Benbulben is in the heart of Yeats country
Ireland is a land of wide open space - comprised of farmlands, mountains, bogs, lakes (known as loughs here) - bordered by a jigsaw-chiseled coastline and dotted with many small towns and villages and a few large cities thrown in here and there. It’s the type of place to visit when you want to get away. It’s got the best of all worlds - the big cities (with museums, galleries, entertainment venues, some of the world’s best interactive attractions, nightlife and much more), rural locations (with stunning scenery, great scenic drives, too-many-to-count outdoor activity venues) and small towns where you can immerse in the local life.
With so many options to consider, where do you start? Below is a brief overview of destinations to think about and our ‘Where to Go’ pages provide greater detail about 10 of the most popular locations you just might want to consider.
Spend time in the two CAPITALS - DUBLIN (Republic of Ireland) and BELFAST (Northern Ireland). With compact city centres and efficient transit networks, it's fairly easy to get around. You definitely won't run out of things to do. Being less than two hours driving time apart, you can visit both in the same trip.
DUBLIN has museums (three National Museums of Ireland are FREE), galleries, interactive attractions (EPIC the Emigration Museum is Europe’s leading tourist attraction three years running), the Temple Bar area with Ireland’s best pubs, the Book of Kells (Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure). Make sure to leave time for the always popular Guinness Storehouse (go on a tour, learn the proper technique for pouring a Guiness, have a pint and maybe a bite to eat), Kilmainham Gaol (Ireland’s centuries-old jail where the English housed & executed the key Easter Rising leaders) and Dublin Castle (the early thirteenth century castle, located on the site of a Viking settlement, that served for centuries as the headquarters of English, and later British, administration in Ireland). The key is not to give Dublin just a night. Dublin is the #1 destination in Ireland in our opinion. You need at least three nights here and more if you can.
BELFAST has two great interactive attractions: Titanic Belfast (tells the story of Titanic from her conception, through her construction and launch, to her maiden voyage and subsequent place in history - you won’t want to leave it’s so fascinating) and Game of Thrones Studio Tour (explore how one of the world’s greatest ever TV series was created and brought to life on screen - opens February 2022). Have fun at adrenaline-pulsing attractions like We Are Vertigo. Challenge your scientific knowledge at family-friendly attractions like W5. In addition, there’s great pubs (including the iconic Crown Liquor Saloon) and city tours highlighting the Troubles (NI’s conflict between the Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists). Head to the Cathedral Quarter for the city's best restaurants, pubs and music. Lonely Planet rated Belfast & the Causeway Coast the best region in the world to visit (2018) and Belfast was officially recognized as a UNESCO City of Music (2021).
Visit Ireland’s major CITIES……….
CORK’S city centre is located on an island that splits the River Lee. There are over 30 bridges spanning the river. Take a walking tour of the city (there are some great routes) enjoying the bridges & local neighborhoods. The Shandon neighborhood is one of the most popular. In addition, take in the Cork City Gaol and the English Market (Ireland's most popular market with fresh, local products catering to all culinary tastes). Nearby are the towns of Cobh (the Titanic’s last port of call on its ill-fated voyage), Kinsale (maybe the culinary capital of Ireland) and, of course, the Blarney Castle.
WATERFORD has the iconic House of Waterford Crystal (creating exquisite crystal products starting in 1783) and is one of the best destinations for Viking history (the Viking Triangle has the VR experience King of the Vikings, the Medieval Museum, Reginald’s Tower) and has the largest collection of medieval defensive towers and walls in Ireland.
Visit the western coastal city of GALWAY for two main reasons: the pedestrianized Latin Quarter (great pubs with Irish music, cafes, retail shops and local music groups providing atmosphere entertainment while you stroll through the quarter) and access to one of Ireland’s best scenic regions - Connemara.
