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One of the most challenging parts of planning any trip is deciding where to go and what to see within the time that you have. Having visited Ireland over a dozen times, including touring friends, family and others around, I’ve come up with what may be the perfect itinerary for visiting Emerald Isle for the first time. Follow it in its entirety, pick and choose the best cities and routes that appeal most, and, if you have more time, perhaps add some new destinations like the Aran Islands for an Old World Ireland experience.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
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Just about everyone starts their trip in Ireland’s largest city, Dublin. You’ll probably have at least a bit of jet lag if you’re coming from North America – the best Rx for that is to get out for a walk and see the city’s top attractions. Phoenix Park is the largest city park in Europe, home to the Dublin Zoo, Ashtown Castle and a herd of red deer. It’s 2.6 miles from one end to the other along tree-lined paths with the Phoenix Park Monument approximately halfway.
Wicklow National Park is just 40 minutes from Dublin, yet it offers an entirely different world with jaw-dropping scenery at every turn. If you’ve ever seen the film “P.S. I Love You,” you’ll recognize many of the scenes while driving through. Fans of the hit History Channel show, “Vikings,” won’t want to miss Lough Tay. The Luggala Mountains around the sparkling sapphire lake look surprisingly Scandinavian, providing the ideal backdrop for the series. In the summer and early autumn when heather is in bloom, you’ll see a sea of purple and maroon across the green hills. Glendalough is also a highlight, home to a 6th-century monastic settlement.
Less than two hours from Wicklow National Park, medieval Kilkenny is an artsy city with cobblestone lanes that lead to magnificent 12th-century Kilkenny Castle which overlooks the River Nore. Home to the Butler dynasty from 1391 through 1935, tours are available to view the impressive interior which includes family portraits that date back to their earliest years in the Long Gallery.
Don’t miss the Rock of Cashel on your way to your next destination, Ardmore. You’ll get off the highway and along the backroads, passing charming villages and endless green hills. Once there, you can visit one of Ireland’s most awe-inspiring sites, with the oldest buildings dating back to the early 12th century. The site was used much earlier as a fortress and royal seat since at least the 4th century. This was where Brian Boru was inaugurated as King of Munster in 978 AD, and as High King of Ireland about a quarter-century later.
Traveling further south to Ardmore, you’ll reach the Celtic Sea. This village is believed to have been the home of the first Christian settlement in the country. Originally a 5th-century monastic settlement founded by St. Declan, it’s filled with historic sites including a 12th-century round tower, cathedral, St. Declan’s well and oratory. The tower soars nearly 100 feet into the sky, overlooking the fishing village and beautiful beaches along the Waterford coast.
Do more than just drive through Killarney National Park. It’s an enchanting region with a treasure trove of waterfalls, dramatic mountains, forests and castles. In the summer, Ross Castle is open for public tours, and you’ll find a wealth of outdoor activities to enjoy, including scenic hikes like the short trek to Torc Waterfall. The walk that begins and ends at Muckross House, about 3.5 miles from the Killarney town center, involves only a very minimal amount of climbing and includes visits to the formal gardens and historic buildings. You can also take a boat trip on the Lakes of Killarney and enjoy a romantic horse and carriage ride through the park.
The drive from Killarney National Park to Portmagee is absolutely breathtaking. Technically is just 90 minutes away, but with so many photo-ops along the way, it’s bound to be a little longer. The tiny fishing village will welcome you with its row of brightly colored buildings, including the popular Bridge Bar which frequently hosts traditional music nights, perfectly paired with the ever-flowing Guinness and award-winning cuisine. The most popular attraction here is the boat trip to Skellig Michael, about eight miles offshore. It was featured in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and hosts a well-preserved 6th-century monastic settlement.
Less than a two-hour drive from Portmagee, Dingle is one of Ireland’s most popular towns, boasting quintessential Irish scenery. Don’t miss a scenic drive on Dingle peninsula, which National Geographic Traveler once called “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth.” In town, you’ll find countless pubs hosting live music, fun shops to explore, all sorts of fantastic eateries, and the opportunity to catch a boat excursion to see “Fungi,” Dingle’s famous friendly dolphin – residing here for some 30 years now.
A three-hour journey will bring you to Doolin, home to popular sights like the Cliffs of Moher. If you visit on a nice day, you’re likely to enjoy the sounds of talented musicians playing a tune atop the cliffs to complement the view. Just a short drive away is Doolin Cave, with the longest free-hanging stalactite in the Northern Hemisphere. Suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier, the 23-foot-long Great Stalactite is incredible, formed from just a single drop of water over thousands of years. The village itself is considered the capital of traditional Irish music – McDermott’s, O’Connor’s and McGann’s are the three most renowned pubs for enjoying it.
Clifden is located near the Connemara coast and makes an ideal base for exploring Connemara National Park, idyllic beaches like Coral Beach, abbeys and castle ruins. The village itself hosts lots of great local shops selling everything from antiques to wool sweaters. It also boasts an increasingly thriving food scene, with a number of fine eateries and lively pubs hosting music throughout the year.
Finally, as you make your way back to Dublin and the east side of the country, it’s worth detouring a bit north of the airport to visit Newgrange. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza, built about 3200 BC., it’s believed to have been a passage tomb as well as a temple for ancient people that worshipped the sun. White quartz was used to build it in order to inspire life-giving energy. Guided tours begin at the Visitor Center which is open year-round.