There are tips and lessons learned at the bottom of the page, but since most prefer pictures, that’s where I wanted to start . When we visited Ireland, we had 3 main goals:
- The landscapes: Ireland is famous for its greenery and views, so one of our goals was to see the best landscapes Ireland had to offer.
- The towns: Before even going to Ireland, most imagine small towns with rows of cozy, colorful houses with Gaelic names you almost have to use an Irish accent to say. As with anywhere we go in Europe, we wanted to find the quintessential architecture that really made us feel as if we were in another world or in another time.
- The pubs: I’ve always loved a good Irish pub, and Guinness has long been my favorite beer. I had to experience as many pubs as I could, and of course I wanted to research to find the best pubs Ireland has to offer.
Go!Go!Go! = Bucket list; don’t miss it no matter what!
Go!Go! = Outstanding to incredible, make an extra effort to go!
Go! = We would go back, enjoyable and worth going.
LANDSCAPES TO SEE
- Cliffs of Moher: Go!Go!Go! The #1 attraction in Ireland and for good reason. They are more breathtaking in person than any picture you have seen. Few tips: 1. From the welcome center, take a right and go up the stairs to O’Brien’s Tower. Then, take the path that leads to your left when facing the water (Burren’s Way) all the way to the Moher Tower at Hag’s Head. It’s a 2-hour round trip hike but it’ll fly by as the views every step of the way are amazing. Take note, it can be windy up there. Like, literally blow you off the cliff if you’re walking too close to the edge windy… people die there from falling off the cliffs more often than you’d think. Also, if you’re looking for a lunch stop before/after visiting, Doolin is a charming little village for a stop. As for nearby accommodations, see my review of the Moy House.
- The Countryside: Go!Go!Go! Just as you imagine, Ireland is full of narrow roads bounded by grey stone winding through hills of green. Sheep are everywhere, and there are plenty of fortifications and castle remnants. It’s wonderful rain or shine. Be sure to venture off the main highways – which still aren’t very “main” – so you can really absorb the countryside. Below are some of our favorite pics from driving around.
- Bru’ na Boinne: Go!Go! Older than the pyramids, we loved our short ½ day trip out to Bru’ na Boinne. You can’t drive there yourself, as you have to buy tickets and wait at their welcome center until your scheduled departure and then they’ll bus you the 10 mins or so from the welcome center to the site. The welcome center is cheesy and touristy, but the experience is worth the short wait. For a full review and more pics: click here.
- Dingle Peninsula: Go!Go!Go! Most tourists traveling to Ireland have heard of the famous “Ring of Kerry”, which refers to the road outlining the Kerry Peninsula in Southwest Ireland. We opted instead to drive the Dingle Peninsula, which is just to the north. We had read that the Ring of Kerry is now overrun with large buses and has lost some of its charm. While that may or may not be true, I can tell you that the Dingle Peninsula is full of breathtaking landscapes, takes you by the beautiful Inch Beach, and allows you to stop and savor the charming and super well-preserved town of Dingle.
- Inch Beach: Go! A long, flat, deep white sand beach with gorgeous views out into Dingle Bay and to the Kerry Peninsula. A great stop if you’re driving to Killarney from Dingle.
- Gap of Dunloe: Go!Go!Go! A tremendous walk/hike spot just a few minutes outside of Killarney. It was magical, and we saw maybe 8-10 other people the entire hike. There is an excellent little café right where the trail begins, as well as a place to arrange a horse or carriage ride. We were a little startled when we came across a huge, free-roaming ram a few minutes into our walk, but after carefully maneuvering around him we then came to learn that they were in fact prevalent in the area and quite tame. This is another place that pictures simply don’t do justice. When you’re walking along, the valley seems so much more dramatic, with the mountains on each side much taller and more foreboding than in the pictures. Afterwards, we somehow felt both invigorated and peaceful at the same time as we enjoyed an incredible lemon cream cake at the aforementioned café.
- Michael Skellig Island: We were in Ireland shortly before Michael Skellig Island found international fame as the secret hideaway spot of Luke Skywalker. We had reservations, were all ready to go, and then the weather caused them to cancel the morning of… ☹
CUTEST SMALL TOWNS
- Kinsale: Go!Go!Go! Maybe the most colorful and precious town of all. Perfect day trip from Cork or even Killarney. Foodie town, great shopping, but don’t miss the main little square by the Milk Market Café or Main Street.
