Ireland's Top Highlights
Ireland's tourism industry generates around two billion dollars per year, a big figure for a relatively small island. Most visitors come for the misty landscapes and convivial culture, and Ireland doesn't disappoint. Expect rolling green hills, heather-covered plains, dominating sea cliffs, and amiable locals.
Of course, you won't be alone. Millions of other travelers have the same idea, and Ireland's top tourist sites can be crowded regardless of what time of year you visit. But there are ways to escape the tour-bus hordes and experience Ireland's most famous regions and sites in unique ways.
See Another Side of Dublin
Dublin is a city of highlight attractions, raucous nightlife, and historic sites. Take that hop-on/hop-off sightseeing bus tour, visit the Guinness Storehouse, stroll the campus of Trinity College, and snap pics in the Great Courtyard of Dublin Castle—you'll certainly have fun. But even amid the well-trodden tourist path of Grafton Street and surrounding environs, there's another side of Dublin just waiting for visitors to come and discover it.
Doing Dublin differently
Firstly, enjoy a pint of Guinness at the always packed, 200-year-old Kehoe's Pub. Located in the city center, this homey Victorian gem (it features stained-glass mahogany doors, wood partitions, and lamp-lit booths) is far enough away from the Temple Bar area to qualify as truly local. It's generally regarded as one of the best pubs in the city, if not the best.
After you steel your nerves with a frothy pint of the Black Stuff, you can then visit the basement of St. Michan's Church, north of the river. The subterranean chamber of this 11th-century Anglican church is a well-preserved crypt, home to a number of coffins which house, yes, mummies. Over time, some of the casket lids have disintegrated to the point they reveal the arms and legs of mummified remains. One famous interred, known as "The Crusader," is around 800 years old and rumored to have been a knight during the Crusades.
If you do decide to visit Trinity College—home to famous literary alums like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Becket—visit the Long Room portion of its library. This is an enormous chamber with a barrel ceiling that dates back to 1712 and houses around 200,000 of the college's oldest books, including a 1916 copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. You can also visit Trinity at night on the city's unique literary pub crawl. Actors host this combined walking/drinking tour of Dublin's famous pubs and other sites that its most famous authors once frequented. Along the way the performers recite passages of prose and verse, making for a truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Take a Black Taxi Tour in Belfast
In the last 10 or so years, tourism in Northern Ireland has picked up considerably. There's no great secret why: it's only in the last couple of decades that peace and reconciliation have been the norm. The Irish refer to their long history of internecine strife—the fight between Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Free Staters—as "the troubles," which were put to bed seemingly for good with the disarmament of the IRA in 1998.
Today, the capital of Northern Ireland is open for business. It's a fun city, and there are unique historic sites here—after all, the Belfast shipyards are where that most famous of tragic oceanliners, the RMS Titanic, was built. Those with an interest in maritime heritage can visit the Titanic Belfast Monument right on the shipyards.
Doing Belfast differently
If you want to get to the heart of Belfast (and by extension, the heart of Ireland's complex and violent past), take a black taxi tour of the city. This is probably the best cultural tour in Northern Ireland, as it involves driving around in a typical black taxi with a local cabbie acting as a tour guide. These are the people who grew up in the conflict, and they bring an in-depth perspective regarding the troubles and the new peace.
The tour includes visits to various political murals throughout the city as well as stops in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods separated by "peace walls"—barriers with a long and bloody legacy. For a local perspective of a complex and fascinating subject, you can't do better than a black taxi tour.
Enjoy the Sunrise Over the Giant's Causeway
Classic Giant's Causeway
The Giant's Causeway, located on the coast in County Antrim, is Northern Ireland's most popular tourist site. It's a unique section of coast home to about 40,000 cylindrical basalt rocks that create a geometric formation like nothing else in the world. Naturally, this draws large crowds, with many of them arriving on tour buses from Belfast and Dublin, often between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm.
Doing the Giant's Causeway differently
So how do you beat the crowds? Actually, there are a couple of lodging options just outside the visitor center and in the general region surrounding the Giant's Causeway. If you stay nearby the night before, you can wake up early and, with few if any other visitors around, experience the sunrise as it gilds the rock formations with the day's first light. Alternately, you can stay for a private sundown as it lowers over the Atlantic.
You could also make the Giant's Causeway part of a scenic hike in Ireland's north. The most popular is a multi-day trek known as the Causeway Coast Way. This is a 33-mile linear route that runs between the towns of Ballycastle and Port Stewart (you can begin in either one). You'll pass other scenic sites like the green pastures and mountain plateaus of the Glens of Antrim along the way.
If you're interested in a shorter excursion, you can take a short hike along the top of the Causeway's cliffs. This section is a bit less traveled, which means fewer tourists. To do this, you can park your car at the causeway, then take a bus to the village of Dunseverick, then walk along the cliffs back to the Causeway.
Hike the Aran Islands & Cliffs of Moher
Classic County Clare
There's probably no more famous tourist site in all of Ireland than the iconic Cliffs of Moher, located on the west coast in County Clare. These sea cliffs run for 8 miles, reaching heights of over 700 feet. Cinephiles will recognize them as the Cliffs of Insanity from the 1987 film The Princess Bride, and they were also featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Tour buses carry over a million visitors here each year, and from the cliffs, you can look out all the way to Galway Bay and the Aran Islands.
Doing County Clare differently
That begs the question, why experience one of these locations when you can visit all three? Ireland is famous for its long-distance hikes, and if you really want to get away from the crowds you'll lace up your boots and prepare for a three-day excursion you won't soon forget. It begins in Galway City, a colorful port town famous for its Irish charm and myriad live music venues. Then you'll transfer by boat across the bay to the island of Inishmore, the largest of the Arans. These three unique isles are noted for their sheer sea cliffs and terrain composed primarily of limestone karst.
