- Kate Phelan
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.
The Burren, County Clare
The smallest of Ireland’s six national parks, The Burren National Park comprises a small section of the glacio-karst landscape that covers much of north County Clare. Formed around 350 million years ago, this spectacular area – known as The Burren, taken from the Irish boireann, meaning ‘great rock’ – has international significance both geologically and from a biodiversity standpoint, as it allows an unusually large amount of varying wildlife and plant species to flourish.
The Arran Islands off Galway are considered an extension of The Burren. The area is also home to the Poulnabrone Tomb and the now-famous Aillwee cave system, which was kept secret for close to 30 years after being accidentally discovered during the 1940s by a local farmer.
📍 The Burren National Park, Clare Heritage Centre, Glenquin, Corofin, County Clare, Ireland, +353 65 682 7693
Newgrange, County Meath
Ireland’s most famous prehistoric monument, the Newgrange passage grave originated in the Neolithic or New Stone Age period – around 3200 BC – and is older than Egypt’s pyramids. Its most noted 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.
The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim
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 in order to cross the North Channel to Scotland.
📍 The Giant’s Causeway, Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, +44 28 2073 1855
National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin
The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology in Dublin is the place to see exemplary Irish artefacts, especially Celtic art like 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 prior to the 1014 Battle of Clontarf.
📍 The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 677 7444
Blarney Castle, County Cork
Coming up on 600 years old, the partly ruined medieval fortress at Blarney is one of Ireland’s most visited castles. Built by the MacCarthy dynasty, it’s also the home of the Blarney Stone – a limestone block said to bestow ‘the gift of the gab’ onto anyone who kisses it.
📍 Blarney Castle, Monacnapa, Blarney, County Cork, Ireland, +353 21 438 5252
Dingle Bay, County Kerry
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 – visitors here should definitely take a boat trip to meet Fungie. A wild bottlenose dolphin famous for his love of humans, he’s said to have lived in or around the bay since 1983.
📍 Dingle Bay, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland
Skellig Micheal, County Kerry
Also in Kerry, just off the Iveragh Peninsula, craggy Skellig Michael island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of a former monastery, in use up until the 12th century. More recently, it’s become a filming location for the newest Star Wars movies.
📍 Skellig Michael, Great Skellig Rock, Ireland
Trinity College, Dublin
Founded in 1592, Trinity College Dublin is the university that educated Ireland’s first president, the so-called ‘father of Irish republicans’ Theobald Wolfe Tone, world-class writers like 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 9th-century illuminated manuscript often referred to as Ireland’s national treasure.
📍 Trinity College Dublin, College Green, Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 896 1000
The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare / Slieve League, County Donegal
The soaring Cliffs of Moher, standing 120 metres (390 feet) over the Atlantic in County Clare, are among the country’s top 10 most visited attractions. Those further north at Donegal’s Slieve League mountain are even higher and more dramatic, reaching 601 metres (1,972 feet) in places.
📍 The Cliffs of Moher, Lislorkan North, Liscannor, County Clare, Ireland
📍 Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland
Ben Bulben, County Sligo
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 W. B. Yeats, who is buried in the graveyard below it.
📍 Ben Bulben, County Sligo, Ireland
The West Cork Islands, County Cork
The islands off West Cork are a worthy focal point of the west of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way tourism route, each offering something distinctive, from Dursey with its ocean-crossing cable car to the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) island of Cape Clear to Garnish and its historic gardens.
📍 The West Cork Islands, West Cork, Ireland
The Waterford Viking Triangle, Waterford
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 while in the area is Dunmore East, a beautiful fishing village founded before the time of the Vikings, during the Iron Age.
📍 The Waterford Viking Triangle, Waterford, Ireland
📍 Dunmore East, County Waterford, Ireland
The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
County Tipperary’s Rock of Cashel was originally built to be the seat of the kings of Ireland’s southern Munster region. The site is said to comprise one of Europe’s most significant collections of Celtic art and medieval architecture.
📍 The Rock of Cashel, Moor, Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland, +353 62 61437
Glendalough Monastic Site, County Wicklow
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 6th century. Built close to the valley’s two lakes, its many surviving early Christian monuments include a round tower, a cathedral and a number of churches.
📍 Glendalough Monastic Site, Derrybawn, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
The National Gallery, Dublin
The National Gallery of Ireland contains the national collection of Irish and European art, which visitors can explore free of charge. Made up of around 15,000 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 like Vermeer and Picasso.
📍 The National Gallery, Merrion Square West, Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 661 5133
Dublin Bay Biosphere, Dublin
The UNESCO-designated Dublin Bay Biosphere covers over 300 square kilometres (116 square miles) and includes coastal areas such as Howth Head and North Bull Island, the latter of which is home to a number 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.
📍 Dublin Bay Biosphere, County Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 222 3394
The Guinness Storehouse®, Dublin
Ireland’s most visited fee-charging tourist attraction, The Guinness Storehouse® is a museum and tourist experience dedicated to Ireland’s best-known beverage, housed inside a former fermentation plant at the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin.
📍 The Guinness Storehouse®, St James’s Gate, Ushers, Dublin, Ireland, +353 1 408 4800
Titanic Belfast, Belfast
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 ship 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.
📍 Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queens Road, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, Northern Ireland, +44 28 9076 6386
Killarney National Park, County Kerry
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 11,000-acre estate belonging to Muckross House was donated to the Irish Free State.
📍 Killarney National Park, County Kerry, Ireland, +353 1 888 2000
Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, County Galway
Erected during the 1800s, Kylemore Castle ultimately became a haven for a group of Benedictine nuns who fled to Ireland from Ypres, Belgium during the First World War. 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.
📍 Kylemore Abbey, Pollacappul, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, +353 95 41146