17 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ireland
Welcoming and wonderfully rich in culture, Ireland, the "Emerald Isle," is sure to put a sparkle in your eye. You'll love its friendly people; laid-back attitude; often tragic yet fascinating history; and its rugged, romantic landscapes. This is "the land of saints and scholars," with more Nobel Prize winners for literature than any other country in the world. Topping it all, the country's capital of Dublin was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2010.
Places to visit and attractions for tourists are abundant and infinitely varied. The state museums are all free, heritage sites date to prehistory, and there are endless outdoor pursuits to enjoy countrywide, such as horse riding, golf, sailing, and numerous remote, wild islands to explore. And, of course, there's the famous Irish "craic" (good time) to enjoy, wherever you decide to go.
Discover all the things to do in this stunningly attractive country with our list of the top tourist attractions in Ireland.
1. The Cliffs of Moher
So many superlatives have been used to describe the magnificent Cliffs of Moher that it's hard to find the right words. Vertigo-inducing and awe-inspiring spring to mind, and they are indeed both of these things, as well as being utterly wild and ruggedly beautiful. For those who've read up on the Emerald Isle prior to visiting, the cliffs will be familiar, starring as they do in countless postcards and guidebooks. Yet no image can ever do them justice. This is Ireland's most visited natural attraction and with good reason.
About one and a half hours by car from Galway, in neighbouring County Clare, the cliffs are visited by close to a million people from across the globe each year. It's one of the popular day trips from Dublin. They stretch for eight kilometers along the Atlantic and rise some 214 meters at their highest point. Take a walk along the trail to experience the raw power of nature at its most majestic.
Official site: www.cliffsofmoher.ie
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Cliffs of Moher
2. Grafton Street, Dublin
So much more than just a great place to shop in Dublin, Grafton Street is alive with buskers, flower-sellers, and performance artists. You will also find countless places to stop off and simply watch the world meander by. Café culture has taken off in the capital, and on a sunny day, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Barcelona or Lisbon.
True, this is Dublin's shopping heartland, but there's no need to spend a fortune if visiting. You'll find friendly, chatty service no matter where you go and be entertained from the bottom of the street to St. Stephen's Green at the top. Grab a coffee or, in the mornings, a legendary Irish breakfast at Bewley's Grafton Street Café. Take time as well to duck down the numerous alleyways and streets to see what you can discover.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dublin: Best Areas & Hotels
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3. Killarney National Park and Muckross House & Gardens
If visiting the Kerry region, the 19th-century Muckross House, Gardens, and Traditional Farms, set in spectacular Killarney National Park, should be top of your must-see list.
Standing close to the shores of Muckross Lake, one of three Killarney lakes famed worldwide for their splendor and beauty, this former mansion oozes the grandeur and gentility of bygone days. When exploring, bear in mind that Queen Victoria once visited here. In those days, a royal visit was no small affair; extensive renovations and re-landscaping took place in preparation, and no detail was left to chance.
The house and gardens are a real treat, and there are Jaunting Cars (Killarney's famous horse & traps) to take you around the grounds in style. The attraction's old farmsteads are also well worth taking in for a taste of how ordinary folk once lived.
The Killarney National Park & Lakes region is filled with beautiful scenery, and any route through it will reveal view after view of its lakes and mountains. A highlight in the western part of Killarney National Park is the 11-kilometer drive over the scenic Gap of Dunloe, a narrow and rocky mountain pass carved by glaciers at the close of the Ice Age. The gap separates Purple Mount and its foothills from Macgillycuddy's Reeks.
Another highlight in this national heritage site is Ross Castle. Winding lanes and cycling paths are among the best ways to see the park.
Address: Killarney National Park, Muckross, Killarney, Co. Kerry
Official site: www.killarneynationalpark.ie
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Killarney
4. The Book of Kells and Trinity College, Dublin
Ireland's oldest university, Trinity College in Dublin is one of the country's ancient treasures. Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I, Trinity is a world within a world.
Once you enter the gates and cross the cobblestones, it's as if the modern, thriving city outside simply melts away. A stroll in and around the grounds is a journey through the ages and into the hushed world of scholarly pursuit. Many shop and office workers take their lunchtime sandwiches here during summer months simply to escape the hustle and bustle outside.
The college is also famed for its priceless treasures. These include the awe-inspiring Book of Kells (on permanent exhibition), and the mind-boggling Long Room (the inspiration for the library in the first Harry Potter movie).
Address: Trinity College, College Green, Dublin 2
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dublin: Best Areas & Hotels
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5. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
Featured in many a rebel song and occupying a notoriously dark place in Irish history, Kilmainham Gaol should be high on the list of Dublin's best places to visit for those with any interest in Ireland's troubled past. It was here that the leaders of the 1916 Uprising were brought and, after being convicted of High Treason, executed in the prison yard. The only one spared was future Irish President Eamon De Valera who, by virtue of his American citizenship, didn't suffer the same grisly fate.
