Ireland Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

A land of ancient castles, beautiful landscapes and spectacular geological formations, Ireland boasts a history that dates from over 6,000 years ago, giving rise to legend and myth. In Ireland, you can tour an old castle or manor one minute, and then sit in a pub enjoying a pint as you listen to old tales. Although a small country, Ireland overflows with interesting and diverse places to visit.
Ireland Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Your trip to Ireland is not complete without visiting at least one of its beautiful county towns . County towns are the largest towns in a county and some of the most beautiful in Ireland include Galway with its high street; along with the colorful Ennis and Kilkenny towns.

While in Galway, be sure to make a detour to visit the Aran Islands famous for their rural existence which for centuries has been largely left culturally unchanged.

Fans of ancient history will find plenty to mull over at the Boyne Valley. Situated in County Meath, Boyne Valley is home to some of Ireland’s most revered historic monuments and sites. Be dazzled by the huge megalithic ancient passage tombs of Newgrange, the most famous of Ireland’s prehistoric sites, as well as the Hill of Tara archeological complex with its ancient monuments.

Before Ireland had any man-made wonders, Mother Nature had long created her natural wonders. While County Sligo is itself decidedly underwhelming, its surroundings more than make up for this. One of the main attractions at Sligo is Benbulben, a spectacular table mountain. Be sure to visit Benbulben when it is covered in snow during winter and is at its most attractive.

If you love sheer unadulterated, natural beauty, then the Giant’s Causeway is just the place to go in Ireland. A coastal area in County Antrim that features over 40,000 basalt columns, the spectacular Giant’s Causeway was created by a volcanic eruption that took place 60 million years ago. But ask your guide to explain the myth surrounding the site which is more interesting than the scientific explanation!

But there’s more to Ireland than ancient rocks and spectacular countryside as the various attractions in Dublin make clear. Your visit to Dublin is not complete without a peek at the Long Room of the Trinity College and its Old Library. While here, also marvel at the Book of Kells, which is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful books in existence.

Ireland is a travel destination that truly lives up to its mythical reputation. From literature to history and natural wonders, the tiny island nation of Ireland packs a vacation punch. Whether you’re headed to the Emerald Isle soon or are simply exploring, these attractions are the very best that Ireland has to offer. Go on, give them a try – you won’t be disappointed!

1. Dublin

Even if you just have one day in Dublin, you cannot afford to miss out on any of the following top sights.

Built in the years between 1208 and 1220, Dublin Castle has been at the center of every milestone achieved by the Irish capital. The site of the first Celtic settlement over 800 years ago, as well as every presidential inauguration, Dublin Castle is today the city’s main government building.

Dublin Castle draws visitors from around the world due to its architectural beauty and history. Situated in the Dublin city centre, the Castle is today used for state functions and presidential inaugurations and offers a wide range of dining and conference venues.

Architecturally, Dublin Castle resembles more an eccentric palace than a castle, with its 13th century brick gate and hulking circular tower that features large chandeliers, brass works and elaborate carpeting. The castle’s opulent interiors sit in striking contrast to its medieval-style exterior.

Visitors can go on a guided tour of the State Apartments contained in the medieval fortress, which are some of the castle’s most popular rooms. The tour highlights the castle’s history and that of Ireland and will also take you into various rooms with gorgeous furniture, the exquisite Throne Room, and underground to the Moat and the oldest part of the castle.

You could also tour the grounds on your own and visit the gothic revival Chapel Royal, the Revenue Museum and the Garda Museum. Go see the lower-ground-floor Undercroft, where boats once delivered provisions through an archway. You can also admire the Center for the Arts, see the Church of the Holy Trinity, climb up Birmingham Tower and descend the dungeons to relax in a cozy café.

While at Dublin Castle, do not miss out on the Chester Beatty Library, the only museum in Ireland to ever win the title “European Museum of the Year”. The Library is regarded as one of Europe’s best museums, and houses one of the greatest collections of ancient oriental manuscripts in the Europe.

The Library boasts diverse and vast collections of Renaissance manuscripts, jade books from the Imperial Court of China and rare miniature paintings that make for a must-see during any tour of Dublin.

