Ireland Travel Guide
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25 Ultimate Things to Do In Ireland

PHOTO: Courtesy of Tourism Ireland

24 unique experiences of the forty shades of green that add up to the ultimate Irish adventure.

Ireland is a land of contrasts, where you can still clip-clop through Killarney’s National Park on a pony and trap, join the barefoot pilgrims climbing St Patrick’s holy mountain, Croaghpatrick, or head for the nation’s friendly, fun-loving festival city, Galway, where every night is party night. To mark the contrast, recover by seeking the peace of the monastic ruins hovering in the Celtic mist at Glendalough or Cashel. There are such a variety of things to do in Ireland, from the historical to the adventurous: See the poet W. B. Yeats’s romantic grave near Sligo or opt for a traditional seaweed bath in a surfing hot spot. Hike the scenic way-marked routes to Dingle, wonder at the magnificent Cliffs of Moher or take the mile-long walk on the historic Walls of Derry. Discover the many artisan food markets, take home some hand-woven tweed and visit the world’s most scenic chocolate factory. Whether you’re in Dublin sampling a free pint at the Guinness Storehouse or driving the Atlantic Way, Europe’s longest coastal driving route (which provides a wealth of opportunities to sample seafood, wilderness landscape and experience the memorable Irish hospitality), you’ll find a warm welcoming whether you stay in a cottage or a castle.

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PHOTO: Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography
1 OF 25

Stroll to the National Gallery of Ireland Through Georgian Dublin

There is a calming sense of order on the elegant streets of Georgian Dublin, with the tall 18th-century houses arranged around large, tree-lined squares. The biggest are St Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square, their park-like central gardens enclosed by painted iron railings. The houses too have their order, the second floor always being the tallest, containing the rooms in which Georgian Dublin entertained. Note the intricate fanlights above the brightly-painted front doors, and the ornate knobs and knockers.

The National Gallery in Merrion Square houses over 16,000 works of art, many of them recently restored in a multimillion-euro refurbishment. Admission is free (but not to temporary exhibitions). The Wintergarden Café and the large shop are near the Clare Street entrance. The collection includes major European artists from the early Renaissance onwards, but be sure to get acquainted with Irish artists, including Roderic O’Conor, Sir William Orpen, Evie Hone and Jack B. Yeats.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Irish Distillers
2 OF 25

Taste Guinness Stout and Irish Whiskey

Guinness has been a major player in Dublin city ever since the brewery was founded in 1759, and has kept pace with the growth of tourism by ensuring that the Guinness Storehouse is Dublin’s most popular sight. Six floors of displays on family history and the brewing process lead you to the top-floor Gravity Bar. Enjoy panoramic views of the city while sipping your free pint. The Jameson Experience is a tour of the Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork which will enchant lovers of 19th-century industrial architecture, with a giant waterwheel, and the world’s largest pot still. They have been distilling whiskey since 1608 at the Bushmills Distillery, and it remains many people’s favorite tipple. The distillery has a scenic location next to the Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast.

INSIDER TIPResist the urge to hire a pony and trap on St. Stephen’s Green – Dublin Bus’s Hop-on, Hop-off tour is a lot more fun and much better value.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Tourism Ireland
3 OF 25

Clip-clop Through Killarney's National Park in a Jaunting Car and Hike to the Lakes

Killarney is all about getting outdoors, smelling the earth on the woodland trails and the peat smoke in the air. It’s been attracting tourists since the mid-19th century, and you can replicate the experience by hiring a pony and trap (known as a jaunting car) in the town, and clip-clopping out to the scenic drive around Muckross Lake. Your horse will be wearing a diaper, and the jarvey will be on his cellphone, but hey, this is the 21st century! Next head for  Muckross House and Traditional Farms. Give the house a miss, it is nothing special, but visit the partly-outdoor Traditional Farms to meet the giant Irish wolfhounds, and chat with the “farmers” and their “wives” in the farms. Then book a day trip to the Gap of Dunloe. You can either ride or walk the 6.5-kilometer mountain pass, returning by open boat across two lakes to Ross Castle, an unforgettable outing.