Dating from 1796, the prison was a dank vile institution that housed those guilty of such misdemeanours as being unable to pay their train fares and, during the famine, the destitute and hungry. In Irish eyes, Kilmainham became an irrevocable symbol of oppression and persecution.
A visit here will open your eyes and will remain with you indelibly. The yard mentioned earlier is particularly spine chilling. In short, this is one of Ireland's absolute must-sees.
Address: Inchicore Road, Dublin 8
Official site: http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie
6. The Ring of Kerry
If in Kerry, take the time to explore what is arguably Ireland's most scenic route, the Ring of Kerry (Iveragh Peninsula). While you can start anywhere along this spectacular 111-mile-long tourist route, most people tend to set out from either Kenmare or Killarney ending, naturally enough, back in the same spot.
The entire journey non-stop could take under three hours, but that's unlikely to happen. En-route there's a feast of jaw-dropping Atlantic Ocean views, stunning islands to visit, wild sweeping mountains, and many picturesque villages.
This area of astounding natural beauty boasts a range of outdoor pursuits including golf, water sports on pristine beaches, cycling, walking, horse-riding, and terrific freshwater fishing and deep-sea angling. For history enthusiasts, there are Ogham Stones, Iron Age forts, and ancient monasteries, all set against a canvas of striking landscapes.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Ring Of Kerry
7. Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
Magical and mysterious, Glendalough is home to one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. The settlement was established by St. Kevin during the 6th century and eventually evolved into what's known as the Monastic City. Visitors have flocked to the valley of the two lakes for thousands of years to absorb its rich history, magnificent scenery, plentiful wildlife, and fascinating archaeological finds.
The monastic site with its incredibly preserved round tower is a joy to explore, and the surrounding woodlands and lakes are perfect for rambling through at your leisure or stopping off for a picnic. There are marked nature trails to follow and a Visitor Centre for all the information you'll need for a day out like no other.
Address: Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Wicklow
8. Powerscourt House and Gardens, Co. Wicklow
Superb views, serene lakeside walks, engaging history, and the stunning backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain are just some of the treats in store when visiting this magnificent home, just 20 kilometers from Dublin.
Now owned by the Slazenger family, the house is set on 47 manicured acres. Take time to stroll through the Rose and Kitchen Gardens and explore the beautiful Italian Gardens. There are more than 200 varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and particularly moving is a section where much-loved family pets were buried complete with headstones and inscriptions.
The gardens were laid out over a period of 150 years and were designed to create an estate that blends harmoniously with the surroundings. On site, in the former Palladian home, are craft and design shops and an excellent café/restaurant. Truly one of the most majestic attractions in Ireland, this is also one of the top day trips from Dublin.
Address: Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow
Official site: http://powerscourt.com/
9. The Little Museum of Dublin
A recent addition to the capital's museums, The Little Museum should be top on the list for anybody wishing to grasp Dublin's recent history. The museum grew organically from a "meet and greet" service for visitors, and quickly became what we see today. As well as informative, personally guided tours, new initiatives include Dublin by Land & Sea and The Green Mile Walking Tour.
On permanent exhibition are such items as the lectern used by John F. Kennedy during his 1963 visit to Ireland, and a U2 exhibition with mementos donated by band members themselves. This is a joyful museum that celebrates Dublin with all its quirkiness and humor.
Address: 15 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2
Official site: www.littlemuseum.ie
10. The Rock of Cashel
Ireland's most visited heritage site, the Rock of Cashel stars in countless images of the Emerald Isle. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain even visited by helicopter during her 2011 official tour of the country. Perched upon a limestone rock formation in the Golden Vale, this magnificent group of medieval buildings includes the High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, the 12th-century round tower, a 15th-century castle, and a 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
The restored Hall of the Vicars Choral is also among the structures. Tourist attractions include an audio-visual show and exhibitions. It's also said that this was once the seat of the High Kings of Munster prior to the Norman invasions.
Address: Cashel, Co. Tipperary
11. Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone
Possibly Ireland's best-known attraction and one it's must-see-castles, the Blarney Stone sits high on a tower of Blarney castle, not far from Cork. Reputed to endow the famed Irish eloquence to those who dare hang their head over the parapets to kiss it, the stone is not the only reason for visiting Blarney Castle.
Blarney Castle was built more than 600 years ago by Irish chieftain Cormac McCarthy, and you can tour the massive stone building from its towers to its dungeons. Extensive gardens surround it, filled with stone features and secret corners. Blarney Woollen Mills is known for its sweaters and other knitwear and has a shop selling crystal, porcelain, and other Irish gifts.
