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14 Top-Rated Small Towns in Ireland

Written by Shandley McMurray
Jun 26, 2019

Ireland is well known for its lush scenery, challenging golf courses, historic castles, and unique music. While most travelers flock to big cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Galway, they're missing out on one of the country's best features-its true character. This can only be found in the small towns and villages peppered throughout the flourishing countryside.

Once they veer away from the well-trodden and bustling path, tourists are rewarded with natural charm and an authentic taste of the Irish countryside at its best. From quaint villages bursting with colorful, thatched-roof cottages to ancient ruins perched upon a seaside cliff, the lesser-known small towns provide a more peaceful and intimate glimpse into local history-and the food is hard to beat!

Plan your travels with our list of the best small towns in Ireland.

1. Kilkenny

Kilkenny Castle

For a small town, Kilkenny certainly knows how to pack in attractions. There's Kilkenny Castle, Medieval Mile Museum, St. Canice's Cathedral & Round Tower, and Black Abbey, just to name a few.

The top reason most tourists choose this pretty village, however, is for its ambience. Mix an outdoor market with live music, colorful shops, and a winding River Nore, and you've set the stage for a fun and exciting getaway only an hour and a half southwest of Dublin.

A maze of streets and alleyways lead tourists on unknown adventures through the medieval town, while trendy shops entice those with a penchant for knick knacks. Known as the Kilkenny Medieval Mile, this compact area leads visitors from the cathedral to the heart of its castle. It also passes the National Design & Craft Gallery, which would give any big city museum a run for its money.

Tip: Climb the 30-meter Round Tower for the city's best view.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kilkenny

2. Kinsale

Kinsale

Ooh Kinsale. What a uniquely spectacular place! Brightly painted shops, galleries, and houses bring the main streets of this medieval fishing port to life. Yachts take up much of the harbor, which is worth a walk around. Talk about eye candy!

One of the most enjoyable things to do in Kinsale is eat. This small, seaside escape is packed with high-quality restaurants. In fact, Kinsale boasts so many good eateries that it has been dubbed the "Gourmet Capital of Ireland." Bastion leads the pack with a delectable five-course tasting menu, but The Supper Club offers incredibly fresh seafood delivered by uber-friendly staff.

Work off your indulgence on a walking tour, or visit Charles Fort, an impressive star-shaped fort built in the 17th century. Overlooking both the Old Head of Kinsale and the mouth of Bandon river, Charles Fort is accessed via a drawbridge.

Bonus: Kinsale is a mere 40 minutes from Cork, the second-largest city in the Republic of Ireland.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kinsale

3. Dingle

Coumeenoole Beach

This charming town is situated on the southwest coast of Ireland. It's located on the Dingle Peninsula and looks across Dingle Bay to the Blasket Islands. Bursting with visitors on weekends and holidays (especially in the summer), Dingle is a fantastic place for self-proclaimed beach bums. Its sandy beaches make it a hot spot for swimmers and walkers.

Most visit Dingle to spend time outdoors-surfing, biking, boating, and checking out archeological sites top the list of things to do. Coumeenoole Beach is so spectacular it will take your breath away. But don't jump in-the current is dangerously strong.

Driving the twisty road of Conor Pass from Dingle to Kilmore Cross (on the north side) is a highlight. The highest mountain pass in Ireland, it offers unbeatable views.

Tip: Be on the lookout for Fungie, the bottlenose dolphin that lives at the mouth of Dingle Harbour. He's become the town's mascot and has been swimming around since 1984.

4. Tralee

Blennerville Windmill

The capital of County Kerry, Tralee is situated on the Atlantic coast of southwestern Ireland. It's famed for its rugged terrain, steep cliffs, mountains, and ocean views. It's impossible to avoid taking a photo of the Blennerville Windmill. This whitewashed beacon stands proudly before the mountains and behind the sea.

The Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre offers the best way to spend a day. Whether you want to relax and submit to tranquility on the nature boardwalk or try your hand at water zorbing, this expansive spot is a great place to unwind.

For utter relaxation, visit Banna Strand, a clean, peaceful beach perfect for picnics. Every August for the past 60 years, tourists flock to Tralee for the Rose Of Tralee International Festival (second only to St. Patrick's day in terms of popularity), during which one woman is crowned the Rose of Tralee.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Tralee

5. Portmagee

Cromwell Point, Ring of Kerry

One of Portmagee's best features is its location. This sweet town is situated near the Ring of Kerry (a.k.a. Iveragh Peninsula), making it a perfect jumping-off point (or overnight rest stop) for a tour of this impeccable area. The 179-kilometer circular route offers unbeatably breathtaking scenery of mountains, seascapes, and winding countryside.

