Ireland’s nickname the “Emerald Isle” has never seemed more appropriate as it blossoms into one of the most popular destinations in Europe. There’s culture, history, tradition, vibrant cities, picturesque landscapes, and of course the people – Ireland has it all. Traces of the country’s long and tragic history appear at every turn; from Stone Age passage tombs and ring forts to Medieval monasteries and castles to the Georgian architecture constructed under British rule. However, the money gained during the Celtic Tiger also helped Ireland look to the future and set up Heritage Ireland to make these attractions more accessible and exciting for visitors.
Head for the bright lights of Dublin for a pint of Guinness and a sing-a-long in Temple Bar, explore the Medieval streets and exciting art scene in Kilkenny, uncover the gripping history found around every corner in Belfast, and have a day at the races in Galway before popping down to Cork to sample the delicious cuisine. The city isn’t for you? No problem, head to the quieter but no less enthralling towns of Killarney and Kinsale and experience Irish tradition up close.
Take a drive around the Ring of Kerry, a boat out to the Aran and Skellig Islands, a stroll around the Burren and Connemara National Park. Enter a passage tomb which has been standing since well before the Pyramids in Egypt and hear the legends of how the Giant’s Causeway was created. When you’re finished you’ll find yourself feeling at home, as though you’ve always frequented that local pub where everyone greets you with a genuinely friendly smile.
The capital of the Emerald Isle, Dublin is a city dripping in history, culture, and charm. Separated into North Dublin and South Dublin by the River Liffey, the city’s recent reputation as an international business hub can be seen along its banks, with impressive modern glass buildings lining the Quays. However, the influx of commerce into Dublin hasn’t taken its soul and the locals remain as friendly as ever, happily waving to passers-by on the street or greeting them with a welcoming “howrya”. The compact city center makes sightseeing a breeze and the nightlife remains as vibrant as ever, allowing visitors to easily find themselves immersed in this fantastic city.
The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast still carries the baggage of the troubles which were beamed around the globe for almost three decades, demoting it to a city visited only by hard-core travelers. However, since the fighting ceased in the mid-1990s, Belfast has begun to realize its full potential as a major tourist destination. Built on the flood plain of the River Lagan, the city- has recently undergone major regeneration and redevelopment, resulting in modern glass offices and city parks which complement the rich Victorian buildings lining the seaport. Belfast is a city just waiting to be discovered.
03. Cliffs of Moher
Located at the edge of the Burren in County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher are a breath-taking natural wonder and one of the most popular attractions in Ireland. Rising between 120 and 214 meters above the Atlantic Ocean, the cliffs offer spectacular views of the Twelve Pins Mountains to the north, Loop Head to the south, and the Aran Islands dotted around Galway Bay to the west. The cliffs are also one of the country’s premier bird-watching locations with an estimated 30,000 birds representing more than 20 species nesting along the coast.
04. Ring of Kerry
A wonderful scenic circuit stretching almost 180 kilometers, the Ring of Kerry boasts some of the most breath-taking views Ireland has to offer. The circuit begins and ends in Killarney, sweeping around the Iveragh Peninsula and encompassing spectacular views of mountains, ocean, islands, small Irish villages, and rugged coastline. There are numerous variations of the Ring of Kerry including an official signposted cycling route which follows quieter roads and a walking route known as the Kerry Way. Numerous events and festivals take place within the Ring of Kerry throughout the year, including an exhilarating adventure race every St. Patrick’s Day.
05. Giant’s Causeway
Flanked by a landscape of dramatic cliffs on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, the Giant’s Causeway is an area of interlocking basalt columns which were the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Known as Clochán na bhFomhórach in Irish or as the Giant’s Causey locally, the incredible landscape has long been responsible for inspiring the imaginations of local settlements, poets, artists, and even scientists. Often described as the eighth wonder of the world, the Giant’s Causeway was inscribed as Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
The best known of Ireland’s many passage tombs, Newgrange dates back over 5,000 years, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. Forming part of the UNESCO World Heritage inscribed Brú Na Bóinne complex, which includes smaller passage tombs Knowth and Dowth, Newgrange features boulders and stones from as far south as Co. Wicklow and as far north as Mourne and Carlingford. The inner chamber of the mound is aligned with the rising sun, which floods the chamber on the winter solstice.
The start and finish point of the Ring of Kerry, Killarney is a picturesque town sitting on the shores of Lough Leane and in the vicinity of a wonderful national park. Expect a warm welcome in Ireland’s Best Kept town alongside numerous attractions and a wealth of natural heritage. The location of Killarney makes it the ideal base from which to explore the southwest of Ireland, with a friendly smile and bit of craic in the traditional Irish bars upon your return. Try to time your visit to coincide with one of the numerous festivals which take place here around the year.
