Ireland is made up of castles, quiet inlets, warm people, wild and windswept beaches, vibrant cities, quaint towns, hole-in-the-wall pubs, traditional music, and seemingly endless gorgeous landscapes.
However, the sheer volume of must-see sights and places in Ireland can mindboggling and make planning a trip to Ireland or choosing a hotel in Ireland can a challenge.
Ireland is a relatively tiny country, but unless you have months on end to spend traversing its winding roads and countryside, you're going to have to accept a bit of FOMO, as packing it all in is impossible. With that in mind, we've broken down the major must-see destinations, including buzzing cities, quaint towns, stunning scenery, centuries-old abbeys, and everything in between.
Whether you only have a long weekend or a couple weeks to spare, our cheat sheet of places to visit in Ireland is sure to help you hit everything on your Ireland bucket list.
Dublin doesn't get the best rap on the international tourism circuit, but you'd be missing out big time if you skipped this dynamic city. You'll likely have to pass through Dublin on your trip to Ireland, as the majority of wallet-friendly international flights land in the nation's capital. We recommend making the most of it and spending three or so days wandering this historic city.
Without a doubt, the most famous sight in central Dublin is Trinity College, which is home to the oft-photographed Long Room, a beautiful library that also holds the Book of Kells. Head west from Trinity College toward the nighttime party hub of Temple Bar, an area where you'll find tourists and locals day and night. Dublin Castle is another must-see, and is the scene of "Dracula"-themed events around Halloween in honor of Bram Stoker, who was just one of Dublin's famous residents. You'll also want to scope out the striking Christ Church Cathedral when you're in this part of town.
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There are tons of shopping and dining options, plus traditional pubs and quaint cafes, lining the streets south of Dame Street, and the pedestrianized Grafton Street is a people-watcher's delight. It's also worth stopping by beautiful St. Stephen's Green, a pretty park that has origins in the 17th century. North of the Liffey River, along O'Connell Street, are several historic sights commemorating the struggle of the Irish Republic. This area is also home to the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, which has a replica of Francis Bacon's studio -- another one of Dublin's famous former residents. Insider tip: Check out the trendy restaurants, cafes, and bars that continue cropping up just north of the Liffey River, between Grattan Bridge and O'Connell Street.
If you're willing to hop on the Luas -- Dublin's tram system -- you can reach destinations like the Guinness Storehouse, Phoenix Park, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art with relative ease (and a bit of walking). It's also worth visiting the Dublin Flea Market on weekends for awesome antiques, hand-crafted designer goods, and great food stalls.
Rock of Cashel
When it comes to castles in Ireland, none is perhaps as well known as the Rock of Cashel. Technically, however, this isn't a castle, but a series of religious ruins. As a former site of royalty, the Rock of Cashel practically swims in history -- both mythological and factual. According to legend, the rock is linked to St. Patrick, who possibly moved the mountain on which the castle sits. It's also possibly where he converted Aengus, the King of Munster, to Christianity in the fifth century. Since then, the rock has changed hands and became Catholic property, and much of what currently occupies the site hails from the 12th century or later. Nonetheless, the setting is stunning, and the grounds are basically tailor-made for only-in-Ireland photographs. The nearby town of Cashel has a small group of historic and cultural sights, though the nearest major city is Limerick, which has its own share of impressive castles and cathedrals.
If you're heading to Ireland, you'll likely hear the name of this small city from anyone who has already visited the country. Galway is packed with character and happens to be incredibly easy on the eyes, too. Rows of colorful houses and businesses line up along the city's bustling wharf, and cobblestone streets seem to wind in every direction. The hub of activity is in the Latin Quarter, a largely pedestrianized area that's loaded with shops, alfresco dining spots, and art galleries. Tourists and locals pack the streets almost any day of the week, though the area comes to life on the weekends and on weekday nights.
This part of town is also filled with pubs, many of which overflow with the city's young college students studying at the historic National University of Ireland, Galway. Lots of these bars have live traditional and contemporary music on many nights of the week, so check for flyers posted around town. For great views, head down around the wharf and Spanish Arch, then make your way across the Wolfe Tone Bridge into South Park, which has great sea and city vistas across wide green expanses.
Galway has undergone a gastronomic renaissance in the past decade, and much of that exciting activity is concentrated on the west side of the River Corrib. William Street and Sea Road are lined with trendy coffee shops, gastropubs, and high-end hipster dining venues slinging everything from fresh seafood to Mexican-Irish fusion cuisine. On your way back into the Latin Quarter, stop by for a glance at the gorgeous Galway Cathedral.
