Ireland is a land of incomprehensible beauty where legend and reality mingle. This unique combination has resulted in visitors not wanting to leave the country. And, even if they reluctantly do, they always come back at the drop of a hat. Here’s a Complete Travel Guide on top things to see and do in Ireland.
A beautiful but a spine-chilling day welcomes me as I start exploring the world’s longest defined coastal route, the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. As expected, Sun has taken a rain check. Wrapped in multiple layers like an Eskimo, I get down from my bus to meet the most famous resident of Dingle. I am warned by the Failte Ireland executive, Peter,
Although, he is a very friendly host but don’t be disappointed, if he doesn’t turn up today. You know, he too can act moody at times.
For fifteen minutes my eyes keep gazing around like a love stuck puppy in a hope to see the funny guy. A bit of dejection kicks in as I start feeling my journey of 5000 miles from India may go futile. But after 15 minutes, something magical happens. He appears from nowhere and how. I not only get to see him but get a chance to even play the game of Hide-n-Seek. In case you are wondering who I am talking about. Well, this is about Fungie, a wild Bottlenose Dolphin, who visited Dingle’s Harbour in 1983 as a visitor and never returned.
And, it is not just Fungie who fell indelibly in love with Ireland, the whole world is struck with Irish Spell. This unflinching love for Ireland explains why it is officially the third most popular country searched on Facebook.
The land of luck, literature, and leprechauns has seen its fair share of famous visitors. Most come away with lifetime memories, but some take their love affair a notch higher: they buy castles, start playing the bodhran and hurling, acquire a taste for Tayto crisps, and develop a deep grá (love) for the sweeping landscapes. Only a stone can escape falling in love with this magical land, where the lush green landscape is speckled with whites from happy sheep.
It is not surprising at all to know why Charlie Chaplin made Ireland his Summer home, Victoria and David Beckham took their vows in the sweeping Irish vistas, Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran found inspiration on the streets of Galway and Sarah Jessica Parker made Donegal her second home. The list of admirers of the Emerald Isle is long – 10.65 million to be precise. Yes, that is a record number of tourists who arrived in Ireland in just 10 months (Jan-Oct 2017) last year.
So, what is it that makes every heart sing to the tune of, “I love Ireland”? Reasons are plenty. Let me share the most important ones:
1) Breath-taking scenery of Wild Atlantic Way
I love coastal drives for their larger than life expanse and rugged views but Wild Atlantic Way is a one-of-a-kind adventure and the road trip of a lifetime. Wild and untamed, free and unbridled this breath-taking route has some of the most dramatic and dazzling coastal views in the world! You can dive into the invigorating sea swells of a stunning 2,500km stretch of coast, snuggle in cozy tucked away Irish Pubs, find sanctuary in old monastic sites, indulge in hidden gastronomic gems of ancient fishing villages or simply embrace the scenic sea-salted shorelines at your own pace.
Stretching from Donegal’s Malin Head in the North to Cork’s Mizen Head in the South, this is the longest defined coastal drive in the world with nine counties and six regions. The best way to explore this route is by hiring a car.
While I could only experience a part of this drive, here are must-visit destinations on the Wild Atlantic way:
Portsalon Beach, Co. Donegal: voted as the 2nd most beautiful beach in the world.
Mullaghmore Head, Sligo: great coastal cliffs and crashing waves that rise as high as 100ft (‘Prowlers’).
Achill Island, Mayo: Home to 5 blue flag beaches, many great walking tours, and some great country pubs.
Clifden, Galway: Nestled between the 12 Ben Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean, and bogland area, Clifden is one of Ireland’s most popular towns and is a great stop off point as you hit the halfway point for your trip.
Cliffs of Moher: The cliffs are Ireland’s most visited natural attraction and on a good day you see Aran Islands, Galway Bay and the Dingle Peninsula and Blasket Islands in Kerry.
Skellig Michael, Kerry: A 1300-year-old monastery carved into the cliff and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island can only be reached by boat on a good day
Dursey Island, Cork: Accessible only through a 10-minute Cable Car ride (Ireland’s only cable car), it is home to some of the best sunsets in Ireland.
2) Rich History at every turn
In a country, as ancient and legendary as Ireland, there are 5000-year-old unforgettable stories waiting to be retold. If you are a History buff and love Castles, you would never want to leave Ireland. From the gothic to the stately to the haunted and the crumbling, there are castles to explore at every turn.
