A Magical Christmas Break in Ireland
When someone asks you what you’re planning to do for the holidays, a few usual answers crop up time and again: Finally going on that Caribbean cruise, headed off to the beach, visiting relatives, or looking forward to enjoying a few days of peace in the comfort of your own home.
Yet if you ever find yourself hankering for an old-world style Christmas, with warm and cosy beds, roaring fires, hearty seasonal food, friendly faces, vibrant history, ancient unspoilt landscapes, and the welcoming scent of mince pies and mulled wine in the air then Ireland may be just the place for you spend your break. That may seem like a lot to want from any one destination, but an Irish castle may be just the place you’re looking for to fulfil your wish for a truly magical Christmas.
Ashford Castle sits on the shores of Lough Corrib in County Mayo and this grand estate spans some eight centuries, making it a perfect place to capture the spirit of the festive season. Located next to the charming village of Cong, itself home to an ancient monastery and the setting for John Ford’s Academy Award winning film The Quiet Man, there’s plenty to love about this location even before you consider the rich history of the castle and its sterling reputation as a luxury hotel.
This castle can truly make you feel like a king or queen during your visit, and you can rest assured that it will remain open during the holiday season, the food will be exceptional, the accommodation superb, and the process is as hassle free as you’d hope it might be. Beyond where you stay however, what is it like to visit Ireland during the Christmas break? Below you’ll discover what awaits you if you visit this ancient island during the most enchanting time of the year.
What’s open in Ireland during Christmas?
On the question of what’s open during this time of year, the answer is not an awful lot. While the larger hotels and virtually all accommodations in the cities remain open all year round, a significant number of privately-owned hotels, inns, guesthouses, self-catering residences, and hotels close for the winter in either October or November, particularly in rural areas. Those that don’t sometimes close their doors during the month of December, or during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Day.
This can make finding the right accommodation tricky at this time of year, but there are options available throughout the season, and Ashford Castle is only one of them. Whenever possible, we’ll try to match the accommodation you stay in with your dream vision for Christmas in Ireland.
How much is a vacation at Christmas going to cost?
The short answer is a lot, but a Christmas break in Ireland may not come to quite as much as you suspect (or fear as the case may be). Airfares during the holidays tend to be higher compared to other periods during the year, and some airlines curtail their routes during the winter months. There are no direct non-stop services from Atlanta to Shannon over Christmas, for example. This means that you’re likely going to have to make connecting flights, at the risk of lost baggage, delayed or cancelled flights, and potentially long layovers.
Most travellers into Ireland from North America enter via Dublin, but if there are no direct flights from your regular airport, you can be looking at airfares of $800-$900, while prices are usually $600-$700 or less. Keep an eye on your preferred airline’s sales and remember that while other flights and cities could vary in price, you’re still likely to pay a premium for coach seats over the holiday season. Keep an eye on the price of you fares, sign up to emails from airlines to be informed of offers as soon as possible, and book once the price moves into a range you’re okay with.
The price of accommodation meanwhile can vary massively between venues in Ireland, and there are two key points driving the price you can expect to pay at this time of year. Firstly, the majority of guest houses, hotels, inns, and B&Bs view December as low season, and price their rooms accordingly. It’s quite possible to find accommodation at a well-respected establishment for €100 or less a night, including a full breakfast. As mentioned previously however, it’s likely that your choices will be severely limited, and it may be necessary to consider more expensive options based on your itinerary.
Keep an eye on deals and offers, and check with accommodations directly, as some discounted rates may not appear online. Never be afraid to plead poverty when discussing the price with an owner or manager either. Many hoteliers are well aware that low season can yield empty rooms, and they may be more than willing to make a deal with you as a result.
What is there to actually do in Ireland during winter?
The majority of key sites open every day except Christmas Day itself, that being said, many attractions operate on reduced opening hours during the winter, while others may not have a full staff. This can mean that live re-enactments at castles or tours of grand Georgian houses may be cut back. Some restaurants in particularly rural areas can also reduce their opening hours or close completely.
No matter where you are in Ireland, you can expect many places to shut on both Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th). In Dublin and other major cities, some stores open early on St. Stephen’s Day for sales, which are the biggest of the year in Ireland. Public transportation over these days will be minimal, if not non-existent, and many gas stations will likely be closed to. If you want to explore during these days, your best option is a tour (though again, the vast majority of attractions will close on Christmas Day). Tours also cut out the hassle of navigating unfamiliar roads and driving on the left.