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PHOTO: Douglas Gray/Shutterstock
4 OF 25

Climb Croaghpatrick, the Holy Mountain, and Chill out in Westport

The path up Croaghpatrick takes about two hours to complete, but you’ll need to be agile and carry a stick to help you across the loose scree near the summit. Join the 30,000 pilgrims, some barefoot, who do this every year on the last Sunday in July for an unforgettable experience. Even if you only walk up 20 minutes, you will be rewarded by a great view of Clew Bay and its 365 islands, one of which once belonged to John Lennon. Then drive into Westport, an attractive town with excellent hotels, restaurants, and music pubs. This is the starting point of the Great Western Greenway a walking and cycling trail that follows an old railway track through stunning coastal scenery to Achill Island.

INSIDER TIPIf your fitness level could be higher, do like savvy locals, and hire an electric bike.

 

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PHOTO: Stefan Missing/Shutterstock
5 OF 25

Sail to the Skellig Rocks, Drive the Skellig Ring Drive, and Wonder at the Chocolate Factory

The 32km Skellig Ring Drive from Waterville to Portmagee via St Finian’s Bay is an optional extension to the more famous Ring of Kerry. Many visitors prefer it as there are no tour buses (the narrow road just cannot take them), and the scenery is gloriously wild. On Skellig Michael, a small rocky island nine miles offshore, Early Christian monks built a stone monastery. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and recently featured in two Star Wars movies. The boat trip is seasonal, and you risk choppy seas, so many opt for the Skellig Experience Visitor Center opposite the pretty fishing village, Portmagee, which also has an enticing bar-restaurant. St Finian’s Bay is a popular viewing point for the Skellig Rocks, and also the location of the Skellig Chocolate Factory, a must-see: watch some of Ireland’s finest chocolates being made by hand before sampling the fare.

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PHOTO: James Kennedy NI/Shutterstock
6 OF 25

Discover Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and the City’s Victorian Gems

Once it was a working dock, employing thousands, now it is Belfast’s newest visitor attraction. The Titanic Visitor Centre, an impressive six-story building clad with over 3,000 reflective panels, almost as big as its namesake, was opened to mark the 100th anniversary of its sinking. It presents the tragic story of the biggest ocean liner ever built and commemorates the city’s industrial heritage. Nearby is the 900-foot-long dock where the Titanic was built; it is open to the public, and provides an eerie experience of the scale of the huge endeavor. A regular bus from Belfast City Hall serves the new Titanic Quarter. Belfast City Hall, a vast building modeled on London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, is the starting point for hour-long walking tours of Belfast city center by Hidden Belfast featuring some splendidly ornate Victorian buildings, including the Crown Liquor Saloon and the Linen Hall Library.

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PHOTO: lonndubh / Shutterstock
7 OF 25

Explore Galway’s Wild Atlantic Way: Oysters, Wooden Boats, and the Flaggy Shore

Turn off the main M18 on to the N67 coastal road along Galway Bay’s eastern shore towards the Burren, West Clare’s rocky limestone landscape. Stop at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, a peaceful old world pub and seafood restaurant overlooking the oyster beds. Dunguaire Castle a huge 16th-century stone castle, looms over the bay. It is floodlit at night and hosts medieval banquets which explore its literary links. In Kinvara, an enchanting little port, hookers, the traditional turf-carrying wooden boats, congregate in the summer to race across the bay at a traditional regatta, Cruinniú na mBád. The Flaggy Shore nearby inspired one of Seamus Heaney’s best-loved poems, Postscript. The Burren starts on the coast road south of Kinvara.

INSIDER TIPIt’s not all about geology: follow signs to the Burren Perfumery, for hand-made natural cosmetics and delicious home-made cakes.

 

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PHOTO: Sean O' Dwyer/Shutterstock
8 OF 25

Ride the Surf and Seek out Seaweed Baths, Café Society, and W.B. Yeats

Avoid Sligo Town and its big city vibe of busy traffic and parking hassles. Head south out of town towards the coast known for its long sandy beaches and huge waves. Ride the surf at Easkey if you dare: there are two reef breaks, leading to huge waves suitable for experienced surfers only. Beginners and improvers flock to Enniscrone where there are two surf schools on its five-kilometer stretch of sandy beach.

