With so much to offer on an Ireland vacation, don’t skimp on spending time in this country’s green and pleasant land.
I am about to take you on a more or less circular itinerary around Ireland, with stops en route which I deem both interesting and enjoyable. There is not space here to cover every possible destination but I think, with this selection, you will not go wrong in achieving a comprehensive visit. For the purposes of covering the whole Irish continent which comprises the north and south of the Emerald Isle, I have included both Ireland and Northern Ireland, as they wish to be referred to.
Let’s get underway with our starting point, Dublin. This is a city which knows how to combine hospitality with culture. Yes, you will never see so many bars and pubs all crammed into one city. There is an Irish word, “craic,” which translates loosely as news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Go into any one of these establishments on your Ireland vacation and you can find the “craic.”
Just walking around Dublin, you will be aware of the varied and interesting architecture which incorporates Georgian, Victorian, and Contemporary styles. Some of the highlights you really should visit include the following:
- Trinity College, with its Book of Kells, a richly illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament created around AD 800 by monks and which is kept on permanent display.
- Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland named after Ireland’s patron saint and founded in 1191, where Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was the Dean of the cathedral from 1713 to 1745. His tomb can be seen inside the church.
- Dublin Castle has a complex of buildings within its walls which include two museums, a conference centre, two gardens, and the prestigious State Apartments. You can wander around the grounds and see the Royal Chapel and the Chester Beatty Library, arguably one of the best libraries in Europe, containing collections of Islamic and Far Eastern artifacts.
- The legendary Guinness Storehouse, the most visited tourist attraction in the whole of Ireland. It is here you can learn about the history of Ireland’s most famous drink through a series of exhibits plus be given an idea as to how Guinness is made, followed by a free pint of Guinness.
- If whiskey is more your thing, you can enjoy a tour of the Jameson Distillery where this drink has been produced since the 1700s. You will learn about the complex brewing and distilling processes and enjoy whiskey tastings.
- Temple Bar is a lively neighbourhood located on the south bank of the River Liffey and known as an entertainment centre with a wide variety of pubs and restaurants all jammed together cheek by jowl. The cobblestone streets add to Temple Bar’s charm.
- Phoenix Park is one of the largest city parks in the world. It contains the President of Ireland’s house, the Dublin Zoo, sports fields, flower gardens, a former military fort, and herds of wild deer roaming freely. You can spend a lot of time here on your Ireland vacation.
- The museums and art galleries of Dublin are numerous. Check out the Little Museum of Dublin which tells the story of the city and its people, the National Gallery of Ireland, home to some of the most important works of Irish art, and the Dublin Writers Museum, where you can learn about the lives and works of famous Irish writers such as James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Becket, and Oscar Wilde
- They say that traditional Irish music embodies the spirit of the people of Ireland. You can certainly find this type of music in abundance. Just walk down any street and you are likely to find a bar offering a performing group.
Departing Dublin, let’s head south to Kilkenny, a small but charming city offering on Ireland tours a mixture of vibrant nightlife, beautiful streets, great shopping opportunities, and a rich cultural heritage. It is especially known for its medieval buildings. The two major attractions are Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral. Kilkenny Castle is a spectacular Norman castle which dominates the city. The Great Hall is impressive as is the beautiful rose gardens outside. Right opposite the castle grounds are various quality arts and crafts shops which sell attractive items suitable for gifts. The impressive St. Canice’s Cathedral was built over 800 years ago. It is the second largest medieval Cathedral in the country. If you go to the top of its Round Towers, you will be rewarded with an amazing view of Kilkenny.
Next up in the south-east corner of the country is Waterford, world-famous for its glassware/crystal. It is not what I would call a beautiful city. It struck me that it was a place with loads of character in a gritty sort of way. This is probably because Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland, with a long medieval history. The city walls are still more or less intact. A large portion of these walls still stands today and tours are run regularly. Inside the Norman quarter (opposite the Clock Tower on the Quay) is the pedestrianized John Roberts Square and Arundel Square. These are two of the main social and commercial hubs in the city. Highlights of Waterford include the Bishop’s Palace, a magnificent Georgian residence offering an authentic example of the 18th Century lifestyle. Inside is the oldest surviving piece of Waterford crystal in the world, dating back to 1789 and the Napoleon Mourning Cross – the only one to survive out of the original twelve that were made on his death. Yes, of course there is a tour of the House of Waterford Crystal, which is well worth taking on an Ireland vacation. You will see everything from glass tumblers to chandeliers. Two other places of interest include the Medieval Museum, which has the unique Cloth of Gold vestments which were lost for hundreds of years after they were hidden from Cromwell’s army, and the Great Charter Roll. The other is Reginald’s Tower named after the Viking leader who founded Waterford in 914 AD. Don’t miss the 9th-century sword and weapons from a Viking warrior’s grave and the magnificent 12th-century gold kite brooch.
