Everything you think you know about Ireland is probably true. Rolling fields home to every imaginable shade of green, old stone pubs with pints of Guinness lined up on the bar, crumbling castles in the countryside – they’re all there. But there’s so much more to see beyond the traditional Ireland of castles and trad music.
This is a country where you can surf the biggest waves in Europe, swim in crystal clear lakes and go wakeboarding without even leaving the capital. It’s a land of food trucks, street art and alcohol-free cocktail bars. And, best of all, it’s just a short hop away.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
As of right now, there are no travel restrictions between the UK and Ireland, and no entry requirements in place for any traveller. While the Covid restrictions (and various lockdowns) were fairly strict up until recently, there aren’t currently any rules in place, other than the loose advice to wear a mask on public transport. However, there is talk of reintroducing the wearing of masks in shops and public spaces.
Best time to go
Generally speaking, summer is a terrible time to visit Ireland – it’s jam-packed with tourists, meaning the hotel prices skyrocket, and the weather is ironically at its worst. Best, then, to visit in the spring or autumn, when things are a little more sedate and the weather is generally at its best. The months of May and September are always a good bet, with the latter giving us the Galway Oyster Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival and the Electric Picnic (Ireland’s version of Glastonbury). There’s also a lot to be said for visiting in the winter, where you can get those chilly days with blazing blue skies, and a built-in excuse to find a cosy little pub and sit with your book next to a turf fire.
Top cities and regions
With loads of free museums, cool cafés and cracking nightlife, Dublin is understandably the first Irish city a lot of visitors encounter. Skip the rowdy, touristy pubs of Temple Bar, and instead explore the little neighbourhoods and villages that make up the true tapestry of the city. It’s there where you’ll find the best street art, vintage shops and food trucks that have a cult-like following. One of the best things about Dublin is its size – you can wander around on foot for the most part, drifting between the city parks lined with Georgian townhouses and the sleek tech-company buildings of the Docklands. If you have an afternoon to spare, head out and explore the coastline – the beaches of Killiney or the clifftops of Howth are less than an hour away by train.
If you close your eyes and think of Ireland, you’re probably imagining the landscapes of Kerry. This is the land of giant, deep green mountains, mirror-like lakes and tiny meandering roads where scraggy white sheep have right of way. It’s every bit as beautiful as you might expect, but its popularity makes it crowded in the summer. Don’t even think about driving the Ring of Kerry in August, unless you want to stare at the back end of a coach for the better part of the day.
Known as Ireland’s second city by anyone other than its natives (who believe it to be the capital of the country, if not the world), Cork is a super friendly spot on the southern coast, known for its killer food scene and artsy vibe. Much like Galway, the city is the perfect point from which to explore the coast, with white sand beaches and seas often dotted with whales and dolphins. Head out to the Beara Peninsula and you’ll have countless beaches at your fingertips. Down near Baltimore, you can go night kayaking on the marine lake of Lough Hyne, in the hopes of seeing the magical streams of phosphorescence as you paddle through the water.
Belfast and the Causeway Coast
Northern Ireland can often be an afterthought when it comes to Irish exploration, but you get incredible bang for your buck when it comes to scenery. The drive from Belfast along the coast to Derry is a belter, with spots like the Giant’s Causeway, the clifftop ruins of Dunluce and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge all more than worthy of a pitstop. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you can hop between the various locations used on the show, or pay a visit to the brand new studio tour where loads of the series was shot.
The little city on the west coast has everything you could want from an Irish getaway – traditional music played in rickety old pubs, a great stretch of coastline and one of the best weekend markets in the country. But while the city itself is a winner, the surrounding countryside is even better, with the bays of Connemara looking positively Caribbean on a sunny day. Make a beeline for Roundstone, a pretty village on the sea where you soak up the seaside vibes while tucking into a dozen local oysters.
Right on the northernmost tip of the country, the county of Donegal is a bit of a trek to get to, which explains why it was off the radar for so long. But now, people in Ireland and beyond are waking up to its unquestionable charms. There are giant, rolling mountains thick with heather and forests, tiny little beaches with crystal clear waters and the tallest sea cliffs in Europe. An added bonus? You’ll often get it all to yourself.
This west coast county is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. You’ve got quaint little towns like Westport, a thriving watersport scene and some of the best biking trails in the country. It’s also a misanthrope’s dream, with wide empty spaces perfect for long hikes and camping, particularly in Ballycroy National Park. Mayo is also home to one of the country’s largest Gaeltachts, a region where Irish is the primary language spoken.
If you’re a surfer, you may well have heard of Sligo. Come winter, the world’s best descend on this northwest county to tackle some of the massive waves, which can reach heights of 60 feet. The rest of us can give it a bash on one of the calmer days, or spend time exploring the jagged mountains, kayaking on the lakes or eating the local lobster and mussels.
Best things to do
Drive the Wild Atlantic Way
Spanning the west coast of Ireland in its entirety, the Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500 mile stretch of road that hugs the shore and passes by sea stacks, blow holes and tiny clusters of islands. To drive the whole thing would be a bit of a rush job, so pick out small stretches along Donegal, Galway or Kerry and stop whenever you see a jagged bronze waymarker at the side of the road – they highlight the stops that are ridiculously beautiful.
Go island hopping
There are hundreds of islands along the west coast (in Mayo’s Clew Bay alone there are 365, one for every day of the year). While many are uninhabited, the bigger ones are a dream to explore. Get the boat over to the Aran Islands and you’ll have your pick between the larger Inis Mór or the charming patchwork of fields of Inis Oirr, where the island’s feisty resident dolphin will whack the camera out of your hand if you get too close.
Check out the Lakelands
Generally speaking, Ireland’s coastal spots get all of the attention. But if you head inland, you’ll find scenery that’s every bit as stunning, without the crowds (and prices) of the more visited places. There are cool accommodation options popping up all the time, too, from lodges with an American summer camp vibe to transparent bubble domes where you can sleep under the stars.
Unfortunately, one of Ireland’s biggest drawbacks is its less than stellar public transport system. While it’s relatively easy to travel between the big cities and Dublin via train or bus, if you want to properly explore anywhere rural, you’re probably going to need a hire car.
How to get there
The quickest way to get to Ireland is on a flight with Ryanair, Aer Lingus or one of several British carriers who fly there regularly. Dublin is the obvious entry point, but if you’re exploring the west of Ireland then opt for Shannon or Knock Airport. There are also several ferry options, serving Belfast, Rosslare, Larne and Dublin, with the port for the latter handily located right in the city. Rail and Sail tickets offer a bargain rate combining ferry and train fare from hundreds of UK stations.
Accommodation will almost always be the biggest expense, so avoid summer weekends if you can, particularly in Dublin. If you haven’t booked in advance, chance your arm on a last minute booking site like Hotel Tonight where you’ll often find discounted rooms.
What’s the weather like?
You’ve probably heard the adage “all four seasons in a day”, but in Ireland, you can get them all in an hour. Generally speaking, Dublin and the south coast are warmer and drier than the west, which can get pretty wild.
What time zone is it in?
What currency do I need?
Euro. Note that most places accept card or contactless payment, and since Covid there are an increasing number of businesses that don’t accept cash.
What language is spoken?
English and Irish, which is spoken mainly in the Gaeltacht regions.
What plug sockets are used?
Type G, the same as the UK.