A FIRST APPROACH
Which Ireland Is Right for You?
Here's a snapshot of Ireland's defining experiences: spectacular untamed landscapes, pubs reverberating with banjo and fiddle music, and monuments to past civilizations. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and budget.
SEEK OUT NATURE AT ITS WILDEST
For such a small island, Ireland is blessed with a wide variety of untamed landscapes. In a three-hour drive from Kerry to Connemara, for example, you pass from pristine white beach, through a craggy mountain pass, and on to lake land and silent bog. About halfway along the drive, near the village of Liscannor, the iconic Cliffs of Moher stand a thrilling 700 feet over the swelling Atlantic below. The visitors center offers daily guided tours along the cliff side. If you time your outing to a clear, windy day, you can see past the Aran Islands to the valleys and hills of Connemara and hear the waves heaving against the shale and sandstone cliffs ($8 per car).
Tide and weather will decide when you can get out to Skellig Michael, a proud rock rising 714 feet straight up from the sea off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry; it's an hour-long, rough-water boat ride from Valentia Island. Make the dizzying climb up 650 small steps cut out of the rock face to reach the summit and the remains of a spartan, early-Christian monastery built in the 7th century. The peninsula itself is home to the famed Ring of Kerry drive, as well as the Kerry Way walk, which winds for 125 miles through some of the most isolated and dramatic countryside in Europe.
The Maamturk Mountains in Galway are perfect for a short cycling tour, thanks to gentle climbs and exhilarating falls amid untouched lakes and rolling bogs. The climax of any ride is the windswept, freewheeling descent into the tiny hamlet of Leenane, located where the Atlantic Ocean juts 10 miles inland to form stunning Killary Harbour, Ireland's only fjord. Bike Hire Ireland in Galway City is the best place to rent a bike (from $8); it also organizes guided and self-guided tours. Farther north is Ireland's most isolated and untouched landscape, County Donegal, and Glenveagh National Park, where red deer roam and falcons coast over the moors and hills. This quiet park lends itself to a leisurely 1.25-mile hike along the Derrylahan Trail and the starkly beautiful five-mile Glen Walk through the Derryveagh Mountains, which yields spectacular views over Lough Veagh lake and the surrounding woodlands.
CONNECT WITH IRISH CULTURE
The isolated, Gaelic-speaking villages of the west coast and the sophisticated city of Dublin best epitomize Ireland's rich cultural heritage. Both prize music and words, with the treasured local pub as the gathering place. (A simple rule to find the best, traditional pubs: If it has a television, go elsewhere.)
In a wild and beautiful nowhere called the Renvyle Peninsula in County Galway, Paddy Coyne's Public House is a hot spot for authentic Irish music, set dancing, and old-school storytelling nights. The village of Clifden, about 12 miles south on a plateau overlooking the ocean, fiercely guards the local traditions of Celtic music. On long summer evenings, the sounds of flute, banjo, bodhrán (Irish hand drum), and fiddle waft from every bar along Main Street; mid-September brings the Clifden Arts Festival. A short boat ride ($34 roundtrip) will take you to the Aran Islands, where Irish is still spoken in dulcet tones as the day-to-day language. Make the extra effort to get to Inisheer, the smallest of the islands; this tiny patchwork of fields divided by stone walls is a vision of an older Ireland frozen in time. The Hotel Inisheer is famed for its wild, impromptu sessions of craic agus ceol, or music and merriment.
Each year on June 16, the day during which James Joyce's Ulysses unfolds, Dubliners dress up and follow in the footsteps of Joyce's everyman hero, Leopold Bloom. The James Joyce Centre ($7) is the hub of the festivities, but it's in the still-existing pubs mentioned in the book, like the stately Davy Byrnes on Duke Street, where you'll get a chance to sample some of that famed Dublin wit at the heart of Joyce's work. A DART trip along Dublin Bay will bring you to the picturesque seaside village of Sandycove and the Martello (a.k.a. Joyce) Tower where the book begins. The tower, which contains a little museum ($8) to Joyce's life, is next to the Forty Foot swimming hole, where generations of Dubliners have come for a bracing dive off the rocks. Back in central Dublin, the Abbey Theatre can rightly claim to be the treasure-house of Irish literary culture, from Yeats, through Synge and Beckett, up to the present day. After a show ($17–$51), follow the actors to a favorite nearby haunt, the Flowing Tide, for pints of draught Guinness (9 Lower Abbey St., $6). If you'd like some help wrapping your head around Dublin culture, the free Dublin Tourism iWalk tours are brilliant podcasts by the hugely entertaining author, historian, and artist Pat Liddy. The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, led by professional actors, takes in the city's more famous cultural bars, with some great music and storytelling thrown in ($16).