Ireland is consistently one of our most popular destinations. It is so popular that if you are trying to book last minute, you may struggle to put your dream trip together. Being married to a native of the Emerald Isle, I feel privileged to let you in on some ideas for planning your ultimate Ireland vacation.
Ireland is known for back roads with grass growing out the middle, but over the last 15 years, it has put in major motorways connecting major cities. This allows for tourists and locals alike to pick the scenic old winding road that goes through small villages, or the major motorway that takes you directly to your destination. For example, travelling from Dublin to Cork used to take at least 4 hours, but it can now be done in 3. The island can take 7 hours from top to bottom, so to many North Americans, it is a doable place to enjoy a self-drive vacation, provided you are comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Here is a sample of what you could expect while driving just around the island.
Ireland has a fascinating history. Many American presidents have had an impact on the country, and the Irish have held on to various “mementos,” which you can see when you visit. For example, when you drive south of Dublin and arrive in county Wexford – the birth place of the Kennedy family ancestors – there is a monument to John F. Kennedy in New Ross, a nice place to stop for a photo and lunch. Not only do you get to see the county that is proud to be known as the sunny south east, you can also experience delicious strawberries in summer, as this is known as farming country, given its beautiful coastline.
From Wexford you can journey on to Waterford. Home of the famous House of Waterford Crystal museum and host to the Tall Ships Festival, Waterford is also known for some fantastic beaches. Consider spending the night at Waterford Castle.
From here, head to Cork, where many people fled Ireland during the potato famine. This beautiful port city is located close to the legendary Blarney Castle. When you arrive in this quaint town, take time to walk around, grab a meal, and enjoy the grounds of the castle. Climbing to the top is a tight squeeze in parts. Lay down on your back, look up at the sky, and lean backwards to kiss the famous Blarney Stone.
Cork is a beautiful county with some stunning rugged shoreline. Taking a walk around Kinsale gives a visitor the appreciation for the sea and the shore. From here, many head to County Kerry. Head out to the Dingle Peninsula and try and catch a glimpse of Fungi, the resident dolphin that lives in the bay. Enjoy some local fare before heading on to Killarney. This beautiful town is a great place to catch a jaunting car ride and stay for two nights. For day two, many will trek out to the Ring of Kerry. This famous drive is along a beautiful peninsula. If you have time, do a tour of the Skellig Michael – the larger of two Skellig Islands, which features remains of an old monastery. This beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site has gained popularity from the latest Star Wars films, as the islands, which are shaped like a beehive, jet out of the ocean.
From Killarney, head north to Bunratty. It is a great place to stay before you fly out of Shannon Airport or as a break in your Ireland trip. Visit Bunratty Castle, where you can enjoy a fantastic dinner and show.
The next morning, rise and hope the sun is shining as you head to the Cliffs of Moher. These spectacular cliffs are a stunning sight, but if the fog has rolled in, can be impossible to see. The Visitor Centre has alot on offer and is unique as it’s built into the hill. Stretch your legs and walk up and down the paths to catch that perfect photo. From here you will probably stop in the Burren – a fascinating change in topography, as you travel through limestone hills. Take a tour of the underground caves and caverns and learn about this interesting place. Consider stopping in Doolin for a meal. This coastal town is where boat tours head out to the cliffs, but it is most famous for its traditional Irish music.
Suggested Day Tour:
Galway: Cliffs of Moher & Burren Full Day Tour
Tonight you will head to Galway to rest your head. This vibrant town is known for beautiful beaches and a lively nightlife. Get out and mingle with the locals as you wander down the street finding a place to eat. If you can spend two nights, consider spending a day doing the Aran Islands Day Tour.
Heading north from Galway, you will head into the famous Connemara region. “Savage Beauty” is how Oscar Wilde described it. A great place to go for a drive and spend two nights is Clifden. I highly recommend it, as this lively small town has some great pubs and is a great base for fantastic day drives.
When you say good bye to Clifden you can head east, back to Dublin, or you can venture on to the road less travelled. Head north into Mayo, Sligo, and Donegal – all beautiful counties. All are less busy than the south, but offer visitors a great opportunity to get to know the locals. We cannot promise you will understand their accent, but you will be breathless – either from the sheer beauty of the region or having a laugh with the locals. This is what Ireland is known for, and your effort to visit here will be memorable and unique.
Continuing on your Ireland vacation, you will now cross the border and enter the UK – to the counties that belong to Northern Ireland. You will learn more about the history of the divide and the troubled past. The murals will speak a thousand words and the locals’ accent will change. Everyone has a story, and the ability to overcome the recent history is amazing. Derry is known as a great walled city. Its historic centre is a beautiful tribute of how things were built. From here you can look down and see the divide of the town and marvel at its past, while admiring the present.
Take your time and visit the Giant’s Causeway. This legendary ‘bridge’ to Scotland has a great tale, but is even more impressive in person. The Visitor Centre is interesting and the audio guide is a great way to get the history of the area. Head to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Featured in the TV show, Game of Thrones, this wobbly bridge is high above a gorge, and for those who are brave, you can take a walk across it. After a fright on the bridge, visit the village of Bushmills for a drab of Irish whiskey, and relax for a few minutes.
Make your way to Belfast. This historic city is beautiful and forever changing. If there is only two things you have time to do in this city, visit the Titanic Belfast museum and take a Black Cab tour. Both are fascinating and a give a look into pieces of history that are heard around the world. The museum for the Titanic is interactive and interesting, touching on stories of passengers of the ship and the construction of the vessel. The Black Cab tour is a great way to hear tales of troubled times, as you drive from the ‘Catholic side’ of town to the ‘Protesant side,’. Take note of how the curbs change colours and the pride of both sides shine through.
When you are heading south from Belfast, you are in the final stretch of your Ireland vacation. A great place to stop is Slane Castle, and in this area you can visit the Hill of Tara, an archaeological complex featuring a number of monuments, near the River Boyne.
Your final stop will be Newgrange. Older than the pyramids, this prehistoric monument is an interesting site, as you learn about how the solstice plays a role in its making.
Arrive back to the hustle and bustle of Dublin, ready to explore and relax. Take in your final pints of Guinness and local food before heading to your next destination. No matter how much you did on this Ireland trip, you will walk away feeling full of love for the country. And… when you reflect on the trip, it will leave you with a longing to come back.
If you are someone who prefers to leave the driving to someone else, check out these suggested itineraries that visit the entire island.