When you think of Ireland, the things that come to mind are Guinness, sheep, green hills and Irish dancing. But the small island certainly has a lot more to offer than just Guinness and sheep.
Let me show you 10 places and experiences that have made it onto my list of the must dos on a visit to Ireland.
10 Bucket List Irish Places and Experiences
I had heard so much about Dublin and Ireland that I decided I had to finally see it for myself. So over a long weekend, I finally headed over to the green isle and I squished as many experiences and sights into the 4 days as I possibly could.
I'm still recovering but I absolutely loved Ireland. I have to admit, I found Dublin itself to be a bit boring (sorry Dubliners) but the rest of the island was amazing. It reminded me a bit of New Zealand, especially because it has a similar humans to sheep ratio as New Zealand.
So if you're thinking about a trip to Ireland soon, then I would recommend you stay in Dublin for two days and then to just get out and see the rest of this beautiful and historically troubled island.
1. Take a bus tour through Dublin
When you first arrive in a new city, it can be tough to find your way around. So to get your bearings and to get recommendations from locals about what's worth going to and what isn't, a city tour can be a good place to start. If you're on a budget, head over to City Hall (right next to Dublin Castle) and take part in a free three hour walking tour with New Europe. They take you around the town, point out the history and the best pubs and they even make you practice your Gaelic. The key word being "Slaìnte", pronounced "slanscha", which is said right before you drink a bit of Guinness.
If you have some money to spend, I can recommend getting a ticket for a bus tour with Sightseeing Dublin. They're hop on-hop off buses run in two routes through town and allow you to get a glimpse of every major sight, from the docklands, to Trinity College, the Guiness Storehouse, Croke Park or the Glasnevin Cemetery. The guides share stories of the city and point out all the major sights (and the best pubs) along the route. Your ticket will also get you discounts at some of the other major attractions, like the Guiness Factory. If you book your ticket through experee, you can even save some money and you save time when getting on the bus.*
2. Visit the Book of Kells and the the Long Room
The Long Room of Trinity College is one of the most well-known sights in Dublin. The library is 65 meters long and it houses 200,000 of the library's oldest books. The Long Room is just part of Trinity College's many libraries. The University is actually entitled to a volume of every single book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland every single year. And if, like me, you have started drooling now, then let me disappoint you, all of these books are unfortunately not open for the public to see.
A ticket to the Long Room includes a visit to the Book of Kells and the accompanying exhibition. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the Bible that is believed to date back to to 800 AD. If you want to see the two, you can either get a ticket at the entrance for 11 Euro or you can go on a guided tour of Trinity University that includes a visit to the Long Room. The tour only costs 13 Euro and is done by students of the university. The tour is 30 minutes long and is well worth the 2 Euro extra.
3. Have a Guinness (away from Temple Bar)
A pint (or ten) of Guinness is, of course, what many people come to Dublin for. The city is known for its dark brew and you can find a pint of the stuff at any pub in the country, not just in Temple Bar. Temple Bar is really just a place to charge tourists more for a Guinness and some nice pub food (fish & chips, anyone?) than is necessary. If you want a real experience of a pub and a Guinness for less than 7 Euros, then stay away from Temple Bar and find a pub that suits your taste and your wallet better.
If you want to know more about Guinness, then head to the Guiness Storehouse in Dublin. There, you learn how Guinness is made, you can drink a pint and you can even learn how to pour your own. I personally didn't go to the Storehouse (I don't actually like Guinness) but I have it on authority that the tour through the Storehouse is very good. So if you're in Dublin and you want to escape the "lovely" Irish weather, the Guinness Storehouse is a great place to go.
4. Find the perfect whiskey for your taste
If, like me, you're not actually a fan of Guinness, you might prefer a visit to a whiskey distillery. If you're not in Ireland for long, why not do a tour of a distillery in the center of Dublin? While Jameson Whiskey is now made in Cork, the old distillery in Dublin is open for visitors who want to experience how Irish whiskey is made.
After going through the different stages that show what it takes to make Jameson whiskey (three distillations, rather than the 2 in Scotland or the 1 in the US), you get to taste the differences between Scottish, American and Irish whiskey. After you leave the tour, you even get a whiskey cocktail (a whiskey, ginger and lime when I visited) or a drum of Jameson (for those not "in the know", a drum of whiskey is a glass of whiskey). You can buy a ticket for 16 Euro at the Distillery, or you can book ahead with experee and only pay 13 Euro for your visit.* Tours start every 15 minutes and if you book ahead through experee, they will put you on the tour that starts next, when you pick up your ticket. If you buy your ticket there, you might face quite a long wait, as tours fill up quickly. If I had bought my ticket there, the wait would have been 70 minutes.
5. Walk along the Cliffs of Moher
Even though I liked Dublin, it was really the nature and the places outside the city, that won me over. The Cliffs of Moher are part of the Wild Atlantic Way and they are certainly the most spectacular bit of the coastal drive. If, the weather is in your favor. If not, the Cliffs are still spectacular but the decreased visibility means that the wow-effect isn't quite there (see photo...).
