Ireland is a magical place, charming visitors with gorgeous coastlines, vivid green hillsides and incredibly friendly people. Join us as we trace Irish literary paths and explore castle ruins, island oratories, monastic sites and megalithic portals. We’ll also show you how to best enjoy the unique craic (aka fun) Ireland has to offer with music, dance and—of course—a pint of Guinness.
Dublin – Music, Dancing, A Bite & A Pint
There’s no better way to immerse yourself in Ireland’s culture than to visit one of Dublin’s many pubs, cafés and bars. Included in James Joyce’s book Dubliners, Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street (one of Dublin’s fashionable shopping passages) has been in operation since 1927 and was once the haunt of literary and artistic figures like Samuel Beckett. Inspired by the exotic tearooms of the Orient, the grand cafés of Paris and Vienna, as well as Egyptian architecture, Bewley’s character and ambiance make it a perfect spot to watch the world go by. You can also use it as a rest stop for baked treats, fresh roasted coffee or a spot of tea while you’re out shopping. If you want to catch some local drama, grab a bowl of soup or a sandwich and pop into the lunchtime theater, staged in the cafe’s Oriental Room.
In the evenings, head to the Temple Bar area on the south bank of the River Liffey, where you can see traditional Irish set dancing on certain nights. These performances are often followed by free lessons. The old-world bar at O’Shea’s Merchant Hotel jives to the rhythm of live traditional music seven nights a week, with set dancing three nights a week and free classes on Mondays. If you’d prefer to stick to the tunes, it’s easy to find live Irish music and ballad sessions that seem to happen spontaneously. You’ll often hear chords seeping through the doors as you wander the narrow cobbled streets. Check out what’s on tap while you’re in town.
Abandoned Relics of Irish Past
It’s not hard to spot a castle in Ireland—hundreds of them dot the Emerald Isle in various states of disrepair. Some are intact, privately owned and occupied, while others are managed by heritage foundations and county councils. In other cases, caretakers living nearby will open the gates so you can explore the grounds. Dromoland Castle (County Clare), Castle Oliver (Co. Limerick) and Castlemartyr (Co. Cork) are now upscale hotels and resorts.
However, it is Ireland’s abandoned ruins that capture the country’s past, situated off the beaten path free of crowds and tour buses. Part of the Irish landscape, these stately relics can be found in every county. Basking peacefully in nature’s glory without entry fees or signage, most are open to the public unless they stand on private lands, and even then, the owners may let you roam around.
A great way to find one of these sites is to just get in a car and drive around the countryside. We’ve listed some of our favorites to get you started:
- Ballycarbery (Co. Kerry): In the enclave of Cahersiveen not far from the Ring of Kerry, these ivy-clad ruins on the water’s edge make a great stop. Visit on a moonlit night at high tide and climb to the top for outstanding views.
- Ballysaggartmore Towers (Co. Waterford): A 19th-century gentleman started to build a large castle for his wife but ran out of money. His loss is your gain—take a walk through a forest path to find these magical ruins.
- Carrigogunnell Castle (Co. Limerick): This 15th-century castle built on a volcanic peak once stood 50 feet high with five stories and a spiral staircase.
- Dunamase Castle (Co. Laois): Situated grandly on a rock outcrop, this castle has evidence that it dates back to the 9th century.
- Minard Castle (Co. Kerry): This 16th-century castle is set on a hill overlooking a bay and beach on the Dingle peninsula.
The Irish Sweater – A Wooly Wonder of Culture & Traditions
In addition to castles, you’ll find a vast supply of sheep most everywhere in Ireland—and that means a lot of wool. One of the items made famous with this wool is the Irish sweater, which makes a fantastic souvenir. Of the three basic types (handmade, handloomed and machine-made), handmade styles are most expensive, handloomed varieties sport a looser weave and machine-made sweaters are more consistent in size.
Many people shop at Blarney Woolen Mills, in operation as a mill since 1750. Alternatively, there are hundreds of places that sell sweaters, including craft shops near castles and in traditional seafaring locations like Dingle. Dublin has some local gems like Trinity Sweaters (aka The Sweater Shop), a shop with excellent prices located behind Trinity College. If you don’t mind a pre-worn piece of Ireland, thrift stores are a great place to find handmade wonders at bargain prices.
