In the previous post we discussed the notion of planning a personal vacation that incorporates things you and your traveling companions most enjoy. This is a different concept from, say, a guided tour that presents participants with a list of destinations, fait accompli.
If you want a city vacation, you can have a city vacation. If you want an outdoorsy vacation, you can have that. More than likely, you’ll end up doing a sampling of several things. So let’s expand on that list we’ve discussed in the previous post.
In every case, in every category, there are literally hundreds of other choices you could make; I can’t list everything (and we’ll discuss travel guides a little later). Nor can I describe what makes each listed venue special; this is already a very long post. But in each case, there’s a link that should help you get started. And don’t stop there—research a little more yourself! With a little bit of work, you can put together a list of things that interest you, and you’ll be on your way to planning your vacation.
And I’ve found planning is half the fun!
1 See prehistoric sites
It’s the antiquities that really trip my trigger. 🙂 The prehistoric period of Ireland consists of the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age societies. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers settled on the island after 8000 BC, but it’s the Neolithic (4000–2500 BC), Bronze (2500–500 BC), and Iron ages (500 BC–400 AD) that are very well-represented, with stone circles, dolmens, burial mounds, passage tombs, cairns, promontory forts, hill forts, and ringforts. There are dozens of examples of these all over Ireland, some in better condition than others; the ones I’ve listed here are just a scratch on the surface.
Beltany stone circle / Co. Donegal
Brownshill dolmen / Co. Carlow
Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) / Co. Meath
Cahercommaun ringfort / Co. Clare
Caherconnell stone fort / Co. Clare
Drombeg stone circle / Co. Cork
Dun Aengus / Co. Galway
Dunbeg promontory fort / Co. Kerry
Hill of Tara / Co. Meath
Poulnabroune dolmen / Co. Clare
Toormore altar tomb / Co. Cork
Turoe stone / Co. Galway
2 See old ruins
The recorded history of many European countries starts with the invasion of the Romans, but, hey-ho, the Romans didn’t make it to Ireland, so we have Gaelic Ireland emerging in the first millennium … but the best historical record begins with the emergence of Christianity from roughly the fifth century, at the close of the Iron Age. These include castles, monasteries, churches, high crosses, and so on. Again, I’ve been to these but there are many more spectacular sites, so check around in the area you’ll be visiting.
Aughnanure castle / Co. Galway
Boyle Abbey / Co. Roscommon
Burrishoole Friary / Co. Mayo
Clonfert Cathedral / Co. Galway
Clonmacnoise monastery / Co. Offaly
Cong Abbey / Co. Mayo
Glendalough monastic settlment / Co. Wicklow
Jerpoint Abbey / Co. Kilkenny
Kilfenora Cathedral / Co. Clare
Mellifont Abbey / Co. Louth
Monasterboice Christian settlement / Co. Louth
Rock of Cashel / Co. Tipperary
3 Visit or stay in a small town or village
When you get out of the hustle and bustle of Dublin, you find a different Ireland. For our purposes let’s say any town—and I don’t pretend to know how they differentiate between village, town, or city over there—with a population of less than two thousand. I know, I know—by U.S. standards that sounds very small, doesn’t it! Ireland has a thriving small town life, though, and you’ll find lovely B&Bs, pubs, groceries, and everything you need—in particular, peace and quiet—in a village. Some of my very favorites include:
Dingle town (Co. Kerry) / 1,929
Dooagh (Co. Mayo) / guessing 500
Ennistymon (Co. Clare) / 881
Glandore (Co. Cork) / guessing 50
Kenmare (Co. Kerry) / 2,175
Kinsale (Co. Cork) / 2,695
Lahinch (Co. Clare) / 642
These are places I’ve visited or stayed in, but there are hundreds of tiny towns that you could be delighted by. County Clare, I’ve found, is very warm and welcoming. And if you want something just a little bigger, try Kilkenny (Co. Kilkenny) / 24,423. I love it.
4 Visit a city
It’s just fabulous to spend some time in a city, soaking up the cultural life (museums, galleries, theaters, nightlife, parks and gardens, pubs and restaurants, shopping, and more, more, more). It’s all right there at your fingertips—and sometimes within walking distance. I’ve spent a lot of time drilling down in Dublin (and still have much to go); it’s the capital city, and not just politically. But don’t overlook Cork, Galway, or Limerick, either. Belfast is an option, too, just a hundred miles north of Dublin. For a great overview, use the hop on–hop off bus tour. And be sure to check a travel guide.
