14 Best Places to Visit in Ireland
For a relatively small island, Ireland certainly packs in its visitors. This happening holiday destination attracts close to 11 million tourists each year. They're attracted to its verdant landscapes, rolling hills, medieval castles, vibrant music, and friendly folk.
The Emerald Isle is also admired for its charming villages and bustling cities that are bursting with interesting things to do, see, and eat. From unbeatable tourist attractions like Dublin's Kilainham Gaol to the breath-taking sight of Giant's Causeway, Ireland is one of the world's best vacation spots.
With so many towns and cities to visit, it can be difficult to choose which stellar places should top your itinerary. We've chosen 14 of the best Irish destinations to help whittle down your list. Plan your sightseeing with our list of the best places to visit in Ireland.
No trip to Ireland is complete without a stop in its lively capital. The biggest city in Ireland, Dublin is actually small when compared with other capitals. What it lacks in size and population, however, it makes up for with a large (and long) history, and an intimacy you won't find in other metropolitan cities. The laid-back vibe (and cobblestone streets) at the heart of this vibrant spot make it a truly magical place.
Dublin isn't the most beautiful city, but what it lacks in cleanliness, it makes up for in effervescence. The locals (and if you're uber lucky, Bono) will be happy to chat you up if you stop for a "convo." Then they'll direct you to learn more about the city's expansive history in its stellar museums (like the unique and unforgettable Kilmainham Gaol, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, and The Little Museum of Dublin).
One of the best aspects of Dublin's diversity and multiculturalism can be found in its tasty fare. Luckily for us foodies, the list of restaurants is even more extensive. Looking for a great curry? You'll find hundreds. How about sushi? They've got that, too. Fish and Chips? Obviously!
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dublin: Best Areas & Hotels
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One of the best places to visit in southern Ireland, Cork follows Dublin as the Republic of Ireland's second largest city. It's also on par with the capital for being highly cosmopolitan. Wander the historic streets to soak up cool vibes emanating from small cafés, eccentric shops, unique museums (that means you, Cork Butter Museum), and lurid art galleries.
Once again, we arrive back to food. The city is jammed with phenomenal restaurants. Think of a food you'd like to eat, then take your pick! That said, the covered English Market set in the heart of the city is a must-visit. You'll be hard-pressed to find fresher, more delicious treats (think, artisan cheeses, local fish, and scrumptious cakes). They've been in business since 1788, so they know how to do a market right.
While you're in Cork, set aside time for a day trip to Blarney Castle, which houses the infamous Blarney Stone.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cork
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In times of old, Belfast was a location non grata. Once an industrial powerhouse (its shipyard produced the doomed Titanic), this capital of Northern Ireland became feared. Today, Belfast has become a big tourist draw. In addition to the Titanic Belfast museum (the most popular tourist destination, designed to commemorate the sinking of the infamous ship), the city boasts an opera house, botanic gardens, and a zoo, as well as many other attractions.
A fun place to spend a few days, Belfast offers a rich cultural scene—from visual arts displayed on the streets to impromptu concerts. The shopping is on par with any European metropolis and there are too many good restaurants to choose from.
Plan your trip to coincide with the city's annual Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in the first week of May. It spans about 11 days and brings culture (in the form of drama, poetry, music, art, and street theater) to the neighborhood.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Belfast
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4. Aran Islands
Want a truly Irish experience? Immerse yourself in life on the Aran Islands. A popular spot for day-trippers from County Galway (a ferry leaves from Rossaveal) and County Clare (ferries depart from Doolin), those who want to thoroughly explore these three unique islands opt to stay longer. Visitors with deeper pockets can opt for a 10-minute flight to the area.
Inis Mór is the largest island, Inis Meain is the most rural, and Inis Oirr is the smallest. All three are located in the middle of the Wild Atlantic Way—2,574 kilometers of Ireland's most beautiful Western coastline stretching from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south.
The scenery here is harsher and more desolate than that found in the verdant fields and mountains on the rest of the island. Jagged cliffs rise from the Atlantic to meet grazing sheep and cows. You'll also find ancient forts and impressive archeological remains—some of the oldest in Ireland.
Kilronan is the only village between the three islands. It's tiny and sits on Inis Mór. Locals speak Irish and English, which helps enhance the authentic Celtic charm. With a few bed and breakfasts and a smattering of restaurants, you won't be overwhelmed by the modern choices afforded by big cities like Dublin and Cork. Instead, you'll be able to sit back, relax, and soak up the Gaelic lifestyle along with unbeatable scenery.
Don't relax too much, though, or you'll miss Dun Aonghasa, a 14-acre prehistoric stone fort built atop 91-meter cliffs on Inis Mór.
County Kerry (on the southwest corner of Ireland) is home to the much-visited Killarney. Those who come here are in search of something a metropolitan high street doesn't have on offer: serenity. Take a look around, and you'll be graced by lakes, waterfalls, and mountains. Miles of trails are calling, and only comfortable sneakers (or hiking boots) will get you to your destination.
