- Ireland is beautiful. The people are friendly. The roads are scary!
- Weather impacts your experience. Scenery is blah during rain/fog.
- Cork is a nice, small, walkable city loaded with pubs and restaurants.
- Kinsale is a pretty little town near Cork. Old Head has great cliff views.
- Dingle Peninsula was the highlight of our trip to Southwest Ireland.
- Slea Head Drive of Dingle has fantastic cliffs, beaches & history.
- Killarney is a busy, crowded city w/ lots of traffic, but the park is beautiful.
- The best parts of Ring of Kerry are just off the ring (Skellig Coast).
Our trip to Ireland started with an overnight flight from Providence to Cork, the second largest city in Ireland. We decided not to fly into Dublin because Cork is closer to Kerry where we would be spending 3 nights in Killarney and 3 nights in Dingle after staying in Cork our first night.
We arrived in Cork at 8:30am (3:30am at home!) and groggily picked up our rental car. This was our first time driving on the left side of the road in a car with the wheel on the right side of the car, and although it felt funny at first, we quickly got used to it. What remained horrifying throughout the week was driving on the narrow roads of Ireland with cars whizzing by you on the opposite side of the road! I still recommend driving because that way you can really explore Ireland, but rent the smallest car possible and adjust your mirrors so that you can see how close you are to the center line and to the side of the road, which is usually just a few inches from a rock wall with brush that will whack your mirror! Anyhow …
After getting breakfast and a much needed coffee in Cork, we headed to Blarney Castle. Touristy and crowded, yes, but it was still nice, especially the walking paths in the gardens around the castle. By no means would I say that Blarney Castle is a “must see” as there are many castles that are just as nice or nicer without the crowds.
In the afternoon we checked into our hotel in Cork, happy to get out of the car and not drive for the rest of the day, and gave in to taking a nap. We walked around downtown Cork that evening, had a couple pints at Rising Sons Brewery, and enjoyed some of the excellent food that Cork is known for at Market Lane restaurant. It’s a cool little city, with nearby Kinsale, Cobh and Cashel great for day trips. We could’ve enjoyed a few days there but the next day we were off to the Dingle Peninsula!
The Dingle Peninsula
The Dingle Peninsula is fantastic! It has the rolling green pastures with grazing cows and sheep that I expected to see in Ireland, but the dramatic coastline with its steep cliffs and pristine beaches was what really wow’d us! The mountainous middle of the peninsula had the craggy landscape I would expect to see in Scotland. Lots of tourists go to Dingle, sure, but it still felt very relaxing there and it didn’t feel nearly as touristy as nearby Killarney
The Conor Pass, which cuts through the mountainous middle of the peninsula, is a must-see on a clear day. There are several hiking trails from the top of the pass and a great waterfall just off the road. I had read a lot of scary things about driving on Conor Pass, but it was no worse than driving anywhere else. I actually prefer one-lane roads because then at least you or the other car will pull over so one can pass, rather than both cars squeezing by each other at 80 km/hr!
The star of the Dingle Peninsula and the highlight of our trip was Slea Head Drive, a loop around the west coast of the peninsula. There are several turnouts for taking pictures of the coastline and parking areas for exploring ancient stone forts. If you enjoy hiking, (or “walking” as its called in Europe), there are a lot of 4-6 hour hikes in this area. The Sybil Head and Three Sisters route looks stunning. Again, relatively clear weather is a must to really enjoy this coastal scenery.
Slea Head Drive’s Must See:
- Slea Head Beach
- Dunquin Harbour
- Clogher Head
- Three Sisters
From Dunquin Harbor we took a 20 minute boat ride to Great Blasket Island for about 4 hours of walking around the ruins in the abandoned village, the hills and the cliffs along it’s coast. There really isn’t much to do there but it’s a cool island to walk around on, relax on the beach surrounded by tall cliffs, or if you have the endurance there’s a great hike up and across the island.
We also enjoyed seeing the bee hive huts, Dunbeg Promontory Fort, Gallarus Oratory and Kilmalkedar Church on the Slea Head Loop but I personally wouldn’t call them must see.