From Viking invaders to high kings, from monks to fleeing immigrants, from modern-day poets, saints and scholars to ramblers and fishermen; Ireland’s Ancient East pulsates with legendary tales and mighty battles. While there are innumerable sites to choose from, here are a few must-visit places:
Brú na Bóinne
40 km from Dublin in East Ireland, this prehistoric site built in 3200 B.C predates both Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge.
While you can find Irish castles in every county, Blarney Castle in County Cork (shown here) is one of the most visited castles in Ireland. And, when you visit don’t forget to kiss the Blarney Rock to get the gift of gab.
Dalkey Castle and Heritage Town
I travelled back in time when costumed actors entertained me as part of my guided tour of the 10th century Dalkey Castle. I particularly liked the work of the Archer, Cook & the travelling Barber Surgeon. Being a writer I loved the Maeve Binchy and other famous Irish Writers guided walk in the streetscaped heritage town of Dalkey.
A must-see if you are staying more than a day in Dublin, this charming castle only 30 mins train journey from the city centre has been beautifully maintained and restored. The high tea is to die for.
Cahir, Kilkenny and Dunguaire Castles all evoke magical visions of fair maidens, brave kings, and frightful dungeons.
3) A dream destination for Adventure lovers
Ireland is a country made to order for Adventure seekers. There is a plethora of activities to choose from – surfing, sea kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing, caving, hiking, mountain biking and walking. Being an adventure buff, it wasn’t hard for me to choose #AdventureDublin from various FAM trips offered by Failte Ireland.
And, I was super lucky to have a thrill-seeking group which had stomach for all kinds of adventure. Passing through the rugged countryside and gorgeous vistas, we indulged in all kinds of adventurous and heart-pounding pursuits. Here are some of them:
We started with Dublin’s most inspiring hike, Cliff walk to Howth Head, with Shane’s Howth Hikes. It was a surreal experience listening to the legend of an Irish Poet around the Aideen grave while walking through the evergreen hills incandescent with autumnal leaves cloaking the woods. After a short lung-infusing walk through the woods, we reached the Howth Summit to relish the breath-taking views of the Dublin Bay.
Another trek that I really enjoyed was with Hilltop Treks, where we passed through some of the most scenic parts of the Dublin Mountains with stunning views of Dublin City and the Irish Sea.
Zipit Forest Adventures satiates everyone’s adventure appetite – from bite-sized chunks to weekend warriors seeking the latest adventure. But don’t take it too easy. It does require a bit of stamina to climb the treetops, cross the wobbly wooden planks, walk on wires, swing through trees in cargo nets and fly on zip lines. However, you can choose from easy to difficult circuits.
Fully geared with the wetsuits and equipment, we started kayaking from Bullock Harbour to the Dalkey Island with Jenny of Kayaking.ie. The waves were little rough and the water was icy cold. But it was one of most enthralling experiences I had in Ireland. We crossed through the colony of Seals to reach a 6000 years old uninhabited Dalkey Island that used to be the Viking base. Even though we arrived unannounced, we got a befitting welcome from the goats, rabbits and moss carpet. And, guess what. Sun did a cameo to make us witness one of the most mesmerising sunsets of our trip.
Being a Horse lover, I really had fun Horse riding in the Dublin hills with Kilegar stables. Killegar is one of Ireland’s longest established horse riding schools & livery yards, offering riding lessons, guided treks, pony camp and livery services.
Biking and Train Ride
While I preferred to explore the Malahide Castle and surrounding area on foot and road train, my friends biked through the scenic coastal route from the grounds of Malahide Castle to Portmarnock with the Irish Centre of Cycling! If you are in the area don’t forget to ride Toots, The Malahide Road Train, which is an award-winning, Hop On Hop Off, Tourism attraction with live commentary from a professional Failte Ireland Guide on board.
At Portmarnock, I got a chance to try my hand at the traditional Irish sport of hurling, the oldest and the fastest field sport in the world, with the ball being hit at speeds up to 160 km/h. The coach from the Clash Gaelic Games helped us learn the skills of the ball (sliotar) and stick (Hurley) while sharing how culture, history, and mythology are entwined with the sport.
If you want to see the city at a relaxed but fun pace, hop on a Segway Tour in Phoenix Park, one of the largest enclosed recreational spaces within any European capital city. With plenty of highlights along the way, it’s a unique way to see the Park.
4) Unrivaled Pub Culture
When it comes to a great pub, Ireland wrote the book. After all, Ireland has been exporting Pubs (commonly referred as Public Houses in Ireland) to the world at a breakneck speed since 900 AD. While the Pub culture in Ireland has a long-standing history, at its core is a sense of camaraderie, friendship, and fun commonly referred as ‘craic’. For centuries, an Irish Pub has remained the most important social outlet for feasts, weddings, funerals, wakes, christenings, birthdays and any other celebrations you can think of.