The Museum collection is in 2 parts: “Sacred Traditions” and “Artistic Traditions”, with highlights include one of the largest collections of ancient Egyptian papyri in the world, and a selection of ancient Korans and Bibles.

Visitors can admire the very first illustrated Life of the Prophet, ancient Egyptian manuscripts, carved Chinese snuff bottles, Old Masters paintings and other rare artifacts. Some of the museum’s most astounding pieces date as far back as 2,700 BC.

Dominating the Dublin city landscape is Trinity College, the oldest University in Ireland. Founded in 1592, Trinity College is also one of the oldest English-speaking Universities in the world and the only one not located inside the United Kingdom. Regarded as the most prestigious higher education institution in Ireland, Trinity College is also home to one of the oldest libraries in the world.

Situated within the college’s resplendent Long Room, the Old Library houses a collection of over 45 million books and priceless manuscripts in over 20 languages, including 200,000 ancient books. The Old Library was built between 1712 and 1732, and is said to have been the inspiration behind the libraries in some of the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies.

The Old Library is particularly famous for housing the Book of Kells, a 9th Century manuscript of the Four Gospels of the New Testament in Latin. A national treasure of Ireland, the exquisite Book of Kells is regarded as one of the most beautifully illustrated books in existence.

Believed to have been designed to serve a ceremonial and decorative purpose, rather than a functional one, the manuscript is revered for its fine craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Indeed, it is the illuminations of the Book of Kells that make it so remarkable. Prepare to be dazzled by its intricate patterns and vibrant colors that enhance the traditional Christian iconography. Also remarkable are the Celtic knots adorning images of humans and mythical figures included in the text.

An important symbol of Christianity in Ireland, the lavishly-illustrated sacred manuscript is a marvel of early Christian art, executed by medieval monks. Today, the Book of Kells is valued for its display of Celtic art dating from the 6th century and represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the early Middle Ages.

Marvel at its pages full of elaborate portraits and calligraphy. Pouring over the intricately decorated pages of the manuscript is bound to forever alter your perception of the art of bookmaking, as you come to appreciate the painstaking process that went into the creation of this magnificent work of religious art.

Visitors can also explore the beauty and serenity of Trinity College’s beautiful buildings and grounds which are worth a peek in their own right.

Built in 1192, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was established in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. The church’s site is adjacent to where St. Patrick baptized converts during one of his visits to Dublin.

The largest church in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is built in the neo-Gothic architectural style, typical of the Victorian era. Visitors can admire its large windows, carved panel chairs, elegant floor tiles, and exquisite organ. The church is also full of rows of statues, beautiful stained glass, and elegant decorations that you can marvel at as you stroll through the building.

While the church is primarily a place of worship that holds services every day, it is also open to the public as a historical and architectural attraction. The cathedral is also famous for hosting the very first performance of Handel’s Messiah, and even has the original music composition on display.

Visitors are welcome to enjoy concerts held by the cathedral’s talented choristers, so do coordinate your visit with a lunchtime recital for an aural treat.

2. County Antrim

Part of the Irish Province of Ulster, County Antrim features several must-see attractions and interesting sights that are slightly off the beaten path. Spending a day or two in County Antrim could be well worth your while.

If you are looking to experience one of the wonders of nature in Ireland, you must go on a visit to the Giant’s Causeway. Situated in a remote area, the Causeway is characterized by oddly regular basalt columns that dominate the landscape, seemingly leading across to Scotland where similar columns then rise out of the sea.

The strangely regular basalt rock formations were formed about 55 million years ago by volcanic activity. However, because so rarely does nature produce such regular shapes, the Giant’s Causeway has long been steeped in myth. Legend has it that it was the giant Fin MacCool who built this marvel across the sea.

Once at the Visitor Center Complex, head for the cliff path on the right which will take you to the top of the cliffs where you can enjoy amazing panoramas of the Giant’s Causeway. Spend some time walking up here before taking the steep stairs down to the water where you can enjoy the Causeway up close. Once at the Causeway, visitors can explore the natural rock formations or simply enjoy the clear air.