Bookending the stunningly beautiful Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland is DERRY (aka LONDONDERRY) - one of Europe’s finest examples of a walled city. In fact, Derry is the connector between the two most popular scenic drives in Ireland - the Causeway Coastal Route (Northern Ireland) and the Wild Atlantic Way (Ireland’s west coast). A walk along the top of the 400-year old walls (which stand up to 8 meters high and measure almost one mile around) is the city’s feature attraction providing great views, photo ops alongside centuries-old cannons and benches to relax on. Derry is a compact, walkable city with cathedrals, churches, iconic murals, architecture and heritage. It’s renowned as the ‘Best Hallowe’en Destination in the World’ with an unrivaled extravaganza. It’s also a great stop-off if you’re headed to the Donegal region.
Visit Ireland’s really popular CITIES like KILLARNEY and KILKENNY.
KILLARNEY just about has it all. It’s on the doorstep of Killarney National Park and the highest peaks on the island of Ireland. The Gap of Dunloe Tour is a must (transport from Killarney Town to Kate Kearney’s Cottage, hike or take a jaunting car ride for the 11 kilometers to Lord Brandon’s Cottage and then a boat across Killarney’s three lakes). It’s just a lot of fun and has stunning scenery. Killarney is a spa town with a plethora of great day spas. Take your pick. Try a different one each day of your stay. Muckross House and their Traditional Farms are another must. And don’t forget to leave time for one of Ireland’s best scenic drives - the Ring of Kerry.
Imagine a destination where ancient walls surround medieval sites, where outdoor adventures, contemporary shops and vibrant restaurants are around every city corner. Welcome to the Medieval City of KILKENNY! It’s is home to one of the most recognizable landmarks in Ireland, the 12th century Kilkenny Castle. Go back in time and explore Ireland’s Medieval Mile, a discovery trail running through Kilkenny City linking the 13th century St. Canice’s Cathedral to the Anglo-Norman Castle and everything in between from Rothe House and Gardens, the Medieval Mile Museum to Butler House.
If you don’t want to travel to Ireland and spend time in a city, then consider the incredible RURAL areas of Donegal, Mayo and Connemara.
DONEGAL - #1 on NatGeo Traveller’s 2017 ‘Cool List’. Situated in the northwest corner of Ireland, visit Donegal if you’re looking for stunning scenery, great scenic drives and challenging outdoor activities. Donegal has more climbable rock than the rest of Ireland combined. Take time to visit Glenveagh Castle and National Park and the 15th century Donegal Castle.
MAYO - just might be Ireland’s most under-appreciated region. For this reason, it just might be the best location to spend your time. There’s wide open space to explore Ballycroy National Park, incredibly-beautiful Achill Island (especially the off-the-beaten path Keem Bay), Céide Fields (remains of stone field walls, houses and megalithic tombs are preserved beneath a blanket of peat over several square miles - the oldest known field systems in the world).
CONNEMARA - great scenic drives with mountains, bogs, loughs and even sheep on the two-land country roads. The drive along R344 is one of our favorites in Ireland. Kylemore Abbey (a breathtaking castle built in 1868 that’s now the abbey and home of the Benedictine community of nuns whose previous abbey in Belgium was destroyed during WWI) is probably the most popular attraction. Great hiking and cycling opportunities abound in this region.
The Aran Islands are famous for their geological formation, historical monuments and their linguistic/cultural heritage. The Irish (Gaelic) language is still spoken here. Inis Mór (or Inishmore) means Big Island. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland. It’s well-known internationally with over 50 different monuments of Christian, pre-Christian and Celtic mythological heritage. The highlight here is Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa) - the 2,000 year-old fort with three massive drystone walls that run right up to sheer drops to the ocean below. The 30-minute cycling ride from the pier to Dun Aonghasa just might be the most popular cycling route in Ireland. The other two islands are Inis Meáin or Inishmaan (with only 200 population, it’s the least visited of the three) and Inis Oírr or Inisheer (smallest of the three, it has the classical feel of an isolated fishing village). From the pier on Inisheer, you are greeted with a pristine, carpeted, white sandy beach facing clear, crystal turquoise water and plenty of fishing boats, their nets and fishermen returning at day’s end with their catch. Take a walk to the lighthouse or the shipwreck of the Plassy and see the diverse landscape unfold before your eyes. Ferries depart from Rossaveel Port (near Galway City) and from the village of Doolin.
