It would be fair to say that this was a late and unintentional addition to our Ireland road trip itinerary, borne out of convenience rather than a burning desire to visit. But Sligo was like that night out that you don’t particularly want to go on, which unexpectedly turns out to be the BEST.NIGHT.EVER!
We rocked up to our hostel in the mid afternoon, a bit weary from 11 days of solid driving and sightseeing and sad to be at the tail end of our big Ireland adventure. We were welcomed in by possibly the coolest pug in Ireland, surely a sign of the great things that Sligo had to offer. By the time we left we were regretting not being able to spend more time there but happy to have seen enough to know that it’s somewhere we’d love to return to.
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What to See and Do in Sligo
This elongated, flat topped mountain is the most prominent and dominant feature of the west Sligo skyline. Climbing Knocknarea was the very last thing that we did on our ultimate Ireland road trip, and easily one of the most rewarding. We only had the morning remaining before we needed to get ourselves to the airport and Max and Alison, the managers at our hostel, suggested this was something we couldn’t miss. They weren't wrong.
Gazing up at the top from Knocknarea’s base, we really weren’t sure it would be possible to get to it's peak and back down in just an hour and a half. It’s so big it casts a brooding shadow over the entire area. We decided to go for it and from the moment we set off were rewarded with amazing scenery. There are three sections to the climb, the first takes you to the bottom of a wood, the second goes through the wood to the first viewpoint and then the third leads to the top of the mountain.
The lower mountainside was covered in gorse, the pretty yellow wild flower found all over Ireland at that time of year. The section through the woods has a raised wooden walkway which works its way through the trees. From the top there are breathtaking panoramic views across Sligo and out to sea as well as an enormous cairn, which is said to be the grave of the mythical Queen Maeve of Connacht.
Unfortunately the closest we got to Benbulben was viewing it from the top of Knocknarea, but it’s another striking mountain with very distinctive features. From its foot, it looks as though vertical grooves have been carved into its side and it’s flat peak have drawn comparisons to Table Mountain in South Africa. Although we didn’t have the opportunity, Benbulben can also be climbed and you’ll get majestic views from its summit similar to those from the top of Knocknarea.
Sligo’s coast forms part of the Wild Atlantic Way driving route that runs the whole of Ireland’s west coast and has some of the most well known beaches in Ireland, particularly among surfers. This area is well known as a big wave haven which has led to it being nicknamed the Surf Coast. It attracts everyone from beginners wanting to learn at one of the resident surf schools, to world class surfers, and Strandhill is at the centre of the action.
The beach itself is wild and rugged and a great place for walking with its grass tipped sand dunes transporting you to a different world. You can also feel the raw power of the ocean when the tide is in as the waves come relentlessly crashing in, throwing spray high up into the air. There are a few cafes and bars along the seafront which make it a popular place for people to come and relax while taking in the views.
Walk Around Town
Sligo town is built around the Garavogue River, which winds its way right through its heart before finally heading out to the Atlantic. Walking around the centre of Sligo doesn’t take long as it’s so small, but this is how we really began to fall for the city’s charms.
Colourful buildings are packed into narrow streets which all seem to lead to the river. Walking along the Garavogue’s edge in the early evening was magical as the buildings that line it began to light up. Criss crossing the three bridges that lie just a few dozen metres from each other gave us winning views of the quaint buildings reflected in the water.
Overlooked by Knocknarea, Dolly’s cottage is a tiny building with a huge history, being the oldest building of its kind in the area. It’s white stone exterior is topped with a fetching thatched roof that gives a clue to its age of over 200 years.
It was closed when we were there (wrong time of year), but it’s open to the public during the summer months and provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, as it’s survived largely without alteration. It’s named after its last occupant, Dolly Higgins who lived there until 1970, when it was bought by the Irish Countrywomens Association and opened as a museum.
This is a bonus activity for all you late 90s early 2000s pop boyband heads out there. The chart conquering, white suit sporting legends that are Westlife were actually originally formed in Sligo. So the story goes, they were a 6 piece made up of local lads who got signed by pop impresario Louis Walsh following his colossal success with Boyzone.
When he introduced them to Simon Cowell, he liked them but insisted that they got rid of at least half of them as they were far too ugly to be in a pop band. 3 sackings later and a couple of new recruits saw them turn into the heartthrobs we know today. Some locals told us that a couple of them still live in the local area and not only can you see their houses from the top of Knocknarea, but if you're lucky you might catch them in the local supermarket or pub...
A Night Out in Sligo
One of the most surprising things about Sligo was just how lively the nightlife was, especially considering how small the place is. There are dozens of pubs, bars and restaurants that work together to create a fantastic local night scene. Not only that, but Sligo was one of the most friendly places we visited in all of Ireland. Now for those of you who have visited Ireland, or even just met an Irish person, you’ll understand that’s saying something. Everywhere we went people stopped and spoke to us, from a lady who recommended us eating at a restaurant we were stood outside, to a pair of climbing companions we met when we walked up Knocknarea.
There’s a growing food scene in Sligo, and though we didn’t have the chance to eat in them, a number of restaurants came highly recommended. Miso Sushi is a little establishment on the riverside that serves authentic Japanese cuisine focussing on freshly prepared sushi. Coach Lane at Donaghy's is an award winning pub and restaurant with a reputation as serving the best food in Sligo.
We did have the opportunity to sample some of the pubs and bars (are you surprised?) and particularly enjoyed the live music that they were playing as well as the welcoming atmospheres. Thomas Connolly is an old traditional Irish pub which had a live acoustic duo playing while we were there and a very friendly patron who insisted on buying us drinks. We’d also highly recommend McGarrigles which has an open fire right in the centre of the pub that a traditional Irish band was sitting next to playing great music and again, very friendly customers inside.
Where to Stay in Sligo
We stayed at The Beehive Hostel in Sligo, which is easily one of the very best hostels we’ve stayed at in all of our travels. It’s in a huge old house which been recently renovated, so everything is brand new and in perfect condition, and the decor is absolutely beautiful. It’s also in an amazing location, just a few minutes walk away from all of the best spots in town and a short drive from the coast and other attractions.
The kitchen is massive and really well stocked so there’s no bit of kitchen equipment that you won’t find in there, which is a breath of fresh air when it comes to hostels. There’s a really big open plan social area, split into dining area and relaxing area with a tv, board games etc. and is the perfect space to get talking to and meet people. The room we stayed in was a spacious 4 bed dorm with en suite bathroom, and rather than pack it full of bunk beds, each bed was a single meaning it felt really airy.
The whole place had a really homely feel, helped by the fact that the manager/owners Max and Alison were unbelievably friendly and welcoming, and always on hand to help out with any questions we had. And they also have an adorable little pug, Pugsy who is an absolute star! We can’t recommend The Beehive Hostel Sligo highly enough, and when we go back that’s definitely where we’ll be staying again.
What’s the one place you’ve visited that took you by surprise and left you wanting more and why? Drop us a comment below to let us know - we don’t want to miss out on any gems!