Also, they are not just a place to have alcohol – they are a talent breeding ground. These social grounds have produced many great writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan. The traditional Irish Music and Dance makes Irish Pub experience even more irresistible and authentic. Even a person like me who has two left feet couldn’t stop swinging to the tunes of “Trad session” (musical evening) combined with ceilidh (traditional Gaelic dancing).
With so much going in favour of Irish Pubs, it is not surprising to know why Ireland produces the best Stouts and Whiskeys in the world. And, when it comes to stouts, Guinness is not only the most common beer in Ireland but also something of a national symbol.
Interested to know more, don’t forget to read What is so special about Irish Pub Culture.
Here are the 10 must visit Irish Pubs in Ireland:
- Cobblestone, Dublin: Great Trad Music
- Long Hall, Dublin: Listed Victorian-era bar
- Merry Ploughboy, Dublin: An award-winning Irish Music & Irish Dance show
- Sean’s Bar is a pub in Athlone: Ireland’s oldest pub dating back to AD 900
- Johnnie Fox’s, Glencullen: Ireland’s ‘highest’ and one of the oldest pubs
- Shire, Killarney: Lord of The Rings themed pub
- Murphy’s, Killarney: Family owned traditional Irish Public House
- M. Reiddy’s, Killarney: Famed for quirky interiors with little nooks and crannies
- Matt Molloy’s, Westport, Mayo: Owned by renowned flutist Matt Molloy of the Chieftains
- O’Connell’s, Galway: A traditional-style pub with tons of energy
And, don’t forget to raise a pint-or two-to Ireland’s favourite tipple. The Guinness Storehouse and its St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin welcomes over 1-million visitors each year to their on-site stout producing plant. Brewing over 3-million pints daily, the Guinness Storehouse gives a behind-the-scenes look at their thirst-quenching enterprise.
5) Reel to Real life Film Locations
From Hollywood blockbusters to captivating television series, the spectacular scenery and historic buildings of Ireland have been the backdrop of more Hollywood movies than you could shake a wooden spoon at. The Emerald Isle has doubled as anything from Roman Britain to post-apocalyptic Northern England. And Dublin put on a solid make-up to substitute London, Berlin and even Boston!
Whether it is Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, The Quiet Man, Braveheart, Far and Away, P.S. I love you, Ryan’s Daughter or The Field; the Emerald Isle has given us some of cinema’s most enduring moments. If you are a movie fanatic like me (which I think everyone is) then you would totally love exploring Ireland through Hollywood’s lens. Movie locations in Ireland are extremely common. Thanks to tax incentives and stunning landscapes.
Here are some of the film locations you can see in real life:
- Game of Thrones has been extensively shot in Northern Ireland. Some iconic locations include the Antrim plateau, the Dark Hedges, Cushendun Caves, Murlough Bay, Ballintoy Harbour, Larrybane, Castle Ward, Inch Abbey and Downhill Strand.
- The iconic scene at the end of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was shot at Skellig Michael in Co Kerry
- The cliffs of Moher have appeared in Harry Potter and The Princess Bride (1987)
- One of my favourite movies – PS I Love You (2007) – was shot in Wicklow Mountains National Park, the Sally Gap, Blessington Lakes and Whelan’s Bar on Wexford Street in Dublin
- The Oscar-winning Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was shot at the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry
- Another classic and an academy award winner The Quiet Man (1952), was filmed in the lush countryside of Mayo
- History Channel’s epic Vikings series is majorly filmed in County Wicklow in the east of Ireland
- ‘Hellboy II’ and Jackie Chan’s The Medallion was shot at Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast in County Antrim
- Michael Collins (1996) and The wind that shakes the Barley (2006), The Italian Job (1969) were all shot in Dublin
- Ancient East’s Trim Castle in County Meath was used for several battle scenes in Braveheart (1995) and in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
So, these are some of the top things to do and see in Ireland that makes every heart go ga-ga over Ireland. When are you visiting this windswept land of postcard beauty?
Interested to know more about Ireland, don’t forget to read
Have you ever visited Ireland? If yes, I would love to hear from you.
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I was in Ireland to attend TBEX Europe 2017 where I was a featured Speaker. I was hosted by Tourism Ireland. Everything expressed above is based on my personal experiences and conversations I had in the country. Images used are either shot by me or provided by Ireland Tourism with due permissions.