A couple of things need to be brought into consideration before planning a thorough trip around Ireland. The first one is money, as the island is not a particularly cheap destination and accommodation, car rentals, gas and food can considerably increase a tight daily budget. The second one is the weather condition, usually in the form of unexpected storms, showers or drizzle, damp weather and cold gusts of wind. Bearing those two variables in mind, you should still see the glass half full and look forward to making the most of your stay in Ireland. Friendly towns, dramatic historical sites, breathtaking views and a bustling social and cultural life will most definitely cater for your needs. First and foremost, remember: no matter how hard it rains in Ireland, you still stand a chance of finding the pot full of gold at the end of the rainbow!
TEN gems the pot full of gold hides:
- EU Visa, if necessary
- International Driving License (prepare yourself for left-hand driving)
- Travel insurance
- Plenty of cash and credit card (about €80-100 per day, plus car costs)
- UK/Ireland electrical adapter (three pin)
- Waterproof clothes and raincoat
- Windstopper (you will need it for hiking the cliffs)
- Walking shoes for hiking
- Student’s card (it actually gets you 50% off pretty much everywhere)
- A cooler (packing-up your lunch for the day will definitely save you time and money)
- A GPS device (it can be difficult to find your way out of local winding roads)
1. Cliffhanging in Western Ireland
Get your hiking gear ready and go literary “cliffhanging” in Western Ireland. The island boasts some of the most breathtaking cliffs in Europe: the Slieve League Sea Cliffs and the Cliffs of Moher.
Although not entirely vertical, The Slieve League Sea Cliffs are amongst the highest sea cliffs in Europe (600 m above sea level) and are located in County Donegal, at about an hour and a half’s drive through a winding road from Donegal. The area is accessible by car and has a resting area. Manmade stairs make the first part of the trip very straightforward and it is possible to obtain excellent pictures of the cliffs without having to cover the whole length of the path or taking unnecessary risks.
The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare are not as high (203 m) but are deemed as one of the most beautiful spots in the island and, thus, the number of tourists visiting the site can be counted by the hundreds. To escape the hoards, head to Hag’s Head Trail (5,5 km each way) to fully appreciate the extension of the round-shaped cliffs. The signal tower, at the end of the trail, was built to warn the local population from a possible attack by Napoleon’s troops. However, if walking is not your thing, just take the staircase that leads to O’Brien’s Tower in the Doolin Trail and enjoy unique views of the cliffs.
2.Experience dramatic coastal scenery
The rugged Irish coastline is one of its major attractions, particularly in the northern and western shores. Stay alert for breathtaking cliffs, sandy beaches, unbelievable rock formations and the impressive architecture that make up one of the most memorable landscapes in the island.
Head to Coast of Antrim in the North and follow giant Finn McCool’s steps as he chases out rival Benandonner to Staffa Island in Scotland, according to the legend. The Giant’s Causeway is made of over 40,000 hexagonal solid cool basaltic cracked lava formations. The area’s geology provides evidence of the process of cooling down the earth went through some 60 million years ago after intense periods of geo-volcanic activity. The Causeway, one of the most visited spots in the island and the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in British Northern Ireland, is the main landmark in the Causeway Walk, a stretch of coast that extends from Ballycastle to Downhill and which contains other relevant sights as the Carrick-a-Rede hanging bridge, the Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle or Mussenden Temple.
In the West, go to lush Connemara Peninsula, accessible both on a short ride from counties Mayo and Galway, for further inspirational coastal scenery. The area hides some of the most precious sights in the island, like lakeside Kylemore Abbey, the quiet black-sand beaches at Renvyle or the bogland scenery of Connemara National Park, around Letterfrack. Enjoy remarkable seashore views around friendly Clifden and the winding roads that leads to the towns of Ballyconneely and Roundstone, in County Galway.
3. Dublin Literary Tour
Novel, poem or play? Stroll Dublin in a literary tour that could include top libraries like, Chester Beattie’s, Marsh’ or Trinity College‘s -where the Book of Kells is kept- and literary landmarks of the taste of novel icons Jonathan Swift and James Joyce, poets W.B. Yeats or J. M. Synge or playwrights Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde.
Novel readers start their walk in Parnell Monument, on the northern bank of the Liffey, to explore the James Joyce Center and Monument. Then find more daedalia around the canal banks in St Stephen’s Chapel and St Stephen’s Green, whose name influenced the eponymous character in Joyce’s Ulysses and A Portrait of The Artist as A Young Man. For more novel-inspired memorabilia, walk to St Patrick’s Cathedral to learn about Jonathan Swift, a former dean and one of the most renowned satirists and novelists of the 18th century. Do not miss it, his masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels gives name to this travel section!
