Here’s everything you can’t miss while visiting Ireland.
Ireland is so tiny that it’s smaller in land area than 39 of the U.S. states, yet it’s dense with natural splendor, fascinating historic sites, and unique cultural experiences. The best things to do in Ireland range from climbing holy mountains to exploring 1,000-year-old castles, to blending your own Irish whiskey and riding in a horse-drawn carriage.
Tourists to its capital city will find the top attractions to visit in Dublin include a giant facility dedicated to Ireland’s famous Guinness beer, museums that explain the country’s turbulent history, and a pair of contrasting shopping precincts. Here’s your guide to the very best of Ireland.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT IRELAND?While Ireland is beautiful throughout the year, the best time to visit is between April and October, when its weather is warmer and the days significantly longer.
Tourists to Ireland no longer have to do a COVID-19 test or provide proof of vaccination on arrival. But see the latest guidelines here.
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Visit Galleries and Museums in Dublin’s Georgian Quarter
Lined by museums, galleries, and stately, 18th-century townhouses, there is a distinct elegance to the Georgian Quarter of Dublin. Long one of the city’s wealthiest districts, it is neatly laid out around the attractive, lush spaces of St Stephen’s Green and Merrion Park Square.
This is an area that is best savored on foot. Admire its architectural splendor as you wander between its key attractions. They include the National Gallery in Merrion Square, which is free to enter and houses more than 10,000 artworks.
This 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. Ireland’s natural and cultural history also come alive at the nearby National Museum of Ireland, Museum of Literature Ireland, and the beautiful Trinity College, home to the ancient Book of Kells, the country’s most cherished document.
Taste Irish Stout and Whiskey in Dublin
Few countries are as intrinsically linked to one brand of drink as Ireland is to the stout beer produced by Guinness. Brewed in 49 countries, and sold in more than 150, this dark, creamy alcohol was born here in Dublin in 1759. So iconic has this drink become that the Guinness Storehouse attraction–a huge facility attached to the company’s Dublin brewery–is the most visited tourist site in all of Ireland. Its 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.
Almost as famous and successful worldwide is Jameson, the world’s fourth-highest selling whiskey, which also came out of Dublin in the 1700s. Whiskey is a big deal in Ireland, which claims to have invented this spirit in the early 1400s, predating Scotch whisky by nearly a century. At Jameson’s Bow Street facility in Dublin, visitors can learn about this history, and even blend their own whiskey as part of one of its several visitor experiences.
Visit Killarney National Park
Killarney is all about getting outdoors, smelling the earth on the woodland trails and the peat smoke in the air. It’s attracted tourists for centuries, and you can follow in the hoof-steps of its earliest visitors by hiring a horse-drawn carriage (known as a jaunting car) in the town, and clip-clopping to the scenic road around Muckross Lake. Your horse will be wearing a diaper and the jarvey (coachman) will be on his smartphone, but hey, this is the 21st century. Next head for Muckross House Gardens and Traditional Farms. While the house is not a must-see, make sure to visit the partly-outdoor Traditional Farms to meet the giant Irish wolfhounds, and chat with the “farmers” and their “wives” on the farms. Then book a day trip to the Gap of Dunloe. You can either ride or walk this 6.5-kilometer (4-mile) mountain pass, returning by open boat across two lakes to the spectacular Ross Castle.
Visit the Otherworldly Star Wars Setting of Skellig Michael
WHERE: Skellig Michael
Famously used as a setting in the Star Wars movies, Skellig Michael may be the single most dramatic location in all of Ireland. Jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean, 8 miles off the coast of County Kerry, this very steep and jagged island is home to a 1,400year-old monastery. Those ancient remains can only be accessed by climbing more than 100 uneven stone steps after arriving at the island’s tiny jetty.
The ocean surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage site is so rough, and the cliffs alongside that jetty so serrated, that it’s often too dangerous for boats to dock. As a result, tourist access to the island is limited to a short season from mid-May to the end of September when the seas are calmer. Even during that period, boat tours often have to be canceled due to weather; if so, you can visit the Skellig Experience Visitor Center in the pretty fishing village of Portmagee.
