As an island on the western edge of Europe, Ireland is surrounded by water and rimmed by mountains, giving it a range of spectacular scenery, with verdant valleys, lush vegetation, rare flowers and unexpected palm trees. And with over 9,000 years of history, Ireland is dotted with an array of ancient monuments, dolmens, forts and castles. There are hundreds of great experiences, but reluctantly, I have pared them down to 10 to whet your appetite for a visit to the Emerald Isle.
1. Start with a Capital Caper
Dublin’s Fair City is the hub of Ireland, one of Europe’s most picturesque and popular capitals, dating back over 1,000 years. Medieval, Georgian and modern architecture provides a backdrop to this cosmopolitan port city, and a unique experience awaits around every corner. Step back in time at Dublin Castle, Christchurch Cathedral, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, marvel at the artistry of The Book of Kells at Trinity College, attend a classic play at the Abbey Theatre, sample a pint of Guinness at the Guinness Storehouse, or listen to the street music of the buskers on Grafton Street or in Temple Bar. More information: www.visitdublin.com.
2. Stop & Smell the Roses
County Wicklow is the Garden of Ireland, a breath of fresh air just south of Dublin, with a profusion of flower-filled glens and gardens. You can smell the roses at Powerscourt Gardens in Enniskerry – and marvel at all of the rose colors – not just red, pink, yellow and white, but blue, lavendar, and orange. Mount Usher Gardens at Ashford present a feast of rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias, eucalyptus and palms. In the heart of the county is Wicklow National Park , a carpet of wild flowers in a panoramic landscape of mountains, lakes and bogs.
3. Step Back into History
The Boyne Valley of Co. Meath is a treasure-trove of Ireland’s antiquities, led by Newgrange, considered as one of the finest archaeological wonders of Western Europe and designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Built between 3500 BC and 2700 BC, it was used as a tomb in which Stone Age men buried their dead. It is estimated that it took at least 40 years to build – the equivalent of a life’s work for a whole generation. Newgrange is 500 years older than the pyramids of Giza and 1,500 years older than Stonehenge. Nearby you can also walk in regal footsteps at the Hill of Tara, seat of early Irish high kings and the host of great open-air assemblies more than 2,200 years ago. Or take guided tours of mighty castles still standing – Trim Castle and Slane Castle.
4. Take a Medieval Break
For an old world atmosphere, all roads lead to Kilkenny, Ireland’s medieval city, a charming and easily walkable maze of narrow streets, cobbled lanes and ancient slipways. The centerpiece is Kilkenny Castle, dating back to 1192, with a striking façade of huge towers and battlements edging the banks of the River Nore. At the opposite end of town is St. Canice’s Cathedral, founded as a monastery in the 6th century and re-built in the 13th century. It is the second-longest of Ireland’s medieval cathedrals.
5. Kiss the Blarney Stone
“Did you kiss the Blarney Stone?” is a question that you will likely be asked if you visit Ireland. It is one of Ireland’s most popular visitor attractions, so be sure to include it in your plans. Head to Blarney Castle at Blarney, County Cork, Ireland’s largest county, on the southwest coast. Located five miles west of Cork City, Blarney Castle was built c. 1446 and the famous stone is at the top of the square keep (via over 120 curved stone steps). In order to kiss it, visitors must climb the steps and then lie down on the parapet and bend backwards. It sounds dangerous but the area is fully protected and a trained guide directs all the kissing. The hardest part is climbing up and down the steps. But, if you do, legend says that you will receive the gift of eloquence!
6. Ride in a Jaunting Car
For an Ireland experience you’ll never forget, hop on board a traditional horse-drawn jaunting car in the Killarney National Park, a 25-square-mile area of unpolluted lakes and car-free unspoiled scenery. The jaunting cars, which travel on off-road designated paths, are synonymous with Killarney, sort of what cable cars are to San Francisco or gondolas to Venice. The driver, known as a jarvey, is both a guide and storyteller (and with encouragement, he’ll sing you a song as well). Besides the clip-clop of the horse and the jarvey’s gentle voice, all you’ll hear is the birds and the whisper of the wind. Killarney is one of Ireland’s great beauty spots - edged by the Atlantic, surrounded by Ireland’s tallest mountains, and warmed by the Gulf Stream breezes of the southwest coast.