Other Places to go around Dingle:
Downtown Dingle itself is a nice little town on the water with lots of B&Bs, restaurants, pubs and shops. The seafood is excellent here and many of the pubs have live music every night. Inch Beach is absolutely enormous and looks like a popular place to surf. Nearby is Minard Castle, castle ruins on private property next to a large unnamed beach. Although it was cloudy on the day I went, Glanteenassig Forest Park was a nice place to visit for peace and quiet and to enjoy the mountain views. You can hike to the ponds at Glanteenasig or drive like I did on the dirt roads. You could also climb Mount Brandon, the highest peak on the peninsula. I think takes about 3 to 5 hours and I’ve heard that there are great 360 views from its summit.
Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry
I had heard that Killarney was absolutely packed with tourists and that was no exaggeration! It’s a busy city with lots of restaurants, pubs, shopping and TRAFFIC! Killarney is of course a good place to stay when visiting Killarney National Park, and it offers the most opportunities for shopping out of anywhere we went on our trip, but now I understand why some people stay in other towns on or near the Ring of Kerry like Kenmare for a more peaceful environment.
As for the ring of Kerry, I’ll start with the hot spots at Killarney National Park. For the best view on a clear day, go to Ladies View. We went there for sunset on our first night and we were the only ones there. There’s a restaurant across the street from the view point with a balcony that wasn’t open when we were there but looked like a nice place to go during the day if it doesn’t get too busy.
I also recommend seeing Ross Castle, Muckross House and Torc Waterfall. All have lots of walking paths around them ranging from a short walk to a half day trek. Ross Castle can be visited any time and it looks really nice in the evening when it’s lit up. From Ross Castle there are also several boat tours.
The Muckross House gates close at 8pm. It’s a gorgeous mansion with perfectly manicured grounds and views of the mountains accross the lake. Like Ross Castle, there are several walking paths of various lengths that start at the lerge parking lot here. When we visited at 6:30pm there weren’t many people there, making this a very relaxing place to go, but I’m sure it gets pretty busy during the day with tour busses.
Torc Waterfall can be viewed any time. We went in the afternoon and it was full of people taking selfies so we visited again at 8:30pm and had it to ourselves. It’s just a five minute walk from the parking lot to the falls or you can go on a longer walk around the falls.
We also saw Molls Gap and Gap of Dunloe but were underwhelmed by both. Molls Gap is a viewpoint on the ring near Ladies View. Gap of Dunloe can be visited by driving (not recommended and frowned upon by locals), walking, biking or taking a horse/carriage from the parking area at Kate Kearney’s cottage. We took the horse/carriage ride to the gap and planned to walk back but were underwhelmed by the views so we took the ride back too. People rave about this place on Tripadvisor, some say it was the highlight of their trip to Ireland, but we thought it was blah. Maybe it was too cold and cloudy on the day we went. There’s also an option of taking a boat from Ross Castle to Lord Brandon’s cottage, walking to where a horse/carriage can pick you up at the gap, riding to Kate Kearney’s cottage, then taking a cab back to your car. However we couldn’t figure out the details of how all of that worked. Oh well.
Now, onto the Ring of Kerry … This was a long day! We drive the ring in a counter-clockwise direction, the same direction that the tour busses take, because we would rather get stuck behind a tour bus than face one on a narrow hairpin turn! Thankfully since we left at 10:30am, all of the tour busses were already long gone and we faced very minimal traffic.
Our first stop was actually a slight detour off the ring to Ballycarbery Castle and Leacanabuaile Stone Fort. Off the beaten path, I think that these castle ruins are the best I’ve been to and it was free to visit and non-commercialized! You’re free to explore the inside of the castle ruins which was really fun to do. The nearby forts were really cool too and are also free to visit. There’s a nice loop that goes around the two forts with great scenery and lots of sheep around you!
Next, we crossed the bridge to get back on the Ring of Kerry at Cahersiveen, a nice town with a busy downtown with a bunch of pubs and restaurants. We took the quick car ferry to Valentia Island and drove up to Geokaun Mountain & Cliffs, where we enjoyed the views of the cliffs and Skellig islands from high above until a sudden down pour with high winds sent us running back to our car! At Geokaun there are several loops to walk on or you can just drive to the scenic overlooks.
