20 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Ireland
Whether you're a history fan or love to take in the scenery, Ireland has a lot to offer the world traveler. It's an island filled with scenic beauty, rich cultural history, and natural wonders. Also, as you might imagine, given the nation's turbulent past, Ireland has a wealth of beautiful man-made sights as well.
Ireland has a lot to offer even the first-time visitor. The beauty of the emerald green lakes, the towering rock formations, the remote but welcoming little towns, and the Celtic culture that prevails all add to the appeal.
This island was the homeland of the ancient Celts, who left behind them the mystique of the Round Towers. These were built to protect the Celtic people from invasion and the harsh elements.
But it's the history, not the round towers, that is most talked about when it comes to Ireland. Ancient Rome, Viking invasions, religious wars, the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century, the rise and fall of the British Empire — these are just a few of the events that have shaped the history of this intriguing little island.
Planning your trip to Ireland will take a bit of research, because this country has so much to offer. Read on to find out what's really worth visiting, and book your flights to Dublin and beyond using our guide to the best things to do in Ireland.
Cliffs of Moher
The cliffs of the Western edge of County Clare in Ireland rise dramatically out of the Irish Sea and offer breathtaking views in either direction. At nearly 300 feet high and 600 feet across, they are among the most famous scenic beauty spots in Ireland. The east coast of Clare is part of the largest of several major systems of limestone cliffs that extend along the southwest coast of Ireland, continuing as far as Portugal. The cliffs of Moher, and the great boulder fields, are the largest and most impressive of all the cliff-lined coastlines.
Ring of Kerry
Set against the lush backdrop of the breathtaking emerald-green Irish mountains, the picturesque Ring of Kerry is a must-see if you're visiting the Emerald Isle. Although it is one of the most visited attractions in Ireland, its beauty is untouchable, and is a hike, or should I say hike, that's a must for any traveler. The Irish coast is known for the crystal clear waters and the number of caves and cliffs used for the rising of the small surf. These caves, like the Phobius cave, were the most important center of maritime activity in the pre-historic period. Only accessible by boat, this spectacular hike allows visitors to take in some of the most amazing views, while visiting prehistoric caves and being near the Green Mountain on the sky. Don't be surprised to find yourself being charmed by the views as you work up a sweat walking up to the peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain!
Ireland's largest National Park, The Burren extends some 30 miles along the country's southwest coast. The most spectacular features are the dramatic sea cliffs and the curious stony boulders that litter the land. It's home to a diverse mix of plants and wildlife and is easily the most scenic place in Ireland to view seabirds in their natural environment. Nature lovers will want to see the hillsides covered in different rock formations, plant life, and rare wildlife. The Burren's most famous feature is Carrantuohill, Ireland's largest sea cliff and one of the best examples of sea-air erosion. There are also excellent hiking and biking trails that will take you to the surrounding wild Atlantic waters, offering spectacular panoramas. If you are making a trip to Ireland you can either fly into Shannon Airport, or take a bus to Limerick, which is about 90 miles to the southwest, then change to another bus or train for Galway, which is closer. Dublin, about 320 miles away, is the quickest and most convenient if you are traveling directly from Ireland's capital city. There are many daily flights from London to Ireland. Dublin's Aer Lingus, Thomas Cook, and easyJet airlines provide the most regular routes.
Galway City is one of the most picturesque towns in Ireland. The city's medieval setting sits on the banks of the River Corrib, which is dammed at the northern edge to create an artificial lake, Lough Atalia. Ireland's only free-to-enter museum, the Arts & History Centre, houses a collection of memorabilia from the city's history. There are a number of walks around the city and the mountains beyond. The area around Galway is replete with castles and ruins. One of the best of these is Dun Aengus (off the R445 to Lough Mask) that offers sweeping views across Lough Atalia. A short walk away is Galway City Gaol, with its fortifications dating back to the 17th century. While Galway is known as a lively city with an abundance of bars and restaurants, it also has a strong culture of Gaelic sport. Gaelic games such as hurling and Gaelic football have local teams that play in Gaelic games championships. Galway is also the home of the All-Ireland hurling and Gaelic football championships in September.
Glendalough, on the north-eastern edge of Ireland's County Wicklow, is a beautiful small village surrounded by rain-fed forests, with green meadows and lush pastureland on the shores of Lough Tay, a charming body of water that is framed by dramatic mountains and a number of ancient monastic sites. Glendalough was founded in the 6th century by Saint Kevin, founder of monastic orders, and one of the Four Great Prophets of Ireland, and is named for the large hollow in a hill in the village where monks would tend the saint's grave and continue his legacy. The imposing monastery of St Kevin's, dating to the 9th century, houses numerous important artifacts and antiquities, including the manuscript, books and four early English translations of the Bible, dating from the 15th century. Nearby is the more interesting and accessible Muckross House, built by the eccentric rich and famous Muckross family in the 18th century. Both Glendalough and Muckross are great day trips from Dublin or Ennis.