Head for Strandhill after, and warm up in a traditional seaweed bath. A summer custom of bathing in hot water with freshly harvested seaweed at beachside baths has been modernized and is offered year-round as a spa treatment. Then sample one of the town’s many cafes, most of which overlook the sea. Head north again to the grave of the poet W.B. Yeats at Drumcliff, continuing to Lough Gill, following signs for the Yeats Country Drive, a 26-mile scenic tour.

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PHOTO: Ruth Medjber
9 OF 25

Follow James Joyce’s Footsteps Around Dublin to Celebrate Ulysses

Bloomsday is celebrated on June 16, the day on which James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set. It is named after the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, whose day is described in detail from 9 am to the early hours of the next day. Back in 1954, the 50th anniversary of the novel’s events was marked by half a dozen writers who visited places mentioned in the novel, sipping whiskey as they went. Today the Bloomsday Festival runs from June 11-16. Thousands of Dubliners don straw boaters and dress in Edwardian costume to visit places associated with the novel and eat Bloom’s breakfast of grilled mutton kidneys. A programme of readings, performances, and guided pub crawls ensures lively entertainment. At other times of year, visit the James Joyce Centre.

INSIDER TIPIf the weather is fine, take the DART out to Sandycove to visit the Martello Tower and the Forty Foot bathing place.

 

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PHOTO: MNStudio/Shutterstock
10 OF 25

Hike Waymarked Routes Over the Rugged Hills of the West of Ireland

The west of Ireland is dramatically underpopulated and abounds in natural beauty; many miles of waymarked trails make it a great destination for lovers of the outdoors. The temperate climate means you can hike all year round, but avoid November to February when the days are short, and invest in good quality rainwear.

Beginners can sample the pleasures of hiking Ireland by following the gravel track up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, a five- or seven-kilometer looped walk (choose your distance) that takes you to a view of the distant Atlantic and the other peaks of the glacially-carved Twelve Bens mountain range. The more ambitious can opt for a customized five-day walking holiday with Connemara Safari. They offer hiking on remote islands with an archaeologist guide. Walking Festivals offer a chance to meet the locals on inexpensive guided day hikes followed by lively ad hoc nightlife.

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PHOTO: Rihardzz/Dreamstime
11 OF 25

Party and Shop in Galway, Ireland's Festival City

The historic center of Galway is so compact that visitors quickly feel at home, and many end up falling in love with the friendly, fun-loving mini-city. Get acquainted by visiting the Tourist Office and taking a free walking tour. It’s run by the same people who offer a guided pub crawl: worth considering, especially if you’re on vacation.

Lounging on the riverbank beside the Spanish Arch, watching swans glide by on the River Corrib can be bliss in summer, but it also rains and the wind blows, so go shopping, and kit yourself out with an Aran sweater, a woolly hat and waterproofs. Enjoy the buskers, bookshops, boutiques and traditional bars of the pedestrianized city center, and check out the amazing music scene.. Don’t miss the colorful Saturday morning street market outside St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. And don’t leave without buying a Claddagh ring, the city’s traditional wedding ring, and a perfect souvenir.

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PHOTO: Tim Thompson
12 OF 25

View the Mighty Cliffs of Moher From Above and Below

Truly a spectacular sight, looming almost vertically up to 710-feet out of the Atlantic, and stretching for five miles along the coast, the cliffs are not to be missed. In 2016, the Cliffs of Moher attracted almost 1.5 million visitors, making it the most-visited place outside Dublin. This is partly no doubt, due to the many giddy, cliff-top videos posted on social media. With over 600 meters of pathways and elevated viewing platforms, there is plenty of room for all. The cave-like, grass-roofed visitor center is built into the cliff, and there are great views from its café, a handy spot to know about in squally weather. When it’s fine, open-air buskers on traditional instruments are part of the experience: harp, fiddle, tin whistle or gadget, never sounded so good as in the open air. As an optional extra, view the cliffs from below with Doolin Ferries.