5 Visit historic house museums
This is just what it sounds like: a house—often furnished as it was when new, sometimes the home of someone historically significant—transformed into a museum. In Ireland, these houses often belonged to Anglo-Irish or British owners … but not always (see Castletown and Derrynane, for example). This is not an exhaustive list; you can find other suggestions here or check a travel guide.
Bantry House (1700) / Co. Cork
Castletown House (1722) / Co. Kildare
Derrynane House (1702, home of Daniel O’Connell) / Co. Kerry
House 29 (1794) / Co. Dublin
Kilkenny Castle (1195) / Co. Kilkenny
Kylemore Castle/Abbey (1867) / Co. Galway
Malahide Castle (1185) / Co. Dublin
Muckross House (1843) / Co. Kerry
Powerscourt Estate (13th century) / Co. Wicklow
Russborough House (1741) / Co. Wicklow
6 See beautiful countryside
You don’t even need to leave Dublin to see lovely scenery—just drive north on the Clontarf Road (which becomes the Howth Road) and you’ll be treated to spectacular views of Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea. Of course, I’m really talking about getting a little further afield than that, but once you start going from A to B (to see C), you’ll be treated to beaches, mountains, rolling hills, pastureland, woods and forests … anything you can imagine. All of the drives listed here happened as a result of my wanting to see a particular sight (that is, going from A to B to see C) but … what serendipity!
Slea Head Drive (Dingle Peninsula) / Co. Kerry
Ring of Kerry (Iveragh Peninsula) / Co. Kerry
Galway to Westport (Connemara National Park) / Co. Galway
Sky Road (in Clifden) / Co. Galway
Inishowen Peninsula / Co. Donegal
Around the Burren to the Cliffs of Moher / Co. Clare
Dublin to Portlaoise (through Wicklow Mountains) / Co. Wicklow
Bantry to Killarney (through Killarney National Park) / Co. Kerry
Around Lough Derg / Co. Clare, Galway, Tipperary
Wanna know my favorite drive? The R597 between Rosscarbery and Glandore. You won’t find it on anyone’s top ten scenic drives in Ireland, but I’ve done this drive twice now (once originating in Kinsale, once originating in Cork City; both times headed to Kenmare) and it’s really special. Next time I drive it, I’m spending a few days there!
7 Fill your eyes with unique and spectacular natural vistas
There are two very unusual geological sites in Ireland: the Burren (Co. Clare), a large karst landscape region, and the Giant’s Causeway (in Northern Ireland), an area of interlocking basalt columns. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there are other special natural wonders, so I’ve added them to the list too.
If you want to visit the Blaskets you’ll have to get on a boat, but you should also consider boat rides to view the Cliffs of Moher and Slieve League (for something different). For those you’ll be on the ocean, of course; for a less turbulent ride, you might look into a cruise along the Shannon, including dolphin-spotting cruises.
8 Walk on the beach
On a smallish island, beaches are easy to come by. One of my favorites—in west Co. Cork—was discovered by taking a wrong turn (and to be frank, I’m not sure I could find it again; I have no idea what it’s called). I’ve walked the strand at Inch (Dingle Peninsula), Laytown (Co. Meath), the Velvet Strand in Portmarnock (Co. Dublin), Lahinch (Co. Clare), Salthill (Co. Galway), and Achill Island (Co. Mayo). But those aren’t necessarily the most famous beaches. I’ve heard there are beautiful beaches in Co. Donegal; near Dublin City, try Dollymount and Sandymount. For surfing—or watching others surf—go west, young man.
9 Visit museums, art galleries, and arts and crafts venues
You’ll find museums and galleries large and small wherever you go, seriously. And if you see anything called a “folk park,” take a chance. Ten years ago we stopped in a very small town to see a presentation Gerry’d been involved with; it was at their locally curated museum, which they’d called a folk park. It was charming, in an off-beat way (and that includes the cow’s head that had been stuffed and mounted).
Blasket Centre / Co. Kerry
Chester Beatty Library / Co. Dublin
Dublin Writers Museum / Co. Dublin
Galway City Museum / Co. Galway
Guinness Storehouse / Co. Dublin
James Joyce Centre / Co. Dublin
National Gallery of Ireland / Co. Dublin
National Museum of Ireland: Archeology / Co. Dublin
National Museum of Ireland: Decorative Arts / Co. Dublin
National Museum of Ireland: Natural History / Co. Dublin
National Museum of Ireland: Country Life / Co. Mayo
Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre / Co. Waterford
Waterford Museum of Treasures / Co. Waterford
Don’t miss craft shops that offer to let you observe, say, how the glass is blown or the wool is woven, either. I’ll cover these more specifically in an upcoming post.