Next up, Kerry Cliffs! The weather remained volatile here and it was probably the windiest conditions I’ve ever been outside in but that just made the experience more memorable! The views are absolutely outstanding here. Pictures don’t do it justice. The cliffs here are HUGE.
At this point, we had only been about halfway on the Ring of Kerry, but it was getting late in the day and it had gotten overcast, so we got dinner at Cable O’Leary’s Pub where they happened to be having a live music competition that night and then drove back the rest of the way without stopping at the hot spots in Waterville, Derryane Beach and Castlecove Beach near Caherdaniel,and Sneam. If we had another day, I would’ve liked to explore those areas more. Also, if we had more time, if my wife didn’t get sea sick, and if the seas were calm enough for the boats to run, we would’ve loved to go to the island of Skellig Michael. Now famous because it’s where they filmed the scene in Star Wars when Rey finds Luke Skywalker, this place looks like it’s on another planet. If you’re fit enough to climb the rock stairs, I recommend booking a boat trip in advance and crossing your fingers for good weather!
On our last evening in Killarney, we walked down the street from our B&B and had wood fired pizza and craft beer at Killarney Brewing Company. This was a really cool place and I liked every beer I tried, which was every beer they made! Like Cork and the Dingle Peninsula, we could’ve stayed in the Killarney region a lot longer. I would’ve loved to climb Carrauntoohil Mountain via Devil’s Ladder in Macgillycuddy’s Reeks.
On our last day, on the way back to Cork airport we took a detour to see Kinsale. This is a really pretty town on the sea with a cute downtown, a big beach, a huge fort built in the 1600s, and an awesome golf course and cliff views at Old Head Peninsula. Kinsale seems like it would be a really nice place to stay if you want to explore the greater Cork region.
Where else would I like to go in Ireland?
One hour from Cork, I’ve heard that the Rock of Cashel and Glen of Aherlow are stunning to see in person. Between Cork and Kerry are a lot of places on the coast I would love to see, like Inchydoney Beach in Clonakilty, Galley Head Lighthouse, Drombeg Stone Circle, Kilcoe Castle, Mizen Head Peninsula, Beara Peninsula, and Gougane Barra National Forest. I looked into doing the longer drive along the Southern coast from Cork to Killarney but it would’ve been too much time on the road for us with only so much time in Ireland. We had planned on going to Cliffs of Moher and Kilkee in County Claire but again there wasn’t enough time to make that 3 hour drive each way. If I did it again, I think I would fly into Cork and fly out of Shannon so that I could see that area without backtracking. If flying into Dublin, it would be cool to spend a few nights in the city and see nearby Glendaiough and Wicklow Mountains National Park. The Cliffs of Moher are a 3 hour drive from Dublin as well. North of the cliffs is Galway, Aran Islands, and Connemara National Park. Farther north is beautiful County Mayo and at the extreme Northwest is Donegal. Some of the best pictures I’ve seen are of the coastline around Donegal. Then of course there’s Northern Ireland with its famous Giant’s Causeway. I could easily spend a month in Ireland! However, you do need good weather to enjoy the magnificent scenery in Ireland and unfortunately Ireland does get quite a bit of rain and cloudy/overcast days. It’s best to spend at least a week there so that a few wash-out days won’t ruin your trip. The weather changes very quickly though so don’t worry if rain clouds move in because they’ll probably move out just as fast!
Ireland Travel Tips
- If renting a car, reserve in advance a compact car, automatic if needed
- If driving, prepare by learning what the road signs mean and traffic circle rules (turn left!)
- If driving, adjust your mirrors so to see how close your tires are to the lanes.
- Download an offline map in Google Maps of where you’re going in Ireland.
- Save the places you want to see in Google Maps (will work on offline map)
- Bring a rain coat and warm clothes for when the wind is kicking on the coast.
- Bring power plug adapters (or you can buy them at the airport there).
- Get Euros by withdrawing money from an ATM at the airport.
- At some pubs/restaurants, you’ll order at the counter and/or pay at the register.
- Tipping is not expected at a pub. 10%-15% is appreciated at restaurants.
- You’ll pay for each round of drinks, not run a tab and pay when you’re done.
- Lonely Planet: Ireland’s Best Trips
- Lonely Planet: Ireland Travel Guide
- Back Roads Ireland
- Rick Steves Ireland