Book a Hotel

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PHOTO: Gearoid Lacey SWPP
13 OF 25

Drive the Wild Atlantic Way From South to North, Kinsale to Donegal

The Wild Atlantic Way, or Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiáin in Irish, is a 2,500-kilometer signposted drive along Atlantic coast from Donegal to Kinsale. Since its launch in 2014, this rugged route has led to a surge of business along the way and is believed to be responsible for Ireland’s visitor figures reaching 10 million a year. The only quibble is which way to drive it.

The official maps run north to south, naturally, but in Kinsale people advocate driving south to north. This leaves the coastal scenery on the left, passenger-side of the car, and makes the town the starting point, not the finish. One problem: Kinsale, 20 minutes from Cork Airport, built on the sides of a hill overlooking a wide harbor, known for its seafood restaurants, historical monuments, and colorful streetscapes, with surfing and golf at the Old Head, is such an attractive package, that you may never want to leave.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Tourism Ireland
14 OF 25

Venture off the Beaten Track to Explore Monastic Ruins in the Celtic Mist

One of the best reasons for visiting monastic sites is that they are typically sited in beautiful, remote spots. St Kevin’s monastic settlement at Glendalough, deep in the Wicklow Mountains, is built between two glacial lakes, hence its Irish name: Gleann da Loch or “Glen of Two Lakes.” Its round tower, the stone tapering to a fine point 100-feet high, is an iconic feature of Ireland’s monastic ruins. Like most of these places, it looks its best in the early morning mist. The Rock of Cashel, was a center of Druidic worship and the seat of the Kings of Munster before Saint Patrick converted the king to Christianity. Today the ruins cluster dramatically atop a natural outcrop of rock rising from the Tipperary plain. Monastic ruins often take you way off the beaten track, as an excursion to Clonmacnoise, built on a bend of the mighty River Shannon in deepest County Offaly, will prove.

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PHOTO: Sue Burton PhotographyLtd / Shutterstock
15 OF 25

Walk, Cycle, or Drive Waterford and Ireland’s East Coast

Hoping to replicate the success of the west coast’s “Wild Atlantic Way” driving route, Discover Ireland came up with “Ireland’s Ancient East”, a concept which alas failed to have a similar impact. But the east coast is well worth exploring. Waterford was built on a Viking settlement, and architecture buffs will enjoy both the lived-in Georgian heritage and the Viking artifacts in Reginald’s Tower, an impressive medieval fortification. Hire a bike on the quays, and head for the Waterford Greenway, a 46-kilometer off-road cycling and walking route walk that runs along a former railway line through some wonderful scenery. The final 25 kilometers of the drive from Waterford to Dungarvan is an attractive stretch known as the Copper Coast, a UNESCO Global Geopark, which has remains of 19th-century copper mines. Its rocky coves, headlands, and golden sandy beaches will please the child in all of us.

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PHOTO: LesPalenik / Shutterstock
16 OF 25

Relax in a City Center Oasis: Trinity College, the Old Library, the Book of Kells

One of the best things about Dublin is having Trinity College , a busy university campus featuring glorious historical buildings, right in the city center, and open to the public. It runs to 40 acres, including a cricket pitch.Locals use it as a shortcut when walking from the Nassau Street to College Green, always remembering that there will be rocky cobblestones underfoot. Inside the main gates you can buy (but not prebook) tickets for a 35-minute guided tour of the College that includes admission to the Old Library and the Book of Kells. The Old Library is a fascinating building, best known for the exquisitely beautiful illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. It was brought from Kells, in neighboring Co Meath, to Trinity for safekeeping in 1660 during the Cromwellian wars. The people of Kells recently asked for its return, but not surprisingly, Trinity refused to give back its golden goose.

