My husband and I took our first international vacation to Ireland for our one year anniversary. It was such a blast, and I highly recommend the country as a great place to visit. I will discuss our itinerary and my thoughts on various topics of our vacation. Hopefully this post will provide some useful information for others interested in traveling to Ireland.
First things first, to give credit where credit is due. We booked our vacation through Sceptre Vacations. I perused packages on their website for Ireland and settled on the “Ultimate Self-Drive.” I didn’t make any changes to their suggested itinerary. It is an option if you book over the phone, but I didn’t really have any idea of what I would change, so I just went with it. I honestly have no complaints about the process whatsoever. Included in our package cost were airline tickets for two, hotel accommodations for eight nights, a rental car for nine days, and admission to the Cliffs of Moher and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was quite reasonably priced, and the process was painless and hassle-free. I would book another vacation with them without hesitation. Being as this was our first international trip, I didn’t feel comfortable “winging it” without booked accommodations for each night. After spending time there I can say I don’t think it would be difficult to find a bed & breakfast or hotel with vacancy if that is of interest.
Now for the good stuff. We arrived in Dublin on September 1st and departed from Dublin on September 9th. We traveled counter-clockwise around the country and had the opportunity to visit each coast. The main tourist attractions were naturally busy, but it wasn’t overcrowded or difficult to explore by any means. One major piece of advice is to use a GPS. The GPS was our hero for the entire trip. Not having one would be a total nightmare. Just don’t do it. The currency of Ireland is the euro and for Northern Ireland it is the pound. You will need plug adapters for all outlets in Ireland for American-style plugs. We did not use any voltage converters for our electronics and had no issues – just needed adapters. Every gas station we stopped at was fill first then pay inside. In Ireland, unleaded fuel is a green handle and diesel fuel is a black handle – this is opposite of America, so just beware. Find out beforehand if your credit card companies charge foreign transaction fees. We only took €100 with us and used a credit card for everything possible. There are many toll roads around Dublin, so be prepared to pay with euro if you are planning to spend time in that area.
I found a very useful packing list for Ireland from www.infiniteireland.com, and it worked great. Our vacation was eight nights, and we brought enough clothing to not do laundry. I didn’t want the hassle. The weather in Ireland (at least when we visited) was not conducive to shorts. I did buy a pair of hiking pants from Amazon that zip into shorts (which I did not convert) and are water-resistant, and they worked fabulously. I would recommend at least one pair of pants like that if you plan to do countryside sightseeing. If you are willing to spend the money, a good investment would also be waterproof hiking shoes. Ireland is always wet, whether it is currently raining or just finished raining. We encountered water and puddles everywhere. A rain coat is not optional. Bring some sort of jacket that repels rain. We brought some snacks to have in the car while we traveled. Although we didn’t eat much of what we brought, it is something to consider if you have room in your luggage.
In Ireland, cars drive on the left side of the road, and the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle. Nearly every intersection is a roundabout. Driving was a challenging adjustment but after a day or two became easier to navigate. The lanes are very narrow, and it never became less stressful to meet an oncoming car in a lane that barely fit our car. My suggestions are to drive a speed you are comfortable with, pull over to let others pass, and try to drive close to the center of the road. As an American who drives on the right side of the road, in Ireland I had a tendency to hug the left side of the lane and found myself slipping off the road a few times on the left side. It’s an adjustment to judge the distance on the left side of the car instead of right but being aware of the issue will help. If you are willing to adjust to the driving differences, it’s well worth it to rent a car to get the most of your visit. Included in our vacation package was a rental car through Dan Dooley car rentals. We picked up our car at the Dublin airport and dropped it off there when we left.
2) The DART
Dublin’s commuter rail is known as the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit). It was very convenient to use and reasonably priced. The cost was well worth it to us to not have to drive and park throughout Dublin for the day. We rode the DART from Dalkey station (about a 20 minute walk from Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel) into Pearse station in Dublin. The DART does not take you through multiple stops in Dublin as a bus would, but it was great to get into the city. Dublin has a “hop on, hop off” bus that can be taken throughout the city for sightseeing. We did not use the bus – we wanted to enjoy walking through the city.
Taxis are numerous in Ireland. In any of the more populated cities you can find taxi services. We used one in Galway in the evening and had no issues.
1) Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, Killiney, Co. Dublin
The exterior of Fitzpatrick was exciting to see as the beginning of an Irish vacation. It had a castle look, and our room felt aged. The bathroom was nicely updated with a glass shower. Our room wasn’t particularly large, but we didn’t spend much time there. My main complaint was the bed. It was not comfortable. It was hard and felt cheap. Luckily, Fitzpatrick was our first hotel for two nights, and we were quite jet-lagged, so the uncomfortable bed didn’t bother us as much as it would have another time. We did not eat at the hotel restaurant. The staff was friendly and helpful with directions and maps for Dublin. I liked the location of this hotel. It wasn’t downtown Dublin but wasn’t far away (about 20 minutes). About a 20 minute walk from the hotel was Dalkey street – a very charming, quaint street with shops and restaurants. Dalkey was also a stop location for Dublin’s transit train – the DART.
2) Kilronan Castle Hotel, Ballyfarnon, Co. Roscommon
Kilronan Hotel looked like a legit castle. Some parts of it appeared newer than others, but it had such a cool vibe. We only had one night’s stay there and arrived after dark (about 9:30pm). Our room was the standard room and was much larger than it needed to be. The room had a large entrance followed by a couch in a sitting area followed by a king bed and twin bed. It was actually quite an odd setup and was just unnecessary. The bed, however, was extremely comfortable and lush. I think I pulled about ten pillows from the bed before sleeping. The decor felt castle-like and old, but the bathroom was huge and nicely updated. The location of the hotel was absolutely beautiful. It was basically in the middle of nowhere but had beautiful landscaping. It was situated next to a large lake and forest. There were designated hiking paths through the woods and around the lake if that strikes your fancy. We hiked for about 45 minutes through the woods around the back of the hotel, and it truly was gorgeous scenery. The breakfast at the hotel was average.
3) Clayton Hotel, Galway, Co. Galway
Clayton Hotel was the least Irish of our accommodations. It felt very American to me. It had modern decor and really no Irish vibes. The room was nice though. The bed was comfortable, and the bathroom was updated albeit the smallest of our vacation. We stayed here two nights and enjoyed the continental breakfast. The hotel is located about 10-15 minutes from downtown Galway, so if you’re looking for city atmosphere outside the door you won’t find it here. We rode the city bus into downtown Galway (~40 minute ride), and we took a taxi back to the hotel. The Galway area is a great location for accommodations with several options for sightseeing within a 1-2 hour drive. Galway also has a college vibe, young crowd, and busy nightlife. We happened to stay there the night the Galway Hurlers were returning home from winning a hurling match, so the city was ready to party all night. It was such a fun experience.
4) Muckross Park Hotel & Spa, Killarney, Co. Kerry
Muckross Hotel was my favorite accommodation. The hotel was clean, the staff was friendly, the food was great, and the bed was very comfortable. We spent two nights here, and I wish we had longer. The hotel was beautiful. I did not spend time at the hotel spa, but it looked very lovely (although pricey). The staff was fabulous and brought our luggage to our room. The bathroom was, of course, large and beautiful. The location of Muckross Hotel was great. It was a five minute drive to Killarney city centre and was situated in Killarney National Park. Just around the corner from the hotel (seriously, a one minute walk) was a restaurant called Jarvey’s Rest. Several nights a week the restaurant plays live music with Irish dancing. We visited on Wednesday and Thursday nights and enjoyed the entertainment both evenings. It was an awesome Irish experience. The food was also a tasty bonus. We didn’t get a chance to spend time exploring Killarney, but it looked like a really neat place and would be somewhere I would stay again. Killarney was a great location for popular Irish tourism. While we stayed there we visited the Cliffs of Moher and Dingle Peninsula. Killarney has great access to the Ring of Kerry, but we didn’t have time to drive it this trip.
5) The Heritage Killenard, Killenard, Co. Laois
We spent our last night in Ireland at The Heritage. It was a beautiful hotel, and the staff went above and beyond for our needs. We had to check out at 2:30am to allow enough time at Dublin airport for our 6:00am flight, and the staff accommodated us and provided a small breakfast before we hit the road. It wasn’t required on their part at all, but it really made a difference to us. The room was large and comfortable. The bathroom was very spacious and had a lovely clawfoot tub. The Heritage had a spa as well that we did not indulge in. Overall, The Heritage was my second favorite accommodation of our trip. The hotel had a bar area on one side of the lobby and an elegant restaurant on the other. We ordered some food at the bar – it was decent. The location of The Heritage is similar to Kilronan Castle. There wasn’t much around, and it wasn’t near Dublin Airport. I really enjoyed the hotel itself, but if I had a 6:00am departing flight the next morning, I would stay closer to the airport next time.