We now turn our attention to Ireland’s second largest city, Cork. It is a vibrant and cosmopolitan place with artisan coffee shops vying for space with cozy pubs. There are grand Georgian avenues side by side with narrow 17th-century passageways. And yet, it has a relaxed feel to it and is fairly compact, so walking around the centre is not difficult. The English Market here has been around since 1788 and is the place to purchase local specialities from the 50 plus stalls selling produce. It has been voted “The Best Covered Market in the UK and Ireland.” You can visit the Cork City Gaol, which looks more like a castle, where you can take a tour through the cells and corridors. They give you an idea of the history about Ireland’s troubled times a century ago; featured are models of prisoners and prison guards. One of the main art galleries is the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, with its permanent collection of Greco-Roman sculptures together with Irish paintings ranging from the 17th century to the present day. The Elizabeth Fort in Cork was built almost 400 years ago and was used right up to the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. You can walk along the ramparts and enjoy the best views anywhere in the city. Another impressive gallery is the Lewis Glucksman Gallery located in the University College of Cork, with its displays of the best in both national and international contemporary art. St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral is a landmark and an architectural masterpiece. The current building was completed in the 19th century. Some nearby attractions include the port of Cobh, an attractive seaport which was the last port of call of the Titanic, and Blarney Castle, with its dungeons and famous Blarney Stone which when kissed, as every visitor does, gives the gift of the gab or, in simpler words, the ability to talk eloquently.
Moving on from Cork on your Ireland vacation, a little to the south-west is, in my opinion, an absolutely delightful and picturesque seaside town called Kinsale. It has a beautiful harbour where many sailboats make their home. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with galleries and gift shops as well as pleasant bars and restaurants. Kinsale has one of Europe‘s best-preserved star-shaped artillery forts called Charles Fort; it is a vast 17th-century fortification with spectacular views across the water. Displays explain the typically tough lives led by the soldiers who served here and the comparatively comfortable lives of the officers.
Travelling along the coast going westward, we arrive at another pleasant town, Kenmare. Not only is it an attractive place with many galleries, craft shops, cafes and restaurants, it is a perfect spot to tour the magnificent countryside which surrounds Kenmare, such as the Beara Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. Both can be easily reached from nearby Killarney. However, Killarney is much more touristy and very busy in season.
There are three magnificent regions in this corner of south-west Ireland. If you are looking for wild, rugged coastal scenery, this region offers this in abundance on Ireland tours. There are three different peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean which offer at least a full day each for private exploration or on a tour. All of them are accessible from either Killarney or the less commercial Kenmare, the major centres in the region.
The Beara Peninsula is located close to Kenmare, totally tranquil and unspoiled. The scenery is dramatic with a number of skyscraping passes snaking over mountainous terrain with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding countryside. On the south side, along Bantry Bay, there is a string of working fishing villages. The entire north side is the scenic highlight of the Beara Peninsula, with a series of minor roads, often steep and twisting, which snake around the rugged coastline. One highlight here is Ireland’s only cable car which can be taken from the tip of the peninsula out to tiny Dursey Island. And if you can imagine it, there are 511 historical sites, some dating back to 2000 B.C. that can be found on the Beara Peninsula.
The Ring of Kerry is where you can enjoy not only spectacular beauty but also discover ancient sites, stone forts, old monasteries, and several castles all amid a landscape carved out of rock by the last Ice Age. The Ring of Kerry is approximately 180 kilometres/112 miles in circumference and the main route follows the coast around, ringed by scenic mountains and lakes with views everywhere of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Dingle Peninsula is to the north of the Ring of Kerry and is about 48 kilometres/30 miles in circumference and must be driven in a clockwise direction. It is a mountainous peninsula containing Ireland’s second highest peak. The coastline consists of steep cliffs together with sandy beaches. The town of Dingle is traditionally Gaelic in character and has the claim to be the most western point in Ireland. This fishing port is quaint without even trying. Many pubs double as shops so you can enjoy a Guinness while purchasing hardware items. Parts of The Dingle are extremely bleak and godforsaken. Add to this the pounding waves against the cliffs, and you see why this particular peninsula has character.
