The seaport of Sligo in the northwest of Ireland is somewhere that will always be associated with the poet W. B. Yeats.
His mother was from the town, and Yeats himself was a regular visitor in his childhood.
It’s no mystery why Sligo is often called “Yeats Country” as so many local places appear in his works, like the extraordinary Benbulben mountain or Lough Gill lake.
Yeats’ grave lies at the foot of Benbulben in the village of Drumcliffe, ten kilometres from Sligo Town.
Prehistoric passage tombs at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel, and countless smaller monuments imbue the countryside with a certain mystique.
In Sligo Bay you can make a splash on fishing or seal-spotting tours, while the Blue Flag Rosses Point Beach deserves a visit rain or shine.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sligo:
On a plateau west of Sligo is one of Ireland’s four most significant Neolithic sites.
The Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery has more than 30 cairns, the oldest of which dates back to 3700 BC, older even than Egypt’s pyramids.
The restored central tomb, Listoghil was built 5,500 years ago and you can go inside this box-like chamber.
It’s the only monument at Carrowmore where Neolithic art has been found, and is also the only tomb where bodies were interred rather than cremated.
All of the other cairns seem to radiate from this one monument.
For more information there’s a visitor centre in an old farmhouse next to the site, also providing guided tours of the complex from March to October.
Once a large plateau, Benbulben is a 526-metre shale and limestone mountain that was hewn into its unmistakeable form by Ice Age glaciers shearing through the landscape.
The result is a rust-coloured giant often described as “Sligo’s Table Mountain”. Benbulben is in the Dartry Range and sits only 15 minutes from Sligo.
And although photos make the peak seem unconquerable, the trail up the gentle south slope can be tackled by most walkers.
Only the vertiginous north face is dangerous as it is battered by the winds.
Another wonderful thing about Benbulben is that it’s the only place in Ireland where you can find the tea-leaved willow, an Arctic plant more commonly found in Iceland, and deposited on these slopes in the last Ice Age.
Another mysterious natural landmark, Knocknarea is a distinctive, monolithic hill visible for miles around on the Cúil Irra peninsula, just west of Carrowmore.
Unlike Benbulben, Knocknarea has a signposted walking path to its summit.
This will take around 40 minutes from the car park, and at the top you’ll be greeted by a Neolithic cairn named for Queen Maeve of Connacht, a character from the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology.
The cairn is ten metres tall and has never been excavated.
Although this is easily the largest megalithic monument on Knocknarea, it’s by no means the only example, as the east side of the peak is the site of a Stone Age village and there are more, smaller cairns on the slopes.
4. Lough Gill
The River Garavogue, which flows through Sligo, originates at this freshwater lake a couple of kilometres east of the town.
Lough Gill is eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide, and its surface is flecked with densely wooded islands.
By road you can take the 35-kilometre Lough Gill Tour (Blue Route), and there’s a great deal to see.
Parke’s Caste and the Tobernalt Holy Well are both on the list below, while in summer you can step aboard the Rose of Innisfree for a boat tour with a Yeats theme.
On the south shore you can get out of the car for a wander through Slish Wood, which has patches of old-growth oak forest dating back 250 years.
The wood appears in Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”, while Dooney Rock, an abrupt limestone hill on the southwest shore inspired another poem, “The Fiddler of Dooney”.
5. Sligo Abbey
Dating from 1253, this Gothic monastery appears in two of Yeats’ short stories.
One, “The Curse of the Fires and the Shadows”, recounts Sligo Abbey’s partial destruction during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. That wasn’t the only catastrophe to befall the building, as it was razed by fire in 1414, and then wrecked during the Nine Years’ War 1595. The abbey has been abandoned since its last friars vacated in the 1700s, but was restored by the two-time British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in the 1850s.
Although the building has decayed there’s some beautiful Gothic and Renaissance sepulchral sculpture, Ireland’s only original monastic high altar, dating to the 1400s and cloister arcades preserved on three sides.
6. Rosses Point
Where Sligo Bay meets the ocean, Rosses Point is an old seafaring village with glorious views across the bay.
You can get there in under ten minutes by car from the centre of Sligo, stepping out for a walk around the peninsula.
This will carry you along green cliff-tops and behind sweeping beaches.
The main beach at Rosses Point is awarded the Blue Flag each year and is an arcing bay shielded from the open ocean by the peninsular at Ballymulderry to the west.
Back towards the village, you can see the Metal Man in the strait, a navigational beacon from 1821 with the cast iron figure pointing towards the rocks that are out of sight at high tide.
7. Drumcliffe Parish Church
St Columba’s Church of Ireland Church is the final resting place W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), and you can locate his grave outside.
His gravestone is inscribed with the last three lines from his poem “Under Ben Bulben”, reading “Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death/ Horseman pass by”. He has an appropriate plot, as between the trees to the north rises the unmistakeable profile of Benbulben.
Also in the graveyard is a richly carved Irish High Cross from the 800s, and a few steps from the church is the site of a Columbian monastery founded in the 6th century.
Another historic monument here is a Celtic round tower from the 900s or 1000s, and if you inspect the walls of the church you’ll see ancient cross-slabs embedded in the stonework.
