Ireland isn’t known for the greatest mountains, nor paradise beaches, nor modern cities, nor even a great cuisine (which isn’t really good, to be honest). But somehow this small European country with a population of roughly 5 millions seems to be a dream destination for travellers from all over the world!
Where is this phenomenon coming from? Is it the fact that Ireland is being seen as a green and quiet island? Or is it because of the charming and safe Irish countryside? Perhaps a long, dramatic coastline? Famous Guinness beer and Jameson whiskey that must be tried in the Irish pub? Or maybe it’s all about the reputation of Irish people; easy-going, friendly and trustworthy? Well, your guess is as good as mine…
Whatever it is, why don’t you go and find out by yourself? Therefore I’ve created a personal list of 8 Top Irish Attractions that can’t be missed. I’ve lived in Ireland for over 15 years and I tried them all! If you’ve heard about them already, go straight to Irish Hidden Gems and off-track places. I also added some alternatives, useful travel tips, my own pictures (swipe them left and right) and more… Further research and planning the itinerary should be much easier now!
8 TOP PLACES & ACTIVITIES IN IRELAND
See Magnificent Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher (co.Clare) are arguably the most famous and the most visited Irish natural site. This amazing coastal feature runs for about 9 km and elevates to 214 metres in its highest point. Today the cliffs are much more developed than they used to be in 2007 when I came there for the first time – plenty of fences, parking, shops, visitor centre and other facilities were built. This makes the whole experience more touristy, but hey, the outstanding cliffs are still there and they speak for themselves.
Many people ask are Cliffs of Moher worth visiting? I would definitely say yes! It’s a must-see spot if you’re in this part of Ireland or you travel along the Wild Atlantic Way. But I personally wouldn’t buy one of those popular one day excursions from Dublin or Cork to spend several hours on the bus, see the cliffs, miss many other attractions nearby and come back in the evening. In my opinion the best way to experience it is to drive to the Doolin town, have about 7 km breathtaking cliff walk that ends in the visitor centre (this way you’ll enter the centre for free!) and then take the bus back to Doolin.
Visit Iconic Rock of Cashel
Rock of Cashel (co. Tipperary) is one of the most significant and iconic medieval archaeological sites in Ireland. The whole structure was built on the top of a hill, which makes it a great location visible from Cashel village and even from the highway. Celtic cemetery inside Rock of Cashel may also interest you, while a short walk to Hore Abbey and back would be a nice addition to the trip.
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ If you can’t go to Cashel but you pass co. Laois, visit Rock of Dunamase. It’s a similar historical site built on a hill and may be seen as Rock of Cashel in a nutshell. ☘ County Tipperary is very underestimated travelwise. If you have more time, try beautiful scenic routes in The Nire Valley and The Vee (with a short walk to Lough Bay) or a few hours trekking in Knockmealdown or Galtee Mountains.
Explore Nature In Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park (co. Kerry) is another popular natural attraction that delights people interested in stunning Irish scenery or flora and fauna. Killarney National Park is a place to discover how beautiful and creative mother nature can be in a considerably small area.
What to do in Killarney National Park? Choose between taking several walking trails (see the official website for details), an afternoon walk around Ross Castle to see a colourful sunset, driving around stunning scenic routes or visiting picturesque Torc waterfall.
However, the reason why I keep coming back to Killarney is the incredible Gap of Dunloe. It’s possible to buy one of many popular tours or walk on your own to a certain point and back. I prefer about 50 km loop bicycle trip, which is not suitable for beginners and not really safe for small children, but gives you the ultimate experience like no others (click here to see the map).
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ Killarney is very busy during the summer months, including crazy road traffic; finding last minute accommodation is near to impossible. It’s relatively quiet and enjoyable in the low-season. ☘ Be aware of midge flies, especially in late afternoons around lakes and woods – a long sleeve and good insect repellent are a must. ☘ Killarney town is a great base to drive Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula, but less busy and touristy Tralee may be a better option to avoid crowds.
