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The Emerald Isle is filled with picturesque towns, and to experience some of the very best, you’ll need to get away from the big cities and venture out into the countryside. From tiny seaside villages to mountain hamlets, these towns are Ireland’s prettiest.
Westport, one of Ireland’s few planned towns, is located on the south-east corner of Clew Bay. Its town center was designed in 1780 and is a prime example of the Georgian-style. The charming streets and promenades are lined by trees, and there are a number of pretty bridges with colorful flowers strategically placed among them that cross over the river, further adding to the town’s appeal. Westport is also a great place to stay for those that want to climb the famous pilgrimage mountain of Croagh Patrick, which towers over the town. For those who aren’t up for the adventure, you can stop into the pub at the foot of the reek where fitness is irrelevant. Be sure to visit Westport House, a Georgian-era estate built in 1650 on the site of O’Malley Castle – the dungeons of the castle still remain, while the house that’s surrounded by lakes and gardens offers spectacular views of Clew Bay, Achill and Clare Island.
Cobh, located just south-east of Cork city, sits on a large island in the harbor, connected to the mainland by a short bridge. One of the prettiest islands in Ireland, it derives much of its colorful history from its port and proximity to the sea. Cobh was the major port of Irish emigration in the 19th-century, and during the Great Famine, many Irish left the country from this very spot, traveling to their new lives. It was also the last port of call for the Titanic in April 1912, just before the ship met its tragic end. Occupying the former White Star Line building where Titanic’s passengers boarded, the Titanic Experience museum is worth a visit as it recounts the story of the ship and its final moments. The Queenstown Story museum sits in a harborside Victorian train station, helping the city’s history come to life with exhibits on the famine, Irish emigration, the prison ships bound for Australia, and the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic.
Portmagee is another standout. Not only is it one of Ireland’s prettiest villages, but it’s also frequently found on the list of the country’s top tourism towns. The tiny village sits on the southwest coast of Ireland, featuring a row of brightly colored buildings and rich and colorful history. At The Bridge Bar, you’ll find live music many nights of the week along with outstanding gourmet fare and a well-poured pint of Guinness. Portmagee is also the departure hub for trips to Skellig Michael, the home of preserved monastic settlements dating back to the 6th century. Star Wars fans will be interested to know that this was featured in the latest film, “The Force Awakens.”
Dingle is a hilltop medieval town on the breathtaking Dingle Peninsula that overlooks a bustling harbor, while its stone buildings ramble up and downhills. Here visitors can find more of an authentic Irish experience along with plenty of great local pubs featuring live traditional Irish tunes. Just outside of town you’ll find the breathtaking scenery Ireland is known for, including brilliant green hills dotted with sheep and white-washed cottages, while spectacular cliffs touch down to the cobalt blue waters of the Atlantic. This area is also renowned for its high concentration of ringforts and other ancient ruins, though its beauty is what’s most unforgettable.
Ardmore is a seaside fishing town that has won a number of awards for its attractiveness, including the National Title in the Tidy Towns competition. Originally a 5th-century monastic settlement founded by St. Declan in 316 AD, it’s reputed to be the very first of its kind in Ireland. Ardmore is also the romantic setting of author Nora Roberts’ popular “Gallaghers of Ardmore” series. Its round tower, built in the 12th-century, rises to a height of nearly 100 feet and overlooks the picturesque village and gorgeous beaches along the stunning Waterford waterfront. It was once a place of refuge for ecclesiastics and the safekeeping of their chalices, books and relics. Look for St. Declan’s Stone along the foreshore, which, according to legend was miraculously carried on the waves from Wales following the saint’s visit there. Exploring the coastline atop the water is possible too through Ardmore Adventures, offering a variety of sea kayaking excursions.
Many visitors to Ireland fall in love with Kenmore. With its colorful gardens and stone cottages with flowers overflowing from window boxes, what’s not to love? Often referred to as the crown jewel on the Ring of Kerry, it not only makes a wonderful base for exploring the area, it’s a great town for just taking a stroll around, walking to the pier and exploring the shoreline when the tide is out, where herons can often be seen searching for fish off the rocks. A “haven of tranquility,” you’ll find plenty of outstanding accommodation options, fantastic food, golf courses, opportunities for treks and horse riding in one of Europe’s most unspoiled environments. If you’re looking to indulge in a five-star stay, Sheen Falls Lodge, located just a mile from town is a true gem with a fine dining restaurant as well as offering guided falconry walks and trips in the hotel’s 1930s Buick and drinks outside surrounded by waterfalls.
