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Where to Go in Ireland: The 5 Destinations You Must Visit

Ireland isn't just about historic sights, ancient castles, and lots of green (though there's more than enough of that to go around). Today, the tiny country is embracing all things local in the form of trendy cafés, design hotels, craft cocktails, and world-class cuisine. Whether you’re headed to Dublin to party, Kilkenny to sightsee, or Galway for fabulous food, Ireland’s top destinations are better than they’ve ever been.

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Dublin

It's taken time, but the country’s gritty capital has evolved into one of the hippest cities in Europe. One can't visit Dublin without exploring Trinity College’s campus, with its imposing buildings and statues of its lauded graduates, or making time for a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, whose well-executed displays on old Dublin's cobbled streets and factory buildings—not to mention a pint of what they say is the best-tasting Guinness in the world—is worth the entry fee. For an afternoon pick-me-up, check out increasingly hip Capel Street on the north side of the Liffey River, which is home to two of the city’s best cafés: Brother Hubbard is known for its standout scones and excellent coffee while Mish.Mash offers hearty, healthy lunches and cute-as-a-button interiors. For dinner, locals love the all-day atmosphere of the cavernous Market Bar, which serves everything from espresso to pizza, but be warned—communal tables fill up fast. For a taste of Dublin’s emerging cocktail scene, head over to the uber-hip, low-ceilinged Bow Lane bar and order up the “Corpse Reviver” (made with Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin, blue curaçao, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and whiskey). At night, mixed crowds hit up Sin É, over by the quays, for live music (think bluegrass, Afrobeat, or high-energy rock) and an impressive menu of craft beers. After all that action, recharge at one of the city's chicest hotels, The Dean, which features 52 rooms outfitted with original art and blue-painted wood panels and a rooftop restaurant with stellar city views.

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Kilkenny

History buffs will find everything they're looking for in Kilkenny. About halfway between Dublin and Cork, this medieval town might be best known as the home of Kilkenny Castle, a dramatic 12th-century fortress whose interiors have been fully (and beautifully) restored and are open to the public. On a sunny day, the verdant parklands and ornamental gardens are ideal for a stroll. Souvenir seekers and design fanatics will especially love the Kilkenny Design Centre, built inside the castle’s former stables and coach house, which sells some of the best examples of Irish design you’ll find—think hand-knit scarves made of soft Irish wool, locally crafted pottery, and lavender honey. For a taste of local geography, take a guided tour of Dunmore Cave, just north of the city—a limestone cavern whose chambers boast weird and wonderful calcite formations that provided the eerie backdrop for a Viking massacre in 928 A.D. You'll want to book well in advance for a table at Campagne, a Michelin-starred French restaurant back in town helmed by superstar chef Garett Byrne, who dishes up exquisite flavors like guinea fowl terrine and cured venison tartare. Finish up the day at Bridie’s Bar, equal parts general store and pub, for made-in-Ireland craft beers (or a pint of Guinness, if you’re old-school) before turning in for the night at the Zuni Hotel, a cozy spot in the city center.

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Cork

Ireland's third-largest city has charm to spare—not least in its unique waterways, youthful vibe, and the passion locals have for their Gaelic football and hurling teams. Before a day of sightseeing, caffeine up at Filter café on Georges Quay, which does top-notch pour-overs using Irish-roasted beans, then head to the stalls of the 18th-century Old English Market for a hearty sampling of Irish cheeses, locally caught fish, scones, and more. Two places to take in the city's history: City Gaol, a surprisingly beautiful former prison turned museum with quirky 19th-century artifacts (like a copy of the chair used to weigh prisoners to check if they were stealing food), and the Blackrock Castle Observatory, a high-tech science center housed in a 16th-century castle that provides entertainment for travelers of all ages. Send a message to the stars, check out the show at the planetarium, or take a tour of the ancient building. Back in the city center, opt for lunch at Farmgate Cafe, which pairs high-quality Irish ingredients like rock oysters, smoked salmon, and lamb stew with European wines and stellar service. At sundown, stop into the Franciscan Well Brewery, a brew pub set on the site of a 13th-century monastery, for evening pints of house-brewed Rebel Red and a stout aged in a Jameson cask (there’s even a heated beer garden on site)—then lay your head at the River Lee Hotel, an enviably central, modern sleep with spacious rooms, an indoor pool, and a restaurant with river views.

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Doolin/Cliffs of Moher

Western Ireland is arguably the country's most beautiful region, home to some of the world’s best scenery. It's here you'll find the majestic Cliffs of Moher, which draw endless visitors (and grace countless postcards) thanks to its sweeping vistas of where land meets sea. Set aside a day for wandering the cliffs before heading back to the small town of Doolin, a handy base for sightseeing where you can enjoy dinner at Cullinan’s. The restaurant has scooped up a number of awards for its standout Irish ingredients—we're talking seared scallops, marinated rack of lamb, crispy-skinned hake, and full fried breakfasts of eggs, sausages, and much more. Local pub favorite McGann’s has earned a reputation of its own for putting on superb Irish “trad” music—stop in almost any night of the week to catch fiddlers, harpists, and the like filling the room with traditional folk tunes. If you're looking to stay the night, snooze at Hotel Doolin, home to cheerful, well-equipped rooms and outdoor seating perfect for a relaxing pint on a sunny afternoon.

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Galway

Waterside Galway is Ireland's bohemian hub, home to brightly colored cafés and pubs, gaggles of study-abroad students, and a youthful, vibrant energy that’s impossible to resist. After stopping in to the Galway City Museum for a solid education on everything Galway, from boats to sports to prehistoric times (did we mention admission is free?), take an afternoon stroll along Salthill Promenade, known locally as the “Prom,” for sparkling water views. Kai Restaurant is perfect for lunch; its menu highlights local producers in everything from crab salad to the brown bread made with local flour. Galway is building a third-wave coffee culture, too: get your buzz on at Scandinavian-style Coffeewerk + Press, home to a notable design shop upstairs, or at local roasters Badger & Dodo. After a day of tramping around the city center, pop into Sheridans Cheesemongers, a cheese-lover's paradise with a second-floor wine bar where you can sample raw Irish cheddar along with a glass or two of whatever the staff recommends. Two miles from the city center lies the Glenlo Abbey Hotel, an 18th-century manor house with elegant walled gardens, falconry outings, and old-world charm to spare. Be sure to book a dinner in the atmospheric Pullman restaurant, which is housed in an original Pullman train car.

RELATED: 7 Best Castle Hotels in Ireland

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