Ireland: a land of fairy tales, rainbows, political uprisings, overflowing pints of beer, and every shade of green you can think of. It is no surprise that this country is called the “Emerald Isle,” for it is truly the gem of Europe.
As a travel agent, Ireland is one of my favorite trips to plan for clients. Not only because I come from an Irish family, but because I am fascinated by the Irish culture and history. So why not plan a family trip, and see what the fuss is all about!
We had toyed with the idea of booking an escorted trip, but I felt we would see the real Ireland if we took the risk and drove the small and winding roads on our own.
For anyone traveling to Ireland, you should start your trip in Dublin, and stay for at least 2 or 3 nights. This will also give you the opportunity to recover from the jet lag and be introduced to the people, culture, and food, before continuing on with the rest of your journey.
You cannot go to Dublin, and not take a stroll down Temple Bar. It was amazing to see how many pubs, restaurants, shops, and cafes can be squeezed into only a few blocks.
After experiencing our first Irish meal, we could not wait a moment longer to listen to some authentic Irish music. The biggest problem we ran into was, there are so many different places to choose from! We finally arrived at The Oliver St. John Gogarty, where we drank our first of many pints of Guinness and filled our souls with the sounds of fiddles and Uilleann (Irish) bagpipes.
Start your first night in Ireland by exploring Temple Bar, you will not regret it…unless you drink one too many beers.
Trinity College & Library/Book of Kells
Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth, Trinity College is the largest and oldest college in Ireland, and a must see while visiting Dublin. Student lead tours are the best, because you will hear interesting facts and funny anecdotes about some of the professors that you wouldn’t normally read in history books.
Housed in the Trinity College Library is the Book of Kells, a 9th century copy of the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. The ink used were plant based and even had a touch of arsenic if you can believe it. Taking photos is prohibited, but it is amazing to see how preserved this 1,000 year old book is.
The library holds the largest & oldest collection of manuscripts and printed books in Ireland. We were not expecting to see how large and long the library was, and the fact that we were surrounded by 200,000 books that are centuries old. This experience was definitely unforgettable, especially for my parents who are both former librarians.
In the heart of Dublin, Grafton Street is the perfect place to shop, have a nice meal, or to just grab a gelato. Even if you do not want to buy anything, it’s still a fun place to hang out, take a walk and surround yourself with the Irish culture. You will also run into a lot of street performers, such as mimes, flame throwers, or musicians.
To this day, Dublin Castle is still used for state banquets, visiting dignitaries and the inauguration of Ireland’s president. I would highly recommend paying for the guided tour to hear interesting stories, but also to see the apartments, King George IV’s former throne, and Chapel Royal, which is no longer used, but still a tranquil experience. Tours are offered every hour, it is not necessary to pre-book.
Fun fact: it would cost more than $500,000 to fix the organ in the Chapel Royal.
A lot of people think you have to be a dedicated beer drinker to enjoy a visit to the Guinness Storehouse. I didn’t find this to be true. I am not much of a beer drinker myself, and I thought this tour was worth it.
The museum is built on several different levels. This is where you will learn about the history of the Guinness family, the brewing process, work conditions, and even be taught how to properly pour a Guinness. You will learn, that there is in fact a right and a wrong way.
Depending on the time of year, or even the day of the week, expect long lines when you arrive at the Guinness Storehouse. However, this can be easily avoided by simply purchasing a Skip-the-Line ticket. Luckily, we went on a Tuesday in the middle of the afternoon, so we didn’t run into any lines, but we got tickets ahead of time anyway.
Each level of the museum leads up to the very top of the museum called the Gravity Bar. This is where you will get to enjoy your complimentary pint of Guinness and take in the beautiful panoramic view of Dublin.
The name itself is intriguing and may raise a few eyebrows, but “Gaol,” is how “jail,” was once spelled in Ireland. This is where political prisoners were kept and executed, most notably during the 1916 Easter Rising. Seen as a place of oppression and suffering, the jail was closed in 1924, but restored starting in the late 1950’s.
We did not know what to expect from this tour, besides the “heebie jeebies,” but it is definitely worth it. Do not be surprised if you feel chills once you’ve entered inside, but the guides make the tour very interesting and informative, and even non-history buffs will enjoy it.