8. The Model
For a feast of culture look no further than this cultural centre in one of Sligo’s most eye-catching buildings.
This is the former Model School, by architect James Owen and built in 1862. Since then the monument has been extended twice, most recently by Sheridan Woods in 2010 to create a state-of-the-art visitor centre.
Now there’s a gallery, bookshop, cafe, performing arts space and artist studios on the upper floor with vistas of the town.
In recent times there have been exhibitions at the Model for the likes of Andy Warhol, Paul Chan, Patti Smith and Gerard Byrne.
But regardless of what’s on the programme, you can visit for the Niland Collection, which is Sligo’s municipal art reserve.
This was begun by the librarian Nora Niland and has pieces by Jack Butler Yeats, George Russell and Paul Henry.
9. Parke’s Castle
Right by the water on the east shore of Lough Gill, Parke’s Castle is a fortified manor house going back to the Plantation Era at the beginning of the 17th century.
The settler Robert Parke, partly demolished the 15th-century O’Rourke Castle that was here before, using stone from that stronghold to build his new home.
The Irish rebel Sir Brian O’Rourke had been executed in 1591 at the Tyburn Tree gallows at the junction of the modern Edgware Road and Oxford Street in London.
In summer there are hour-long guided tours of the castle, which was restored in the 20th century, employing building techniques and materials from 400 years ago.
10. Lissadell House and Gardens
This Neoclassical country house was raised in the early-1830s for Sir Robert Gore-Booth, 4th Baronet, and has a prime location by the ocean on the north side of Sligo Bay.
You have to come to appreciate the drama of the setting, facing the Atlantic and islands in the bay, and with the strange outline of the Dartry Mountains in the background.
W. B. Yeats was a regular guest at Lissadell, and mentioned the estate in his 1927 work “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”. This was written about the suffragist Eva Gore-Booth and her revolutionary sister Constance, who grew up here.
The house welcomes you for tours in summer to find out about its famous residents and Irish history in the 1910s and 1920s.
The gardens are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the oceanfront Alpine Garden the Victorian Walled Garden.
11. Tobernalt Holy Well
During a tour of Lough Gill, make for the southwest shore where there’s a natural spring that has been attracting worshippers for more than 1,600 years.
Before Christianity came to Ireland Tobernalt (meaning “Well of the Cliff”), was a Pagan meeting place where the festival of Lughnasa was celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season.
Then in the 18th century, when the Penal Laws prevented Roman Catholic worshippers from building their own churches, the spring became a place for masses.
Pilgrims come from far and wide on Garland Sunday, which falls on the last Sunday of July and replaced Lughnasa in the calendar.
On the hill above you can also track down two Neolithic cairns.
12. Devil’s Chimney
One for the wetter seasons, this magnificent waterfall 11 kilometres from Sligo only flows during sustained wet weather.
So if there has been a downpour be sure to put the Devil’s Chimney at the top of your list.
If you need another reason to come, you can witness the strange phenomenon of the wind literally stopping the water from descending.
With a vertical drop of 150 metres it’s the tallest waterfall in Ireland, flowing from the top of sheer carboniferous limestone cliffs rising more than 500 metres above sea level.
There’s a stiff, 1.2-kilometre trail to the top for astounding views of the Glencar Lough ribbon lake to the south.
13. Coney Island
At the end of Sligo Bay, almost plugging the gap between Strandhill and Rosses Point, is an isle that you can walk to when the tide is out.
This can be done from Cummeen Strand, but if the sea is up there’s a ferry from Rosses Point.
This is the place that gave the Coney Island in New York its name, and at the westernmost point of the bay is a heavenly place to watch the sunset.
The island has deserted beaches on its coast, a set of star-shaped forts from the Napoleonic Wars and bucolic countryside divided by dry-stone walls.
There’s also a solitary pub, McGowan’s, for a refreshing pint after your walking tour.
A fine partner for Carrowmore, Carrowkeel is another Neolithic cemetery dating back as far as 5,400 years.
The landscape contributes a lot to the mystery and allure of this site, spread out on the northernmost summits of the Bricklieve Mountains.
There are 14 passage tombs to be found in the main cluster overlooking Lough Arrow to the east, and more if you set off for the hills in the west.
Something curious about the site is that the tombs appear to be oriented towards Knocknarea and Carrowmore 30 kilometres to the north.
Take care to avoid the temptation to enter or climb on these cairns, as they are more delicate than they look and have cracked lintels.
15. Water Activities
On a walk beside Sligo Bay it may be hard to resist the call of the sea.
Luckily there are few businesses offering trips out to the ocean.
These waters are some of the best around Ireland for angling and fishing, and you could charter a boat to catch pollock, sea trout, mackerel or garfish.
There are also trips out to the isle of Inishmurray, which has been inhabited only by seals since 1948 and still has the walls of an early monastic settlement.
The calmer waters of the Garavogue river estuary and the nearby Ballysadare Bay are safe for sports like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, kitesurfing and windsurfing.
There’s a line-up of water sports companies based in Sligo and on the coast at Strandhill to hook you up.
Open to the ocean, Strandhill Beach has consistent rolling waves and is one of the best in Ireland for surfing.