To be perfectly honest, Ireland was never incredibly high on my list of places to visit. I always knew I wanted to go eventually, but I could easily name lots of other places that were higher on my priority list. But when I came to Europe, I intentionally left the month of September open so that I could be flexible in my travels and say yes to new adventures. So when my friend Stevie told me she had points to spontaneously fly to Dublin in a week, naturally I said yes.
I'm so glad she did, because I absolutely fell in love with Ireland. It offers some of the most beautiful landscapes, the kindest people, and has a way of making you embrace simplicity + contentment. It's unique to so many other places that I've travelled, in many ways, so I've pulled together a comprehensive guide to help provide everything you need to know before you go.
WHAT SHOULD YOU PACK?
I had so much fun packing (and by packing, I mean having Stevie bring things I wanted from home that weren't already in my suitcase) for Ireland, because it's the perfect place to embrace no-frills, cozy attire that we all love. Aside from getting to enjoy that aspect, there are some definite "musts" you'll want to be sure to include:
- Rainboots, Rainboots, RAINBOOTS! I can't stress this enough. I wore mine every. single. day. Even days when it wasn't supposed to rain, it often did (and if it didn't there were still plenty of puddles and mud that made me so glad to have them with me).
- I LOVED wearing sweater-dresses (here and here) with my rainboots when I wanted to feel a bit more dressed up (but still be comfortable obvi.)
- Light layers in general are always clutch in Europe, so embrace that "textbook Ireland" look with plaid scarves (here, here, here). These are great staples to layer on with the sweater-dresses + rainboots, but also pretty much anything else you pack.
- While it rains often in Ireland, I found from my experience that it very rarely poured. It's also pretty windy, so between those two variables I recommend a hooded rain-jacket (here or here) over an umbrella.
- Given the climate, let's just say Ireland is not an ideal environment for styling your hair. In hindsight, I wish I would have packed more hats (like this or this) to wear with a low pony or braid.
- For something that's not a rain-coat, I loved having this utility jacket for something that's still durable and light-weight.
- What could be better underneath that rain-jacket when it's wet + cold than a cozy sweater (here here and here) to keep you warm?
- For luggage, I'd recommend smaller carry-on pieces (like this, this or this) that are easier to tote around since the route I'm recommending involves lots of hopping in and out of the car (plus you don't need to pack that much and can mix + match lots of pieces).
HOW SHOULD YOU GET AROUND?
Want to know more about how to rent a car in Ireland? It may be a bit more work, but I can't recommend it enough. There is SO much more to see in Ireland than simply the cities. Sure, you can see the countryside by charter bus on some guided tour, but I'd argue that you're compromising the authenticity of seeing the real Ireland. Don't let the car rental process overwhelm you... here's what you need to know:
1. Let's address the obvious-- they drive on the opposite side of the road (and sit in the opposite side of the car) in Ireland. While it can be a bit of a challenge to get used to (not to mention narrow roads, sheep, rain, etc.) if you take it easy you really will be fine. Just be prepared to pay more attention and stay on high alert at all times.
2. You can search sites like Priceline or Expedia for the best rates, but be prepared to pay more if you want an automatic transmission vs. manual. But per my instruction above, I wouldn't recommend these conditions to try out driving stick for the first time. Unless you're a pro, stick with manual and pay a bit more to eliminate complications.
3. When choosing a car, be sure to keep in mind what luggage capacity you'll need. You'll also want to remember that the larger the car, the more difficult it could be to traverse any narrow roads (another reason I stressed light luggage).
4. While gasoline is readily available throughout Ireland, it would still be a good idea to not let your tank drop below 1/3. Gas stations in smaller towns may be closed on Sunday and close early during the week and if you're traveling in the remote country it could be a long way to the next station.
WHERE SHOULD YOU GO?
What are the best places to see in Ireland? That is a loaded question! There is SO much to see in this beautiful country that you really would have to spend weeks (probably more like months) to see everything worth seeing. So if you can't see everything, then what is the best road-trip route in Ireland? When making ours, we prioritized the places we wanted to see the most and built a plan accordingly. While this certainly won't cover everything worth seeing, I feel like it's a great way to see as much as you can while not spending too much time in the car (we never drove more than 3 hours in one day).
DAY 1: DUBLIN
Dublin is where most people fly in and out of while traveling to Ireland, so it makes sense to go ahead and explore the city before venturing off into the countryside. While I stand by my previous statement to focus your time and energy into the countryside, Dublin is a wonderful city with lots to see and do (and I'd argue you can still see lots of it even in one short day). So if you're limited on time like we were, I suggest:
Located in the heart of the St. James's Gate Brewery, the Guinness Storehouse is Ireland's most popular tourist attraction and a perfect start to your Irish adventure. We did a private tour instead of a group tour, which was awesome. You can reserve either, but if prefer to move at your own pace or think you'll enjoy asking lots of questions I would recommend a private tour.