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PHOTO: jamegaw / Shutterstock
17 OF 25

Shop ‘til You Drop off Grafton Street in Dublin’s Hipster Hotspot

Everyone knows about Grafton Street, Dublin’s vibrant shopping street with its world-famous buskers and colorful flower vendors. Collectively with its side streets, it is known as the Grafton Quarter. Within this quarter, by far the hippest places will be found around Drury Street, one block west of the eponymous street, and a block south of the Dublin Discover Ireland Centre. Here you will find the smaller, more adventurous vintage shops and ateliers, alongside Busyfeet & Coco Cafe and other exciting budget eating places. Don’t miss Fade Street Social, a fashionable tapas bar-restaurant. George’s Street Arcade, a quirky market, is at the western extremity, while at the east is the more elegant Powerscourt Townhouse. Not so long ago this distract was where Dublin’s rag trade had their wholesale offices; nowadays most have been upcycled by a new generation. But one thing hasn’t changed: Grogan’s, pub which remains an authentic Bohemian hang-out.

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PHOTO: Spumador / Shutterstock
18 OF 25

Walk the Mighty Walls of Derry, and Stroll Across the Peace Bridge

Derry/Londonderry is a small city in the northwest of Northern Ireland steeped in history. Its name is a compromise, adopted as recent years of conflict have gently been resolved. Citizens of Northern Ireland can hold either a British passport or an Irish one, chosen according to family allegiance. The Irish prefer the name Derry, while the British prefer Londonderry, which refers to its 17th-century origins as a city settled by English and Scottish Protestants chosen by the Corporation of London. In 1614 Derry was rebuilt within massive ramparts, or walls, which have withstood many attacks since, and never been breached.

Nowadays the mile-long walk is best taken with a tour guide who will explain the city’s complex history by reference to the colorful murals. The beautiful Peace Bridge linking the city center with Ebrington Square was opened in 2011. A former military parade ground, the square is now a lively arts hub.

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PHOTO: Ben-Russell
19 OF 25

Tap Your Toes to the Beat of Irish Traditional Music at Fleadhs and in Bars

Fleadh rhymes with “bar,” and is Irish for festival. Of all the festivals in Ireland, the most popular continue to be those celebrating Irish traditional music. Ennis the chief town of County Clare, is a great place to hear music at any time, in its half-dozen music pubs, but especially during the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in late August. Singers, musicians, and dancers compete for medals, much of the music is free, and the atmosphere is refreshingly uncommercial. Nearby Doolin, originally a fishing village, has a cluster of three famous music pubs, and has long been better known for music than for fish. For a more formal approach, seek out West Cork Music’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry in August. Brilliant fiddle-player, Martin Hayes, whose music has lifted the traditional scene to new heights, usually performs, and is also artistic director of the programme, part of which takes place in historic Bantry House.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Ashford Castle
20 OF 25

Get Outdoors and Walk the Dogs or Fly the Falcons at Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle looks like something out of Harry Potter. It is a popular hideaway for the likes of Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan, a budget-breaking, one-off indulgence for the rest of us. The resident Irish Wolfhounds do a “meet and greet” in the lobby every morning before their walk, which you can join. Golf, horse riding, fishing, falconry, and archery are among the 20-plus outdoor activities. Bespoke family packages for three and four generations are popular. Despite the opulent surroundings, the atmosphere is pleasantly informal, thanks to the friendly staff, many of them local. Though you could spend weeks without leaving the estate, it is worth walking through the woods to explore the neighboring village, Cong.

 

INSIDER TIPCut 40% off your accommodation bill by staying at The Lodge at Ashford Castle, where guests have access to all the outdoor activities on the main estate.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Ashford Castle
21 OF 25

Golf Your Way Around the Southwest’s Spectacular Golf Courses

Ireland boasts over 300 golf courses and has an especially warm welcome for those who seek them out. Lovers of seaside links courses will find a wealth of choice in the southwest. Ballybunion, Tralee, and Lahinch offer bracing dune-side courses with traditional facilities that have been attracting discerning visitors for many years. The newer course at the Old Head of Kinsale, with its breath-taking cliff top location, on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic where the wind can be high, is considered the ultimate challenge. The links course at Trump Doonbeg faces due west and offers its own challenges. The lakeside course at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club is unsurpassed for scenic beauty. Choose between Adare Manor and Dromoland Castle for the ultimate golf-and-castle resorts, where non-golfing companions will be well entertained–and pampered. Design your own tour online, or go to a golf tour specialist for a customized itinerary.

