For such a small island on the western edge of Europe, Ireland has an abundance of attractions for visitors. Here we outline the best of the best across the country (in no particular order). We also offer tours to most of the highlights and independent travel advice where it might come in handy.
The Rock of Cashel
Saint Patrick visited the Rock of Cashel in 450 when the site was home to the Kings of Munster whom he converted to Christianity. Myth says the Rock was formed 20 miles away when Patrick banished the devil from a cave leading to the Rock landing on its current site.
Eventually, KingMuirchertachUaBriain donated his fort here to the church in 1101 who converted it into a grand monastery until the Confederate War of 1647 when the Irish troops and Catholic clergy here were wiped out by English forces.
The Rock of Cashel is considered the finest of Ireland’s church complexes despite the removal of the cathedral’s roof by the Anglican Archbishop of Cashel in 1749.
Today the Rock is one of Ireland’s key historic sites thanks to its Romanesque architecture and fine Celtic art.
The Giant’s Causeway
Located on the North Antrim coast, the Giant’s Causeway is comprised of almost 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns formed by volcanoes some 50 to 60 million years ago.
As with any notable landmark in Ireland though, legends have built up around the Causeway and how it was formed. The stories say the great hero Finn McCool planted the columns as part of a bridge to Scotland so that a giant – too large to fit in any boat – could come to fight him.
Some tales have it that McCool defeated the giant in battle but the more common myth is that, realising the size of his foe, the hero pretended to be a baby and the giant fled when he say how big the child was, destroying the bridge as he went so the baby’s father couldn’t follow.
The Giant’s Causeway is not too far from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a noteworthy attraction in its own right, and the site where La Girona, a Spanish armada ship, sank in the 16th Century. Guests receive free entrance and return airport transfers when they book our Giant’s Causeway Day Tour online
Built about 5,200 years ago – a thousand years before Stonehenge and five hundred years before the pyramids of Giza – the megalithic monument and the nearby sites of Knowth and Dowth are truly fascinating highlights of the region around Dublin.
A passage tomb, Newgrange is believed to have been part of an elaborate early calendar as sunlight streams directly into the central chamber of the site at dawn on the Winter Solstice, December 21st, each year (assuming the sun isn’t obscured by cloud, of course).
You’re also not too far from the Hill of Tara, home of the High Kings of Ireland.
The Book of Kells
Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest university founded 1592 and its alumni includes the famous 19th Century novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde and you can still see the elegant old buildings and libraries of the college which sit side-by-side with state of the art laboratories and lecture facilities.
At the heart of the college campus is the Long Room and the Book of Kells exhibit. The book dates from the eighth or ninth century and originated in the Scottish monastery of Iona before being taken to the monastery at Kells, outside Dublin, for safekeeping in case of Viking attack before eventually making its way to Trinity.
Bound in four volumes, the Book is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful illustrated manuscripts in the world and is on permanent display in the college. Typically, two volumes are displayed at any given time with one showing a page of illustrations and the other a page of text while the entire tome can be viewed as part of Trinity’s Digital Collections display online.
The book was central to the 2009 Oscar nominated animated film the Secret of Kells while the Long Room itself is the college’s old library and was actually the inspiration for the library in the Jedi temple in Star Wars.
The Blarney Stone
Once again the object of numerous legends each less likely than the last, the Blarney Stone sits over a caged pit on the top of Blarney Castle. Visitors looking to get ‘the gift of the gab’ and held securely as they lean back to kiss the stone. Doing so is said to impart eloquence and confidence in speech and at social gatherings.
The castle may be a ruin these days but there’s often a queue to climb to the top and kiss the stone so it’s best to come early in the morning if possible.
Those who don’t fancy being dangled by their feet to kiss an ancient rock can tour the neatly kept gardens around the keep including the poison garden, one of only a handful in Ireland, or shop in the nearby Blarney Woollen Mills.