Your accommodation can offer activity packages; such as spa treatments, golf and outdoor activities, and other options. Still, the roads, country lanes, historic monuments, and churches will be open to explore, and you can spend a day or two hiking through mountains and forests or visiting neo-lithic tombs, discovering ruined Christian abbeys, exploring Iron Age ancient forts, and of course, admiring Ireland’s beautiful scenery. Alternatively, ask your hotel concierge or innkeeper for their advice on what to get up over the Christmas break.
Should you find yourself staying in one of the larger cities such as Dublin, Galway, or Cork, you’ll find that the run-up to the holiday season is a busy one, as shopping is a serious business in modern Ireland. A quick visit to Grafton Street in Dublin, the appropriately named Shop Street in Galway, or Patrick Street in Cork will prove as much. You may wish to visit historic sites, museums, galleries, libraries, or other tourist destinations as well, and generally speaking these will remain open in the cities during the holiday season. Exact closed dates are usually posted on each attraction’s website, and in the cities the closures tend to be limited to a handful of days. If you want to get out and about and do a little sightseeing even on Christmas Day, Dublin Zoo does open 365 days a year.
Unlike the U.S., the cinemas won’t be open either so Christmas Day really is a day for relaxing and enjoying the festive season.
Some Other Things to Consider
It’s important to keep in mind how many hours of sunlight you’re likely to have. In the middle of winter it can start getting dark at around 15:00, and sunset falls between 16:00 and 17:00, which limits your sightseeing options, although it does give you more time to relax by the fire in a traditional pub or your hotel. It’s also dark in the mornings too, with daylight only making an appearance after 08:00 at the height of winter. The reason for this is that Ireland is on the same latitude as Canada and Anchorage, Alaska. As mentioned, you can use these limitations to enjoy an expertly poured pint of Guinness, sip an exotic cocktail, find an open fire, or enjoy the company of locals of your fellow travellers.
Despite its northerly position, Ireland enjoys mild winters. The average high temperature in Dublin during December is 8C/47F, while the average is 3C/38F. While it can be chilly, the main thing is to wrap up and you’ll be fine. There can be frost and occasionally sleet, but snow is much rarer, and tends to fall primarily in higher elevations and rural regions. Sadly, this means you’re unlikely to experience a White Christmas but it isn’t impossible!
Average precipitation during December varies from 7.6 cm/3” in Dublin on the east coast to 12.2 cm/4.8” in Galway on the west. Ireland is usually a wet country no matter what time of year you visit, so come prepared with some rain gear and get out there no matter how threatening the sky looks. Torrential downpours are relatively rare, but you may face fog, misty rain, and frequent showers.
Wining and dining in Ireland are topics which probably deserve their own articles, but for now at least we’d advise planning ahead for your Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day meals. It’s unlikely you’re going to find a restaurant open on Christmas Day of St. Stephen’s Day, no matter whether you’re looking around the corner or 100 kilometres away. Should your accommodation include catering facilities, consider a visit to an Irish grocery and browse the array of impressively unique, fresh, and high-quality goods on sale. Some convenience stores do open on Christmas Day if you’re lacking the essentials, but it’s best to try to stock up in the day beforehand (do keep in mind that larger supermarkets can be crowded during the run-up to Christmas).
Should you need to eat out, it’s always a good idea to make a reservation as early as possible in advance. The majority of restaurants open daily except for Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day, but hotels do offer Christmas dinners if you’d rather not cook. Restaurants tend to be busier with holiday celebrants prior to Christmas rather than after.
All of that can seem like a lot of information, but what’s written here really only touches the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of things to consider when planning a vacation to Ireland at Christmas or during any other time of the year. Still, all of the emailing, planning, and stressing you may need to do for your trip will definitely be worth it once your plan touches down in Dublin Airport and you clear the customs check. Once you get away from Dublin’s traffic and begin to truly enjoy your holiday, whether you’re staying in luxurious Ashford Castle or a comfy B&B, you’ll realise that Ireland is a truly magical place at Christmas. Hopefully, you’ll even have a white one.
Nollaig Shona Daoibh (Happy Christmas)!