Fun, bright houses speckle the seaside, and fishing boats moor immediately off the coast. Hop on a tour of the Skellig Islands, most famous due to their recent appearance as inhospitable terrain in a Star Wars film. Even better, though, are the islands' main inhabitants-puffins.

On your ride here, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins. And pray for good weather. If it's too rough or windy, boats won't drive to this hard-to-reach location, which is only accessible from mid-May to late September.

6. Doolin

Sunset at the Cliffs of Moher

You won't want to miss the sunset in Doolin. Fractured light bounces softly off the water, landscape, and old stone walls, inducing an overarching sense of calm. This small village boasts the most adorable and colorful buildings, some with thatched roofs.

Locals make visitors feel at home in their dramatic landscape, playing traditional Irish music throughout the night. Located in a majestic Burren on the Atlantic coast, Doolin's evocative scenery is hard to beat. Take Doolin's Cave for example, which is home to The Great Stalactite, the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe.

When hunger pangs hit, head to The Ivy Cottage. They make the freshest, most delectable fish and chips. Don't skimp on dessert-the honeycomb cheesecake and Banoffee Pie make each extra calorie worth it.

Most visit Doolin on their way to (or from) the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher. Located on the Wild Atlantic Way, these immense cliffs ascend more than 200 meters above the sea and stretch all the way to Hags Head (about eight kilometers away). For a more educational experience, sign up for a guided tour led by local farmer, Pat Sweeney.

Tip: The Cliffs of Moher are hugely popular with tourists. For a quieter visit, head off on one of the numerous Cliffs of Moher Hiking Trails. From here, you'll be able to spot waterfalls, the Aran Islands, and Galway Bay.

7. Malahide

Malahide Castle

A mere 36-minute drive northeast of Dublin, Malahide is the perfect small town for a day (or night) away. While Malahide Beach is a favorite place to relax and enjoy the sea view, Malahide Castle and Gardens is the main tourist draw.

Delve into its fascinating history, explore private rooms, and hear stories of life as a Talbot-the family that lived here for almost 800 years. One of the most well-loved features is the garden-250 acres of parkland beckon nature lovers from near and far. Don't miss the botanical walled garden, one of only four in Ireland.

Malahide village is a true gem, and spending time here delights the senses, especially when the shops are adorned with fresh, overflowing hanging baskets. The calming strum of halyards beating against their masts soothes the soul, while the gentle caress and scent of the sea breeze replenishes energy lost in the hustle and bustle of big city adventures.

8. Adare

Traditional Irish cottage in Adare

Want to know how it felt to live in the 1800s? Head to Adare. Designated as a Heritage Town, this adorable village sits beside the River Maigue, just 20 minutes by car from Limerick City.

In strict contrast to Limerick's bright lights and busy streets, Adare is charming and peaceful. The local park (Adare Park) is so serene, in fact, that you won't want to leave. With impeccably manicured lawns, perfectly pruned trees, and inviting benches, you'll be hard-pressed to find a place with a more relaxing and laid-back vibe.

The village's thatched-roof cottages are as delightful as the Holy Trinity Abbey Church is beautiful. You'll also want to spend time wandering in and out of the small shops and cafés.

Castle lovers are in for a real treat-Adare Desmond Castle sits on the edge of the village, and King John's Castle is only 30 minutes away.

Bonus: Adare is home to two 18-hole golf courses, both of which are within walking distance of the village.

9. Youghal

Youghal

Less than an hour east of Cork, Youghal is a wonderful place to unwind. Stroll the boardwalk, visit the Youghal Gate Clock Tower, or while away a sunny afternoon at the beach. This quaint seaside resort town sits on the estuary of the River Blackwater. The Raleigh Quarter is where you'll find most of the action-and an insight into the town's history. Set in the town's center, this well restored quarter transports visitors back in time.

While a tour of St. Mary's Collegiate Church is worth your time, Youghal's selling feature is its ancient Town Wall. Built around the bustling trading center during the mid-13th century, the wall offers an enjoyable walk with stunning views.

For a self-guided journey back in time, head to the Visitor's Centre to pick up a map of the Youghal Heritage Trail. It will take you past the church and through Raleigh Quarter, pointing out other interesting spots along the way.

Tip: Time your visit for August's Youghal Medieval Festival. A fun experience for the whole family, this event includes medieval re-enactors, birds of prey exhibitions, concerts, artisan food stands, tours, storytelling, and an archaeological dig, to name a few.

10. Birr

Birr Castle

Designated as an Irish Heritage Town, this well-preserved Georgian village sits on the River Camcor. Built in the early to mid-1700s, the tree-lined streets are spacious and well-planned, making walking through them a pleasure.

Birr Castle is the town's main draw. Home to 14 generations of the Parsons family (also known as the Earls of Rosse) the castle also boasts an incredible, restored Great Telescope-once the world's largest. Also unmissable are the giant box hedges found in the castle gardens.