Discover Belfast’s Titanic Quarter
Once a working dock that employed thousands, now it is Belfast’s biggest tourist attraction, the Titanic Quarter. The hub of this riverside precinct is Titanic Belfast, an impressive six-story museum clad with more than 3,000 reflective panels.
This museum was opened in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, perhaps the most famous ship in history, which was built right here in Belfast’s old shipyard. Via videos, text displays, and interactive exhibits, the center tells the tragic story of what was then the biggest ocean liner ever built, while also commemorating the Belfast’s industrial heritage.
A short walk away is another key attraction of the Titanic Quarter–the huge dock where this ship was constricted, which provides a sense of the scale of this project. A regular bus from Belfast City Hall serves the new Titanic Quarter.
Belfast City Hall, a vast building inspired by the design of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, is the starting point for hour-long walking tours of Belfast city center by Hidden Belfast. Participants get to admire many splendidly-ornate Victorian buildings, including the Crown Liquor Saloon and the Linen Hall Library.
Explore Galway’s Wild Atlantic Way
WHERE: County Clare
Just 13 miles south of Galway, in neighboring County Clare, is a sparse and unique rocky landscape called the Burren. On the drive south, stop at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, an old-fashioned thatch-roof restaurant, for delicious fresh seafood. Nearby Dunguaire Castle, a huge 16th-century stone fortress in Kinvara town, looms over Galway Bay. It is floodlit at night and hosts medieval banquets which explore the castle’s literary links.
Kinvara itself is worth visiting. This cute little port is home to many “hookers,” traditional wooden Irish boats originally used for carrying fish catch and turf, which now race across the bay each summer at the Cruinniú na mBád regatta. The Flaggy Shore nearby inspired one of Seamus Heaney’s best-loved poems, “Postscript.” The Burren starts on the coast road south of Kinvara and sprawls inland.
Ride the Booming Surf Scene in Sligo
WHERE: County Sligo
Once unknown as a surfing destination, Ireland is finally being placed on the board-riding map thanks to two developments in County Sligo. Firstly, wave fiends around the world were shocked by 2020 footage of an Irishman surfing a monster 60-foot wave at Mullaghmore Head, just north of Sligo town. Secondly, Sligo in late 2022 is set to open a major new surf attraction.
The National Surfing Centre of Excellence will have a virtual surfing experience, a surfing museum, and other tourist facilities. It will be located at Strandhill, a beach popular with swimmers and domestic tourists, and unlike the challenging Mullaghmore, has gentler surf perfect for beginners. So get a thick wetsuit, wade into the sea, and learn from one of the expert instructors at Strandhill Surf School.
Follow James Joyce’s Footsteps Around Dublin
Bloomsday is celebrated on June 16, the date on which James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set. It is named after the book’s main character, Leopold Bloom, whose experiences are described in intense detail from 9 am to the early hours of the following 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, Dublin’s Bloomsday Festival runs over six days each June.
Hundreds of Irish people don straw boat hats and dress in Edwardian costumes to visit places associated with the novel and eat Bloom’s breakfast of grilled mutton kidneys. A program of readings, performances, and guided pub crawls ensures lively entertainment. At other times of year, visit the James Joyce Centre.
Hike the Rugged Trails of West Ireland
WHERE: County Mayo
Extremely narrow and winding, many of Ireland’s roads are horrendously dangerous for cycling. This is a great shame, as they pierce tranquil, rural settings that would make wonderful company for cyclists. Fortunately, in recent years the Irish Government has created a series of “greenways”–smooth, safe walking and cycling trails through some of the country’s finest scenery.
The best of the lot of is the Great Western Greenway, a 27-mile long through County Mayo that stretches from the beautiful town of Westport to the majestic Achill Island. This route can easily be cycled in a day by even amateur riders. Walkers can break it up into two days by spending a night in the quaint, waterside town of Newport.
