My husband and I were supposed to go to Ireland for our first year anniversary, we had points and were going to do a week-long horse-back riding with B&B nights across the emerald isle. Instead, I ended up being eight months pregnant so we had to put it off. Now, four kids grown and almost gone, for our 25th anniversary we finally made it to Ireland!
These are my reflections on our visit and some of the best places to visit in Ireland. If you’re looking for where to visit in Ireland or for some top places to visit in Ireland, read on.
And may I mention, we managed to visit Ireland on a budget and had a wonderful time.
Top Places to Visit in Ireland – Ennis
We flew into Shannon Airport and spent the first couple of days in Ennis. Ennis means “island” and this quaint little town is surrounded by a flowing river on all sides, making it a literal island. Besides enjoying the traditional Irish town with pubs and live music, shops and an ancient friary, there are lots of things to do close by in this area. We signed up for an AirBnb Experience – a three-hour hike at the Cliffs of Moher. It was so much fun, the cliffs are about a 45-minute drive from Ennis, and our hostess took us on a back trail away from the tourist center and all the crowds. We saw the cliffs from a unique and gorgeous perspective, learned about the history of the Napoleon watch-towers and the highly-intelligent Fulmar birds which live on the cliffs year-round – they look like seagulls, only smaller. After our lovely hike we were treated to hot scones and tea at the studio of her artist friend.
Besides the Cliffs of Moher, in and around Ennis are no shortage of old, ruined churches, castles and abbeys:
- The Clare Museum
- The Clare Abbey
- The Dysert O’Dea Castle
- Bunratty Castle
- The Ennis Cathedral
- The Quin Abbey
- The Killone Abbey
- There’s also horse back riding and golf courses, as well as driving along the Wild Atlantic Way (the Cliffs of Moher and beyond).
Best of all, if you like hiking you can discover the wildness of Burren National Park and our personal favorite, the Dromore Woodland Reserve, tucked in a corner of the Burren. Go walking down the mossy path, past the castle ruin, and you’ll soon be lost in a magical fairy-land of lichen-covered stone walls, grassy soft mounds and shapes and old trunks and castle walls rising and falling under the undergrowth in mysterious and unusual ways.
Best Places to Visit in Ireland – Aran Islands: Inisheer
On the Cliffs of Moher you can gaze across the sea to the closest and smallest of the Aran Islands, Inisheer. You can see how a fire lit in the Napoleon Watchtower on the highest point of Inisheer could easily be seen here on the Cliffs, where this tower would then be lighted, and so on around the island, just like in Lord of the Rings, as the Irish had to watch for an imminent attack by Napoleon’s forces in the 1800s.
From Ennis, we drove our rental car, pausing for our hike in the Dromore Woods on the way, then stopping for lunch in Galway City. This is a favorite destination as it is a bigger traditional Irish town, so you have lots of shops and pubs and sites to see in this colorful town that is fun to walk around in.
From there we drove onto the Connemara Peninsula, stopping for lunch at one of the many villages dotting the road, then took our ferry to Inisheer. Its name means “island of the east” as it’s the eastern-most and smallest Aran Island. Inishmaan is literally the “middle island,” and Inishmore, “large island,” is the largest and western-most island of the three.
Inishmore has the most activities to do and the highest number of tourists, but we wanted a quiet time, so chose to spend all three of our days exploring Inisheer. The lovely thing about this island is that it is small, you cannot bring your car over, so you spend your time walking all over the island, it’s wonderful. The island is covered with low dry-stone walls, dividing the land into small parcels used for farming, sheep-herding, gardening, etc. There’s a castle ruin near the Napoleon watchtower on the hill, O’Brien’s Castle, and you can actually walk all around and in this ancient keep. There are few castles in Ireland now where you can do this – most, we found, are on private land and locked away, or charge a fee for a tour, which is always worth it and never costs much.
On Inisheer our crusty Irish host cooked us a traditional Irish breakfast every morning. Besides walking, you can rent bicycles or pay $10 for a 45-minute horse and buggy tour. You can buy a real Aran Island sweater (our host pointed us to a local islander knitting and selling them from her house across from the Castle Cafe near the castle), Man of Aran Fudge and Turkish delight and various arts and crafts made by local artisans. There’s an Arts Cultural Center with a museum, delicious food in the pubs and restaurants around the Castle Village town. In the middle of town is the stone-age barrow, Cnoc Raithni. Go to the old cemetery above the airport and discover the medieval church ruin St. Cavan’s Church sunk into the ground! Wander to the eastern side to see the Plassey shipwreck – I took mermaid photos there and swam in my tail at a small, private beach just past the tiny airport. Wander to the western side to see Inishmaan across the sea and be sure to find the other medieval church ruin from the 11th century, St. Gobnet’s Church, on the hill near the arts center. Every night there’s live Irish music at the hotel restaurant.
Top Places to Visit in Ireland – Limerick
After ferrying back to the mainland, we drove down to Limerick, staying at a nice AirBnb south of the city in the countryside. This was a perfect location – just fifteen minutes into the city north of us, or about twenty minutes south to one of the oldest historical sites in Ireland with the largest stone circle – Lough Gur.
Limerick is fun with lots of things to do – be sure to visit the Milk Market on a Saturday if you can, especially if you love flea markets, local foods and shopping. You’ll also want time to tour King John’s Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, St. John’s Cathedral, Limerick City Museum and absolutely stop by The Hunt Museum – you’ll find all kinds of crazy items this merchant collected over his lifetime, even artifacts from ancient Egypt and from stone-age British Isles. It were here in Limerick where we saw a young woman performing live Irish dancing at The Locke Bar with traditional music every night – that was so cool and gave me the chills.
Our favorite place of all was the ancient historical site of Lough Gur, where evidence of 6,000 years of human habitation has been found. Be sure to visit Ireland’s largest stone circle at Lough Gur, and you must take time for the Lough Gur Heritage Center, where you can go on an audio self-guided tour and see the various ancient ruins, climb the mossy steps into the trees, pass a fairy village, get a lovely view of the lake with wild swans, flanked by two hills with a medieval castle poking through the trees. Listen to the legends of the lady in the lake or the hollow hill and how it’s dangerous to go on it because a fairy king lives inside. In the free Heritage Center Museum you can see unusual artifacts like the bronze circular shield and artifacts from neolithic to medieval times.
Comment below some of your top places to visit in Ireland, and watch for Part 2 of The Best Places to Visit in Ireland, along with my own Reflections on Finally Getting to the Emerald Isle!