- Dingle: Go!Go!Go! The Perfect day: Drive Dingle Peninsula, get to Dingle, walk around, shop, lunch, (optional) 1-hr boat tour, drive back stopping now and then to soak in and photo the greenest hills in Ireland, stop at Inch Beach for a walk along the beach, head home.
- Cashel – Go!Go! The Rock of Cashel is far less crowded yet more impressive and historical than the Blarney Castle tourist trap. The Blarney Castle is frequently on the list of overrated tourist activities so we skipped it. Visit the castle in Cashel and then enjoy lunch in this little jewel of a town. Great stop if driving between Dublin and Cork. If you need a fantastic lunch spot before or after your tour, you will love Cafe Hans, which is located right at the entrance to the Rock of Cashel! Go!
- Cobh: Go!Go! Larger than most of the other stops on this list, historical Cobh is known as the launch point for most of the Irish migration in the 1800s as well as the Titanic. While touristy, the famous deck of card homes, the huge cathedral, and the seaside views make this town a delight! The architecture is also very different than the other small towns we visited as it’s lined with colorful multi-story Victorian style buildings. It looks more like San Francisco than Ireland. Grab an Irish Coffee at Kelly’s Bar or dine seaside at the Quays Bar and Restaurant.
- Adare: Go! Great lunch stop when driving between Cliffs of Moher and Killarney or between Galway and Killarney. So precious. Almost more Cotwolds than Irish.
- Doolin: Go! Great lunch stop when doing Cliffs of Moher. The town is tiny, insanely precious and is a great jumping off point for the Aran Islands. We ate at McDermott’s Bar. It was fine, meaning your basic pub fare in a nice atmosphere, but it’s only 15 mins from the Cliffs of Moher, has easy, ample parking, and is in a beautiful setting.
- Athlone: The best option if you want to break up the drive time or stop for lunch between Dublin and Galway. Park on Castle street, then walk down to Sean’s Bar for a great fish and chips lunch. The Portside Café is also a good choice.
THE LARGER TOWNS WHERE WE STAYED
- Galway: Go!Go! Great pubs here and the best pizza I’ve ever had…anywhere! Also a great place to stay if doing the Aran Island, which we unfortunately did not have time to see.
- Dough Bros. Go!Go!Go! As I said, simply as good as pizza gets.
- The Pie Maker. Go! I love savory pies, and in addition to fish and chips I did a lot of research on the best places to eat this Irish staple. The Piehouse on High Street in Galway was outstanding. Homemade, great variety, and a cozy atmosphere.
- The Quay Street Kitchen. Go! Don’t get this place confused with the Quay Street Bar and Restaurant next door! We snagged a seat outside to people watch, since it’s located right in the main part of the cutest section of Galway. Lamb was outstanding, portions were large, nothing to complain about. You’ll love it!
- McDonagh’s: Go!Go! Now, to be fair, I’m not 100% sure how great the fish and chips here really were… this was our final stop after a half day of pub hopping, so while we were both amazed at the time how delicious we found their fish and chips, it fair to say the munchies factor may have influenced our evaluation.
- PUBS! Go!Go!Go! See pub guide a bit further down…
- Walk around Quay St – Go!Go!Go! Right in the heart of old town, cute as it gets!
- Take Claddegh Quay from Father Griffin Rd (not far from old town) so you can view the colorful little houses on “The Long Walk”. This is the quintessential Galway picture.
- Upper Salthill Road: The seapoint promenade makes for a lovely walk or bike ride from downtown Galway to Salthill area.
- Kirwan’s Lane – oldest street in Galway, medieval
- Aran Islands – we didn’t get to do it, but it gets wonderful reviews
- Stay: We stayed at the G Hotel. I would give it a Go! It was perfectly clean, stylish, our suite was enormous and nicely appointed, and it was about a 15-minute walk to downtown Galway. Nothing overly memorable, but an enjoyable stay.