There are six major greenways in Ireland, which also include the Waterford Greenway, Old Rail Trail, Limerick Greenway, Royal Canal Greenway, and Suir Greenway. Ireland’s weather is unpredictable 12 months a year, so even if it’s sunny out pack a well-insulated rain jacket.
Party and Shop in Galway
Ireland is justifiably world-famous for its nightlife, and within Ireland, Galway is widely considered the best place for a night out. That’s thanks to its youthful population (it’s a major student city), talented street buskers, thriving live music scene, more than a dozen annual festivals, and the charming setting that is Galway’s Latin Quarter, an ancient precinct of cobblestone streets lined with old and uniquely-Irish pubs.
Pop into 150-year-old Taaffes Pub to hear a live Irish music session, which is held here every single night. The Latin Quarter also is a busy shopping precinct and boasts many shops selling high-quality, Irish-made products from pottery to glassware and ever-so-warm Aran wool jumpers, which are native to Galway.
View Ireland’s Massive Sea Cliffs From Above and Below
WHERE: County Clare
Ireland’s west coast is laced with dozens of towering sea cliffs, which plunge from farmland down into the rough Atlantic Ocean. Two of these cliffs are among the most spectacular in all of Europe. The second-most visited tourist attraction in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher are 700-feet tall and stretch for 5 miles along the coast in County Clare.
Tourists can earn awe-inspiring views from the walking paths that hug the cliffs heading south away from the site’s impressive visitor center. Or they can stare up at this wonder from its base, on one of the regular Cliffs of Moher boat tours that depart from the port town of Doolin, just north of there.
Meanwhile, tucked away in the lesser-visited County Donegal are Europe’s highest accessible sea cliffs, about three times taller than those in Moher. This natural wonder, Slieve League, received a €5 million makeover in 2020, including a new visitor center and 1.6 miles of new cliff-top walkways. Visitors can hike along the clifftops or join boat tours which offer stunning views from sea level, as well as the chance to swim and fish beneath the cliffs.
Drive the 1,550 Mile-Long Wild Atlantic Way
Ireland is best explored by driving, with much of its magic residing in small country towns and isolated swathes of dramatic natural scenery. The signposted, 1,550 mile-long Wild Atlantic Way, which exposes drivers to the majesty of the entire west coast of Ireland, has been such a giant success since it was launched by the Irish Government in 2014. It passes soaring mountains, pristine beaches, lofty sea cliffs, historic castles, and endless cute towns while cutting through (from north to south) the countries of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry, and Cork. Not to be missed along this route are the stunning, wealthy port town of Kinsale in Cork, the untamed Doolough Valley of Mayo, and Kerry’s breathtaking Dingle Peninsula.
Walk, Cycle, or Drive Waterford and Ireland’s East Coast
The Wild Atlantic Way driving route along Ireland’s western fringe was so successful that Discover Ireland created Ireland’s Ancient East, a similar concept that is yet to gain the same traction. Yet the route it follows is rich with sights and history, particularly at Waterford city, which was built on a Viking settlement. Architecture buffs will savor both the lived-in Georgian heritage and Viking artifacts of Waterford’s Reginald’s Tower, an 800-year-old medieval fortification. Hire a bike on the quays and head for the Waterford Greenway, a 30-mile off-road cycling and walking path that runs along a former railway line through wonderful scenery.
The final 25 miles 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.
Shop ‘Til You Drop in Dublin’s Buzzing City Center
Dublin is comfortably Ireland’s best city for shopping, which should be no surprise given it has six times the population of the next biggest metropolis, Cork. The Irish capital has two excellent retail precincts, separated by the River Liffey, which cuts Dublin in half.
Hugging the north side of this river, and surrounding the city’s famous O’Connell Street, is a dense assortment of department stores (Arnott’s and Penneys), popular clothing chains, and many fine Irish souvenir stores. Directly to the south is the trendier, more upmarket Grafton Street Quarter Here you’ll find many luxury brand outlets, like Brown Thomas department store, which is like the Irish version of Nordstrom or Macy’s.
