Travel to Ireland: The Best Places to Visit in the Emerald Isle
“No land in the world can inspire such love in a common man” – Frank Delaney
From vivid green, rolling hills to dramatic, windswept cliffs to ancient, crumbling castles, Ireland has a breathtaking beauty. Start your journey in Dublin for a taste of the modern with a dose of the historical, then figure out your route from there. Ireland is small but mighty, and it has plenty to offer the millions of visitors that arrive every year on its shores. Some come to wander the misty trails that inspired authors like Yeats and Joyce. Some come to sample good, rich beer and even better company in small-town pubs. Others make the journey for the layers of history that stretch from the foundations beneath the cobbled streets of Dublin to the cracks in the weather-worn castle walls of the coasts. Whatever your reason for seeking out the Emerald Isle, we’re here to help you plan a trip you won’t forget.
- Population: ~6.5 million
- Size: ~32,600 square miles (similar in size to Indiana)
- Currency: Euro
- Language: Irish, English, and Scots
- Nearby countries: Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales
Best times to visit: We recommend visiting in late spring and early fall (April – May, September – October). You will be rewarded with mild weather, not too much rain, and fewer crowds than in peak tourist season.
5 reasons to visit Ireland
1. Scenic drives on wild coasts
The Wild Atlantic Way is the more than 1,500 miles of driveable Atlantic coastline that stretches from the breathtaking cliffs of Donegal in the north to the serene ultramarine waters of Kinsale in the south. Choose a short section to complete over a few days or a week, like the impressive series of beaches between Donegal and Erris, known to attract surfers. For a leisurely trip down the entire route with plenty of time for cliffside picnics, overnight stays in cozy coastal towns, and excursions to ancient ruins along the way, it’s best to give yourself a month or more to make the whole journey.
2. Hearty meals and strong drinks
Ireland is well known for its rich, dark stouts (Guinness immediately comes to mind, but it’s far from the only contender) as well as its smooth whiskies. What is less well known is that Ireland has a varied and surprising cuisine, ranging from plucked-from-the-ocean oysters with just a zingy dash of citrus to the typical full Irish breakfast with baked beans, black pudding, and thick soda bread thickly spread with creamy Irish butter. Stop in the small inland towns to try local beers and enjoy a filling pub lunch, or meander up the coast to dig into fresh seafood beachside.
3. The royal treatment
Castles abound in Ireland, from the crumbling, moss-covered ruins of Ballycarbey Castle in Kerry to the well-preserved and well-known Blarney Castle. These castles are perfect for day trips, especially for kids, and give insight into Ireland’s storied history and the settlements that sprang up over the years. However, for a truly unique experience, we recommend you not just visit a castle, but spend the night in one. A number of castles in Ireland have remained intact or have been restored to their former glory, and the insides have been renovated to give visitors a sense of how the rooms may have looked in times past. Stay overnight and see what it’s like to sleep like a king.
4. Cobbled streets in small towns
Dublin attracts crowds with its busy streets packed to the gills with pubs, restaurants, and cafes, but the small towns and villages of the Emerald Isle deserve just as much attention, if not more. Spend a couple days seaside in Kinsale, a town in County Cork best known for its colorful buildings and super-fresh seafood. Watch surfers ride the waves outside of Lahinch in County Clare before heading out for an evening of bar-hopping. Feel transported back in time as you admire the thatched cottages of Adare in County Limerick. The small towns of Ireland are many and each has its own special flavor—they are not to be missed.
5. Long hikes over rolling hills
Ireland is the ideal place to blend visits to cities and towns with adventures in the outdoors. Any town you visit is bound to have a walk of at least a couple hours that will take you into the surrounding countryside. If hiking is your main prerogative, there are plenty of extensive trails to intrigue intrepid explorers. Experience forests thick with trees and smooth, sloping valleys on a hike through Glendalough, which you can start easily from Dublin, or take in the deep blues of the expansive ocean and the sheer, dazzling cliffs up close by opting for a coastal trail.
A note on language
Although English is the dominating language and an official language of Ireland, Irish is actually the first official language, as well as the national language. You will see signs in Irish, and there are also a number of radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers that operate entirely in Irish. Learn a few simple words or phrases before your trip to show your appreciation for the Irish language, such as “sláinte” (pronounced “slawn-che”) which means “health” and is the Irish version of “cheers”.
