4000 – 2500 BC) it's made up of a wedge-shaped cairn about 50m long, with an oval-shaped court, one of the largest of its type in Ireland and yet another astonishing feat of ancient architecture. The entrance into the court is through a narrow passageway lined with upright stones.
Entrance is from a car park on the N15 near Cliffoney.
Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery
Just a few kilometres from Knocknarea stands Carrowmore, the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland. The site is one of the oldest in the country, with monuments dating back to 5800 years ago. Archaeologists have recorded over sixty tombs on site, of which 30 are visible.
And yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. When we're back in August we'll spend more time on the southern end of Sligo, and are very much looking forward to some indoor dining again in Sligo town.