Ireland's Premier Highlights
Even if you have never visited the Emerald Isle, Ireland is a familiar place to travelers from the United States. With a heartfelt connection to its land, people, politics, literature, and history, a trip here brings these facets to life. Moreover, Ireland is a relatively easy country to travel within: Its people are hospitable, its food and accommodations top-notch, and its landscapes mesmerizing. Only driving on the opposite side of the road with Gaelic-only signs might make you feel like an outsider!
Following are certain places around the country that stand out from the rest due to their location, archaeological attractions, eco-friendliness, and allure, and for the accommodations and the proprietor's hospitality. Additional information about each attraction is highlighted in county-specific sections.
TOP ANCIENT SITES
Newgrange, County Meath Known as Brúna Bóinne, Newgrange is a stellar example of how much we do not know about the ancient world. It was constructed well before the pyramids of Egypt and is thought to be a passage grave of astral importance. Don't forget to sign up for the lottery for your chance to stand inside the grave during the winter solstice.
Hill of Tara, County Meath One of the most holy spots of ancient Ireland, the Hill of Tara became the changing of the guard, so to speak, for the high kings of Ireland. The visitor center does a great job of outlining how this transition took place.
Glendalough, County Wicklow This ancient site known as the “Glen of Two Lakes” was the stomping ground of Saint Kevin. Now a national park of prominent size, visitors from Dublin can arrive here in less than two hours to walk trails, examine the Round Tower, graveyard, and beehive hut called St. Kevin's Cell.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary Whosoever held the seat of the Rock of Cashel, also known as St. Patrick's Rock, was considered the high king of Munster. A visit here takes onlookers through this prominent European medieval structure, a graveyard of high crosses, a stunning Gothic cathedral, and hidden tombs held within its depths.
Aran Islands, County Galway This set of three islands is most often accessed from County Galway, but some travelers have luck on the Ferry from Doolin, County Clare. All of the islands have awe-inspiring ancient sites and offer wonderfully peaceful days of meandering the ancient stone walls. The Dún Aengus and Dún Dúchathair forts on Inishmor and O'Brien's Castle on Inisheer Island are the most historically significant attractions.
TOP NATURAL ANOMALIES
Skellig Islands, County Kerry Best visited during the summer months, the Skellig Islands are a pair of UNESCO-protected islands that are only accessible after crossing the rough, maniacal ocean. The price paid is well worth it; Skellig Michael features early monastic settlements from the sixth century complete with beehive huts and ancient gardens.
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim Undoubtedly the most talked about spot in Northern Ireland, the Giant's Causeway is one of Ireland's geographical marvels. Stone columns of basalt formed by volcanic eruptions and cut by the wind and sea jut out over Ireland's northern shore; local lore claims it was the seat of a great giant named Finn MacCool.
Twelve Bens, County Galway Located in the Lough Inagh Valley of the Connemara National Park, the Twelve Bens are a set of mountains on the edge of Kylemore Lake. Reachable from Letterfrack Village, the mountains offer wonderful walking opportunities; those with plenty of energy can walk all twelve in one day. The highest peak is 730 meters (2,395 feet).
The Burren, County Clare A landscape like no other, the Burren conceals within its crags some of Ireland's most diverse plant and animal species. It is a great destination for those seeking rare, exotic flora unseen anywhere else in the world. While the terrain is rough to walk, it is not overly mountainous and exploring the place on a walking daytrip is the best way to witness this marvelous rarity.
Marble Arch Caves, County Fermanagh A system of Europe's most renowned caves, the Marble Arch Caves have put County Fermanagh on the map for its great variety of stalagmites and stalactites. Entrance to the cave occurs with a boat ride on the River Cladagh. An arch formation along the trail outside the caves gives the caves their name.
TOP TOURISTY SPOTS
Guinness Storehouse, Dublin One of Dublin's highlights, the Guinness Storehouse is a seven-story fermentation plant turned visitor center extravaganza. With high-tech and snazzy audio-visual exhibits throughout, the pinnacle point is a visit to the Gravity Bar. From this top vantage point, you will have wondrous views of Dublin as you down your pint.
