Photo gallery of tour of Ireland: Click here
A traveler to any country always faces the same dilemma: what to see and do in a limited amount of time. So, for my first trip to Ireland, was it going to be Dublin or the Ring of Kerry? And how does one choose between the Cliffs of Moher and the Giant’s Causeway?
In a land with such enticing options, selecting only a few sites was going to be tough. So when my Irish boyfriend, Declan, proposed a two-week vacation to his home country and suggested I pick out the places I most wanted to see, I told him I had to see them all.
I’ll admit I’m one of those enthusiastic (some say annoying) people who travel, guidebook in hand, trying to check off every tourist site on the list, do or die. And by doing a whirlwind loop around the country (with a quick excursion to Northern Ireland) we were able to take in just about every site on my list and make time to visit my boyfriend’s family and friends on the way.
As I discovered, Ireland is too beautiful to miss any of it. So how do you cram nearly every tourist site in a country in two weeks? Plan your itinerary ahead and don’t sleep until you make it back home.
Reports of rain in Ireland several weeks prior to our visit were worrisome, but when we landed at Cork Airport , the morning sun was out and the day was clear. We had a lot to squeeze in over the two weeks, including our first stop, a friend’s wedding in the picturesque and historic maritime town of Kinsale in West Cork.
The morning after the marathon festivities, we slept past both breakfast and our check out time. We were unceremoniously kicked out of our B&B, and fortuitously stumbled upon Café Blue. Adjacent to the Blue Haven Hotel on Pearse Street, this comfortable and elegant café serves a wickedly delicious French toast.
After breakfast, a long, pleasant hike through the village of Summercove took us to Charles Fort, a 17th century star-shaped coastal fort.The guided tour depicted military life at the fort, which was occupied by the British until Irish independence in 1922.We happened to be visiting during the annual Kinsale Arts Week, and the windows of the fort were filled with multi-colored panels as part of an installation.
After wandering back towards the medieval center of Kinsale, where the streets were crowded with revelers and street performers, we stopped to watch another art “happening” as women dressed in long red gowns and encased in large bubbles were set loose to float in the harbor. The huge bubbles drifted into the water to the soft strains of classical music while the elegantly dressed women struggled comically to stay upright.
We had an early morning flight to Belfast the next morning, so we moved on to Cork for dinner and a walk before retiring to the spacious but very convenient and budget-friendly Cork International Airport Hotel.
The Black Cab murals tour through the neighborhoods of Protestant Shankill Road and Catholic Falls Road is a must-do in Belfast. Our cab driver and guide gave a fascinating and unbiased account of the Troubles. He stopped at the Peace Wall, which separates the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods, and gave us markers to add our own names to the messages of hope. After the tour, we meandered around Belfast taking in City Hall, Queen’s University, and the Botanic Gardens.
We had a few pints at the gorgeous Crown Liquor Saloon, located on Great Victoria Street across from the Grand Opera House and the Europa Hotel. This stunningly ornate Victorian pub, with its mahogany woodwork, stained glass and mosaic tiles, is a great place for imagined time travel. The place was crowded but much to my delight we managed to grab a corner snug . I got a kick out of this beautifully carved private booth, which had its own door and bell to ring for service. It was too easy to picture myself back in 1890 having a whispered clandestine meeting over some shockingly wicked sort of business.
The next day, on our first scheduled bus tour, we explored the Antrim Coast. The tour included crossing the over 90-foot-high Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and sampling whiskey at the Old Bushmills Distillery, but the highlight of the tour was the Giant’s Causeway.
Stretching four-miles along the coast, this geological formation of hexagonal, stair-like columns was formed by a volcanic eruption more than 60 million years ago. We wisely decided to skip the scheduled lunch at the Causeway Hotel to have more time exploring the site. The basalt columns were shockingly smaller than I expected but the vastness of this natural wonder was still impressive.
We were back in Cork again the next morning to tour the southwest part of the country before heading to Dublin.
During my research, I’d read many reviews dismissing Blarney Castle as too touristy and a waste of time. But there was no way I was leaving Ireland without kissing that stone and I’m glad I didn’t listen to the naysayers. After giving the famous stone a big smooch, I was delighted to discover the grounds around the castle, including the Wishing Steps.
Legend has it that if you walk up and down the steps with your eyes closed, your wish will come true. I first tried to do this alone and fell on the slippery steps. Declan gallantly offered to lead me. Let’s hope this doesn’t count as cheating!
The next day began at yet another gratifyingly touristy site, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare. The medieval castle was jammed pack and claustrophobic (we were there at the height of tourist season) but I’m such a sucker for recreated historical villages and the Bunratty Folk Park was no exception. The living village bestows a glimpse into a small Irish village circa 1900, complete with shops, farmhouses, a school and pub.
After Bunratty, we headed straight to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, looming high above the Atlantic Ocean, then drove through the Burren, a 10-square-mile limestone plateau unique in its own stark rough beauty. We stopped for dinner at Monk’s, a seafood pub in the village of Ballyvaughan, serving delicious mussels and chowder.
