Planning a trip to Ireland is a relatively easy endeavor for most travelers. Narrowing down your top Ireland destinations to visit during your trip could be a little trickier. It truly is a hot spot for tourism, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, tons of direct flights to Dublin depart from a host of major US cities. Plenty of Irish travel tour companies also provide assistance, planning, and even individual tour guides. The downside to this is that tons of people have direct access to Ireland, making it a very popular destination. At some of the more-frequented locales, intense crowding takes away from the overall experience.
That being said, everyone’s travel experience is different. Some prefer the safety-in-numbers guided approach, while others would rather do it themselves. What shouldn’t be overlooked is the vast amount of places to go and things to see.
While Tiffany and I weren’t able to check off every destination we wanted to, here are five Ireland destinations that come highly recommended by us here at Backpacks & Road Maps. Just be careful if you drive anywhere. And be sure to get the rental car insurance.
The Rock of Cashel
Located just under two hours southwest of Dublin, the Rock of Cashel is an iconic, and much revered, destination. Local history claims that St. Patrick (he of parade fame) converted the sitting king of Munster to Christianity at the site sometime in the fifth century. While no structures from that time remain, the structures on the site date to at least the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. And you can tell. The roof of the cathedral is missing, and years of weather has taken its toll on the exterior; however, while we were there, some preservation work was underway. It’s certainly a site worth maintaining. The inherent history is quite apparent. It’s one of those places where you simply wander around in awe at how old everything is—centuries of history condensed into one relatively small area.
We visited here in late August and while the weather was overcast and a bit dreary, the crowds weren’t overwhelming and you had plenty of opportunity to walk around the grounds on your own terms. Keep an eye out for some of the carvings in the rocks used in the buildings. My favorite was one featuring three fish.
You Never Know Who You’ll See
One of the most interesting, and completely unexpected, experiences from our time at the Rock had nothing to do with the site itself. I knew one of my friends from the States would be in Ireland with his family around the same time we were there, but we figured there would be no way for us to meet up and that we’d simply compare notes when we returned home. As Tiffany and I left the Rock and headed to the rental car, we heard someone yelling “John!” at us. Naturally, seeing as how we were in a foreign country, I didn’t think anyone would be yelling for me. I ignored it.
“JOHN!” the voice yelled again. This time, I turned around and saw my friend (and co-worker at the time) Andrew hanging out of a van waving maniacally. We ended up meeting his family and visiting with them for a little while before heading out.
“You know people everywhere we go,” Tiffany said, shaking her head. While that’s not exactly true, this time it certainly was.
The Rock of Cashel is open year-round, aside from the day before and the day after Christmas. While closing hours vary, the site opens every morning at 9:00 a.m. Admission fees also seem to have increased since we were there, but remain relatively inexpensive for visiting such a unique destination.
You can find current hours and admission prices at the Cashel Tourism site here.
The Cliffs of Moher
From a strictly aesthetic point of view, the Cliffs of Moher might be the most awe-inspiring piece of Ireland we were able to visit. The cliffs dive hundreds of feet straight into the Atlantic Ocean, and the trail system around the main visitor center lets you get very close (perhaps uncomfortably so) to the edges. That being said, the Cliffs definitely need to be at, or near, the top of your list of places to see in Ireland, thanks to their sheer beauty and impressive panoramas.
The day we made it there, the weather did not cooperate…again. The wind howled, rain came at us sideways, and we both ended up wet and cold. However, it was worth it to brave the elements and see one of Ireland’s natural wonders.
Tip: Leave the Parking Lot
Just like many other places around the world featuring a large parking lot and trails, people tended to congregate around the visitor center and the first few hundred feet from the parking lots. The further you walked, the easier it was to find a bit of solitude. This is a tour-bus heavy spot, so it pays to get away and do some walking. Most of it is flat and easy to navigate, and the views from every point are different and worth the effort. Well over a million visitors head to the Cliffs every year, so be sure to expect the crowds, pack a rain jacket, and you won’t leave disappointed.
During the summer, keep an eye out for the Atlantic puffins that live in the Cliffs. By the time we visited, the birds had already left, but they can be seen in large numbers starting in late March.
The Cliffs are open year-round, except for the 24th-26th of December. Visiting hours vary at the interpretive center, so be sure to check the Cliffs of Moher info here before planning your trip. The best times of year to head that way are in July or August, but those also happen to be some of the busier months. Plan to spend several hours here, as there are plenty of things to do and see.
Top Ireland Destinations: Kylemore Abbey
While Kylemore Abbey may not have the centuries-old history of the Rock of Cashel or the unreal natural splendor of the Cliffs of Moher, it’s definitely worth a stop on your Irish adventure. With a unique history all its own, along with a very pretty setting, be sure to add this destination to your itinerary.