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Cliffs of Moher.
Ireland's west coast is packed with visual delights -- and County Clare is home to the most famous of them all. The main attraction here are the Cliffs of Moher. No matter how many photographs you've seen of them, the sight of these sheer rockfaces as they plummet into the roiling waters of the Atlantic Ocean cannot fail to overwhelm the senses. The cliffs tower anywhere from nearly 400 to 700 feet over the water below, and the vertigo-inducing views -- often accompanied by Ireland's simultaneously shimmering and stormy skies -- inspire plenty of awe (and then some).
County Clare -- a mostly rural landscape that feels almost perpetually blown by winds off the Atlantic -- is very much what many visitors to Ireland have in mind when they come here. It's packed with tiny towns, miles of uninterrupted coast, and local traditions that are still thriving. If you're visiting the Cliffs of Moher, it's smart to bed down in Doolin, a speck of a town to the north of the cliffs. From there, you can take the Doolin Cliff Walk to the cliffs, a trip that's about two hours in each direction. The town has a handful of tiny inns, guesthouses, and hostels, but it's most famous for its pubs, which put on trad music shows on most nights of the week.
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County Kerry, located to the south of County Clare, just might give its neighbor to the north a run for its money when it comes to mind-blowing beauty. While the county is a big place, we recommend heading straight to the town of Killarney. It's a great home base from which to explore the region's gorgeous landscapes. Killarney packs a lot of cool into a tiny package, and though it's not as prototypically quaint as Galway, you'll find pubs with live trad music, funky boutiques, hipster cafes, lively bars, and old-school Irish restaurants in spades. It's a fascinating place to wander for a couple days, though make sure to get out to Ross Castle early in the morning on one of your days here. Watching the fog clear over this 15th-century fortification on the shores of Lough Leane, as swans paddle in the water and the purple and green hues of the mountains become visible, is something you shouldn't miss.
The town sits just below Killarney National Park, which is home to gorgeous lakes, forests, and mountain peaks. There are also numerous trails to explore throughout the park. Many travelers opt for the Lough Leane boat cruises, which take in many of the historic sights that ring the biggest of the park's lakes, as well as waterfalls and various other scenic spots. You can also drive through the park, though this is best done as part of a Ring of Kerry itinerary (see below).
Without a doubt, the most stunning draw in this area is the Gap of Dunloe. This relatively easy hike should be tackled as early in the morning as possible in order to take in the magical way Ireland's light changes throughout the day. The hike is paved the entire way, making it relatively simple for even novice trekkers. It starts at Kate Kearney's Cottage (where you can fuel up on snacks and coffee -- or beer). The trip up to Madman's Seat passes lakes, stunning rock formations, sheer cliffs, rushing streams, and shepherd tending their flocks. Budget two hours for the walk up and a little over an hour for the return journey. More ambitious hikers can reach Lord Brandon's Cottage, a 19th-century hunting lodge, in three to three-and-a-half hours one way.
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 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 senses and remain with you indelibly. The yard mentioned earlier is particularly spine chilling. In short, this is one of Ireland's absolute must-sees.
Ring of Kerry
if you're staying in Killarney, you're at the starting point of one of the world's most famous scenic drives: The Ring of Kerry. Depending on what kind of traveler you are, the drive is either lovely or a bit tedious. That's because it is, of course, a drive. You'll be spending most of your time in the car, making stops here and there to take in the stunning scenery and quaint villages along the way.
A car is the best and most independent way to navigate the ring, though bus tours are also available. The local government strongly encourages those with their own cars to make the loop in a counter-clockwise fashion. There are all manner of side trips and jaunts off the main route, with sights including the Bog Village -- a replica of a traditional village life -- as well as Rossbeigh Beach, which has gorgeous and often moody views out over the Atlantic Ocean. Farther along the ring, Valentia Island has a quiet and laid-back pace plus a handful of quaint restaurants. The ring also has its own cliffs at Portmagee, though they're a little underwhelming if you've already seen the Cliffs of Moher (and the vantages aren't nearly as viewer-friendly). Historic sights are dotted among the hills along the south coast of the ring, and the quaint town of Kenmare is packed with colorful architecture and lovely cafes for an early evening coffee.
The most dramatic part of the drive comes at the end, as the road climbs into Killarney National Park and descends along its lakes, with stunning viewpoints set here and there. The prettiest of these is Ladies View, which looks down across Upper Lake and the dramatic mountainous landscape. For travelers who don't want to make the journey in one long day, there are numerous guesthouses throughout the area. Most travelers, however, choose to retreat to Killarney for the evening.