Ireland may be small, but it is mighty. Its people are neighborly, its natural beauty stupefying, and its musical and cultural traditions have stood strong over centuries of influence. There’s never been a better time to open yourself to the wonders of the Emerald Isle. Along the Wild Atlantic Way, journey through a world of jagged limestone cliffs and tranquil, sandy coves. In the east, 80 percent of Ireland’s visitors travel to Dublin but only 28 percent of those venture into the historical counties in the midlands and along the east coast. Take the road less traveled with a pilgrimage across Ireland and discover what it means to truly know a country.
Ireland’s Ancient East
Scattered across the country’s sheep-strewn hills and cobbled villages lies a realm that has existed for over 5,000 years. Ireland’s Ancient East covers the area outside of Dublin and east of the River Shannon, extending from Carlingford to Cavan and south to Cork City. It is a tribute to once-thriving civilizations, from Stone Age monuments to passage tombs that predate the Pyramids. These prehistoric treasures have waited for more than five millennia for your visit—don’t make them wait a second longer!
Constructed in 3200 BC, the megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange is older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Visit at sunrise during the winter solstice and you’ll witness a shaft of sunlight spear through the opening above the tomb’s entrance and illuminate the chamber. Not far from Newgrange is the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland in the first millennium AD. Once believed by worshipers to be a dwelling place of the gods, the hill was abandoned in 1022.
A trip to the galloping heart of Ireland’s horse-racing culture isn’t complete without a stop at the National Stud. However, there is so much more to this historical county than its thoroughbreds. Built around 470 AD, St. Brigid’s Cathedral is one of Ireland’s earliest documented locations of Irish Christian worship. The country’s first and largest Palladian-style home, Castletown House, remains an important aspect of Ireland’s architectural heritage nearly 300 years after its completion.
A visit to the ruins of scholarly Clonmacnoise monastery takes you on a journey back to Ireland’s Golden Age of learning. On display at the Birr Castle is the Great Telescope. Built in 1845, it held the record for the largest telescope in the world for 70 years. The castle gardens are a destination in themselves, with 120 acres of rare plants and the world’s tallest box hedges.
In the Middle Ages, the Glendalough monastic settlement was one of Ireland’s most prominent ecclesiastical centers. Tour the 10th-century ruins or spend a few serene moments by the lakeshore. At the infamous Wicklow Historic Gaol, two centuries of Irish history come to life in the form of holographs, mannequins, and a replica prison ship.
Ireland’s most-visited heritage site, the Rock of Cashel, is a complex of medieval buildings set atop a grassy limestone plateau. Once the residence of the kings of Munsters, the Rock was donated to the church in 1101. Another noteworthy structure is the Cahir Castle, whose stone fortification walls still cradle an iron cannonball from the siege of 1599. For a quaint, cozy experience, head to the 19th-century Swiss Cottage in its veritable fairy garden of aromatics.
Among Ireland’s most dramatic medieval structures is the Kilkenny Castle, erected in the 12th century on the banks of the River Nore. The estate includes tea rooms, an art gallery, and 52 acres of ornamental gardens. On your way through County Kilkenny, take a guided tour of the ancient Dunmore Cave or explore the medieval tower houses of the Kells Priory.
The 14th-century West Gate Heritage Tower was once a tollgate guarding the western entrance to Wexford Town. Its complex includes the ruins of the Selskar Abbey, where British and Irish negotiators signed the first Anglo-Irish treaty. In the Irish National Heritage Park, an open-air museum features to-scale replicas of structures representing 9,000 years of Irish history.
Over the past 1,300 years, Cork Harbour’s Spike Island has been home to a monastery, a 24-acre star-shaped fort, and a notoriously inhumane prison. On the mainland, the Blarney Castle holds much less sinister appeal. Situated on vast, manicured grounds, this 16th-century castle houses the famous Blarney Stone—said to bestow the gift of eloquence upon all who kiss it. In Cork City, the English Market lures visitors with its produce and seafood as it has since the late 1700s.
Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, was founded by Vikings in 914 AD. It boasts a timeworn assortment of towers, cathedrals, and palaces that hearken back to its earliest days. Reginald’s Tower is the oldest civic building in the country. It has been in continual use for 800 years as an arsenal, a prison, a mint, and now a museum dedicated to the city’s Viking history. Directly opposite the House of Waterford Crystal is the Bishop’s Palace. Here reenactor guides will walk you through rooms decorated with 18th-century relics—including the oldest piece of Waterford crystal and a lock of Napoleon’s hair.
Suggested go-today packages and tours for Ireland’s Ancient East:
Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. From northern Donegal, the road snakes 1,500 miles south along the Atlantic coastline to its terminus in County Cork. Set off a driving expedition and discover spectacular vistas of sea-battered cliffs, colorful fishing villages, medieval castles, and lush countryside. Heading south, here’s some of what you might encounter:
Rugged isolation defines this portion of the Wild Atlantic Way. The landscape here is relatively untouched, from northernmost Malin Head to the golden sands of Ballymastocker Strand. Watch whales breach in the waters near Fanad Head Lighthouse or marvel at the sheer magnitude of the Slieve League Cliffs, among the highest marine cliffs in Europe.
Sand and surf are the name of the game along this shimmering stretch of coastline. For an intrepid day of surfing, hightail it to the waves at Mullaghmore Head. Calmer waters await off Streedagh Strand, where the reefs provided shelter for the Spanish Armada during a storm in 1588. After a long day of driving, stretch your legs with a walk to the clifftop church ruins at Downpatrick Head.
Here the lacy shoreline takes a deep breath. The calm waters of Clew Bay are said to contain 365 islands—one for every day of the year. Dolphins are frequent visitors to sheltered Killary Fjord, producer of some of the tastiest mussels in the country. Mossy, lake-scattered Derrigimlagh Bog claims two significant historical achievements. It is the site of both the first permanent transatlantic radio station and the (safe) crash-landing of the world’s first transatlantic flight.
While the Cliffs of Moher are certainly worthy of their reputation, there’s much more to see here. Grab a drink in an 800-year-old pub in Galway City or wander the food and produce stalls of the centuries-old Galway Market. A trip to the rocky Burren might be the closest you ever get to the moon, while a tour through the Aillwee Cave will reveal stalactites, stalagmites, and an underground waterfall. Catch some traditional Irish music in Doolin and take in sweeping ocean views from historic Loop Lighthouse.
Adventure abound on these five remarkable peninsulas. Explore Dingle’s colorful harbor or set sail for Skellig Michael, a 6th-century monastic settlement and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hitch a ride to sheep-populated Dursey Island on Ireland’s only cable car, or wait for night to fall and take in the celestial views from the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve.
Soothe your soul with this final stretch of Atlantic coastline. Highlights include Lough Hyne—the county’s first Marine Nature Conservation Reserve—and the secret wall passages of Timoleague Abbey. Once a medieval fishing port, the town of Kinsale is internationally renowned for its high-caliber restaurants. The Old Head of Kinsale is not only one of the country’s most spectacular promontories, but features the prestigious Old Head Golf Links and iconic Old Head Lighthouse.
Suggested tours for the Wild Atlantic Way:
Dublin’s origins date back more than 1,000 years to the time of the Vikings. Its rich literary and musical traditions continue to shape cultures across the globe. In addition to the offerings of its contemporary city center, visitors can explore miles of scenic Irish Sea coastline and mountainous parks, all via the ease of public transportation. Wander the grounds of Trinity College or discover historical artifacts in The Little Museum of Dublin. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, take in a world-famous choir performance on the site where St. Patrick baptized converts to Christianity in 450 AD.
Suggested tours for Dublin: