Ireland is possibly the homeland of the charming town, famous for a particular, uncapturable Irishness that seems to enchant every visitor. From the warmth of the local people themselves to the quaint architecture and stunning locations, Ireland’s small town game is strong. There’s history here too: millenia-old monasteries seem to mark the beginning of many a settlement here.
We’ve chosen the most charming towns in Ireland to whet your appetite for this beautiful nation. Almost all of them are set in some of the most surprisingly splendid landscapes you’ve ever seen – there are mountains, loughs, forests, and stark, sweeping coastlines, all helping to create a fairytale-style romance around every place you’ll visit in Ireland, a country as rugged and rocky as it is gentle and green.
With wilderness right on its doorstep – the impressive Blue Stack Mountains loom nearby – this is the perfect place for hillwalkers to explore some seriously dramatic landscapes. There are also several beaches in the area, some ripe for surfing – like the 3 km stretch of sand at Rossnowlagh. Donegal town itself goes way back, with archaeological evidence of pre-Celtic forts, a 15th century castle that offers guided tours, and Donegal Abbey, built in 1474; now ruined, the headland where it was situated offers very nice views of Donegal Bay.
Unlike many Irish towns, it actually came into being rather late in the country’s history in the 19th century, springing up because of the similarly late Gothic-revivalist Clifden Castle (built around 1818), now a ruin. Otherwise Clifden is perfectly situated for exploration into the Connemara National Park, where dedicated hikers can attempt to hike the “Twelve Bens” in a single day. An easier way to get some amazing views is the “Sky Road” – an 11 km drive along the impressive Clifden Bay.
This bustling town is a hub for tourism in West Cork – its brightly daubed buildings and numerous music pubs are testament to that. In fact it was named “Best Town In Europe” in 2017. Maybe it’s because of the atmosphere of the place, or maybe it’s the black pudding that Clonakilty is famous for: the still-secret family recipe dates back to 1880. Maybe it’s the incredibly cute Model Village of the town. Or maybe it’s the pre-Celtic ring forts as well as Norman castles that have been found in the area. We think it’s a mix.
Harry Potter fans will know Kenmare as the home of the “Kenmare Kestrels”, one of 13 teams that play in the Quidditch League of Britain and Ireland. Others will be more interested in its tranquility and unspoilt countryside, which attracts hillwalkers to the area; for instance, on the nearby Beara Peninsula are the Caha Mountains, and to the north is the Killarney National Park. Kenmare is a pivotal point on two tourist routes, being part of both the ‘Ring of Kerry’ and the ‘Ring of Beara’.
The small town of Birr, and its colourfully painted Georgian buildings, is situated somewhat out of the way of other tourist sites, but it packs a punch itself in terms of charm. And as with many Irish towns it is extremely historic: a monastery was founded here by Brendan of Birr – one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” – in about 540 AD. Birr Castle and its gardens are the star attraction; existing since at least 1170, the castle is still a private residence to the Earls of Rosse, so some areas are off-limits, but the castle grounds interestingly contain the former largest telescope in the world.
Amidst the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains – and only about 10 km (15 miles) from the centre of Dublin – lies Enniskerry, a small town tucked on the banks of the Glencullen River. The proximity to the mountain range make the town a good springboard into rugged nature, including the inexplicably picturesque Powerscourt Waterfall (121 meters – the highest in the country). The waterfall is actually on land owned by the Powerscourt Estate, a former 13th century castle expanded into a stately home in the 18h century, complete with beautiful Italian gardens.
Formerly known as Queenstown – from 1849 until Ireland got its independence from Britain in 1920 – this is Titanic town: it was the final port of call for the RMS Titanic before its fateful voyage into the Atlantic. This was also the departure point for millions of Irish immigrants to North America for just under a hundred years (1848 – 1950). Cobh’s waterfront is undeniably charming, and begs to be seen from the sea: rows of painted houses step neatly down the town’s hills to the harbour.
Three-time winner of the Irish Tidy Towns Award, Westport is the result of Georgian urban planning, with picturesque malls at its heart running either side of the Carrowbeg River. It was ‘founded’ in the 1780s when architect James Wyatt was tasked with creating a town for the workers and tenants of nearby Westport House, for which the original village of Cahernamart was cleared. The famous peak of Croagh Patrick, locally known as The Reek, provides a stark backdrop for the town and is a site of national pilgrimage: St Patrick is thought to have spent 40 days fasting atop this mountain in 441 AD.
Lismore is very old: it’s believed to have been founded in the 7th century, when a monastery was built here in 635 AD. Atop the former Abbey now stands the imposing Lismore Castle, constructed in 1185. Though it’s private – remaining in the hands of the Cavendish family since 1753 – some parts of this ancient building are accessible. The beautiful Castle Gardens, however, can be freely rambled through. The 15th century Book of Lismore, comprising many texts on the lives of saints, was compiled here.
Not only is Killarney a charming town – it’s also the gateway to the fabulous breath of fresh air that is Killarney National Park. Situated on the shores of famous Lough Leane, the town boasts a load of lovely things to see, including the 15th century Ross Castle, the ruins of Muckross Abbey (founded as a Franciscan friary in 1485), and Victorian-era Muckross House and its idyllic gardens – in fact, the National Park grew from this house and garden combination in 1932. It won the Best Kept Town award in 2007.
The postcard-perfect thatched cottages of Adare have helped earn it wide renown as one of Ireland’s prettiest, as well as official Heritage Town status under the Irish government. The cottages were built in the 1800s to serve Adare Manor, also constructed in the 19th century; the site is mentioned in 1226 when Henry II gave one of his lords permission to host an 8-day feast at the manor. Aside from this, Adare boasts three monasteries: the Augustinian Priory (1316), the Franciscan friary (1464), and the Trinitarian Abbey (now the Catholic Parish church) founded in 1230.
Known as “the prettiest town in Ireland,” Kinsale is nestled at the mouth of the River Bradon, famous for its particularly colourful brightly painted rows of shops which make simply walking around town a joy. But there’s history here too: the remains of the 17th century James’s Fort lies on one side of the river, whilst opposite is the even older Fort Charles, and in town is Desmond Castle, a 1500s customs house turned International Wine Museum. Nearby is the Old Head of Kinsale, a rocky outcrop that juts dramatically into the Celtic Sea, complete with 17th century lighthouse.
Just on the border with Northern Ireland, the medieval streets of Carlingford are packed with history, evident even in the narrow lanes that make up the layout of the town. Remnants of years gone are scattered throughout, such as the severe stones of King John Castle, built around 1210, “The Tholsel” – remains of a gate in the town’s medieval walls – and on Tholsel Street itself there’s the well preserved remains of a 15th century fortified house known as the Mint. Carlingford’s turbulent history led to inability to attract modern industry, ironically preserving the town’s medieval heart, from churches to the 14th century market square: it’s still here.
Sitting all by itself on the Dingle Peninsula, this town is famous for pubs, fishing, bottlenose dolphins (or just one, named Fungie) and the fact that Gaelic as a local vernacular is heard just as commonly as English – it’s situated in a Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) region. Established after the 12th century Norman conquest of Ireland, Dingle harbour is backdropped by dramatic hills, nestled in which is the nearby Connor Pass – hiking up to Peddler’s Lake from the waterfall here is well worth the spectacular view. And afterwards, settling into one of Dingle’s many pubs for the evening is a comfy reward.