Most people will tell you that their favorite part of Ireland was Dublin, maybe Galway, or maybe even the Ring of Kerry (my mom liked the Dingle peninsula). All are wonderful in their own right but for me, Sligo by far and away had the best blend of ‘authentic’ Ireland. The areas of Ireland that all of the tourists go have, in fairness, become that way with good reason. Some are popular with tourists because of the pubs, others for castles, or maybe even the scenery. County Sligo has all of that, but it truly lacks the large groups of tourists like many other parts of Ireland have. I have nothing against tourists and I call myself one, but when you can visit beautiful places without the crowds, it makes for a more authentic experience.
The area is known as Yeats country for the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who made the area famous with poems like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben’. Admittedly, I am not much into poetry but rather the scenery that inspires it, and there is plenty of inspirational scenery in County Sligo.
The primary landmark around the area is the large rock formation of Benbulben. It looks similar to what a mesa looks like in the southwestern United States, only larger and greener than what you would find there. Sheep graze its flanks with their colorful markings to distinguish one owners sheep from another’s like cattle of the western United States are branded for the same reason. Below the flanks of Benbulben are Tolkien-like forests that wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire. You can hike to the summit of Ben Bulben, but instead I chose to walk in the forests at its flank. Here the land was flat and the views of the mountain were stunning.
Another popular spot is known as Knocknarea, a hill that is topped with a very large rock cairn believed to be the Irish legend Queen Maeve’s grave. I started my hike in good weather and I was able to see the views of the bays of Ballysadare and Sligo, with the Irish Sea in the distance, before the Irish weather moved in. On the way up, more sheep with their colorful markings were seen on the slopes of the hill and even up on the rock cairn at the top. When I reached the top, an Irishman asked me if I had seen any sign of the Queen, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
A drive around the beautiful Lough Gill will give you a glimpse of what inspired Yeats to write ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The lake is lined with beautiful hardwood trees, castles, homes and parklands. The lake is large but the one hour drive around its shores is well worth it.
Sligo is also well known for its beaches with Strandhill and Streedagh being among the most scenic you’ll see anywhere. Sligo’s beaches are easily accessible and a walk in the cool sand and fresh air is a great way to take in some of the scenery.
Lastly, Sligo is both a county and a big small town that has all of the conveniences of any proper destination. There are banks, grocery stores, cafes, spas, and even a professional football (soccer) team, the Sligo Rovers. So if you’re looking to get a little off of the tourist route but still want an authentic Irish experience, then head to Yeats Country in County Sligo and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for more information about the hikes/walks in the area, Sligo Walks is an outstanding resource (https://sligowalks.ie).