Wherever you’re approaching from, you’re in for a long, albeit scenic journey as the Giant’s Causeway is located literally at the end of the world in Northeastern Ireland. Nonetheless, the remote location of this attraction offers great opportunities for diving, as well as some solitude especially during the late afternoon or early morning.

Another popular attraction worth seeing while in County Antrim is the Dark Hedges. A unique stretch of road in Bregagh near Armoy, the Dark Hedges comprises a row of beech trees that curve in stunning ways.

In the last 300 or so years, the beech trees on either side of the lane have stretched up and across to each other, becoming heavily entangled to create a naturally curved tunnel, an arch of twisted branches over the road, where light and shadow interplay through the tangled branches.

The trees were planted by the Stuart family during the 18th century to decorate the road leading to their manor, and today stand intertwined to create a unique site in every season. The resultant lovely avenue of beech trees was intended as a fascinating landscape feature to excite visitors who would approach Gracehill House, their Georgian mansion which is now a golf club.

Today, the trees remain a spectacular site and one of the most photographed monuments of Northern Ireland. When the light is right, you can’t help but get a mystical feeling as you stand on the silent road. Magical at dawn and mystical at dusk, the Dark Hedges are even said to be haunted by their very own resident ghost, the Grey Lady.

Visitors can approach the mythical Dark Hedges from the Giant’s Causeway, which is situated just a half hours drive away. This quiet road can be alternatively accessed by a drive about 50 miles from Belfast, off the Antrim Coastal Road.

Another attraction worth a peek while in County Antrim is Carrick-a-Rede. This is a semi-permanent rope bridge that’s breathtaking and offers picture postcard views, as well as being a time-honored dare. Originally established to get the local fishermen to their fishing grounds, the rope bridge is today mostly a tourist attraction.

3. County Limerick

It is with good reason that Adare has labeled itself “Ireland’s Prettiest Village”. The village boasts a picturesque downtown with the surrounding areas offering medieval buildings, thatched cottages and a lush countryside on Maigue River. Adare’s tranquil pace enables guests to soak up the pleasant atmosphere and enjoy picture-postcard perfection.

Two of Adare’s most striking landmarks are the Gothic-Tudor Adare Manor Hotel and its medieval Desmond Castle. Other historic buildings worth a peek are the Franciscan Friary dating from the 15th century, and the Augustinian Priory that dates from the 14th century.

The Hotel rests on 1,000 acres and comprises a French garden with wooded walkways. Visitors can go on a historic tour of the building, and enjoy a drink or meal at one of the lounges or restaurants. Desmond Castle is a former Anglo-Norman fortress that dates from the 13th century.

There are several boutique shops selling clothing in Adare. Visit Manor Antiques or Stacpools for treasures of a bygone era, as well as jewelry and custom framing. You can browse the Heritage Center gift shop and a number of specialty boutiques for traditional Irish crafts, which include Irish knits.

Take a break in one of Adare’s pubs to enjoy a home-cooked meal and a cold pint. Some even have traditional Irish live music to accompany your meal. Fine dining is also available at several local hotels. If you enjoy sleeping out in the great outdoors, head over to the Adare Camping and Caravan Site.

4. County Meath

County Meath is a part of the Irish Province of Leinster, and boasts several attractions that you cannot afford to miss. In addition to being the “Royal County”, Meath is packed with majestic historical sites. The jewel of them all is arguably Bru na Boinne, the gateway to the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth.

With its array of ancient monuments, the Bru na Boinne site in County Meath will take your breath away simply by being there.

“Bru na Boinne” is Gaelic for “Boyne Valley”, which is an important historical region in Europe and the most important prehistoric site in Ireland. Settlement at this site began around 4,000 BC, with small villages being located at the sites of Knowth and the Townley Hall. The residential structures primarily comprised of circular houses built from posts and roofed with skin or thatch.

While Bru na Boinne is known for having witnessed 9 cultural phases, it is the passage tombs from the Neolithic period for which the site is best known. The valley is home to 40 passage tombs, with clusters at sites such as Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and Ballincrad, with some of the tombs featuring interior sundial engraving.

