15 essential things to do in Ireland: experience the best of the Emerald Isle

Ireland is just the place for anyone seeking adventure and a few drinks in between. While it may be small, it’s a country full of incredible attractions.

With ancient ruins telling history of forgotten times, stunning mountain ranges, and alluring small villages, there is something here that will captivate even the most seasoned traveler. Here are the don’t-miss things to do on your next trip to Ireland.

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1. Road trip around the Wild Atlantic Way

Winding its way along the west coast of Ireland for 2500km (1553 miles) from Malin Head in Donegal to West Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way is an epic road trip with spell-binding scenery of the Irish coastline in and around Sligo, Galway, and Cork. With endless gems on this route, it will be hard to narrow down an itinerary. If you want something different, skip crowd favorites like the Cliffs of Moher and instead hit up the Fanad Head in Donegal. Climb up the 76 stairs by Fanad Head Lighthouse to get the most breathtaking view of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

2. Indulge in a seaweed bath

Dating back  to the 12th century, monks used to harvest seaweed and give it to the poor as food. After realizing the benefits of seaweed in providing relief for rheumatism and arthritis, bathhouses started to pop up in the early 20th century. Although there’s not as many seaweed baths as there used to be, you can still soak your weary bones in a few traditional ones around the west coast of Ireland.

One such place is Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths, located in the pretty seaside town of Enniscrone, Owned by the Kilcullen Family for over 100 years, the spa is housed in a beautiful Edwardian building with large porcelain baths with solid brass taps and paneled wooden shower cisterns that give it that old-school charm. Up in Strandhill, there’s Voya, a chic spa and organic seaweed-based skincare brand where the seaweed is  sustainably hand-harvested. It also sells products so guests can replicate the experience at home. Collins’s Seaweed Baths in Ballybunion, County Kerry overlooks the Ladies Beach.

3. Eat your way around Kinsale

Originally a Norman fishing port meaning “Head of the Sea”, Kinsale has grown into the gourmet capital of Ireland. This foodie haven is full of excellent restaurants such as Fishy Fishy, Black Pig Wine Bar, and Cru that highlight local food producers and artisans. It also hosts the Kinsale Gourmet Festival, Ireland’s oldest food festival, which started in 1976. 

Planning Tip: Not only is it one of the best places in Ireland for food, Kinsale enthralls visitors with colorful buildings and the impressive fortified walls of the spectacular yet haunting Charles Fort. This is the perfect place to get a stellar view of the harbor and countryside.

4. Tour the House of Waterford Crystal

Witness some exquisite heirloom crystal pieces come to life before your eyes with a visit to the House of Waterford Crystal. Operating in the crystal making business for nearly 240 years, Waterford Crystal was founded in 1783 by William and George Penrose. 

During the guided tour, visitors will be taken on a journey of the crystal making process and watch highly skilled artisans excel at the different techniques and tools, from glass-blowing to the final engraving. While most of the crystals are made at another location, the high-end signature pieces are created on site.

Planning Tip: When you’re finished in the city, get out to the coastline: Waterford is home to some of the best under-the-radar beaches.

5. Grab a pint at John Kavanagh’s The Gravediggers

Located by the Glasnevin Cemetery, John Kavanagh – better known by its nickname, “The Gravediggers” – was where gravediggers used to drink when their shift was over, and it’s the bar you should head for if you have just a few hours in Dublin. 

In this Victorian-era pub, built into the wall of the cemetery, you won’t find music or TV but that just adds to its charm. The interior has changed little since it opened its doors in 1833, with its weathered bar and wooden tables. It’s a great place to hang with your friends and recap your day with a pint of Guinness.

Macnas street performance This Thunderous Heart, during Galway Arts FestivaL Performers take over the streets during the Galway Arts Festival © Rihardzz/ Shutterstock

6. Experience a festival in Galway

If you want to experience an Irish festival or two while traveling in Ireland, Galway is the best place to be. This bohemian city along the Wild Atlantic Way is known as the city of festivals, hosting around 120 events each year.

Planning Tip: Tickets sell out quickly for some of the more popular events, such the famous Galway Races and the Galway International Arts Festival, so you’ll need to book well in advance. The Galway Food Festival is ideal for foodies.

7. Visit the National Leprechaun Museum

Don’t let the cheese factor sway you from skipping this unique museum dedicated to preserving Irish folklore through the art of oral storytelling. Ireland is full of fables and legends of the child-stealing fae folks and if you’re curious about them, this is the place for you. During your interactive journey around the museum, you’ll learn how these myths are tied into Irish cultural identity and imagination.