To claim a piece of Irish wool at its source, take a ferry to tiny Inis Oírr (Inisheer). Part of the wild Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast near Galway, this isle boasts prehistoric Celtic remains, miles of stone walls and the famous Aran sweater. Worn by generations of islanders, it became famous when it appeared in Vogue in 1956, but it dates back to early Celtic settlers who wore these sweaters to keep warm in the blustering landscape. The patterns of the sweaters were inspired by religious and spiritual influences, folkloric traditions and natural geography. Cable stitches are said to symbolize the nets and ropes of island fishermen. In time, each family clan developed its own combination of stitches and patterns. When drowned fishermen were found, they were often identified by the patterns of their sweaters.
The average Aran sweater is made up of approx. 100,000 stitches and can take up to 60 hours to knit. As a result, they are limited in production. Many are now machine-made of soft merino wool, so always check the tag before you buy. The Aran Sweater Market, in business since 1892, serves as cornerstone of the island’s economy.
A Lesser-Known But Just As Spectacular Ring
A great alternative to the popular scenic drive known as the Ring of Kerry is the neighboring Ring of Beara. It superbly showcases a bit of Kerry and Cork counties—without the slow tour buses. As you travel from sea to sky over the breathtaking Healy Pass, you’ll see unspoiled rugged scenery along 85 miles (137 km) of peninsula that juts out from Ireland’s southwest coastline. Give yourself a full to enjoy and explore the lavish views, fishing hamlets, islands, stone circles and castle ruins that make up this beautiful route.
Interesting stops like The Ewe Sculpture Garden in Glengarriff and a copper mine museum in Allihies (the westernmost village on the peninsula), provide snapshots of local art and history. A mine trail along Allihies’ cliffs, beaches, fields and mountains offers an intriguing way to breathe in the fresh Atlantic sea air. You can also take a tiny cable gondola from the tip of the peninsula across the turbulent Dursey Sound to sparsely populated Dursey Island to spot dolphins, whales and butterflies, or meander through an Italianate garden on Garnish Island (aka Ilnacullin). Walkers can spend multiple days navigating The Beara Way, a long-distance route (approx. 129 miles/208 km). Stay at a local B&B, drop into small stores to pick up a picnic lunch and follow the historic 1603 march of O’Sullivan Beare, West Cork’s and South Kerry’s last great chieftain. Whether you walk, cycle or drive, be sure to visit the peninsula’s friendly pubs where you can enjoy great soup, toasted sandwiches and a pint.
The Burren – Magical Kingdom of Karst
If you’re going to the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland, consider driving through Burren National Park, the world’s largest expanse of karst (dissolved limestone). Made up of mountains, valleys, meandering streams and geological curiosities, this unique lunar-like landscape stands in stark contrast to Ireland’s rich greenery. Its rugged terrain is amazingly fertile and hosts an outstanding array of native flora that includes over 20 species of orchid and rare plants and flowers. In addition, you’ll find over 500 ring forts, cave systems, rock-walled pastures and a remarkable number of Neolithic dolmens (tombs).
The very narrow road through the area makes a fascinating scenic drive. Navigate hairpin turns, pullouts with stellar vistas and numerous points of interest. The 5,000-year-old Poulnabrone Dolmen ,a mystical portal tomb, lies just a short walk off the road. Covering the remains of 22 neolithic people, the name of this Irish icon translates to “Hole of Sorrow.” To learn more about it, stop at the Burren Centre, which features an exhibition of the Burren’s timeline and its ancient inhabitants. You can also join nature walks with a local guide from the center. Great walking trails of the area range from moderate to difficult.
Quietly tucked not far away in the town of Ennis, you’ll find the peaceful oasis of Ireland’s longest running perfumery. Inspired by the Burren landscape and flora, Burren Perfumery is immersed in the natural wonder of the area. Out of a charming stone house and garden, it creates signature scents, blending and bottling them onsite. The perfumery also handcrafts soap, organic lotion, skincare products and candles. Watch a brief film of the Burren’s landscape and flora, bask in the Burren scents, peruse the gift shop and wander in the delightful organic herb garden that includes native flowers you may have missed in the park. If you’re there in season (April to September), save time to visit the first-rate tea rooms, where you can enjoy homemade organic delights and a spot of fresh-brewed floral or herbal tea.