Experience Ireland’s past within the central chamber of Newgrange. The passage tomb of Newgrange was erected around 3,200 BC, and although the reconstruction of the Newgrange mound is today debatable, it is nevertheless impressive. A guide will take you around the site, offering a history and useful information on the building methods of antiquity.

Your tour of Knowth will take you into an ante-chamber that allows a glimpse of the passages, but without visiting the central chambers. You may instead climb onto the tomb.

At Newgrange, you cannot climb onto the tomb but can go into the spectacular central chamber. The passage is narrow and you will have to stoop. Add to this your guide telling you about the great weight of the stones above your head without any mortar actually holding them together – and you are in for an unforgettable experience.

To get away from the tourist crowds, make your way to Dowth, the third major mound within the Bru na Boinne Complex. Dowth is accessible, not at all restored and often makes for a peaceful site. Access to Dowth is free of charge and you can explore the site on your own. Be sure to climb to the top of Dowth from where you can see Newgrange at a distance.

Second in fame only to Newgrange, the Hill of Tara offers more a general feel of antiquity than a tangible site. When you first arrive at the Hill of Tara, you will be met by something that resembles a rough landscape park. But with a guidebook and some imagination, you will soon be able to explore the hidden wonders of the sprawling complex.

5. County Sligo

Standing at a height of 525 meters above sea level, Benbulben offers a challenge to fans of mountain climbing.

Part of the Dartry Mountains, Benbulben is a stunningly beautiful mountain at any season of the year. During summer, its peaks and slopes are covered in thick foliage of a rich green color, while in winter the slopes are a shimmery white from the snow. Do not miss out on photography opportunities when in the area, as Benbulben is certainly worth the effort.

Eagles Flying is part of the Irish Raptor Research Center which is situated near Ballymote. Animal lovers will absolutely love it here. If you are interested in birds of prey and their conservation, you will find Eagles Flying well worth the drive.

Over the centuries, eagles have had a particularly bad rap in Ireland mainly because they were perceived to interfere with human profit – snatching salmons and feasting on lambs. So the raptor was hunted to extinction, and by 1912 was no longer a resident of Sligo.

Eagles Flying was founded with the aim of conserving and preserving wildlife and Irish natural heritage in general. The main focus is birds of prey, 100 of which can be found here. In addition to eagles, there are hawks and vultures as well. Some are in aviaries while others are on perches in the open. Many of the birds are bred here such that the endangered species do not disappear completely. Some birds are bred specifically to be returned to the wild.

While here you can watch the birds of prey take to the skies as they demonstrate their flying prowess, while others simply sit in the sun not interested in making a spectacle of themselves. Either way, every visit to Eagles Flying is certain to impress.

6. County Cork

The town of Cobh in County Cork is a very pleasant place to visit. On a summer day, it almost exudes a Mediterranean atmosphere with its narrow, steep alleyways, colorful restaurants and cafés and of course the magnificent St. Coleman Cathedral that towers over the town.

The old harbor town of Kinsale is a picturesque beauty that you cannot afford to miss out on during your visit to Cork. Amid the charm, you will also find plenty of good food at the numerous cafés and restaurants dotted around town.

An integral part of many a tour to Ireland, the Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone are popular attractions among tourists visiting Cork. Some tourists will even indulge in the ritual of hanging over a ledge backwards to kiss the stone in an act that is said to give you eloquence.

7. County Kerry

Part of the province of Munster, County Kerry features several places of interest.

Popular for ages, the town of Killarney boasts a host of contrasting yet amazing attractions. Begin your tour at the Killarney National Park where you can indulge in the scenic beauty of its lakes. The Park is best explored on foot, although you can also hire a boat.

Be sure to also visit the colorful streets of the Killarney town proper. Take a stroll here during a warm evening where you will be serenaded by musicians with their tin whistles, fiddles and banjos.

Also drive the Ring of Kerry, which offers one of the best scenic drives Ireland has to offer. The Ring of Kerry is a circular tour that takes you from Kiillorglin through Cahersiveen and Kenmare to Killarney, enabling visitors to take in some of the most spectacular landscapes in the southwest of Ireland.