Drive Famous Ring of Kerry
Ring of Kerry (co. Kerry) is one of the best scenic loop drives in Ireland. The whole 179 km route along mountainous Iveagh Peninsula takes about three hours, but you’d better take much more time to truly enjoy the landscapes and some points of interest such as cliffs, beaches and ancient sites!
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ Start in Killarney and drive clockwise towards Kenmare to avoid bus traffic (as buses go anti-clockwise). ☘ If you exceed the original route to the Skellig Ring, which is another beautiful road, it’s a full day trip. If you book a ferry to Skellig Michael island (which is necessary months in advance due to huge demand) you should plan two days. ☘ Looking for a similar experience elsewhere? Try Dingle Peninsula, Achill Island or Beara Peninsula.
Enjoy views in Dingle Peninsula
Dingle Peninsula (co. Kerry) is visited due to yet another picturesque loop drive. It can be seen as a smaller version of Ring of Kerry; perhaps not that impressive, but three times shorter. Attractions there are closer to each other, which is a big advantage. If you drive clockwise, the first would be breathtaking Inch Beach, popular among swimmers. Dingle Town is also worth exploring; I recommend having a lunch in “My Boy Blue Café” or a dinner in “Out of the Blue Seafood Restaurant”, shopping in “Bácús Bakery” and “The Little Cheese Shop” and trying local Golden Ale beer called “Béal Bán” in “Foxy John’s”, which is half a hardware store, and half an Irish pub.
As I generally prefer mountains, my favourite spot in Dingle Peninsula is Conor Pass, right after Dingle Town. However, if you want to be more active, get out of your car, go off track and take a stunning walk around lake in Glanteenassig Forest Park or visit Stradbally Beach and Cappagh Beach (which is magnificent during low tide!). If you’re more experienced and you took good shoes with you, have a trek to Mount Brandon (difficult path, but worth a wonderful view from the top).
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ If you spend only a weekend in Kerry, I would use the first day for Killarney National Park and the second one for Dingle instead of Ring of Kerry, so you don’t leave very late and exhausted. In three full days you’d enjoy both loops, but it’s not enough if you want to go off-track and do some trekking.
Climb Croagh Patrick For The View
Croagh Patrick (co. Mayo) is 764 m high, which makes it only 29th highest mountain in Ireland. Nevertheless, it became famous as an important site of pilgrimage. It’s true that pilgrims used to climb it with bare feet, which I personally can’t imagine due to steep fragments of the path and small uneven rocks in its final part. Although the hiking is not easy, the reward is one of the most spectacular views in Ireland!
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ While hiking Croagh Patrick, take with you plenty of water, waterproof jacket and… sun protection cream. ☘ If you’re looking for a quick and easy hike close to Dublin, try Kennedy Mountain (aka “Sugar Loaf”). You’ll get a nice view of the city and Irish Sea coastline.
In regards to architecture, art or even the food scene, Dublin can’t be compared to the greatest European capital cities. That’s not the point. Dublin is all about great atmosphere, history, and music. Also, I love the fact that within 30 minutes you can get out of the city centre and enjoy wonderful nature, whether it is a huge park, a nice beach, a cliff walk or small mountains. I’ve already written a comprehensive guide to Dublin with all the necessary details and tips.
Discover Glendalough and Wicklow Mountains
Glendalough (co. Wicklow) is a charming valley in the heart of Wicklow Mountains. Because it’s located fairly close to Dublin, it’s one of the most popular destinations for a one day excursion from the capital city.
Once you find a paid car park after the Glendalough village, you can go for a very easy walk around tiny Lower Lake and see the famous Roundtower and a historic cemetery. Or choose more challenging trek around long Upper Lake. It’s an easy to moderate walk, but it takes at least 4 hours and for that reason may be not suitable for everyone. Still, highly recommended!
