Get ready for a LONG post. There’s so much to tell you, and even more to show you!
I grew up reading and being entranced by a lot of stories illustrated by Jan Brett; The Hat, The Mitten, Christmas Trolls, and many more. They so often featured kind-looking forests full of amiable critters and curious farm animals with very good manners. I’m convinced, now, that despite Brett’s American heritage, all of her characters are Irish. I’m still reeling with an energy that is simultaneously quaint, mysterious, and wholly ancient. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to stay in that corner of the world, simply observing the foxes, flowers, and castles with a cup of tea in hand.. and I’m already planning the day when I can go back. Both Ireland and Scotland have a shared sense of old tradition, pride, and Gaelic charm, but they’re very different. These next two posts will be about everything to do, eat, and see while you’re in either country, and what to do to prepare for your trip.
IRELAND and NORTH IRELAND
WHEN TO GO
Mid May-Mid June
When Myles and I arrived on June 1st, wildflowers and gardens were in full bloom, but by the end of our 2 week stay, the majority of the blooms had begun to die out. And it seemed that the moment the first flowers began to die, the tourists came flooding in. Dublin and Galway, along with many of the popular stops (Cliffs of Moher, Giant’s causeway, Blarney, etc.), will always be crowded. Unless you’re willing to brave the cold and go in early spring, you’ll just have to accept that there will be loads of people at these sites, and of course, in the cities. Also, just a note, June is also berry season, so look out for little berry stands on the side of the road, especially in rural areas.
Remember Bank Holidays
If you’re in the United States, you are familiar with most of our typical minor holidays and 3 day weekends, but when you’re travelling to Europe, you’ll want to be cognizant of theirs as well. In Ireland, those are the Bank Holidays. There were a few of them while we were there, and we never could figure out what they were for… just, simply, another bank holiday. It’s worth the effort to look up when any holidays might be during your stay, because a lot of events like races, festivals, and fairs across the country are held on these weekends. Myles and I seemed to be just barely ahead of schedule, missing practically every festival in each town we visited, by only one or two days.But now we know. Bank Holidays.
Midsummer/ Summer Solstice
If you prize more lively entertainment over flowers, I would suggest the end of June. Around the Summer Solstice there are all sorts of festivals and parties celebrating midsummer and old pagan traditions, although somewhat romanticized I’m sure. If there was one thing I regret about our trip, it’s not being there for the solstice. Keep in mind, though, that the whole month of July is supposedly peak tourist season, so if you want to beat the crowds, keep midsummer/summer solstice for the end of your trip.
WHERE TO GO/ what to do
As timelines and budgets vary, I won’t give you a specific itinerary. Myles and I flew into Dublin, drove a circle around the whole island, ending back in Dublin, and had over two weeks to see all we could. But here I’ll simply list here the most rewarding things we did, and things I hope to do the next time around. Some spots are obvious (i.e. Newgrange), but others were secluded, private, and absolutely magical to have to yourself.
- Dublin City
I often think that when travelling, big cities are kind of pointless because they’re all so similar. But Dublin is not. At least, not if you’re from the United States. You’ve got a plethora of wonderful Irish pubs and eateries, as well as shopping and live music both traditional and modern, all nestled among ancient walls, castles, and cathedrals. Despite what locals often say, it’s a truly enjoyable city and it’s easy to get lost among all the noise and entertainment. But don’t let yourself. You absolutely must see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. My husband didn’t even want to go in, thinking it was just a typical museum exhibit that was way overpriced. It does indeed start as a typical museum exhibit when you first enter, but then you’re led to a room where you get to see the actual Book of Kells (two of the volumes are permanently on display), turned open to an ornately decorated page. But that isn’t all –even though I would have been content with it. You then follow a staircase to the Trinity Library, which holds thousands of the most beautifully-bound, old, old books. Be sure to get there in the morning, though. After about 11:00 am, the line stretches practically off campus.
- Kilkenny City and Castle
Kilkenny is known as the “medieval town” and for good reason. GO HERE IF YOU LIKE OLD THINGS. The town is riddled with gorgeous cathedrals and church, all of which are still in use. The castle has been fully restored to its classical-era glory, but if you don’t feel like paying for entrance, the surrounding grounds are absolutely gorgeous and completely worth a walk.
- Johnstown Castle
Just outside of Wexford town, there’s a little-known castle with the most incredible gardens and peaceful scenery. Nearly all of the few people there were locals, which is probably due to the fact that there’s no sign on the road and it’s incredibly easy to miss. I’m grateful. It was by far the most “bang” for our buck, with entrance being just 3 euro each, and you have much of the park to yourself. You can spend a full afternoon there, strolling among peacocks, stone walls, ponds, and ivy-covered trees. And should you get hungry, you can stop by the charming–and very reasonably priced–cafe for afternoon tea or lunch.
- Fethard, County Tipperary
This is definitely not a tourist town; if you act very “American” you will stick out, and you may get glares from elderly women on the street (we definitely don’t know this from experience…). Like many small, rural Irish towns, it’s extremely easy to get lost on as you try to get there, Google Maps may only lead you astray, so don’t be scared to ask for directions. There’s usually a farmer outside somewhere who is more than willing to help. When you do enter this town, it looks very unassuming, but if you take a walk down to their little park by the river, you’ll see that the back of the town has been built onto an ancient wall and castle, with the surrounding forts. We had no idea of the history there when we booked our Airbnb, but now it’s definitely on our list of stops the next time we go. It’s also worth throwing out the name of our Airbnb host, Valerie, since she was so wonderful and had the most adorable garden house that was totally affordable. Definitely stay there if you get the chance.
