Field Guide: County Sligo, Ireland

A mythical landscape like no other; County Sligo is a natural paradise with an incredible amount to explore.

24th February 2024 | Words by Jazz Noble


“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, W.B. Yeats

World renowned for its beautiful landscapes and unforgettable Irish hospitality, County Sligo (Irish: Contae Shligigh) is a dream for the outdoor enthusiast. Situated in the north west of Ireland, below Donegal and just 40 miles from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, it sits on the Wild Atlantic Way and is one of the most picturesque counties.

Translated from Irish as the ‘place of shells’, it was a unique inspiration to Irish poet W.B. Yeats, which is why it is also known as Yeats Country. He coined it the ‘land of heart’s desire’ and wrote countless poems inspired by the nature and mythologies of this rich landscape. His most famous poem is The Lake Isle of Innisfree, inspired by a small island located on Lough Gill, south-east of the county’s main town, Sligo Town.

An aerial view of Benbulben Mountain, green pastures and the Atlantic Sea in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: Bruno Biancardi

Sligo Town is a bustling fishing port and market town with a vibrant history and superb traditional music scene. It sits right on the coast and is buzzing with things to do. It’s well worth visiting Sligo Abbey, Niland Gallery, The Yeats Building, and the historic pubs; and regular arts events such as the Cairde Sligo Arts Festival, Sligo Live and more. Don’t forget to sample the incredible seafood either, including excellent restaurants such as Eala Bhán and Hooked, and experiences such as Sligo Oyster Tasting at WB’s Coffee House.

County Sligo also sits within the historic province of Connacht, well-known for its rich mythology and deep links to Irish legends. These include tales of mighty Celtic queens, tragic tales of love and lore and great battles atop ridge-lined mountains; all of which means there’s an incredible history to explore here. And with the backdrop of Benbulben, the Atlantic Ocean, Lough Gill and the Ox Mountains, it’s no wonder County Sligo is the home of such folklore and mystical tales.

Sligo Town in County Sligo, Ireland, with flowers, the river, pubs and shops.

Credit: puckillustrations

With that in mind, here’s a brief overview of just some of the incredible activities you can get up to in this beautiful part of the world.


Perhaps one of the most iconic outdoor activities in Sligo is hiking the iconic Benbulben mountain. Almost impossible to miss, it dominates the landscapes of the west of Sligo and can be seen from many different points around the county. It was originally a large plateau that was shaped during the last Ice Age, and is now known for its uniquely flat, table-topped shape, with undulating ridges around the edges.

An inspiration to Yeats and the setting of many Irish legends, Benbulben is a sight you really don’t want to miss. The most popular hike is the Benbulben Loop trail which many begin and end at Gortarowey forest car park. This route is roughly 5.5km and takes you around the mountain with panoramic views of Sligo, Donegal, Inishmurray Island and beyond.

A landscape view of Benbulben mountain with a grey sky and green fields in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: alexanderknosta

At 526m, it forms part of the Dartry Mountains, though the tallest of this range is actually Truskmore at 647m. Other incredible mountain ranges in County Sligo include the Ox Mountains and the Bricklieve Mountains. Knocknarea mountain forms part of the Ox Mountains and is another iconic hike in the county. The summit contains one of Ireland’s largest cairns, known as Queen Maeve’s Cairn, a former queen of Connacht in Irish mythology.

In the Bricklieve Mountains, you’ll find incredible megalithic monuments known as the Carrowkeel tombs. Built during the Neolithic era, there are 14 cairns dotted throughout the hills (with 6 more further west), dating from 3200 to 2400 BC. There are also 140 circular stone foundations that are thought to be the remains of a prehistoric village. It makes an incredible day out for the history buff.

In terms of long-distance hiking routes, the main trail in the region is the Sligo Way. This is a waymarked route starting in Lough Talt, stretching eastwards across the Ox Mountains, and ending in Dromahair. It covers roughly 80km (50 miles) and takes approximately 3 days. Along the way you’ll cross paths with Lough Talt, Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree at Lough Gill, Easkey Lough, Ballygawley Woods, Lough Lumman, and many more. The terrain is predominantly forest tracks, moorlands, ridgelines and quiet roads, with views of Benbulben and Donegal Bay at various points en route.

A side view of Benbulben mountain and its ridges and forests in County Sligo, Ireland

Credit: Lukassek

Other stunning walks in the county include: The Devil’s Chimney, the Caves of Keash, Knocknashee, Gleniff horseshoe, Lough Gill, The Glen, Slish Wood, Union Wood, Rosses Point walk, Killaspugbrone Coastal walk, Mullaghmore Head walk, Dooney Rock Forest, and many, many more.


World-renowned for its epic waves, Sligo’s positioning on the north western coast has made it something of a mecca for surfers around the world. Most famously, it is home to Mullaghmore Head, a swell that is known to produce waves up to 60 feet high. Don’t believe me? Check out this video:

Credit: SurferToday

Whilst Mullaghmore Head is only for extremely experienced, big wave surfers, there are plenty of other options around the county. Easkey Beach, for example, is equally well-renowned, with slightly less intimidating swells. Known for its barrels, consistent breaks and peaceful surroundings; the rocky coastline produces some truly beautiful waves.

A wave crashing at Mullaghmore beach with a castle in the background in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: Bruno Biancardi

Beginners, on the other hand, might be more drawn to the likes of Strandhill or Enniscrone Beach. Both beaches have surf schools such as Strandhill Surf School, Rebelle Surf and Atlantic Surf School at Strandhill, and North West and 7th Wave Surf School at Enniscrone. Strandhill in particular is a great area for a post-surf pint.

