Ireland Vacations: Amazing Things to Do, See and Experience
From Galway to Dublin, Cork to Belfast and more, find out what a Travel Channel editor thinks are some of the best things to do in Ireland.
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Photo By: The Merrion Hotel
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Photo By: Ashford Castle
A Tour From Tip to Tail
Crisscrossing Ireland in a rental car is not really such a bad way to go when it comes to taking in the depth and breadth of Ireland. In a country roughly the size of Indiana, driving is a practical way to see a lot in a limited amount of time.
After landing in the eclectic, friendly big city of Dublin (and a stop at Guinness's Open Gate Brewery, shown here), our Irish journey took us from the extreme north of Giant's Causeway and the modern-history infused city of Belfast, to the artsy southern city of Cork and to the west, to Galway and Cong. Make up your own path through this lovely country, but make time to explore the many small villages and embrace the delightful surprises and people you'll find along the way.
From a car you can take in a number of cities and see the country's remarkable diversity of landscape: from green fields dotted with cows and sheep to the dramatic sea and coastline in a drive from the north to the south of the country. Best of all, a drive allows you to make wonderful discoveries along the way, like the charming garden shop and restaurant Strandfield House we stumbled upon on the drive between Belfast and Cork, a combination florist, grocer, gift shop and farm-to-table cafe with gorgeous wood tables and vintage china where you can stop for tea and a snack, browse the curated, high-end groceries and giftware and marvel at the parking lot filled with country gentry and their Jags, Mercedes and Audis buying bread and flowers for their tables.
An Irish Odyssey
The result of an ancient volcanic eruption, the dramatic basalt columns at the remote Giant's Causeway (shown here) in Northern Ireland are Instagram gold, and a must-see among Ireland's many attractions, primarily because a drive there allows you to travel through any number of appealing towns and through beautiful countryside. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Giant's Causeway is also a wonderful opportunity to take in the grandeur and dramatic, cinematic desolation of the northern coast, as striking, lonely and beautiful as the American West.
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Dublin: A Literary Pub Crawl
In the mood for a rousing, enlightening night out that combines two of Dublin's greatest passions: drinking and literature? More entertaining than any ordinary night at the theater, this almost two-hour Dublin Literary Pub Crawl roams through historic pubs and the grounds of Trinity College as actors travel along with the group recounting hilarious anecdotes, like the improbable night Dublin wit Oscar Wilde spent in a Colorado mining town during his 1882 American lecture tour, and excerpts from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and other works by renowned Irish writers. You'll gain incredible insight into Dublin itself, including its architecture and religious life and the role the city has played in the lives of writers. Ample time is given to down a pint (or two) at various historic pubs along the way where writers sipped and supped in this remarkable immersion in local high and low culture and the unmatchable humor and spirit of its citizenry.
Dublin: The Merrion Hotel
Tucked into the heart of the city and all it has to offer, but with the feel of a tranquil escape a million miles away, The Merrion Hotel offers old world, understated luxury in a converted row of 18th century Georgian townhouses across from Ireland's prime minister's office that give the space the feeling of a private home. Discreet, warm and efficient service only add to the comfortable surroundings. The plush, beautifully designed rooms feature crisp Egyptian cotton linens and pretty Irish fabrics and an incomparably comfy bed along with marble baths with heated towel bars and every imaginable amenity you'd expect from a five-star hotel along with additional, unexpected touches like Merrion cord fasteners to keep your charging cords organized and a lovely linen cloth placed bedside for slippers. The hotel is home to Ireland's only two-star Michelin restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud and an additionall in-house restaurant when you feel like staying put as well as a fabulous bar with roaring fireplace and overstuffed chairs to wile away an hour or two. Adding to the sense of well-appointed elegance is the hotel's impressive collection of 19th and 20th century art, considered one of the largest private collections in the country, which hangs throughout the hotel. Guests can enjoy a free audio tour of the collection while staying at the Merrion.