We started the tour at the bottom of the world's largest pint glass and slowly worked our way up through seven floors of interactive experiences that educate about the Guinness brewing heritage, Ireland's rich history and my personal favorite- the advert section (I never realized how many influential ads came from Guinness!) At the end of the experience we learned how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness (even got a certificate) and then went to their rooftop Gravity Bar with sweeping views of Dublin to enjoy it. I always love doing these kind of tours because it creates a story and experience you can share every time you drink a Guinness pint. Be sure to experience it for yourself!
We heard several people tell us we had to go to The Temple Bar while we were in Dublin. They pride themselves in their traditional Irish Music sessions daily. They also have an extensive whiskey collection, a beer garden and fantastic oysters. While you're bound to be in the company of other tourists, it's fun to pop in for a pint and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
We saw great shopping, ate great food and saw other sights like Ha'penny Bridge and Saint Patricks Cathedral. Needless to say, there is plenty to keep you busy during your time in Dublin!
Stay somewhere central + reliable. Don’t worry too much about getting the textbook Ireland experience here, because that will come with the countryside. We were only in our hotel to sleep and for breakfast in the morning- so we opted for the Hilton Dublin Kilmainham (great rooms and a delicious breakfast spread to jump start your adventures the next morning.)
DAY 2: CORK
After our yummy breakfast at Hilton Dublin Kilmainham, we hit the road and drove straight to Cork (just under 3 hours away). For whatever reason, I anticipated Cork would be a quaint little town, not the city that it was. The downtown area felt like a High Street in London (complete with Topshop, ZARA, H&M and other popular chains), so it wasn’t exactly the quintessential Irish town I imagined in my mind. Lucky for us, we were staying just outside the city at Ballyvolane House.
OH. MY. GOODNESS... where do I even begin!? Ballyvolane, an award-winning Irish country house, is easily one of my favorite places that I've ever stayed. The property is nestled in the Irish countryside and set in an idyllic landscape. The house itself was originally a classical Georgian home build in 1728 for a once Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
I've been to plenty of "charming" B&B's before, but if I'm being completely honest, while I've found them to have character and be endearing, I'd be lying if I said I didn't prefer that my accommodations come with a little bit of luxury (can you blame me?) Enter Ballyvolane: not exactly a hotel, guesthouse or a B&B--rather an elegantly furnished, family-owned home that offers warm hospitality and extremely comfortable accommodations. They even have luxurious tents, complete with beds, if you want to have a go at glamping while you're in Ireland.
Tent life not your thing? No worries. We stayed in the house in a stunning room that made me feel like Lady Mary from Downton Abbey (wrong country, I know... just go with it). Not only did it have an in-room Nespresso machine and a beautiful view overlooking formal gardens, but they even had freshly-cut hydrangeas + freshly baked biscuits (or cookies as we call them in the US) waiting for us.
As much as I loved our room, I equally loved exploring the entire property: the Irish ponies, parklands, trout lakes... they even have a stunning barn + reception area so it can be used for weddings (which I'm sure are some of the most beautiful). But probably the coolest part is that they have an on-site gin distillery where they make Bertha's Revenge Small Batch Irish Milk Gin (which was seriously delicious + unique-- I took a bottle to bring back to the states).
My favorite part of our time at Ballyvolane was dinner. They have one seating at 8pm for all guests, which allowed us to meet some incredibly fascinating people from all over the world. The property is small enough (six rooms) where it's never a large crowd... the perfect number of people around the table for great conversation.
And THE FOOD! All of it is 'country house' in terms of style and is meticulously prepared. The menus feature roasts, fresh and salt-water fish and game in season, supported by home-grown vegetables and fruit from the gardens. It was so cool to have such a first-hand experience of farm to table: walking around gardens and chicken coup earlier in the day and then sitting at the table that night- knowing where it all came from.
All in all, I can't say enough wonderful things about this place and recommend adding it to the very top of your Ireland itinerary in terms of priorities. You won't even need to leave the property to get a quintessential and unforgettable experience of Ireland
DAY 3: BLARNEY CASTLE, KILLARNEY NATIONAL PARK + DINGLE
We drove from Ballyvolane House to Blarney Castle. I had never heard of the legend until Stevie, my travel pal in Ireland, told me about it. Essentially, legend has it that if you kiss the Blarney stone, you’re said to have good fortune, as well as “the gift of gab”. We waited in line for about 30-45 minutes and slowly climbed our way to the top of the castle, while a sweet old Irish man held onto us while we leaned backwards (and kissed the stone). It was definitely one of the more touristy things we did (not letting myself think about all the mouth germs I probably picked up) but it was also fun to say we did it!