After spending the night with friends in the charming and colorful town of Ennis, we caught a bus the next morning to Galway.
We arrived during the last weekend of the Galway Arts Festival, so everything was in full swing. Galway’s streets were alive with street performers and musicians, and we enjoyed the arts festival, including a concert by Maigh Seola, an Irish music group performing traditional Irish love songs.
I really fell for the adorable House Hotel, with its quirky artwork and cute sleeping cat logo. But what I loved most about the boutique hotel was the breakfast.
My first morning in Ireland, I'd had my taste of a real Irish breakfast.Since then, nearly every hotel and B&B we encountered served up the same fried fare, and usually had little else. My boyfriend relished the eggs, tomato and rashers (bacon) he rarely got back in the States, and I was game to try the black pudding made with pig’s blood - once. But already by day two of the journey, my stomach was rebelling, and I rejoiced in the House Hotel’s breakfast of smoked salmon, fresh juices and hot, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth croissants.
The following day, we took a bus and ferry ride to Inishmore, the largest and most popular of the Aran Islands, where we rented creaky old bikes and cycled around the island. Having not been on a bike in almost 20 years, I more than once questioned this decision, thinking I’d have been better off hitching a ride on one of the pony carts. Pedaling up the hills was rough, and I had to walk the bike up several steep inclines. I couldn’t remember bicycling being this difficult when I was 12.
So immersed in playing the tourist, my boyfriend led us into an Irish language school, mistaking it for a tourist attraction, where a bunch of teenagers taunted us in Irish as we bicycled around the playground looking for a way out. We took a breather at Dún Aenghus, a stone fort perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, and I finished the day off buying cream-colored wool scarves at the Aran Sweater Market while Declan had a beer in a nearby pub.
I had a chance to rest my aching muscles on the two-hour train ride to Dublin the next day. Once in Dublin, we took a quick stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College, Merrion Square, Temple Bar and across the Ha’ Penny Bridge. And for dinner: the best burgers in the world at Bó Bó’s Gourmet Irish Burger on Wexford street.
The next two days were filled with day tours out of Dublin. The Newgrange Tour by Mary Gibbons covered the Boyne Valley including Newgrange, a megalithic passage tomb and the Hill of Tara, the ancient royal site of the Irish High Kings.
Newgrange was constructed so that each year, the winter solstice sunrise would illuminate the inner passage and chamber. It was thrilling to stand in a structure that, having been built over 5000 years ago, is older than the pyramids in Egypt. Entering the ancient tomb was the highlight of my trip.
Our final bus tour, with Bus Éireann, was to Powerscourt and Glendalough. Powerscourt, an estate situated in the mountains of Wicklow, is famous for its gardens. The grounds include Italian and Japanese gardens, a walled garden, and a pet cemetery. Glendalough, meaning “valley of the two lakes,” was a monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. After a guided tour around the ruins, a walk to the upper and lower lakes offered exquisite scenery.
Our last full day in Dublin, we toured Number 29, on Fitzwilliam Street Lower, a Georgian home exhibiting upper middle class Dublin life between 1790-1820, and the National Museum of Ireland Archaeology. The museum houses many Irish antiquities, including the Tara Brooch, a decorative, silver-gilt brooch created in the 8th century. But what really set my spine tingling were the bog bodies, discovered in the peat bogs of Ireland and thought to be over 2,000 years old. It is believed that the well-preserved bodies were victims of ancient human sacrifice.
That evening, before dragging my reluctant boyfriend to join the Music Pub Crawl starting at the tourist-friendly Oliver St. John Gogarty’s, we had a drink at Dawson Lounge, which purports to be the smallest pub in the world.
We had some time to spare before our train the next day so we made our last stop in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse, which takes you through the brewing process and the history of Guinness advertising before offering a free taste of the dark beer (and a great view of Dublin) at the Gravity Bar.
The last couple of days were spent in the southwest of Ireland. We drove out to the Rock of Cashel. Once the seat of the Munster overkings, the Rock of Cashel was later given to the Church. The site, located in Tipperary, includes the remains of a round tower, a cathedral, a chapel and St. Patrick’s Cross.
Overnight, a deluge of rain had resulted in terrible flooding in the area, barring passage to our planned drive through the Ring of Kerry, so we spent the day at Muckross House and Farm, which is part of the Killarney National Park. After taking a tour of the grand house we explored the extensive gardens and three working farms.
Roads were clear by the next morning, our last and final day. We set out for the Ring of Kerry, beginning in Killorglin and ending in Killarney National Park. The views on the drive were as glorious as promised.
By the end of the day, my two-week odyssey in Ireland was complete, and I was completely exhausted. True, I didn’t see all of Ireland, but I did manage to take in many of the well-known natural wonders, a lot of Irish history and culture, and a glimpse at both city and country life.
I let it all soak in back home, where I slept for 24 hours.