Everything you’ve heard about Ireland is true: The joyful people, the lively pubs, the swirling music, and the breathtaking beauty. Remember, as the Irish poet W.B. Yeats said, “There are no strangers here. Only friends you haven’t met yet.”
There’s literally something for everyone on the Emerald Isle. History buffs are sure to swoon over storied 17th-century castles, foodies can indulge in the vast culinary scene, and adventure-seekers can embark on thrilling seaside hiking trails.
There’s no wrong season to visit Ireland—the beauty and cultural offerings are bountiful all-year-round. Starting in Dublin, we set out to explore some of the island’s hidden gems, heading north to Belfast before hitting the stunning north and northwest regions of Ireland. This route included both bucket-list items and lesser-known attractions for an unforgettable Ireland trip. So, pack your bags and let our ultimate guide show you the way.
Where to Stay
Perched on the rim of the calm waters of Lough Corrib in Cong, Ashford Castle takes its guests back centuries. Restored several years ago to its former glory, the castle embodies luxury and tradition, from its Connemara marble bar to the Waterford crystal chandeliers.
Ashford’s welcoming staff invites you to take part in a host of aristocratic pursuits. You can ride horses, fish for salmon along the river Cong, hunt with the hotel’s proud Harris hawks, and choose between shooting a round of golf or gunning for clay pigeons with custom-engraved shotguns.
Fermanagh is Ireland’s lake country, known for its waterways and marble caves. For a truly unique way to experience its beauty, book yourself a stay in one of the seven bubble domes at Finn Lough Resort, located in the town of Enniskillen.
The modern pods are secluded among the tranquility and beauty of nature, blending local and Scandinavian design. Each has the comfort of a boutique hotel room but with 180 transparent walls. At night, you get an unmatched view of the stars.
Fanad Head Lighthouse
Located within Donegal’s Gaeltacht, one of the few places in Ireland where traditional Irish (Gaelic) is still spoken, the Fanad Head Lighthouse sits atop some of the most rugged coastline in the Atlantic.
It’s well worth the journey, particularly because you can actually stay here. There are three guesthouses with limited availability, set above the vast seascape.
What to See
Grianan of Aileach
Perched atop Mount Greenan at Inishowen in County Donegal, this ancient ringfort has a commanding view of the Irish countryside, stretching out towards Ireland’s northernmost points. It dates back to 1700 B.C., and while it has been restored, is largely original.
To stand here and gaze outward is to stand in the footprints of Ireland’s ancient royals. You can almost feel the weight of time in the stones and the land.
Seized by a Scottish warrior clan in the 16th century, Dunluce Castle is another must-see stop along the Causeway Coastal Route. The place is steeped in intrigue, with legendary tales of its master, Sorely Boy MacDonnell and his fights against both British and the Irish lords.
Built in 1868 as a private residence, the gothic, granite beauty of Kylemore Abbey is the pride of Connemara, and its grounds feature the largest walled garden in Ireland. As an abbey, Kylemore has been home to an order of Benedictine nuns since 1920.
Stroll along the nearby lakeside and through the woods to find your inner peace in the wilds of Ireland’s far west. Then be sure to explore the newly opened visitor experience “From Generation to Generation: The Story of Kylemore,” where you can learn more about the abbey’s Victorian interiors, characters, and stories of times gone by.
What to Do
Westport is perfectly situated on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Everything about the town itself is authentic and genuine, from snug little pubs to charming places to stay. With festivals celebrating seafood, art, and music, there’s no wrong time to visit Westport. It’s also a great base for excursions, whether you’re headed to holy Croagh Patrick mountain or cycling the route around Achill Island.
Magee 1866 Donegal Tweed
Donegal has long been famous for its hard-wearing tweed. Founded in—you guessed it—1866, Magee makes handwoven tweed that has stood the test of time. While still a highly durable product, the tweed today is far more polished and fashion-focused than the original 19th century material.
However, Magee still uses very traditional methods including washing the raw fabric in the River Eske’s peaty waters. It’s the perfect souvenir from your ultimate Ireland vacation.
Take a tour at Ireland’s oldest distillery and linger for a while in the best-smelling place on earth. Located in its namesake village, the distillery’s aging room, where barrels of Irish whisky pick up their amber color and sweet, complex flavors, is filled with a heady whiff of evaporating spirits. The distillers call it “the angel’s share.”
A short drive up from Belfast, The Gobbins Cliff Path is one of the first stops along the 120-mile Causeway Coastal Route, filled with stunning landscape that hugs the coast of County Antrim. This century-old walkway allows visitors to thread between basalt cliffs and crashing ocean for a truly immersive experience. Watch for cormorants diving after the fish circling below your feet.
Where to Eat
Cian’s on Bridge Street
Cian’s, a Westport gem, is also named for its proprietor, chef Cian Hayes. The space is small and fashionable with a friendly staff and excellent food, and was also rated the best restaurant in the region this spring by the Irish Restaurant Awards.
Pair seafood selections like hake fillet with chorizo hash or monkfish on dahl curry and cauliflower with a pint from Ireland’s growing craft beer scene. Be sure to try a Mescan Blonde, which is a local favorite.
The Lucky Duck
Victorian in appearance but contemporary in its soul, the Lucky Duck is popular among a younger, local Dublin crowd. Think unique cocktails and brioche rather than a Guinness and a ploughman’s lunch.
Upstairs is the Digges room, which is great for a quiet bite and good conversation. It’s the ideal oasis for a brief respite from the bustle of Dublin Town.
St. George’s Market
Located in a Victorian building in Belfast dating back to the late 1800s, the weekend market at St. George’s has been a local attraction for hundreds of years—the Friday market in particular has run on the site since 1604.
Sample fresh local produce from all over Northern Ireland, listen to live local music, or just kick back with a coffee and take in one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations that Belfast has to offer.
Where to Drink
Located on the corner of Dame Court and Dame Lane in Dublin, the Stag’s Head is a standout for its traditional music and classic look. It’s usually heaving with people, so mind your elbows lest you jostle someone’s pint (and a pint is what the Stag’s Head does best).
Order a Guinness and decide for yourself whether the stout really does taste better in Ireland.
Matt Molloy’s Pub
It doesn’t get much more genuine than the pub owner himself getting up to join the band. Every weekend, owner Matt Malloy leads a traditional jam session in his colorful pub in Westport, Mayo.
Join in when you know the words; you’ll make lifelong friends by the time “The Parting Glass” plays.