- Killarney: Go!Go!Go! My favorite spot in Ireland. Killarney has that traditional, quintessential, authentic Irish feel, plenty of great restaurants and pubs, and is an absolutely ideal spot for a home base while opting from at least a dozen different bucket list day trips or excursions. Killarney also has excellent hotel options.
- Walk around the city: Go!Go!Go! Full of Guinness graffiti, old signs, quaint alleyways, colorful flags, beautiful architecture, and great stores, pubs and restaurants, we really enjoyed exploring the old town area!
- Aran Sweater Market: Go! The only place you can buy authentic Aran Island Wool sweaters, besides going to the Aran Islands, is here! There are lots of counterfeit sweater operations throughout Ireland, so if buying an authentic sweater or other clothing is important to you, shop here!
- Explore the area:
- Ring of Kerry
- Dingle Peninsula
- Ross Castle
- Lough Leane
- Gap of Dunloe
- Killarney National Park
- Day trip to Cork, Kinsale, even the Cliffs of Moher
- Michael Skellig
- Eat: We ate at the Laurel Pub (review below in Pub section), at our hotel restaurant, and at Quinlan’s Seafood Bar. Quinlan’s is highly rated on Google with a 4.5 review score on over 1000 reviews. So, odds are you’ll like it. It wasn’t our favorite fish and chips stop on our trip, but we had no complains…Go!
- Stay: The Europe Hotel & Resort: Go!Go!Go! I almost missed out on this absolutely fabulous hotel experience just because certain photos of the Europe Hotel and Resort made it look like it was an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, and I was of course seeking Irish castle or country charm when doing my hotel research. The positive reviews were just so overwhelming, and since we were staying in the Moy House the night prior, I went ahead and booked at the Europe Hotel. Wow! The pictures simply don’t do it justice. The rooms are larger and more luxurious than they look, the view is more dramatic and postcard perfect than you could imagine, and the standard spa facilities where the best we’ve ever experienced. With an indoor/outdoor hot tub larger than most hotel pools, an indoor, enormous pool surrounded by glass so you can see the lake views from any spot, and a steam room labyrinth you must see to believe. Perfectly kept landscaping, luxurious common areas, a world-class gym, a great breakfast buffet, and a cozy, classy whiskey bar round out what was one of our more relaxing, enjoyable, and reinvigorating hotel stays of all time.
- Cork: Go!Go! If I could live anywhere in Ireland, I would choose Cork immediately and never think twice. That said, Cork is different than the rest of Ireland. It doesn’t feel as traditional – it feels more like a college town. There were just as many beer gardens and trendy tapas bars as there were traditional pubs. Cork does have some amazing hole-in-the-wall, traditional Irish Pubs, as well as some lovely streets lined with colorful Irish architecture, but there are also outstanding brewpubs and plenty of modern architecture.
Cork is a great home base for a day trip to Cobh and/or Kinsale. We loved walking the streets and exploring the city. We also saw a wonderful live music show at the Triskel Arts Centre – Go! It’s a beautiful venue with rotating shows, so it’s definitely worth a quick web search for what’s playing while you are there.
We stayed at the River Lee Hotel. It has great reviews and it was perfectly nice, but wasn’t particularly memorable. We’d probably look at other options if we went back to Cork.
We had two incredibly memorable meals while in Cork. In addition to great pubs, these two restaurants would be no-brainer repeat visits for us if we were back in Cork!
Franciscan Well Brewery & Brewpub: Go!Go! Don’t go here looking for any kind of traditional Irish experience, but don’t miss this spot for top notch micro brews and world class pizza. Yes, that’s right, pizza. While I still maintain the Dough Bros in Galway is the best pizza I’ve ever had, anywhere, if the same two guys and their pizza oven are still making pies in the back of the (very nice) beer garden at the Franciscan Well, don’t miss it! After a few days of fish and chips and various pies, which we loved, it was still nice to mix things up and have an outstanding thin crust stone oven baked pizza with an IPA or wheat beer. Further, the beer garden atmosphere on a nice evening was a welcome change of pace to all the traditional pubs we’d been frequenting.