It doesn’t matter what time of day you decide to go, do not expect to get in without a reservation. This museum has become extremely popular over the years, and time slots fill up very quickly. I didn’t want to take the risk of losing the day and time we wanted to go, so I booked 3 months in advance.
Dublin Must-Try Hotspots
We chose Belfast as our next stop, not only because we wanted to see the beautiful scenery of Northern Ireland and the Titanic Museum, but to hop on a bus for a Game of Thrones Tour. My family and I are huge fans of the HBO television show Game of Thrones. Throughout Northern Ireland are different filming locations that are seen on screen. The locations included:
- Village of Carnlough – where Arya Stark is stabbed by The Waif in the Braavos Canal
- Cushenden Caves – the cave where the Red Priestess Melisandra gives birth to the shadow creature.
- Dunluce Castle – House of Greyjoy
- Dark Hedges – the road that Arya Stark used to escape King’s Landing disguised as a boy
- Carrick-a-Rede-Rope Bridge - where Lord Renly swears to Lady Stark he will avenge Ned Stark's death.
If you are looking for an adventure, take a walk across the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, 98 feet above the water. This is a prime location for tourists who want to take a long hike.
You cannot go to Northern Ireland, without visiting the geological wonders of Giant’s Causeway to see the beautiful coast and the peculiar hexagonal stones. Luckily for us, this was included in our Game of Thrones tour, even though this was not a filming location.
You do not have to be a fan of the show to go on this tour. Every stop that is included is special in their own way.
If you are unsure about adding Northern Ireland to your itinerary, I would highly recommend going if you have the time! You will not regret it. This part of the country has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and it will leave you awestruck.
Galway is considered to be the most charming city in all of Ireland, and I 100% agree with this statement. Although small, Galway makes tourists feel welcome with their cozy pubs, fresh seafood, musicians, heritage, and history. It’s no surprise that this city was voted the World’s Friendliest City.
Because this is a university town, there is always something to do. You will never be bored. Just walking around Eyre Square is entertaining enough with street performers and live music vibrating inside the pubs. This is also the place to visit if you are interested in buying a Claddagh Ring, which originated in Galway.
My one piece of advice when visiting Galway, is if you are planning on going out to dinner, do yourselves a favor and go early, especially if it’s a group of people. If you don’t, you will not get a table and will end up having to order Domino’s Pizza, like we had to. But it was all in good fun.
Cliffs of Moher
You haven’t experienced anything until you see the remarkable Cliffs of Moher, where you will encounter nature in its purest form. These rugged sea cliffs that hug the Atlantic Ocean are something out of a dream. When visiting Ireland, this absolutely has to be on your itinerary.
The best way to experience Cliffs of Moher is to strap on some comfortable shoes and just go for a hike. It is quite a bit of walking, so take it at your own pace. There should be no rush taking in this spectacular scenery.
One of the major highlights is O’Briens Tower, an old stone tower near the highest point of the cliffs. For a small additional fee you can climb up to the top for some phenomenal views. However, if you don’t want to pay the extra fee, the views are equally as beautiful on the trails and platforms.
A visit to the Cliffs of Moher may last from an hour to even a whole day, but if you want more time, there are surrounding villages such as Doolin or Liscannor that offer accommodations. Either one of these villages are also good places to stop for lunch or dinner after all of that hiking. It is also said that you will hear the best music in all of Ireland at any of the pubs in Doolin.
During the summer months, it is very crowded, so timing is important if you don’t want to deal with busloads of tourists. The busiest time of day is anywhere between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Your best bet is to arrive either before or after those times. We arrived a little before 10:00 AM, and it started to get really crowded by the time we were done a couple hours later.
As the third largest city in Ireland and home of Munster Rugby, there is no possible way you can categorize the city of Limerick. It has both the old and the new, but that is what makes this city unique.
King John’s CastleBuilt by King John of England in 1210, this castle definitely needs to be on your “Castles to See” list. Even though King John never visited here, this is a good place to be immersed in archaeological history and to get a great view of the River Shannon, if you are willing to climb all the way to the top, which I would recommend. The castle uses 21st century modern technology to better explain the history of Limerick and the castle. This is also a great place to take kids, because of the period actors that make the self-guided tour of the castle fun and interesting.
Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet
The main reason we wanted to come to Limerick is to go back in time and experience a traditional medieval dinner. Not only is there a 4 course dinner included, but you will be able to hear the dulcet tones of the Ladies of the Castle accompanied by an Irish Harp and Fiddle. Before every course, the Butler seeks the Lord’s approval for all dishes that are brought before him.
Of all the activities we did on our trip, this was definitely in my top favorites. This was truly an amazing night that filled us up with laughter and cheer!
Limerick Must-Try Hotspots
Before leaving for this trip, I had several people tell me that Killarney was their favorite city to visit, and I can understand why now.
The unique thing about Killarney is you are able to experience both the picturesque nature of the surrounding lakes and hills, and the hopping city life. There is something for everyone in this town. One minute you may be hiking through the Killarney National Park or taking a Horse & Carriage tour of the city and then the next minute spending the rest of the evening having a pint on Main Street.
If you are not sure what to put on the itinerary for Killarney, not to worry as there is plenty to do. This city is also a good place to stay if you are planning to visit Ring of Kerry.
Killarney National Park
This park has something for everyone. Biking, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing for adventure junkies. Muckross House, Muckross Abbey, and Ross Castle for history fanatics, and pony/boat rides for families with kids. If you are looking for a relaxing day to have a picnic or pick up your favorite novel, look no further than Killarney National Park.
If you are a big fan of the show Downtown Abbey (like me), definitely take a tour of Muckross House. This is where you will hear stories about each of the owners and their families, learn how the house was run by staff, and the purpose of each room. If you watch the show, you will notice certain similarities as you walk through the house. Interestingly, there are people that have an apartment in the house. Where can I sign up?
A fun activity that some people may not know about, is for 20 euros per person you can take a boat across the lake to Dinis Cottage. This is where you can enjoy a nice hot cup of tea and a pastry, while taking in the view of the mountains and the shining waters of Muckross Lake.
Spending the day at Killarney National Park was a last minute decision, but I am so glad we did.
Even though we only spent 1 night in Cork and didn’t get a chance to see much, I would recommend staying at least a day here. This city reminded me of a smaller version of San Francisco or New York City, due to their busy streets and dedication to the arts, food and drink. If you are a “foodie” like my family, definitely take a stroll down to the English Market, to sample a variety of cheeses, meats, and organic fruits and vegetables. This is a good place to stop and pick up snacks and beverages for long car rides like ours.
Of the many castles we saw on this trip, Blarney Castle was my favorite! The biggest attraction when visiting this site is to kiss the Blarney Stone. The stone is located at the very top of Blarney Castle, and according to legend, anyone who kisses the stone gains the gift of eloquence, or as the locals call it, the “gift of gab.”
Kissing the stone is only one of many reasons to visit Blarney Castle. The castle also provides an education on Irish history and beautiful gardens to admire. Behind the castle is The Poison Garden, a small plot of the most poisonous plants from around the world, including Deadly Nightshade, Hemlock, and Black Cohosh. It was interesting to find out that a lot of these poisonous plants were actually used for medical purposes. This is the one time that the expression, “it will either kill you or cure you,” is actually appropriate.
Continue walking through the gardens and you will come across Blarney House, Druids Cave, Witches Stone, and a very unusual tree called Thuja Plicata (a.k.a Western Red Cedar).
If you feel you have not done enough shopping, there is wonderful shopping in Blarney Village. Definitely visit the Blarney Woolen Mills where you will find Irish gifts, wool & Aran sweaters, Irish crystal, and Celtic jewelry. If there are things you want to purchase that are too large to fit in your suitcase, not to worry, this store will ship those items for you for free.
Last stop on our list was the city of Kilkenny. Of all the cities we traveled to, this city was by far my absolute favorite. In my opinion, Kilkenny is like a smaller version of Dublin, but much more unique. Everything here seemed to have two sides. Part of the city is filled with modern buildings, but then other parts are packed with medieval streets. What I liked the most are the hidden alleyways where mom & pop shops and cafes are located.
Dubbed one of the most colorful cities in Ireland, take a walk down High Street (a.k.a. Medieval Mile), and you will take in the array of brightly colored restaurants, pubs, and shops. Walk a little further up the hill and you will arrive at St. Canice’s Cathedral and its Round Tower (that resembles a smokestack), where you can climb up and get a spectacular view of the city.