10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
We’ll cover eating and drinking in a subsequent post but you can find a traditional Irish pub anywhere.
11 Hear traditional Irish music
We’ll cover this later too. Bottom line: it will be pretty easy if you’re willing to stay up late.
12 See sites of historic interest
Obviously everything I’ve pointed out thus far is of historic interest, right? Sure, but here are some things that we haven’t covered yet.
General Post Office / Co. Dublin
Custom House / Co. Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin / Co. Dublin
Book of Kells / Co. Dublin
Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum / Co. Dublin
Kilmainham Gaol / Co. Dublin
Casino at Marino / Co. Dublin
St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals / Co. Dublin
You might consider touring for lighthouses or market houses; you might also consider specifically visiting the Gaeltacht, which is the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland. In research for this post, I also came across the Irish Astronomy Trail, which I think would be absolutely fascinating. I’ve put it on my list for a future visit.
13 Visit public or private parks and gardens
All of Ireland is a garden, as far as I’m concerned, and there’s a lot to choose from! I’m most familiar with Dublin, so you’ll see several Dublin locations here. Whether you want to stroll or hike, sit and read a book, or take it all in, you’ll find something here … or even just along the way.
Dillon Garden / Co. Dublin
Ilnacullin / Co. Cork
Iveagh Gardens / Co. Dublin
Kylemore Abbey / Co. Galway
Merrion Square Park / Co. Dublin
National Botanic Gardens / Co. Dublin
Phoenix Park / Co. Dublin
Powerscourt Gardens / Co. Wicklow
St. Anne’s Park / Co. Dublin
St. Patrick’s Park / Co. Dublin
St. Stephen’s Green / Co. Dublin
There are six national parks in the Republic; if you travel around you’re more than likely to drive through one. And they make great intentional destinations, of course. Here’s a list of gardens in the Republic. You may be interested in doing some hiking, in which case this might be a good place to research.
14 Visit sacred sites
This is a broad category—stone circles were probably sites of sacred ceremonies, for example. But I’m talking about Christianity here: pilgrimages, retreats, holy wells, shrines, beehive huts, monastic settlements, and other holy sites. I sometimes find the simple little roadside shines the most moving of all.
Croagh Patrick / Co. Mayo
Doon well / Co. Donegal
Gallarus Oratory / Co. Kerry
Glencolmcille pilgrimage / Co. Donegal
Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Rock of Cashel (referenced in #2 above)
Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) / Co. Clare
Knock Shrine / Co. Mayo
Riasc monastic settlement / Co. Kerry
Sanctuary of St. Patrick / Co. Donegal
Skellig Michael / Co. Kerry
Don’t forget there are many sacred items in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin too.
Achill Island / Co. Mayo
Aran Islands / Co. Galway
Blasket Islands / Co. Kerry
Glendalough, valley of the two lakes / Co. Wicklow
Ireland’s Eye / Co. Dublin
King’s Island, Englishtown / Co. Limerick
Lakes of Killarney / Co. Kerry
Lough Derg / Co. Clare
Skellig Michael / Co. Kerry
Valentia Island / Co. Kerry
16 Observe wildlife
Ireland is right on the migration routes of many passerines and sea birds, so it’s a very popular place for bird watchers. To get started, check BirdWatch Ireland. To get started with wildlife watching, check the Conserve Ireland site. If you search online, you can find all sorts of guided hikes for bird and wildlife observation.
Cape Clear Island bird observatory / Co. Cork
Dingle Wildlife and Seal Sactuary / Co. Kerry
Eagles Flying, Irish Raptor Research Centre / Co. Sligo
North Bull Island UNESCO Biosphere / Co. Dublin
Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, North Slob / Co. Wexford
17 Stay in or visit a castle
Americans are particularly charmed by castles—and lucky for us, there’s quite a few of them in Ireland. Some have been turned into high-end luxury hotels (here are some examples), others can be toured (Kilkenny Castle), while others are simply old piles (Ballycarbery Castle). They cover a broad range of eras and styles, too, ranging from an Anglo-Norman stone castle to a medieval-era tower house to something you might simply term a very large house. Here are just a few:
Ashford Castle / Co. Galway
Aughnanure Castle / Co. Galway
Dromoland Castle / Co. Clare
Dublin Castle / Co. Dublin
Kilkenny Castle / Co. Kilkenny
Leamaneh Castle / Co. Clare
Listowel Castle / Co. Kerry
Malahide Castle / Co. Dublin
Oranmore Castle / Co. Galway
Parke’s Castle / Co. Leitrim
Slane Castle / Co. Meath
Trim Castle / Co. Meath
Just say no to Bunratty and Blarney castles. You do not need to kiss the Blarney Stone, really.