Among the country’s most stunning destinations, Glendalough (the valley of the two lakes) showcases spectacular scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and fascinating history. The glacial valley is home to one of Ireland’s most important monastic sites which dates back to the 6th Century and features numerous walking trails along the wonderful rolling hills and deep valleys. Glendalough valley is located within the Wicklow Mountains which are an important national park and home to some of Ireland’s rarest flora and fauna.
09. Aran Islands
Located just off the west coast of Ireland in the Bay of Galway, the stunning Aran Islands are a group of three small islands – Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. Home to just over 1,200 people, the three islands are one of the few remaining areas of Ireland where Irish is the first language, although all the residents are fluent in English also. The islands are scattered with historically significant buildings and churches and an extremely popular spot for cliff diving. The islands are accessible via ferry from Co. Galway or Co. Clare, and via air from Connemara airport.
10. The Burren
A unique landscape measuring 250 square kilometers, the Burren is an incredible sight. The word Burren is derived from the Irish word “Boíreann” which means “rocky place” and is extremely appropriate when gazing upon the lack of soil cover and exposed Limestone pavement. The area is enclosed by a rough circle made by six historic villages; Corofin, Kilfenora, Tubber, Ballyvaughan, Lisdoonvarna, and Kinvara. The Burren is home to three quarters of Ireland’s species of flowers as well as various animals, fascinating natural history, and extraordinary archaeology.
A former European Capital of Culture, Cork’s compact city center surrounded by interesting waterways is full of superb restaurants, 17th Century alleyways, and modern masterpieces. Built on the River Lee, the city center is actually on an island created by channels of water which lead to Lough Mahon and Cork Harbor, one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Webs of narrow streets reveal the best Cork has to offer – snug pubs with live music, dynamic contemporary buildings, and delicious local cuisine.
12. Dingle Peninsula
Unlike the Ring of Kerry, where it seems like the cliffs dominate the ocean, the Dingle Peninsula is where the ocean dominates. Deep blue waters surround the lush green hills and golden sands of the Dingle Peninsula, culminating in Ireland’s westernmost point. Centered on the charming Dingle town, the peninsula is a favorite spot for aquatic adventures and contains some of Co. Kerry’s finest restaurants serving seafood caught only hours ago. Here, life consists of traditional music sessions and folk festivals in a life lived by artisans across the peninsula’s tiny settlements.
13. Skellig Islands
Rising out of the ever-pounding Atlantic Ocean about 13 kilometers west of Bolus Head, the Skellig Islands have become famous for their thriving bird population and a UNESCO World Heritage listed Christian monastery. There are two islands. Little Skellig and Skellig Michael, separated by about one and a half kilometers. Both islands can be visited via a choppy boat ride, but be warned there are no toilets or facilities in the islands so ensure you are well prepared for your visit!
Famous for the cream ale by the same name, Kilkenny is the smallest city in the Republic of Ireland but has a rich cultural heritage. There are numerous historical buildings to discover here alongside cultural workshops, museums, and public gardens. The city also plays host to three major festivals over the summer months and proudly boasts a strong sporting legacy, particularly in hurling. One of the most popular weekend getaway destinations for Irish citizens, it is often referred to as the “Marble City” due to the black polished limestone which was quarried in the area.
Set along the banks of the beautiful River Shannon where it swings west to join up with the Shannon Estuary, Limerick is the country’s first Irish City of Culture. Medieval and Georgian architecture stand alongside glossy modern buildings constructed during the Celtic Tiger period to create a vibrant and contemporary atmosphere. The historic core of the city is located on King’s Island, where the Shannon meets the Abbey River in idyllic surroundings, making it easy to explore the major attractions on foot.
16. Connemara National Park
Covering some 30 square kilometers in Co. Galway, Connemara National Park features stunning mountains, expanses of heath, bog, and grasslands, and dense woodlands. Four of the park’s mountains; Benbaun, Bencullagh, Benbrack, and Muckanaght form part of the famous Twelve Bens or Twelve Peaks mountain range. Numerous ruins are located within Connemara National Park, some of which date back thousands of years and are fascinating to explore. The park is also home to a range of wildlife from ponies and deer to a variety of birds.
17. Croagh Patrick
Towering over the tiny villages of Murrisk and Lecanvey in Co Mayo, Croagh Patrick rises 764 meters and is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Ireland. Meaning “St. Patrick’s Stack”, it is also known locally as “the Reef” due to the pilgrimages which take place every year on Reef Sunday, the last Sunday of July. The third highest mountain in Ireland, it forms part of an east-west ridge and offers magnificent views of the Mayo countryside and Clew Bay throughout the ascent.