If you’ve ever wanted to visit Ireland, a roadtrip is the way to go! The flexibility of having your own transportation makes it easy to go at your own pace, spending more time in areas that speak to you and skipping whatever you’re not feeling. Read on for tips to get the most out of your trip. Warning! Long post.
Also, IRELAND IS SO FULL OF SHEEP.
Ireland Roadtrip Day One: Arrival and Brú na Bóinne
We arrived in Dublin in the middle of the day, picked up our rental car, and headed straight for Brú na Bóinne. Operation Ireland Roadtrip had begun!
Brian fearlessly offered to helm the backwards-car, and it was a group effort making sure we were always driving on the left side of the street. Many of the roads were extremely narrow compared to North America standards, but I think starting on the northeastern side of the island may have been advantageous. It seemed like the further southwest we went, the narrower the roads became, so it was helpful that we were already used to the car (a European Ford Fiesta) by that point.
- PRO TIP: Double check your insurance before you rent a car, as many plans do not cover driving in Ireland. We purchased an extra hefty, all-inclusive daily insurance package with the rental place, which doubled the cost of the rental, but gave us a lot more peace of mind as we were whizzing within a meter of passing vehicles.
Brú na Bóinne is an archaeological site famous for its passage tombs, particularly at Knowth and Newgrange. The anthropology nerd in me loved seeing the earthworks and speculating about the significance of these impressive structures. I can’t even be bothered to put on pants every day, and these Neolithic people hauled massive stones into sacred mounds before the invention of the wheel?!
You’re allowed to enter the passage tomb at Newgrange, which is carefully aligned to allow in the light of the rising sun during winter solstice. They even simulate the effect of the solstice light entering the shaft, which I can only imagine must have been an unearthly and mystical experience for the Neolithic people who used the tomb.
Day Two: Carlingford and Titanic Belfast
On our way north, we stopped for a walk around a small, charming town called Carlingford before hitting Flagstaff Viewpoint, “the most beautiful view in eastern Ireland“. The glacial fjord below, Carlingford Lough, separates County Louth in the Republic of Ireland from County Down in Northern Ireland. The bright yellow gorse was in abundant bloom in the hills all around us, but don’t be tempted to stick your face in it. Brian braved its sharp spines to pluck a flower for me to smell, which promptly blew away in the fierce winds whipping us at the top of the viewpoint. I love that guy.
Belfast probably deserved a day all on its own, but we were in a hurry to put some miles under us. We stopped at Titanic Belfast for what we thought would be a reasonably quick and pleasant museum experience, but were blown away by the size and quality of the exhibits. There’s a reason it’s £17.50 per ticket, and that reason is big. fancy. museum. I suppose that’s appropriate for the big fancy boat that was a point of Belfast pride over a century ago. They purposely leave out gory details about the sinking, but answer every question you never had about industrial Belfast, building the Titanic, and the aftermath.
Heading inland and north, we hit the Dark Hedges around sunset. This beech tree-lined road is famous for being beautifully spooky and was apparently recently used for scenes in Game of Thrones. We didn’t see any ghosts, but the area was definitely haunted by other tourists.
Day Three: Antrim Coast and Giant’s Causeway
Move over, Ring of Kerry! The Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland was one of the most beautiful drives of the whole trip. Our B&B host directed us to a small castle ruin on an outcropping of rocks. We were the only people there for most of the visit, and the drama of the sea crashing against the rocks was just dizzying. I can only imagine waking up there every morning in the small Kinbane Castle, safe within its defensive walls, isolated in your tiny community, surrounded by one of the most stunning views in the world. Dreaming of the day that you can leave the rock to pursue your own destiny, on the other side of the cliffs that protect you from the onslaught of the constantly invading English…
Anyway, neither of us fell to our deaths walking along the narrow path to the tip of the outcropping, so that’s great. The climb back up the side of the cliff was a nice workout too (read: definitely not wheelchair accessible!).
The Giant’s Causeway was not the most breathtaking stop, but it was really fascinating seeing the neatly stacked hexagonal basalt columns jutting out into the sea. It’s easy to imagine why the formation, caused by an ancient volcanic eruption, was interpreted as the remnants of a bridge built by legendary giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill. The best part? Mac Cumhaill supposedly built the causeway just to kick a Scottish giant’s ass. METAL.
- PRO TIP: Avoid the expensive Giant’s Causeway parking fees by parking at the Causeway Hotel next door and grabbing an affordable lunch in their restaurant. The brown bread or “wheaten bread” alone is worth the stop! Keep your receipt as validation and walk around the visitors center to access the Causeway.
Bonus: we were surrounded by a bunch of Irish kids on a school trip, and hearing all these kids speaking with an Irish accent was adorbs.
We slipped into the city of Derry for a quick walking tour on our way through, though we weren’t extremely charmed by the city, whose history spoke of hundreds of years of Catholic and Protestant warfare. Just between you and me, we were happy to arrive again in the Republic of Ireland later that night. I guess there’s just something in the American spirit that resents British rule.