One of the most striking things about the setting of the Abbey was the series of small waterfalls on the mountain overlooking the grounds. With the cascading water funneling down the mountain toward the Abbey itself, it created a gorgeous scene.
We learned on our visit there that Benedictine nuns from Belgium actually moved into the Abbey in 1920 after World War I bombing destroyed their previous abode in Ypres. Today, it’s still an active monastery.
Located in County Galway on the western shore of Ireland, if you’re touring the country, this is one place well worth a stop. Be sure to walk through the walled garden, which only enhances a stop at the Abbey.
Most of the grounds are open seven days a week throughout the year. Tickets are required to explore the interior of the Abbey, see the garden, or listen to any of the historical talks, but it’s also free to simply park and walk around. Learn more and plan your trip on Kylemore Abbey’s website.
Ireland Destinations: the Ring of Kerry
Without trying to say anything negative about Ireland here, what we discovered was that most of the places we wanted to go were on the west coast. Dublin was a fun, interesting city, and there are some really cool places in eastern and central Ireland, but most of our time was spent closer to the west coast. One of the reasons why was the Ring of Kerry. This 111-mile long loop through southwestern Ireland begins in Killarney, traverses the Iveragh Peninsula, and passes through several quaint Irish towns before returning to Killarney. Here are some of our favorite spots along the way:
Killarney National Park: Muckross House and Ladies View
Not long after heading clockwise south on the Ring of Kerry, you’ll enter Killarney National Park. Our two favorite stops within the park were the historic Muckross House and the iconic Ladies View of Killarney Lakes. The sites are quite different from each other; one is a Tudor-style mansion built in the mid-1800s, while the other is simply a stunning vista looking into the park. Each is worth some of your time.
The grounds of the Muckross House were well-manicured and certainly emblematic of a high-class estate. There was a nice restaurant, along with a craft workshop focused on traditional weaving and pottery. Not to mention a beautiful garden and the house itself.
Check the operating hours and admission prices before you go. As with most Ireland destinations, it’s closed around the Christmas holidays, but open the rest of the year.
Ladies View, on the other hand, provides a wonderful panoramic view of the park and especially the Killarney Lakes. Located just a few miles from Muckross House, Ladies View opens up and into a lush valley with the lakes off in the distance. There’s a parking area, along with a small cafe. Bring your camera!
The Village of Sneem
While there are plenty of awesome little villages along the Ring of Kerry, we enjoyed our stop in the village of Sneem the most. With colorful buildings lining the streets and plenty of personality, Sneem is the quintessential small Irish town. There are plenty of little shops and restaurants, along with the round Staigue Stone Fort just several miles away. It may not look like much, but while you’re exploring the Ring of Kerry, take some time and walk the streets.
All you have to do in order to visit Sneem is get there! Whether by bus or rental, it’s located right on the Ring.
One of the coolest castles that we visited actually wasn’t much of a castle. Located on the western side of the Ring of Kerry, the ruins of Ballycarbery Castle were very interesting up close. While the site was actually small, the ruins were easily accessible and towered over us as we wandered the grounds. Several people were climbing on the ruins, looking in and out of the windows of the tower. My friend A.J. also let me know that he once smashed a camera doing the same thing. Tiff and I decided to let the ruins stand as they were and stayed on the ground.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much repair or maintenance done to the ruins, so there’s no telling just how long they’ll be there and available to visit. While we haven’t been able to verify this, a recent edit on Ballycarbery’s Wikipedia page also says that the private landowner has actually banned visitors from approaching the castle up close. If that’s the case, we’re not sure that this site would come as highly recommended, though you would still be able to take photos from a distance.
Ballycarbery Castle is located near the town of Cahirsiveen. It’s easy to find via maps, but again, check with locals before parking and walking up to the ruins.
Top Ireland Destinations: Guinness Storehouse
Most trips to Ireland begin and end in Dublin. Within the city, there are tons of historical sites, excellent restaurants, and endless amounts of pubs that play traditional Irish songs and pour pints of Guinness. But why not see where all that Guinness comes from?
Founded in 1759(!), the Guinness Storehouse is one of the more popular destinations in Dublin, and with good reason. There’s a very well-done self-guided tour that explains the history of the Storehouse and St. James Gate Brewery, walks you through the brewing process, and even gives you a fresh pint at the conclusion of the tour. The craziest thing you’ll learn is that Arthur Guinness signed a 9000-year lease on the property when it was founded.
While Tiffany’s not the biggest fan of beer to begin with, even she enjoyed the tour and thought that the fresh Guinness tasted better than ever. I’m inclined to agree.
Enjoy Your Trip
Hopefully some of these top Ireland destinations will help you as you plan your adventure to the Emerald Isle. We enjoyed our time there and plan on going back one day soon to see some of the sights that we weren’t able to on our initial trip. Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or comments. We’d be happy to help out.