Within this quarter, by far the hippest places will be found around Drury Street, one block west of Grafton Street. Here are the smaller, more adventurous vintage shops and ateliers, alongside Busyfeet & Coco Cafe and other exciting budget eating places.
Walk the Mighty Walls of Derry
When Ireland in 1921 won independence from Great Britain, this island was split into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This separation has been an emotional and controversial issue ever since. Further complicating this matter is longstanding unrest between Protestant “Loyalists,” who wish for Northern Ireland to stay as part of the UK, and Catholic “Republicans,” who want a reunited Ireland. These tensions were at the heart of The Troubles, a period of conflict from the late 1960s and late 1990s stained by dozens of violent and often deadly incidents. These wounds have never fully healed, and Ireland remains a divided place.
Tourists can get a sense of this turbulent history by visiting the many political wall murals in the suburbs of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry cities. The name of that city is a compromise between Loyalists and Republicans, who prefer the former and latter names, respectively. In 1614, the city was rebuilt within massive ramparts, or walls, sections of which tourists can now walk to earn views across Derry/Londonderry, including its graceful Peace Bridge. Built as a symbol of hope that Northern Ireland can enjoy lasting calm, this bridge was opened in 2011 and spans the city’s River Foyle.
Tap Your Toes to the Beat of Traditional Irish Music
The Gaelic word for festival, a fleadh, is a rowdy celebration of traditional Irish music and dancing. Dozens of fleadhs take place across Ireland each year, with the largest being the annual summer event Fleadh Cheoil, which is held in a different town or city each year. In 2022, it is being hosted by Mullingar from July 31 to August 7. At this event, singers, musicians, and dancers compete for medals, much of the music is free, and the atmosphere is refreshingly uncommercial.
Meanwhile, Ennis, the chief town of County Clare, is a great place to hear music at any time in its half-dozen music pubs. 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 program, part of which takes place in historic Bantry House.
Visit One of Ireland’s 1000+ Castles
There are literally thousands of castles in Ireland, which vary from crumbled ruins to tiny fortresses and giant citadels. Many of them just lay abandoned and can be easily accessed by tourists, like the remains of Ballycarbery Castle in County Kerry.
Others have been meticulously well maintained, such as Kilkenny Castle which dominates the downtown area of Kilkenny city and is more than 800 years old. Some have been restored to a level of grandeur that probably exceeds their original state. That is the case with Ashford Castle, in County Galway, a 350-acre estate that recently underwent a USD $75 million makeover to become perhaps the most luxurious five-star hotel in Ireland.
Shop for the Best of Irish Design
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, opposite the city’s renowned castle, then follow the local craft trail where you can discover, among others, Nicholas Mosse pottery and hand-blown Jerpoint Glass.
Stephen Pearce Pottery at Shanagarry in County 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 1890s; tour its Visitor Center for the full story.
Connemara and Donegal are the best places to shop for tweed– either fabric pieces 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.
Sample Artisan Food at Cork’s Farmers’ Markets
Cork city’s English Market is a maze-like covered bazaar with more than 100 stalls selling everything from hand-made bread to local charcuterie, confectionery, cakes, organic meats, fresh fish, and delicious cheeses. On the outskirts of Cork, Midleton Farmers’ Market from 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays is one of Ireland’s best, not surprisingly, as Ballymaloe Cookery School’s doyenne, Darina Allen, has played a major part in its success.
A large traditional market is held in the small County Cork town of 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 Cork city. Sample both to decide.
Marvel at the Giant's Causeway
WHERE: Northern Ireland
Created up to 60 million years ago, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, is a mass of almost 40,000 basalt columns that extend 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 bursting from the ocean.
Folklore has it that 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 flung a huge chunk of earth towards Scotland. The resulting crater supposedly became Lough Neagh, and the sod landed to create the Isle of Man.
