Kerry is a rural Irish heartland. Distinct and traditional, the south-western county at the corner of the country juts out into the fierce Atlantic and is home to gorgeous villages, tiny roads, ancient sites, and opportunities to explore the hilly landscape.
Often seen as eccentric and slightly backwards-looking by Ireland’s more urban dwellers, that quirky side of Kerry (and the distinctive accents!) will almost certainly be part of what ends up drawing in visitors. You could drive almost anywhere and be charmed, but a few particular spots truly stand out. Here’s are our favourite corners of Kerry, and some of the activities to get stuck into amongst them.
Drop in on Dingle
Unquestionably a favourite Kerry town, this quirky, gentle little place located on the Kerry peninsula that it’s named after has almost endless allure. For a start, a dolphin lives in the harbour (and if you’re prepared to brave the cold, you can swim with him – or just take the regular Fungie-ogling tours). Local ice cream company Murphy’s is legendary even up in the capital, while the local artisan cheese shop is the kind of place that’ll have you dropping in and out regularly just to have a sniff. Then there are the pubs, which are every lovely Irish stereotype imaginable, while somehow managing not to be clichéd. Some of the most popular ones are those that also sell hardware or rent bicycles, or simply – for reasons nobody seems to recall – have endless shelves of shoes and farming implements. In short, this place is otherworldly and wonderful for it.
The Ring of Kerry
If you’ve heard of Kerry, this might very well be why. The infamous Ring of Kerry tour is one of Irish tourism’s mainstays for a very simple reason: with its winding roads, Atlantic views, and soaring peaks, it represents the image of Ireland you’ve been sold in the brochures. You can drive the 179-kilometre (111.2-mile) loop of the Iveragh Peninsula, explore it by one of the ample tour buses (which all go the same way round the loop – they can’t fit past each other on the narrow roads) or, for the brave, cycle it over the course of a couple of days. There’s no single standout site, really, just a lot of breathtaking concentrated rural beauty and little villages. Check out the castles, stone circles and gorgeous Valentia along the way.
Star Wars fans will recognise this jagged, severe island 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) out into the Atlantic from both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Visiting it, however, can be tough: the World Heritage Site – which was a Christian hermitage more than a thousand years ago, and home to as many as seven people as recently as the 60s – is currently resident-less. That’s in part because any kind of inclement weather renders the site all but inaccessible. You’ll need to visit in summer and have a bit of luck, but if you do get there, the crumbling old domed buildings and puffins colonies set against severe cliffsides are amongst Ireland’s most memorable sites.
The Gap of Dunloe
Yes, Culture Trip is absolutely recommending a gap between two hills. A tiny glacial mountain pass at 240 metres (787 feet), this 11-kilometre (6.8-mile) trip passes five lakes, a bridge that’s become a mainstay for the superstitious looking for a moment (it’s called simply ‘The Wishing Bridge’), and more glorious panoramic views than you can wave a camera at. The pubs at the absolute heights of the gap have sensational views and attract bands of cyclists tackling the passable (for the fit) winding laneways. Stop off at Kate Kearney’s Cottage – a 150-year-old pub meets craft shop – or summit one of the fantastically named MacGillycuddy Reeks.
The highest peak in Ireland, Carrauntoohil might pale in comparison to some of the continent’s greats (it’s only 1,038 metres [3,405.5 feet] high), but it’s a pleasant level of challenge, including – for the most popular route – a scramble up the dusty, slippery gully known as the ‘Devil’s Ladder’. There are plenty of genuinely challenging walks around the peak best undertaken supervised, but Carrauntoohil itself – via the most commonly walked route – is fine in moderate weather for those with hiking experience, with rewarding views from the towering metal cross that marks its peak.
Cosan Na Naomh
Another walk (but hey, they’re one of the best things about the county), this medieval pilgrimage trek towards Brandon Mountain dates back to pre-Christian times, having almost certainly been adapted from Irish pagan rituals. It now forms part of the ‘Irish Camino’, an increasingly popular set of paths around the country that offer a stunning historic glance at ancient Ireland. On this one, you’ll find the delicate stone Gallarus Oratory that’s somehow remained water tight for a century as you pass over a gentle, rugged route. The full path, which has quite a few relics to uncover, goes from the Vartry Strand to the base of Brandon Mountain, covering 18 kilometres (11 miles).
Muckross House and Abbey
Located in tourist-loving Killarney (where half the town is brimming with movie-like Irish pubs and souvenir shops), Muckross House is both a towering 19th-century mansion set amid the hills and lakes and home to a working farm. For all its internal opulence, the farm aspect of the property is a lovely sideways glance at the Ireland of old, while there are lots of local treats available in the craft shop. The abbey, just down the road, dates back to the 15th century and features an oak tree embedded in the heart of its cloisters that sometimes theorised to date back to the abbey’s very construction. It’s said to be haunted too.
The National Park, Dromyrourk, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland, +353 6 466 70144
An Atlantic Ocean beach (which means that even on a perfect summer’s day, this spot is a push for the casual swimmer), Banna Strand is associated with Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and his rendezvous with a German U-Boat and subsequent capture in 1916. It’s a gorgeous, rugged white-sand spot that’s become a minor surfing destination in recent years, and a great break from the more cultural side of the county – a place where you can simply chill out for a few hours. In short, it’s more great scenery!
A 15th-century tower house in the heart of the Killarney National Park, Ross Castle is painfully picturesque, serving as a form of defence at a time when Ireland was very much a tribal entity. The tour describes the difficulties of hardy castle living, with visitors able to explore ageing oak furniture, narrow staircases and thick defensive walls. The views and perfect picnic spots overlooking the lake are worth a visit too.
Ross Island, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland, +353 6 466 35851