In my personal opinion, the best way to see Ireland is by renting a car and getting out of the cities. While Ireland has some pretty amazing major centers (Dublin being one of my all time favourite cities in the world), the rural villages and towns are where it’s at. This is where you get to experience true Irish culture, and you will get to see how diverse Ireland is as you drive from county to county.
All that being said, in this post, I am going to stay away from the major cities. They are so accessible by public transit, I would rather show you some of my favourite parts of Ireland, that are best seen by driving yourself.
Glendalough, in Irish means “Valley of the two lakes”. It is a glacial valley located in the Wicklow mountains, about an hour and 15 minute drive, south of Dublin. It is known for the Early Medieval monastic settlement that was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. When you arrive, I strongly suggest hitting the Visitor Center to get yourself a map. It is a large area and you will be walking the whole time so make sure you have a good pair of shoes. You will get to explore various hiking trails that take you to all sorts of cool things and are rated at various levels of difficulty. My favourite part was the monastic settlement. I love wandering through the old buildings and checking out the graveyards with the ancient dates on the tombstones. There are two lakes and you can stroll around, you can take the more difficult hike up to a gorgeous waterfall, head on up to St. Kevin’s cell (the map makes it look like a cave but it eluded me. Maybe you can find it when you go!) and so, so much more.
Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel is a great little roadside stop in the town of Cashel and if you happen to be there on a dreary day, it really adds to the atmosphere. Located on a limestone outcrop, the Rock of Cashel is a group of Medieval buildings that include a 12th century round tower, a High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, a 13th century Gothic cathedral and a 15th century castle. From on top of the Rock, the views over the Tipperary countryside are spectacular.
Seriously, kiss the stone. Blarney is up there as one of the most famous tourist attractions in all of Ireland. I have heard lots of people say that they don’t want to go here because it is SO touristy and they don’t want to kiss the stone that millions of other people have kissed. I really recommend that you do though. You climb up to the roof of an amazing castle in ruin, lay on your back, hang your head upside down over a 90ft drop, and give ‘er a big ol’ smooch. Don’t worry, there’s a lovely gentleman that hangs onto you and there are grates underneath so you can’t fall.
The stone aside though, there is an insane amount of things to do on the grounds and I don’t think people realize this. It is easy to spend a full afternoon wandering through the Poison Garden (yes, there are truly deadly plants in this garden), through the woodlands where you get to see a Druid’s Cave, the Witches Stone, Fairy Gardens, The Wishing Steps, waterfalls, fern gardens, and so much more. If you are there at the right time, you can take a tour of the Blarney House which is a Scottish Baronial mansion that was built in 1874. It has since been restored back to its former glory, but it is only open for tours in the summer months as that is when the Coalthurst family (who live in the house) goes to live on their farm. I was lucky enough to do a tour the first time I was here and it is unbelievable that people call this architectural masterpiece their home.
I could go on forever about the Blarney Castle and grounds as it is one of my favourite attractions in Ireland. I strongly recommend that when you find yourself in County Cork, you take the time to visit.
The beautiful Kinsale (sadly I didn’t really take any pictures of the town itself). This was one of my favourite little towns in Ireland. Kinsale is a quaint little seaside town, amazing for food, drinks, relaxation, and golf (I don’t golf, but if you’re into it, Kinsale has some of the most picturesque golf courses in the world). The weekend I was there, was the bank holiday weekend and the town was hosting the horse races. This meant that people came from all over Ireland to party in this little town. I spent the days walking up and down the main street, popping and and out of all the delicious restaurants and hanging out by the harbour, and then at night, I just hopped around to all the pubs filling my ears with the sound of lively Irish music. Actually, it was in Kinsale that I discovered the band Blue Steel, who I ended up hiring to play at my wedding 3 years later. Now, would this town be as lively on a regular weekend? I am not sure, but what I can assure you, is that you will find nothing but relaxation and a great time in Kinsale.
Skellig Michael and Little Skellig are two very small, rocky and steep islands jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean.
Little Skellig is one of the world’s largest Northern Gannet (a type of seabird) colonies and actually holds international importance as a result. In 2016 I did a boat tour around these islands and as we approached Little Skellig, the sight of the 30,000+ birds that live on this tiny island, was like nothing I had ever seen before. They were EVERYWHERE.
Skellig Michael, the larger of the two, is home to a Gaelic Monastery that was founded between the 6th and 8th century. The monastery is located on the top of the island and is accessed by a steep, narrow staircase. It is open to the public but due to it being a filming location for the final Star Wars trilogy, it has received significant tourist attention. If you are wanting to climb the stairs, you must book your tour ages in advance, but even that is not a guarantee that you will get to land on the island. Weather conditions will dictate if your captain will make the trip out there. In 2016 when I did my boat tour around both islands, I had no idea I could climb Skellig Michael, I found out on the boat. When I went back in 2019, I booked my tickets 4 months in advance, but a couple days before our trip, the captain called and advised that the forecast was not looking good and the ocean would be too rough to make the landing, so he had to cancel our trip, and he refunded our money. Maybe the term “third time's a charm” will ring true when I go back again, and try to climb the elusive Skellig Michael.