At Dingle Peninsula's narrowest point is the village of Ballyduff, which sits at the edge of the world's longest natural cave system, the renowned Newgrange passage tomb, the passage of which is aligned with the stars and is one of Europe's most impressive prehistoric monuments. At Dingle's highest point is the windswept lighthouse of Shanavilly, a quiet little place that is quite popular among tourists. Even farther north lies the mystic peninsula of Donegal, one of Ireland's most picturesque and sparsely populated areas. It is best known for its huge lakes and dramatic coastline, including its Giant's Causeway natural arch.
Killarney is a lovely lakeside town in the south of Ireland, a popular tourist spot thanks to its beautiful location and interesting topography, especially along the River Killarney. In Killarney you can visit the Ross Castle, the fifth largest castle in Europe, or visit the National Heritage Center, which has an exhibition about the Irish Caves (once used for dwelling and hiding by way of safe refuge from the British Army), medieval manor houses, and the town's history. Another major attraction in Killarney is the area's most popular tourist attraction, the medieval settlement of Gleneagles.
Blarney Castle sits at the foot of Ireland's most spectacularly beautiful mountain, the Blarney Castle Rock, situated 10km from the town of Blarney in County Cork. The castle was built around 1500 and has been continuously owned by the prominent O'Mores since then, although no trace remains of its founding castle. Set in 5 hectares of parkland, the castle features the famous Blarney Stone (through which you kiss to gain the gift of eloquence), leading up to a "great hall of state" and ancient storage facilities that are open for tours. Beyond that is the more modern part of the castle, including a heritage center and multimedia theater.
Trinity College, Dublin
Just a few miles outside Dublin city, Trinity College is one of Europe's oldest and most respected institutions. An independent body, its official site offers a good introduction to the history of the university. The grounds of Trinity are massive and contain the medieval University Library, botanic garden and historical gallery. The area is a pleasant place to walk and a popular place for picnics and sporting activities. The student population is 15,000 strong and Trinity has been sending its students to Oxford and Cambridge in recent years. The college's prestigious postgraduate courses have seen its graduates playing roles in politics, medicine and the arts. It's one of the most selective universities in the world.
Waterford, a county located in the southeast of Ireland, is internationally known as the home of the renowned Irish crystal, and their ancient family businesses continue to this day. Although these family-run businesses have been in the industry for decades, visitors can expect not just to see crystal but also the trademark skill of engraving, as well as some beautiful museum pieces. The Crystal Experience is in Waterford city, with more than 30 workshops and displays, offering hands-on experience in the shaping, engraving, polishing, and illumination of fine crystal. In addition, you'll see Waterford's history, with original historic houses along the medieval street of Mallinahone.
Forget San Francisco and LA; Dublin is now a hot destination for young and old tourists alike. A beautiful, cosmopolitan city with a thriving arts scene, lively nightlife, and excellent restaurants and hotels, Dublin is surrounded by some of the best mountains and landscapes in the world. At the heart of it all, you'll find Temple Bar, the once-sleazy, now chic district that is the heart and soul of Dublin's thriving nightlife. Ancient monuments, such as the spectacular Hill of Tara, Ireland's finest hillfort and seat of the High Kings from early Irish times until the 13th century, are just a short walk from Temple Bar and its lively restaurant, bar, and live music venues. Dublin also has one of the best museums in Europe, the famous Natural History Museum, which covers 5.5 million specimens, and where you can explore the worlds of dinosaurs, birds, mammals, man and other creatures.
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This striking piece of native rock and rubble is located on the southwestern coast of Ireland on the extreme west-facing side of the Skellig group of islands, off the west coast of the Irish mainland. It is a 5-hour (2-mile round-trip) hike, or a 15-minute boat ride, away from the village of Ballyferriter, in Co Kerry, on the Dingle Peninsula. When in the vicinity, there are also several spots to camp and eat locally grown food, as well as excellent beaches. The Skellig group, which is still occasionally active, is made up of three isles, Skellig Michael, Midgeskellig and Little Skellig. The latter is the largest and best-preserved of the isles, at nearly 500 meters in length, so is the first island visited on the trip to the island. Visitors can either take a boat from Ballyferriter, a 15-minute journey, or hike for about 1 hour. They can also book boat tours. Among the interesting sights to be seen is the Holy Island church, dedicated to St. Senan, who lived at the beginning of the seventh century. Visitors will see some interesting sites and bas-relief carvings, which tell the story of the island during this period. On the highest part of the island, which is also a smaller rock to the southeast of Midgeskellig, is a Byzantine monastery founded around the end of the sixth century. Also of interest are several visible churches which date from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Featuring a pair of 13th-century towers at the edge of a 40-hectare moat-fringed hilltop estate, Bunratty Castle is a magnificent historical attraction on the outskirts of rural County Clare, Ireland. The legendary Rory O'Donnell founded this high, thick walled fortress when he was around 14 years old. It was used by his family and their allies to challenge British rule, until they were defeated and the castle seized by the English in 1647. Over the centuries, the place had more houses than the population of the county and remained a residence for the O'Donnell family and other feudal Irish lords until 1936. For the most part, the castle's vast expanse of buildings were only used to host visitors who came to tour the family's famous home. Today, however, the castle is open to the public. Although you can't step inside the castle, it's well worth the effort to walk its grounds, visiting the living quarters, kitchen, fireplaces and many more buildings, all crammed into a rocky hilltop.