Fall (September – November)
In fall, you can expect daytime temperatures of between 55-65° F, and more frequent rain showers than other months. Layer up and make sure you have a good raincoat.
Winter (December – February)
Winter temps generally hover in the high 30s, although its good to be prepared for colder weather. Rain is also a factor, so a warm waterproof jacket is essential if you’re planning to travel during this time of year.
Spring (March – May)
Wildflowers bloom in spring, and the weather starts to warm up, peaking in the high 50s but with a typical daytime temperature between 50-55° F. Spring can be windy, so a windbreaker is a safe bet.
The best festivals in Ireland
From major holidays that are celebrated throughout the country to small-town occasions, there are many festivals and events to explore in Ireland. Travelers should keep in mind that many of these festivals and holidays mean that shops, bars, and restaurants may be closed, so it’s best to plan ahead. Whether you want to join in on some drunken revelry, sample the best oysters the coast has to offer, check out the alternative art scene, or even crown a goat-king, we’ve chosen our top festivals for any type of traveler.
For the traditionalist: St. Patrick’s Day Festival
Dublin – March 13 - 17, 2020
St. Patrick’s Day falls on March 17th, but you can take part in several days worth of festivities in Dublin. In the days surrounding the holiday, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy, like walking tours, craft beer markets, traditional Irish dances, and live music from artists from across the country. The big parade, with different floats and revelers dressed in every shade of green, is the highlight of the festival.
For the foodie: Galway Oyster Festival
Galway – September 25 - 27, 2020
This annual festival celebrates all things oyster, offering up a selection of the freshest picks from the rough Atlantic coasts. Taste your way through different oyster varieties and wash it down with local craft brews or fruity late-summer wines. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you can even throw your hat in the ring at the oyster-shucking competition.
For the offbeat explorer: Killorglin Puck Fair
Killorglin – August 10 - 12, 2020
The small town of Killorglin on the Wild Atlantic Way has made a name for itself with its annual Puck Fair, a wild street festival in which a goat is named Puck King. The coronation is the highlight of the festival, but the revelry is stretched out over three days and involves plenty of music, dancing, and drinking. Supposedly based in Pagan tradition, this event gives you a little something different in the form of a huge festival with small-town vibes.
For the artiste: Galway Arts Festival
Galway – July 13 - 26, 2020
This all-round arts festival is a can’t-miss occasion for visitors traveling in midsummer. This festival packs in a lot in just two weeks: gigs with top bands, speakers from across the world, theatre shows, live music across the city, art exhibitions, and many other performances. It’s the perfect festival to just walk and explore—you’re bound to find something that takes your interest.
The best castles to visit in Ireland
Rock of Cashel
One of the most popular castles for a visit, The Rock (as it is commonly known) is a medieval castle dating back to the 1100s. It’s a great choice for an all-around experience: you can wander the castle, the chapel, the cathedral, the grounds and even the reproduced “Folk Village” for a slice of daily life in the medieval ages. Perched on a hill, this castles offers impressive views both on your journey towards it and from its weathered stone walls. Visit on the first Wednesday of the month for free admission.
Built in the 1400s, Blarney Castle draws huge crowds ever year—not so much for the castle itself, but for the famous Blarney Stone. Said to give the gift of persuasive speech to any who plant a kiss on it, the Blarney Stone attracts plenty of visitors willing to make the journey for the stone’s elusive gifts. Be sure to check out gardens and arboretum, and the Poison Garden in particular.
Bunratty Castle is a testament to persistence. The stomping ground for many a battle between warring clans, the fortress has been destroyed and rebuilt no less than four times. Today, the fighting has long since ceased and you can wander the well-worn stone buildings at your leisure. The real reason for a visit to Bunratty, however, is the opportunity to take part in a old-timey banquet, where actors in era-appropriate garb will guide you through the traditions of the day.
It’s that old real estate mantra: location, location, location. Clinging to a cliff’s edge overlooking a tempestuous sea, this castle has the type of poetic gravitas that keeps visitors coming every year. Wander through the ruins using the castle’s app, which gives you key information about the castle’s history, or arrange for a guided tour and ask your guide to tell you about the legend of the kitchen falling into the sea.
