My Top 5 Destinations in Ireland (that aren't Dublin)
Anyone who knows me knows I love Ireland. It's one of my favourite places on earth. I love the pub culture, the hospitality of the people, and the landscapes, especially the West Coast. Many people focus a lot on Dublin for their visit, but I argue that the best Ireland has to offer isn't in it's capitol.
Galway is one of Ireland’s largest cities and is a major tourist hot spot. The city itself is quaint with Shop Street as the hub of activity. Here, you’ll find a host of accommodations, pubs and stores filled with kitschy and quality souvenirs to take home. Galway Cathedral is also worth a visit - a gorgeous Catholic church built in 1958 in a Renaissance style on the site of the old city prison. Technically called Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas (or Ard-Eaglais Mhaighdean na Deastógála agus Naomh Nioclás in Irish), one of the things I loved the most were the stained glass windows - they fill the space with an awesome ambient rainbow light. Galway also is the home of several festivals and the street markets that pop up are top quality local goods.
However, as lovely as the city itself is, the real shining glory is the landscape surrounding the city. To the south, you’ll find the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most visited attraction. Mind your step as a good solid gust of wind could easily knock you right on your arse...and then over the cliffs. The south also is home to The Burren (in English it translates from Irish to Great Rock) - a landscape of rocks and boulders. Here you’ll find the Poulnabrone Dolmen - a neolithic portal tomb, all but 2 of Ireland’s butterfly and moth species and over 70% of the species of flowers that make Ireland home. It’s an incredibly unique landscape. Many day trips to the region also visit Doolin - considered the traditional music capital of Ireland.
To the north, you’ll find the treasure that is Connemara. Connemara marble, famed for it’s green colour, hails from the region. One of the main stops on a tour this way is Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Gardens. From the Kylemore website, “Kylemore Castle was built in the late 1800s by Mitchell Henry MP, a wealthy businessman and liberal politician. Inspired by his love for his wife Margaret, and his hopes for his beloved Ireland, Henry created an estate boasting ‘all the innovations of the modern age’. An enlightened landlord and vocal advocate of the Irish people, Henry poured his life’s energy into creating an estate that would showcase what could be achieved in the remote wilds of Connemara. Today Kylemore Abbey is owned and run by the Benedictine community who have been in residence here since 1920.”
The tour I did also visited the village where Quiet Man was filmed, but some visit the setting for The Field. Most tours also go through Killary Fjord and An Spidéal - an Irish speaking town known for it’s thatched roofs and beautiful beaches. The tour I went on also stopped at the ruins of Ross Errily Friary - and as lovely as the rest of the tour was, this was by far my favourite stop (I’m a sucker for ruins) and I wish I could have stayed longer to take more photos.
Belfast is a great visit because, like Galway, not only is the city interesting, but the day trips available are worth the trek north. Belfast is in Northern Ireland, which technically a part of the UK. A visit means you’ll need some pounds as well as euros for your trip.
Belfast is where the Titanic was built and where C.S. Lewis was born. You’ll find a bustling market with fresh food vendors, Botanical Gardens, a castle...there’s a lot to see. One of the most interesting spots in Belfast (and a perfect time to arrange a private guide) is to head into the Shankill and Falls areas. During The Troubles, this area played host to a number of paramilitary displays including bombings and murders. The first was a petrol bombing of a pub in 1966 and while it’s a largely safe area to be in, there are still tensions. Shankill is loyalist, and you’ll see many a Union Jack in the area. Falls is strictly Irish and is less keen to keep Northern Ireland in the hands of the UK. The area is full of murals, commemorating people, ideologies, and events.
Belfast is also a great base if you don’t have a car or a guided trip arranged for a day tour with a local company that will take you up to see sights like the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick a Rede Rope bridge, Jameson Distillery and the Dark Hedges (even lovely if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan). The landscape is beautiful and the legends are very interesting.
Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is a beautiful loop through one of the peninsulas off of Ireland’s West cost. Many tours will do the drive in one day, but you could easily take a relaxed pace, spend a night in a quaint Irish BnB with ocean views and work your way around the rest of the ring on day two.
The Ring of Kerry is accessible through Killarney and one could easily spend a few days in the area alone to really experience everything the city and countryside have to offer.
At the top of the Ring you’ll find Killarney National Park. The Park is home to Ross Castle, Muckross House, the Torc Waterfall and The Gap of Dunloe. My last visit I took a little boat ride to a small island that was home to Innisfallen Abbey - a monastery founded in 640 and is now a lovely ruin to explore.
