Many people dream of a trip to Ireland, but when the time comes for their dreams to come true, they start asking questions such as where to visit, what sights to see. Here’s my short answer to those questions, along with a bit of advice.
The first issue is the timing of your trip. One thing I’ve learned is that “shoulder season” is far less crowded and more enjoyable than the peak season. June, July, and August are the heaviest part of the tourist season in Ireland, so if you can travel in May or September, you’ll generally be able to enjoy the same experiences with smaller crowds, and the locals will not be as stressed.
As for itinerary, I’d recommend a circle tour of some sort. The perimeter of the island has most of the sights, and because Ireland is so small, you can easily access the interior from most of the coastal areas. Here are some general suggestions, followed by stops you should consider.
Fly into either Dublin or Shannon airport. Dublin is usually cheaper for airfare, but if you spend much time on the west coast, Shannon is more accessible. And if you enjoy the music, there are a number of places in the West to tempt you. Doolin and Ennis, for instance, have some good trad sessions and pubs.
Speaking of pubs, that’s where the locals are, and that’s where you find the real life of Ireland, especially if you stay out of the big tourist areas, such as Temple Bar in Dublin. Great exciting nightlife if that’s what you’re after, but not the authentic Irish experience.
On the same line, the local atmosphere is much more relaxed and “real” if you stay in a bed and breakfast, rather than a hotel. Pay no attention to star ratings and such; that’s an expression of how luxurious a place is, not how much fun you can have there. Why pay people to treat you like a tourist when you can explore the lives of real Irish people. For instance, I often ask a tour guide or bus driver where they go for a pint after work, rather than for a recommendation. I want to interact with normal Irish people, not just with smiling faces employed by the tourist industry.
Package tours are a mixed bag. For first time travelers to the Emerald Isle, they offer a reasonably priced package and an enjoyable experience. However, I find a lot more joy in getting off the beaten path. The package tours are often less expensive because of the volume, and the fact that the big corporations that offer them don’t pay their drivers and guides all that well. Those people then have to supplement their income. They do that by making arrangements with certain attractions that pay them for bringing in tourists and especially shoppers. So, on these tours, you often find yourself in a big coach, following other big coaches to the same destinations, which usually include as much or more in the way of shopping as they do in scenery or activities. If you like the predictability and safety of the group, and knowing exactly what you’re in for, they can be a reassuring option, but if you’re willing to do a bit of your own research and risk the unknown, you can find a much more magical experience.
So, destinations. South of Dublin, you’ll find the gorgeous Wicklow Mountains, along with Powerscourt Gardens and the historic ruins of the monastery at Glendalough, along with the town of Cong, where the Quiet Man was filmed, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It’s a classic.
In the nearby interior, you’ll find the town of Kilkenny, with its narrow medieval lanes, cathedrals, and castle; and the Rock of Cashel, with its dramatic hilltop hodgepodge of church ruins overlooking the Plain of Tipperary. Cashel was once the seat of the Irish kings and home to Brian Boru, the only true high king in Irish history. A bit south and east of there, along the coast, you can see the very enlightening Dunbrody Famine Ship, and learn how so many Irish left their homes during the 19th Century famine years. Farther south and west along the coast is Kinsale, a tempestuous center of modern Irish cuisine, and Cobh, near Cork, the harbor from which the Titanic began her fatal voyage. And if your heart is set on kissing the Blarney Stone, it’s near Cork.
From there, you can follow the crowds to the beautiful Ring of Kerry, or find even more enchanting magic with fewer people on the Dingle Peninsula. Stop for lunch on the way at Tralee, home of the famous roses, and find a B&B in Dingle town. Take the Slea Head tour around the peninsula and see ancient stone huts and the Gallarus Oratory, then you’re back in town for some of the finest traditional pubs around.
Up the west coast, take the ferry across the Shannon River, driving or riding along the Burren and view the Cliffs of Moher, majestically towering over the sea. Stay in Galway, home of the youngest demographic in Ireland, with its vibrant night life, and take a ferry out to Inish Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands. As you land at the seaport in Kilronan, hire a small coach to take you out to Dun Aenghus, an ancient stone ring fort, and enjoy the views and commentary along the way. Have a pint and some lunch in one of the fine Irish pubs and then board the ferry back to Galway.
North from Galway, you’ll find the gorgeous scenery of Connemara and County Mayo, also the home of Croagh Patrick, where the pilgrims climb the mountain in honor of Ireland’s patron saint. See Clew Bay and Clare Island, where Ireland’s Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley sheltered in between her trading and rading journeys. North some more and you come to County Donegal, home of Red Hugh O’Donnell, the fighting prince, and the once dominant O’Neill clan who stood off English invaders for many years.
Stay in Derry if you get a chance and walk the walls. This city stands on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the history of the strife between these two political entities can be viewed in so many places. But don’t worry about The Troubles; they’ve settled down a good deal, and never really bothered tourists much.
As you continue eastward along the coast, you come to Portrush and Antrim, the northernmost part of the island, from where you can look across the Irish sea and view the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. There are some excellent activities here, including Dunluce Castle, perched high on a cliff over the sea, the Giant’s Causeway, a formation of basaltic columns that gave rise to some wonderful folk tales, and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, built by fishermen to gain access to a rocky island, but now a heart-pounding adventure for visitors as they cross high above the roaring surf below.
Our circle goes on, to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and home to the shipyards where the Titanic was built. There’s plenty of history here to enjoy, on the way back towards Dublin, but don’t forget to stop at the Boyne Valley’s ancient pre-Celtic burial mounds of Brú na Bóinne and/or the majestic Norman castle of Trim.
Then it’s back to the bustling Irish capital of Dublin, with fascinating tours (historical, musical, and literary), passionate rebel history (Kilmainham Gaol), treasured Dark Age gospels (Book of Kells), intricate Celtic artifacts (National Museum: Archaeology and History), and a rambunctious pub district (Temple Bar). Spend a couple of days here at least. Walk the Ha’Penny Bridge and see the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, where the Rebels of 1916 fought for Irish independence.
These are some of my favorite places in Ireland, and lend themselves to the “back door” philosophy of travel. Get to know the people, the pubs, the churches, the history, the scenery, in a low-pressure, less crowded atmosphere and your “trip of a lifetime” will be even more special.