Literature buffs will love a trip to Dunguaire Castle, an old gathering place for literary giants like W.B Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Like Bunratty Castle, Dunguaire also offers regular banquets from late spring to early fall. With a top location on the picturesque Galway Bay, Dunguaire is a good day trip to take while you’re in the Galway area enjoying the county’s abundance of fresh seafood and walkable small towns.
Ireland with kids: the best things to do in Ireland with children
Explore ancient ruins
Many of the castles and ruins of Ireland are ideal for adventurous kids, who can explore the nooks and crannies of ancient sites on foot. Castles with extensive grounds, demonstrations about medieval life, and fun extra activities like banquets are perfect for kids—our top choice is Bunratty Castle, with the attached Folk Park. While there are plenty of ancient ruins to see, some, like the monuments around Tulsk, offer a greater variety of sites to investigate and more resources to understand the history of the area. Prep for the trip by reading some Irish legends to spark your little ones’ imaginations of what life was like in Ireland long ago.
Head for the coast
Ireland is surrounded by miles of beautiful coastline, making it easy (if not essential) to incorporate a seaside excursion into your trip. If you’re visiting in the warmer months, the beaches of Lahinch offer plenty to do in the way of water sports and other seaside activities. Older kids can take surf lessons at the Lahinch Surf School, while younger kids will enjoy playing on the beach and trying the delicious local ice cream. The Dingle Peninsula is a good choice any time of the year, as the primary attractions are the marine wildlife. Hop on a boat tour and try to sneak a peak at Fungi, the area’s resident dolphin, or head to the aquarium for a guaranteed look at sea creatures up close.
Do Dublin right
Dublin may be known by some for its rowdy nightlife, but there’s plenty to do in Ireland’s metropolis that will entertain kids of all ages. Spend an afternoon walking or biking through the expansive Phoenix Park, stopping in for an hour or two at the Dublin Zoo. For something a bit more unusual, you can drive a half hour outside the city to Tayto Park in Meath, a theme park, zoo, and potato chip factory tour all in one. Parents who want to take the tour of the Guinness Storehouse should note that the tours are quite family-friendly.
Hike the rolling hills
For centuries, writers have paid homage to the beautiful green hills of the Emerald Isle. While there are several long hikes for experienced walkers, there are plenty more short and easy walks that are ideal for families with children—some paths will even allow for strollers. For young kids or families with babies, a hike over Dalkey and Killiney hills just outside Dublin is a safe bet. It’s the perfect length for little legs, and an opportunity to stop in picturesque Dalkey for a snack afterwards. Older kids and teenagers may be up to tackle sections of longer well-known hikes like the Connemara Way or Dingle Way.
Seek out local festivals
We’ve already noted our favorite festivals in Ireland, but it’s a big list to draw from. Any time of the year, there are opportunities to experience small local festivals celebrating everything from literature to aerial dance to opera. Foodie parents with adventurous eaters in tow may like the Wexford Food and Wine Festival, while the Sea Sessions Surf and Music Festival in Donegal is a great choice for high energy kids with a mix of interests. Check out what festivals are on during your trip and try to squeeze one in if you have the time.
A closer look at Dublin: the best things to do in the Fair City
Where to eat like a local: Dublin’s best restaurants
If you only have a day or two to spend in the city, we recommend booking one of the highly rated food tours, led by local guides, which will give you a sampling of the best Dublin has to offer. If you can’t squeeze in a food tour or would rather venture out on your own, we suggest a stop at Queen of Tarts for a traditional full Irish breakfast and a slice of one of their signature cakes. An excellent midday stop is The Pepper Pot, which offers up made-to-order sandwiches on slices of thick bread and an above-average afternoon tea. For upscale dishes featuring ingredients from all across Ireland, splash out on dinner at Michelin-starred Chapter One.