Around the Ring, one of my favourite little hidden gems was to stumble upon Ballycarbery Castle. The internet tells me that the owner of the land cut off public access in 2017, but it can still be admired from a car park about 200m from the castle. There are a number of beaches you can visit, including Rossbeigh Strand. During the Glenbeigh Festival at the end of August you can watch horses race across the beach. Outside of Sneem you’ll find Staigue Fort thought to be built between 300 and 400 AD. Built without mortar, it’s a must see for those in your group who are into engineering. For the fit and adventurous among you, consider a visit to Skellig Michael - at the top of the island you’ll find a well preserved 6th Century Monastary. The island is home to the worlds second largest Gannet colony, but you’ll also find puffins, Arctic Terns, Black Guillemot, Herring Gulls, Razorbills, Fulmars, Manx Shearwater, Cormorant and Guillemot. The climb up is about 600 steps and the island has no toilets or food services. Guests should plan accordingly, but will be rewarded if they do.
Just a hop, skip and a jump North of the Ring of Kerry is the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle as a peninsula is a little less commercialized than The Ring of Kerry, though the town of Dingle can at times feel 100% like a tourist trap, complete with some inflated pricing. BUT….the landscape is to. Die. For.
Those into hiking or biking will love the area. Drivers will love the Slea head Drive, winding through the peninsula, taking in some of the countries best views. You’ll find the area full of beehive huts - unique dwellings that date back to the 12th Century. They were built without mortar - instead stones are stacked upon each other to build the structure up. Fans of The Last Jedi will recognize the huts as filming took place in the area.
One can also take Conor Pass out of Dingle and be awarded with exceptional views. Due to the nature of the road, you’ll not find buses and tour groups up this way - the road has size and weight restrictions making it a hidden gem for a self drive or cycling enthusiast.
Out of the town of Dingle itself, consider taking a boat trip around the spectacular Dingle Bay. Or consider a visit to Dingle Distillery and learn more about their whiskey, gin and vodka. The area is also home to some excellent artisan crafters if that's your thing (it's definitely mine!)
Those of you who know me or follow and read my writings know that I lived and worked in Cork many moons ago. Cork itself has some gems including St. Finbarre Cathedral and the English Market, as well as the home brew Murphy’s. It’s also one of the few places in the world at Shandon where you can climb the bell tower and ring the bells yourself. My first two weeks I stayed at a hostel next to the church - and heard many a tourist’s rendition of Kum Ba Yah on the bells. Cork is also home to one of my favourite pubs for Traditional Music - Sin É.
And like Galway and Belfast, Cork makes a great home base for a few tours in the area. The first is the famous Blarney Castle, easily accessible by car or public transportation. I love Blarney, but for reason’s a lot of folks don’t take the time to explore - there’s a poison garden on site which is very interesting. The garden houses a number of dangerous plants including Wolfsbane, Ricin and Opium. There’s a sign at the entrance warning you not to taste, touch or smell the plants. There are numerous walking trails that alone could fill the better part of your day - some of which will lead you to a lake at the back of the property. My favourite spot though is the Rock Close. I remember my first trip here clearly - how this was how I had imagined Ireland to feel. You’ll find a fairy glade, wishing steps, a witch, a sacrificial altar, a druid circle, waterfall...make sure you save time to see it. Plus, Blarney Woolen Mills is just across from the main gate, so you can also get some quality souvenirs while you visit.
South of the city, you’ll find two spots to visit - Cobh and Kinsale. Cobh is easily (and cheaply) accessed by train from Cork. The city is pronounced “Cove” and was the last port of call before the Titanic headed out into open ocean. The Lusitania also sank not too far off shore. The cathedral dominates the skyline and is often the photo you’ll find on the back of many travel guides for the country, with brightly painted houses rising on the hill beside it. Kinsale is a wee bit further away and accessible by bus from Cork. It’s an absolutely quaint little Irish village and worth a visit. The food is tasty, the shops are unique and produce local fare. You can also visit Charles’ Fort - one of the Europe's best preserved star shaped artillery forts. It dates back to the 1670s. The fort can be accessed on foot - it’s about a 40 minute walk (all uphill) from where the bus drops you off. Or hail a taxi to save some time and some energy.
Ireland is full of beauty and hidden gems that will delight visitors. From it's craggy rock faces to it's endearing sheep, it's a land with spirit, hospitality and a little bit of fairy magic.