Our Top Ten Things to Do in Ireland

We’re just getting settled in at home again after a three-week trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, the longest vacation either of us has taken from our full-time jobs. As we found out, not many people travel to Ireland during the darkest days of the year, but we were excited to visit a brand new destination and enjoy a sneak peek at slow travel and ultralight packing.

Ireland mixes stunning natural beauty with friendly people, a fun pub scene, and thousands of years of fascinating history – from Viking invasions to battles for the English throne to the lingering sectarian “Troubles.” We absolutely loved the place. It was easily one of the most fun trips I’ve ever taken.

By the Numbers

  • Length: 21 nights
  • Beds Slept In: 11 (3 hotels, 4 hostels, 4 B&Bs)
  • Cities/Towns Toured: 17
  • Distance Driven: 2,662 km / 1,654 miles (157 km / 97 miles per day)
  • Distance Walked: 304 km / 189 miles (15 km / 9.4 miles per day)
  • Guinnesses Drunk: 30+
  • Watery Lagers Drunk: 30+
  • Fish & Chips Eaten: 7
  • Cottage Pies Eaten: 1
  • Old Castles Visited: 15+
  • Blarney Stones Kissed: 0

Here are our top 10 favorite things from our trip:

10. Glendalough

Located just an hour south of Dublin at the south end of Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough’s major attraction is a remarkably well preserved 5th century monastic settlement. Founded by hermit monk Saint Cóemgen (or Kevin), Glendalough features ruins of multiple churches, an impressive 30 meter tall tower, and a beautiful walking path along two lakes.

Road to Glendalough through Wicklow Mountains National Park

Road to Glendalough through Wicklow Mountains National Park

Monastic ruins at Glendalough

Monastic ruins at Glendalough

9. National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

Dublin’s National Museum holds the most notable artifacts from thousands of years of human life across the island. With free admission (and rainy weather), we ended up coming here twice to view the collection – everything from 7,000-year-old fish traps, to Viking weaponry, to bog-preserved human remains, to unbelievably intricate Iron Age goldwork.

Broighter Gold boat ca. 100 BCE - Photo credit irisharchaeology.ie

Broighter Gold boat ca. 100 BCE – Photo credit irisharchaeology.ie

8. Rock of Cashel

Perched atop an outcrop of limestone in the south central part of the island, the Rock of Cashel served as the seat of the kings of Munster for hundreds of years prior to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th century. The buildings that remain today date as far back as 1100 CE, and the hilltop location provides beautiful views of rolling hills and the town of Cashel.

Rock of Cashel 2

7. Charles Fort and Kinsale

A brief afternoon detour on the southern coast ended up providing one of our favorite sites of the trip, the late 17th century Charles Fort, a massive fortification beautifully situated at the mouth of the River Bandon. The neighboring port town of Kinsale (population 2,300) was one of the more charming places we visited, with narrow winding streets and colorful storefronts. If we planned our trip again, we would have spent a night here.

Charles Fort

Charles Fort

Kinsale

Kinsale

6. Pub Music and Nightlife

Christmastime doesn’t always provide the most active nightlife, but we still managed to find numerous active pubs across the island, many of which featured local musicians gathered at tables playing fiddle, guitar, accordion, bodhrán, and a variety of other instruments. Our favorites were the “open session” style, with musicians and singers coming and going at their leisure and the sound of the group changing over the course of the night. With the sun setting around 4 o’clock each afternoon, we spent a ton of time in pubs and bars this trip!

Pub music in Kilkenny

Pub music in Kilkenny

Our kind of bar

Our kind of bar

5. Newgrange and the Boyne Valley

Perhaps the single most fascinating building in the country, Newgrange is a rebuilt prehistoric monument on the east side of the island, dating back to the Neolithic period around 3000 BCE. Used as a tomb and perhaps a religious site, the building was constructed to align with the rising sun on winter solstice (when we happened to be there) – not unlike many other sacred sites across the world. In addition to the incredible construction, Newgrange also provides one of the most picturesque views of Ireland’s famous rolling green hills.

Newgrange

4. Waterford

We very nearly skipped visiting Waterford entirely, but we ended up adding it to our itinerary at the last minute after a chance run-in with a talkative Irish-American at a beer festival in Portland a week before our trip. We’re so glad we did! The oldest city in Ireland, Waterford has a working class vibe and seemed almost entirely devoid of tourists, at least during the off-season. In addition to a fun Christmas market and the fascinating thousand-year-old Viking tower that stands at the eastern edge of the city quay, Waterford is famous as the home of Waterford Crystal.

I had extremely low expectations for our tour of the Waterford Crystal factory, expecting to see a touristy exhibit and be quickly escorted to the gift shop. Instead, we enjoyed the most intimate factory tour I’ve ever experienced. The tour takes visitors through the entire production process and allows guests to walk right through the center of the production facility. We watched glassblowers working from five feet away (so close we could feel the heat from the ovens), held “backup” versions of famous crystal trophies, and stood literally shoulder-to-shoulder with glass cutters as they etched bowls and vases. Though we skipped picking up any five-figure pieces from the showroom, it was one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

Cutter at work at Waterford Crystal

Cutter at work at Waterford Crystal

3. Antrim Coast and Giant’s Causeway

One of Northern Ireland’s most famous destinations, this 30 km stretch of rocky northern coastline provided supreme views, stunning manmade and natural wonders, and beautiful oceanside hiking trails. Highlights include the ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched right at the edge of the ocean, and the impressive hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, left behind by a 50 million-year-old volcanic eruption.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle

2. Sectarian Neighborhoods of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is famously home to “The Troubles,” the violent ethno-nationalist conflict between Protestant Loyalists/Unionists (who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom) and Catholic Nationalists/Republicans (who wish to leave the UK and join a united Ireland). Though the conflict was officially deemed ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the extreme tensions are still evident in the working class sectarian neighborhoods of Belfast and Derry, two of our favorite stops during our travels.