There is so much to see and do in Dublin. Depending on your interests, you could spend significant time exploring. We were more excited about seeing the green countryside of Ireland than the metropolitan areas, but Dublin was amazing. We spent one full day there and ended with enough left for a second day. The building architecture is breathtaking. I will outline the few tourist attractions we had the opportunity to visit.
The College was so neat. The long room library, housing around 200,000 books, was magnificent. As it has been referred to many times, it seemed to be straight out of Harry Potter. The Book of Kells (a lavishly decorated Latin copy of the four gospels) is also on display at Trinity College. It is a beautiful book. Trinity College, in my opinion, was worth the time we spent there. There was a short queue to enter the exhibit (about 10-15 minutes). I would say we spent about an hour at the College, so it’s not a very time-consuming endeavor.
– Grafton Street:
The Street is a fun shopping area. It is a great opportunity to buy souvenirs for yourself or family, although you will have many more opportunities if you plan to visit any of the other large cities. We heard a lot of live music while traversing Grafton Street. It was exciting to see Irish street performers. If you love shopping and plan to do so in Ireland, Grafton Street is great. I wouldn’t feel the need to visit the Street again, but as I said it depends on your interests.
– Dublin Castle:
We didn’t pay the entrance fee to explore inside the castle, but it was very cool on the exterior. If you’re nearby and are interested in castle architecture, it is worth your time to swing by. We only spent about 15 minutes walking around the castle before we headed on our way to Christ Church Cathedral.
– Christ Church Cathedral:
We stumbled upon Christ Church Cathedral and were so glad we did. We didn’t intend to visit during our planning of the vacation, but this cathedral is truly magnificent. The architecture is awe-inspiring. We paid the entrance fee here and explored inside. The Church has a crypt in the basement that was so interesting. The earliest manuscript dates the cathedral to its present location around the year 1030. There is so much history and beauty to see here. Even if you are not a religious person, the cathedral can be appreciated for its breathtaking architecture and attention to detail. I was amazed even by the floor tiles. It also has a great location, nearby Dublin Castle and Temple Bar, so it’s easy to visit. I would estimate we spent 1-2 hours here with stopping to take photos and read plaques.
– Temple Bar:
Temple Bar is a really neat area. The buildings are so brightly painted and decorated. We went into the restaurant to try to have lunch, but it was packed with people listening to live music. We ended up deciding to eat right next to Temple Bar at the Shack Restaurant. We indulged in bangers and mash (Irish pork sausage and mashed potatoes), and it was really tasty. It’s a cool area to snap a photo outside of Temple Bar, but we didn’t really see much else to do there.
– St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
Another beautifully crafted church in Dublin. That seems to be the theme! Admission to St. Patrick’s was included with our package cost, so we made sure to stop there. It was very cool, similar in content and design to Christ Church Cathedral. I would say overall I enjoyed Christ Church more, but St. Patrick’s is very lovely as well. The stained glass was intricate and colorful. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was our last stop in Dublin for the day, and by that point we were tiring out. We spent ~30 minutes here before making our way back to Pearse Station to take the DART and getting lost in the process. Losing your way is all part of the fun though! We were exhausted at the end of the day, but all the walking was worth it to see the beautiful city of Dublin.
2) Northern Ireland
– Belfast Castle:
Belfast Castle was gorgeous (photo below). When we visited, there appeared to be a wedding set up inside, so we didn’t stick around long. There wasn’t much to see inside, but the exterior of the castle and the grounds were magnificent. There was a small water fountain surrounded by walkways and flowers outside the castle with a view of Belfast in the distance. I wouldn’t say Belfast Castle was a must-see, but if you don’t have to go out of your way to see it, then it’s worth a quick stop.
– The Dark Hedges:
Made famous by Game of Thrones, the Dark Hedges were really neat. Neither my husband nor I watch the show, but it was still a fun stop. It was on the route from Belfast Castle to The Giant’s Causeway, so we decided to visit. The trees were spooky and mysterious and very cool. We spent about 20 minutes here walking the road and then driving through the hedges on our way out.