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ For the Upper Lake path start from Poulanass Waterfall, then walk along the ridge, go through the ruins of old Miners Village and enjoy the woods in the final stage. The opposite way is more tiring. ☘ If you drive from Dublin, take either short highway route or drive through Blessington Lakes and much longer, but stunning scenic road R756. ☘ Lower Lake trail and the park between lakes are extremely crowded at weekends and in the summertime; you may find yourself stuck in traffic in a tight and narrow road to Glendalough Village. ☘ Wicklow Mountains have a number of other beautiful, but less popular walks other than Glendalough. I can recommend a loop route around Lough Bray, a walk to Lough Dan, wandering in Knocksink Woods or having a Tibradden Mountain Trail.
IRISH HIDDEN GEMS: LESSER KNOWN PLACES IN IRELAND
Take A Road Trip Across County Donegal
Donegal is the 4th biggest, but 5th least populated Irish county. Also, it is the most northwest located part of Ireland. It makes it a quiet, idyllic place where you can have a break from civilization. Most importantly, due to its natural beauty, it’s certainly a paradise for nature-oriented travellers.
It’s without a doubt worth spending a few days in Donegal to see the biggest attractions such as astonishing beaches, picturesque peaks, small waterfalls, interesting parks and much more. (Glenveagh National Park and Castle, Malin Head and Slieve League are my favourites.) Dramatic and long coastline, which is a part of Wild Atlantic Way, is also worth mentioning; my first ever trip to Donegal was a pretty much unplanned coastal drive and I was delighted by it!
Visit Powerful Slieve League Sea Cliffs
Slieve League (co. Donegal) are the second highest cliffs in Ireland. When visiting, leave your car in the main car park (just before the gate, don’t drive to the upper car park) and take an easy walk to the very end. Enjoy amazing nature and coastline around and after app. 30 minutes get ready for the breathtaking view from the Bunglass Point. Then you can hike higher if you fancy! Slieve League (aka Sliab Liagh) is an iconic spot in Donegal, but it’s often missed due to the distance from Dublin or Cork airports.
Explore Nature In Connemara
Connemara is a region in co. Galway that includes 2000 hectares Connemara National Park. Go there to see mountains, woods, bogs, lakes, peninsulas, beaches and other wonders of Irish nature. Or visit Kylemore Abbey if you like (it didn’t impress me much, but it’s a popular tourist attraction). Active travellers will easily find plenty of walking paths, cycling routes (including Connemara Greenway) and other activities in this area. Stay for at least 2-3 days and get around as much as you can!
Take a Ferry to Aran Islands
Aran Islands (co. Galway) are three rocky islands located in the Galway Bay. Have a one day ferry trip to visit Inishmore, which is the biggest and the most popular Aran island. Discover remarkable Dún Aonghasa cliffs surrounded by 3000 year old dry stone defences (!) and see a panoramic view of nearly the whole island. Walking or cycling (renting is possible in the harbour) is recommended to enjoy the landscape, a beach nearby, flora, fauna and ancient ruins on the way. If distance of about 8 km one way is too long for you, get yourself a ticket to a private bus on the island.
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ Having a seasickness? Instead, go to Achill Island, which is connected to the land with a short bridge. Enjoy a beautiful loop drive, extraordinary beaches and trek to The Croaghaun, the highest cliffs in Ireland and the third highest sea cliffs in Europe (still on my Travel Bucket List).
Discover “The Other” Peninsulas
Countless number of tourists go to Killarney to drive Ring of Kerry and/or Dingle and to leave Kerry afterwards. Not many think about three peninsulas that can be found due south. Therefore while Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas are almost as beautiful as those mentioned above, they’re never as crowded, busy or noisy!
In Beara Peninsula (co. Kerry/Cork) have a long loop drive to enjoy mountains, small lakes and surprisingly dignified waterfalls. Better don’t miss Healy Pass! If you have more time, visit Bere Island by ferry to cycle around. Then drive to the end of Sheep’s Head Peninsula (co. Cork) and have a trek to the Sheep’s Head Lighthouse, one of the coolest located lighthouses in Ireland. Finally, drive around Mizen Head (co. Cork) and visit the Mizen Head Bridge that leads to unique cliff formations that must be seen. Give yourself two full days to enjoy all three peninsulas.