During your time in Inishmore, you'll discover a Gaelic culture among the island's some 1,200 residents (indeed most of them still speak Irish). After a day trip to the adjacent island of Inishmaan, you will head to the charming coastal village of Doolin, a heritage town abounding in traditional Irish music. You'll cap the journey with a three-hour walk to the Cliffs of Moher, enjoying the stunning Irish scenery along the way. By the end of it, you'll truly be able to say you did the Cliffs of Moher differently.
On the other hand, if you're only planning a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, you have a couple options that don't include tour buses. The best way to see them away from the crowds is on a boat excursion of the coast with limited seating capacity. If you're feeling more active, you can hike from the towns of Doolin and Liscannor (both easily accessible via public transport). You'll want to allow about five hours for the entire walk.
Go Beyond the Tourist Sites in County Kerry
Classic County Kerry
If the Cliffs of Moher are Ireland's most popular landmark, then County Kerry is its most popular region. Located on the southwest coast of the nation, this stunning county is home to both Killarney and Killarney National Park. The town and adjacent park are stops on the famous Ring of Kerry, a scenic drive that circuits the Iveragh Peninsula. There are a lot of genuinely worthwhile sites to visit here, including the 15th-century Ross Castle, the scenic Lakes of Killarney, and the 19th-century Victorian lakeside mansion of Muckross House.
Doing County Kerry differently
How to go off the beaten path when most of County Kerry is decidedly beaten? Luckily it's a sizeable region with more lesser-known and lesser-visited sites than you would think. Visit Skellig Michael. Located about 8 miles off the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, this is the taller of two green craggy islands, this one rising more than 700 feet out of the Atlantic Ocean. It's notable as an old monastic site dating to the 7th century, and the stone "beehive" huts and 600 stone steps leading up to them are amazingly well preserved.
If you can't get enough of mountains, then you can partake in another unique activity in County Kerry: climbing Ireland's highest peak at 3,405 feet, Carrauntoohil. We won't lie—the 7-mile strenuous ascent to the summit takes four to six hours to complete, best for those with a decent level of physical fitness. The route includes a climb over a steep gully (pleasantly named "Devil's Ladder") followed by a scramble over a moraine before reaching the summit. Those who make it to the metal cross perched at the top will be treated to sweeping panoramas of the mountain range and County Kerry below.
For a less strenuous activity in County Kerry, take a relaxing "jaunting car" ride. These horse-drawn carts were the primary mode of transport back in the day, and now amiable locals drive them, taking visitors around to different sites in town and Killarney National Park. Part of the fun is seeing the landmarks, but equally entertaining is listening to the drivers' stories about the region.
Go "Coasteering" on Clare Island
Classic Clare Island
Located in western Ireland, near the entrance of Clew Bay in County Mayo, Clare Island is famous for being the home of Grace O'Malley, the 16th-century swashbuckling pirate queen of the Ó Máille dynasty. It's also a picture-perfect mountainous isle featuring green hills, dramatic coastal cliffs, and a sparse population of under 200 people. Most visitors who come here opt to explore the island's landscapes and attractions on a bus tour or by bicycle or on foot. These are all worthy excursions, but they don't quite compare to coasteering Clare Island.
Doing Clare Island differently
"Coasteering" is a hybrid term combining swimming, climbing, and cliff diving, and yes you will do all three on this activity. It kicks off with a harrowing jump off a 30-foot sea cliff at which point you'll swim around and explore sections of this Wild Atlantic Coast, sometimes passing through the shimmering green waters of coves hidden in the cliffsides. It's an adrenaline-pumping, adventurous way to experience this island, and it's an activity that Grace O'Malley herself would no doubt approve of (she'd probably even join in). Coasteering excursions are led by experienced guides who provide the proper safety equipment and leave nothing to chance, be it the weather or the tides.
Discover Secret Cork
Many travelers come to County Cork because its famous for being the southernmost point in Ireland. Its friendly residents are known as Corkonians, and their general exuberance makes any stay here a good time. Add in the fact that this is the site of Blarney Castle (home to the famous Blarney Stone), and it's no surprise that this region is a firm fixture on the tourist trail. Even so, there are unique sites and activities here that reveal more of Cork than the typical visitor gets to experience.
Doing County Cork differently
Take a food tour of Cork City. There are quite a few of these tours, offering tastings of the area's famous seafood, spiced beef, cheeses, wine, and whiskeys, all complimented with an education on the region's culinary history. Another option is the Cork Ghost Tour. This is a one-hour walking tour of old town Cork as boisterous guides regale groups with grisly tales from the city's past. It's alternately fun and scary, and a good tour for the entire family.
You can also head to Bantry Bay in Glengarriff for a trip to Garnish Island. This small isle enjoys a unique micro-climate that features more exotic flora and fauna than you'll find in other parts of the country. A ferry ride here passes by Seal Island, an outcropping home to hundreds of fur seals; also, birders will love seeing rare species like the impressively large white-tailed sea eagle.
One of the best activities in all of Ireland is the night kayaking excursion in the saltwater lake of Lough Hyne, in West Cork. This was Ireland's first ever marine nature reserve (est. 1981), and today adventurers come to kayak here in the pitch-black dead of night. Why? The lake is filled with phytoplankton, which when agitated creates dazzling displays of bioluminescence. There's nothing quite like gliding along the surface of Lough Hyne illuminated only by enormous swaths of electric blue dancing lights. Summer is the peak season to witness this phenomenon.