Located in southwestern Ireland, the Ring of Kerry is one of the most popular tourist trails in the country. After experiencing it first hand, we can easily understand why it’s so popular.
The 179km loop takes you past rolling green pastures, rugged coastline, quaint Irish towns, and the beautiful lakes of Killarney National Park.
Though you could easily drive the loop in a few hours, we recommend allotting a full day to the Ring of Kerry, since you’ll want to pull over roughly every five seconds to snap pictures.
Driving the Ring of Kerry
We started the loop in Kenmare (rather than the more popular Killarney), and drove clockwise to avoid getting stuck behind tour busses that typically drive counter-clockwise.
Of course, because we were traveling in February, we saw more livestock than vehicles headed in either direction (Hooray for off-season travel!).
Not long into our drive we came across a deserted beach and made the first of countless stops.
I admit that I’ve never thought of Ireland as a good beach destination, probably because of the frigid temperatures and near-constant rain. But we saw some beautiful beaches on our drive and found out that surfing is a massively popular sport in Ireland.
As we continued along the loop, we found the rugged coastline between Catherdaniel and Waterville to be particularly gorgeous. The Irish gentleman who ran our Bed and Breakfast in Kenmare told us that even the locals consider that region to have some of the loveliest scenery in all of Ireland.
Tacking the 18km Skellig Ring, an offshoot of the Ring of Kerry, onto your drive is well worth the extra time if you can.
Note: The Skellig Ring is not included in bus tours, so it is only accessible for those with a rental vehicle or other method of transportation.
Our first stop along Skellig Ring (Well, other than a brief stop to take pictures of sheep. Because you can really never have too many sheep pictures.) was at Ballinskelligs Castle. Situated right by the beach, the tower was constructed in the 16th century to protect the bay from pirates.
Not far from Ballinskelligs Castle we stumbled upon Skelligs Chocolate, and it became one of our favorite stops of the day for obvious reasons.
The parking lot was mostly empty, and we couldn’t tell if it was open. But since we consider passing a chocolate shop without at least attempting to enter it to be unethical, we decided to check it out.
Luckily for us, the shop was open and we were the only customers!
Skelligs Chocolate is part chocolate shop and part chocolate factory. As we browsed the wide array of chocolate offerings, one of the workers approached us and asked if we wanted a sample. We nodded enthusiastically. Then, much to our delight, she proceeded to offer us a free sample of every single flavor. Since it would have been rude to refuse, we happily kept shoveling them back until we felt sick.
Obviously, after consuming a dozen samples we felt obliged to buy something. So out of duty we chose a bag of assorted truffles and consumed most of them before we left the parking lot.
Our next stop was at the spectacular Kerry Cliffs. Though the Cliffs of Moher get more hype, we found the Kerry Cliffs to be equally as impressive and less touristy. Admission cost €4.
The elderly Irish man who sold us our ticket looked at us like we were half crazy for venturing out to the cliffs in frigid February, and he warned us that the wind can be strong at the top. Oh how right he was!
Getting to the top of the cliffs requires a bit of hike, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. And in our case, we had roughly 62 chocolates to burn off.
When we were there, we only saw two other people. I imagine it is more crowded in peak season, but I doubt it gets nearly the volume of visitors as the Cliffs of Moher.
The wind was strong and icy and I thought I might literally be blown over the edge a few times.
Beyond the Kerry Cliffs, Portmagee is a popular stop along the Skellig ring for one primary reason: it’s the gateway to Skellig Michael.
Despite the harsh climate, a monastery was founded on Skellig Michael in the 6th century, and it was inhabited until the 12th century. What remains of the monastery is now considered a UNESCO world heritage site.
Of more interest to us less cultured individuals, Skellig Michael was also the film location for the spectacular final scene in The Force Awakens.
Sadly, boat tours don’t operate in the winter, so we weren’t able to set foot on the island. But we did get a glimpse of it from the mainland. We are both Star Wars fanatics, so we were thrilled about that.
One of the final segments along the Ring of Kerry loop took us through Killarney National Park (not to be confused with the nearby city Killarney).
Killarney National Park is so beautiful—and vastly different from the rest of the Irish scenery we saw on our trip—that we would have liked to spend a full day there. But the small portion saw while driving the Ring of Kerry gave us a nice taste of it.
Muckross Abbey is an abandoned 15th century Franciscan friary within Killarney National Park. Exploring its grounds and cemetery was a bit eerie, especially since the sky was overcast and drizzly.
The nearby Muckross House and its surrounding lake are also worth visiting. Unfortunately, the house was undergoing renovations during our visit, so we were unable to go inside.
The remainder of the trip took us further through the weaving, mountainous roads of Killarney National Park and we returned to Kenmare just after sunset.
Even allotting a full day to the drive, we felt a bit rushed, especially in Killarney National Park. If we’d had the time, we would have liked to break the drive up over two days to allow more time for stops.
Self-Drive or Bus Tour?
You have two primary options for completing the Ring of Kerry loop: either join a bus tour or rent a vehicle and drive it yourself.
While there is no shortage of group tour options, our preference is always to drive ourselves. We like having the freedom to travel at our own pace. We also strongly dislike crowds, and traveling with 40 other people means you’re guaranteed to experience crowds anywhere you go. For that reason, we suggest renting a small vehicle (we used the Budget Car Rental at the airport).
However, driving in Ireland is not for the lily-livered. The Irish drive on the left, which can be panic-inducing for North American travelers. And portions of the Ring of Kerry are extremely narrow (we’re talking narrow, single lane roads with stone walls on either side) and so winding it is impossible to see oncoming traffic (typically over-sized tractors) until you’re seconds short of a collusion. Add in dangerously high speed limits and I admit there were a few dozen times I thought I was going to die right there in the lush Irish countryside.
If you’re currently hyperventilating, remember that there is no shame in taking a bus tour!
Where to stay?
The most popular home base for driving the Ring of Kerry is Killarney, as that is where most bus tours depart. But other than a lovely church, we didn’t find Killarney to have much character or charm.
We were happy we took Rick Steves’ advice and stayed in Kenmare, a picturesque Irish town located directly on the Ring of Kerry Route. We stayed here.
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