Killarney is an attractive town and one of Ireland’s leading tourist destinations due to its proximity to the Killarney National Park, which is spread over rolling hills, woodlands, moors, gardens, waterways, and mountains. It is a good place to not only see wildlife but to also visit some castles and stately homes. Also, it is a popular spot because of the proximity of the three peninsulas just mentioned. The town has many narrow lanes in which you sometimes can easily get lost. Many restaurants and craft shops are hidden down these lanes and it is well worth the effort to explore them. The town centre has a wide range of hotels, pubs, and restaurants. Muckross House is located just outside the town. It is a splendid, outstanding 19th-century Victorian mansion situated on the edge of the National Park. Not far from here are the well- preserved ruins of Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan Friary.
We now turn north to Limerick, Ireland’s third largest city. In the heart of Limerick is Pery Square, with its fine Georgian terraces dating back to 1835. Also here is the beautiful People’s Park opened in 1877 where you will find the Limerick City Gallery of Art with its collection of Irish art. Another landmark is the 13th century King John’s Castle, with its vast walls and towers built on the instructions of King John of England around 1200. The Hunt Museum in Limerick has one of Ireland’s best private collections of art and antiquities (over 2000 items) ranging from the Neolithic Age to the 20th century. There are artifacts from Greece, Rome, and Egypt as well as a collection of Bronze Age, Iron Age, medieval and modern art treasures. St. Mary’s Cathedral is Limerick’s oldest and most historic building founded in 1168 and some of the original parts still exist. Just outside Limerick is the magnificent Bunratty Castle, probably Ireland’s most renowned castle which dates back to 1425 and is the best-preserved medieval fortress in the country. Medieval banquets are on offer during which certain guests can be banished to the dungeons below.
One of Ireland’s natural treasures and also one of the most visited sites on an Ireland vacation is The Cliffs of Moher. These are sea cliffs located in County Clare and run along the Atlantic coastline for 14 kilometres/8 miles. They rise to a height of 210 metres/ 700 feet. From the top of the cliffs, you can have great views of the Aran Islands and the surrounding mountain ranges. Local wildlife consists of many species of birds such as puffins, razorbills, chattering kittiwakes, and the elusive peregrine falcon.
Travelling north again, we reach the city of Galway which is known as a city of art and culture, with its lively atmosphere and numerous festivals. It is also one of the few places where Irish remains a thriving language for everyday use. If you enjoy visiting typical Irish pubs, this is the city where you can meet friendly locals. Guinness, Irish Pale Ale, and Irish whiskey are the tipples recommended. A landmark is the lively Galway Market, a local gathering place. Saturdays are especially lively with many stalls selling farm-fresh produce, arts, crafts, and snacks. The imposing Galway Cathedral is exceptionally beautiful, with its decorated dome, lovely mosaics and rough-hewn stonework emblazoned with stained glass. The Spanish Arch is an extension of Galway’s medieval city walls, designed to protect ships moored at the nearby quay while they unloaded goods from Spain. It is the gathering place for buskers as well as locals and visitors on an Ireland vacation. Lynch’s Castle is a good example of the Irish gothic style of architecture and gives an idea of old medieval Galway. It was originally built in the 15th century.
Still moving north, we cross into Connemara. This region of Ireland is one of the most unspoilt and beautiful places in the country and has long been regarded as the real emerald of Ireland. Oscar Wilde once described Connemara as having “a savage beauty,” which sums it up perfectly. You can go walking, hiking, cycling, fishing, and pony trekking through the countryside. There is the rugged Twelve Bens mountain range in the north and sandy beaches along the Atlantic coastline to explore on an Ireland tour.
Westport is a little further north and is in County Mayo on the Atlantic coast. It is a charming popular tourist destination and has won awards for being the “Best Place to Live in Ireland.” A famous English writer, after having visited Westport, said, “If it were on the Mediterranean, travellers would flock to it in their hundreds.” Praise indeed. It is perfectly situated on the shores of Clew Bay in which there are many small islands. It is an excellent centre for water sports. The impressive beaches lend themselves to surfing, windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, and kayaking. There is an 18-hole golf course and a host of pubs and restaurants. The views around the bay are spectacular and you can go for walks and hikes along the coast.