Dublin: Afternoon Tea at the Merrion Hotel
The Merrion Hotel's drawing rooms are home to one of the most quintessentially Irish and blissfully ladylike experiences imaginable, afternoon tea. The Merrion features two, a perfect-for-the-times Vegan Afternoon Tea and a highly recommended Art Tea inspired by the hotel's impressive collection of 19th and 20th century art.
Dublin: Afternoon Art Tea
A beautifully conceptualized tribute to the Merrion Hotel's one-of-a-kind art collection, the Art Tea is a deep dive into the wonders of Ireland's tea culture, with scones, clotted cream, silky house-made lemon curd and a Guinness-laced bread, lemon cake and an assortment of Piet Mondrian-colorful tea cakes along with savory sandwiches (salmon, chicken, cucumber offered up on a classic three-tier china tower). During the four seatings daily, guests can choose from a variety of unusual fruit, green, white and black teas, many sourced from the luxury German tea company Ronnefeldt (you can find the tea at the Camden Street gourmet shop Listons) . The grand finale is a selection of exquisite, jewel-like pastries whose colors and design are inspired by art works in the Merrion collection. The Art Tea includes a complimentary catalogue featuring works from the Merrion Hotel's collection of 19th and 20th century art. A harpist plays during the tea, which features opportunities to try many of the tea varieties as well as optional champagne and tea-based cocktails, for an additional charge. The afternoon tea is an unforgettable, transportive experience that beautifully encapsulates the gracious Irish hospitality and the Merrion's top-notch service.
Dublin: Camden Street
Ireland's capital city has so much to offer from the picturesque contemporary art museum the Irish Museum of Modern Art to Trinity College and the Book of Kells, a stunning campus where you can catch rugby players practicing in the icy rain or pick up a souvenir at the college bookshop. Restaurants feature the best of local seafood like Matt the Thresher, home to a substantial, delicious fish pie big enough to feed a family of three to the circa 1840 Bewley's Oriental Cafe, a historic cafe with ample food and drink options and the feel of a multi-level Victorian department store with its tile floors and stained glass and live plants, an opulent space referenced in James Joyce's Dubliners. But the hip enclave of Camden Street is also worth a visit for a different side of the city, to sample the gourmet goods at the curated food shop Listons or the inspired craft cocktails and uber-friendly staff at the hip, mod Green 19 where you'll want to hang for hours chatting with the hipster waiters and watching the crowd of locals hustle in from the cold.
Dublin: A Literary City
At various points in its esteemed literary history, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, George Bernard Shaw, Roddy Doyle and James Joyce have all made Dublin their home and often, a major character in their novels and plays. As you might expect, Dublin is a town that loves books and incredible bookshops make this a bibliophile heaven. Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street is Ireland's oldest bookshop, established in 1768 (though now owned by the Waterstones bookstore chain). Hodges Figgis should be on every book lover's Dublin bucket list. Joyce even offers a nod to the bookstore in his 1922 opus Ulysses. The selection at this multi-level Dawson Street shop is astounding and features plenty of books you'll never be able to find in America, helpful staff and small gift items to take back home.
Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art
A delightful juxtaposition of old and new, the The Irish Museum of Modern Art, (IMMA) is housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, an impressive 17th-century building, inspired by Les Invalides in Paris. The space features rotating contemporary art exhibitions from the likes of Japanese superstar Yayoi Kusama, painter Lucian Freud and former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon. Also on the grounds are spectacular formal gardens that juxtapose dramatically with Dublin's modern skyline and invite visitors to wander and discover groves marked by statues and stunning views.
Dublin: Guinness Open Gate Brewery
A relaxed and convivial break from Ireland's most popular tourist site, the Guinness Storehouse, the Open Gate Brewery experimental taproom on a quiet stretch of James's Street offers visitors the opportunity to sample flights of experimental beers from wasabi and ginger to high gravity dark beers in a constantly changing menu of new beers expertly described by the friendly, attentive taproom staff. There are also beer-based cocktails and inventive snacks like Korean fried chicken and other fare great for sopping up the endless beer varieties you'll want to sample. Book your tickets via the Open Gate site, where the entrance fee comes with a flight of four beers to try to get you started.
