An Irish Itinerary
It is pretty clear by now that I have a strong love of the Emerald Isle. The warm hospitality, sweeping coastal views, delicious food, lively pub culture and a remarkable history – Ireland really does have it all! Once people hear about my love of all things Ireland, they reach out to get my tips for a good itinerary so here are my recommendations of how to structure your time when visiting. (For any restaurant recommendations check out my Irish Eats post).
2 nights in Dublin, County Dublin
I do not think you need more than 2 nights in Dublin. The country’s capital is buzzing with activity and two days give you enough time to get a feel for it. I have heard people mention it doesn’t feel very “Irish,” but I disagree. You definitely can tell you are in Ireland, just maybe not as much as some of the smaller towns. I’ve written previously about some of my favorite things to do in the capital.
2 nights in Kinsale, County Cork
Your next stop will be in County Cork and I highly recommend Kinsale over Cork. It has much more charm and is a sister city of Newport, Rhode Island, offering similar coastal views. The drive from Dublin to Kinsale is one of the longest, so make sure to get an early start to the day. There are a variety of places where you can stop for views or hikes. Here are some of my favorites:
- Dalkey, County Dublin: A cute little town 8 miles south of Dublin with lots of character and charm. It has great coastal view, restaurants and shops and is home to many Irish celebrities including Bono.
- Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow: We stopped here with my family when I visited the first time, and it was a great place to stretch our legs.
- Glendalough, County Wicklow: Located within the Wicklow Mountain National Park, Glendalough is my favorite stop from Dublin to Kinsale by far! Known as “valley of the two lakes” you will be blown away by the scenery in this area, the easy access to all levels of hiking and a great spot to stop and have a picnic (wish we had known!).
By the time you arrive in Kinsale, it will be dinner time, but you’ll have the whole next day to explore and you don’t need too much time in the former fishing village. The walk up to the Charles Fort on a clear day via the Scilly Walk is a great way to get some exercise (alternatively you can drive up as well). A quick drive outside of the town leads you to the famous Old Head of Kinsale, one of the most beautiful golf courses in Ireland and also the spot where the Lusitania sunk 11 miles off the coast in 1915. Before you go, I highly recommend Eric Larsen’s Dead Wake for an accurate and fascinating tale of the sinking during World War I.
Most importantly, Kinsale is where you pick up the Wild Atlantic Way, marked clearly around the coast with its signs of brown and blue waves. You can follow this along the coast all the way to Donegal (which we did) and while the coastal route is sometimes longer than inland, the Wild Atlantic Way is always more scenic and should be followed as much as possible!
Where to Stay: The Actons Hotel was one of my favorite stays of our trip with clean rooms, big bathrooms and an ideal location in the heart of Kinsale Harbor.
2 nights in Kenmare, County Kerry
On your way out of County Cork and into County Kerry, there is a must see spot that we fell in love with, St. Finbarr’s Oratory. It is a dramatic spot located in the Gougane Barra, peaceful and tranquil, and the spot of many weddings. Spend a minute here, taking in the beauty of the oratory with the monastic ruins.
Then it is onto Kenmare, where this gem of an Irish town needs two nights, not only for its proximity to some of the best coastal drives in Ireland which are part of the Wild Atlantic Way (Ring of Kerry, Ring of Beara, Killarney National Park, Dingle Peninsula), but also for its great dining. This was my favorite spot on my first visit to Ireland and I knew I needed to take Max back to experience it. I love how the town is mostly consolidated into two main streets and it is less crowded and built up than its neighboring town of Killarney (and with not a tourist bus in sight).
With your base in Kenmare, you are poised for a lot of driving. Make sure you give yourself two full days to experience this region. The Irish call County Kerry “God’s country” and it is easy to see why. County Kerry itself deserves three nights if you have it, but stay two in Kenmare and then move yourself over to Dingle for the final night.
Highlights of County Kerry: Killarney National Park with stops at Torc Waterfall and the Muckross House, the Ring of Kerry and Ring of Beara with a detour through the Healy Pass. And of course, what could have been our favorite in County Kerry, the breathtaking Gap of Dunloe. If you have the foresight to book WELL in advance, try for a day trip to Skellig Michael. This was Max’s #1 thing to see, but unfortunately at two months out they were completely booked for every day of the entire summer due to limited day passes to the island!
Where to Stay: The Brook Lane Hotel is a beautiful boutique hotel located a 5 minute walk from Kenmare’s downtown area. I stayed here on my previous visit, but unfortunately they were completely booked this time around. We opted for the Coachman’s Townhouse right on Henry Street. Rooms were big and clean and the location could not have been better.
1 night in Dingle, County Kerry
Another cute Irish town known for its lively pub atmosphere, innovative food and home to Murphy’s ice cream, Dingle is a great place spend your last night in County Kerry. The town has lots to experience, but Slea Head Drive and Conor’s Pass are the stars of the peninsula with my personal favorite being Dún Chaoin at the westerly part of the peninsula. Make sure you give yourself a full day to do both drives and have some time to relax in town.
Where to Stay: Dingle Benners Hotel is a bit of an institution in Dingle. It is the oldest hotel in town and boasts many famous visitors. The lobby area feels like a refined sitting room and connects directly to the lobby bar. Rooms are a bit on the small side, as we were in the older part of the hotel, but I found out that if you ask for rooms in the newer part of the hotel, they are quieter and a little bigger.
