An honest intro to a tour of Ireland
So, you've decided to visit Ireland for a trip of a lifetime. You know the basics - it's green and supposedly beautiful, they drink Guinness and whiskey, and Bono hails from these lands. But you know that there might just a little more to Ireland than these general inklings. We're here to take the daunting out of planning a trip from scratch and fill in the gaps.
First up, a vague hurtle through the towns and cities, scenic spots and culture of the island of Ireland.
Towns and Cities
There are just five cities in the Republic of Ireland - Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Limerick and Cork. On the whole, Ireland's cities are quite small and compact with Dublin by far the largest at over a million inhabitants and the others all well under 200,000.
We can't iterate enough that the towns and cities of this stunning island should be used as jumping off points for the surrounding countryside and not as city breaks. Frankly, if you were to spend a week or even a weekend exploring only the cities, you will have wasted your time in one of the world's most beautiful countries. As we'll detail below, each of these cities is very close to areas of breathtaking scenery.
Dublin is the gateway for most into Ireland and it's a city worthy of a few days. It's not exactly a beauty of a city and feels less essential to explore to death than a Rome, London or Paris would to a visit to any of their respective countries. Perhaps this is unfair as the excellent attractions like the Guinness Storehouse and Kilmainham Gaol compliment a fantastic nightlife geared towards locals and tourists.
The second most visited city of an Ireland is Galway and rightly so. This bohemian student city feels more authentic than Dublin and an amazing pub and live music scene are an essential cultural addition to an Ireland tour.
Beyond these two, the cities are good for shopping, drinking and eating, and finding decent hotels but do not make any more than one day by themselves. All the cities have at least one highlight and reason to visit though. Limerick is dominated by the impressive King John's Castle, Cork's unique geography gives great views across the city and the museums of Waterford's Viking Triangle are good for a rainy day.
Kilkenny, the pick of the big towns. has Ireland's most complete medieval centre and is definitely one for the history buff. The pretty medieval mile boasts Kilkenny Castle, St Canice's Cathedral and original city walls and the Medieval Mile Museum to tie it all together. Kilkenny is also the home of Smithwicks beer which can be found everywhere on a typically lively night.
Northern Ireland is a whole other kettle of fish with two emerging cities - Belfast and Derry / Londonderry - offering more than enough for a city break. In both cities a tourism sector has emerged around The Troubles, a conflict born in the 1960s which kept Northern Ireland off the tourist radar until relatively recently. Insightful tours alongside world-class attractions like Titanic Belfast and a newfound feeling of safety have put these places back on the map.
Blockbuster Visitor Attractions
There are a number of big visits that make their way onto the travel itineraries of most visitors and with good reason as they're all quality attractions. A circular tourist route has popped up to take in all these in the form of Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Killarney, Galway, Dublin and more recently with the addition of Derry and Belfast.
A quick cavalcade of world famous attractions starts in Dublin with a polished introduction to the black stuff at the Guinness Storehouse and the archaeologically significant 9th century Book of Kells and the ornate Old Library at Trinity College.
Just outside of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains are the 6th century monastic ruins of Glendalough. An excellent three-point attraction includes the ruins, a visitor centre and two of Ireland's most beautiful lakes just a stone's throw away..
Kilkenny is built around the impressive fortress of Kilkenny Castle. This brute can be spied from different angles throughout the medieval city centre with each giving a new impression. Better outside than in, it's not essential that you pay to go inside.
A more classic medieval castle is the well-preserved ruins at Blarney Castle. Better known now for the Blarney Stone which reputedly gives you the 'gift of the gab' (ability to talk shite) if you lean over the castle's fortifications and kiss this stone.
Between Killarney/Cork and Galway the Cliffs of Moher rise 200 metres (700 foot) out of the Atlantic Ocean below. The sheer scale of these cliffs both in length, depth and dramatic appeal have made these one of Ireland's must-visited attractions despite not being the easiest to get to.
On the north coast in Northern Ireland is the peculiar Giant's Causeway. 40,000 interlocking basal columns jut out into the sea . Great to clamber over and view from the walking trails above.
Recently crowned Europe's best visitor attraction is Titanic Belfast in, you guessed it, Belfast. This interactive and immersive museum on the story of the giant Titanic ship - built in Belfast prior to its sinking in 1912 - is impressive inside and out.