Rugged and wind-swept, County Kerry is best experienced in mixed weather, with billowing clouds rolling in from the Atlantic. You can drive the Ring in a couple of hours, or better yet, allow for a whole day to do more leisurely sightseeing.

The Skellig Experience is yet another attraction worth your while in County Kerry. The Skellig Experience can be sample on Valentia Island. Here you will find a monastery settlement characterized by beehive huts and steep steps in a setting of beautiful nature.

8. County Galway

Connemara is as picture-postcard as Ireland can get. Take a drive to this region and enjoy the sights and sounds of the rural Irish backwater. The Connemara National Park is easily accessible by driving from Galway City, and offers an unspoiled landscape of bogs, woods and mountains that border the Atlantic on 3 sides.

Spend a day or two here where you can explore sights such as the spectacular Kylemore Abbey, as well as the rugged coastline with its hidden beaches.

The Aran Islands of Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore are also part of County Galway. Do some island hopping to experience the diversity in the islands’ archaic lifestyles. To get the most out of your visit to the Arans, you’d best stay a couple of days to experience the solitude of the night, the elements at play, and a life that is more dictated by the tide than by time.

And don’t miss out on Dun Aonghasa, possibly the most spectacular ring fort in all of Europe. Here, defenders would literally be fighting with their backs to the wall – the wall being a clear drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

During your tour of Connemara, be sure to stop by Roundstone, a small village that is colorful, old-fashioned and inviting. Just outside the center is a workshop where the most famous of Ireland’s bodhran drum makers craft the instruments out of skin and wood. Buy one off the peg, have a customized designed painted on or even have one made exclusively for you.

Also visit Galway City and be mesmerized by the amazing colors of its High Street. Galway is at any given time filled with buskers. During the summer, you will encounter dozens of musicians and performance artists lining High Street, Shop Street and Quay Street, some of whom are brilliant.

The best way to see the small Galway City is by walking. To experience medieval Galway, stop by Lynch’s Castle in Shop Street, a fortified town house and Saint Nicholas Church which dates back centuries and boasts a lot of history. The most interesting section of the city walls are to be found at the Eyre Square Shopping Centre.

Visit on Saturday for the morning market situated around St. Nicholas Church. Here you will find an eclectic mix of crafts and foods with organic and international flavor. Shop for fresh vegetables grown to exacting standards or a wide assortment of hats, South African sausage and fish caught in local waters. There is also vegetarian fare and esoteric angel paraphernalia to be found here.

You simply must stop by Kylemore Abbey at Connemara if you are in the vicinity. Built to serve as a splendid stately home, Kylemore Abbey is a sprawling complex of Victorian Gothic Revival Fantasy. The type of structure that would inspire writers of Gothic fiction and serve as a set for a spooky film, the Abbey is mainly used as a convent and boarding school by Benedictine nuns.

The picture perfect view makes for a lingering first impression. The marvelous Neo-Gothic buildings will take you back in time to a Victorian dreamland. For the best effects, be sure to visit on a misty day. The Kylemore Abbey grounds also offer a serene spot for taking relaxing nature walks. Close by are the walled gardens that have been restored splendidly, and are worth a peek.

Visitors are welcome to explore the grounds, although access to the main buildings is limited. Lovers of Victorian architecture will find their niche here. Go here for the picture postcard views, nice restaurant, souvenir shop and pleasant walks. Stroll along the pleasant tracks and well-maintained gardens. Be sure to take a photo of the main building from across the lake.

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9. County Clare

Arguably the most endearing town in Ireland, Ennis features narrow streets, colorful buildings and quaint shops in every nook. Named by the Project for Public Spaces as one of the top 60 great places in the world to visit, Ennis is built strategically where the River Fergus forked and came together to form an island. In fact, Ennis derives its name from “Inis” the Irish word for island.

Ennis offers great food, good shopping and so much more of what you might expect to find in Ireland. Many of the restaurants in Ennis date back to the 1950s and offer international cuisines, along with your typical Irish fare. Today, Ennis boasts one of Ireland’s best selections of fine food. Be sure to sample the wonderful roast duck while in Ennis.