Where to drink your fill: Dublin’s best bars
It wouldn’t be a trip to Ireland without indulging in a rich stout or a smooth whiskey in a local pub. In Dublin you’ll have your pick of hundreds of drinking establishments, all with their own special brand of Irish cheer. We recommend skipping out on overcrowded Temple Bar and exploring places like The Palace Bar, a nearby favorite amongst locals best known for their impressive whiskey selection. For a glimpse into the past, check out The Long Hall, a richly decorated Victorian-era pub, or pop into The Cobblestone for live music and excellent Guinness in rustic interiors. If you’re feeling peckish, nip into Grogan’s Castle Lounge for a toastie and a pint between meals.
Where to wander the cobbled streets: Dublin’s best neighborhoods
For a leisurely look at the city, we recommend a stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, where you can admire beautiful red-brick buildings, stop for a rest in neat little neighborhood parks, and have a bite to eat in local eateries before hopping over to Trinity College or one of the many nearby museums. A bit further afield are areas like Howth and Dalkey, coastal villages that function as the quasi-suburbs of Dublin while retaining an independent community feeling. They are both easy to reach from the city center, and offer an opportunity for long walks with sea views, stops in cozy cafes and shops, and fresh-from-the-ocean seafood.
Where to step into history: Dublin’s best museums and sights
Dublin has a wealth of museums to choose from, but our favorites are those that illuminate something unique about Dublin’s storied past. A tour of Kilmainham Gaol captures the macabre history of Irish rebellions as you learn about the famous dissidents and laypeople that were confined in its walls. The Little Museum of Dublin is a bit on the lighter side, walking back in time through interesting and offbeat artifacts and artwork that weave their own tale of Dublin. For those with particular proclivities, stopping in at the Irish Whiskey Museum or Dublin Writers Museum will give a more in-depth look at these particular facets of Irish culture. Outside of the museums, a trip to Trinity College and its impressive Long Room Library are a must. For something a bit more off-the-beaten-path, seek out The Hungry Tree by Constitution Hill or the larger-than-life graffiti at the Tivoli Theatre Car Park.
Where to take a deep breath: Dublin’s best parks and gardens
Dublin has plenty of open green spaces where you can take a walk, enjoy a picnic, or relax with a book. Most impressive is Phoenix Park, a colossal expanse of greenery that covers 1,750 acres and boasts the title of largest European urban park. You can stop in at the zoo, or keep an eye out for the free-roaming deer that the park is known for. The Iveagh Gardens, with its abundance of delicate flowers and cool fountains, is perfect for a leisurely stroll, and often hosts small festivals in the spring and summer months. The National Botanical Gardens offers the most variety, and on a sunny day there is nothing more beautiful than the afternoon light glinting off the old glasshouses scattered across the property.
For shorter trips, stick to Dublin and do day trips from there
This is best for the traveler who is only stopping in for a short visit of a few days. While most visitors’ trips only allow for a day or two in Dublin, this option lets you to explore the city at a leisurely pace and do a deeper dive into the less-frequented bars, eateries, museums, and picturesque neighborhoods that are a bit more off the beaten path. It’s easy to then book day trips out to famous sights like the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, or even some of the top sights in Northern Ireland, like Giants Causeway. If guided tours aren’t your thing, you can hire a local car, a personal guide, or check out plenty of sights by bus or train.
Book a multi-day guided tour
The easiest option, and arguably the best for families, travelers with disabilities, or senior travelers, is a guided tour through a tour company. There are plenty of options for tours—many focus on hitting top sights across the island, while others will take you through smaller towns or on hiking expeditions. Do your research to find a tour that fits the needs of your party. You can also do a half-and-half, splitting your trip so you spend some time on a guided tour but allowing a few days of independent exploration in Dublin, on the coast, or in one of the beautiful towns of the interior.
Plan your own route using buses, trains, and car services
This option is most suited to travelers who are flexible, have plenty of time to travel, and who would rather built their own itineraries. Most places in Ireland can be reached by train, bus, or both. You’ll have a very easy time if you’re sticking to major cities, but trips into small towns are their own reward. If you’re comfortable doing a mix of city exploration and hiking, you can take a bus to bigger cities and towns and then hike to more remote areas. Otherwise, you can hire a car to take you to specific villages or attractions you’d like to see. For this type of trip, extensive research is your friend: you may find that many of the places you’d like to visit have local buses or hiking trails that will connect you between destinations.