Enniskerry, located on the Glencullen River at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains, is an incredibly scenic town known as one of the country’s loveliest and most beloved villages. It features unique shops, fabulous tearooms and numerous eateries as well as plenty of guesthouses, hotels and picture-postcard cottages. With its rich Victorian heritage and numerous famous attractions nearby, like Powerscourt Estate, it regularly attracts film and television crews seeking to capture both modern-day spirit and a historical charm against a backdrop of stunning scenery. It’s been the setting for scenes in Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V,” “Into the West,” “P.S. I Love You” and “Leap Year.” Powerscourt Estate, just minutes away, offers public tours of the estate and its spectacular 47-acre gardens. Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Ireland at nearly 400-feet tall, can also be visited there.
Adare is another picture-postcard town, with its images reproduced alongside hundreds of thousands of “Wish You Were Here” messages. While the secret is definitely out, by visiting in the offseason, or early in the morning when the roads aren’t jam-packed with tour buses, you can take lots of your own idyllic photos. The village is a wealth of scenic beauty with its main street lined with beautiful stone buildings, medieval monasteries, ruins and a picturesque park. You’ll see many original thatched cottages, built back in the 1820s, with some that have been transformed into boutiques, restaurants and arts and crafts shops. Be sure to visit Adare Castle, regarded as a fine example of Ireland’s medieval fortified castles, situated on the north bank of the River Maigue.
Located along the southwest coast of County Donegal, the tiny town of Ardara, one of the five designated heritage towns in the county, looks as if it was carved out of a solid block of granite. Streets undulate up and down rocky hills and are lined with charming shops and boutiques, many of which sell items made from famous Donegal wool. Nearby is Owenea River, where trout and salmon fishing are considered some of the best in all of Ireland. The town also boasts beautiful blue flag beaches, a top-notch golf course, and just outside of town is stunning Glengesh Pass.
Kinsale is a historical fishing village on the River Bandon that is known for its narrow streets lined with charming shops, pubs and galleries. It’s a tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle in Cork city, while its picturesque harbor and mild climate make it popular for yachting, dolphin and whale watching trips as well as sea angling. It’s also home to a number of historical buildings, like Saint Multose Church, built in 1190, and Desmond Castle, which dates from 1500 and was once a custom house and naval prison. Kinsale’s roots in the wine trade are also on display here, along with lively exhibits that detail its history, while a small wine museum tells the story of Irish wine-trading families like Hennessy, of brandy fame, who fled to France due to British rule. Be sure to stop by Charles Fort as well, a ring fort that offers impressive views of the town and the harbor.
Situated on the breathtaking Beara Peninsula on Bantry Bay where the mountains meet the sea, Glengariff is a charming town renowned for its spectacular views. A popular tourist destination, it also has a wide variety of fine shops, galleries, accommodation options, pubs and restaurants. The town is surrounded by magnificent, rugged mountains that are home to Lady Bantry’s Lookout, which can be reached via a steep but short hiking trail through the woods. Here, you’ll enjoy amazing panoramic views over Glengarriff to Garnish Island, Whiddy Island and Bantry Bay. To the north, you’ll see the Glengarriff woodlands tucked in the rugged glen rimmed by the Caha Mountains.
Take the Garnish Island Ferry from Glengarriff Pier to visit the beautiful island garden – the ferry trip also includes a visit to seal island where you’ll see a seal colony. Garnish is world-famous for its gardens which are laid out in beautiful walks and it has some stunning specimen plants which are rare in this climate.
Lismore, designated as a heritage town, can be found at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains. It’s famous for its historic buildings and scenic vistas. The historic town is steeped in ecclesiastical history, with its highlight an 800-year-old castle located on the site of an old monastery. The imposing castle is set upon a steep hill offering incredible views of the town and surrounding Blackwater Valley. Over the centuries, it’s been linked to the historical figure Sir Walter Raleigh and to the father of chemistry, Robert Boyle. It’s also attracted multiple well-known visitors through the years, including Fred Astaire.
You can start your visit at the Lismore Heritage Centre, which offers visitors and locals a unique insight into the town’s rich history and all the attractions it has to offer through a museum and a variety of exhibitions. There are also a number of scenic walks in the area, including Lady Louisa’s walk, primarily a woodland walk along the riverbank.