Dublin: The Aloft Dublin
The first Aloft Hotel in Dublin, this hip, design-forward hotel is housed in a high rise with incredible views of the city from its chic 7th floor lounge, complete with cocktail bar and pool table, and from many of the cool, modern rooms. Located in an industrial section of Dublin's Liberties area, Blackpitts, filled with distilleries (and tech and media companies) where you can stop in for a tour, a coffee or to buy some boozy merchandise the Aloft Dublin's location feels like a special little secret. The rooms are pin-neat and come with the usual amenities like tea and coffee and Bliss products. Adults and children alike will thrill to the in-house robot who delivers towels, or extra tea bags or anything else you crave to your front door.
Cork: The English Market
In the heart of Cork, the English Market is an 18th-century food hall and one of the city's most engaging foodie tourist attractions with no less than Rick Stein calling it the best covered market in England and Ireland. One of the oldest municipal markets in the world, the English Market features local purveyors selling the best in Irish chocolate, fowl and tea as well as an array of international stalls featuring pasta, olive oil and spices from around the world. Coffee kiosks and an upstairs Farmgate Restaurant to grab a bite and sit and watch the passing human parade make the English Market a great place to linger.
Cork: Market Lane Restaurant
An artsy, vibrant town filled with street performers, upscale boutiques, coffee shops galore, bookstores and funky ethnic restaurants, Cork offers plenty of activities to keep visitors engaged. Evidence of the city's interesting food scene, Market Lane is a bright, handsome multi-level space in the city center with local fare like fish and chips as well as fish curries and steak salads (many of the ingredients are sourced from the local English Market) on its diverse menu that includes vegetarian options. Grab a table at the window and watch the passing crowd of tourists and stylish locals stroll by.
Belfast: The Ulster Museum
Located on the stunning grounds of the Botanic Gardens, Belfast's Ulster Museum highlights a wide-ranging collection of historic and contemporary work; displays covering Irish history including "the Troubles" that divided Catholics and Protestants in modern Ireland; and a collection of natural science objects as well as collections of glass and ceramics and costumes and textiles. In other words, there is something for everyone in this handsome museum where a stroll through the 28-acre Botanic Gardens before or after your museum visit is a must. Queen's University shares the neighborhood so there are ample coffee shops and restaurants close-by for a post-culture bite or sip.
Belfast: Irish Republican History Museum
Northern Ireland's bloody conflict and secretarian violence is recounted in the out-of-the-way but essential stop for those interested in the nuances of "The Troubles," the Irish Republican History Museum. The space features a model of a prison for Republican prisoners, the handicrafts like cradles, chairs and purses that prisoners created while confined and the human side of the conflict before the Good Friday Agreement peace deal in 1998 that brought an end to the violence.
Belfast: The Crown Liquor Saloon
If it's good enough for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, then Belfast's 1826 The Crown Liquor Saloon should be good enough for you. Located directly across from the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe, the Crown Liquor Saloon was a stop on Meghan and Harry's whirlwind 2019 tour of Northern Ireland. Live like a royal and take in the stunning downstairs bar where carved mahogany booths with etched glass and mosaic tiled floors define Belfast's most famous Victorian-era gin palace. Upstairs you can enjoy classic Irish dishes like fish and chips, sausage and champ, Crown Irish stew, steak and Guinness pie and fish pie and a great selection of ales and ciders.
