I'm convinced Ireland is a beautiful country to visit any time of year. The wind-swept hills gently rolling through the country side, the steep cliffs plunging into the sea on the west coast, and the hundreds (literally) of castle ruins sprinkled everywhere lend the place a rugged, mystic quality. The tiny island, split between two countries, has so much to see and do, one could easily spend months, if not years or even a lifetime, exploring it. Alas, most of us do not have that luxury and must try to see what we can in the short amount of time we have available to us. Although we went to Ireland almost three and a half years ago, my sister recently visited this stunning country and asked me for some tips. Instead of keeping my advice to myself, I decided to publish it here to share with all of you. Enjoy and if you do make it to any of these places in Ireland, drop us a line in the comments and let us know what you thought!
Day 1 - Arrive in Dublin, rent a car and get out of the city!
Don't worry, we will finish up in Dublin, so you will get the chance to see the city, but really, the beauty in Ireland lies outside of the capital. Today, you'll be driving not far to the city of Kilkenny.
Day 2 - Spend the day in Kilkenny
A cute city with cobble stoned streets and leaning houses, Kilkenny is a perfect place to start your Ireland vacation. Tour the Smithwick's brewery and adjust to the time change (if coming from the US).
Day 3 - Drive towards Cork, Pit Stop at Jameson Distillery in Midleton
While you can go to a Jameson "experience" in Dublin, I would suggest stopping at the original distillery in Midleton for your tour and tasting. You'll get to see where the barley was malted, where the spirits were distilled, and where they used to age the whiskey. Today, it's a much more high tech process, but it's pretty cool to see how they used to do it. And at the end of of the tour, you get your obligatory free sample. Not being a huge whiskey fan, or liquor for that matter, I opted for the ginger and lime mixed drink option. I won't lie, it was pretty tasty! Afterwards, you can grab lunch in the pub next door and finish up with an Irish coffee.
Day 4 - Explore Cork
Cork has a pretty vibrant and thriving craft beer scene, so take advantage of it and try something other than Guinness or Smithwick's! Visit the old Gaol in the city to see where prisoners were held before being shipped off (literally) to Australia for their crimes. They offer night tours which might be a cool, if not creepy, way to see the old prison. From there, you can head over to Blackrock Castle, or take a stroll through the English market where vendors set up shop selling local and organic food in an 18th century market, or, if you want something really off the beaten path, head to the butter museum. Yes, a museum completely dedicated to butter!
Day 5 - Drive to Limerick with a Pit Stop at Blarney Castle
The drive isn't long, less than two hours total, but a nice way to break it up is to stop at Blarney Castle. One of the (probably) most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, it's surprisingly mellow. I really expected something much more Disney-fied than what we got. The castle is all but ruins now, but you are allowed to explore the entire thing - dead ends, tiny spiral stair cases, and all. When you get to the top, you have the opportunity to kiss the famed Blarney Stone. It seems far more dangerous than it really is, so despite the thousands of lips that have touched the stone before yours, you really should do it.
Day 6 - Explore Limerick
Most famous for the 5 lines poems, this town is super cute. Had we had more time there, I would have loved to explore Saint John's Castle
Day 7 - Drive to Cliffs of Moher
It's another short drive and under an hour and a half, but off the main highways which means you'll get to see some beautiful Irish country side before finally making it to the famous Cliffs of Moher. Take the day to do some hiking and enjoying the western coast of Ireland. For accommodations, find a cute B&B over a pub for the night (there is no shortage of them in Ireland, but book ahead if you're traveling during high season)
Day 8 - Return to Dublin
This will be your longest driving day by far, so make sure to break it up with stops. Roadside parks are pretty common, and are a good place to stretch your legs, and enjoy Ireland. The fastest route will take you back down towards Limerick and be just over 3 hours driving time. But for a more scenic route, stay off the main highways and take some "back roads." Unless you make a lot of stops, it shouldn't add more than a half hour to your total drive time.
There is a lot to see and do in Dublin, but we would suggest skipping the Guinness tour; it's over priced and kind of cheesy. Instead, find a small pub in a non-touristy area of the city (aka, away from Temple Bar) and enjoy a pint there instead.
Day 9 - Explore Dublin
I know it's super touristy, but a good way to hit up all the main highlights of a city in a short amount of time, while also hearing about the history, is to go on one of those Hop On Hop Off bus tours. You can find them in more major European cities, and if we have more than a day or so, we tend to avoid them, but Dublin is pretty large and this HOHO bus is not a bad deal. We opted to skip many of the main sights - Book of Kells, Trinity College, etc. Instead, we found this small, incredibly unique Famine Museum that was housed on a boat in the river. We were the only ones there when we went, and while it was a little...weird...it was actually incredibly informative. Something like 40 million people in the world claim Irish heritage (I'm one of them!), and this huge dissemination of the Irish was due almost solely to the potato famine of the mid-1800s. It was cool to learn about how this happened and hear some personal stories. Interesting fact: according to the UN definition, Ireland has, technically, never recovered from the potato famine.
Day 10 - Return Home
I know it's a sad day, but all good trips must eventually come to an end. I can assure though, you'll have fond memories of the Emerald Isle!
If you have more time to spend on this beautiful island, here are some more options of places to check out. We really, really, wanted to get to some of these, but our restricted time frame didn't allow it. There is just so much to see and do in Ireland that, despite it's relatively small size, it can be hard to decide!
Located in the southwest of Ireland, this town is popular with tourists. Driving tours through this region following the rugged coastline are always a good idea, and if you fancy, you can even take a boat trip out to some of the smaller islands.
Derry and Londonderry
Derry and Londonderry are, technically, in Northern Ireland. The main difference here is the currency. In NI, they use the pound as they are part of the UK, but in the Republic of Ireland, they use the Euro. We weren't able to make it here, but have heard really really good things about this tiny seaside village and it was recommended to us by more than a few people. If you have the time, I would definitely recommend a stop!
When we went to Ireland, we included part of Northern Ireland in our trip, and this was one place I made sure to visit. We went on Christmas day (cold, blustery, but refreshingly devoid of too many tourists!) and it was perfect! The hexagonal stones jutting up from the coast line like stepping stones are fun, but slippery, to walk out on. There is some hiking in the area that, were we more avid hikers, would have, without a doubt been beautiful.
Birthplace of the Titanic and known for historic clashes between protestant and Catholics (referred to as "The Troubles" in much of Ireland), this city is actually quite unique. We spent a few days here and enjoyed visiting the Titanic museum, the shipyards, and taking in some of the boxing day sales. In retrospect, I don't think we needed quite as many days in the city as we stayed, but we had not one, but two, Christmas days to contend with and most of the more popular tourist attractions are closed on both days.
This was another stop recommended to us by quite a few people. It's a stone age tomb shrouded in mystery like Stonehenge, but about 1000 years older! While you can't easily get inside the tomb (a lottery is held every October and of the approximately 25,000+ people that submit an application, only about 50 are chosen - talk about some slim odds!), you can visit the visitors center and walk around the grounds on a guided tour. If you're driving from Belfast back to Dublin to finish out your trip, this would be a worthwhile stop.