We now reach the extreme north-west of not only Ireland but of the whole continent that includes Northern Ireland. County Donegal has been described as “The Wild Child of Ireland.” This title is earned because of its sublime scenery which includes a craggy coastline and beautiful beaches. There are some cliffs which are called Slieve League and which are the sixth highest sea cliffs in Europe. Although not as famous as the Cliffs of Moher, Slieve League’s cliffs are almost three times higher. It is also a region of extremes, with a rugged interior featuring remote mountain passes. A major attraction on an Ireland tour is Glenveagh National Park, a nature reserve with scenery that includes mountains, boglands, lakes, and woodlands. Right in the middle is Glenveagh Castle, modelled after Balmoral Castle in Scotland. It and its exotic gardens can be visited. It seems that Greta Garbo stayed here frequently. Another one is Donegal Castle, which is situated in the town of Donegal and dates back to the 15th century.
We now head east and cross over the border into Northern Ireland arriving at Londonderry. Londonderry, also known as Derry, is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland. It is an old walled city located on the banks of the River Foyle. It is in fact, the only remaining, completely intact walled city in Ireland. The walls were built in the 17th century and are approximately 1.6 kilometres/1 mile in circumference forming a walkway around the inner part of Londonderry. The city is renowned for its architecture with its collection of late Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian buildings. Historic buildings within the city walls include St Augustine’s Church, which sits on the city walls close to the site of an original monastic settlement, the 1633 Gothic cathedral of St Columb, the copper-domed Austin’s department store which claims to be the oldest such store in the world, and the imposing Greek Revival Courthouse. There are a number of museums to visit such as the Foyle Valley Railway, the Amelia Earhart Centre and Wildlife Sanctuary, the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, the Harbour Museum, the Museum of Free Derry, the Tower Museum, an award-winning attraction which tells the history of Londonderry, and the Workhouse Museum.
Moving to the north-east corner of Northern Ireland and County Antrim, you will arrive at the Giant’s Causeway. This causeway, made up of a collection of gigantic stepping stones, the tallest measuring 12 metres/39 feet in height, runs from the coast, under the sea, eventually appearing again on the east coast of Scotland. On this side, there are about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns which were formed as a result of an ancient volcanic eruption. The name itself comes from myths and legends which have been passed down over time. The “official” version is that two giants had an argument and one of them saw how strong the other was so ran back over the sea to Scotland (he was a giant after all) and tore up the causeway as he went.
Belfast, once a troubled city, is today, a destination that has totally reclaimed itself. It is situated in the estuary of the River Lagan and is surrounded by mountains. The architectural style of Belfast’s buildings ranges from Edwardian, like the City Hall, to modern, like the Waterfront Hall. Some of the main attractive buildings include the City Hall completed in 1906 and whose grounds contain a memorial to the victims of the Titanic, the Royal Courts of Justice, and Stormont, where the Northern Irish parliament sits. Many of Belfast’s oldest buildings are to be found in the Cathedral Quarter area, the city’s main cultural and tourist area which also contains many cafés, bars and interesting buildings that recall the city’s commercial and industrial heritage. Other points of interest, on an Ireland vacation, are the imposing Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast Central Library, which contains the archives of all Northern Irish newspapers, the Cornmarket, the centre of Belfast’s retail shopping area, Queen’s University, a fine Victorian building with extensive grounds, and the Ulster Museum, which includes a section devoted to the history of the Irish conflict, artifacts retrieved from the 1588 wreck of the Spanish galleon Girona, and the Egyptian Room with Princess Takabuti, a 2500-year-old Egyptian mummy unwrapped in Belfast in 1835. Belfast is known for its parks and gardens as there are more than 40 public parks in the city, popular places for picnics, walking and running. The most popular is the Botanic Gardens with a tropical ravine, rose gardens, and a vast area of meadows and woodland. Titanic Belfast houses the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. It features over six floors and nine interpretive and interactive galleries which bring to life the history and story of this iconic ship launched in Belfast in the early 1900s. The story is brought up to the present with the discovery of the wreck. You can also now take a boat tour around the area where the ship was built.
Our Last stop as we head back to Dublin is the Mountains of Mourne. Slieve Donard is the highest mountain in the Mournes range and also the highest mountain in Northern Ireland. A sojourn here en route to Dublin will give you spectacular views from the summit towards England and Scotland. The region contains lakes, rivers, woodland and a number of peaks, all adding to its charm on an Ireland vacation.
Well, we are back in good old Dublin, deserving of a pint of Guinness and having travelled an approximate distance of 1500 kilometres/930 miles. If you decide to undertake some or this entire itinerary, you will be rewarded with memories of your Ireland vacation which will last a long time.