After a year of living in the Republic of Ireland, I’m excited to talk about my favorite ten places to visit. It’s a beautiful country, and I was lucky enough to explore some of the best it has to offer. It really is as magical as everyone says (except in winter – then it’s just as miserable as everywhere else). So without further ado, let me take you on a little tour around the Emerald Isle.
A couple of caveats: Even though I recently took a trip to Northern Ireland, I’m only including places in the Republic, as I haven’t explored the North that extensively and am hoping to make a trip back. Also, a lot of you will be wondering why I didn’t include Limerick in my list, since that was where I lived. The answer is that it’s where I lived, so I feel I may be a bit biased about it. I’d like to do a post just for Limerick soon.
Ireland doesn’t have much in the way of cities – Dublin and Belfast are outliers, to be honest. Smaller towns and villages are scattered all over the island. Cong is one that is popular for its natural scenery and, for fans of John Wayne, like myself, it’s where The Quiet Man was filmed. I went to Cong with my classmate and friend Amelie on our way up to Sligo. We took her car – it’s nearly impossible to get there otherwise, unless you go with a tour.
The best part about Cong is the river walk that starts at the old abbey. It takes you into a quiet, green forest that swallows up the world outside. My friend thought it was a bit creepy, but I kind of liked it.
Cong is also great for fishing, as evidenced by this photo of the famous monks’ fishing house perched on the edge of the river:
Another draw is The Quiet Man Museum, collected inside a replica of the house from the movie. Unfortunately, it was closed when we drove through, but I’m sure I’ll be back.
9. Newgrange/Hill of Tara
I’ve already detailed my time at Newgrange in an earlier post on a vacation to Dublin, but I think anything as dope as a prehistoric tomb tuned to the movements of the sun is worth repeating.
Newgrange, or Brú na Bóinne as it’s called in Irish, is situated in the beautiful Boyne Valley – where the eponymous Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690 – and dates back to about 3200 BC. That’s older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids. Its purpose was most likely a burial place for the ashes of the dead, which would be touched by the sun on just a few days each year, during the winter solstice.
The Boyne Valley is Ireland’s historic seat of mythical power. It includes several other less famous passage tombs, as well as the Hill of Tara. As I explained, the Hill is the former coronation site of Ireland’s high kings, but is now just a lonely hilltop with a great view:
Click here for more information on the great tour company I visited both Newgrange and the Hill with.
It’s no secret: there’s a lot of beach in Ireland. It’s not the kind of beach you want to sunbathe on, true, but the coastline is the most beautiful I’ve seen in the world – rugged and craggy and green.
I’ve been to quite a few of these areas: Dingle, Lahinch, Sligo, Kilkee, but my favorite beach has to be Ballybunion. It’s down a steep hill, almost hidden inside a little cove.
This was another place I drove to with my friend Amelie; as far as I know, there’s no way to get there except by car. Multiple Irish people have assured me that while tourists often go to Kilkee or the Cliffs of Moher, Ballybunion is where the locals go to have a good time in the summer. The beach goes far enough back that there’s plenty of space for everyone, and there are also some interesting caves to explore. And the views, as always, are spectacular:
Ballybunion also has some great eats. I recommend Namir’s Restaurant and Wine Bar for great sandwiches and salads.
7. Glendalough/Wicklow Mountains
I come from a region of the United States where “mountains” is a relative term. They’re more like hills, really. And they’re not very pretty to look at. The same is true in Ireland, except for the last part. The mountains are just as wonderful as the coast and the cliffs, though they’re small.
I went for the first time in the winter, on a day trip to Glendalough from Dublin. Glendalough, as you may know from one of my other posts, is a sixth-century monastic site founded by St. Kevin. It’s where he spent most of his life, and it’s located in the lovely Wicklow Mountains.
Glendalough means “valley of two lakes” in Gaelic. The settlement is located next to the lower lake, with the upper one a bit further on through the woods. Even though it was cold and snowy the day I went there, taking the short hike was like a dream – although I accidentally walked all the way to the upper lake and had to run a kilometre back down in my winter coat because I REFUSE to be the person that holds everyone up on a tour.
Hiking and camping is pretty popular in these mountains, since they’re so close to Dublin. I have it on good (Irish) authority that there’s not a bad time to visit. You can take a tour like I did from Dublin, which also includes a visit to Kilkenny, or rent a car and spend more time in the mountains.
6. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
If you want to know what life was like inside the quintessential Irish castle, you should go to Bunratty. Even though it was only about 30 minutes from Limerick, I didn’t end up visiting until May, but I’m glad I waited, because the weather was perfect.
Bunratty wasn’t my favorite Irish castle – it would probably have to be Blarney, if I’m honest. The thing that makes Bunratty such a great place is the accompanying folk park, something which I recently became acquainted with on a visit to Romania. This one includes examples of dwellings from different eras of Irish history, as well as things like mills and shops.
The castle itself is fifteenth-century, which isn’t actually that old in Ireland, and has been refurbished after it was allowed to fall into ruin. It’s what’s called a “tower house:” it was built high, but not wide, to allow for views of the area and to protect against attacks.
You can easily get to Bunratty from Limerick or from Shannon Airport directly by bus, with the stop only a short distance from the castle itself. For lunch, you have to go to the original Durty Nelly’s. Or, you can stop by for a medieval banquet at the castle itself. Make sure to make a reservation first.
5. Aran Islands
Before coming to Ireland, I’d never been on an island before. Growing up in America, I always thought of “island” in the tropical sense. And then suddenly, I was living on one. And it was cold. But what I didn’t know was that there are literally dozens of small islands that surround it. The Aran Islands were probably the most well-known until the new Star Wars came out and everybody wanted to go to Skellig Michael. I’ve been to two of the three: Inis Mór (Inishmore) and Inis Oirr (Inisheer).
Inis Mór is the big island, and the most famous one. I wrote in another post about my trip to Dun Aonghasa, the prehistoric stone fort perched on a cliff. But there’s a lot more to see, too. like seal colonies and random Viking burial mounds. If you’re into shopping, the famous Aran wool sweaters are still made there. One of my favorite places was The Seven Churches, a religious and burial site which also includes the graves of three Roman priests who came to study on the island.
I recommend staying at Kilronan Hostel on the island; they provide you with a free sightseeing ticket to Dun Aonghasa and the Seven Churches and serve free breakfast.
I went to Inis Oirr on a day trip with the international student association at my university. It’s a little harder to get to than the main island, because there are only two ferries per day, but I liked this island the best.
There’s a lot to see: an old tower house, a sixth-century (apparently that was the most happening century) sunken church whose altar decoration you can see above, hand-stacked rock walls, a beautiful lighthouse, and a shipwreck, the MV Plassy. The island even has its own small freshwater lake. And the entire length of it can be walked in about an hour, with the lighthouse at the furthest end. Try one of the cozy cafes, or bring your own food in case it’s crowded.
Adare is said by some to be the prettiest village in Ireland. I haven’t seen enough villages to know if it’s true or not, but it is one of my favorites. For one thing, it’s super close to Limerick – maybe an hour by bus. For another, there’s a lot to do.
The main attraction is the Norman Desmond Castle, which is situated just outside of the golf course. You can take a tour through the Adare Heritage Center. You’ll find out great stuff like why medieval people used to hang their clothes in the garderobe, or toilet. Plus, it’s the only way you can actually get inside the castle.
This was the last clear photo I got before one of Ireland’s many rainstorms hit. Naturally, I went to a pub to have some lunch with some of the nice people I met on the tour, and then set off on my own to explore – what else? – churches.
Adare has two that are pretty lovely: the St. Nicholas Church of Ireland and the Dominican friary. The doors were locked at St. Nicholas, but I wandered around the beautiful cloisters while the rain came down.
I then went to the Holy Trinity Dominican friary and walked through the park across the street, which I would normally have spent more time wandering. However, at this point my flimsy umbrella had given up the ghost and I really just wanted to be dry again.
I’ve been to Dublin more than any other city in Ireland – mostly for transit purposes. Chances are, you’ll both start and end up there, too. A lot of people I’ve talked to say they don’t like Dublin. And it’s true, it has a different energy to the rest of the country, but that’s not a bad thing.
My most extensive time in Dublin was the five days I spent there before flying home for Christmas. I visited all the greats: the Book of Kells at the Trinity College library, St. Stephen’s Green, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. So many famous people have lived here – Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce. So much of the Republic’s history, from the Easter Rising to the granting of independence, is tied up with the city.
But there are also some lesser known spots that are great to visit. If you like green places, Dublin has a ton. I definitely recommend the stunning War Memorial Gardens between Kilmainham Gaol and Phoenix Park.