Day Four: Rathcroghan, Sligo, and Galway
The Rathcroghan Royal Site offered us quite an impressive museum experience in County Roscommon. We ate a tasty and inexpensive lunch at the attached cafe before viewing the interpretive exhibits. For a relatively tiny visitors center, I was surprised at how modern and engaging the materials were. A large timeline showcasing Irish archaeology and a life-size figure of an Iron Age warrior greeted us at the front, and there were supplemental videos and model artifacts from the neolithic and medieval times. I was for some reason irritated with Brian during this visit, and found it easy to channel the ferocity of the legendary Queen Medb (of Cattle Raid of Cooley fame). Brian took the opportunity to rock a Norman-style helmet that made him look like a cross between Darth Vader, a basset hound, and a unicorn. HIGH FASHION.
At Sligo Abbey in County Sligo you can walk through the ruins of a 13th century friary. It’s a great way to learn a little history and step back in time to when this small set of well-preserved ruins in the middle of the city were a majorly significant part of daily life in the area. Walking through the corridors and gazing into the small cemetery in the center, you can almost hear the whispers of past worshipers, long lost to history.
- PRO TIP: If archaeology and history are your jams, consider getting an OPW card at the first national monument you visit. The Office of Public Works offers a one-year membership card that gets you into dozens of sites for just 25 euro. Admission for most sites is between 4 and 10 euro, so if you’re planning on visiting lots of ruins and museums, this can easily pay for itself. Check out this site for more info. Do note that this is only for use in the Republic of Ireland, as sites in Northern Ireland are often maintained by the UK’s National Trust.
We spent the evening in Galway, one of the country’s larger cities, and a college town with a very lively vibe. In the Latin quarter we probably passed three different groups of street musicians, ate dinner at a funky hole-in-the-wall pie place, and took in a local comedy showcase at a bar. I could definitely spend more time in this town.
Day Five: The Burren, Cliffs of Moher, Bunratty Castle
The first thing we did today was drive through the Burren, an area of Ireland known for its unusual ability to support plant life from a surprising range of ecological environments. Its rolling hills and giant veins of limestone offer a strange, barren loveliness to the area. You might tour the blackness of the Ailwee Cave on your way through to get a little geology fix, but for us that was secondary to the Burren Birds of Prey Center. I’m such a sucker for
birds the closest living relatives to dinosaurs, and seeing so many of these gorgeous creatures up close, plus a flying demonstration, was a highlight of my day. A local chocolatier, Hazel Mountain Chocolate, was well worth the short and decadent stop.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous sights in Ireland, and for good reason. Their height and drama can’t be fully appreciated from photographs, and no matter the weather it’s hard to ignore their magnetic draw. The sky was cloudy and growing dark when we visited, lending a brooding aspect to the jagged cliff face. As it started to rain, the more distant outcroppings of cliff were slowly masked by layers of pale mist. Yes, it’s a highly touristy area. No, don’t miss it.
- PRO TIP: Dress warm for the Cliffs of Moher. Or any other windy stretch of stunning coast. I was wearing thin tights under my jeans and multiple layers of sweater and jacket, which really allowed me to comfortably enjoy the cliffs. We saw a few chicks without jackets (haha, because teenagers are like that) who looked absolutely miserable. This was April. Ireland is cold, y’all.
Driving away from the wet coast, we were treated to not just ONE rainbow, but a sick DOUBLE RAINBOW ALL ACROSS THE SKY. We didn’t have time to hunt for the pot of gold at the end, so somewhere out there is a very lucky leprechaun.
Our last event of the day was a trip to Bunratty Castle for the famous castle banquet dinner. I hate to say it, but this was easily our biggest regret of the trip! We booked two tickets last minute after reading absolutely amazing reviews on Tripadvisor and other blog sites. I won’t go into detail on why this evening was so regretful, but if you’d like more information you can read my Tripadvisor review here. Bottom line, it was insanely expensive for the mediocre quality of the experience. The upswing was getting to spend the evening in a castle built by my distant ancestors, the MacNamara clan. I imagine that visiting the site during the day would be much more enjoyable.
Day Six: Tralee, Conor Pass, and Peddlers Lake
Tralee is the largest town in County Kerry, and home to the extremely informative Kerry County Museum, which walks you through Ireland’s history from prehistoric to modern times. A breath of fresh air for us history-lovers after the crappy experience at Bunratty! Did I mention that the downstairs features a “medieval experience” in the form of a reconstruction of 1450s life in Tralee? Populated with dozens of creepy life-sized figures? Awesome. Nearby Quinlan’s Seafood Bar is a local chain serving fresh tasty fish options. So much more than fish and chips!
On our way to the Dingle Peninsula we decided to take the scenic route through Conor Pass. This is a route the tour buses aren’t allowed to take, and for good reason. The road narrows at times to one vehicle’s width, and a misnavigation of the blind turns could send you plummeting down the steep side of the hill into the valley below. The view from the top is stunning in every direction, and at one point we watched the thick fog of a cloud roll over the hilltop beside us.
There’s a pulloff and picnic table next to a small waterfall halfway through Conor Pass. If the weather is nice, climb the rocky hillside next to the waterfall. After five or ten minutes of playing mountain goat you’ll find the hill flattens out into a large open area. You’ve arrived at Peddlers Lake. We spent probably half an hour? an hour? wandering around up here, stepping around puddles, inspecting the purple and greenish stones underfoot, watching sheep lazily climb the rocky cliffsides, and enjoying the full still and quiet of the deserted heights. I could easily spend all day up there.
So finishes the first half of our Ireland roadtrip! Next week I’ll share the second half of our journey. Have you ever visited Ireland? Or is it on your bucket list?