– The Giant’s Causeway:
I would say The Giant’s Causeway is a must-see of Ireland. I know it is out of the way for most itineraries, especially shorter ones, but words cannot do the causeway justice. It was an unbelievable sight. Not only were the basalt columns amazing, the views from the top of the cliff were astounding. We could have sat there staring at the coast all day. It was quite a trek from the causeway visitor centre down to the columns by the water and then hiking up the cliff and back to the visitor centre. If you aren’t interested in walking down, there is a shuttle bus you can take for a small price. However, the shuttle bus will not take you to the top of the cliff, so if you want that view you’ll have to hike it. The Giant’s Causeway was my second favorite natural beauty of Ireland.
We took the bus into Galway city centre for dinner the evening the Galway Hurlers returned to town after winning a major game. It was a lot of fun to see the city so happy and in good spirits celebrating their hurling team. We had dinner on Quay Street and ice cream at Murphy’s (famous in Dingle). We had an awesome time experiencing Galway culture with the locals, listening to street performers, eating great food, and doing a little souvenir shopping.
– Connemara National Park & Kylemore Abbey:
We spent a day driving to Connemara and visiting Kylemore Abbey. Connemara is gorgeous, with sheep roaming the green hillsides (and roads) and lakes. It was a lovely, relaxing drive to Kylemore Abbey, although we didn’t get a chance to explore the national park itself. On our drive we came across an amazing store, Joyce’s Craft Shop. She sold awesome Irish handmade collectibles. We probably spent an hour shopping here. Kylemore Abbey was interesting. The location was breathtaking. The gardens there are meticulously cared for and have really intriguing history. The Abbey itself was less interesting to us, compared to the small Neo-Gothic Church that Mitchell Henry built for his wife near the Abbey. It was a fun day there, but looking back I would have skipped visiting Kylemore Abbey for seeing more of the national park.
– Cliffs of Moher:
I don’t think much needs to be said about the Cliffs of Moher. It is Ireland’s most popular natural attraction, for good reason. The view is indescribable, and in my opinion is a visit that cannot be overlooked. If there is one thing you have the opportunity to do in Ireland, it should be to see the Cliffs of Moher. We walked all the way down along the cliff to the point. It was foggy and windy, but the view the entirety of the walk was unbelievable. Not only is the water and sheer size of the cliffs magnificent (700 feet!), the cliffs have beautiful wildflowers growing along the path. It was my favorite natural beauty of Ireland and a must-see.
– Dingle Peninsula & Wild Atlantic Way:
Driving the Wild Atlantic Way on the Dingle Peninsula took us a full day, and the views were worth it. The coastline is incredible, and Conor Pass en route to Dingle was terrifyingly beautiful. The drive through the pass is a little hairy in some spots, with a sheer cliff drop on one side of the road, but it’s worth it! In Dingle, we enjoyed a late lunch at Murphy’s Pub and scrumptious ice cream from Murphy’s.
5) Blarney and Cobh
– Blarney Castle:
It goes without saying, but you can’t go to Ireland without kissing the Blarney Stone! I have yet to feel the gift of eloquence, but I’m hopeful. We had a great time exploring Blarney Castle. The gardens are really pretty, and you could spend significant time here. The castle was so cool. It truly felt like a legitimate castle. To get to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone, you have to walk up 100 stone steps in a small spiral staircase, which was a lot of fun. We didn’t have to wait terribly long for our turn – roughly 45 minutes. There is a lot to see climbing the staircase to the stone.
– Cork & Cobh:
Our intention was to spend some time at Blarney Castle and then drive to Cork (~15 minutes) to have lunch and continue onward. Neither of us knew much about Cork, but when we arrived we realized it was a much larger city than we were anticipating. We couldn’t even find a parking spot in the city centre, so we opted to just drive through and onward to Cobh. I wish we had more time to spend exploring Cork. It seemed like a really neat place, just wasn’t happening for us on our last day. Cobh was a really cute port town. We had lunch there and did some shopping along the waterfront stores. Again, we didn’t have expectations of Cobh, but upon arriving you will find a massive church in the middle of the town. It was incredible and unexpected. We didn’t venture inside, but we did get some great pictures of it.