If you are more into drama or poetry, book your tickets for a classical Irish play at The Abbey or The Gate or follow Oscar Wilde’s tracks west of Trinity college, in 21 Westland Row and Merrion Square. Relax in one of the most beautiful spots in Dublin as you admire the Georgian architecture, full of colorful doors and neoclassical columns, ledges and the Oscar Wilde Monument, which shows the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest lying on a rock wearing a flashy burgundy jacket. Find also your way around for poet Y. B. Yeats’ house in Merrion Square and George Bernard Shaw’s in 33 J.M. Synge’s St.
Some of the bridges crossing the Liffey also pay tribute to some of the cities’ most famous authors. James Joyce has a bridge named after him between Ellis Quay and Usher’s Island and, in the other end of town, facing the Docklands, it is also possible to admire the avant-garde Sean O’Casey swing bridge and the cable-stayed Samuel Beckett Bridge, erected by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
4. Find the meaning of peace in Northern Ireland
Learn about the meaning of peace in the heart of Northern Ireland, probably the most conflict-struck region in Western Europe. Stroll around the streets of (London)Derry and Belfast along peace walls, peace monuments and peace bridges to get an idea of the two existing realities in the territory. Sense one of the major ethnocentric conflicts of the XX century, as you observe the astounding political art in the Catholic and Protestant districts of Belfast and Derry.
Once in Belfast, book a Black Cab Tour and let your driver guide you through some of the darkest episodes of the Irish and British history. Open your mind taking sides, as there is just a very blurry and thin line between hero and foe in the Gaeltacht Quarter, and their neighbors across the Wall in the Shankill district, in West Belfast. A tour usually starts in the International Wall, where Republicans display murals of current political issues and show their support to other on-going socialist and left-wing initiatives worldwide. Deep inside the neighborhood, impressive murals of Republican fighters are to be found painted in façades and along the Peace Line, which has separated the two sectarian districts since the late 1960s.
In the same way, on the other side of the road, loyalists boast their britishness and Protestant background as they pay tribute to Unionist heroes on their terraced-house sidewalls in the Shankill district. Crumbling Road, the former Belfast prison, also lies on this side of the road. The building is now a museum that brings remembrance to some of the darkest episodes of Northern Irish history and its main protagonists, the political prisoners. Likewise, in Dublin, Kilmainham Gaol digs up into Ireland’s path to independence and resistance to British rule during the Civil War. The prison, one of the most visited places in Ireland, and probably the quirkiest, honors some of the Irish leaders executed there during the Civil War.
About a hundred kilometers northeast from Belfast, (London)Derry has also been at the heart of the upheaval between Unionist and Republican factions. In the Bogside working-class terraced houses, admire the murals painted by the Bogside Artists, which illustrate the turmoil the Catholic side of town was plunged in the late 1960s. The street art gallery brings back to memory the events occurred during the three-day Bogside Battle, the Bloody Sunday massacre and the Operation Motorman raid in detail, as seen from the eyes of some of the victims and their families. Irish flags, references to IRA and the Free Derry memorials still stand in most parts of the neighborhood. For Loyalist references, head to the western bank of the Foyle, in Waterside, or to the eastern side of the Craigavon Bridge, where some UVF and Unionist murals and references are also visible.
Looking for symbols of peace and progress? Apart from those on the Bogside, (London)Derry, the UK City of Culture 2013, boasts a modern Peace Bridge that links the walled city and Ebrington Square and a Hands Across The Divide Monument, which seeks to summarize the step forward taken by (London)Derry’s citizens towards the consolidation of the current status quo that enables peaceful coexistence.
5. Live the pub
Have you ever been to a major city without an Irish pub? The pub is a social institution in Ireland and the “spirit-ual” retreat of the Irish folk. Crawl around a few pubs anywhere in the island and let the country’s history and folklore impress you. Watch local sports, listen to traditional music or have a taste of local food while you sip stout or cider and… catch the vibe!
