What most outsiders know of Ireland is that it's a small island nation split into halves: the Republic of Ireland, which occupies central and south of the island, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. However, anyone lucky enough to have spent time here knows that trying to restrict Ireland's natural and cultural wonders to just two areas limits the scope of the nation's great appeal. This guide goes beyond north and south to bring you the highlights from all of Ireland's seven regions and the best of its 32 individual counties.
East Coast & Midlands
The east coast of Ireland is where many first-time visitors arrive—specifically, to the capital city of Dublin. Situated on the mouth of the River Liffey, even today the city exudes all the history and culture that has defined it for hundreds of years. This is where you'll find Dublin Castle (dating to the 13th century), St. Patrick's Cathedral (12th century), and Trinity College (16th century). And all around the old cobbled streets and beyond the Grand Canal are expansive parks as green as the Irish countryside.
But Dublin is more than its history. In recent years it has come into its own with commerce and culture rivaling any capital in Europe. Go to the city center on any weekend night (or really any night after about 5 pm), and the streets are overflowing with revelers looking for fun in the form of conversation, music, and of course, copious pints of Guinness. Enjoying this fortifying stout porter where it was first created over 200 years ago is a can't-miss activity. Visit the Guinness factory and they’ll throw in a pint at the end of a highly informative tour—or make a party of it with a tour of the Jameson distillery, just a hop, skip, and a jump away. After all, as the great James Joyce once said, "Ireland sober is Ireland stiff."
Adjacent to the east coast sits the Midlands. The Midlands region is relatively small and represents about 10% of the total area of the Republic of Ireland. It's defined by a fertile valley abounding in lakes and rivers and is bisected by the Shannon, Ireland's longest river. If you ever feel like escaping the tourist hordes of Dublin for a more bucolic region, then the Midlands is a perfect place to do it. Not only will you find great fishing and outdoor excursions (take a scenic boat ride up the Shannon), but there's also noteworthy sites like Birr Castle, which dates to the 12th century, and the ruins of Clonmacnoise, an old monastic site.
If there's one section of the country whose raw, vivid, and mesmerizing scenery stands out as the quintessential "40 shades of green" Ireland we've all heard about, it's the southwest. This is the postcard Ireland, the one that graces the covers of travel magazines. It's where you’ll find counties Kerry and Cork, which are renowned the world over for their almost too-good-to-be-true natural beauty. Don't be surprised, then, if you come here during the high season and find it hard to make your way through the throngs of tourists.
That said, if you want to find time for yourself you can travel the scenic highways (N70 and N71) of the Iveragh Peninsula, the largest peninsula in the southwest and one of the most visited areas in all of Ireland. If you further want to explore away from the tour-bus crowd, then leave the souvenir shops in the town of Killarney behind and head into Killarney National Park, home to mountains, lakes, woodlands, waterfalls, and the impressive towers of the 15th-century Ross Castle.
One nice alternative to Country Kerry is the Dingle Peninsula. The rolling hills here lead out to craggy cliffs and sandy beaches, perfect for a day or weekend trip to enjoy a swim and/or a hike. The area is an officially recognized bastion of Irish language and culture, and it definitely looks the part. Driving on the country lanes along the hedgerows you get the impression this is about as Irish as Ireland gets.
As for Cork, it's known as the "gateway to the southwest coast" and is also Ireland's second-largest city after Dublin. If upon your visit you're ever unsure of the city's size and status, don't worry—sooner or later a resident will inform you. Cork's amiable locals (known as Corkonians) take great pride in their city, and it isn't hard to see why. It's a thriving university town that is also a prime culinary destination. You can visit the impressive indoor English Market to sample fresh produce, imported delicacies, and all the scones and cakes you can handle. Cork is also famous for its well-manicured gardens and the stately Blarney Castle, which was built in 1446 (and, yes, is home to the famous Blarney Stone).
In the very southwest of the country, right before the edge of Ireland dips into the Atlantic, are three other peninsulas worth visiting: Beara, Sheep's Head, and Mizen Head. Beara is located next to the famous Ring of Kerry circular tourist trail in County Kerry, and it also has nice beaches as well as Ireland's only cable car, which runs out to the lovely green rock of Dursey Island. Sheep's Head is another headland featuring unspoiled Irish scenery off the tourist trail. It's a great spot for a hike, and trails along the coast are well marked. Mizen Head is located at the actual southernmost extremity of the country and its steep coastal cliffs will at once wow you and quite possibly make you dizzy.
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You come to the southeast of Ireland for the views. Rural farms dot the iconic green countryside, which runs out to a coastline defined by long, tan beaches and towering cliffs that rival those in the southwest. Further inland, the town of Kilkenny is one of the highlights, wearing its medieval heritage on its sleeve. It is incredibly well preserved, and its standout landmark is the imposing Kilkenny Castle, which was built in 1195 in front of the River Nore.
Head south to the coast and you'll arrive in counties Waterford and Wexford. The city of Waterford (founded in 915) is Ireland's oldest, so old that it was actually built by Vikings. An interesting fact is that the three counties Waterford, Wexford, and Kilkenny have so much Nordic heritage that the trio is known as the Viking Triangle. The entire southeast is a great destination for anyone with an interest in ancient castles and beautiful beaches.