Our favorite activity while in Kilkenny was visiting their oldest and most historical pub Kyteler’s Inn, which has a very interesting backstory. Dating back to 1324, the original owner of this Inn was Dame Alice de Kyteler who gained much notoriety by acquiring four husbands (yikes) and a considerably large fortune. Her enemies eventually conspired to accuse her of witchcraft and have her burned at the stake. Fortunately, friends were able to organize safe passage for Alice to England, but was never seen or heard from again. It is generally now accepted that the charges against Alice were made up, but what is most certain is that Kyteler’s Inn is still to this very day “a place of merrymaking and good cheer.” Of all of the pubs we went to listen to Irish music, this was the best place!
Sitting above the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle is considered to be the centerpiece of the city, and truly a beautiful place to visit during your time in Kilkenny. By taking a self-guided tour, tourists are able to see the tapestry room, Chinese withdrawing room, the grand staircase, and the gardens of course. This castle is another place that will remind you of the show Downtown Abbey.The best part of this tour is the Family Portrait Gallery, with over 300 paintings dating back to the 17th century. This section of the castle was built primarily to house the Butler family’s collection that included a mixture of ancestral and royal paintings, and Italian landscapes.
The castle gardens cover a total of 50 acres, and all outside areas are free of charge. Try to make time for a nice jog or a stroll.
Driving in Ireland
The thought of driving in a country other than your own sounds scary, especially having to drive on the opposite side of the road. Escorted group trips and renting a car are both good options, but to help you make a decision on which option to take, it’s really going to depend on what you want to see. Your decision may also be affected by what your comfort level is.
If you feel that Irish roads make you nervous, then by all means book with one of the many reputable tour companies that will do all the driving for you. However, if there are things you want to see that aren’t normally on escorted itineraries, and you’re feeling confident, then renting a car is the way to go!
If Dublin is your first destination, I would highly recommend not picking up your rental car just yet. Dublin traffic is crazy busy, and the parking is next to impossible, especially if you are not willing to pay the extremely high rates for parking garages. Trust me, it is easy to get around Dublin using taxis, the bus system, or just walking.
When you arrive at Dublin Airport definitely take either the Air Link or Air Coach. It is simple, and it will save you a lot of money, as opposed to taking a taxi. A one way ticket costs €8, and €12 for a return. Each of these buses goes between the airport and city center. Depending on where your hotel is located in the city, it is pretty easy to figure out which stop to get off. If you are not sure, the employees at the desk are very friendly and willing to help.
Some people think that you need an “international” license in order to drive a vehicle in Ireland, but this is not the case. As long as you take your U.S. driver’s license with you, you will be fine.
When picking up your rental car, I would highly recommend purchasing insurance that offers the most coverage, it will give you some comfort if you do. Due to the small roads, it is pretty common in Ireland to accidentally cause damage to your side view mirrors. Fortunately these kinds of damages are covered in your insurance policy.
As far as directions, we discovered that using Google Maps on our phones was the best way to get from place to place. Especially when we were approaching one of the many roundabouts, driving on narrow roads in the middle of nowhere and if we missed a turn or two. You have the option of renting a GPS system when picking up your car, but I don’t feel it would be worth the extra cost. Using your cellular device is definitely better, but check with your provider first to see what international packages are offered. It is also a good idea to have someone else do the navigating for you so that you can focus on your driving.
Between each of our destinations, it was nice to be able to make spontaneous stops at certain sites that were not on our itinerary. For example, if we were looking for a place to stop for lunch along the way, there are charming little towns such as Donegal or Ennis that are fun to walk around. Driving also gave us the opportunity to see the Ennis Friary, Glendalough, Wicklow Mountains, Dunguarie Castle, and Craggaunowen. We were not planning on going to any of these sites, but I am so glad we did. Spontaneous trips are my favorite, because you don’t know what to expect.
Katie is a leisure and group travel consultant, traveled to Ireland, Italy, and the Dominican Republic, specializing in group and individual travel in the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, United States, etc. Katie’s list of “Places To See” includes Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, India, France, England, Scotland, Iceland, Nova Scotia, and many many more.
If you’d like to work with Katie, please contact her at Katie@ClassicTravelUSA.com