Bunratty Castle & Folk Park
Bunratty is a great place to spend an afternoon and there is so much to do for the whole family. The castle on the grounds is one of the most historic castles on Ireland’s west coast and you are able to take a wander inside. For the most part, all floors are open and you can even go up top to the turrets and look out over the grounds. As for the rest of the grounds, the Folk Park is truly amazing.
You can wander through the Fairy Trail and see all of the fairy homes. It is an interactive trail and so much fun for any age. At Pa’s Pet Farm, you can hang out with some cute, cuddly animals and learn all about Irish farming. Throughout the rest of the park, you get to see what life was like in Ireland in the 19th century. All of the houses and shops come from all over Ireland and they form a collection of 19th century urban Irish buildings including a school, doctor’s office, pawnbroker, pub, and many more. Don’t forget to check out the Walled Garden too, as far as walled gardens go, this one is quite small, but it is so majestic.
While Bunratty Folk Park shows what life was like in the 19th Century, Craggaunowen steps back even further. It is Ireland’s original prehistoric park and it showcases what life looked like in the prehistoric and Christian eras. You will get to see what the homesteads looked like and how people lived, as well as animals and artifacts from over 1000 years ago. There is a cool history of the warthog in Ireland too, so you will learn about that and you'll even get to see some. They are vicious though, so they are fenced in. You will wander through the structures and if you’re lucky they may have some demonstrations on the go. When we were there, we got to learn how they spun wool back in the prehistoric era.
Lahinch is a great little place to stay if you are looking for somewhere between Cork and Galway. I personally have not had the chance to stay here yet, but on both trips to Ireland I stopped here for lunch and a lovely walk around town. Next time, it is on my list of places to spend a night. It is a lovely little town right on Liscannor Bay. The food is great, the people are great, and there are some cool little shops to check out. It is also a surfing town and the waves here and get pretty huge so if you are into surfing this is the place for you. The last time I was there, the waves were crashing into the rocks and coming up over the fence. Sadly though, I didn’t have my camera on my so I was unable to get a picture.
Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is a strip along the west coast and there are some stops along it that are definitely worth making.
Cliffs of Moher
A main sight in Ireland is the infamous Cliffs of Moher. I have been to the cliffs twice and both times have been really humbling. They are massive and really make one realize how little we are in this big world. The path along the cliffs stretches about 8km and at their highest point they are 702ft. If you have a packed lunch, the area around O’Brien’s Tower is a great place to stop and eat. I love to just sit and watch the waves crash below, watch the birds soar in the bay and just soak up the sheer magnitude of these cliffs. Take extreme caution when there though, these cliffs are not fenced off so it is a “walk at your own risk” kind of situation. Wear good shoes and don’t get too close to the edge.
The Burren is a region of Ireland that holds significant environmental interest. As it is a whole region, there isn’t necessarily a specific sight to see. You drive through it while you are driving along the Wild Atlantic Way. You will notice that the landscape here is far different than the rest of Ireland. It is not the rolling green hills that you envision or see through the rest of the country. Instead, it is a karst landscape of bedrock made up of glacial-era limestone, cliffs, caves, fossils, and rock formations. It is truly interesting to see how vastly different the landscape is.
Aillwee Caves and Birds of Prey
Aillwee Caves and Birds of Prey is one of my favourite stops in Ireland. You can go underground and walk through the cave learning about the limestone and rock formations that make up the Burren. The Burren Birds of Prey Center is all about education and conservation of these amazing birds. The best part though, is the flying displays that take place in the outdoor arena. These happen a few times a day with different birds. If you are lucky, you will get called down to have one of the birds land on your arm. I was able to “hold” a Great Horned Owl. Personally, watching them fly the Falcons and learning about how they hunt was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.
The Aran islands are 3 rocky islands located off Galway Bay and are known for their ancient sites. Inishmore is the largest and the one to visit. The best way to do so is to rent a bike once you get to the island. At the highest point on the island is a prehistoric fort called Dún Aonghasa. The inhabitants of the islands still live like they did in the “olden days” and they speak primarily Irish. There are English speakers, but it is like taking a step back in time. While biking around the island there are cool structures to see, a couple beaches to relax at, and there is even a seal colony. While you are up at the fort, there is even less warning about the cliff edge than at the Cliffs of Moher. Use extreme caution if you are wanting to get close.
Glenveagh National Park
You could easily spend a full day in this park if you wanted, as there are lots of walking trails, a castle, castle gardens and it is a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Area of Protection under EU and Irish Law. Glenveagh is full of cascading waterfalls, lakes, mountains and oak woodlands. Fro