Belfast: Belfast Black Taxi Tour
Take a very deep, often troubling dive into Northern Ireland's turbulent history in a Black Taxi Tour Belfast focused on the neighborhoods, murals and sites that defined the "Troubles" that split Catholics and Protestants from the 1960s to the 1990s. The taxi drivers are uniquely knowledgeable, having grown up in the stratified neighborhoods they tour, familiar with the metal gates that would close each night to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the random searches of occupants, the bombings and strife that tore the city apart. Spending time with our driver, Mark, was an eye-opening window into what it was like to live in a domestic war zone, but also the great endurance and desire of the locals, to remember but not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our tour highlighted murals, neighborhoods, churches, memorials and remnants of the metal fences that once divided Belfast as well as the Peace Wall that shows physical, political barriers around the world (from America to Israel) and features messages of hope and peace. One of the most notable of the Belfast murals (shown here) depicts IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Belfast: Europa Hotel
Once Belfast's premiere hotel, the Europa Hotel is currently in need of an update and its rooms rival New York City's in their diminuitive size. Regardless the Europa is centrally-located in Belfast's vibrant downtown and its fascinating history may well make up for its shortcomings. At one time the most bombed hotel in Europe, the Europa sustained 36 bombings during the height of Ireland's "Troubles" and in 1995 played host to President and Mrs. Clinton, whose history-making visit is commemorated with a plaque in the hotel lobby. An easy walk from the hotel, Mourne Seafood Bar is a foodie mecca (meaning, you'll need a reservation) at an affordable price point featuring classic and new craft cocktails and a seafood-predominant menu that includes great seafood risotto, a salt and chili squid and seafood casserole. There are also plentiful vegetarian options.
Belfast: Home Restaurant
Evidence of this Northern Ireland city's cutting-edge, cosmopolitan food scene, Home in Belfast's busy city center dotted with vintage stores and funky boutiques, features an eclectic array of Irish staples like a sublime sticky toffee pudding and cod fingers and roast hake alongside global fare like hot and sour Asian broth and a fabulous mezze platter featuring some of the best homemade hummus we've ever tried. There are ample vegetarian and gluten-free options in this hippie-cool space filled with eclectic furniture, local art for sale and the most charming waitstaff around.
Number four on Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2020, the charming seaside town of Galway is a cool, bohemian spot filled with clever shops (including a large representation of resale shops for all you international hipsters), lively street performers and exceptional restaurants like Ard Bia at Nimmos. With its cozy, ship's cabin-like feel and windows looking out onto the choppy River Corrib where seals frolic. Ard Bia serves up inventive, seasonal Irish fare in an astoundingly charming setting that makes it a must-visit. If you're really taken by the ambiance (and who in their right mind wouldn't be?) you can even stay a night or two in the in-house B&B. In the heart of Galway City, don't miss the top-notch Charlie Byrne's Bookshop and bean-to-bar chocolate-makers Hazel Mountain Chocolate next door where you can grab a delicious coffee or a variety of hot chocolates including one infused with spicy chili and topped with fresh whipped cream.
Galway: Pick Up a Classic Claddagh Ring
One of Ireland's most famous citizens, Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O'Connor here wears an Irish Claddagh ring, a lovely symbol of the country's virtues. The ring's design first seen in the 17th century, featuring two hands holding a heart crested by a crown symbolize friendship (hands), love (heart) and loyalty (crown). Galway's Fallers Jewellers and Claddagh Jewellers feature a large selection of the rings in sterling, gold, rose gold, white gold and with various precious and semi-precious stones. An emblem of Ireland and of Irish heritage, the sweet and simple design makes it an ideal keepsake or easily transported gift.