But anyway, the Cliffs of Moher are spectacular and well worth a visit. There is a part of the Cliffs that is fenced in and secured for visitors, right next to the visitor center. But if you walk along that area in any direction, you soon reach areas where you can walk right up to the cliffs' edge. That, of course, is very dangerous and not recommended at all but you can walk along the cliffs for miles and enjoy the view of the Atlantic on one side and that of rolling Irish hills on the other.
6. Visit Galway
While Dublin is the capital of Ireland, Galway surely is it's cultural heart. If you want to experience the real Ireland, and let's be honest, the capital of a country never represents what the country is really like, then Galway is a great place to be. In Galway you get the chance to experience evenings at the pub with music, singing and incredible Irish stew. But you can also go out for cultural performances, to lie at the beach or to catch a wave along the coastline. Galway is also a great town to stop over on your way up or down the Wild Atlantic Way. My suggestion would be, instead of spending too much time in Dublin, to just head across the island and spend your time in Galway and on the west coast instead.
7. Chase giants across the Giant's Causeway
When traveling through Ireland, you'll eventually have to cross a border, the border to the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, you'll not only need a different currency, Pound Sterling instead of the Euro, but you'll also encounter the religious and political divide that still shapes the island. A trip across the border is well worth it though.
The Giant's Causeway is a spectacular natural phenomenon. The basalt columns were formed during volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. When the lava rose up, it was cooled by the sea and formed these polygonal columns right on the edge of the cliffs of the Antrim coast. That, at least, is the geological explanation. The mythological explanation is that the Irish giant Finn MacCool built a bridge over to Scotland because he was challenged by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Whatever explanation you believe, the Causeway and the coast are among the most spectacular places I have seen; certainly the most amazing place I've seen in Europe. So definitely head up the coast and chase some giants across the Causeway or just sit in the sun and enjoy the fresh-salty smell of the sea.
On the way to the Giant's Causeway, you can stop at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge not far from the Causeway. The views across the coast here are spectacular and on a good day, you might almost forget the the sea below is freezing cold and that you're in Ireland. The rope bridge isn't too long either, so it's worth to walk across it and to see the views from the little island.
8. Get your Game of Thrones geek on at the Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges were originally planted as a spectacular entryway to the residence of the Stuart family. Now it is more famously known as a set for the Game of Thrones. The series is filmed in Northern Ireland and sites where the outside shots for the series are filmed, are strewn all over the place (there was one at the Giant's Causeway as well). So if you are among the many people that like to visit film sets, then a trip to the Dark Hedges and to Northern Ireland is a must for you.
Apart from that, though, the Dark Hedges looked pretty amazing and you could see why someone would plant these trees to intimidate visitors, today unfortunately, these trees are slowly dying because they are coming to the end of their lifecycle. So if you want to see them, do so as soon as possible because we are, as our tour guide told us, the last generation that will get to see them like this. The trees are slowly replanted but it will take decades for them to grow to such magnificence.
9. Dive into Ireland's tumultuous history in Belfast
You don't actually have to be very old to remember the conflict between Northern Ireland and Ireland. And even until this day, there are villages in Northern Ireland and streets across Belfast where the Troubles between Unionists and Nationalists are still very much alive. If you want to know more about Belfast's tumultuous past, then you can join a free walking tour that will show you around all the major sights and tell you about their historic significance.
You can discover a different aspect of Belfast's history at the Titanic Experience. The museum guides you through the fate of the Titanic but it also chronicles Belfast's history as a ship building site and as a harbor.
10. Go for a surf along Ireland's coast
I've mentioned the Wild Atlantic Way before but I will happily do it again. If you like nature and especially if you like beaches, wild coastlines, surf and the smell of salt and sand, then the west coast of Ireland is the place for you. Ireland is among the best places to surf in Europe, with smaller waves for beginners in spring and summer and scarily big waves in autumn and winter for the more experienced surfers among you.
Bundoran in County Donegal is also known as the surf capital of Ireland and all along the Donegal coast, you will find breaks to suit your skill level. It's not just Donegal though, all along the Irish coastline you will find excellent surf spots.
+ A Visit to Hodges & Figgis
This might just be me but I love walking into bookstores in a different country and seeing, what they love to read and what they think we should all know about them. So naturally, on my first day in Dublin I walked into a bookstore. Little did I know that this was going to be one of the best stores I've ever been in. The store had the largest travel writing section I had ever seen. I immediately befriended the owner and for the next hour, we chatted about books, our favorite bookstores, Irish history and women travelers. So if you love books, I can wholeheartedly recommend this store on Dawson Street.
So what do you think about my list?
Did I leave something out that you would recommend to anyone who is heading to Ireland? Please tell me in the comments about your experience in Ireland and what you think is a must do.