Planning Tip: The museum may not be suitable for young children, so don’t count on this one as a family day out. 

8. Take a hike at Glendalough

Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough means “the valley of two lakes” in the Irish language. Founded by St Kevin in the 6th century, you can visit the ancient ruins of the Christian settlement and the two stunning lakes nearby that create unforgettable scenery. This picturesque Irish countryside is also a great place to be one with nature, as it has a network of walking trails, including an entrance point to the Wicklow Way that weaves around the area.

Planning Tip: Sunny weather is never guaranteed, but your best chance of decent hiking conditions is in the summer months.

9. Go on pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick 

According to legend, St Patrick spent 40 days of Lent on top of Croagh Patrick praying and fasting to convert Ireland to Christianity in 441 CE. It’s a focal point for pilgrimage with thousands of people flocking to the mountain on the last Sunday of July.

Planning Tip: This is one the country’s best hikes and you don’t need to be spiritual to enjoy it. At the top you’re rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of Clew Bay and the surrounding countryside.

The Split Man sculpture which is displayed at the Indian Sculpture Park in Roundwood, County Wicklow.Victor’s Way Indian Sculpture Park deals with mature themes © Ross Mahon / Shutterstock

10. Victor’s Way Indian Sculpture Park

Victor’s Way Indian Sculpture Park is an adults-only sculpture garden created by Victor Langheld in 1989 after a trip to India where he set out to gain spiritual enlightenment. This garden spans over 22 acres and took 25 years to complete. It includes seven major and 37 minor sculptures including a tunnel based on the idea of vagina dentata, dancing figures of Ganesh, Buddha, and Eve.

Planning Tip: The garden contains nudity and mature themes, and is considered to be a place for adults. It’s also somewhere for spiritual reorientation, philosophical enlightenment – or at least some incredible photos.

11. Go gin tasting

Ireland may be known for its whiskey, but the gin craze has been taking over the last few years. Until recently, Ireland had no real history of making gin, but those days are over as there are a number of renowned distilleries popping up. Some are open to visitors including the Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo, home of the ever so popular Gunpowder Irish Gin. Learn to make your own gin at Listoke Distillery, Ireland’s only gin school. And there’s even a curated gin trail in Castlebar that allows gin lovers to taste the latest products on the market during a pub crawl.

12. Tour “Ireland’s Alcatraz”

Spike Island has an interesting history that includes monks, heroes, sinners and convicts. Once a remote 6th century monastic settlement, this star-shaped fortress became the largest prison in the world during the Victorian ages. Enjoy the stunning view of Cork harbor as the ferry takes you to this historic island, then spend a few hours regaled with intriguing stories about the island’s past by the guides.

Planning Tip: Wear your walking shoes so you can explore the “Glasis walk” around the fortress, or the “Ring of Spike” walking trail – a 45-minute walk around the  coastline.

Medieval Ashford castleThe 800-year old Ashford castle is now a luxury stay in County Mayo © Mustang_79 / Getty Images

13. Book a stay in a castle

Sometimes you just gotta treat yourself while on vacation. And there’s no better way to do that than to book yourself into the 800-year-old Ashford Castle in Cong. Once owned by the famous Guinness family, this luxury hotel is located on a 350-acre estate surrounded by an elegant garden and sparkling lake. Lough Eske Castle is another 5-star hotel set at the foot of the Blue Stack Mountains that’s perfect for a relaxing getaway thanks in part to the award-winning spa. If you’re not staying, there’s a free tour each day about the history of the castle and the family that built it.

14. Gaze upon Glencar Waterfall

Sandwiched between County Leitrim and County Sligo is Glencar Waterfall, that falls 15m (50ft) down the Dartry Mountains into Glencar Lough. This lovely little backdrop is said to be the inspiration for the poem “The Stolen Child” by WB Yeats. Take a short walk up the slippery stairs for a better view of the waterfall.

Planning Tip: After you’ve built up an appetite, make your way to teaShed Café for some tea and tasty homemade treats.

15. Take the ferry to the Aran Islands

Just a short ferry ride from Galway, the Aran Islands are the perfect day trip or weekend break. These three islands (Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, and Inis Mór) have a strong traditional culture and are some of the few places you can hear most locals speaking in their first language, Irish. These islands have a high number of ruins and sacred sites like Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric fort dating back to the 2nd century, scattered around the island.

Planning Tip: After touring around the islands, sit back with a pint of Guinness and some tasty seafood at Tí Joe Watty’s Bar. Don’t forget to buy yourself a famous Aran sweater from Inis Meáin Knitting Company that will keep you warm on cold nights.


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