There are remarkable pubs almost everywhere in Ireland, be it in one of its capital cities or in the tiniest spot of the most remote peninsula. The pub is the cornerstone of the social life in a place where weather is not that inviting and meeting outdoors is not always possible. In this scenario, the pub offers a place to gather in community while enjoying some of the main traits of irishness:
Sports: Head to your local pub for a game of rugby: Six Nations, World Cup or local game. Ireland is a rugby country and its provinces have, at some point, been among the best rugby union teams in Europe. But… not just rugby, Ireland also vibrates with national sports like Gaelic football or hurling. Horse-racing and football, mainly Premiership, are also among the Irish top choice.
Food: Pub food is an easy resource for someone who is not in the mood for cooking. An average Irish pub will either offer no food, or just fast food, usually in the form of fried or grilled stuff. By contrast, other pubs or inns offer more sophisticated fare like Guinness stew or even oysters, in the Galway area .
Music: It is possible to find live music pretty much anywhere anytime from 7:00pm in Irish pubs. Music shows range from traditional Celtic-folk music to unplugged concerts performed by local artists who play their own songs or major folk, pop or rock hits. It is also possible that pubs act as musical bars where major hits and chart music is played. Expect some dancing to go along with the music, too.
Drinks: Cider, whiskey and beer are Ireland’s major drinks, although the island is also famous for manufacturing liquor like Sheridan’s or Baileys. Magners is probably the most popular cider, although there are several premium locally produced cider brands, too. if we talk whiskey (not whisky), Jameson and Bushmills will certainly be names that come out. It is beer, however, the drink that deserves a separate mention. Stout is meant to be the national drink and Diageo’s Guinness, based in Dublin’s St James’s Gate, is the leading world brewer. The Murphy’s and Beamish’s breweries, Guinness’ direct competitors, are currently owned by Heineken and they are particularly popular in the Cork area, where their headquarters lie. Other popular beers are Harp in Dundalk and Smithwicks, in Kilkenny. Local brews, which also include lagers and ales are also currently quite popular . Most breweries and distilleries offer walks and visits and, without a doubt, the Guinness Experience tour is the most recommended.
For a good pint-and-fun, head to:
- Dublin: John Mulligan’s for a good pint, sports and a local vibe
- Belfast: Crown Liquor House for a piece of Belfast’s history
- Sligo: Shoot The Crows for some traditional music and local flavour
- Galway: Garvey’s Inn for live music in comfy seats with convenient accommodation upstairs.
- Cork: Sin É for a bustling atmosphere and live music
- Kilkenny: Kyteler’s Inn for local brews, live music and to experience the city’s vibrant nightlife.
6. Ease your mind across bridges over troubled waters
Ease your mind by crossing bridges over troubled waters in pastel color washed villages and towns. From Belfast to Cork, find beautiful bridges over small rivers surrounded by colourful terraced houses, traditional shops and iconic pubs. Experience the magic of cities like Sligo, Dublin, Galway, Derry, Belfast or Cork just by walking around the banks of its rivers. Sail on by, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way!
Dublin: Start humming Simon and Garfunkel’s song in the banks of the Liffey in Dublin, enjoying the local architecture and the collection of bridges that make their way across the river, from historical sites like O’Connell or Ha’Penny Bridge to more modern ones like Sean O’Casey or Samuel Beckett’ Bridge.
Belfast: Carry on with the tune in Belfast along the revamped Logan riverbanks towards the Lagan Weir, where salmon fish used to hatch and a Bigfish statue has been erected. Visit the Custom House and the Albert Memorial Clock while you feel the greyish flavour of Northern Ireland’s capital.
Derry: Sing low while you admire the 17th century city fortification and some of its historical buildings from the riverside. Check out the Walls and the Guildhall from one side of the Peace Bridge and Ebrington Square on the other. Spot the differences between Irish Republican quarters and their Unionist counterparts across the other side of the river to reach a sense of communion after walking over Craigavon Bridge and finding the A Hands Across The Divide monument as a symbol of peace.
Sligo: Keep your undertone in Sligo’s Rockwood promenade along the Garavogue. Discover cosy coffee shops and restaurants, while you admire local landmarks like the Abbey or the continuous references to the national poet, William Butler Yeats.
Westport: Do not stop singing to yourself in this Georgian town in County Mayo. Enjoy typical Irish architecture as you cross River Carrowberg either side. Westport is the ideal spot for a pitstop.
Galway: Continue humming the tune in Galway along the Corrib observing the river meandering through pastel color-washed houses from William O’Brien Bridge or Wolf Tone Bridge. Do not miss the church tops, the cathedral or Spanish arch. Watch the harmonious arrangement of terraced houses from the Canal Basin and get lost in the inner depths of the city along Quay St, Bridge St or High St.