While we’re on the subject, Kilmainham Gaol is also an excellent place to go if you want to get a taste of Irish history. The gaol (pronounced “jail,” Americans) has been in existence since before the Famine and has a dark past you can explore with a guided tour, which, again, is the only way to get in the building.
Getting to Dublin is easy: every single road in Ireland ends up there. You can book day tours to almost anywhere in the rest of the country, including Belfast. Check out my favorite Irish tour company, Paddywagon, for more info. As far as hostels go, the best one by far is Abraham’s: free breakfast, good tips on tours, clean beds, friendly staff. And of course, don’t forget my favorite Dublin restaurant – Queen of Tarts – for homemade tea, cakes, sandwiches, and scones.
Logistically, this was probably the most difficult trip I took. I had to coordinate two buses and plan my schedule out perfectly. I had originally intended to see the Rock of Cashel with a friend, but we missed our bus and ended up going to Blarney instead. I was determined to get it right this time.
Since the first bus let off at Cahir, and I had a few hours to kill until the next one, I decided to do a little exploring. First, I went to Cahir Castle, which was free with my Office of Public Works card (I really recommend getting this if you’ll be going to more than three or four places on the list while you’re in Ireland).
This castle was begun in the 1300s near a pre-existing cathair, or stone fort, which gives the castle its name. The coolest things about it are that it was besieged twice (it has the cannonball embedded in the wall to prove it), it has a crossbow hatch just inside the front door, and it was used as a film location for The Tudors.
After the castle, I took a beautiful back path along the river to get to the famous Swiss Cottage, a vacation house for the wealthy Cahir family. It’s an example of a cottage orné, an ornamental dwelling made to look like a poor peasant’s (but without all the hardship, of course). Apparently, the Cahirs would get dressed up like peasants and live the idyllic life while servants sweated out of sight downstairs to prepare elaborate meals. It would be like if the Kardashians decided to shop at Wal-Mart and only eat McDonalds for a day, or something.
You’ll notice in the picture below that the cottage is specifically constructed without exact measurements. It’s not symmetrical on purpose, so as to look more like it blends into its natural surroundings.
After getting back into Cahir proper, I headed on to Cashel, where the famous Rock of Cashel is located.
I ended up taking my sister here when she came to visit, I liked it so much. It’s one of the most important religious sites in Ireland.
The Rock includes the sandstone-roofed Cormac’s Chapel (the brown one that looks like it’s the newest, even though it was built in the 12th century), a magnificent Gothic cathedral and a round tower which is the oldest building on the site (1100). Here’s a view of the cathedral:
You can take a tour out to the Rock from Cork, like I did the second time, but I recommend going there either by bus or car if you want to stay there for any length of time (and you will, trust me). That way, you can walk down the hill surrounding the Rock for great views of it from the ruined Hore Abbey.
Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the most beautiful place in Ireland (at least, according to me). This was a difficult choice to make, because I have so many favorite places in Ireland, but Killarney really has it all: a great town, a national park, and (of course) a church. I’ve been to Killarney three times, and it never gets old.
First, the national park. There are dozens of trails you can take through one of the most beautiful areas in Ireland. I want to go back someday to take the 10-mile Old Kenmare Road and climb Carauntoohil, Ireland’s highest peak. I arrived in the late morning when I took my solo trip, and was planning on doing the Gap of Dunloe the next day, so I opted for one of the easier hikes: Torc Mountain. It was a really pleasant walk up past Torc Waterfall and through a valley, to end with this view:
The next day, I did the Gap of Dunloe, an easy, but visually stunning hike through a mountain pass and down through the Black Valley to Lord Brandon’s Cottage, where you catch a boat back across the beautiful lakes of Killarney to explore Ross Castle on the shore. I can say with confidence that it’s beautiful whether it’s raining or not, though it’s easier when the sun’s shining.
I also highly recommend either driving or taking a tour of the Ring of Kerry, which will probably take you through the lovely towns of Waterville, Sneem, and Cahersiveen before ending up back at Killarney.
Once in town, you can visit the beautiful Gothic cathedral or eat some famous seafood chowder. The Courtyard Restaurant at Scotts Hotel has the best bowl.
There you have it, my top ten. Let me know with a comment if you think I left anything out or if you think there’s a place I should visit when I go back.
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