Enchanting Forestlands & Island Oratory
On your way to the Ring of Beara in Ireland’s southwest corner, plan a stop at Gougane Barra Park, which opened in 1964 as Ireland’s first national park. The Gougane Barra Hotel, stationed at the edge of the park’s namesake lake, is a marvelous retreat and makes a great base for exploring the area. Walking trails canvas bridges, scenic views and hillsides, and cater to all levels. Alternatively, you can drive or cycle the ring road through the forest. Take one of the hotel’s rowboats out on the lake, fish for trout or simply enjoy the “lonely retreat of St. Finbarr”—the translation for Gougane Barra.
St. Finbarr, the founder and patron saint of Cork, established a monastery on an island in the middle of the lake in the early 7th century. Visitors can walk among the remains and ancient stations of the cross. This picturesque setting is a great spot for reflection, photography and weddings—people come from all over the world to get married in St. Finbarr’s Oratory, the island’s tiny chapel with lovely stained-glass windows. Holy days, including Sundays, are a time of rest, except when a local pipe band shows up to celebrate the annual St. Finbarr pilgrimage, which takes place on the first Sunday after St. Finbarr’s feast day (September 25).
In the evenings, settle in to the Gougane Barra Hotel’s small pub or parlor to exchange travel tips or wander outside, where a canopy of stars and the distant glow of a light emanating from the oratory create nocturnal splendor.
Treading Paths of Irish Literary & Spiritual Legacy in Galway
Two of Ireland’s great literary figures hail from western Ireland. Poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner W.B. Yeats (1856–1939) and his longtime friend Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932)—dramatist, folklorist and theater manager—co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
In Galway, you can follow their footsteps along the Lady Gregory Yeats Heritage Trail. Points of interest include Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s former home that served as the center of the Irish Literary Revival in the early 20th century. This woodland spot beckoned the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Yeats, who once described it as “the most beautiful place in the world.” Wander the tranquil trails to see where Yeats found inspiration for poems like “The Wild Swans of Coole” (the swans still swim on the lake here). Seek out the gnarly Autograph Tree where famous literary names, including Yeats, Gregory and Shaw, carved their initials. The excellent visitor center in the renovated stables shows a film narrated by Lady Gregory’s grandchildren and provides historical background on the Gaelic Revival.
From there, drive northeast to Thoor Ballylee, a 16th-century tower house that Yeats restored and used as his summer home. Although the tower is currently closed, you can still explore the grounds. Continue on to the little-traveled Kilmacduagh, a 7th-century rural monastic site set in vivid green meadows. Once a refuge for monks, it includes the stone ruins of an abbey, cathedral, cemetery and Ireland’s highest round tower. According to local legend, you can cure a backache by lying on St. Colman’s grave behind the cathedral, and fulfill your healing wishes by hugging the cross of St. Kevin.
Kinsale – Gourmet Capital & Seafaring Irish Soul
The picturesque port of Kinsale serves as the gateway to West Cork and is a beacon for food lovers. It has a bevy of restaurants, wine bars, cafés and pubs for all tastes and budgets. Delve into fresh Atlantic bounty at local favorite Jim Edwards, or places like Fishy Fishy, winner of the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation. Taste superb tapas with buzzing atmosphere at The Black Pig Winebar & Café or find traditional Irish fare at The Grey Hound, which keeps the fire roaring on cold days and provides outdoor seating on sunny afternoons. For great harbor views, drop in at The Bulman (upstairs, downstairs or outside) for fresh oysters, mussels, fish and chips. Kinsale also hosts the annual Gourmet Festival in the fall (October 10–12 in 2014).