Traditional pubs and music

Much like the rest of Ireland, there are some truly amazing pubs with rich histories to explore in County Sligo. Shoot the Crows pub in Sligo town, for example, dates back to the 1800s, where they used to accept dead crows as payment for pints. While this is no longer the case, it’s now renowned for its live music (mixing popular and traditional acts), good craic, and great atmosphere.

In fact, wherever you are, you’ll never be far from a good night of music. County Sligo has a long history of traditional Irish music, famed for birthing the iconic Sligo fiddle style. It’s also produced notable trad music pioneers such as James Morrison, Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran, Fred Finn, Peter Horan, Carmel Gunning, Peter Horan, Thomas Connellan and many more.

Traditional irish musicians play music in the Beach Bar at Aughris Head in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: The Beach Bar at Aughris Head

Thomas Connolly is another great spot in Sligo town that was voted Ireland’s pub of the year in 2023. It’s actually the oldest pub in the town, dating back to 1780. With more than 160 whiskies available, and live music on Thursdays and Sundays, you won’t want to miss this one.

The Beach Bar at Aughris Head is a traditional thatched pub situated right beside the crashing Atlantic waves. With the Ox Mountains in the background, and world-renowned Irish coffees, the Beach Bar offers a truly authentic experience of the Emerald Isle.

The Beach Bar with a thatched Irish roof at Aughris Head in County Sligo, Ireland.

Flora and fauna

Due to its unique coastal location, exposed to the will and whim of the wet Atlantic climate, County Sligo has some truly unforgettable landscapes. This includes upland heaths, blanket bogs, raised bogs, oak woodlands, tidal estuaries, sandy beaches, craggy cliff lines and more. So, there are countless opportunities to interact with the Celtic wildlife in the county. In fact, almost 20% of the county is designated for nature conservation, hence the incredible variety of flora and fauna.

A hiking footpath on a sunny day with green fields, blue skies and the countryside in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: mark_gusev

In the woodlands in particular, you’ll find mammals such as pine marten, red squirrel, badger, fox, fallow deer and a whole range of different bats. In terms of birdlife, you’ll discover willow warblers, chiffchaffs, jays, goldcrests, treecreepers, plovers, kestrels, sparrowhawks, merlins, peregrines and more.

County Sligo is actually home to the Irish Raptor Research Centre, the largest sanctuary for birds of prey in Ireland. There are hundreds of different birds of prey, falcons, owls, hawks and eagles here, with flying displays to watch, and a touch-zoo to visit on your way out.

A landscape view of a yellow, white and black Peregrine Falcon in County Sligo, Ireland.

Credit: emranashraf

In the coastal waters, it’s possible to spot grey seals, basking sharks, dolphins, minke whales, beaked whales, sperm whales, harbour porpoises, and even giant humpback whales. In the coastal skies, make sure to watch out for gannets, puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, Manx shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, stormy petrels, Leach’s petrels, pomarine and skuas. Rarities include goosander, great shearwater, marsh harrier, buzzard, long tailed skua, Sabine’s gull and whiskered tern.

Well-renowned for its long-standing history of fishing, Easkey River is a famous spot for salmon fishing if you’re an aspiring angler. You’ll also find top-quality brown trout fishing in Lough Arrow and Lough Talt, with more salmon fishing in the Ballisodare River, the Bonet River, and Lough Gill.

How to get there

If you’re keen to minimise your carbon footprint, there are a few ferry options from mainland Britain that cross the Irish Sea, including ports at Holyhead, Fishguard and Liverpool. These ferries arrive at the ports of Dublin, Rosslare and Belfast respectively. You can take a car, motorcycle, bicycle or travel as a foot passenger. If you’re coming from mainland Europe, there are even ferries from Cherbourg to Rosslare, and Rosscoff to Cork. Alternatively, you’ll find the nearest airport in Knock, south west of Sligo. From there you can get a bus directly into the Sligo area. The next nearest working airports include Donegal airport, the City of Derry airport, or the Belfast International and Belfast City airports. You will also have to get a bus or train from these airports to Sligo.

Sligo Town in County Sligo, Ireland, from Hyde Bridge looking over the Garavogue River.

Credit: AlexMastro

It’s worth mentioning, however, that unless you’re embarking on a long-distance, all-weather backpacking or bikepacking adventure, the best way to travel around Sligo is probably by car. This way you’ll be able to soak up as many sights as possible in the shortest amount of time. There are quite a few bus tours, however, as well as local bus routes and the Irish rail network. The Dublin-Sligo railway line, in particular, is popular if you’re travelling from the south of the country.

When to go

While undeniably a rainy part of the world, this oceanic climate is what creates the luscious greenery Sligo is known for. Not a bad payoff if you ask me. This also makes those sunnier days all the more spectacular, leaving you with no excuse but to get outside and explore the region.

A beautiful sunrise over Glencar Lough in County Sligo, Ireland, with boats and mountains in the background.

Credit: Helen Hotson

With this in mind, April through to October are probably the best months to visit if you’re looking to avoid the colder weather, with the main tourist season running from June to September. Going during the tourist months will ensure that most attractions will be open, however, there is still plenty to do in the chillier months too – think wistful wintry walks, roaring pub fires, hearty food and more.

Jazz Noble is a London and Northern Ireland-based writer with a passion for hiking, cycling and the outdoor world.

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