From Blarney, we set out for the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, but wanted to see Killarney along the way. We originally planned to stay there, but after chatting with Justin from Ballyvolane House- he advised us that Killarney was much more touristy and Dingle would provide a more unique Irish experience. We asked him about driving the Ring of Kerry and he told us that the entire ring can get a bit repetitive. Instead, he told us to drive from Kenmare to Killarney, which takes you along the Ring of Kerry as well as through Killarney National Park. It was an incredibly beautiful drive (straight out of PS I Love You).
After driving through Killarney National Park, we were on our way to Dingle. I thought the beautiful part of our drive was already behind us, but the coastline of the Dingle peninsula didn't disappoint. We stopped at the first beach we saw and did cartwheels (literally) it was so beautiful. SO different from the typical beaches that we're used to, but I loved how secluded and serene it was. After dozens of pictures and hundreds of "How pretty is this!?" we hopped back in the car and arrived in the town of Dingle. We found a charming little BNB called Heaton's Guesthouse last minute, (which was a great spot) and spent the evening wandering around the tiny town by foot. It was one of the windiest nights of my life (which made for an interesting walk home after a few servings of Jameson) but I adored cozying up in tiny pubs and listening to the lively traditional Irish music. It all felt so authentic-- not just pumping out what they know the tourists want to see (partially because there aren't as many tourists here). I'm so glad we listened to Justin and opted for Dingle over the more-popular route.
DAY 4: DROMOLAND CASTLE
After breakfasts at Heaton's Guesthouse we hopped back in the car and drove to our first castle experience: Dromoland. Similar to Ballyovane House, Dromoland is a one stop shop for all things stay, eat and do. Aside from being a charming hotel (in a CASTLE!) they have tons of restaurants and activities to keep you busy during your stay (Golf, Archery, Horseback riding… need I go on?) We opted for exploring the grounds and then having afternoon tea in the gallery so I could catch up on some work by the fire. We had dinner at The FIg Tree Restaurant and LOVED eating by the fire (their pork chop was also BOMB).
The rooms (especially the shower!) at Dromoland are five star, but so is the service. Everyone was kind and hospitable and went above and beyond to ensure we had a great stay. I'd definitely recommend booking a night here during your time in Ireland.
DAY 5: CLIFFS OF MOHER + CLIFDEN
We had such a charming experience at Abbeyglen Castle Hotel! This gem is hidden in a tiny town on the west coast called Clifden. The scenery in this area is breath-taking and the staff couldn't' ave been more hospitable. They offer complimentary tea and scones for guests every afternoon, as well as champagne during happy hour.
If you're looking to stay in a castle while you're in Ireland but you don't want to fork out the big bucks, this is a great option. I also felt like the town of Clifden was one of the most authentic Irish experiences I had during the entire trip (the pubs here were so fun and the people were so friendly!)
DAY 6: CLIFDEN + CONNEMARA
DAY 7: KILLENARD
We spent our last day in Ireland at The Heritage Killenard, and I'm so glad we did! We had already seen Dublin so it was fun to explore a new area (although to be honest, we didn't even leave the hotel we loved it so much!) I loved watching the golfers from the restaurant all afternoon while we ate lunch and I caught up on work. Later in the day we went to their world class spa for some much needed massages (swoon!)
The Heritage Killenard combines charm and hospitality and has exquisite details (like timeless art pieces, marble, and classical mahogany furniture) all throughout the property. If you’re a golfer, they have a wonderful course (I’m not, but I loved looking at it from the balcony of our room!) And if you’re a foodie like me, you’ll love their restaurant where we ate a delicious farewell dinner for our last night.
I really loved ending a trip where we moved around so much in the most relaxing way imaginable and would definitely do it again!
WHEW! That was alot guys... There truly is so much to see and do in Ireland (and so much to know before you go) that I didn't want to skimp on any details. I'm so thankful for the time I got to spend here (and for my superstar travel companion Stevie who did all of the driving!) I hope you found this to be helpful and that you all get the chance to visit this wonderful country! It's sure to leave you with countless memories like it did me.
Now I'm off to enjoy my weekend in London! Hope you all have a great Friday and stay tuned next week for more travel guides!