Cork: Resume your singing in the “southern capital” following River Lee’s Northern and Southern Channels. Enjoy the architecture from the various bridges crossing the city. The city’s English Market, the former Beamish & Crawford Brewery and the Cork Butter Museum should also be in your list of highlights.
Kilkenny: The song reaches its end in Kilkenny along the river Nore, admiring the perfection of its majestic castle, medieval architecture and rock bridges. Spot traditional shops, churches in ruins and the Smithwicks brewery on your way.
7. Discover Game of Thrones locations
“For the night is dark and full of terrors”, from Winterfell to Pyke, from the Stormlands to the Dark Hedges in Kingsroad, many of the Game of Thrones locations where shot in Northern Ireland, mainly in counties Antrim and Down. Discover these land-of-fantasy locations, which include ancient castles and temples and dramatic natural environments.
Some of the TV series settings where shot in Coast of Antrim, particularly those related to Theon Greyjoy’s Pyke and Iron Islands and the Stormlands, Stannis Baratheon’s headquarters. Locations are easily recognizable for their protruding cliffs, islets and dark sandy beaches. Probably the most worthwhile visits are to Mussenden Temple, around Downhill, and The Dark Hedges, further south, off the coast, near Ballymoney. The first sight is the place where Stannis and Melisandre burn their old gods against Sir Davos’ approval, with Mussenden Temple clearly visible atop the hill. The second spot brings us to Arya Stark’s transportation from King’s Landing to The Wall to join the Nightswatch. The Dark Hedges are an arrangement of ancient beech trees that embrace each other from different sides of the road creating a gloomy atmosphere.
Other relevant locations like Winterfell or the Twins are to be found south of Belfast, in counties Down and Armagh. Tourism has started to boom in the area and many attractions and activities related to the TV series are currently available in these places.
8. Drive through the shire in ring communities
Visit the shire by driving through winding ring roads in remote peninsulas. Experience the wilderness of their landscapes and the quietness of local life. Be it in counties Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Kerry or Cork, do not miss the thrilling experience of finding out what treasure the next fisherman’s village is going to unveil.
The best choice for a perfect round trip is the Ring of Kerry, being other options the Inishowen, Dingle, Beara and Mizen Head Peninsulas. For a perfect Ring of Kerry trip start in Killarney and visit its National Park and the horse-cart filled Gap of Dunloe. Drive counter clockwise to friendly Killorglin and past the megalithic ring forts around Caherciveen and Ballycarbery Castle.
Then, admire the dramatic coast of Skellig and follow the ring road to Portmagee, where the sound separates Valentia Island from the main land. Cross the bridge and drive towards Knightstown in the north-eastern tip of the island for a perfect view from the harbor. Later head to the lighthouse on the northern shore and follow the same itinerary back to Portmagee. Cross the bridge again with a second stop at the sound and continue on the ring road to Ballingskellings Bay, with stops at Ballingskellings Castle and Waterville, for waterfront promenade walks.
If you are not running short of time, you still have a chance to make a few more stops on your way around Caherdaniel and Castlecove before reaching Kenmare or Killarney –again-, where the round trip should come to an end.
9. Time-travel to a Megalithic past
Time-travel a few thousand years back to Neolithic Age to encounter prehistoric tribal life and Celtic mysticism. Ring forts, cromlechs, dolmens and funerary monuments are scattered all over the island, some of them like the ones in Brú na Bóinne or The Burren still in mint condition.
The Newgrange burial chamber in Brú na Bóinne, off M1 in county Meath, is probably the best preserved megalithic monument in the entire island. Visits to the site are arranged via the Visitor’s Centre, where a bus trip takes crowds for guided tours of the chamber and other sites nearby in Knowth and Dowth. Like the Mayan temple of Chichen Itzá in Mexico, the chamber in Newgrange gets filled in with a beam of light during the winter solstice allowing sight of the burial place at the other end of the aisle. Throughout the year an artificial light show emulates the original lightning of the room for the visitor’s amazement. Overall the main structure is very well preserved and the grassy surrounding area, along with the pasture views, make up for perfect photo opportunities.
For another perfect trip to ”rock county “ head to The Burren, in county Clare. The protected natural area of barren vast cracked rock and grassy crevasses start south of Corcomroe Abbey and Bell Harbour, being the Ailwee Caves, the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb and the Poulnabrone Dolmen the main sights. There are also several ring forts in the area, similar to the ones in Caherciveen, in county Kerry.
