Castles, coastline, verdant countryside. Beer. This part of Ireland lives up to its somewhat clichéd reputation: it’s a lush and scenic land, dotted with castles and filled with small towns with pubs on every corner. There’s so much that’s quintessentially Ireland in this region, but here are your best bets for a road trip tour of Ireland.
Start and end your trip in Dublin, but be sure to save time to see the city itself before you hit the road. It may be one of Europe’s great cities, but it might not always come across as interesting or unique. A walk through the crowds of tourists on O’Connell Street and a drink in historic but commercialized Temple Bar is enough to put you off Dublin altogether.
But visit the Guinness Storehouse for a tour and tasting, traipse through the lovely and historic campus of Trinity College, and take a tour at historic prison Kilmainham Gaol and the real Dublin will reveal its charm.
Head next to tiny Trim, about an hour outside Dublin. Here’s where the Irish countryside begins to take over the suburban clutter around Dublin. Trim is quiet, so you won’t find any busy pubs or great live music, but you’re here for the history. The obvious, major landmark in Trim is the medieval Trim Castle, once Ireland’s largest fortification and a film location for the epic Braveheart. The tours here are excellent. Hit the walking paths of Trim to visit other ruins of the town’s gates, abbeys, friary, and cathedral.
Continue on to Kilkenny, where the narrow streets are jammed with historic store fronts; inside, you’ll find worthwhile shops, great restaurants, and lively pubs. The pubs in Ireland generally also serve excellent food, so it’s not uncommon to eat a fantastic leg of lamb and linger into the evening over pints and live music. High Street is the place to go for such evening entertainment. St. Canice, the medieval cathedral, is high on the list of sights here, as is Kilkenny Castle. If you’re not tired of historic sites yet, visit Kells Priory and the Black Abbey. A tour at Smithwick’s brewery is also a must.
Heading south out of Kilkenny you’ll hit Waterford, of Waterford Crystal fame. The sparkly showroom at the visitor’s center is open for browsing, and tours of the factory start here. Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city, and you’ll find plenty of historic relics here, too. The most impressive is Reginald’s Tower, built in the 12th century as an important fortification. The tower is now a museum, and the displays are as interesting as the tower itself. Just watch your head in the tight stairwells.
No trip to an Irish town is complete without a stop in a church, and Waterford has two of interest: Christ Church Cathedral (look for the macabre tomb of James Rice) and Holy Trinity Cathedral (with 10 Waterford Crystal chandeliers).
The narrow, winding streets of Kinsale are a welcome respite from busier Waterford. Kinsale is known for its food and had earned a reputation as the gourmet capital of Ireland. The streets are filled with shops and restaurants and pubs so densely packed you can hit the highlights in a day. Explore the harbor and consider a cruise on the River Bandon. Also of note is Charles Fort, just outside the town, a well-preserved star fort with great views and interesting displays.
Kenmare is often used as a launch point for the fantastic Ring of Kerry, a breathtaking road through mountains and countryside encircling the Iveragh peninsula. It’s also one of the top tourist attractions in Ireland, and the tour buses that squeeze on the cliffside roads can make the drive a bit harrowing at times.
But here’s where you’ll find southern Ireland’s best scenery: dramatic coastline, grazing sheep, and quiet fishing towns. It’s also close to the Ring of Kerry’s less populated alternative, the Ring of Beara. The scenery is dramatic here, too, as is the cable car ride to tiny Dursey Island. Back in Kenmare, there’s the usual charming storefronts and pubs, but not much else that stands out. One historic site to visit, though, is the Stone Circle, a Bronze Age burial monument.
Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher may be crowded and a bit out of the way (they’re three hours from Kenmare), but you’ll soon forget all the hassle when you step—not too close—to the edge and look down. The cliffs plunge 200 meters to an angry sea, where puffins dive for fish. You can walk along the rim and, on clear days, spot the Aran Islands and the hills of Connemara. A visitor’s center hides from view under a hillside, where the displays show a bird’s eye view of the cliffs and information on the ecosystem. For a more close-up view that doesn’t involve risking your life by jumping the safety fence, book a cruise to see the cliffs from below.
Visit the Cliffs of Moher from Dublin
From Kenmare, it’s a four-hour trip back to Dublin, but the highways here are easy to navigate. An alternative is flying home–there’s an airport at Limerick, a shorter two hours from Kenmare.
- Megan Hill