Ireland was one of those countries that I instantly fell in love with for its serene beauty, friendly inhabitants, and rich culture. Ireland is definitely a destination that beckons travelers to spend time outdoors, and you can really only appreciate the true beauty of this island by exploring its different landscapes. I was especially moved by the west coast, which retains an unexpected wildness in its natural rock formations and dramatic coastal ledges. Below I share some of my favorite sites, as well as the accommodations I stayed in while visiting the Emerald Island.
Cliffs of Moher and the Burren
The Cliffs of Moher rise a magnificent 650 feet out of the sea and extend for over five miles. A well-worn path leads visitors along the cliffs, which harbors a variety of sea birds within its black shale and sandstone ledges. The Burren is a vast limestone plateau that has created a unique botanical environment in which Mediterranean and alpine plants, rare to the rest of Ireland, grow side by side. While at first glance the Burren seems to be a sort of wasteland, its uniqueness, alongside of the cliffs of Moher, offers a dramatic example of how land meets sea along the west coast of this ancient island.
Kylemore Abbey sits sheltered between the slopes of the Twelve Bens and alongside a beautiful lake. Mitchell Henry initially built the Gothic Revival castle for his wife in the late 19th century. After its time as a private home, the castle was sold and became an abbey when Benedictine nuns, fleeing Belgium during WWI, sought refuge here. The nuns restored the castle to its original beauty and now run a prestigious boarding school for girls on the premises. I just loved the site of this imposing grey structure set against the lush green landscape.
Gleann Cholm Cille
Gleann Cholm Cille is an An Clachan folk village that allows visitors to experience life as it was in the 1700’s, 1800’s and 1900’s. Thatched cottages line the property and are furnished according to the time period they represent. The Gleann Cholm Cille village is a great way to interact with the past and learn more about the history and the people of Ireland.
Christ Church Cathedral: This cathedral was first established in 1038, but was rebuilt by the Anglo-Norman archbishop, John Cumin, in 1186 as the cathedral for the Church of Ireland diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. In the 19th century the cathedral underwent repairs led by architect George Street. The highlights of visiting Christ Church Cathedral include the Crypt, Medieval Lectern, and the Strongbow Monument.
Dublin Castle: The Anglo-Normans built Dublin Castle in the 13th century, and for years it represented English rule over Ireland. Only a small section of the original castle remains, and after a fire in 1684, Sir William Robinson laid down the plans for what we see today. Highlights of the castle include the Throne Room and St. Patrick’s Hall, and I highly recommend taking a guided tour if you have the time. The commentary of the tour I took at Dublin Castle highlighted the historical struggle that took place between Ireland and England. The relationship between these two countries goes back thousands of years and is still important in the cultural identity of Ireland today.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral: This is Ireland’s largest church and was founded beside a well that St. Patrick is said to have used to baptize converts around AD 450. The construction of the stone cathedral was begun in 1192 by Archbishop John Comyn to replace the original wooden structure. St. Patrick’s came to be known as the people’s church, while the nearby Christ Church Cathedral was more associated with the British establishment. Today, the cathedral is the Protestant Church of Ireland’s national cathedral.
O’Connell Street: A walk down O’Connell street is a great way to take in the different architectural styles of Dublin and is lined with a series of monuments.
Trinity College: Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I as a Protestant college, it has educated people such as Samuel Beckett, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke. The top attractions include the Long Room (holding over 200,000 antiquarian texts, marble busts, and the oldest surviving harp in Ireland) and the Book of Kells Exhibition, housed in the Old Library. The Book of Kells is Ireland’s most richly decorated medieval manuscript. It is thought to be the work of monks from Iona, who fled to Kells in AD 806 after a Viking raid. The book was moved to Trinity College in the 17th century.
The Powerscourt Gardens are probably the finest in Ireland. The gardens are located at the foot of the Great Sugar Loaf Mountain and were first commissioned in the 1730’s by Viscount Richard Wingfield. While the house is certainly worth a visit, you will want to spend most of your time enjoying the splendor of the gardens. Some highlights include the Japanese Garden, the Perron (the beautiful Italianate staircase), and the Triton Lake.
