Ireland should be called the country of hospitality. On my journey across Ireland I met some of the nicest people who gave without expectation of reciprocation, who told some of the most enthralling stories, and who were as curious about me as I was about them.
Ireland is truly enchanting and has a unique variety of sights to behold. During my travels I saw breathtaking scenery, met some new friends, ate some wonderful hearty food, and happened upon a herd of sheep who were more talkative than I imagined possible.
There are a couple things everyone should experience when visiting Ireland, like drinking a pint of Guinness or having a good conversation at a pub (known as having some craic), but below are my top ten experiences to be had in Ireland.
1.) Have some craic with a local
The citizens are by far Ireland’s greatest asset. They are full of perseverance, wit, humor, and generosity. They can also weave a grand story and brew some tasty beer. You can experience the latter two traits by frequenting pubs and drinking at the bar. When drinking at the bar you’ll be engaged in some lively conversation, or craic, which is why the locals frequent the pubs (in addition to the good beer). You might chat the night away and make a few friends – I know I did.
2.) Drive the Dingle Peninsula Loop
The Dingle Peninsula is not as well-known as the Ring of Kerry, but that’s part of the draw. While the ring of Kerry is covered in tourists, the Dingle Peninsula loop is just as beautiful, but more quaint. At just 30 miles, the loop can be conquered in half a day, even if you stop every 0.2 miles like my wife did. Around every corner is a breathtaking view of emerald fields ending in cliffs that meet the turquoise ocean. There are also well-preserved historical sights on this loop like beehive huts and the Gallarus Oratory.
3.) Cliffs of Moher
Because it rains so often in Ireland, these beauties are usually shrouded in fog, but when the sun cuts through the mist, the Cliffs of Moher are stunning. The waves of cliffs stretch for about 5 miles and dramatically drop as many as 700 feet to meet the crashing Atlantic Ocean. You can view from behind the safety of a barrier or creep as close to the edge as you dare, so take care when visiting what some would consider the quintessential image of Ireland.
4.) Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
While Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is definitely a stop on the tourist circuit, I think it provides a great authentic experience as well. The folk park spans 26 acres and provides visitors the opportunity to enter 19th century Ireland, complete with farmhouses and gardens as well as a “living” village where you can interact with costumed performers. However, in my opinion, the castle is the gem of the park and far exceeded all of my expectations. It was built in 1425, fell into disrepair by the 1800’s, then in the mid 1900’s it was refurbished and elaborately furnished in 15th century fashion. The great thing about the castle is that many if not all of the furnishings should be in a museum, but since they’re not behind glass or obstructed with name plates describing each item, visitors are able to get a true feel for what life was like in the castle in the 1400-1500’s.
5.) Dublin Walking Tour
A walking tour of Dublin is a great way to orient yourself to the city and learn some of Dublin’s history simultaneously. I took the 2 hour tour offered by Historical Walking Tours of Dublin and couldn’t be happier. All of their guides are history graduates from Trinity College or the National University of Ireland, and they’ll walk you through the significant historical events that have shaped Ireland. There was so much interesting information covered that I had to take notes – there’s no way I could remember all of that cool stuff on my own!
6.) View the Book of Kells
Housed in Trinity College in Dublin, the Book of Kells is a painstakingly decorated collection of the four Gospels of the Bible. It took four scribes and three artists approximately 10-12 years to make, and was written in about 800 AD to be a stunning alter text for special occasions. Before visiting, reserve your tickets in advance to skip the long queue. A small museum introduces the book, and it’s well worth taking your time to read the displays and watch the videos. When at last you get to ogle the book, don’t be too shy to get up close and personal with it – it takes a close look to fully appreciate the amount of time and detail that went into creating the elaborately ornate pages.
7.) Visit the Aran Islands
This group of three islands off the west coast of Ireland are famously rugged and intriguing. They were inhabited thousands of years ago, evident by the 5,000 year old fortress called Dun Aegnus, which is one of Inishmore’s (the largest island’s) main tourist attractions. Until the recent tourist boom, locals have eked a living from the sea as well as the rocky terrain by creating their own soil from seaweed and sand. Even though the islands are now a popular tourist day trip, a visit to these islands awards visitors with many interesting sights via a bike or minibus tour.
8.) Guinness Storehouse
The Guinness Storehouse is like an adult Disneyland where you can learn to appreciate Guinness’s 250 year brewing history. You’ll journey through the giant facility to learn the process for combining the water, barley, hops and yeast in such a way that yields a delicious brew. You can also learn how to taste all of the flavors in Guinness as well as master the steps for pulling the perfect pint. The whole experience can easily take 3 hours or more if you stop to eat in one of the restaurants, but make sure you take some time to linger in the famous Gravity Bar, which provides 360 degree views of Dublin from the seventh floor of the world’s largest pint glass.
9.) Rock of Cashel
Built on a commanding hill, the Rock of Cashel towers over a stunning view of Tipperary County. The castle and lands been revered and fought over by many Irish kings throughout history because of the ideal location and natural defenses of being built on a hill. In order to preserve the structure and prevent further wars for the much desired fortress, in 1101 the King of Munster donated the castle to the church. Today the remaining structures date from the 12th to the 15th centuries and include a grand round tower, chapel, cathedral, Hall of Vicars Choral, and many Celtic high crosses.
10.) Seek the best pint of the black stuff
By “black stuff” I mean Guinness! Ireland definitely has pub culture which dates back hundreds of years to when the pub was known as the public house. This is the place in which everyone gathered to get the daily craic. Each pub is different and I highly encourage you to visit at least one every day. The food is good and affordable, the company is always friendly, and if you happen upon a traditional music session, it can be magical.
Ireland has a rich history and amazing sights, but some of my best experiences were had by chance.
While going from site to site, historical or natural, make it a point to mingle with the locals along the way. You might encounter some good craic or get captivated by a great story. Ask them where to find the best pint of Guinness and you’ll be sure to incite the passion of a few proud Irishmen.
Ireland enchants many people with the charm of its people, the depth of its well preserved history, and the serene sight of fluffy sheep grazing on the emerald rolling hills. If you have the opportunity to visit, I’m sure you’ll be singing its praises as well.