Clifden is an especially charming town in the heart of Connemara. Not only is it filled with lots of great restaurants and pubs that host live music most nights of the week, but its streets are lined with unique shops where you’ll find locally-made crafts. It also makes an ideal base for visiting Connemara National Park and the Twelve Bens Mountain Range as well as Kylemore Abbey. Founded in the early 19th-century, Clifden also has an interesting, rich history. On June 15, 1919, Alcock and Brown made their pioneering transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Clifden – they crash-landed in a bog on the outskirts of town where a memorial can be found today. By heading out toward the village of Ballyconneely, you’ll find some of Ireland’s very best beaches on the west coast, including the famous Coral Strand. The beautiful Connemara Golf Course offering unspoiled views of the Atlantic is in this area, and horseback riding along the beach is possible through Point Pony Trekking & Horse Riding in Ballyconneely too.
Abbeyglen Castle Hotel makes a fabulous place to overnight in Clifden as an intimate, more affordable castle hotel with top-notch service and an award-winning restaurant. Some rooms feature four-poster beds, fireplaces and Jacuzzis, and all guests enjoy a champagne reception upon arrival.
Birr is another one of Ireland’s best examples of a Georgian town. The spacious, well-planned town boasts pretty Georgian houses along its tree-lined avenues and is home to Birr Castle, the seat to the Parsons family for 14 generations. The oldest inhabited home in Ireland, it features an astronomical telescope with a 72-inch metal mirror that was erected by the third Earl of Rosse – and, until 1917, it was the largest telescope in the world. Leap Castle, known as one of the most haunted in Europe, is just a 10-minute drive away. The castle was the scene of many dreadful deeds and is famous for its eerie apparitions.
Rosses Point is a village in County Sligo, the area famously known as “Yeats Country,” with its point guarding Sligo Harbour, marked by the Metal Man lighthouse, placed offshore by local seafarers nearly two centuries ago. By taking the coastal walk you’ll enjoy some of Ireland’s best scenery as well as the Lady Waiting on the Shore, a monument dedicated to all the local women who waited behind while loved ones went to sea. The easy stroll brings visitors along the promenade where the Garavogue meets Sligo Bay, with mountains on one side and the old village on the right, also passing the ruined Elsinore Lodge, once home to WB Yeats’ Uncle Henry Middleton. The lodge where the Yeats brothers spent many summers with their cousins was built by the pirate captain John Black, also known as Black Jack, and he’s said to still be there in spirit today.
Ballyvaughan is an enchanting coastal village on the Atlantic that has a personality all of its own, with breathtaking views around every bend. With the dramatic backdrop of the historic Burren landscape, and overlooking Galway Bay, it’s hard to beat the scenery here. For those that want to get active, you can enjoy all sorts of water sports like kayaking, surfing and fishing as well as activities on the land like biking, walking and rock climbing. Ballyvaughan is also known for its vibrant arts and craft scene and offers local, seasonal produce at its Farmers Market along with plenty of fantastic pubs for taking in traditional music while enjoying a pint or two.
The medieval village of Carlingford has been called the prettiest town in Ireland’s smallest county, Louth. Located on the east coast in the heart of the Cooley Peninsula about halfway between Belfast and Dublin, the original medieval street patterns are still intact, while 13th-century King Johns Castle towers over the landscape. Carlingford and the surrounding region are home to a number of prehistoric and medieval sites in addition to the castle, with multiple other fine examples of secular and religious buildings dating from the 12th-century that can be seen right in the village. The rugged mountain terrain to the northeast, and the Cooley Mountains, are ideal for hikers of all experience levels, while Carlingford Lough offers dramatic views from wherever you happen to be in the peninsula.
Ardglass is located in a fabulous unspoiled region of Northern Ireland that’s ideal for those who prefer staying off the beaten track. This fishing village that overlooks the Irish Sea is known for producing some of the best herring in the country, while the peninsula that surrounds it is incredibly picturesque. Ardglass is popular with golf enthusiasts, offering impressive views of the rugged coastline from every hole while the majestic Mourne Mountains provide an ideal backdrop. Ardglass Castle, once the home of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare, now serves as the Ardglass Golf Club’s clubhouse which features a fine dining eatery as a great spot to savor and sample local produce.
Coleraine is a popular destination for Northern Ireland visitors as a picturesque town with gorgeous water views located near the mouth of the River Bann. Renowned for its beauty, the town has won a number of awards, including Best Kept Town, and is a main stopping point on the way to Giant’s Causeway. Soaked in history and character, Coleraine is a bustling university town today, offering a unique mix of old and new with world-class shopping along with historic buildings and a number of parks. It’s also home to the excavated Mountsandel site, the location of the first known human settlement in Ireland. As a 17th-century plantation town, it also boasts a Walking Heritage Trail. The distillery village of Bushmills, home to the Old Bushmills Distillery which is open for public tours, is less than a 15-minute drive away.