Not on the list of Most Visited because of protection from over visiting by the Irish government, are the burial tombs of Newgrange and Knowth. Both these stellar attractions are accessible by minibus from the Bru na Boinne VIsitor Centre. Tours give a mysterious view into very impressive structures that pre-date the pyramids. The limitations of the minibus systems means that the sites are never overcrowded.
These are some of Ireland's best attractions but also their most visited so with record numbers coming in to Ireland alongside native holidaymakers there's a noticeable overcrowding at most. You may share a clifftop stroll at the Cliffs of Moher with twenty coachloads of people or be told to come back in two hours by the Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre. Be smart, get out of bed early, or even better, really late and try to avoid the crowds.
Areas of Beauty
There's no argument - the scenery is what most people come to Ireland for and the legendary beauty lives up to the hype. Leapfrog the pleasant but unspectacular spine of the country to get to the proper stuff on the west and north coasts.
Ireland's south west greedily boasts two of the stand out areas of natural beauty in the Ring of Kerry (also known as the Iveragh Peninsula) and the Dingle Peninsula. These peninsuli offer handy circular driving routes to explore some of the world's finest coastal scenery alongside enviable mountain viewing points and pretty towns and villages.
Kerry is popular and rightly so but on the other end of the scale is the remote and wonderfully desolate County Donegal. This north westerly county offers bleakly beautiful moorland and dramatic coastal scenery which you won't have to fight the crowds for. Highlights include the Slieve League Cliffs and Glenveagh National Park.
Those two are the pinnacles and then no particular order.
Right on Dublin's doorstep are the Wicklow Mountains which are at their best in spring and summer when the rolling green hills are covered in bright yellow gorse. This area also contains some of Ireland's best attractions, including Powerscourt House and Gardens and the lakes and monastic site of Glendalough.
With scenery that is pleasant rather than spectacular, the Boyne Valley is an area north of Dublin that's elevated by a string of medieval and ancient sites. Country lanes and green fields can be seen all along the scenic drive connecting the 3000 year old burial tombs at Newgrange and Knowth, the medieval castle at Trim and hilltop cairns of Loughcrew.
The north Antrim coast would be spectacular enough even if it didn't boast some of the island of Ireland's most dramatic natural and man-made wonders. Enjoy the Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-rede ropebridge, Old Bushmills Distillery and Dunluce Castle in close proximity just an hour from Belfast. Game of Thrones fans will recognise the north Antrim coast from just about every scene in the show where it's not sunny or snowing.
Back to the wild West around Galway where Connemara is a place that makes bogland sexy. The green and brown hues of the mountains and boglands and the grey of the native marble are punctuated with a thousand lakes and create some unsurpassed views.
For when the colour green gets too much, there's the trippy grey landscapes of the Burren. Where there should be grass there lies moon-like plateaus of grey limestone. Home to the famous Cliffs of Moher and a variety of excellent photo opportunities, like the Poulnabrone Dolmen.
Finally there is West Cork, a region that best describes 'quaint'. A string of pretty towns and villages - like Kinsale, Skibbereen and Bantry - will make any forward motion tough as you're called to by the multitude of cafes offered up by the foodie region of Ireland. Damn those mermaids of cuisine.
Traditional Irish music with the fiddles, flutes, bodhrans (traditional drums) and charismatic singers is the bedrock of Irish culture. You can be considered hard done by if you manage to depart Ireland without hearing as much as a fiddle.
Irish music can be geared towards tourists with bands on Dublin's Temple Bar playing classics like Galway Girl and Whiskey in the Jar and this is a great introduction but they also pop up in village pubs throughout the country. Less accessible but perhaps more honest is the traditional session which is a gaggle of musicians in the corner of a pub playing amongst themselves. Then there are the ultra-touristy but convenient dinner shows which offer music, dancing and meat-and-potato dinners all in one place.
Cultural tip #17: Most Irish people don't like U2's Bono..
Ireland also has a few sports unique to the Irish. Hurling is a type of hockey-cum-lacrosse and Gaelic Football is a kind of cross between football rugby and handball. The major competitions see the 32 counties of Ireland play a knockout tournament that reaches it's pinnacle during the summer. If you time you visit right you might get to see one of the big games at Dublin's Croke Park Stadium. Or you could get to grips with the sports at Experience Gaelic Games where you can learn how to play from local coaches.
Watching the Six Nations rugby in pub is also a 'cultural' must if in the country in February and March. Throngs of Irish and fans from the British Isles, Italy and France pack into the atmospheric pubs to watch Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy battle it out in a series of fiercely competitive rugby matches .