County Clare & County Limerick
If you travel to County Clare just above the southwest region of Ireland, you'll find the famous Cliffs of Moher. These sheer cliffs run for about 14 km (eight miles) and soar to about 702 feet, making them one of the most awesome natural sites in Ireland. Cinema fans will likely recognize them as the "Cliffs of Insanity," which were featured in the 1987 film The Princess Bride. County Clare is also known as the epicenter of traditional Irish music in the country, and you'll be able to hear much of it during the area's many festivals, which are held frequently throughout the year.
Bordering County Clare is County Limerick. Its main hub of Limerick City sits on the River Shannon and is known for its Georgian townhomes, medieval buildings, and its impressive King John's Castle, which dates to the 13th century.
The western seaboard region of Ireland is home to one of the most popular destinations in the country: County Galway. At the northwest end of it sits the Connemara Peninsula, a distinct region unto itself that offers myriad activities, from hiking in the heather-covered hills, trekking through the mountains of Connemara National Park, and fly-fishing for salmon and trout in one of the area's many lakes and rivers. You can also embark on a horseback excursion down inviting, sandy beaches otherwise hidden amid the rugged coastline.
Then there's Galway City. It’s no surprise to see why tourists love Galway as much as they do: it’s a city that has the feel of a village—intimate, yet with thriving gastronomy, nightlife, and shopping. This is where young Ireland and old Ireland converge in the salty air of a colorful harbor town. It’s a place where the scratch of guitar strings and the mellifluous voices of nomadic buskers reverb from every corner of the cobbled streets, and where the pubs overflow on weekend nights with locals eager to dance to old patriotic songs performed by grizzled musicians.
If you haven't had your fill of Ireland's natural coastal beauty, you can take a quick 40-minute ferry ride from Galway City a little way offshore to the Aran Islands. Wild, mystic, unspoiled, the Arans are famous for their 300-foot sheer cliffs and prehistoric archeological sites like the UNESCO World Heritage-approved Dún Aonghasa, which are the ruins of an ancient hill fort. Very little seems to have changed in the intervening years since the first communities lived here. The locals still speak Irish, ancient churches abound, and much of the modern world has yet to encroach. It's the perfect spot to come for a weekend stay in a romantic B&B to get away from it all.
Once synonymous with conflict, Northern Ireland is coming into its own. As the Bard reminds us, what is past is prologue, in this case to a new dawn and a revitalized Belfast, the cultural and historic capital of Northern Ireland.
This isn't to say, however, that the past is forgotten. Travel down Belfast's streets and you'll see political murals paying tribute to the many martyrs of the conflict. It's an animated history honoring those who lost their lives during "the troubles," as locals refer to the long strife between Protestants and Catholics, nationalists and patriots. One of the most interesting tours you can book here is a black-taxi historic driving tour of the afflicted neighborhoods. The cabbies double as guides, recounting the history of the conflict starting from around the violence of the '60s through to the ceasefire in the 1990s.
Besides its history, the city offers much in the way of entertainment. Two-decades of peace has resulted in an emerging Belfast dripping with live music venues and historic pubs like Kelly's Cellars, Crown Liquor Saloon, and Crown Bar. There's also a respectable restaurant scene with cutting edge eateries and traditional joints with classics like Irish beef stew. Those with an interest in maritime history shouldn't miss the Titanic Belfast, a monument located on the city's shipyards right where that most tragic of ocean liners was constructed.
But the north isn't merely Belfast. You can also travel to County Antrim on the north coast and visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Giant's Causeway. This stretch of coast is known for its network of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that lend the area a geometric quality that seems almost alien. Just down the coast is the charming and quintessentially Irish city of Derry, which is most famous for its large stone walls that played a crucial role in the siege of the city in 1610. And in the southeast of Northern Ireland are the Mourne Mountains, the highest mountain range in the north (they rise up to 850 meters/2,788 feet) and make for some great hikes.
Located in the northwest of the republic, just before Northern Ireland, lies County Donegal. This might be the last area of the country that, even in this interconnected 21st century age, you could still classify as untamed. It is Ireland's great wild expanse, a sparsely populated frontier whose jagged coastline seems at constant war with the wind and sea that beats at its rocky cliffs. In fact, Donegal is home to Ireland's second-longest section of coastline. Naturally, you can find some incredible beaches here.
And where there are great beaches, surfers aren't far off. The ideal conditions and abundance of surf centers in the county make Donegal the unofficial wave-riding capital of the nation. True, not many people think of Ireland as a global surf destination, but if you come to the coast and the town of Sligo (located in the county of the same name), you’ll find a haven as rich in surf culture as it is in epic waves.
Travel just south of County Sligo and you'll arrive at County Mayo. This portion of the northwest is interesting because here not only will you find the requisite rocky cliffs on the coast, but there are also long, empty expanses of peatland, as well as the ruins of villages long lost to time. Also here is Westport, an incredibly well-preserved Georgian town abounding with stone bridges and 18th-century buildings. All in all, this is an evocative, haunting, and almost mystic region of Ireland.
And if surfing isn't your thing but you'd still like to experience the majesty of Ireland's Atlantic coast on an active excursion, then check out this 9-day Atlantic hike.