Elbow Lane Brew and Smoke House: Go!Go! Being from Austin, we have plenty of access to the world’s best smoked meats, so we didn’t necessarily plan to seek out a smokehouse while visiting Ireland. However, the Elbow Lane had such impeccable reviews, we had to stop in for lunch. As with Cork itself, Elbow Lane is an anomaly in Ireland. A trendy tapas bar feel with delicious microbrews and an incredible foodie-friendly menu. As the (at this time) #2 rated restaurant in Cork on TripAdvisor and highest rated restaurant in Cork on Google Maps, it’s a no-brainer stop if you’re shopping around Oliver Plunkett street and need a stop for lunch.
The English Market: We love European markets. LOVE THEM! The variety, the samplers, the whole experience is amazing! European city markets are our museums!! While the English Market in Cork wasn’t one of the better city markets, it’s still a nice stop. Grab lunch or a quick snack at the English market then exit to Mutton Lane to enjoy the artwork and a beer at the Mutton Lane Inn.
OUR FAVORITE PUBS
- Tigh Neachtain – Go!Go!Go! One of my favorite pubs in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter. It just feels like the kind of place you could accidently stumble into Narnia or sit down next to a Hobbit. Low ceilings, old artwork, narrow halls and cozy seating areas. This is the ramshackle, hasn’t changed in decades, traditional Irish bar experience I coveted when planning a trip. Loved it.
- The Quays Bar and Restaurant – Go!Go! Wow! Talk about atmospheric… multi-level with gothic arches, church pews, and tons of stained glass. Wish we had more time here, fun pub with almost a Harry Potter would drink here vibe!
- Tig Coili – Go! Just a classic Irish Pub. Stained glass partitions, section for live music, and every inch of the wall covered with framed pics. Nothing not to like about this place.
- Garavan’s Bar – Go! For those that like the bar where to local old timers hang out, this is the place. A bit away from the main old town area, this place pours a great Guinness. When we were there on a weekday before lunch, we walked into a room with at least a dozen men and women in their 70s or older were having a beer and watching rugby on tv. Old Guinness bottles on display, old books, wooden wall dividers… Awesome.
- O’Conner’s Famous Pub (in Salthill nearby): We made the long walk to the Salthill neighborhood, which would’ve been nice if it wasn’t cold and if I didn’t have to pee so bad I could barely breath. I actually bought a ticket to get into the National Aquarium just so I could use the bathroom on the way. Unfortunately, after all that, O’Conner’s was closed. Oops. It looked great though!
- The Salt House – One the highest rated bars when looking at any reviews (Google, RateBeer, etc), but wasn’t for us. Absolutely nothing wrong with the place, in fact they had by far the best and most varied selection of beer on tap. However, it felt like a nice pub that could be anywhere and didn’t have that Irish pub atmosphere we were looking for during our trip. If that doesn’t matter to you and you want a broader beer selection, you may really like the Salt House!
- Courtney’s Bar: Go!Go! Another one of our favorites. The entrance has a somewhat cozy hobbit house feel, then it opens up into a hole-in-the-wall music joint in the back. The narrow middle section of the bar has a quaint fireplace with a list of whiskey options above it. We had a few too many Guinness here as we enjoyed our visit with the bartender.
- The Laurels Pub: Go! One of those places that is a tourist favorite but still has loads of charm and is definitely worth a visit. They had an incredible seafood chowder, but the most memorable part of our visit was reading the story posted on the wall of those “criminals” banished to Australia…if you go, read it!
- Murphy’s Bar: Feels a bit like an Irish pub in America as it’s refurbished and clean. If you don’t like hole-in-the-wall pubs but like the Irish atmosphere with a great selection of whiskeys, you’ll like this bar.
- Kelly’s Bar: Go! Right close to the train station, Kelly’s Bar is a less ramshackled that some of our favorite Irish pubs, but it has good character, a nice vibe and their food is very good. Perfect stop for lunch if visiting Cobh from Cork for a half-day. We took a break from Guinness here and had an excellent Irish Coffee!
- Quays Bar and Restaurant: We had lunch here, and it was good but not memorable. However, if the weather is nice, the views of the water are fantastic, and we were lucky enough to catch some live music.
