By Jim Ferri
For many of us, whether we’re of Irish descent or not, there’s no place like Ireland.
I love it, although I should confess that I’m half Irish. (You need only to look at my name to guess which half.) I always enjoy my trips to the “ould sod” since every time I visit I always discover new things. Each trip is another wonderful adventure.
Here are a dozen places I greatly enjoy on the island of Ireland, both the Republic and Northern Ireland. Some are well known; a few are spots even well traveled Irish aficionados may not have yet explored.
What they all have in common is that each provides a unique Irish experience, some so much that I’ve returned to them several times.
Ireland’s Beautiful Capital: Dublin
Almost every traveler in Ireland becomes acquainted with Dublin, one of Europe’s oldest cities and a top city in Ireland. Rife with a medieval and Georgian heritage, Dublin is bursting with cafes, restaurants, and traditional pubs, most providing typical Irish merriment. Dublin also has plenty of wonderful green spaces, such as St Stephen’s Green, and great Georgian spaces, such as Merion Square with its 18th-century townhouses.
Join the legion of travelers who head to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells, but don’t miss the fantastic collections in the National Gallery and National Museum of Ireland. If you enjoy literature, you’ll surely enjoy the Dublin Writers Museum.
Then head towards Grafton Street, for shopping, street entertainers and a spot of lunch before taking a walk along O’Connell Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, where you’ll see the Monument of Light Spire.
In the evening wander in and out of the pubs, tiny cafes and art galleries in the Temple Bar quarter. Of course, no trip to Dublin would be complete without a visit to the Gravity Bar in the city’s famous Guinness Storehouse.
Must-See Ireland: The Beautiful Dingle Peninsula
The Dingle Peninsula, Ireland’s westernmost tip jutting out into the Atlantic, has an abundance of wild and beautiful scenery, some of the most dramatic in the country. It’s not very well known among travelers, although that’s changing as more tourists visit the town of Dingle.
The town is a colorful fishing port where restaurants and pubs offer an abundance of fresh seafood. Try the local scallops or Glenbeigh Oysters at the restaurant Ashes, maybe while you sit under the photo of actor Gregory Peck dining there years ago.
I enjoyed joining the crowd for traditional Irish music in the Courthouse pub, as well as visiting Foxy John’s pub, a combination of pub and hardware store, one of the few remaining in Ireland.
Killarney and The Ring of Kerry: Irish Treasures
Killarney is said to be “the place that launched a billion postcards.” While I can’t vouch for that Irish hyperbole, I can vouch for the fact that the town of Killarney, Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry are spectacular, all Irish treasures. The are one of the best places to visit in Ireland.
Even before the famous visit of Queen Victoria to Killarney in 1861 (she gave six years notice of her visit and then arrived with her bed and a 100-strong entourage), it had already earned its stripes as a tourist hub.
Take a jaunting car ride through the beautiful National Park and see Carrauntoohil mountain, Ireland’s tallest, as well as to spellbinding lakes and forests, as well as beautiful Muckross House, the mansion where Victoria stayed.
The set off from for a drive about the Ring of Kerry, a 100+ mile loop about the Iveragh Peninsula, one of the great (and most popular) drives in Ireland.
Beautiful 18th Century Powerscourt
In County Wicklow, only a 30-minute drive south of Dublin, you’ll find 18th century Powerscourt, an estate with possibly the finest formal gardens in Ireland. It’s great for a half-day trip, and you won’t find crowds of tourists either.
When you enter the estate, it takes several minutes to drive up to the mansion and gardens, and you pass horses and sheep grazing along the way, all part of the panorama of the beautiful Wicklow countryside. It’s an incredibly grand estate, which also contains a golf course and a Ritz-Carlton that, thankfully, has been tucked away out of sight.
It was built on the site of an old castle and, unfortunately, was gutted by fire about 50 years ago but has been partially restored. The house isn’t open to visitors, but you can visit a café and some shops selling quality Irish goods.
Wild and Austere Connemara, Another Irish Must-See
Ireland’s Connemara Peninsula is a dramatic, nearly treeless land jutting out into the Atlantic, a place of rock, peat bogs, moors, and little streams. It’s Ireland that’s desolate and wild.
Here you’ll find isolated farms and the wild land of Connemara National Park, punctuated by the peaks of the Twelve Bens. Beyond are Kylemore Lough and the beautiful Kylemore Abbey with a Victorian walled-garden. An incredible 19th-century building set at the base of a near-vertical mountain, it’s a former Benedictine abbey that’s now a girl’s boarding school.
The little town of Clifden, which anchors it to the rest of the country, is a good place to stop to eat if you’re traveling through the area.
Galway, a Great City to Visit
With its youthful population and bohemian spirit, Galway is one of the liveliest places to enjoy local culture in all of Ireland. For me, it’s an almost magical place, made so by its music and pubs. Walk into a pub nearly any evening and you’ll find a lively place reverberating with the sounds of fiddles, banjos, guitars, flutes and assorted other instruments. It may be the most Irish city in Ireland and is definitely one of my best places to visit in Ireland..
