For outdoors lovers and adventure seekers, honeymooners, road trippers, sporty types and more, Ireland is a most obliging and enchanting place. Writer Michael Patrick Shiels rounds up his top destinations to discover the Emerald Isle's unique history, cuisine, culture and craic.
Best for Outdoors Lovers
A ferry ride from Doolin, Galway or Rossaveal, the picturesque and peaceful Aran Islands, known as the “islands of saints and scholars,” are a haven for cyclists, with miles of open, seaside roads lined by stonewalls, plus scores of charming guesthouses to rest up at the end of the day. Back on the mainland, the Burren National Park is laced with hiking trails through dramatic, limestone uplands and hay meadows revealing flowing plants and Neolithic structures. Over on the eastern side of the Emerald Isle near Dublin, Wicklow Mountains National Park covers part of a range that includes forestry plantations, bogs and wooded valleys for climbing, hiking and picnicking along streams. Up the Irish Sea coast rise the Mourne Mountains — Northern Ireland’s highest peaks said to have inspired C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia — and certainly Percy French, whose ode to the sweeping mountains is one of Ireland’s most beloved songs.
Best for Foodies
Until recently, culinary Ireland conjured images of the Full Irish — a hearty fried breakfast of black and white pudding, eggs, bacon, toast and jam, tomatoes, sausage, beans and more. But the haute hunger for farm-to-table cuisine is now satiated throughout the island and especially at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Located in Shanagarry, County Cork, this top culinary center offers single-day classes at its 100-acre organic farm in the midst of orchards and greenhouses. Or get a foodie fix at Belfast’s St. George’s Market, which dates back to Victorian times. It’s a mix of entertainment, keepsakes and specialty treats from chocolate to chutney. Or head to Galway during the the last weekend in September as the city kicks up its heels for the International Oyster and Seafood Festival, a Mardis Gras–style event with shucking competitions, champagne galore and, of course, music. Rail Tours Ireland offers a 3-day tour of Cork, Blarney, Galway and more.
Best for Romantics
Ireland's rich history, wild landscapes and wealth of castle hotels makes it a dream destination for honeymooners and romance seekers. In Dublin, the Merrion Hotel evokes Georgian elegance with marble hallways, tapestries and paintings, antique furniture, hand-woven carpets and terraced gardens. After a spa visit and Michelin-starred dinner, you’ll be ready to get on bended knee. At period-drama-pretty Adare Manor in County Limerick, Dunraven Staterooms are done up with four-poster beds, hand-carved fireplaces and, in some, rolltop baths overlooking the gardens. And on the banks of Lough Corrib in County Mayo, Ashford Castle Hotel appears as if from the pages of a fairytale, with historic forested grounds which were once part of the Guinness family estate. Brendan Vacations offers savings on special, self-guided trips for two, including the nine-day Castles & Manors Boutique Journey.
Best for Road Trippers
The Wild Atlantic Way is the ultimate scenic road trip — 1,500 miles of winding road hugging the sea and stretching down from Donegal County in the north to County Cork in the south. But why hurry? Getting there is all the fun, with hairpin turns, tunnels and craggy cliff drop-offs to the smashing ocean below. Of course drivers share the ribbons of roadway with sheep, cattle, goats and gawkers, but there are spots so remote you’ll wonder if they’ve ever been discovered. Linger to listen to the land or snap photographs at 159 marked "discover points", such as the Fanad Head Lighthouse or the Cliffs of Moher, then reward yourself in the village around the bend with a pint on the beach at the Cornerstone Bar in Lahinch; fresh seafood at Smuggler’s Inn in Waterville; traditional music at Cruise’s Pub in Ennis. Or discover the region on a 14-day tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland with Friendly Planet Travel.
Best for Music Lovers
Kilkenny, a medieval and sometimes touristy town within reach of Waterford and Dublin, is a musical mall of sing-a-longs and traditional Irish sessions. Stop by Left Bank, a rousing bar set in an ornate former Bank of Ireland building, and dance your head off to a nine-piece rockabilly band, or check out Kyteler’s Medieval Inn and its rabbit warren of multi-level rooms and infamous history. In County Clare, the town of Ennis is renowned for Irish folk music. Make the Queen’s Hotel and Nightclub your headquarters from which to explore since it includes, in addition to Ennis Night Club, Cruise’s Pub’s “trad music.” Gate 1 Travel will put you in multiple music scenes in Dublin, Killarney, and Galway, too.
Best for Culture Vultures
On foot, by boat or on Segway, you can visit the birthplace of the Titanic in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where the docks, pump house, and artifacts are on display in and around the Titanic Belfast Visitor Experience. The Belfast Sea Safari puts you aboard a speedboat from Odyssey Marina into the Victoria Channel where the “unsinkable ship” left Belfast for the last time. A more sedate, hourlong riverboat tour of the shipyards and Belfast Harbor is also available. Over on the western side of Northern Ireland loom the 17th century walls of Derry-Londonderry along the banks of the River Foyle. The mighty walls now serve as a scenic walkway and promenade from atop which you can see the inner city, plus Columb’s Cathedral, Bishop’s Street Gate and the political murals of the Bogside portion of town. Martin McCrossan’s walking tours explain, with candor, the sensitivities of Marching Season, Bloody Sunday and the 1,500 years of history before you.
Best for Sporty Types
In 2014 Limerick became Ireland’s first City of Culture and the city’s embrace of the historic designation includes sport. Take your pick from hurling and horse and racing, rugby sevens, boat racing, golf, fishing, cycling and more, and know that in Ireland the pre- and post-game social scenes are all part of the experience. American football will take center stage in Dublin on August 30 when Penn State and the University of Central Florida open their seasons in historic Croke Park — but not before a proper pep rally at Dublin Castle and tailgate party in the city’s festive Temple Bar area. Visit ireland.com for the latest travel packages to Croke Park Classic. For golfers, the European PGA Tour will compete in the Irish Open from June 19 - 22 at Fota Island Resort in Cork.
Best for History Buffs
The drawbridge wasn’t always left open for visitors to Blarney Castle, near Cork, but today visitors can wander the supremely scenic grounds without risk of attack. Once within the castle walls, don't miss the bucket-list experience of kissing the Blarney Stone — a ritual that's said to give the kisser the "gift of the gab." In County Kerry, Skellig Michael — a “discover point” along the Wild Atlantic Way — is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth the short ferry ride from the mainland to see its preserved monastery dating from the Early Christian period. Or journey to the Rock of Cashel, an idyllic town known as the "land of kings." Once the seat of the Kings of Munster, visitors can today explore the medieval buildings atop Tipperary's Golden Vale, the preserved Guard Tower and magical chapel of King Cormac. Virgin Vacations offers a six-night Castle Fly and Drive vacation stretching from Dublin down to Waterford and out to Clifden in Connemara.