Bunratty Castle, Folk Park, and Medieval Banquet, County Clare Great for the kids or the big kid in us all, the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park top the list for family fun. The medieval banquet is the best in all of Ireland. With two scrumptious dinners served nightly, the jesters and fair maidens await. The Traditional Irish Night is another option gaining in popularity.
Cliffs of Moher, County Clare With such an investment by the local and national government, the Cliffs of Moher and its Visitor Experience are akin to the Giant's Causeway in their absolute grandeur. The Atlantic Edge Exhibition is a hands-on discovery center that is best done before venturing outside to walk along the mind-boggling cliff's edge.
Ulster American Folk Park, County Tyrone A wonderful place to explore the American and Irish connection, the Ulster American Folk Park brings Ireland's bygone days to life. Some of the structures, including a small cottage, were brought over from the United States. The summer is the best time to visit. Actors teach visitors about the past and festivals occur almost daily.
Blarney Castle, County Cork Not an easy feat, climbing the stairs of the Blarney Castle to kiss the distinguished Blarney Stone is a worthwhile task. The parks and surrounding gardens are fun to explore for a couple of hours; it is also a great spot for a picnic lunch. With a true tourist feel, you might see more crowds here than anywhere else.
TOP HIDDEN SPOTS
Mourne Mountains, County Down Located on the outskirts of Newcastle, the Mourne Mountains are truly a gem in Northern Ireland. The jaw-dropping ocean views and outdoor pursuits, all less than two hours from Dublin, are going to make this place boom. Locals are pushing for the place to be recognized as Northern Ireland's only national park in order to protect its future.
Burren Walk, County Clare For independent travelers, the outlined “Caher Valley and Gleninagh Mountain” route described in the Best Irish Walks, edited by Joss Lynam, takes you into the Burren's heart and hinterlands. The trail starts out slightly confusing, but then connects to the Burren Way (national trail) before extending cliff side on an ancient walking path dubbed the Green Road.
Inishbofin Island, County Galway A short distance from the tip of Connemara, the lightly inhabited isle of Inishbofin (“Island of the White Cow”) has some superb summertime pursuits, including scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Much like the Aran Islands, biking certain parts of the island is a great way to intimately explore its historical significance.
Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry Smaller and more remote than the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula is a rewarding step back in time. The town itself is small, but it has a scattering of top-notch dining choices. Driving, biking, or walking are all excellent ways to see the various sites. The Dingle Way walking trail combines outdoor adventure with a historical melting pot of ruins, ring forts, and ancient churches.
Yeats Country, County Sligo Exploring these environs opens a door to bucolic discovery like no other. Find out what inspired the Yeats brothers in their arts. A circuitous route around the area also brings travelers to Rosses Point, followed by an occasion to venture to Innisfree, an island that inspired a poetry collection known as The Rose.
TOP FIVE TOWNS AND CITIES
Dublin An ever-popular getaway full of life, great music, art, pubs, accommodations, and restaurants, Dublin is one of Europe's most admired cities. With loads of things to see and do, you might have to make a trip solely to explore this accessible and fun city.
Galway City Exploring this city's divergent past on a walking tour is the best way to see all the sites in one day. The small town is jam-packed with things to see and do: museums, cathedrals, and ancient walls are at every turn. Enjoy rustic ocean views along Galway Bay and Salthill's promenade. Expect exceptional food, music, dance, drink, and a young crowd to keep the night lively.
Kinsale, County Cork Located at the estuary of the Bantry River, this small town is one of Ireland's most appealing and the perfect base for sailing pursuits. With seaside views at every corner, colorful townhouses, and a harbor that inspires artists, Kinsale is home to fine dining, a wonderful ghost tour, and the quaintest B&Bs.
Adare, County Limerick Although the English heavily influenced Adare's design, it still holds to its appellation as “Ireland's Prettiest Village.” While other villages and fishing hamlets are more off the beaten path, Adare's manicured state makes it a wonderful place to visit or to lay your hat for the night.
Kenmare, County Kerry A town overshadowed by Killarney, Kenmare is an attractive base from which to explore the Killarney National Park and Muckross House. The town itself exudes character and its center comes to life each evening with local song, dance, and great pints.