Cong: Ashford Castle
Once owned by Ireland's beer dynasty, the Guinness family, as a vacation home, the circa 1228 Anglo-Norman Ashford Castle on Cong's stunning Loch Corrib may be as close as you can get to spending the night at Downton Abbey. The property is epic in its many appointments, including the 350-acre grounds featuring an Instagram-ready formal garden and a variety of American tree specimens imported by the hotel owners. The warm and welcoming ruby lobby with fireplace and second level balcony library is stocked with lovely hardbound books from local antiquarian bookshop Rare & Recent Books where you can sit in window seats overlooking the grounds and read or just daydream. The hotel underwent a $75 million renovation in 2015 and Red Carnation Hotel owners Stanley and Beatrice Tollman have spared no expense to make sure guests feel nestled in the lap of luxury. For active, outdoorsy types, the options are endless from trout and salmon fishing to horseback riding, and deliciously aristocratic pursuits like falconry and archery. Foodies can stage a private dinner or tasting in the dramatic wine cellar or watch a film in the plush red velvet and vintage-film poster-appointed screening room where the free popcorn and candy flows. The hotel owners have gone to great efforts to make their hotel feel not just grand but fun and unapproachable. Staff is never haughty and there is fun built into many of the offerings, whether the grownup fun of cocktails and billiards in the man cave Billiards Room or the retro time warp of an American-style diner with a soda fountain where you can dine on Elvis's favorite sammie. Visiting in the off-season post-summer means prices for a stay decrease significantly, and there is much to recommend scraping together your dollars or pounds for even one magical night at this one-of-a-kind property.
Cong: An Epic Dog Walk
There are plenty of bespoke activities at Ashford Castle, from fishing to horseback riding to falconry. But there are also a variety of inclusive amenities that don't cost a thing, like wandering the stunning grounds, two daily films (with free popcorn and sweets) in the plush screening room decorated with vintage movie posters and one of the best options: daily dog walks with the estate's sweet Irish wolfhounds. A master of the hounds offers guided walks with a coterie of cute dogs — including two loping Irish wolfhounds Cronan and Garvan — each morning for guests at Ashford Castle including plenty of stops along the way for photos. A great bout of dog therapy and chance to survey the lovely grounds, the daily walks include tall wellies and waxed cotton coats for chilly weather. Guests who don't want to wake up early can still visit with the hounds each morning from 10-11 a.m. after the walk in the Ashford Castle lobby.
Cong: Stepping Back in Time
Generations of families have been visiting the spectacular Ashford Castle as well as notables including Bono, Ronald Reagan, Robin Williams, Ted Kennedy, Brad Pitt and countless others documented in a hallway filled with photos of famous visitors. Part of this luxe stay's appeal: beautifully appointed rooms, each different, but all featuring bespoke linens, heated floors in enormous marble baths and a general feeling of your-wish-is-our-command opulence. Candy jars are kept filled with sweets in the castle public areas, a cocktail punch is offered upon check-in and the buffet breakfast each morning is an epic feast of almond pastries, carved local ham, porridge (served, with Irish whiskey if you prefer to follow the local custom), fresh juices and smoothies, fruit, eggs and anything else your heart could possibly desire.
Cong: Get Your Spa On
Even if a spa treatment is not in the offing, Ashford Castle guests will want to check out the exquisite mosaic-tiled Tree of Life design representing Irish Celtic mythology in the pool area flanked by seashell chandeliers, chaise lounges and views of the gorgeous castle grounds. Consistently ranked one of Ireland's top spas, the space offers a steam room and Middle Eastern Hammam rituals as well as traditional services including massages, facials, body scrubs and special services for children under 16 and for men.
Cong: Cullen's at the Cottage
Once you get to Ashford Castle, as tempting as the adorable local town of Cong is, you may want to spend every waking moment on this spectacular estate. Helping facilitate that "staycation" vibe is Ashford's casual and kid-friendly quaint country restaurant Cullen's at the Cottage a very short walk from the front door of Ashford Castle and the less pricy stop, the Lodge at Ashford Castle. With its thatched roof and charming garden, the cottage exterior looks like something out of John Ford's 1952 The Quiet Man (a beloved locally-shot film). The interior is rustic-chic too, and just right for extended families to enjoy a casual meal together, with an array of options for vegetarians and vegans (and a chef who understands that creative plating and imaginative ingredients are just as critical to the veggie-centric). Seafood is a focus, and the wild prawn and avocado salad is sublime, as is a mussels and salmon-stocked West Coast seafood chowder.