It is also possible to spot well-preserved megalithic constructions in in the Carrowmore and Carrowkeel megalithic cemeteries south of Sligo.
10. A land carved in stone
Since the beginning of time, the Irish have carved their lives in stone. Keeping megalithic ruins aside, Ireland is rich in stony medieval architecture, ranging from castles to turrets, abbeys to cathedrals or forts to watchtowers. Find out about impressive buildings like the Rock of Cashel, Kylemore Abbey or Kilkenny Castle, which definitely should be included in any itinerary of Ireland. Enjoy other sites as-you-go while exploring the most remote corners of the island.
Main military, civil and religious “rocks” in Ireland:
- Fortifications: The main highlight here is the Rock of Cashel in county Tipperary. The fortified construction upon the hill, dating from the 11th century, is very well preserved and some of its main religious buildings and artwork can still be fully appreciated. Derry also displays newer Renaissance walls that enclose some of the city’s main highlights, which currently form the city centre.
- Castles: The 12th century Kilkenny Castle is probably the best upheld castle in Ireland. For perfect views of the castle exterior cross St George’s bridge and head to John’s Quay on the opposite side of the river. Castle ruins are also visible around the island. One of the most remarkable is to be found in a scenic trip from Portrush to Portballintrae in coast of Antrim, site of Dunluce Castle, a 16th century construction atop a basalt rock surrounded by a deep moat. Likewise, in the Burren, the manor-like Leamanegh Castle structure still stands, though the roof has almost completely collapsed. Lakeside Ross Castle, within the Killarney National Park, is also an outstanding construction dating from the 15th Century which can easily be accessed by following the pedestrian walk from Killarney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. Finally, Dublin also boasts a Castle in the heart of the Viking area. The Castle is surrounded by other impressive buildings of different periods and some of the most remarkable religious buildings and libraries in town.
- Watchtowers and turrets: Historically the Irish have been very prolific in building defence lines against the enemy. Evidence is to be found in the Cliffs of Moher, Moher’s lookout tower stood to warn the local population from a possible French attack. On the other side of the wall, O’Brien’s watchtower offers stunning views of the cliffs. The Ring of Kerry is also the perfect site for admiring old ruins like Ballinskellings Castle, which lies amid a promontory easily spotted from the beach.
- Cathedrals and Temples: Ireland’s patron saint-devoted St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is probably the Republic’s main religious building, along with Norman 12th century contemporary St Audoen’s Church and Christ Church. Both Belfast and Derry boast both Protestant and Catholic churches and cathedrals, while Galway, Killarney and Cork also host Catholic cathedrals that are easily spotted citywide.
- Abbeys: Picturesque abbey ruins are found within the cities of Sligo, Kilkenny and Cashel’s outskirts. Sometimes it is just the structure and the cemetery that still stand, while serious damage has been performed on the roofs. Other sites like Kylemore or Corcomroe Abbey, in Connemara and The Burren respectively, offer architectural highlights surrounded by astounding landscapes.
A 10-day road trip around Ireland:
Days 1-2. Dublin (arrival)
Pitstop: Boxty for a genuine Irish stew and Queen of Tarts for a sweet treat
Day 3. Dublin to Belfast with a Brú na Bóinne Detour
Pitstop: Deane’s Deli for gourmet soup and fish-n-chips (enjoy pre-theater deals) while in Belfast
Boxes: Ramada Encore, central and convenient.
Day 4. Belfast to Derry through County Antrim
Pitstop: Pier 59 for fish and seafood chowder in Derry
Boxes: Princes House, convenient with a nice Irish fry for breakfast
Day 5. Derry to Sligo through County Donegal
Pitstop: Lyon’s Café in Sligo for bakery
Day 6. Sligo to Galway through Connemara region
Pitstop: Paddy Burke’s Oyster Inn in Clarinbridge, for oysters and sea fare.
Boxes: Garvey’s Inn, central and convenient with a nice pub downstairs
Day 7. Galway to Killarney through County Clare
Boxes: Ashbrook B&B, excellent standards and best Irish breakfast ever
Day 8. Ring of Kerry to Cork
Pitstop: Gourmet Burger Bistro in Cork for a wide range of gourmet burgers
Day 9. Cork to Kilkenny via Rock of Cashel
Pitstop: Paris-Texas for excellent bistro food.
Day 10. Kilkenny to Dublin (departure)