- Sin e: Go!Go!Go! Dark, candle-lit, walls covered with mish-mash…like walking into a large collage. Great hole-in-the-wall bar with character and great nooks to settle in with a pint. Upstairs is full of character as well, loved it!
- The Welcome Inn: Go! Truly a local pub. Old Guinness bottles lining the shelves, some European sport you don’t know anything about on the television, and grey-haired locals crowding the bar. Joyous!
- Mutton Lane Inn: Go! Nice, atmospheric pub with nice views of the Mutton Lane Alley artwork from the windows.
TIPS AND ADVICE
Most people approach a trip to Ireland the same way. Despite the reluctance to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, the lack of other legitimate transportation options means renting a car and making the “loop”. Typically, the “loop” starts and ends in Dublin, with the first step either being a due West departure to Galway, or a Southwest bearing to KilKenny, Waterford, or all the way to Cork.
I realize many people that travel to Ireland will want/need to fly in/out of Dublin and will want to see the city. Dublin is a perfectly fine city with lots of amazing pubs (see my full review here), but it’s also one of if not the most American city feeling city we have visited in Europe. In other words, for much of our time in Dublin, it felt like we could be on the East Coast just as easily as somewhere in Europe.
New York has a direct flight into Shannon, Ireland, which is on the West side of the Island with easy driving access to Galway, Killarney, and the Cliffs of Moher. If you’re going through New York or an East Coast city anyway, flying into Shannon is worth a look. Shannon offers immediate access to the Western to Southern section of the “loop”, which is the part of Ireland that we enjoyed the most. If we go back, we’ll stay the entire trip in Killarney and/or Cork. Killarney was hands down our favorite stop in Ireland. It wasn’t even close. The little town itself is delightful, but it’s also a perfect location for a dozen day trips that are right out of the Ireland fairytale handbook.
Regardless of where you fly into or if you do decide to spend some time in Dublin, just don’t spend your whole trip in Dublin! I know you can do day trips from there, but don’t spend 6 hours on a bus just to spend a few hours at the Cliffs of Moher. Tour buses and even small tour groups are the worst! Get over your nerves about driving on the left side of the road and venture out on your own. One of the great joys of traveling through Ireland is stopping on the side of the road as you traverse the endless green hills to soak in the views, take your pictures and even hike around. The true personality, charm and experience of Ireland lies in the solidarity of the countryside and beauty of the smaller towns and villages. Don’t be on anyone else’s schedule, and don’t be in a rush when you drive. Put on whatever driving playlist you want at whatever volume you want and enjoy the views as you wind along the narrow, stone wall encased roads. Our favorite was Enya, which is an obvious choice but really does make for an incredible soundtrack as you drive along.
One more tip regarding rental cars. Since I’ve already spent the better part of this guide imploring you to rent a car and get out on your own, it’s also important to prepare you up front for buying the full, maximum insurance option available. Buy the one that says you aren’t liable to pay for damage even if you basically roll just a tire back into the return lot at the airport.
Why? Simple. During our trip to Ireland, the rental agency gave me 2 options:
- Buying the full insurance package
- Putting an advance $10,000 hold on my credit card subject to deductions for any perceived damage.
These options were the same (or close to it) for the other rental agencies I researched before the trip. After spending 8 days in Ireland I now understand why they do this… about 1 in 10 cars I saw had their passenger’s side mirror hanging off the side of the car. As we met a few friendly US patrons at various pub stops along the way, about half were bemoaning how they scraped the passenger side of the vehicle along the rocks and/or knocked off the passenger side mirror. The bottom line is tourists that aren’t used to the narrow roads or dealing with car dimensions from driving on the right side of the vehicle are highly likely to do some (at least) minor damage. So, when budgeting, count on the extra/full insurance. Even if it’s no longer mandatory, you’ll want it anyway to avoid a headache.
While it’s not really advice, one other thing you should be aware of in Ireland is your bartender is going to take a bit of time pouring you a Guinness. It’s the way they are supposed to do it. They fill a glass half-way, let it sit, then finish the rest of the pour. Be patient, it’s how you pour a “proper pint”. Also, it’s fun to see just how high above the rim of the glass different bar tenders can pour a Guinness. To close out this guide, here are some of our most impressive pours…
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