Inishbofin (Inis Bo Finne or Island of the White Cow) lies seven miles off Galway’s coast. It’s estimated to have been inhabited as far back as 8000-4000 B.C. As you sail around the tower and signal light into the harbor, you will notice Cromwell’s 16th century barracks. It was used as a prison for catholic priests from all over the country after the English Statute of 1585 declared them guilty of high treason. The island has three official looped walks of varying difficulties, each offering spectacular views of the island’s wild Atlantic scenery. There are several safe award winning sandy beaches strewn with shells and with crystal clear water make swimming, snorkeling and diving a joy. For the more adventurous, the islands waters make for spectacular diving.
The SKELLIGS - The Skellig Islands, once known as “the Skellocks” are two small, steep and rocky islands lying about 13 km west of the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry).
Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) is primarily known for the 6th-century Christian monastery perched 160 meters above sea level on a ledge close to the top of the lower peak. There are steep, stone steps leading up to the monastery. The site is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s popularity soared when it was shown in the ending of Star Wars: The Last Jedi where Rey finally tracks down the exiled Luke Skywalker.
Little Skellig (Sceilig Bheag in Irish) is closed to the public, and holds Ireland's largest and the world's second largest gannet colony, with almost 30,000 pairs. It is about 1.5 km east from Great Skellig.
VISIT: Only 180 people per day can land on Skellig Michael from sometime in May to September. Tickets are hard to come by. There are also “drive by” boat tours (plenty of them) that visit both islands - but do not land on them.
Arranmore Island, or Árainn Mhór, is situated off the coast of Donegal and has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The clear waters of the surrounding ocean provide the perfect destination for those who love to get outdoors for diving, sea angling, sailing, kayaking and more. Freshwater lakes on the island are an anglers paradise. Birdwatchers can often be found observing the many fulmars and shags along the steep cliffs. The island is also famous for its traditional music and lively pubs with open turf fires.
Any trip to the Emerald Isle should include a stay in one of Ireland’s SMALL TOWNS & VILLAGES which have colorful streetscapes, lively pubs and warm friendly people. Favorites include:
DOOLIN - best destination for pubs and Irish music, gateway to the Cliffs of Moher (which has Ireland’s best coastal cliff top walk) and the karst-landscaped Burren (comes from the Irish word “Boíreann” meaning a rocky place).
DINGLE - the start of Slea Head Drive (just might be Ireland’s most scenic half-day drive). Join a Fungie (the local dolphin) tour, visit the West Kerry Brewery or Dingle Distillery or enjoy one of many outdoor activities - hiking, surfing, kayaking, diving, SUP, sailing, sea fishing, windsurfing, kitesurfing or maybe just a little swimming. Dingle is also the gateway to the Blasket Islands - join one of the tours.
KENMARE - a haven of tranquility, gourmet food, superb accommodation and breathtaking scenery in one of the most natural, unspoilt environments cradled in the heart of Kenmare Bay. Located on the popular Ring of Kerry and near to the rugged Ring of Beara.
COBH (formerly Queenstown) - the final port of call for the RMS Titanic as she set out across the Atlantic on her ill-fated maiden voyage. Experience this voyage with the Titanic Experience Cobh. Visit the Cobh Museum, Cobh Heritage Centre - The Queenstown Story (the story of Irish Emigration from the 1600s when transportation to the British overseas colonies was commonplace from Virginia and New England to Barbados, Jamaica and Montserrat) or head out to the former prison on Spike Island (walk an abandoned prison, sit in a solitary cell, experience a place of punishment that was once called “Ireland’s Hell” on the After Dark Tour). Or just take a stroll along the very colorful waterfront.
KINSALE - one of the most picturesque and oldest towns in Ireland. Famous for its eateries, Kinsale has been hailed as ‘The Gourmet Capital of Ireland’, with no shortage of cafés, pubs and restaurants to suit every taste and budget. With over 50 eateries, Kinsale is a must visit for foodie lovers.