Kilkenny is one of Ireland’s loveliest inland cities. It first rose to prominence in the 13th century and was the medieval capital of Ireland. Kilkenny Castle overlooks the River Nore and occupies a commanding position over the city, making it one of Ireland’s most famous castles.
Waterford Crystal Factory
A tour of the Waterford Crystal Factory is a delightful way to observe the process of crystal making. The original factory was founded in 1782 in Waterford because of its port. Visitors to the factory can follow all stages of production, observing the processes by which sand, lead, and potash are transformed by fire into sparkling crystal. The creation of such intricate crystal work requires great skill and guests will certainly leave the factory with a greater appreciation of this craft. There is also a large gift shop that sells a variety of Waterford crystal items in many different patterns and designs.
Jameson Whiskey Distillery
Set on 15 acres with some of the buildings dating back to 1795, the Jameson Whiskey Distillery has been tastefully restored. On this tour guests will take a journey through history to see the old kilns, mills and malting, water wheel, and the old warehouses. All of the facility’s tours end with a complimentary glass of Jameson whiskey, but on my tour I was able take part in a whiskey tasting where we compared American, Scottish and Irish whiskeys.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is a long-standing tradition, intended to confer the ‘gift of gab’. In order to kiss it, however, you must first climb 127 steps; then, to reach the actual stone, you are grasped by the legs and suspended backwards under the parapet. Little remains of the actual castle except the keep, which was built in 1446, but the castle grounds offer some lovely walks through ancient groves of yew trees and limestone rock formations.
Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is the long-established route around the Iveragh Peninsula. As you make your way around the peninsula you will take in captivating mountains, sandy beaches, pristine lakes, rustic woods, and slate-roofed fishing villages. This is an activity that you should set aside an entire day to enjoy properly, making sure to stop in the little coastal villages along the way.
Aghadoe Heights Hotel & Spa
Located high on a hill in the County Kerry countryside, the Aghadoe Heights Hotel & Spa offers a luxurious and serene ambiance surrounded by the sweeping panorama of Killarney’s lakes and mountains. The view from our room here was truly spectacular, and I also took time to indulge in a couple of spa treatments while staying here. The calmness of its surroundings, paired with a relaxing afternoon at the spa, was the perfect way to revitalize before continuing with my tour of Ireland.
Ashford Castle dates back to 1228 and was once the private estate of the Guinness family. Today, guests experience the royal lifestyle at this gothic style, fairy-tale castle on the shores of Lough Carrib and the River Cong, surrounded by woodlands. It has a wonderful restaurant, George V, which is adorned with 11 Waterford crystal chandeliers. Ashford Castle has been named one of the best hotels in the world by the readers of both Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler. Spending a night here is truly worth the splurge!
One of the world’s most famous castle hotels, Dromoland Castle is magnificently steeped in history and tradition. The castle was the ancestral home of the O’Briens, the Barons of Inchiquin, dating back from the 9th century. The present day castle was constructed during the early to mid 1800’s and was converted into a luxury hotel in 1962. Travel + Leisure have named Dromoland Castle one of the top 100 world hotels, and Condé Nast Traveler have cited it on their Gold List.
Harvey’s Point Hotel is located on the shores of Lough Eske in beautiful Donegal. This luxurious property is a true hidden gem that boasts impeccable service, beautiful large rooms, and fine dining. Our stay here offered a calm oasis amongst the beautiful and wild west coast landscape of Ireland.
Mount Juliet Hotel
The Mount Juliet Hotel is situated on what used to be Ireland’s largest estate. The grounds feature the only Jack Nicholas signature golf course in Ireland, and the hotel is a testament to the grand 18th century craftsmanship of its main house. Condé Nast Traveler rated the Mount Juliet Hotel as one of the “Top 25 European Resorts” and Travel + Leisure named it as one of the “Top 10 Resorts in Europe.”
Old Ground Hotel
We began our journey through Ireland here after arriving at Shannon Airport. This hotel is a former manor house dating back to the 18th century and is set amidst the pretty streets of Ennis in County Clare. It is within easy walking distance of all the town’s amenities and was a lovely way to welcome us to the Emerald Island.
The Westin Hotel
The Westin is situated right in the heart of Dublin (directly opposite Trinity College) and gives you a great base for exploring this beautiful city. The five-star hotel has a 19th century façade and spacious rooms with characteristically Irish décor.