First-Timer Tips for Exploring Ireland

September 10, 2013 by

Europe, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Dublin is a fine city, but so many of Ireland’s jewels and secrets live outside the capital and around the countryside. Then there are the other, sometimes overlooked cities: Belfast, Cork, Galway, Kilkenny…to name a few. On my five-week trip around Ireland, I was lucky enough to dip into all corners of the country, and I learned a few things along the way about getting around.

Rent a car

Ireland road

If this is a possibility for you, it’s absolutely the number one way to go. I’m not a driver, but fortunately my friend didn’t mind taking the wheel and chauffeuring me around. We had the luxury of starting and stopping when we pleased, and no roads were left unexplored.

When you move away from Dublin and into areas like County Waterford and the west coast peninsulas (Dingle, Bear, and Kerry), the landscape becomes mostly farmland and adorably dilapidated farmhouses. The scenery is amazing, with farm roads that branch off in all directions. We had to stop several times for sheep crossing, and the roads were often so twisty and narrow that we reduced speed to a crawl.

One of my favorite discoveries: Dunhille Castle along the Copper Coast in County Waterford. We drove off the main road and found steep stairs leading to the ruins atop a hill. The unpopular Power family lived here and repeatedly attacked Waterford City in the 14th Century. The ruins date back to the early 1200s, and you don’t need any kind of admission or passes to explore what’s left.

By bus

Getting around Ireland by bus is probably the cheapest option, although some of the routes can be tedious with a lot of drop-offs. Irish Bus (Bus Eireann) is equivalent to North America’s famous Greyhound bus, and stops just about everywhere in the country. Booking in advance sometimes leads to cheaper deals, but if you show up at the bus station the day of your departure, you typically won’t have any trouble securing a seat. Plus the buses leave multiple times per day, so it’s unlikely you’ll be stranded.

Watch out for the Expresseway 5EUR one-way tickets between certain cities. You can also opt for a pass if you plan to do some city hopping.

In Northern Ireland, the bus service to get between different cities and towns is Translink Ulsterbus. It basically functions exactly the same as Bus Eireann, but with a different name (and different currency – remember, they use the sterling pound!).

Within Dublin, DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) services the Dublin area from Howth and Malahide in the North County to Greystones in County Wicklow. In Belfast, Belfast City Bus will help you easily get around the city.

By train

This is the most expensive option of the three for sure, and often you’ll find that the routes won’t take you to every place you need. Still, if train travel is your thing, there are options.

Irish Rail services the Republic, and Northern Ireland Railways service Northern Ireland. The railway system is ideal for setting up day trips as well, and on my first visit to Ireland I took the train from Dublin to Cork and back in one day to kiss the Blarney Stone. It’s also a much faster mode of transportation than driving or bussing!

Read more about train travel in Ireland.

Making the most of your visit

Ireland is a big country, and if you’re visiting for a limited amount of time you’ll want to figure out where you want to go the most. I saw a fair chunk of the island during my visit, and these were some of the highlights.

Guinness Storehouse

Guinness Storehouse

Dublin – I’m not Dublin’s biggest fan, sadly. But I visited during St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and the place was unbelievably wild. The nightlife is fun (but expensive), and visiting the Guinness Storehouse is a must even if you’re not a beer drinker. The views from the bar at the top are totally worth it! If you’re more of a whiskey drinker, check out the Old Jameson Distillery. And if you’d prefer to avoid alcohol altogether, Dublin has some incredible museums and historical relics. Try the national Museum of Ireland, or the eerie Kilmainham Gaol, where rebels from the 1916 Easter Rising were imprisoned and executed. Ireland has an unbelievably troubled past, and getting better acquainted with it will allow you to better understand both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

County Waterford – This area in the south of Ireland doesn’t get a great deal of tourism in comparison to other areas. Yet, Waterford City is a colorful little town, and the Copper Coast drive along the Atlantic Ocean is stunning. The name was given for its historic metal-mining industry, and now you’ll find abandoned remnants from the copper craze left all along the coast. Be sure to check out Ardmore, home to a well-preserved 12th-century round tower where monks once hid from plundering Vikings.

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny – A very touristy small town, but beautiful and worth a visit. Bright buildings frame the River Nore, where Kilkenny Castle looms on its banks.  Despite being tiny in population, the pubs are busy and active all the time! And naturally you have to try a Kilkenny beer when you’re here. I prefer it to Guinness, in fact.

Cork – Cork City is the second largest in the Republic after Dublin, but is home to just over 100,000 people. It’s a great place to soak up a city vibe while still enjoying a slower pace of life. Of course, the famous (infamous?) Blarney Stone is here for you to smack lips with.

The Peninsulas – Here you get the spectacular scenery that you see in all the tourism ads… roaming sheep, rusty ‘ol farmers wearing cabbie hats, cliffs plunging into the ocean, and miles and miles of open road. The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula were both wonderful to drive through, but it was the Ring of Beara that really resonated with me. It seem to be the most untouched of the three, but with the same stunning scenery and friendly folks along the way. Check out the colorful village of Allihies, where homes are painted in jellybean colors of purple, pink, blue, and yellow.

Galway

Galway

Galway – My favorite little city in Ireland, on the west coast. Galway is home to the National University of Ireland, and there is a massive student population living here (not to mention the expats!). The nightlife is some of the best in the country, and the people here are so spirited you can’t help but fall in love. This is also one of the best places on the island for Irish traditional music. From here you can also easily arrange a trip to the Cliffs of Moher, but it can be bit of a tourist trap.

The Aran Islands – Located at the mouth of Galway Bay, the Aran Islands’ dominant language is Irish and the pace of life is very, very slow. Inishmore is the largest and most-visited of the Aran Islands; Inishmaan is the second largest; and Inisheer is the smallest. Rent a bike and cycle around, and make sure to visit Dun Aengus, a Bronze Age and Iron Age fort on the edge of the Atlantic. Read more about what to do in the Aran Islands.

County Sligo – Surprisingly, Sligo was my favorite part in all of Ireland… perhaps because I wasn’t expecting it to be. I made so many good friends in such a short amount of time, it was hard to leave. There’s a surprisingly young population interspersed across the county, and it might have something to do with all the outdoor adventure opportunities.  The town of Strandhill, for example, has an extremely vibrant surf community. There are several hiking trails around the area, and you can even trying Stand Up Paddling to the Isle of Innishfree!

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Northern Ireland – Arriving in Belfast after spending so much time in the Republic was bit of a shock.  Immediately the accent changes, as does the currency and everything else to do with the UK. Belfast is a fascinatingly cosmopolitan city, with a crazy nightlife and lots of great shopping. Getting away from the city, however, you’ll find some of the country’s coolest attractions. A visit to the Giant’s Causeway is a must, where 40,000 interlocking basalt columns create one of the strangest coastal landscapes you’ll ever see. If you get a chance, cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge as well.

 - Candice Walsh

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