While millions of visitors flock to Ireland’s iconic green landscapes every year, southwest Ireland remains an untouched land.
Southwest Ireland, which stretches from Killarney down to Dingle and to Kerry, is a fairytale-esque landscape, with deep valleys and long stretches of road traversed only by sheep.
The pace may be slower here and more relaxed, but it’s not dead. There’s a hearty pulse that lies beneath the laid-back exterior. One that accompanies hikers as they traverse the hundreds of miles of trails that weave in and around the populated towns, through the moss-laden trees of the National Parks and deep into the gorges, and up the staggering mountain peaks of the area’s enchanted landscape. Each step, climb, and bite, propels visitors to discover more of this often overlooked part of Ireland.
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There are a few ways to uncover the sheer beauty of the Dingle Peninsula–arguably the best way is by car. The loop, which spans about 30 miles, circles along the shades of green patchwork farmland and along the craggy coastline. If you bike the loop, it’ll take you a grueling four hours, but you’ll feel the crisp, salty breeze of the ocean as you pedal along. The Peninsula itself is home to Dingle, the quintessential coastal Irish town, home to pastel-colored rowhomes, hardware store turned pubs, locally run bed-and-breakfasts, and plenty of ice cream shops and seafood restaurants that face the often unforgiving harbor. Check out the peninsula’s picturesque beaches, like Inch and Ventry.
“If you look at the mountains, the lakes, and the valleys in this part of Ireland, we probably have some of the best food and raw materials on the planet, but up until about the late 1970s, we just really didn’t know what to do with it,” said Michael Rosney, owner of the Killeen House Hotel in Killarney. No place is as representative of Ireland’s new culinary identity than Southwest Ireland. In Cork City, a visit to the English Market brings an impressive look at the cheese, charcuterie, and pates that are prepared using the livestock you see grazing just outside the city limits. The city also boasts a burgeoning vegetarian scene, with restaurants like Quay Co-Op and Cafe Paradiso.
In Dingle, restaurants like Out of the Blue source only the freshest seafood caught by the town’s fishermen and shops like The Little Cheese Shop have worked to serve only the most sustainable cheeses and dairy products. In the area’s smallest towns, you’ll also find world-renowned cooking academies, like Ballymaloe House, which has beckoned some of the world’s best chefs into its kitchen. Plus, Killarney is seeing a revival of its own and has world-class restaurants, like Rozzer’s Restaurant in the Killeen House Hotel, that offer a taste of the county in a truly gourmet fashion, like a rack of lamb with reduced red wine compote or farm-fresh cheeses stuffed in homemade ravioli.
Limerick’s Ever-Changing Charm
Flanked by the 13th-century St. John’s Castle and the river Shannon, Limerick’s undergoing a revitalization thanks to the 2014 National Capital of Culture accolade. The waterfront, which was once a lively industrial port that since went to ruins, saw a major facelift and is now home to a chic boardwalk. The attractions are the castle and the cathedral, which are linked by a quaint footpath, but the city’s bustling food scene is worth a taste as well.
The French Table Restaurant, Azure and Freddy’s Bistro have worked to put the city on the map when it comes to farm-fresh cuisine and inspired gastronomy. Beyond food and castles, the art scene is the greatest result of the capital of cool nod. The Limerick City Gallery of Art or the Hunt Museum are great places to start, but smaller galleries like the Red Door Gallery offer a glimpse into the local art scene.
Killarney National Park
Spanning over 25,000 acres, Killarney National Park is the Southwest’s crown jewel. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s, the expansive park is home to three famous lakes (Lough Lake, Muckross, and Upper Lake), the pristine 19th-century Muckross Estate and the 2,700 foot tall Purple Mountain.
Beyond these landmarks, though, the park boasts over 40 hiking trails ranging in degrees of difficulty. The Muckross Lake Loop is a good starting point as it starts at the famed Muckross Abbey and towards the sprawling estate, into the Reenadina Woods and up to the famed Torc Waterfall. For a more challenging walk, opt for the Gap of Dunloe walk. The road, which is often traversed by horse-drawn buggies and cars, spans 11 kilometers through the staggering MacGillycuddy Reeks and the Purple Mountains and to Lord Brannon’s Cottage. The walk ascends up to 791 feet where you’ll be welcomed with views of the lush countryside below. A walk with Wilderness Ireland will take you through the park’s best trails and along some of the ones often saved for locals.
