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Ireland is a great place to visit when you’re young, free and (who knows, maybe) single. Sure, it has its drawbacks: the clubbing scene is hardly Berlin, and Dublin is on the pricier end of the scale when it comes to European capitals, but if there’s one thing the Irish know how to do, it’s how to have fun. Whether it’s partying up a storm at the country’s biggest music festival or taking advantage of the island’s natural offerings to make your trip that little bit more adventurous, there’s no shortage of great lively options to explore both in the cities, and as far from them as you can hope to go. Here are our 20 favourites.
Mad, but not as mad as it might first appear: the locals absolutely love a dip in the Irish Sea. The most famous spot to chuck yourself in amongst the seals is the Forty Foot, a traditionally naked swimming spot that’s regathered a clothed dignity in recent years. The most popular option is the early morning dip, while Christmas, amazingly has become a chilly must-attend. It’s not all about the one spot, either: there are ample swimming sites across the country to check out.
How sensitive is the political situation these days in Northern Ireland? Sensitive enough to require the double-naming above, and Brexit’s not helping, but things remain comfortable for tourists. From great tragedy, the cliche goes, comes great art, and both these cities have plenty of it on their streets. Aside from seeing the sites, it’s also interesting to align global political interests (Republicans, for example, are broadly pro-Palestine, while Unionists are pro-Israel). Fascinating.
A great alternative way of seeing the city that requires just a little bit of muscle power (and often involves getting absolutely soaked to the bone, as they go ahead even in the torrential rain), this is by far the most fun daytime tour of Dublin on offer. There are sea kayaking and canal trip options close to the city, too.
Electric Picnic is Ireland’s big alternative festival, and whoever’s playing (and the line up is usually solid), this early September offering in Portlaoise is the summer’s late crescendo for festival goers. It has plenty more than tunes. Explore the Body and Soul area, where arty late-night offerings, hot tubs and poetry corners have now spawned their own spin off festival, or rave into the early hours with your ‘bag o’ cans’ at the manic, forest-side Salty Dog stage.
Donegal has a growing reputation as a serious surf spot, in particular after its off-shore waves served up some genuinely stunning footage of a world record wave in 2016. That brings in some truly world class surfers, but for the more modest among us, Bundoran is a great spot to learn to board, and has much of the accompanying party culture, too.
The Killary Adventure Centre in Galway is a spot for those who feel like giving a few days over to something really wild, and the gorge walking is the best of it. Crash your way between rocks and down waterfalls in a wetsuit, leaping into the pools as you splash about in glorious, muddy mayhem. Or just go kayaking. We won’t judge.
Ireland’s highest peak is mildly challenging in summer and seriously challenging in winter. Carrauntoohil’s 1,038 metres are part of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks range, with the summit marked by a huge metal cross. The biggest challenge is the steep, slippery ‘Devil’s Ladder’ ascent, and you can crash at the base in lively Cronin’s Yard.
You’ll recognise this isolated island in Ireland’s south west if you’re a fan of Star Wars: it features heavily in ‘The Last Jedi’. The Kerry island, formerly a hermitage, can be difficult to access and requires weather in your favour, but it’s worth it. When you arrive, you climb to beehive hermitages on steep, rugged trails, and feel like you’ve popped back in time.
Dzogchen Beara, located atop a cliff in Ireland’s south west, is perhaps not quite where you’d expect to find a Buddhist meditation centre. With regular events, temple stays, drop-ins and full courses on offer, this is very much a serious temple, however, designed as a spiritual getaway and fast gaining international credibility. If you’re in need of a little nourishment for the mind, a great alternative stop off.
Ireland’s most famous small venues can have as many as 10 acts performing in a single night, and best of all, they’re great places to be when there isn’t a single guitar on stage. Whelan’s is widely seen as Ireland’s indie scene hub, while Roisin Dubh is its Galway equivalent. The latter is so good it’s worth recommending for Galway’s nightlife in its own right.
In season (the peak is mid-summer, though the bigger – but rarer – animals come over winter), Ireland is a great place to go whale watching, with basking sharks, minke whales, fin whales, humpback whales and countless dolphins to be found bathing off the coastline. There’s no guarantee, of course, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, they’re an unforgettable sight.
Dingle is a great spot to hang out, with bars that double as hardware stores, famously fantastic sea salt or lavender flavoured ice creams, a wonderful small-town music scene and a surprisingly wild nightlife. The highlight, though, is Fungie, the single dolphin who’s long resided in the town’s harbour. He’s a friendly type and almost flirts with tourists, but should he be having an off day, the local boat tour won’t even charge you.
Dublin’s rock scene is notoriously impressive (see U2, The Pogues, Thin Lizzy and rock-influencers The Dubliners to name just a few), and Fibber Magees is the kind of grimy grunge bar that spawned it all. The sticky floors here owe part of their traction to ‘Buckfast’, a caffeine and sugar fuelled tonic wine with a reputation for messy, high-speed nights out. This is one of the few places that still serves it: dig into the madness (but don’t make plans for the morning).
We’re not saying don’t go to the Guinness Storehouse. All we’re saying is there’s something far more fascinating on offer in St James’ Gate, in the form of its new experimental brewery. The Open Gate serves beers the brewers are playing with – those yet to reach a commercial footing – and it only opened in 2016. It’s only open three days a week, and you’ll need to book ahead. Learn more here.
How about a nature trail that takes place entirely underwater? The west of Ireland also has a Greenway, which you can cycle, but it’s the five Blueway sites that really grab our attention. Kayak rivers, snorkel the coastline, visit gorgeous beaches and dip into Ireland’s only fjord as you get way off the beaten track in Galway and Mayo.
The GAA technically consists of a number of sports, but two dominate the traditional Gaelic Athletics Association. Gaelic football (a powerful cross between soccer, basketball and rugby) and hurling (a vicious supersized lacrosse on steroids) are the keys: check them out across the country, or in the pubs where locals go mad for the latter-stage contests in August and September.
A bit of hill-walking drama for those unable to stray too far from Dublin, the Hellfire Club is an abandoned site overlooking the city, said to be home to 18th-century occult activity and heavily haunted. We don’t suggest going up here at night (not for the haunting, more that its reputation for late night drug use remains a bit iffy) – but a daytime trek almost 400 metres above the city is a worthy detour.
Dublin is big on imaginative, alternative cinemas, and the Irish Film Institute is the best. Many locals, in fact, joke that it’s the only thing worth visiting in infamous tourist trap Temple Bar. Expect Romanian dramas, Arabic war movies, or tales of South American love (there’s plenty of local movie interest, too). The Lighthouse is another worth checking out.
Crammed full with thrift stalls, great coffee, antiques and multinational cuisine, the twin markets – the Green Door and the Food Co-op, located at Newmarket in Dublin’s old world Liberties district – are fantastic less tourist-frequented asides. They now have the only functioning whiskey distillery in the city, the Teeling Distillery, sat between them as a nice added bonus. Sundays, with their rotating guest markets, are the highlight.
Go all Jack and Rose at the home of the Titanic. As well as picking up Belfast’s most iconic t-shirt (Titanic: Built by the Irish, sunk by the English), you can see much of what’s been brought back ashore from the epic cruise ship that sunk crossing the Atlantic over a century ago, and the impressive building is based on the ship’s design. This museum is so popular you’ll often need to book ahead.