During your visit, be sure to walk along Market Street, away from the main drag, and then duck into an alley that cuts over to the river. Here you will find several out-of-the-way shops where normally only the local residents shop. Then take a stroll along the High Street to enjoy all the colors. Visitors can also take the Ennis Walking Tour out of town to find out what things were like back in the old days.

Doolin is another town worth visiting in County Clare. Doolin is famous the world over as the one place where traditional Irish music is alive and well. This tiny village close to the Atlantic is colorful and features a main street lined with several pubs, restaurants and music shops, and the constant blare of Irish music. On a good day, Doolin is traditional Irish heaven.

Visitors to County Clare will also enjoy seeing the Cliffs of Moher. Situated on the edge of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher feature some of Ireland’s most impressive landscapes. The sheer drop from about 700 feet from a meadow that is comparatively flat down to the Atlantic is simply breathtaking.

While the visitor center and its interesting “Atlantic Edge” multimedia exhibition are worth a look, it is the natural landscape that is the main focus here. With some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, the Cliffs offer stunning views over the Atlantic and the coastal cliffs, as well as great photo opportunities.

Walk along the softly winding lane and you will suddenly find the Atlantic Ocean in front of you, 700 feet beneath you. Stunning describes it best. There are also coastal walks between Doolin and Lahinch that offer great views of the Cliffs of Moher. Visitors can combine a visit to the Cliffs with a tour of the Burren site which is close by.

10. County Kilkenny

If you don’t believe in love at first sight, it’s because you haven’t yet been to Kilkenny. The smallest city in the entire Ireland, Kilkenny features narrow, winding cobblestoned streets and medieval charm. It’s the kind of place that most visitors will instantly fall in love with the moment they step into town.

Terraces of handsome Georgian houses add elegance to Kilkenny town. But even with all this, it remains a bustling modern town and market center for a fertile agricultural area. Impeccably clean, the city is famous for historical sites to enjoy during the day, and pubs and dining to sample at night.

Visitors can wander the Kilkenny Town alleyways past colorful storefronts that sell fine, locally made crafts. After a fun day of touring, stop by one of the traditional pubs where locals have been having their drinks for centuries.

Also tour the Gothic St. Canice Cathedral which is rated among Ireland’s finest churches and serves as a fitting reminder of the Middle Ages. Saint Canice Cathedral rests on the site of a former church, although the current Cathedral building was began around 1250 and completed about 30 years later.

The Cathedral features a massive 14th century squat tower and walls of aisles in an interior with a spacious character. Its fine Round Tower – one of only two in Ireland with public access, is the oldest standing structure in Kilkenny City. The Tower is situated in the Cathedral graveyard and visitors to the city can climb here for the fantastic views of Kilkenny that the tower commands.

The Cathedral’s interiors feature numerous interesting memorials from over the centuries, such as Henry de Ponto’s which is the oldest dating from 1285. Also worth a peek are the memorials to Bishops Rothe and Ledrede, the sarcophagus of the Duke of Ormonde, as well as the burial place of Viscount Mountgarret which is portrayed in full armor.

Other interesting memorials are to Bishop Walsh and an unknown Irish woman in traditional dress. All these however pale in comparison to the living cock in the cooking pot portrayed on the monument to Edmund Purcell. This is an allusion to an Irish legend relating to the resurrection of Christ. Also have a look at the black marble chair of Saint Ciaran, as well as the Baptistery that dates from the 12th century.

Situated in the former castle stables of Kilkenny Castle is Kilkenny Design, a showcase of the very best of contemporary Irish craft, including pottery, textiles, jewelry and knitwear. Here you can feast your eyes on an impressive collection of original Irish handcrafted items of the highest quality. There is also a great restaurant on site.

Adjacent to Kilkenny Design is the National Craft Gallery that is also worth a look. The Gallery is the foremost center for contemporary craft and design in Ireland, and features cutting-edge Irish and international designers, artisans and artists across various disciplines. The gallery also hosts an eclectic and dynamic range of exhibitions.

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