This 179 kilometres long route is, as the name suggests, a great loop of County Kerry and the many tourists who follow even part of the road are in for breathtaking landscapes from Kenmare, to the Iveragh Peninsula, and on to Killorglin the Ring takes you through both stunning scenery and beautifully quaint villages.
Paddywagon, like all tour bus operators, go counter-clockwise along the road beginning in Killorglin while it’s recommended that cars should travel in the opposite direction due to the narrowness of the Ring in places.
Part of the Ring will take you through the Killarney National Park and the popular attractions along the route such as Muckross House, Staigue Stone Fort, and Ladies View.
The Aran Islands
These three islands at the heart of Galway Bay remain bastions of traditional Irish life and spoken Gaelic to this day.
Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer have been popular with writers for centuries because of the solitude they offer as well as the inspiring beauty as the land meets the sea, most particularly at Dun Aonghasa, an Iron Age stone fort perched atop cliffs 100 metres high above the Atlantic.
The Essentials of Irish Life
The Irish Pub
Ireland with a population of five million has more pubs (7,500) than New York and California combined (6,550 for a population of 58 million between them) but even if you’re not a drinker, a visit to one or two traditional Irish pubs is an essential part of any visit to Ireland.
Pubs remain a key pillar of social life in Ireland despite the fact that many have closed in recent years and it’s cheaper to drink at home but there’s nothing like a pub for the atmosphere and many have regular music sessions and serve fine food as well.
You’ll likely want to try a Guinness while in Ireland but remember, the barkeeper will pour three-quarters of the pint first before letting it settle and topping it off and even then, the drinker should wait until the top-us has settled as well before starting to drink.
Festivals and ‘Fleadhs’
Fleadhs, pronounced ‘flahs’, are festivals of no particular type and you should check out regional tourism websites or visit tourist offices when you arrive to find out what’s going on near you.
Generally speaking, most fleadhs are music festivals such as the FleadhCheoilnahEireann, the Kinvara Cuckoo Fleadh, and the Galway Festival of Early Music. Ennis also hosts a World Irish Dancing Championship in April or the Mullaghmore Lobster Festival each August might be more to your taste.
The big cities host regular larger scale festivals as well such as the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.
This can mean one of two things, and either be asked as part of a question, as in ‘What’s the craic? (What’s happening?)’ or can mean general merriment. Many of Ireland’s expats, asked what they miss most of home, will say it’s the craic they long for and the phrase is often associated with music leading to the phrase ‘ceolagus craic,’ or music and fun.
Irish music sessions occur regularly in pubs across the country either as planned events or impromptu gatherings and Dublin alone can host as many as 120 on a given night. Local event guides will let you know what to look out for and while Temple Bar is famous for its pubs, you’ll be more likely to find Dubliners in the bars and clubs of Camden Street.
Musicians use flutes, whistles, concertinas, bodhrans (frame drums), and uilleann pipes (the Irish version of the bagpipe which is inflated by a lever rather than the breath of the player) in the dark corners of the pub and the music soon seems to take on a life of its own.
Where to Go if You Like…
Most people have some idea of their perfect Irish village, of thatched cottages, picturesque churches, and the all-important pub where everything seems to be rooted in the simpler times of years past.
Of course, that’s an idealised vision of life in rural Ireland but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of adorable hamlets spread across the country set against the beautiful landscape. Many of the best are hidden away in glens or valleys and are a delight to stumble upon but can prove hard to reach for motorists as the roads to and from these places were built long before cars – in stark contrast to the country’s extensive modern motorway network between the major cities.
There’s plenty to be said for stepping off the beaten track and finding that ideal Irish village on your own but here are four of the most famous:
Adare: Near Limerick city, Adare seems to have sprung right from the pages of a fairy-tale with its rustic Tudor cottages, ivied church, and Adare Castle, now one of the country’s best hotels, all seeming to hark back to a long gone age.
Cong: The setting for John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man, Cong is in fact situated on a small island, surrounded by rivers on all sides. Here you’ll find Cong Abbey, one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland, and Ashford Castle, another luxury hotel, a stately mansion which sits amidst well tendered grounds and gardens.