2 nights in Galway
On your way out of Dingle, most people will head toward the Cliffs of Moher. For first time visitors, everyone will tell you to go, but as a second time visitor, I must admit, I was slightly underwhelmed. It was a foggy day and it was incredibly crowded, making me long for the Dun Chaoin pier which was empty except for us! If you do visit the Cliffs stop for lunch in Doolin, a quaint town a couple of miles down the road with plentiful restaurants and pubs. We had a great lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub.
After that head onto Galway! Rightfully called the “most Irish of Ireland’s cities,” Galway is devoid of tall buildings and instead will win you over with its cobblestone streets and harbor views. One of my favorite spots in Ireland, Galway is the perfect place to relax after a couple of days of driving. There is not a lot to see or do – it is more about the experience. Walk down the Promenade to the beach in Salt Hill, catch some live music at The Crane Bar along with the plethora of university students who fill the streets and pubs or stroll through the Latin Quarter on your way to Eyre Square through streets lined simultaneously with art galleries and old stone archways. Some people get confused by calling Galway “a city” as it feels more like a town, but by Irish standards it is one of the biggest.
Galway itself only needs a day, but if you have an extra one in that area you should head to the Aran Islands. A quick 45-min ferry ride brings you to the small and simple island of Inis Mór, which my colleague informed me means “big island” as her parents are originally from Inish Meain, meaning “middle island.” Renting bikes is the thing to do and opens up beautiful and rugged beaches along with old thatched cottages to explore.
Where to Stay: We couldn’t have loved our B&B more! I always recommend that visitors add one B&B to their lists, and I’m so happy with our choice of the stop. Russell and Eimhear have a great location a 5 minute walk from Galway center, exceptional hospitality, and arguably the best breakfast in Galway.
1 night Westport, County Mayo
As you leave Galway, there is much to see in Connemara. The area has a reputation for being incredibly rugged and wildly beautiful and the Connemara National Park is one of only 6 national parks managed by the National Park Services. For those who are also John Wayne or Quiet Man fans, the town of Cong provides a lot of relics and museums in honor of the famous movie filmed in the town and surrounding areas. Important to note, those looking for the actual Quiet Man Bridge need to drive about 30 minutes outside of Cong to get there. I may be the only person who has visited the bridge on all my trips to Ireland, and I must say it goes relatively unnoticed by visitors, making it a great place for some pictures (or to relive Sean Thornton’s crossing of the bridge).
Clifden is a cute town and a great place to stop for some lunch and shopping. A short drive out of town is the Clifden Castle where you can park and walk to the deserted castle. As you continue on you’ll get to Kylemore Abbey which is beautiful on the outside for photos and a break, but not worth going inside as we heard from many people. They found admission to be steep with not a lot to see!
To continue onto Donegal from here would be a bit of a drive, so I recommend making a stop in Westport, another town with a great reputation for being a lively stopover. The town itself is pretty small with 2 main streets housing most of the shops, hotels and restaurants. We happened to arrive on the Monday of the Bank Holiday, so many of the shops and restaurants were closed giving it a sleepy feel, but pub music at Matt Malloy’s, a former Chieftan, was worth the trip!
Where to Stay: The Westport Plaza Hotel located a short 3 minute walk from downtown was a great hotel with big rooms, outside terraces and a great lobby bar.
1 night in Donegal
Upon leaving Westport, it is best to jump back on the Wild Atlantic Way and take that all the way to Donegal. We cut our first day exploring in Donegal short to enjoy our time at the Lough Eske Castle where we were staying and had a beautiful day exploring the grounds, partaking in afternoon tea and thoroughly enjoying not being in the car for the day! Words cannot describe how beautiful and relaxing the property is (inclusive of a 5 star spa). I highly recommend anyone visiting Donegal to stop by here for a night (or two – we wished we stayed longer!).
The next day we did get an early start so we could explore more of rugged Donegal. The county is such a hidden gem since most people do not take the time to travel this far north leaving it peacefully unexplored and free of tourists. Their tagline is “up here it’s different” and it is true in the best of ways. They call Donegal the “wild child” of Ireland and that is especially true of the wild and stunning coast. Unfortunately, the day was pretty foggy so we missed some of the views at Mullaghmore and Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe, which everyone raved were much better and less crowded than the Cliffs of Moher. These are definitely on the list for our return trip to Donegal! As the day cleared, we were able to drive the Fanad Peninsula with clear views at the top of the Fanad Head Lighthouse. We did not have time to drive to the neighboring peninsula of Inishowen which has the most northernly point in all of Ireland, Malin Head. Another reason to return to Donegal!
After that it was onto Northern Ireland, more on that in another post!
The most important tip is to allow yourself enough time to see the country. For first time visitors, I really think 8 days is the minimum you would need to really do the country justice. You can rush around and see a lot in a short period of time if you have to, but the Irish pace is much slower and it is best to follow suit. Staying two nights in most places is essential so you don’t always feel like you are hopping around at the end of the day. And lastly, road trips can be exhausting! Even though you are sitting for a majority of the day, make sure you get out, exercise and take walking breaks. Your legs will thank you at the end of the trip, and it allows you to get a little deeper into the beautiful Emerald Isle.
Have you ever visited Ireland? Which stops on the itinerary interest you most?