With more hotel rooms per capita than any Irish city, town, or village (Dublin excluded), Killarney knows how to accommodate its endless supply of visitors. Rest here while touring the spectacular Ring of Kerry or use it as a place to refuel after spending a full day exploring Killarney National Park.
Whether you choose to explore the park by foot, bike, boat, or jaunting car (picture a horse and buggy, and you're getting close), an active day in the park will leave you famished and exhausted. Killarney's restaurants value locally sourced food, and many offer lively music to help keep you moving.
After a good night's sleep (and perhaps a massage from a local spa), you'll have the energy to hike the Gap of Dunloe, head out fishing, or visit the Torc Waterfall.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Killarney
6. Galway City
The artsy vibe found in Galway City is second to no other on the Emerald Isle. An eclectic mix of old world versus contemporary metropolis, you'll find ruins of the town's medieval walls strewn around unique tourist shops and restaurants teeming with life.
Dull is not a word you'll ever find associated with Galway City. Listen closely and you'll hear a bagpipe (or two). You'll probably see people dancing in the street. Speaking of the street, that's where you'll find buskers and theater performers strutting their stuff. Walk along one of the stone bridges stretching across the River Corrib, and find your way along the promenade to Galway Bay, which is lined with quaint and colorful houses.
Like Killarney, Galway is also a jumping-off point for other, more organic destinations. Connemara National Park, a 5,000-acre wonderland filled with bogs, mountains, forests, and grasslands offers four main walking trails that will keep travelers busy for hours.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Galway: Best Areas & Hotels
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Officially known as Londonderry, Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland. It's most well-known for its stunning Atlantic coast and well-preserved ancient walls (dating back to the 17th century, they surround the old city and are worth a tour). Derry also has significant ties to the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, which took place in its Bogside section.
Recently, the historic city had a major makeover, taking it from "ok" to "wow." One of the upgrades included Peace Bridge, a pedestrian and cycle bridge, which crosses the River Foyle. It opened in 2011. Since then, the bridge has become an icon used as a backdrop for concerts, New Year's celebrations, and more.
The city also worked hard to redevelop its waterfront. Wander the busy streets, pop into the unique shops, or grab a bite in one of the city's highly rated restaurants, and you'll feel the modern buzz emanating from this bustling town.
Be sure to enjoy the Causeway Coast Route (by car or train) while you're in the area. Little can beat the magnificence of the impressive scenery, adorable villages, and unspoiled beaches.
8. Limerick City
Limerick is about to hit the big time, trust us! After a historic economic downturn, the city suffered for years. Lately, however, this vibrant town that hugs the River Shannon where it meets the Atlantic has been given a second, more upscale and glitzy chance.
Named Ireland's first City of Culture, Limerick received a much-needed revamp. New and improved quays, riverside walks, and public bicycles helped boost this quirky city towards a bright and shiny future. Lovely Georgian buildings hobnob with eccentric art galleries and the stunningly restored Milk Market where food and fun combine in the form of pop-up restaurants, art exhibits, and concerts.
Of course, rugby still reigns as the sport of choice (for playing, watching, and loudly arguing about). You can avoid all that at King John's Castle, the 800-year-old heart of the city that received an extensive refurbishment to make it the most interesting, interactive, and fun castle you'll visit.
9. Kilkenny City
An hour and a half from Dublin, Kilkenny spans both banks of the River Nore. Like, Derry, Kilkenny's medieval ties link closely with the new and exciting advances of today. Also known as the "marble city," this picturesque town is as delightful as it gets. It boasts a wide array of inviting restaurants and quaint cafés, along with shops to please those in need of a little retail therapy.
Kilkenny offers a slew of attractions, the most popular of which is the Medieval Mile, a scenic trail of narrow lanes that links many of the historic buildings (including Saint Mary's Cathedral and Kilkenny Castle, Rose Garden, and Park). Wander through the secret passageways, soak up the culture at one of the city's many festivals, or get lost in the maze created by Norman alleyways. Feeling creative? Unleash your inner artist by painting the castle grounds or capturing the juxtaposition of modern-day Ireland mixed with the crumbling, yet essential walls of yore.
No one gets bored in Westport. Located in County Mayo on Ireland's west coast, Westport is a charming city often used as a base for adventurers. Play a round of golf, cycle the winding scenic trails, hike through the fields, or take the kids to Pirate Adventure Park at Westport House. Not enough adventure for you? Set out on a fishing trip, go sailing, or take a cool dip off the beach.
An hour and a half from Galway, this remote city is sometimes referred to as the Riviera of the Wild Atlantic Way. Surrounded by rugged countryside, the town also boasts 50 miles of pristine beachfront overlooking the magnificent Clew Bay. Head to Oyster Beach (near Murrisk) for a relaxing horseback ride along the sand, or jump off the pier at Old Head (20 minutes away from town) while gazing up at the impressive Croagh Patrick.