Pay close attention as you wander through the grounds. There, you'll find evidence of numerous landscaping changes throughout the centuries-like the waterfall and winter garden from the 19th century and the arboretum and river garden from the 20th century.

The Earls of Rosse were massive fans of science and astronomy. You can find their historic instruments, cameras, and photographs (dating back to the mid 1800s) at the Birr Castle Demesne, a science museum located on the castle grounds.

Fun fact: In 1888, Birr was the first venue for the All-Ireland Hurling final. Also, each September, Birr plays host to the Irish Hot Air Ballooning Championships.

11. Belmullet

Ancient stone circle in the Belmullet Peninsula

Belmullet is a fisherman's paradise-apparently 39 species of fish parade its surrounding waters. Most famous for its miles of beaches, captivating cliffs, and uninhabited islands, this Gaelic town is a place for those who truly love the outdoors. And who wouldn't with such a spectacular backdrop? Nestled near Blacksod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Belmullet's landscape is peppered with unspoiled sand dunes.

Dún na mBó is a quick jaunt from town. A hidden gem, this paradise is accessed by a rough, jaunty road peppered with sheep, so beware. Once you arrive, you'll realize that the journey was worth it. Close your eyes and listen to the waves pound against the cliffs, smell the fresh sea air, and feel the wind whip away your worries.

Bonus: Avid golfers will love the Carne Golf Links-ranked number 10 in the country. In addition to providing spectacular cliff and ocean views, this course offers a more challenging experience along its 27 holes.

12. Fethard

Medieval town walls in the village of Fethard

History buffs are in for a treat when visiting Fethard. Set in the heart of County Tipperary, this ancient village was originally designed as a market town and lies on the Clashawley River. Its goal was to bring in tax revenue for the king. Today, tourists are welcomed by many fine restaurants and eclectic shops.

Like most medieval market towns, Fethard was surrounded by a stone wall. You'll find most of this intact, along with its 700-year-old church-Augustinian Abbey Church. Climb the steps and walk the parapets, but be careful if they're wet- they can get slippery.

If you're a horse fan, don't miss the Fethard Horse Country Experience. Located in the 17th-century Tholsel Building on Main Street, this two-floor museum plays homage to the town's rich equine history.

13. Eyeries

Colorful houses in Eyeries

A picturesque village, Eyeries lies on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. A captivating location overlooking Coulagh Bay, this colorful town brightens its remarkable landscape. The sunsets over this idyllic spot are hard to beat.

Get outside to truly enjoy what Eyeries has to offer. Explore the church and graveyard ruins at Kilcatherine, which dates back to the 7th century. Visit Hag of Beara stone-legend says the goddess of winter (a.k.a. Hag) was turned to stone here and sits waiting for her husband, god of the sea. Avid hikers should climb the Slieve Miskish Mountains. Their reward? Truly unbeatable views.

Looking for a less invasive climb? Wander through this clean town and admire the pristine pastel houses along your way. Eyeries has won both gold and silver medals in the National Tidy Towns Competition for years. Then, head to the beach or walk along the long, windy, narrow roads (locals call them boreens).

Tip: The Eyeries Family Festival takes place in July. From market stalls to concerts to guided walks and races, there's something for everyone at this fun annual event.

14. Ennistymon

Ennistymon

This lovely small town strikes a perfect balance between natural beauty and old-world charm. Originally a market town on the River Cullenagh, Ennistymon's most picture-worthy feature is the stone bridge connecting to the oldest part of town.

Below the bridge are small rapids (known as the Cascades), which fall gracefully over the rocks below. Grab your camera because this is certainly a click-worthy spot. Want the best photo? Take the path leading from the bridge, along the water. Follow it down and look up.

Pop into the Foust Gallery and enjoy the bright and unique pieces on display. Local artist Sara Foust is a pleasure to talk to. You won't need long in this tiny shop, but it's definitely worth a visit.

Nearby is the coastal town of Lahinch-a quick, six-minute drive on the N67. The rolling hills and ocean views are your reward for curving along a tight, windy road. Stop at the An Gorta Mór Memorial (a.k.a. The Great Hunger Memorial) on your way. It's located across from Ennistymon Hospital, about a mile out of town and was erected to commemorate those who died in the great potato famine of 1845 to 1851.

Tip: The Ennistymon Food and Craft Fair takes place every Sunday and features local goods. It's a great opportunity to get to know members of the community and hear interesting stories about their town.

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Exploring Ireland: If you have a few days to spare in Ireland and just want a nice place to relax, have a look at our article: Top Weekend Breaks in Ireland. First trip to Ireland? Perhaps you want to focus on Ireland's top castles. And maybe you hadn't given this much thought to fishing, but if this is something that interests you, see our article: Best Fishing Destinations in Ireland.

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