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Ireland Travel Guide

10 Things to Know Before You Go to Ireland

Stay on the other side of the road and the right side of the weather on your next visit to Ireland.

Part of the fun—and some of your best memories—will involve wandering off the beaten path in Ireland, getting stuck in traffic behind a herd of cows or sheep, and interacting with locals. Still, we have a few pointers to keep you on the right side of the road, or rather the left, and to ensure that you are not entirely green as you set off on your Irish adventures.

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People Drive on the Left Side of the Road

This is a simple one, but essential to remember: In Ireland, as in England, people drive on the left-hand side of the road, which any local will tell you is the “right” side of the road. This means that when you rent a car, yes, the driver’s seat will be on the right-hand side, and the clutch will be on the driver’s left. It also means that many ingrained behaviors are going to fail you, such as making sure you look the correct direction when you cross the street, remembering which side of the road you use to board a bus going in the direction you want, and so on. You may have to do a few rounds of the first roundabout as you leave the airport while your brain adjusts, but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough.

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One Island, Separate Countries

Due to the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate countries. They share the same history and in most ways, the same culture, but they have their own currencies and differences in language. There’s also a border between the two countries, but border crossings are inconspicuously labeled, and you won’t be stopped at a checkpoint or asked for a passport. This ease of travel is one of the most contentious parts of Brexit, which has the potential to close the border (something neither Ireland wants).

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Pubs Are Family-Friendly

If you think Irish pubs outside Ireland are authentic, you’re in for a huge surprise. Not only do most international Irish pubs get their stuff from a kitschy prepackaged kit, but they also lack authentic Irish pub culture, which emphasizes socializing with family and friends (including children), live music, watching a hurling match, and eating hearty grub while enjoying a pint (or two). They’re also a welcoming environment for strangers, so don’t be surprised if people start chatting with you and buying you drinks––keep in mind you’re expected to return the favor.

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You Don’t Need to Be a Lord or Lady to Stay in a Castle

While Ireland has its share of trendy new hotels with slick lobbies and amenities, this country’s incredible history, and care in preserving it, means that there are several castles and estates all over the country that offer lodging. For at least one or two special nights on your trip, splurge to stay in a historic mansion or castle where you can enjoy a prim and proper afternoon tea with hot scones in the wood-paneled salon of a storied estate, or gaze over the ramparts of an honest-to-goodness 15th-century castle.

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Don’t Tip the Barman

While accurate tipping isn’t required or customary in many European countries, a tipping custom does exist in Ireland. If you’re in a restaurant, leave a tip of 10%––or more if you had excellent service––but also make sure to check your bill before you do, as the service charge may have already been added for you.

You do not need to tip in bars unless you get food service. Rounding up your bill at the end of a round of drinks, or offering to buy the bartender a drink, is a nice gesture if you feel like showing your appreciation.

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A Heritage Card Is a Must

Ireland’s National Monuments and National Historic Properties are run by the government, and many charge an entry fee. By purchasing a flat-rate Heritage Card, you gain access to all of these sites (minus one, Muckross Traditional Farms in Killarney). This includes more than 75 heritage sites all over the country, some of which are among the most popular places to visit in Ireland, like Kilmainham Gaol, the Rock of Cashel, Muckross House, Kilkenny Castle, Glendalough, Brú na Bóinne, and Clonmacnoise. Plus, you can get a discounted rate on the card if you’re a senior, a child, a student (make sure to bring a valid student ID), or if you buy a family card. If you plan to visit several historic sites, this is a great option, but do bear in mind that not every site charges admission, so you should plan your visits to make sure this represents good savings.

INSIDER TIPYou can purchase Heritage Cards at many historic sites, or you can order one by mail, fax, or phone.

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It’s Just Rain and It Will Pass

It’s not exactly news that it rains in Ireland–hence the lush green valleys and meadows–but it may be a surprise that the weather can be so changeable. Ireland’s climate is generally temperate, but stormy weather can roll in and out without warning, and foggy, chilly conditions are common all year round. Watch the morning weather forecast, and you will be none the wiser. In fact, you may laugh to see every weather possibility proposed for your day, from hail, a “chance of showers,” and treacherous roads due to frost, to “sunny spells” and sun showers. You can get four seasons in one day, sometimes in one hour. All you need to know is that you should not let the weather interfere with your plans, because it will pass.

There may be a monsoon as you set out for the Cliffs of Moher in the morning, but there’s a good chance the clouds will part and the sun will be gloriously shining as you arrive–or it will still be raining. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Pack accordingly with layers, a waterproof jacket regardless of the season, and good waterproof shoes or boots. Don’t bother with an umbrella–its resistance is futile. Ireland has some of the most skilled weavers in the entire world, so if you find yourself in need of new layers, you have an excellent excuse to shop for tweed caps and cable-knit sweaters.

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Summer Days Are 18 Hours Long

Ireland’s location in the northern hemisphere means that at the height of the summer, the sun sets after 11 p.m., providing a total of about 18 hours of daylight. Conversely, during the winter, the sun sets in the early afternoon, around 4 p.m. Obviously, it is more expensive to visit Ireland in summer, but you really do get bang for your buck with long, leisurely evenings to enjoy the bounty of summer festivals, prolonged sightseeing, and long walks in the beautiful countryside.

INSIDER TIPIf you visit in winter, plan your schedule so that your hikes and outdoor experiences happen in the earlier part of the day, and fill the darker evenings with museums, cultural events, and pubs.

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There’s More to Irish Food Than Meat and Potatoes

Stereotypes that Irish food is primarily centered around potatoes, beef, and lamb are pretty fair, but keep in mind that Ireland is an island surrounded by cold Atlantic waters, which means it’s a wonderland for certain types of seafood. Smoked fish such as salmon, trout, and mackerel are delicious and easy to find, as is bread made with seaweed (laver), and beautiful oysters. There are 16 Michelin-starred restaurants in Ireland: 15 are one-star restaurants, and Dublin’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is the only one with a two-star status. The 2019 Michelin list included three new restaurants, all in County Cork: Ichigo Ichie offers no-choice kaiseki, a Japanese tasting menu of 12 courses; Restaurant Chestnut, in a former pub in Ballydehob village; and Mews, a restaurant in Baltimore, Cork, with a focus on seasonal Irish cuisine.

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Sundays Are Slow Days

Ireland doesn’t exactly shut down on Sunday as it did in days gone by, but it is a day when many businesses (including restaurants) are either closed or have shortened hours, especially outside major cities. While it’s important to plan around this, don’t let it ruin your fun: Sunday is a great day for outdoor activities (as long as they’re not at a site that regulates admission), and you can always stop by a pub, which is all but guaranteed to be open.

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