Once you brush off the sand, head into town. Peruse the shops along the mall or take a romantic stroll across the stone bridge crossing the tree-lined bank of the Carrowbeg River. You won't be lacking in restaurant choices, so choose one that suits your taste.
An hour away, you'll find Achill Island, a remote island with three of Ireland's most beautiful, unspoiled, and best beaches. Bordered by dramatic cliffs, Keem Bay is the place to go for water sports and snorkeling. If you're feeling up to it, you can bike here along the 26-mile cycle path called the Great Western Greenway.
This quaint, hilly city is the capital of the Dingle Peninsula. A highlight on any tour of the Wild Atlantic Way, this famed peninsula boasts things you've likely never seen (like beehive huts) and beauty you'll be hard-pressed to surpass (that point where the azure waves crash against jagged cliffs to reveal secret sandy coves). It's no surprise, then, that so many tourists choose to rest their weary heads (and feet) in this charming spot, especially on weekends and during the summer.
Perched above Dingle Bay, the Irish-speaking town faces the Blasket Islands. If you look closely enough, you might be able to spot Fungi, the town's unofficial mascot. Most head here to enjoy all that the coast has to offer (i.e. lounging, walking, and surfing). Cumeenoole Beach shouldn't be skipped!
Non beachgoers can hike uphill to the ancient Eask Tower. Their reward: unparalleled 360-degree views of dramatic and unforgettable scenery. Shoppers will enjoy eclectic stores selling everything from clothes to jewelry to hardware.
An adored rest stop for adventurers, Sligo is a friendly and picturesque coastal seaport. Located in the northwest of the island, near the border with Northern Ireland, Sligo is comfortably nestled between Donegal and Galway. That makes it an ideal place to rest your legs while touring the Wild Atlantic Way.
Like many of the captivating towns on this list, Sligo exists in the sweet, magical spot where the land meets the sea. The result is an oasis of mountain peaks, salty ocean spray, and sandy dunes that inspire even the least artistic of us to get creative.
Staying here is a treat. Where else can you ride the waves at the beach in the morning and visit an ancient castle backed by the most dramatic, craggy cliffs in the afternoon? Did we mention the adorable shops and plentiful restaurants?
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You'd be amiss not to visit this delightful town on the Irish north coast, also known as the "capital of the Causeway Coast." A prior winner of prestigious awards like "Best Kept Town," "Ulster in Bloom," and "Best Kept Large Town in Northern Ireland," you're in for a treat while staying in this lovely spot.
While many are impressed by its new shopping center, Coleraine's charm oozes from its perfectly tended gardens and pretty town square (a.k.a. "the Diamond"). Local golf courses abound—with 14 golf clubs and courses located just outside the city. Most, however, come to walk, hike, or bike to appreciate the breathtaking views along the River Bann.
Carve out a couple of hours for a hike to Mountsandel Wood, a Mesolithic site dating back over 10,000 years. It's the earliest known settlement in the country and is thought to be Ireland's oldest archaeological site. When your legs are sore from all that walking, make a pit stop at the Wee Cottage, a small, unique restaurant decorated with everything from trolls to teapots. Order a scone—you'll thank us! It's located right near Dunluce Castle, making it a perfect place for afternoon tea.
Another reason to visit Coleraine: it's only 12 miles from the Giant's Causeway, a captivating place where nature leaves you gob-smacked. Situated at the base of giant basalt cliffs, the Causeway consists of more than 40,000 massive black columns sticking out of the sea.
It may be small, but this colorful seaside town is bursting with charm. A mere 40 minutes from Cork, Kinsale was once a medieval fishing port. Today, its impressive marina plays host to boats that are larger than your first apartment. Ogle the yachts before making your way along the Scilly Walk (a nice coastal walk) to Charles Fort, a star-shaped, 17th-century artillery fort originally built to guard Kinsale Harbour.
Desmond Castle sits in the center of town. Built in the early 16th century, this three-story tower house is hard to miss. Used to contain mainly French prisoners of war, it's known by locals as the "French Prison."
While roaming the charming streets, you'll notice a slew of fun shops and other points of interest peppered throughout. Perhaps our favorite part about the town center, however, is its vast array of restaurants serving delectable food. Once dubbed the "Gourmet Capital of Ireland," you can't leave Kinsale without enjoying a meal (or 10).
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Ireland Highlights: Some of the best places to visit in Ireland for people who want to get off the beaten path are the small towns. For ideas on where to go, check out the top-rated small towns in Ireland. Another highlight of the country are the castles. If you have your heart set on visiting some of these historic structures, see our guide to the top castles in Ireland. And if you happen to be looking for the best places to go fishing in Ireland, we've got that covered as well.