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PHOTO: 4kclips / Shutterstock
22 OF 25

Bike, Drive, or Hike Dingle’s Wild Atlantic Way and Feast on Seafood

Irish is the official language in Dingle, or Daingean Uí Chuis, a colorful town with lively bars known for Irish music and innovative restaurants serving seafood and other local produce. The annual Food Festival showcases everything local from Dingle Gin to Murphy’s Ice Cream. From the busy quay, where the daily catch is landed, you can cruise to the harbor mouth to meet the famous dolphin, Fungi, a favorite with visitors. Sample some seafood chowder before heading to Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuine in Irish). The road hugs the sea as it travels the rugged, often misty coast. Stop and investigate the stone-built beehive huts, some of which date from antiquity. Walk the sands at windswept Clogher Strand, which features in David Lean’s movie, Ryan’s Daughter. If weather permits, take a boat to the Great Blasket Island, uninhabited since 1954 but famous for its Irish language writers and its teeming wildlife.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Jeropint Glass Studio
23 OF 25

Shop for the Best of Irish Design–Contemporary and Traditional

Kilkenny, an attractive medieval city, home to the Crafts Council of Ireland, has long been associated with contemporary design. Start at the Kilkenny Design Centre, then follow the local craft trail where you can discover, among others, Nicholas Mosse pottery and hand-blown Jerpoint Glass. The Stephen Pearce Pottery at Shanagarry in Co Cork makes hand-thrown, earthenware tableware in two different colorways, which is as popular today as when he first launched it in the 1960s. Blankets have been made at Foxford Woolen Mills in Co Mayo since the mid-19th century; tour the Visitor Center for the full story. Connemara and Donegal are the best places to shop for tweed–in the piece or made into jackets and hats. Try Millar’s Connemara Tweeds in the center of Clifden, or Magee’s in Donegal Town. The tweed’s distinctive colors are inspired by the greens, greys, and rust of the local hillsides.

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PHOTO: Joleen Cronin; Robin Foley
24 OF 25

Sample Artisan Foods and Cheese at Cork’s Farmers’ Markets

Cork City’s English Market is a vast covered market with some 140 stalls featuring everything from hand-made bread to local charcuterie, confectionary, exotic cakes, butchers, cheesemongers, and the famous alley of fresh and smoked fish. Midleton Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings is one of the best in the country, not surprisingly, as Ballymaloe Cookery School’s doyenne, Darina Allen, is one of the regular stallholders.

A large traditional market is held in Bantry on Fridays, and a smaller artisan food and craft market in Schull on Sundays. The revival of Irish Farmhouse Cheeses was pioneered in Cork: look out for pungent Milleens, the milder Durrus and Coolea, Gouda-like Gubbeen and Fermoy Natural Cheese, a Cheddar-style cheese made from raw milk. Locals are divided on who produces the best-smoked fish: Ummera in west Cork, or Frank Hederman in east Cork. Sample both to decide.

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PHOTO: sagesolar/Flickr
25 OF 25

Marvel at the Giant's Causeway

Created 60 million years ago, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, is a mass of almost 40,000 mostly hexagonal pillars of volcanic basalt extending hundreds of yards into the sea. Boiling lava erupting from an underground fissure stretched from the north of Ireland to the Scottish coast and crystallized in a cluster like a giant honeycomb as bursting into the sea.

Folklore has it that the giant Finn McCool, in a bid to reach a giantess he’d fallen in love with on the Scottish island of Staffa (where the causeway resurfaces), created the columns as stepping-stones. Unfortunately, the giantess’s boyfriend found out, and in the ensuing battle, Finn pulled out a huge chunk of earth and flung it toward Scotland. The resulting hole became Lough Neagh, and the sod landed to create the Isle of Man.

In peak summer months, the Causeway can be very busy—get there early or leave your visit until late afternoon when it’s generally quieter. To reach it, you can either walk 1½ km (1 mile) down a long, scenic hill or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. Another popular option is to take the 20-minute walk downhill to the main causeway and catch the shuttle bus back uphill. Start at the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience, made of locally quarried basalt from the very same lava flows that formed the causeway.