- County Cork and Cobh
Being the near the Southernmost edge of Ireland, County Cork has some of the most breathtaking scenery you can find, without the crowds of Kerry. We stayed on Cobh island (pronounced: “cove”), where you find a lovely coastal town with great pubs and a clean, serene beach. There’s a family on the island that will take you on kayaking and dinghy sailing tours as well, if you book far enough in advance. We missed the sailing tour, but watching the little sailboats from the beach made for a peaceful, memorable afternoon.
- Blarney Castle/The Blarney Stone
This is one of the more crowded (and expensive) sites we went to, but if you want to be gifted with eloquent speech, you can deal with some tourists, right? Blarney Castle is the official and permanent home of the Blarney Stone. If you have the patience to wait in the line and climb to the top of the castle, you’ll have a chance to hang your head off the edge of the wall to give the Blarney Stone a kiss. It definitely is a tourist trap, but the view from the top of the castle is spectacular, and even if you don’t care about the stone or the castle, the surrounding gardens are worth the entry fee. There are multiple themed gardens, as well as a children’s park if you happen to have kiddos with you. I honestly would recommend this place just for the fern garden alone… it was like stepping into a pagan, Gaelic Tahiti.
- Cliffs of Kilkee
Everyone knows about the cliffs of Moher, and, well, everyone goes. Crowds, fees, and parking stress might have been worth it if the cliffs were utterly unique, but that’s not the case. In fact, much of the Wild Atlantic Way (a scenic road route that you should absolutely drive if you get the chance) is along majestic, sharp cliffs that will blow your mind. If you ask a local anywhere around Kilkee how to get there, they’ll let you know. But the way is somewhat secret and you may have to drive around a bit to find the road that’ll take you to out to the really big cliffs. Right on the edge of town, there’s a restaurant out on a small cliff, and most people stop there, thinking that’s all the area has to offer… but don’t be fooled! If locals point you to the restaurant when you want to see the cliffs, ask them to give you directions to the lighthouse, and you’ll be sent down the most incredibly beautiful country road, where you can stop at the many turnoffs to enjoy the scene and take pictures. When we went, there were hardly any other cars on out, so there wasn’t any issue finding a secluded spot to truly enjoy the sound of the waves and wind.
- Bicycle Rentals in Galway
Even if you’re not much of an athlete (hi, same), you need to rent some bicycles if you happen upon good weather. You can cover way more ground during your day, and with the string of gorgeous beaches in Galway, you won’t want to waste your time walking from one to the next.
- Giants Causeway
I’ll be honest here, Myles and I didn’t actually enjoy the Causeway as much as most people probably do. We tend to favor places where we can relax and take our time enjoying our surroundings, without too many other people ruining the “vibe”… or, you know, our photos. The Giant’s Causeway was crowded, even in the late evening when it was supposed to be comparatively empty. However, I’m including it here because there simply isn’t anything else like it. If you’re in search of all the unique wonders of our dear earth, this, regardless of the crowds, is undeniably one of them.
- Dunluce Castle
This castle ruin is settled right on the rocky north coast of North Ireland. It has a rich history involving Ireland, Scotland and England, and if you go while it’s open, you have access to pretty much the whole thing. We got there just as the gates were closing, but it was still beautiful to look at. If you stay in Ballymoney, you’ll be just a short drive to the Causeway, Dunluce, and a few of the Game of Thrones set sites.
- Rathgillen Farm and Trim
Rathgillen Farm/Rathgillen Lodge is the name of an Airbnb with the most entertaining host you’ll meet, in the most charming cottage, on the most lovely farm in, possibly, all of Ireland. All of County Meath is beautiful, but our host, Peter, directed us to Trim castle, located in the town of Trim (go figure). It happened to be the set of Braveheart, and it was my favorite castle in Ireland. For just a few euros, you get a full tour of the castle, with all its history and renovations. While waiting for your tour, there’s a lovely river path around the castle, and an incredible cathedral ruin just on the other side of the water. After your tour, you can stop at one of the many pubs and restaurants, many of which feature live music, so plan your evening accordingly!
Pagan tomb older than the pyramids? Count me in. Yes, it’s one of the most popular sites in the country, but you don’t really have to worry about fighting crowds since they only allow small tour groups one by one. What I will warn you about, is that you must book your online tickets at least THREE days in advance. Even if there’s availability for your dates, you can’t book unless it’s at least 36 hours before the tour. We ended up having to do quite a schedule change in order to go, since we were unaware of their ticketing procedures. It’s also good to keep in mind that they give you a specific time to be there, but that is not the time of your tour. I showed up 30 minutes prior to the check in time, thinking it was just a few minutes before the tour bus leaves, but they actually have you check in over an hour prior to your tour, so be aware that a trip to Newgrange will take up your whole afternoon.
I’m happy to be back in the real world, with a long-term apartment and a long-term job, but I’ll be dreaming of Ireland and Scotland for many months to come. Tune in next week for Part II, including everywhere you need to eat, and everything you need to see in Scotland! + a bonus packing list if I’m feeling really ambitious. Peace!