Unspoiled scenery, a depth of culture and friendly locals, Ireland is full of exciting experiences and unforgettable journeys. It may be a small island but Ireland is packed full of incredible attractions. Centuries old abbeys and churches dot the landscape, alongside millenia-old relics and ruins, with castles and stately homes galore for you to explore and discover in this famously green island.
Home to Celtic culture, early Christianity, Norman invaders, even Vikings, and finally the English, Ireland has had a tumultuous history, reflected in the wealth of heritage buildings that draw visitors the world over. Its natural landscape – including beautiful waterfalls, dramatic coastlines, rock formations, mountains and stunning valleys – is not only the backdrop to the well visited man made attractions in Ireland, but draw hikers, cyclists and appreciators of nature year upon year. But with so many natural and historical sights to choose from, which should you choose to visit on your trip to Ireland? Here’s a comprehensive list to whet your appetite, ignite the spark of discovery, and help guide you around both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Just 20 km from Dublin is the ineffably grand Powerscourt Estate. Set in 47 acres of beautiful land, the gardens were created 150 years ago with the idea of blending the stately home seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. Against the bold backdrop of the Great Sugar Loaf Mountains, the gardens are home to 200 varieties of trees, a rose garden, an Italian garden and a large kitchen garden. There are many trails to walk along through the vast landscape – one of which leads to Powerscourt Falls, Ireland’s highest waterfall at 121 meters.
Ireland has its fair share of castles, but Kilkenny Castle might have the claim of being the most beautiful. Meticulously restored, carefully furnished and open to the general public to explore, the castle was built in 1195 by the Normans, and over the centuries has been built on and developed by its numerous occupants. The castle was sold to the people of Kilkenny in 1967 for the tiny sum of £50 and is now a popular attraction for visitors from Ireland and around the world.
Set in the heart of Dublin is the iconic Guinness Storehouse. The brewery has been making Guiness here since 1769 when Arthur Guinness signed a lease for 9,000 years. Nowadays the home of Guinness is a modern visitor attraction, where fans can learn about the process of making the famous black stuff, understand the history behind it and, of course, sample it.
Clinging to the edge of a 100-metre-high cliff is the ancient stone fort of Dun Aengus. Built on the craggy coast of Inis Mór, this incredible construction dates back to 1100 BC; consisting of large limestone blocks which stand monolithic in the ground, the fort was built in order to deter invaders and protect the island from any form of attack. Take a walk along the old walls, step back in time and imagine what it would have been like to see invading marauders advancing from across rough sea.
If you are into Star Wars then you will want to visit Skellig Michael – and if you’re not, you should visit anyway because it is awe-inspiringly beautiful. The rocky island rises out of the Atlantic just off of the Iveragh Peninsula and was frequented by ascetic monks, who chose the towering sea crag as a place to live and worship somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries. The island is remarkable, not only for its stark natural surroundings, but also for the incredible feats of the monks who survived in such a harsh environment and who built monastic structures that still remain to this day.
The medieval fishing port of Kinsale is packed full of hidden historical gems. The colorful coastal village’s old winding lanes are dotted with various art galleries, local shops, hearty pubs and excellent restaurants – so excellent, in fact, that the town even hosts its own annual Gourmet Festival. Visitors flock to the town from all over the world to enjoy yachting, walking and fishing in the scenic surroundings, all of which are overlooked by the looming 17th century fort.
The huge, rambling Kylemore estate was built in 1867 by a wealthy doctor as a romantic gift for his wife. The castle was purchased by Benedictine Nuns who, after fleeing Ypres in 1920, set up a Catholic boarding school in order to educate local and international Catholic girls. Nowadays the impressive building, which sits on the shores of Kylemore Lake, is open to visitors who can walk along the decadently decorated corridors, discover inside the charming walled garden and stroll through the 1000-acre grounds.
Stick your head over the parapet at the historic Blarney Castle and kiss the famous Blarney Stone as millions have done before you. It’s said that people who manage to kiss the mysterious Blarney Stone are endowed with ‘the gift of the gab’. This mystic relic isn’t the only interesting attraction at Blarney Castle – dating back to 1446, the medieval stronghold is a warren of stone passageways and dark dungeons, so take a tour and discover the castle’s hidden secrets and expanses of rambling green gardens.
The oldest university in Ireland is Trinity College, Dublin, founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. The historic campus is in the center of the vibrant Irish capital, but once through the gates of the college the historic setting starts to come alive and it feels as if you have stepped into a bygone era. Trinity college has educated some of Ireland’s most influential people including the first Irish president Theobald Wolfe Tone, along with iconic literary figures Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Harry Potter enthusiasts will be excited to know that the university’s extraordinary Long Room was the inspiration being the library in Harry Potter. The university also houses some hidden treasures including the Book of Kells, a priceless 9th-century illuminated manuscript.
Marking the westernmost point of the Irish mainland is the picturesque Dingle Bay. Surrounded by a wide expanse of nature, the bay makes up part of the 2,500km long Wild Atlantic Way: a scenic route that stretches along the length of Ireland’s west coast. Here you can soak up the mesmerising views across the deep blue of the ocean and explore the crooked stone huts that were built on the peninsula by monks in the Middle Ages. Around the bay the local culture and customs are protected, with help from the Irish government, in order to retain Gaelic traditions and language.
The unimaginably old stone structure of Newgrange tomb was built in 3200 BC. The domed Megalithic Passage Tomb is estimated to have taken 300 people 20 years to build and covers an area of over one acre, revealing interior stones decorated with the spirals and curves of Neolithic rock art. During the Winter Solstice the passageway, along with the inner chamber, is incredibly illuminated by the sunrise that streams through a roof box at the entrance.
Walk in the footsteps of giants at one off Ireland’s must-see attractions. The world-famous Giant’s Causeway is made up of 40,000 interlocking, hexagonally shaped columns of basalt rock which create unintentional stepping stones. The peculiar pillars are so perfect it’s hard to believe that they aren’t man-made – in fact the unusual rock formation was a result of volcanic activity that occurred around 60 million years ago. Take a hike along the coast and discover the Wishing Chair, a throne created by a curve of the naturally forming rocks.
Scenic Killarney National Park has to be on your Ireland itinerary. Not only is the park home to a sprawling 19th-century, ivy-covered mansion, but also a captivating landscape that makes up a Biosphere Reserve. With its three magnificent lakes and Ireland’s biggest expanse of indigenous forest, the beautiful scenery of Killarney National park is captivating. The best way to experience Killarney is to take a drive along the 11 kilometer road, through the Gap of Dunloe and across a landscape sculpted by glaciers.
Inside the grounds of the Wicklow Mountains National Park lies the eerie remains of a veritable monastic city which dates back to the 6th century. Explore what lies among the old stones and discover crumbling churches, mysterious relics and the particularly well-preserved Round Tower. The ancient woodlands and lakes surrounding the site are also enticing – take a stroll among the enigmatic landscape where the venerable monks themselves once wandered.
Standing at 214 meters over the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, and stretching for an awesome 8 km, are the rugged Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Visitors are drawn to the cliffs, not just for their sheer impressive size, but also for the views of the breathtaking landscape – on a clear day it is possible to see all 5 of the surrounding counties as well as the Aran Islands. The awe-inspiring cliffs are also home to Ireland’s largest mainland seabird colony, which between April and July includes Puffins!