Kinvara: Located between Dunguaire Castle, renowned for its medieval banquets, to the north and Galway Bay to the south, Kinvara is one of the most photographed villages in Ireland. It’s also home to some great pubs and walkers will find plenty of treks nearby to enjoy.
Lismore: Sited on the banks of the River Blackwater in County Waterford, Lismore is home to a castle as well and has been the residence of the renowned Elizabethan explore Walter Raleigh and William Cavendish, an 18th Century British prime minister. The town is popular for salmon fishing and is considered to be one of the most romantic locations in the county.
Though Ireland is often associated with the Celts, genetic studies have proven that there is virtually no Celtic DNA in Irish people today – in fact, the Irish haven’t changed all that much since the first farmers arrived here some 6,000 years ago and Irish people are most closely associated with the Basque people of northern Spain than any other European ethnic group.
It’s more accurate to say that ancient Irish ruins are Gaelic and you’ll find many Stone Age tombs and Christian monasteries dotted across the landscape. Just north of Dublin you’ll find the Hill of Tara, home to the high kings of Ireland, and the Newgrange megalithic calendar. In the west of Ireland, the Ceide Fields are the oldest known field farm in the world and world’s largest Neolithic site.
There are also hundreds of churches and abbeys dating from the Christian era which are famous for their high crosses and round towers – built to store a monastery’s treasure for shelter during a raid.
Some of the most important ancient historic sites in Ireland are:
Clonmacnoise: This County Offaly monastery sits where two rivers meet and was renowned across Europe as a centre of learning in its heyday. The monastery was also a royal burial ground and one of the country’s largest and most imposing round towers can be found here.
Glendalough: Another ruined monastery, this one dating from the 6th Century, Glendalough sits in one of the country’s most beautiful valleys and not too far from Dublin and the Wicklow National Park.
Tara: County Meath is the historic heart of Ireland and Tara is the centre for much of that history being an important location in Saint Patrick’s campaign to convert the country to Christianity and the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
The Rock of Cashel: Once home to the Kings of Munster before being gifted to the Church in 1101, the Rock of Cashel is widely recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest monastic achievements despite its ruined state.
The large stately homes of the old Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy date from the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries and come in a variety of architectural styles ranging from Palladian, to neo-classical, and gothic revival.
Many of these homes, such as Adare Castles, Ashford Castle, and Dromoland Castle were constructed solely as houses rather than forts – despite their names – and each of the three mentioned above are in fact hotels these days.
Others, such as Castletown, are under the care of the Office of Public Works or belong to private families and most are open to the public. Some of the most noteworthy stately homes in Ireland are:
Bantry House: Set at the heart of Italian style gardens and overlooking one of Ireland’s most majestic bays, Bantry House boasts an extensive French collection of furniture, artworks and tapestries, giving it a distinctly European flair.
Castletown: Only 20 minutes or so from Dublin, Castletown is one of Ireland’s largest stately homes with the rooms in various states of repair. The house features an elegant ballroom and extensive grounds if you wish to take a leisurely stroll along the banks of the River Liffey.
Castle Ward: Game of Thrones fan may recognise the grounds of this particular demesne as the setting for numerous outdoor scenes in the hit show including the exterior of Winterfell. The house itself it noteworthy for its peculiar fusion of gothic and classical styles.
Florence Court: At the foot of the Cuilcagh Mountains, Florence Court is noted for its Rococo design and extensive Irish furniture collection. It’s been in the care of the National Trust since 1953 and though damaged by first shortly after, Florence Court is almost entirely restored with the exception of some rooms on the upper floor.
You’ll find any number of tacky ‘Oirish’ souvenirs during your visit but looking beyond these made-in-China tokens, Ireland produces goods of exceptional quality such as Aran sweaters and Waterford Crystal.
