Just about every travel enthusiast has Ireland on their must-visit list, with its lush emerald hills that dip down to golden beaches, heather-covered mountains, sparkling lakes and waterfalls, medieval castles, and friendly people. But the question often is, where are the top spots for first-time visitors to go?
Most fly into Dublin, so it’s a no-brainer to spend some time there, perhaps tour the Guinness Factory, see the Book of Kells at Trinity University, explore the museums, and stroll through Phoenix Park, the largest city park in Europe. After that, it’s time to discover what else the Emerald Isle has on offer, with these destinations some of the best to put on your itinerary.
What are the best places to see on your first visit to Ireland?
You will need to be picky when you’re planning your first trip to Ireland, as this small country has a diverse offering of attractions and features for travelers to enjoy, like
- Wicklow National Park
- Killarney National Park
- Dingle and the Dingle Peninsula
- Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher
- Bunratty Castle
- Clifden and the Connemara Region
- Inisheer Island
Read on for a point-by-point breakdown of why each of these destinations should make your first trip to Ireland’s itinerary!
Newgrange is an easy day trip from Dublin, just 45 minutes northwest. While you’ve probably heard all about Stonehenge, this monument is even older than that. In fact, it’s even older than the Great Pyramid of Giza, built around 3200 BC. Like Stonehenge, no one is certain of its purpose, but it’s believed to have been a temple for ancient people that worshipped the sun, and a passage tomb.
It was made from white quartz to inspire life-giving energy, and every year on the winter solstice, a select few get to witness the incredible illumination that occurs only on that day. For just an hour, the sun’s rays beam down into the narrow corridor leading into the chamber, flooding it with a warm glow.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be one of the just 120 that get to experience this event, you can still step inside with a guide, who does a good job of replicating it while providing interesting commentary.
Wicklow National Park
Just 40 minutes south of Dublin, breathtaking scenery abounds in Wicklow National Park. It’s been featured in numerous films and TV shows, from “P.S. I Love You” to the History Channel’s “Vikings” series. Lough Tay, also known as Guinness Lake, is surrounded by the Luggala Mountains, looking surprisingly Scandinavian, providing an ideal backdrop for scenes set onboard the Vikings’ longships.
Glendalough is a highlight, known for its ancient historical heritage and picturesque views. It’s the home of a monastic settlement that was established in the 6th century, with its Round Tower a popular object for photographs. There are hiking trails and picnic areas too.
Medieval Kilkenny City is famous for its 12th-century castle and winding cobbled lanes, making it feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Kilkenny Castle dominates it all, overlooking the River Nore, and was home to the Butler Dynasty from 1391 to 1935. Family portraits are hung in the Long Gallery, dating to the time of its earliest residents.
This is also an artsy city as Ireland’s “creative heart,” with a significant percentage of the population engaged in the arts. With an abundance of organic farms in the area, many restaurants serve organic, farm-to-table fare, and you’ll find lots of pubs hosting live music every night, including Matt the Millers, which has five floors, each with its own unique bar.
Killarney National Park
Killarney is incredibly enchanting with its soaring mountains, forests, waterfalls, lakes, and castles. Outdoor activities abound, with many scenic hikes like the short trek to Torc Waterfall and the walk that starts and ends at Muckross House, where you can also visit spectacular formal gardens and historic buildings. Boat trips are available on the Lakes of Killarney, and there are horse and carriage rides through the park too.
Dingle and the Dingle Peninsula
The Dingle Peninsula is what many people envision when Ireland comes to mind. On one side of the narrow road that winds through features rocky cliffs that meet crashing waves and hidden coves with beautiful beaches below, while sheep and a maze of stone fences dot emerald-covered hills on the other.
It’s not just scenery, however. Historic sites like the 800 BC Dunbeag Promontory Fort and beehive huts that lived through about 1200 AD have stood the test of time.
In the town of Dingle itself, live music can be enjoyed every night of the week during the summer season and most nights throughout the rest of the year. Popular recreational activities throughout the area include cycling, hiking, horseback riding, and golfing.
Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher
Doolin is an ideal base for exploring the iconic Cliffs of Moher. You’ll enjoy some of the best photo-ops in Ireland’s most visited attraction here, especially at sunset. Musicians sometimes play right at the edge of the cliffs, like harpist Tina Mulrooney who has been entertaining visitors with her beautiful tunes that make a visit a surreal experience.
The village of Doolin is considered the capital of traditional Irish music, with traditional Irish sessions seven nights a week at three different pubs: O’Conner’s, McDermott’s, and McGann’s. Enjoy the tin whistles, bodhrans, accordions, bagpipes, flutes, spoons, and banjos. With a pint of Guinness, of course.
It may be a bit of a tourist trap, but that doesn’t mean Bunratty isn’t worth a visit. In fact, many feel that it’s a highlight despite the crowds. And, if you visit during the off-season, you can enjoy it without the masses – around Halloween, it’s especially alluring with the many black crows cawing, and the autumn leaves all around. It has somewhat of an eerie feel too.
Built in 1425 by the MacNamara family, it includes a dungeon. Prisoners were blindfolded and ordered to walk 13 steps. There were just 12. That 13th step meant plunging 10 feet into darkness.
The castle also hosts a medieval banquet with musicians donning period costumes and a tasty feast with mead and fine wine, enjoyed at long oak tables by candlelight.
Clifden and the Connemara Region
Located in County Galway, the Connemara region is best known for the Twelve Bens Mountain Range, but it also offers a beautiful coastline with coral beaches, magnificent castles, and charming towns like Clifden.
Its beauty is striking with the mountain backdrop, and visitors will also find fun local shops with everything from antiques to wool sweaters and gifts, as well as a thriving food scene, with fine eateries and lively pubs featuring music all year round. But the main reason to come is to hike in Connemara National Park and visit Kylemore Abbey. It includes a 19th-century castle, neo-gothic church, woodland walks, a craft shop, and a pottery studio.
If you’re looking for an authentic, Old World Ireland experience. Hop on the ferry from Rossaveal, just a short drive from Clifden.
The smallest of the three Aran Islands, here, Irish is the main language, although English is spoken fluently by most. It’s just two square miles, making it easy to cover on a day trip, perhaps by renting a bike available just steps from the ferry dock. As the ferry pulls in, you’ll see a beach that looks as if it was stolen right from the Caribbean, with pristine white sands and brilliant turquoise water. Keep an eye out for a dolphin the locals call Sandy.
On the island’s eastern shore, enjoy views of the Cliffs of Moher across the water, a lighthouse, and a shipwreck. The cargo vessel, “Plassey,” was wrecked here in the 1960s. Medieval ruins can be found as well, like Caisleán Uí Bhríain, an imposing three-story 16th-century tower house built by the O’Brien family within a Stone Age fort.