In peak summer months, the Causeway can be very busy, so get there early or leave your visit until late afternoon when it’s generally quieter. To reach it, you can either walk 1 mile down a long, scenic hill, or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. Both of those journeys start at the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience, made of locally quarried basalt from the very same lava flows that formed the causeway.
Explore the 6,000-Year-Old Wonder That Challenges Scientists
WHERE: County Mayo
Flanked by giant sea cliffs and sheep-filled meadows is an archaeological marvel six millennia old that challenges scientists and thrills tourists, and has recently become more appealing thanks to a renovation. The Ceide Fields are billed as the world’s largest Stone Age ruins. Five square miles of megalithic tombs, dwellings, fortifications, and agricultural structures have tentative UNESCO World Heritage status.
Were they located near Dublin, rather than 3.5 hours drive west of there in the remote countryside of County Mayo, the Ceide Fields would be one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions. Instead, few people outside of Ireland are aware of this gem, the debates around its origins, or the engrossing Irish myths tied to this hallowed site, much of which remains buried (further heightening its mystery). All of this intriguing background is explained inside the Ceide Fields Visitor Centre, which in mid-2022 reopened after a major renovation.
Learn About the Catastrophe That Wiped Out 35% Of Ireland’s Population
In 1844, Ireland had a population of about 8.5 million. Just a decade later, three million of those people were gone. The Great Irish Famine had claimed the lives of about one million people and triggered another two million to flee overseas in desperation.
Potato blight infected Ireland’s main crop, which failed for five consecutive years, leaving many Irish people without the food staple that had previously helped them survive. Starvation and related diseases then inundated Ireland, which didn’t recover for many decades. Tourists can get a sense of this gigantic tragedy by visiting Ireland’s more than 20 museums and monuments dedicated to this famine. Among the best are County Wexford’s Dunbrody Famine Ship. County Monaghan’s Carrickmacross Workhouse and County Roscommon’s National Famine Museum, which in mid-2022 reopens after a $6 million renovation.
Learn About Ireland’s Fight for Independence
2021 marked the 100th anniversary of one of the longest fights for freedom in the world’s history. Ireland was brutally occupied by the British for eight centuries and only achieved Independence in 1921 after its freedom fighters finally caused too many problems for the Brits.
This is the perhaps the single most important moment in Irish history. Tourists can delve into this deep, dark history at Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland. They can also visit Dublin’s Proclamation Sculpture, alongside the tourist attraction Kilmainham Gaol, which honors the freedom fighters executed in that jail as a result of the 1916 Easter Rising, an Irish rebellion against the occupying Brits.
Climb Inside the “Hell Caves” Where Halloween Was Born
America popularized Halloween, turning it into a world-recognized juggernaut of a festival beloved by children in dozens of countries. But it was actually invented by Irish Pagans 2,000 years ago in the dark depths of Irish caves known as “hell gateways.” These caves were believed to be portals between the living world and Ireland’s underworld, a terrifying dimension inhabited by powerful spirits.
Each year on October 31, those Irish pagans danced, chanted, lit bonfires, and offered animal sacrifices while waiting for the hell gateways to open at Oweynagat and Kesh caves, in County Roscommon and County Sligo, respectively. This was the Samhain Festival, which Irish immigrants many centuries later introduced to the United States, where it morphed into Halloween.
Follow St. Patrick’s Trail
Celebrated in dozens of countries across the world, St. Patrick’s Day has become a kitschy, alcohol-fueled holiday. Although it’s also a serious party event in Ireland, there’s a deep reverence for the country’s patron saint, Patrick, whose influence can be traced across mountains, churches, castles, beaches, and walking trails.
In Dublin, his spirit fills the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a giant structure of intricate stonework, delicate mosaics, and brilliant stained glass built on the site where he baptized the first Irish Christians. Tourists to County Mayo hike up Croagh Patrick, a pointy peak overlooking dozens of beaches, considered the holiest mountain in Ireland and atop which St Patrick fasted for 40 days in the 5th century. Then there’s the Rock of Cashel, a mighty castle in County Tipperary that St Patrick visited to baptize the King of Munster.