The Emerald Isle. The land of luck and leprechauns. The home of Guinness and Gaelic.
Yes, Ireland is all of these things — and more. For such a small country, it actually has a lot to offer any traveler, whether you’re visiting for a few days or a few months.
I’m by no means an expert on travel in Ireland, but there are certain places and experiences that have always stood out from my time there. So, no matter how much time you have to spend in Ireland, here are 5 stops you should make sure to build in to your travel itinerary.
The capital of the Republic of Ireland, and the country’s largest city, Dublin will likely make it into any Ireland travel plans — and for good reason; there’s a lot to do here.
Take a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, which is perhaps Ireland’s top tourist attraction. For 13.5 euros, you can tour this 7-story beer fun house, learning about the history of the Guinness brew, how it’s produced, and how the brand has evolved over the years. At the end, enjoy a pint at the seventh-story Gravity Bar.
For more debauchery and booze, many tourists head to Temple Bar for pubs and nightlife, even though the area is criticized for being overpriced and kitschy. The locals look down upon this area, but it’s still worth seeing, at least, and there’s always live music playing. Though, if you want a real Irish pub experience, head elsewhere.
Kilmainham Gaol (jail) is also worth a visit. This former prison-turned-museum was built in 1796, and was used as a prison until 1924. Since the 1980s, the museum has been run by the government. Along with being old (and slightly creepy at times), Kilmainham played an important part in Irish history, as many leaders of the Irish rebellions were imprisoned (and sometimes executed) here by the British. Tours (cost: 6 euros) take you throughout the old, crumbling prison blocks, and into the yard in front of the Gaol where hangings used to take place.
When the desire arises to get away from the city, head out from Dublin into County Wicklow. Characterized by rolling hills, forests, and the Wicklow Mountains, this area is beautiful.
Be sure to visit the old monastic settlement of Glendalough, which is said to have been founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin. The settlement was partially destroyed in 1398 by the English, but parts still remain in-tact, such as St. Kevin’s Church, the Round Tower, old moss-covered gravestones in the cemetery, and the foundations of chapels and a cathedral.
If you’re looking for a taste of old Ireland — the like of which you’ve read about in legends and old fairy tales — you’ll likely find it here at Glendalough.
There’s a lot to be said about the Irish countryside. It’s both rugged and rolling, coarse and charming. Frequent Irish rainshowers leave the grass brilliantly green, and the sky is at least twice a day kissed by rainbows.
There are a whole host of little Irish towns worth visiting throughout Ireland, most characterized by stone cottages, brightly-colored store fronts, and friendly locals. To call these towns “cute” or “quaint” would be an understatement; the words simply do not do these places justice.
For me, I will always associate my Irish countryside memories with County Cavan and towns like Cavan and Belturbet.
It would be very easy to fall in love with the city of Galway, I think. This fast-growing city is becoming more and more popular with visitors to Ireland, and it’s easy to see why.
Located on the country’s west coast (nearly opposite Dublin), Galway is often referred to as the cultural capital of Ireland. It’s known for its vibrant streets, numerous festivals, and palpable artistic flair.
Check out the Spanish Arch, the last remnant of the walls that used to surround the city, and don’t miss out on a stroll down Shop Street, Galway’s main thoroughfare. Here you’ll be greeted by old brick buildings, colorful store fronts, plenty of pubs, and an array of street performers.
While out shopping, you may want to pick up a Claddagh Ring, the famous ring design of two hands grasping a crowned heart that originated in Galway and stands to represent love, friendship and loyalty. Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold, located on William Street, claims to be the original maker of the Claddagh Ring, as well as the oldest jeweler in Ireland.
I would also suggest a visit to some of Galway’s churches and cathedrals, which are truly impressive. Galway Cathedral (or the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas) boasts a Renaissance-style dome, rose-shaped stained-glass windows, and a wonderfully huge pipe organ. Also consider a visit to St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, the largest medieval parish church in Ireland that has been in use since 1320. The old stone church is small, but has a really interesting arched ceiling and smooth, worn stone floors with old engravings on them.
And, before you leave Galway, be sure to catch a ferry over to the Aran Islands. Inishmore (Inis Mor) — the largest of the three islands — is the most popular with visitors, though you can also visit Inishmaan and Inisheer.
Visiting this small island group is a little like stepping back in time. Irish (Gaelic) is still the official language on the islands, which were for a long time largely cut off from mainland Ireland (perhaps mostly by choice).
Taking a tour of Inishmore, you’ll learn how early settlers on the island mixed layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks in order to create fertile soil, and you’ll see evidence of their settlements in the form of thatched cottages and the ancient, low stone walls that are still used today to contain livestock.
Visitors to Inishmore usually hike up the cliffs to the Iron Age fort called Dun Aengus. Not only is the ancient fort interesting, but its location affords a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against 300-foot cliffs.
Before you leave, don’t forget to visit a local shop selling clothing made of Aran wool. While sweaters are the most well-known product made on the Aran Islands, you can also buy hats, gloves and socks. I purchased two knitted hats made of Aran wool, and they are some of my favorite articles of winter clothing.
There, of course, are plenty of other worthy places to add to any Ireland itinerary, too – the country is full of cities large and small that harbor both history and legends, green farmland that stretches all the way to the sea, and some of the warmest, friendliest locals you could ever hope to meet.
Have you visited Ireland before? If so, what other spots would you add to this list? If not, is it in your travel future?