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ If you’re driving through Bantry town, go see Bantry House and Gardens. Also, don’t pass on The Beacon if you are close to it.
Learn About The Best Irish Towns
There are three different Irelands, not one: busy urban areas in Dublin, a beautiful countryside all around and loads of bigger or smaller rural towns. I believe it’s worth experiencing all of that to understand more this country. If I was choosing to see one of these rural towns, I would go to Kilkenny or Waterford. Both in South East Ireland in counties named after them.
Kilkenny is a charming mediaeval town, full of colourful corners, narrow streets and old cathedrals. The biggest attractions are arguably Kilkenny Castle and the remaining of old town walls, but I rather enjoy wandering on the streets, in the castle’s park or having a canal walk. There’re plenty of eateries to choose from and probably more independent cafés than in Dublin City centre, which sadly is dominated by coffee chains.
Twice as big, Waterford is the oldest and fifth most populated Irish town (nearly 55k residents) and a harbour in the mouth of three rivers. Try to wander spontaneously around Waterford town centre to discover many huge murals created just a few years ago (see below), go around “The Viking Triangle”, walk along the river in this area or visit one of many museums in the town. For a break, I recommend “TRADE Coffee” for a cup of coffee, “Italian Piadina” next door for a lunch or traditional “Geoff’s Pub” for a pint of beer.
Tips & Alternatives: ☘ Waterford is known for its festivals; check the calendar before you go. Spraoi Festival in August and Winterval in December are my favourites. ☘ Waterford is a great base to see top places in counties Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny. I recommend holiday resorts of Tramore and Dunmore East (don’t miss excellent cliff walk there!), Hook Head with its famous lighthouse, two beautiful beaches near Fethard-by-the-Sea and replica of Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross. ☘ If you skip the east coast of Ireland and focus on the west, spend at least few hours in Galway. It’s a quite touristy, but very cool, lively and vibrant town with around 80k residents. Full of colorful corners, nice pubs (“Tight Neachtain” is my favourite) and cafés (“Kai Restaurant” is a must visit!). It’s also a good base to discover the best places in the northwest part of the country.
ONLY IN IRELAND: 5 UNIQUE IRISH EXPERIENCES
Traditional Irish Food. Try some traditional food popular in Ireland (although not always genuinely Irish). I recommend Fish’n’Chips, Irish Stew, Shepherd’s/Fish Pies, Seafood Chowder, scones with marmalade, Irish/Baileys Coffee, Carrot Cake and 99’s ice-creams. To be honest I’m not a fan of the rest, and tea with milk should be banned! 😉
The Irish Pub. Go to the traditional pub and try Guinness, Irish cider or whiskey. Choose a local place far from touristy spots. Otherwise you’d experience an overpriced Irish pub full of foreign tourists, which is easy to accomplish almost everywhere in the world.
Hospitality. Book a B&B in Ireland (especially in the countryside) even if you prefer hotels or other forms of accommodation. Owners are usually very kind, friendly and helpful. They would love to talk with you, hear what you like or dislike about the country. They’ll be happy to give you some travel advice, comfy room and traditional homemade breakfast in the morning. Irish hospitality and politeness can’t never be underestimated!
Sunsets & Sunrises in Ireland. Find a nice spot close to the sea to watch the sunset (or sunrise on the east coast if it’s not too early for you). Those, for some reason, often are spectacular in this island!
Make Friends Among Deer. Visit Phoenix Park in Dublin and find the deer! It’s not difficult at all. They run free and usually are very friendly. Deer will come close to you, unless they’re having fawns. But please remember – do not feed them as deer shouldn’t get inappropriate food or get used to being fed by humans.
Planning a trip to Ireland? For more detailed information visit official websites such as Discover Ireland, Heritage Ireland and Ireland.com.
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