There’s a reason so many people refer to Ireland’s coast as Wild. The rugged shoreline and ever-changing weather is one, with the other being the wildlife that populate it. Home to the Wild Atlantic Way, this 1,500-mile long balcony trail provides the best viewing spots for bottlenose dolphins, Orca whales, baleen whales (which follow small shoals of fish to the shore), minke whales, and even humpbacks in the late summer. The island is also home to puffins, seals, and basking sharks. Bird tours in Cork will showcase the dozens of species that live in and around the city and the coast, like the egret.
The highest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntoohil soars over County Kerry at an astonishing 3,400 feet. A hike with Wilderness Ireland will take you up to the peak with an expert guide. There are few paths to the summit, one that takes you around and through the cliff-sides of O’Shea’s Gully or one that guides you up the Devil’s Ladder. The hike up is grueling and will take even the fittest of people 4 to 6 hours to tackle. However, the fields of brightly colored wildflowers, spot raptors, and rolling Irish hills make it all worth it. The hike is the ultimate bucket list for anyone tackling the Ring of Kerry, but like much of Ireland is entirely up to the weather. Unforgiving rains, winds, and even snow can make the treacherous hike nearly impossible.
Small Town Allure
There’s no doubting the allure of Dublin, Galway, and Belfast, but the real charm of Southwest Ireland lies in the small towns. Dingle, for example, is a tourist favorite with its postcard-perfect main town square, fishing harbor, and seriously breathtaking peninsula. The town itself is where Murphy’s, one of Ireland’s most popular ice cream shops, started and now boasts two storefronts offering tastes of the seriously sweet cream.
Kenmare, like Dingle, is home to candy-colored buildings and stunning stone cottages that are decorated with oversized flower baskets and beautiful gardens. The town is best known for the iconic cathedral at the end of the main road, which is flanked by rolling, lush, green farmland.
Adare, which sits in Limerick County, was once a forgotten, sleepy town that looked like it belonged in a Disney movie. Even though the town is now a huge hotspot for tour buses and coaches, a stop by in the offseason will welcome you with the most hospitable locals, beautiful mid-century stone homes with brightly painted doors and the ruins of an old Franciscan monastery.
The Kerry Way
Spanning more than 120 miles, the Kerry Way is one of Ireland’s longest walking trails. Starting and ending in Killarney, the walk takes a relatively fit traveler about 9-10 days. Weaving through the lower-level inland route (and not up to the higher mountain peaks) around the Inveragh Peninsula, the walk is actually rather peaceful with sweeping views of the wild Atlantic Ocean crashing against the ragged cliffsides. Because the walk weaves through the wilderness of Southwest Ireland, the walk will showcase lesser known hotspots, like the Black Valley and the towns of Glenbeigh, Cahersiveen, Kenmare, and Caherdaniel. If nine days is too long, tackle just a few parts of the trail, like the 14-mile walk from Killarney to the Black Valley or the 16-mile hike from Kenmare to Killarney.
There are over 30,000 medieval castles in Ireland alone, however, some of the most iconic sit in the Southwest region of Ireland. The Blarney Castle, for example, sees over 200,000 tourists. The 14th-century castle itself is a draw, but most come to kiss the infamous Blarney Stone. The stone, which is made entirely of limestone, was set in the tower and is said to bestow luck on those who kiss it. Beyond Blarney, though, the region is home to other castles that don’t come brimming with tourists. Ross Castle, which sits on the banks of the Lough Leane in Killarney, dates back to the 15th century and boasts stunning views of the lake and surrounding park and trails. Located in picturesque Kinsale is Desmond Castle, a 16th-century tower. The castle itself is said to be haunted due to the fact over 50 inmates died in a horrible fire inside the tower walls when it set ablaze in the late 17th century.
Ring of Kerry
Encompassing over 111 miles along Southwest Ireland’s astonishing coastline, the Ring of Kerry is also Ireland’s longest circular route. Often traversed by coach, bus, or car, the Ring of Kerry is actually best seen by foot or bicycle. Wrapping around the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, the bright cerulean blue of the water crashing against the lush green and rugged cliffsides make for one of Ireland’s most beautiful views. If you’ve got the time (and the will), hike the 142-mile Kerry Way, which takes you along the Ring of Kerry as well as deep into the National Parks that make it up. If you’d prefer to cycle, you’ll find yourself pedaling through some of the area’s cutest small towns, like Waterville, Caherciveen, and Kenmare (voted one of Ireland’s most beautiful towns by Travel Channel). Wilderness Ireland also has a hike aptly named the Ring of Kerry, which takes you deep into Killarney National Park, along the Dingle Peninsula and past some of Kerry’s most coveted beaches.