Most visitors to Ireland will spend at least two or three days exploring Dublin city, but there is a wealth of history, landscape and culture just waiting to be discovered “beyond the Pale”. In this post we’ll highlight the best to see and do just outside Dublin.
Main Reasons to Visit
Newgrange – Older than the pyramids of Giza and the monument Stonehenge, this site is believed to have been used as a tomb and as part of a sophisticated solar calendar.
Race meetings – Gambling on horses is a popular activity for many in Ireland and Punchestown and the Curragh hold races during the spring and summer.
The Wicklow Way – A 132 kilometre long trail beginning in Dublin and taking in parts of the Wicklow National Park. This is a great route for walkers to see the stunning scenery on Dublin’s doorstep.
Ireland’s Historic Heartland
The counties surrounding Dublin, and particularly County Meath, are rich in the Stone Age, Gaelic, and Norman history of Ireland with monuments and settlements from each of those eras present here. A trip to the Boyne Valley for instance, can incorporate the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre (dedicated to the largest land battle in the history of the British Isles), the Neolithic Newgrange and its accompanying sites of Knowth and Dowth, and the Great Hill of Tara, home of the high kings of Ireland.
If you’re planning to travel beyond the Pale (the area around Dublin which was historically under English control), here are the top attractions you need to see.
Newgrange – Built 500 years before the pharaohs of Egypt constructed the pyramids of Giza and a 1,000 before Stonehenge, Newgrange is made up of 250,000 tons of stone and at dawn on the winter solstice, the sun’s light streams directly through a gap above the door, illuminating the central room at the heart of site (providing it’s a clear day, of course).
Glendalough – It’s best to visit this site in the Wicklow Mountains early in the day. The monastery was built by Saint Kevin during the sixth century to escape the hustle and bustle of Dark Ages life. There’s a ruined church and graveyard as well as some fine walks through the forest and along the lakeshore. Check out our daily tours including Kilkenny from €25.00.
Hill of Tara – You may be disappointed when you first visit the Hill of Tara where Saint Patrick challenged the high king and the Gaelic lords of Ireland passed the country’s laws. These days it’s little more than a hill with a small church and some mounds where key buildings once stood but there are great views on offer.
Mellifont Abbey – Mellifont was established in 1142 by Saint Malachy though most of the structures were added sometime later. While much of the abbey is now a ruin, it’s a good place to get a sense of the church’s power and wealth in Medieval Ireland.
Getting to know the counties around Dublin
This part of Ireland was the first to be settled when the Normans arrived and many of the country’s grandest castle and most impressive country homes can be found here alongside the older monasteries and Gaelic ruins and tombs which are older still.
To the north is Meath and Louth, the historic heartlands of Gaelic Ireland while to the south is the Garden of Ireland, County Wicklow, home to the Wicklow Mountains and National Park. The mountain range extends into Dublin where the peaks are called the Dublin Mountains but this is somewhat misleading, nowhere in County Dublin is actually high enough to be classified as a mountain. The hills that make up this part of the range are popular with walkers.
West of Dublin is County Kildare, some of the flattest land in the country and home of many of Ireland’s thoroughbred horses at the Curragh and the National Stud, beside the Japanese Gardens. Grand Anglo-Irish homes such as Powerscourt and Russborough are dotted throughout these counties.
Exploring Outside Dublin Planner
The best time to go
The east of Ireland gets less rain than the west with May and September usually being the driest months. Summer showers tend to be light but it’s still best to pack a hooded jacket and umbrella no matter what time of the year you visit. A word to the wise, don’t rely too much on weather forecasts. This part of the country doesn’t get much snow but what does fall tends to stick in higher places meaning it can be ill advised to attempt driving through the Dublin and Wicklow mountains during bad winters.
What to do with your time
If you’re here for three days – Most areas around Dublin can be visited in less than two hours by car depending on traffic and many who chose to travel to these counties base themselves in the capital. It would be difficult to see both north or the city and south in a single day, however. Visiting Newgrange and Glendalough should be high up on your list of priorities. A visit to the monastery could be combined with a trip to Powercourt House and gardens, which is where you’ll find the tallest waterfall in Ireland or the UK. Walkers may wish to take on all or part of the Wicklow Way, stopping overnight at Hunter’s Hotel.
How to Get Here
Travelling by Bus
Dublin Bus travels to some towns in these counties while Bus Eireann has routes across the country from its Busaras station in central Dublin. Paddywagon runs a day tour to Glendalough and onwards to Kilkenny.
Travelling by Car
Many sites aren’t catered to by public transport making driving the most flexible option and bus routes do operate are infrequent in most cases. For Meath and Boyne Valley, travel the N3, making sure to stop off at Tara and Trim along the way. The M1/N1 towards Belfast is another viable option for exploring north of Dublin.
Travelling to Kildare from the city centre, follow the Liffey’s south quays west until you reach the M7/N7 and it won’t be long before you’re in the countryside however, avoid this route in the evenings, particularly after 4 pm on Fridays.The M11/N11 is the main route south to Wicklow but the R115 and R177 are more scenic.
Note: In Ireland, roads designated as L are local, R are regional, N are National, and M are Motorways. Many L, R, and even some N roads aren’t in the best condition though there has been significant improvements made to many routes in the last decade and the country’s motorway network is fairly comprehensive between major cities, tolls are pricey, however.
Travelling by Train
Irish Rail (or Iarnrod Eireann in Irish) is the only show in town when it comes to travelling by rail south of the border and there routes along the coast and inland from Dublin. As counties around Dublin are on the city’s commuter belt, most major towns have a fairly frequent service. Just be sure to check whether your train departs from Connolly (typically north and south bound east coast trains) or Heuston (generally trains headed west).
Travelling by Tour
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