The city also has a reputation for artistic creativity, played out every year in a full calendar of events ranging from music and theater to horseracing and the popular Galway International Oyster Festival.
You’ll find its charms best enjoyed by simply strolling the city’s lanes and soaking up the atmosphere since there’s plenty to keep you occupied. I love it.
One of the Unique Places to Visit in Ireland; The Aran Islands
If you’re visiting Galway and want to get a taste of what Ireland was like in years past, take a ferry out to the Aran Islands. Weathered and rugged with about 1,100 residents scattered across three islands, the Islands are windswept spits of landscape covered with grass, where ribbons of road dart here and there and stone walls run in every direction across barren hillsides. They are one of the most unique places to visit in Ireland.
They’re almost other-worldly, a place where you can get away from the rest of the world, which is why travelers come here. I love them. Many travelers come on day trips, but you’ll find it much more enjoyable to spend a night or two in a B&B instead.
Although you can reach the Arans by air, most opt for the less-costly ferry, which isn’t always a smooth sail. Even when I made the crossing in September on a calm sea, the ferry rolled back and forth several times. “About 20 days every winter it’s so rough you can’t get on or off the island by boat,” an island mini-bus driver told me. “And for another 20 you wish you hadn’t.”
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast in Northern Ireland is one of the best places to visit on the island of Ireland.It is a city recently reborn, thanks in great part to the Titanic Belfast, one of the most engaging museums you’ll find anywhere. Even if you’re only in Belfast for a day, make certain you see it. It’s one of the best places to visit in Ireland, either the Republic or the North.
If you have time hire one of the city’s famous black taxis for a three- or four-hour city tour to see the Cathedral Quarter, around St Anne’s Cathedral, and the Queens Quarter (to see historic Queen’s University, the Ulster Museum, and the Botanic Gardens). Make sure you also drive out to the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, ground-zero for the “troubles” of past decades, where political murals still cover many walls.
Also, make a stop at St Anne’s, also known as Belfast Cathedral, a beautiful church with a 130-foot stainless steel spire lofting skyward through a glass platform above the altar. Across the street is the small Writer’s Square that pays tribute to 27 Northern Ireland authors. Leave a few minutes also to pop into the renowned Crown Liquor Saloon. With its centuries-old interior, it’s one of the most ornate pubs in Belfast.
The Incredible Burren
You don’t find many travelers who seek out The Burren, a huge, treeless limestone plateau in County Clare where a moonscape-like austerity gives it a unique beauty. (Actually, it’s a unique botanical environment of both Alpine and Mediterranean plants). This difference alone — it looking so different from the rest of the country — makes it one of the best places to visit in Ireland.
Those that do seek it out usually come to see the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb dating from 3200 – 3800 BC. Excavated in 1986, it’s the most famous of the 170+ portal tombs scattered about Ireland.
An analysis of the remains of 22 bodies and various artifacts found in the tomb have provided insight into the lives of Irish Neolithic people. Signs along the walkway leading to the tomb provide a good explanation of it.
Beautiful, Charming Westport
Up in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, the town of Westport is quite attractive with tree-lined streets, eye-catching shops, and many restaurants and pubs, especially along charming Bridge Street. The most famous of the pubs is Matt Molloy’s, a pub named for, and owned by, the flutist of the Grammy-Award winning musical group The Chieftains.
Westport was once voted as “the best place to live in Ireland” and its pretty setting reaffirms it. But go further afield and visit the area surrounding the town including Clew Bay west of the city. There you’ll find 18th-century Westport House mansion, built on the site of a castle of pirate Grace O’Malley.
A Great Part of Ireland: The Southeast
Ireland’s Southeast differs greatly from its rugged Atlantic coast. Here, especially in the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, and Wexford, you’ll find low rolling hills and lush valleys.
While the city of Waterford – Ireland’s oldest city, thanks to the arrival of the Vikings in 914 ¬– is the most famous because of Waterford crystal, the countryside of the three counties is beautiful.
Visit the city of Kilkenny, one of Ireland’s most historic towns (see Kilkenny Castle and grab a pint and a bite to eat at Kyteler’s Inn, a medieval coaching inn), the Hook Peninsula in Wexford and Waterford. I found the drive along the coast of Wexford beautiful.
Another of the Best Places to Visit: Beautiful Donegal
Up in the northwest corner of Ireland, the County of Donegal doesn’t attract a lot of attention. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much – it’s beautiful and green and without the crowds, a wonderful area if you’re willing to make the drive.
The city of Donegal is a vest-pocket little town, with a castle right in the middle of it. Just blocks away steep hills coddle the city, which is a pleasant Irish town to walk about. There’s not a lot to see in Donegal town, and travelers mainly use it as a base for exploring the surrounding Donegal countryside.
East of town is dramatic Slieve League, the highest cliff face in Europe. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride to get to but is quite beautiful. Continue on where the road turns inland, and you’ll come to the interesting Folk Village Museum outside the small town of Glencolumbkille.
If you go:
Irish Tourist Board
345 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10154
Tel. (800) 223-6470