Official site: www.blarneycastle.ie
12. Kinsale, Co. Cork
Soaked in history and in a scenic coastal setting at the gateway to West Cork, Kinsale has been attracting large numbers of visitors for decades. It's one of the best small towns in Ireland for tourists.
The town has a decidedly Spanish feel, particularly in summer. This is hardly surprising bearing in mind that in 1601, three years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Spanish sent a military force to Ireland, most of whom disembarked at Kinsale. This led to the English laying siege to the town and ultimately the defeat of Spanish and Irish forces by superior English military might.
Kinsale is now a magnet for those who love sailing, walking, fishing, marvellous scenery, and great food. The town is packed with restaurants of all sorts and the seafood on offer is excellent. There's an annual Gourmet Festival among others, and a visit to imposing Charles Fort shouldn't be missed.
13. The Dingle Peninsula and the Wild Atlantic Way
Part of The Wild Atlantic Way, a 1700-mile marked route around Ireland's west and adjacent coasts, the Dingle Peninsula combines wild beauty, history, and a glimpse of traditional Irish culture and language. It's not by accident: the region is designated as a Gaeltacht, where the Irish language and culture are protected by government subsidies. You'll hear Gaelic spoken and sung, and read it on signs, although everyone also speaks English.
Ending at Dunmore Head, the Irish mainland's westernmost point, the peninsula is bordered by some of Ireland's best beaches and ragged cliffs. Stone huts that scatter its open landscapes were built by monks in the early Middle Ages, and you'll find more stone monuments that date to the Bronze Age.
14. St. Stephen's Green, Dublin
Beloved by Dubliners and with a colorful history, tranquil St. Stephen's Green is a great place to wind down, enjoy a picnic, or feed the ducks. Incidentally, during the 1916 Uprising, special dispensation was given on both sides to the park keepers. Hostilities ceased daily so that the ducks could be properly fed. It could only happen in Dublin.
Nowadays "The Green," as it's known locally, boasts beautifully maintained gardens, the ubiquitous Duck Pond, a picturesque bridge, recreation grounds, mature trees to rest beneath, and a playground.
Around the perimeter are many of Dublin's premier Georgian buildings as well as the iconic Shelbourne Hotel, founded in 1824, where afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor's Lounge is considered by many to be a real treat.
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15. Bunratty Castle & Folk Park
A visit to the Shannon region wouldn't be complete without coming here. Dating from 1425, the castle is the best-preserved medieval fortress in Ireland and was lovingly restored in the 1950s. Containing a fine array of 15th- and 16th-century furnishings and tapestries, the castle will transport you back to ancient medieval times.
The themed banquets in the evenings are great fun, although certain guests who misbehave run the risk of being sent to the dungeons below. The impressive Folk Park brings the Ireland of a century ago vividly to life. Featuring more than 30 buildings in a village and rural setting, the folk park has village shops, farmhouses, and streets to explore. It's all great fun for families and kids.
16. The English Market, Cork
No visit to Cork would be complete without dropping by the English Market. That said, it's a tad ironic that what is arguably one of Cork city's best attractions should contain the word "English" - Cork folk usually see themselves as far more ideologically and culturally removed from neighboring Britain than their Dublin counterparts. Having said that, they hold a special place in their hearts for this quirky covered market, which stocks the best of local produce, including the freshest seafood, artisan breads, and excellent cheeses.
A market has existed on the site since the late 1700s, although the distinctive entrance on Princes Street dates from 1862. Recent worldwide fame came when Queen Elizabeth II dropped by on her first ever state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. Iconic images of her sharing a joke with Fishmonger Pat O'Connell were beamed across the globe.
For those who wish to linger a while, there's coffee to go and cozy Farmgate Restaurant upstairs.
Address: Princes Street, Cork (off St. Patrick's Street & Grand Parade)
Official site: www.englishmarket.ie
17. The Aran Islands
Originally brought to world attention in 1934 by the fictionalised documentary Man of Aran, these islands have been entrancing visitors ever since. This is a taste of Ireland as it once was. Gaelic is the first language, there are a mere 12,000 inhabitants, and once ashore, you'll feel as if you're in a time warp. There are three islands, the largest being Inishmore, then Inishmaan, and the smallest is Inisheer.
Wild, windswept, rugged, and utterly unique, the islands offer a visitor experience quite like no other. Once experienced, the great stone fort of Dun Aonghasa and the towering cliffs of Aran will never be forgotten. The local culture is quite different from that of the mainland, the archaeological heritage cannot be found elsewhere and the rich scenery is simply breathtaking.
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Things to do in Ireland and When to Visit: Some people come here for a quick weekend break, while others come on longer trips to explore the castles, cities, and small towns. A few people come here to fish. Anglers will want to be sure to see our article on the best fishing destinations in Ireland. One thing to consider if you are planning activities or even sightseeing is the time of year you want to travel. For a great resource, see our guide to the best time to visit Ireland.