Kilkenny Castle is located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Nore and the city of Kilkenny. Dating from 1498, the castle houses a world-class museum. Guided tours are available, and there are special displays explaining the history and context of the castle. Here you can see priceless treasures from the 16th century, such as the family crest, a suit of armor and Queen Elizabeth's jewel-encrusted gown. The castle is well worth visiting, even if just to climb the ramparts for the views.
Glenveagh National Park
Ireland's southernmost park in County Donegal, Glenveagh is situated on the mountainous border of Donegal and Tyrone. Famous for its wild Atlantic and trout-filled rivers, the park offers hiking and fishing opportunities as well as splendid views of Ireland's highest peak, Carrantuohill. In summer the park is alive with butterflies and birds, with an unspoiled beauty that allows visitors to fully appreciate their surroundings.
It is one of the most important medieval sites in Ireland and the most well-preserved in the country. In 1315, Strongbow, the leader of a group of Irish nobles, arrived here and stayed for three months. It was his idea to build a castle on this rocky island so that he could have a secure base from which he could control the Irish coast. Trim Castle itself dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, but more than 100 other buildings have been erected since then, including some of the best-preserved in Ireland. Exploring the island is like going back to the Norman Conquest era with a wealth of features preserved, including arched doorways, flagstone floors, wooden door frames and stone walls. After visiting, learn the story of the castle's history and the modern-day island from guides and volunteers who work there and are able to provide information and directions.
Hill of Tara
Brimming with Celtic history and legends, Ireland's legendary Hill of Tara is not just the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, but also the ancient burial site of King Diarmuid and Queen Grainne. Situated on the mystical plain of Ireland, the fabled Hill of Tara is one of the world's most important Druidic sites, dating back around 2,500 years. It sits high on a lush, green hill covered with ancient burial mounds and remains of early Christian churches, notably the crumbling "Giant's Grave," which claims to contain the ghost of the mythical giant Bran. During Neolithic times, the Druids worshipped in the area, having their home in a series of stone buildings near the top of the hill. There's also a series of mounds in the area that have been radiocarbon dated to 5,500 BC.
Dublin Castle (Irish: Cill Dara) is the seat of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish legislature, and is the official residence of the governor of Ireland. Built on the site of the site where King Strongbow held a palace from the mid-10th century, it has been a royal residence since it was established in the 1540s. Today it houses the offices of the Irish president, government departments and some foreign embassies. Built on the site of an earlier monastery and stronghold, Dublin Castle was originally a Renaissance castle, built under the orders of Elizabeth I between 1574 and 1585. It contains a number of impressive state rooms, such as the State Apartments and St. Patrick's Hall, which were once used as the official residence of the Lord Mayor and Lord Mayor's Court. Today, the most notable feature of the castle's interior is the Powder Tower, which houses a collection of arms and armor and a model of the castle as it looked in 1714, following a fire that damaged it.
If you are looking for peace and quiet, Kinvara is the place to be. Off the beaten path, it's set back from the surrounding Cork road, as if hiding in the meadows. Here there are few tourist activities, just pure relaxation and peace and quiet. Kinvara is an agricultural village made up of several small but beautifully designed little houses, set amongst fields of buttercups and daisies. The ancient village church is a delightful honeymooners' choice, although the town also has plenty of lively pubs and is famous for its fishing. The coastal area has been awarded two Michelin stars, though there are no restaurants open to the public. Instead, a few decent restaurants offer private dining in the pastel-painted cottages in the surrounding countryside. In addition to seafood, try the crab or the local duck which is fattened in a local orchard.
Ghent is a city in Flanders, now part of Belgium, which was the capital of the medieval Duchy of Burgundy. Its most notable landmark is the Bruges Basilica, a 13th-century cathedral that contains paintings by Jan van Eyck. The Bruges' most striking sight is not the cathedral, however, but rather the Ghent Altarpiece, or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, housed in the nearby Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Like Bruges, Ghent is a walled city with a maze of narrow medieval streets, but it is also home to some lovely waterfront views, as well as some nice parks and the Belfry, a wonderful view of which is found along a route along the Singel canal.