Although small in size, the country of Ireland offers an inordinate number of attractions, from natural wonders and monuments belonging to ancient eras through to impressive museums and galleries. Here is just a selection of some of the best.
Fortunately, there are as many wonderful places to stay as there are attractions in Ireland. Whether you’re looking for a city break, a country escape or a combination of both, you are sure to find something in Culture Trip’s top pick of Airbnbs across the country.
The smallest of Ireland’s six national parks, Burren National Park comprises a small section of the glacio-karst landscape that covers much of north County Clare. Formed around 350m years ago, this spectacular area – known as the Burren, taken from the Irish boireann, meaning “great rock” – has an incredible geological significance and unusual biodiversity. The Arran Islands off Galway are also worth visiting and considered an extension of the Burren. The area is home to the Poulnabrone dolmen (tomb) and the now-famous Aillwee cave system, which was accidentally discovered by a local farmer in the 1940s.
Ireland’s most famous prehistoric monument, the Newgrange passage grave originated in the Neolithic or New Stone Age period – around 3200BCE – and is older than Egypt’s pyramids. Its most notable feature is the roof box above the passageway entrance, which aligns with the rising sun on the winter solstice to allow the tomb’s chamber within to fill with sunlight.
A geological wonder consisting of tens of thousands of interconnected stone columns formed by cooling volcanic basalt, the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is both a Unesco World Heritage site and a national nature reserve. Local legend maintains that the mythical Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill built the causeway to cross the North Channel to Scotland.
The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology in Dublin is the place to see exemplary Irish artefacts. It’s especially worth visiting for its Celtic art, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Liathmore shrine fragment – marked with an inscription that can only have been intended for Brian Boru, High King of Ireland before the 1014 Battle of Clontarf.
The partly ruined Medieval fortress at Blarney is one of Ireland’s most visited castles, with the original structure first built in the 10th century. The current structure was constructed by the McCarthy dynasty in the 15th century; here, you can explore dungeons and idyllic grounds that are home to wishing steps, a witch stone and kitchen and the Badger’s Cave. The castle is also the home of the Blarney Stone – a limestone block said to bestow “the gift of the gab” onto anyone who kisses it.
One of mainland Ireland’s most westerly points, Dingle Bay separates the two incredibly picturesque headlands of Kerry’s Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas. As well as driving the world-famous routes around the headlands – the Ring of Kerry and Slea Head Drive – you should take a boat trip to meet Fungie. A wild bottlenose dolphin famous for its love of humans, it has lived in or around the bay since 1983.
The dramatic Skellig Islands lie off the coast of Portmagee, and the summit of Skellig Michael towers more than 200m (656ft) above sea level. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site and the site of a former monastery, which was in use up until the 12th century and has remained well preserved despite the harsh Atlantic weather. Given its other-worldly atmosphere, it’s unsurprising that it was chosen as a filming location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Founded in 1592, Trinity College Dublin is the university that educated Theobald Wolfe Tone – the so-called “father of Irish republicans” – world-class writers such as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, and many other great Irish minds. The college’s Old Library is home to the Book of Kells – a ninth-century illuminated manuscript often referred to as Ireland’s national treasure.
The soaring Cliffs of Moher, standing 120m to 214m (390-702ft) over the Atlantic in County Clare, are among the country’s top 10 most visited attractions thanks to their unparalleled natural beauty. The cliffs farther north at Donegal’s Slieve League mountain are even higher and more dramatic, reaching 601m (1,972ft) in places.
Formed during the ice age, Ben Bulben is the jewel in the crown of the Dartry Mountains. As well as offering panoramic views of Sligo Bay beneath, this peak is strongly tied to Irish mythology and literature, particularly through the work of the poet WB Yeats, who is buried in the graveyard below it.
The islands off West Cork are a worthy focal point on the western side of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way tourism route. Each one offers something distinctive, from Dursey with its ocean-crossing cable car and the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) island of Cape Clear to Garnish and its historic gardens.
The highlight of the Waterford Viking Triangle – an award-winning cultural and heritage area in Ireland’s oldest city – is Reginald’s Tower, the country’s oldest urban civic building, now a museum. Another Waterford County highlight to visit is Dunmore East, a beautiful fishing village founded before the time of the Vikings, during the Iron Age.
County Tipperary’s Rock of Cashel was originally built to be the seat of the kings of Ireland’s southern Munster region, and the ruins include a chapel, cathedral and graveyards scattered over a plateau. The site comprises one of Europe’s most significant collections of Celtic art and Medieval architecture.
Nestled within the confines of the sprawling Wicklow Mountains National Park – itself a major attraction – the Glendalough Valley is the site of the ruins of a monastic city established during the sixth century. Built close to the valley’s two lakes, the site has many surviving early Christian monuments, including a round tower, a cathedral and several churches.
The National Gallery of Ireland contains the national collection of Irish and European art, which visitors can explore free of charge. Comprising more than 16,000 works, the museum’s precious stock includes pieces by Irish painters such as Jack B Yeats and Louis le Brocquy, as well as international artists such as Vermeer and Picasso.
The Unesco-designated Dublin Bay Biosphere covers more than 300sqkm (116sqmi) and includes coastal areas such as Howth Head and North Bull Island, the latter of which is home to several endangered habitats. Bird and plant lovers will appreciate the chance to see many rare species here, but Dublin Bay is also important in that it is the only biosphere reserve worldwide that includes a national capital city within its area, reflecting Ireland’s unique appeal.
Ireland’s most visited fee-charging tourist attraction, the Guinness Storehouse is a museum and tourist experience dedicated to Ireland’s best-known beverage. It’s housed inside a former fermentation plant at the St James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, and you can book stout-tasting experiences, learn how to pull a pint or sample an experimental brew while enjoying panoramic views of the city at the Gravity Bar.
Described as “the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience”, Titanic Belfast shines a light on the 1912 maritime disaster, at a building on the very site of the Harland & Wolff shipyard where the passenger liner was built. Inside the eye-catching structure are nine interactive galleries, giving insight into everything from early designs of the ship to a fish-eye view of how the wreck looks now.
One of the most scenic regions in all of Ireland, the Killarney National Park is another Unesco Biosphere Reserve, renowned for the beauty of its lakes and mountains. It’s also the protector of rare Irish flora and fauna – a safe home to the country’s largest surviving area of indigenous forest and its only herd of native red deer. Ireland’s oldest national park, it was established in 1932 when the 4,452ha (11,000-acre) estate belonging to Muckross House was donated to the Irish Free State.
Erected during the 1800s, Kylemore Castle ultimately became a haven for a group of Benedictine nuns who fled to Ireland from Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. Located in County Galway’s Connemara region, the abbey is now a self-sustaining estate, with a beautiful Victorian walled garden. Tours and nature trails are available.