The Celtic Tiger–era motorways may have bypassed the alluring towns and villages of the Midlands, but for a slice of authentic Ireland—a chance to see how the country gets on with its daily life—this region is worth lingering in. That’s not to say its pleasures are all workaday; visitors can sample first-class food and rural peace in spa hotels or farmhouses, experience festivals, walk or cycle through lush countryside, and follow well-developed tourist trails—all in an area where life moves at a different pace.
And no wonder: the flat plains of the center of Ireland are made up of elegant places rich in delights that attract the culturally curious. Art galleries and heritage museums cluster around the town centers of Birr, Athlone, Tullamore, and Cavan. You won’t find many international coffee chains or behemoth brands, but you will discover age-old industries such as lace making, crystal making, and whiskey making. Slow down and appreciate the gentle pace of time-burnished G&G (Grocery & Guinness) pubs, old-school barbers, or hardware and drapery stores complete with high shelves, long counters, and garrulous owners. Granted, blink-and-you’ll-miss-some one-tractor villages, but half the fun is the serendipity of driving down a back road and stumbling on an artisanal-cheese maker, a teddy bear shop, or craft workers sculpting wood. Spend enough time in the region and you might even get to recognize the difference between a Cavan twang and a Tipperary brogue.
The big set pieces are also here, too. Among them are Clonmacnoise, Ireland's most important monastic ruins; the gorgeous gardens of Birr Castle, now open to the public for tours for the first time in its history; and some of Ireland's finest Anglo-Irish houses, including Strokestown Park House and Emo Court. As for scenic pleasures, this region has its fair share of Ireland's 800 bodies of water, and much of the landscape is blanket bog. The River Shannon, one of the longest rivers in Europe and the longest in Britain or Ireland, bisects the Midlands from north to south, piercing a series of loughs (lakes): Lough Allen, Lough Ree, and Lough Derg. The Royal Canal and the Grand Canal cross the Midlands from east to west, ending in the Shannon north and south of Lough Ree. The Midlands comprises nine counties: Tipperary, Laois (pronounced leash), Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim, Cavan, and Monaghan.