The city of Derry, located at the northwestern edge of Northern Ireland, was particularly fascinating. Though the natural river boundary would have made the city part of the free Republic of Ireland, Unionist gerrymandering kept the majority Catholic city in the United Kingdom, creating massive unrest. Even the name of the city is contentious – while the city council has deemed it officially “Derry,” the UK’s road signs and train schedules all refer to it as “Londonderry,” though you’ll rarely see a sign without graffiti over the “London” portion. Derry was home to the famous Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, in which British soldiers shot 26 unarmed protesters, killing 14. You can’t miss the numerous political murals in the Catholic Bogside neighborhood, many of which commemorate the event. A 6-meter high chain-link “peace wall” divides Bogside from the loyalist Fountain neighborhood, where Union Jacks and loyalist images cover every building.

In Belfast, we toured the well known unionist Shankill Road and nationalist Falls Road neighborhoods, two of the most central “Troubles” areas. It’s a surreal experience: just steps away from Belfast’s bustling and modern city center, giant murals commemorate mass murderer thugs. Towering “peace walls” separate the neighborhoods, and gates close the roads between the two areas every evening. Every 12th of July, unionists march through nationalist neighborhoods and burn stories-high bonfires covered in Irish and Catholic imagery, celebrating a 300-year-old Protestant battle victory and igniting violence in the streets. Yet at the same time, the neighborhoods are a tourist destination, with dozens of black cabs touring the murals, memorials, and historic sites.

I wouldn’t pretend to even begin to understand all the emotion, personal identity, and family history for the residents of these areas, but these neighborhoods were easily one of the most fascinating and memorable portions of our travels to Ireland.

Free Derry mural in unionist Bogside neighborhood

Free Derry mural in nationalist Bogside neighborhood

"No Surrender" mural in nationalist Fountain neighborhood

“No Surrender” mural in unionist Fountain neighborhood

Belfast mural commemorating Shankill Road loyalist Stevie "Top Gun" McKeag, who killed at least 12 Catholic civilians

Belfast mural commemorating Shankill Road loyalist Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag, who killed at least 12 Catholic civilians

Belfast "peace wall" separating sectarian neighborhoods

Armored police vehicle driving along Belfast “peace wall” separating sectarian neighborhoods

1. County Kerry: Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula

Two of the most famous driving routes in southwest Ireland, these neighboring peninsulas provided the most impressive scenery of our travels. We spent a full day driving the Ring of Kerry, including stops at Killarney National Park and Staigue Fort, a remarkable stone ring fort from around 300 CE. On the Dingle Peninsula, a short 50 km loop provided stunning ocean views, along with frequent gale-force winds. The small town of Dingle, where we stayed for two nights, has fewer than 2,000 residents but more than 30 pubs. County Kerry is a perfect combination of desolate beauty, charming small towns, and ancient wonders – quintessential Ireland.

Staigue Fort

Staigue Fort

Ring of Kerry

Ring of Kerry

Our rental car on the Dingle Peninsula

Our rental car on the Dingle Peninsula

Coming up shortly, we’ll share a few of the things we learned on our trip that will help us plan for future travels!

6 Comments

  1. How do you leave the Cliffs of Moher off? Did you go there? I also loved the Jameson and Guiness factories. I had fun in Ireland, but there are a bunch of places I want to go first before I go back. Glad you guys enjoyed!

    • Haha, we did go to the Cliffs of Moher. I think maybe they were built up so much that our expectations were exceedingly high! But we did really enjoy being there; awesome scenery. Guinness was fun, too, even if it was a bit like the Disneyland of breweries. Didn’t make it to Jameson. Guess we had to save something for next time!

  2. Those photos are stunning — looks like such a cool trip! And yowza — that’s a lot of lodging changes! You guys definitely covered a ton in a short time. I’m sure it will feel great once you’re able to slow your travels down a bit.

  3. I was in Ireland in Sept 2014 and loved it. We did a musical pub crawl in Dublin, which was fantastic and definitely a highlight. I also really liked Galway and wish we had spent more time there. I agree that Glendalough/St. Kevin’s is a must see.

    I found the Cliffs of Moher to be miserable but glad that I saw it once and never have to go back — way too windy and wet. I was disappointed by the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Totally overrated in my opinion. Only worth going to see the Great Hall at the end of the exhibit.

    Someday I hope to make it back and try to hit more on your list.

    • That sounds like a great trip, Kate! We’re glad we saw the Cliffs, but that was probably the spot with the wildest weather we experienced the whole time. I liked the Book of Kells, but my expectations were zero going in, so that always helps!

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