Work up an appetite—or work off a meal—while enjoying outstanding Atlantic views at the spectacular Old Head Golf Links, which has great clubhouse dining. Standing on the bluff, imagine the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania being torpedoed by a German submarine off this headland on its way from New York to Liverpool in 1915. The event that catapulted Kinsale into rescue operations and the U.S. into World War I is now memorialized at the Kinsale Museum and St. Multose Church, where some of the passengers were buried.
Walkers can amble the Kinsale Slí (aka Scilly Walk) that travels 2 1/2 miles along the Kinsale harbor to Charles Fort, passing through the hamlets of Scilly and Summer Cove. Stop to admire the marvelous vistas and drop in for a pint at The Spaniard, a bar/restaurant on the site of a ruined castle that has welcomed sailors and wayfarers since 1650.
If you’re an art lover, sign up for a course at the Kinsale Pottery & Arts Centre. Tucked away along a winding lane at the top of a hill, the studio covers the ins and outs of ceramics in the lovely converted stables of a home farm. If you don’t want to take a class, just wander through the gallery in the eaves of the coach house that dates back to 1795. In addition, the talented Irish photographer Giles Norman makes his home in Kinsale in a four-story Georgian gallery on Main Street. His black-and-white images of Irish landscape and life make a perfect souvenir.
Travel Tips: Ireland
If you’re heading to the Emerald Isle, read the helpful hints we’ve compiled here before you go. We’ll give you the lowdown on how to dress, where to walk, what to eat, how to get a cab and where to have craic (fun) for free.
Irish Autumn Wear
In the fall, Irish weather varies, but you’ll likely see some rain during your visit. The good news is that the showers don’t last long and the temperatures are generally mild. Autumn Irish temps usually hover in the 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit), depending where you’re going. You’ll definitely need raingear and a windproof/rainproof jacket (or a trench for the city) and closed-toe walking shoes, especially if you plan to see the megalithic sites. Pack hiking boots if you’re exploring more advanced trails. Blustering winds can kick up on the coastlines and in the mountains, so pack a warm hat and scarf. Although Dubliners are fashionable, on the whole, Ireland is a casual country—comfort and warmth take precedence over style. Layer up with a T-shirt, sweater or vest, and fleece or jacket, so you’ll be comfortable whatever the weather. A daypack or tote allows you carry an extra pair of shoes and accessories if you don’t want to go back to the hotel before dinner or the theater.
One of the best ways to see Ireland is on foot—you’ll find trails, walking clubs and guided tours throughout the country. You can also take part in one of the many walking festivals held during the year. These festivals allow walkers to go on different guided hikes during the day and trade stories in the local pubs afterwards. Sponsored by communities and clubs, walking festivals are a great way to get to know both the people and landscape of Ireland.
Our favorite 2014 autumn walks include:
- Connemara Four Seasons Walking Festival (October 18–20; Galway): Daily guided walks explore the heritage and landscapes of the Connemara islands and bogs.
- Footfalls Wicklow Walking Festival (October 24–27; Wicklow): Just south of Dublin, you can go on day and night walks that canvas monastic settlements, Glendalough lakes and Wicklow National Park.
- Nire Valley Autumn Walking Festival (October 10–12; Waterford): Explore Comeragh Mountain ridges, rivers, lakes and woods on walks rated “A” and “B” (for very fit and experienced walkers) or “C” (for moderately fit and occasional walkers).
- Upperchurch Walking Festival (November 8–10; Tipperary): Hikes range from 1 1/2–6 hours, with music and dancing in the local pubs at night.
Pubs vs. Restaurants
Talking to strangers is an Irish national pastime. One of the mainstays of Ireland are its pubs (short for public houses), where people linger and chat over a pint or a meal. Pubs are generally less formal than restaurants and most serve food. Featuring reasonable prices and music to boot, they’re great for a casual lunch or dinner of traditional Irish fare. For more privacy, pick a table away from the bar or if you’re feeling social, choose a seat at the bar. Look around when you walk into restaurants—some have attached pubs that serve the same food at lower prices. Don’t worry about smoking; it was banned in Ireland’s pubs in 2004.
Reading Road Signs & Speaking the Language
When Ireland migrated to the EU in 1973, the metric system came to stay. Green and white road signs indicate distances in kilometers and speed limits are posted as km/h.