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
We’ll cover this in an upcoming post.
19 Enjoy the food
And we’ll discuss this, too, soon.
20 Enjoy golf and other sports
Ireland boasts world-class golf courses, soccer (in Ireland: football) players, and horse racing, but don’t overlook horse riding, regattas, surfing, sport fishing, rugby, or the Gaelic Athletic Association games Gaelic football and hurling. These last two are played at parish and county level on a strictly amateur basis—and let me tell you, the country goes wild in the lead-up to the All-Ireland finals in late September, so grab some tickets if you can.
Six Nations Championship (rugby) / February
All Ireland Club Championship (soccer, hurling) / March 17
Irish Grand National (steeplechase) / March, April
Great Ireland Run (10K race) / April
Irish Derby (horse racing) / June
Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon (10K race) / June
Irish Open (golf) / June, July
Galway Races (horse racing festival) / July
Cork Week (yachting) / July
Croke Park Classic (U.S. college football) / August
Dublin Horse Show (showing, jumping) / August
Laytown Races (horse racing) / September
Dublin City Marathon (running) / October
Railway Cup Final (GAA football, hurling) / October
Leopardstown Christmas Festival (horse racing) / December 26
This is by no means a comprehensive list.
21 Enjoy an annual cultural event
There are lots of good reasons to plan your trip around a particular event. Don’t forget the sports events mentioned above, of course, but there are many interesting things going on—art fairs, film festivals, music festivals, writers’ conferences … A cultural event is a great way to feel like you’re part of the scene. This is not a comprehensive list; we could go on and on.
St. Patrick’s Day Dublin / March 17
Dublin Writers Festival / May
Fleadh Nua (traditional festival) / May
Bloom in the Park (gardening) / May, June
Bloomsday Dublin / June 16
Taste of Dublin / June
Seosamh MacGabhann Summer School / June, July
Galway Arts Festival / July
Yeats International Summer School / July, August
Killorglin Puck Fair / August
Fleadh Cheoil ns hEireann (music) / August
Masters of Tradition / August
Rose of Tralee Festival / August
Kilkenny Arts Festival / August
Dublin Fringe Festival / September
Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival / September
Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival / September
National Ploughing Championship / September
Cork Folk Festival / October
Open House Dublin / October
Cork Jazz Festival / October
Kinsale Gourmet Festival / October
Cork Film Festival / November
National Crafts & Design Fair / December
22 Experience the local markets that happen weekly or monthly
I don’t have a lot of experience with this, since—as you know—I don’t live in Ireland. Your best bet is to ask the locals wherever you are. For example, we were in a small town in Clare for a wedding, and learned they had a farmer’s market in the village every Saturday. It was small and perfect. So these are a few ideas I’ve stumbled on. In some cases I had the desire to check it out but the itinerary took me in another direction.
Red Stables Food Market, Clontarf / Saturday
Temple Bar Book Market, Dublin / Saturday & Sunday
Jamestown Market, Dublin / Saturday & Sunday
Merchants Market, Dublin / Saturday & Sunday
Fairyhouse Market, Ratoath / Sunday
Dublin Flea Market, Dublin / last Sunday of month
The Irish Food Board Offers this list of farmers markets and this list of country markets. This is a small list of farm shops, and I can vouch for the Knockdrinna Farm Shop in Co. Kilkenny; I’m lusting to go back. Here’s an interesting site with lots of listings, including vintage and antiques. Finally, the English Market in Cork City is open every day, as is the open-air market in Dublin’s Moore Street (closed Sunday), but put them on your list too.
24 Wander, dawdle, relax
I think you can figure this one out on your own. But do stick around for part 8 of this series, which has a few tips for a stress-free, magical vacation.
I know this post has gotten very long—but I felt it was important to include all the information together. Be sure to use the summary list in the previous post to narrow your interests. And stick around! There are three more posts yet to come in this series.