Dublin offers extensive retail therapy options from the slightly cheaper Henry Street on the North Side to the more affluent Grafton Street and the surrounding rows of jewellery stores and au-courant fashion stores on the South. Dundrum Town Centre, which is about 20 minutes from the city centre on the Luas to Balally, the closest stop, is home to stores which cater to any budget from high street chains like Penneys and Marks and Spencers to high-end department stores such as House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols.
Galway is a great place to find unusual boutiques, bookshops, and galleries while Belfast has more than its fair share of shopping too and the Victoria Centre is right in the heart of the city.
Some of the best unique shopping opportunities in Ireland can be found at:
Avoca: Home of the renowned mill, Avoca continues to produce the highest quality scarves, rugs, and throws but you’ll also find top of the range food and garden sections.
Ardmore Pottery and Craft Gallery: The store here sells some of the most unique and creative pottery lines in Ireland and is widely regarded as being one of the best craft shops in the country.
Joyce’s Craft Shop: Located in the tiny village of Recess, Joyce’s is famous not only for the goods on offer but also for the statue of Cong, King of the Sea, outside which was raised in 1999 “for apparent reason” and if you look behind the statue, you’ll find a plaque which reads “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.”
Kilkenny Design Craft Centre: The country’s favourite location for locally made crystal, knitwear, pottery, and jewellery.
Many of Ireland’s most breath-taking scenery can be found on the west coast and it’s no surprise given the effects of the Atlantic on the coast over thousands of years.
Most of the country’s famous natural wonders have long been associated with myths and legends and you’ll find plenty of human history in these places too.
The most notable of Ireland’s landmarks, and Paddywagon offers tours to many of them, are:
Cliffs of Moher: Eight kilometres long and over 200 metres high in places, the Cliffs of Moher are a truly spectacular sight to behold and Harry Potter fans might recognise the cliffs from their brief appearance in the Half Blood Prince.
Giant’s Causeway: Made up of some 38,000 basalt columns dating back almost 60 million years, there are as many myths about the causeway as there is science.
The Aran Islands: A haven for the Irish language and home to some incredible ancient fortresses and holy sites, the Aran Islands welcome thousands of visitors each year who are swept away by the scenery and friendliness of the locals.
The Burren: Located not far from the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren is notable for its unique rock features and unusually diverse flora. 24 of the country’s 27 orchid species can be found here as can flowers usually found as far away as the arctic and mediterranean.
The Skelligs: Sited some 11 kilometres from shore, the larger island of the two, Skellig Michael, is home to an ancient, long deserted monastery built for solitude and it’s hard to find a place more out of the way yet stunningly beautiful.
Books and Literature
Ireland has a fine tradition of producing talented authors such as Swift, Joyce, Wilde, Stoker, and many more. Four of the country’s writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature while Samuel Beckett is the only person to ever win both the Nobel Prize and an Academy Award (for Pygmalion and the screenplay for its film adaptation, My Fair Lady).
A common saying is that the greatest weapon the English ever gave Ireland was their language and certainly much of the country’s literary output at one time focused on the issues of identity and the struggle for independence but from the vampires of Stoker’s Dracula to Wilde’s treatise on morality in The Picture of Dorian Grey there’s plenty of Irish novels to suit any bookworm’s taste.
Dublin is also recognised as a UNESCO World City of Literature, one of only seven.
The best places to go as a literary hound are:
Aran Islands: These islands inspired JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, a riot-inducing play when it was first performed in the National Theatre, the Abbey, in Dublin, and also led to Martin McDonagh’s black comedy the Cripple of Inishmaan.
Limerick City: The setting for Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes draws visitors every year looking to explore Angela’s home town.
Sligo Town: The town where poet and senator William Butler Yeats grew up, it’s not far to his grave at Drumcliff where you can view Ben Bulben, a mountain that inspired many of his works.
Trinity College: Dublin and Ireland’s oldest university, Beckett, Wilde, and Stoker all studied here and the Long Room is a fine example of a classical library.