There are also two official languages in Ireland: English and Irish (aka Gaelic or Gaeilge). You’ll see road signs in both languages, except in some Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas where they’ll be in Irish only. While English predominates, you’ll find Irish spoken in small communities along the west coast in Donegal (north), Galway (west) and Kerry (southwest). Irish Gaelic is different than Scottish Gaelic—but both are Celtic in origin and very similar. To boil it down:
- Irish = language of Ireland
- Gaeilge = Irish (in the Irish language)
- Gaelic = Irish (in the English language), which derives from the word Gaeilge. Among the Irish, the term “Gaelic” refers to the Scottish language, while “Irish” refers to the language of Ireland
Eat Irish Style
Some consider waking up to an Irish breakfast at a B&B as one of their fondest memories. Enough to sustain you through the noon hour and beyond, a hearty traditional breakfast could come with any or all of the following:
- Bangers (Irish sausage)
- Rashers (soft bacon)
- Baked beans
- Fried eggs
- Fried potatoes
- Fried tomatoes
- Black pudding (sausage made of oatmeal, spices and pig’s blood)
- White pudding (without the pig’s blood)
- Irish soda bread
As for lunch and dinner, try leek and potato soup, bacon and cabbage, lamb and pork, and—of course—seafood. Hot Irish stew with warm, buttered Irish soda bread is another classic. Any number of ingredients (e.g., beef, lamb, carrots, onions, leeks and even Guinness) can be found in a traditional stew, but potatoes make it truly Irish. Whether mashed, baked, boiled or fried, potatoes are a mainstay, even as snacks. Be sure to try Taytos—abrand of crisps (aka potato chips) so ingrained in Irish culture, the name is often used as a catchall term for all potato chips. Remember that in Ireland “chips” refer to fries (e.g., fish and chips).
Dublin’s Free Attractions
Big cities can be pricey, but Dublin boasts a number of great attractions that won’t cost a dime:
- Dublin Castle: This 13th-century castle includes towers, a royal chapel, gardens and the Chester Beatty Library. Fee charged for admission to the castle’s official State Rooms.
- Dublin Botanic Gardens: In addition to the vast array of plants and flowers, this serene spot has several beautiful Victorian glasshouses.
- Glasnevin Cemetery: Starting off as a 9-acre plot in 1828, this resting place has grown to hold 1.5 million people on 124 acres. A number of Irish heroes are interred here, including Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins. Fee charged for walking tour.
- Irish Museum of Modern Art: Enjoy free entry to the special exhibitions, collections and certain guided tours.
- National Gallery: The national collection of European and Irish fine art houses remarkable pieces from the great masters (14th to 21st centuries), including a long-lost Caravaggio. Free audio guides for key works and a special children’s audio guide and kids’ art room makes this a great idea for a rainy day.
Where’s the Loo?
When you need to use the bathroom in Ireland, you’ll need to be specific. The room with the toilet is called the “toilet” while the “bathroom” is where you take a bath or shower. You may also hear more informal references to the toilet like loo, jax and bog (bogroll is slang for toilet paper). But that’s not all you need to know: Irish rather than English is often inscribed on the toilet door: Fir for men and Mná for women. Public restrooms can be scarce in Dublin—aside from shopping centers, museums, galleries and larger department stores—but you can duck into a pub, café or hotel when necessary. Although it’s perfectly acceptable for non-paying patrons to use the facilities, be polite and ask first.
When you see the word “engaged” on a taxi, you don’t need to congratulate the driver—it simply means the taxi is occupied. People don’t usually flag down cabs in Ireland, except in larger cities. You either call a cab to come get you or you queue up at a taxi stand near hotels, pubs, rail stations and busy locations (queuing is customary for buses as well). It’s all very orderly—just take your place in the queue, and the first taxi in line when you get to the front will be yours.
If you plan to use your phone in Ireland, you can also download the Hailo app to request a cab via GPS signal. Linked to licensed cab drivers in 24 Irish cities, it transmits your location to the company. You’ll be notified when a driver near you accepts the request. You’ll also receive the driver’s ID number, photo and estimated time of arrival. You can pay by credit card, track the driver and post reviews.