We really lucked out with weather on our road trip through the Emerald Isle.
I hope you get to have some sunshine on your trip, too!
Although we would have loved to stay longer and see Northern Ireland as well, this itinerary focuses on just the Republic of Ireland.
Welcome to our Irish road trip! Maybe I am biased but I think seeing Ireland by car is definitely the way to go. You have full flexibility of timing and where you want to go AND can get to those hard to reach places where tour buses won't be able to get you. However, car rental prices on Ireland tend to be VERY expensive! Not sure why they are so inflated... but it is definitely something to consider when planning your trip.
I will post about the trip in chronological order so you can plan your drive smoothly without too many back and forths (although... there is some of that too).
Most likely you will start your journey in Dublin. This is also where we started but we didn't stay long... nor at all. My husband and I had been to Dublin before and so it wasn't high on our list. We had a million other things we wanted to see. However, if you've never been to Dublin you should stay a night and see Trinity College, Temple Bar, do a Guinness Brewery tour and see some Irish dancing.
BRU NA BOINNE
From Dublin, we drove north to see this site... a set of Neolithic burial mounds that had caught my attention after we had read about them while visiting Stonehenge. The archaeological landscape within Brú na Bóinne is dominated by the three well-known large passage tombs, Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, built some 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic or Late Stone Age. An additional ninety monuments have been recorded in the area giving rise to one of the most significant archaeological complexes in terms of scale and density of monuments and the material evidence that accompanies them. The Brú na Bóinne tombs, in particular Knowth, contain the largest assemblage of megalithic art in Western Europe.
It's pretty nerdy and it took a lot of work to get our kiddo interested in what we were seeing... but sometimes we put things on the itinerary that isn't exactly "kid-friendly" so she can have a lesson in patience.
That being said- this place is hands down amazing and will blow your mind. How did they build this?!
This town will capture your heart. It was SO lively! There was live music happening everywhere, loads of people in the streets, and had a great energetic vibe as we walked around. We walked around and listened, people watched, ate at a pub, and found some traditional pub music to listen to. Galway encapsulates Ireland for me.
We kept hearing from people that when we go to Ireland we should go to a "trad night", but no one really explained to me what that was. "Trad" is a shortened name for "traditional music". Most pubs will have days and hours that they will have traditional music playing... but it is not a concert by any means. It will consist of 3-8 musicians sitting around somewhere in the pub playing music, but they also socialize between songs. You don't really get a seat to watch them, but you sit at the bar with a drink to listen or you sit somewhere for food and listen but can't see them. If you had kids with you, make sure that they allow kids to come in for their trad nights. If the music session starts before 9pm then it is USUALLY kid friendly.
Planning tip- You can google "best pubs for music in _____ (whichever city)
and it will come up with a list of pubs.
From there you can check websites and make
reservations for pubs you are interested in going to.
CLIFFS OF MOHER
Ok but before we get to the cliffs... there are some GREAT places to see along the drive that you should most definitely stop at. Each stop was less than an hour and are along the way.
1- Dunguiare Castle. It was built in 1520 by the O’Hynes clan on the picturesque shores of Galway Bay. This restored 16th century tower house sits on a rocky outcrop on the shores of Galway Bay. Quick and simple stop. The kiddo loved it.
2- Second stop you should make on your way to the Cliffs of Moher is the Hazel Mountain Chocolate Factory! Ireland's only bean to bar chocolate factory. It was small and simple and oh, so delicious.
OKKKKKKKK now back on track! Let's get to the Cliffs of Moher! We opted to do the hike which starts in Doolin and you walk along the cliffs until you reach the visitors center. We love hiking and it worked great for us. I would suggest to get to Doolin by 10am because the parking situation does get a little bit busy in the afternoon.
PS- Doolin is adorable. The best part about the hike was ending back in Doolin and eating in this quaint seaside town.
The hike from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher is about 4 miles one way. It is a steady incline the whole way, but no big pulls or scrambling. There are a few bits where you get disturbingly close to the edge and during windy weather can be quite dangerous. Something to consider if you are hiking with children! We hiked on the best weather day we had. It was sunny and hot. No wind. Lots of animals along the way. And the views were unbelievable.
From the visitors center, we opted to take the bus back to Doolin. Ideally there is one every hour but for some reason there was a three hour gap between buses and we barely missed the first. We ended up doing a lot of waiting at the visitors centre because we didn't want to hike back... this was the only downside of doing the hike.
Travel Tip- If you don't want to hike, you can DRIVE all the way to the Cliffs. There is a large parking lot by the visitors center and it is a small uphill walk to get to the viewpoint. You can also walk down the path a little ways to the north or south for differing views.
The next day we were back in Doolin but this time just to the pier to catch a ferry to the Aran Islands! The Aran Islands are 3 rocky isles guarding the mouth of Galway Bay, in western Ireland. They’re known for their ancient sites. The largest island, Inishmore, is home to the prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa, perched on top of a high cliff... which is where we were headed. Oh and one more thing... the only way to get around on these islands is by bikes, feet, or horse and buggy. Felt like we stepped into another world!
We opted for bikes to get us to Dún Aonghasa. It was a three mile bike ride and was relatively flat. We stopped along the way to watch seals play around in the water and to admire the weird flat landscape.
Dún Aonghasa was insane. Perilously perched on a sheer sea-cliff, Dún Aonghasa defiantly faces the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest of the prehistoric stone forts of the Aran Islands.
The fort consists of three massive drystone defence walls. Dún Aonghasa is over 3,000 years old. Excavations have revealed significant evidence of prehistoric metalworking, as well as several houses and burials. Literally on the edge of a cliff... no guard rails. Hold on to your kiddos!
Touristy to the core- but SO MUCH FUN. It is a castle combined with folk park and there was endless amounts of fun to be had. The castle claims to be the most complete and authentic in Ireland... and I suppose that is true. Everything was well in tact and was lived in for some time. I found the hallways in the towers to be narrow and super claustrophobic with lots of spiders... but maybe that is what makes it authentic? Hahaha
The castle was cool but what made Bunratty so fun was the folk park, the playgrounds, the gardens, the petting zoo, the fairy trail, AND...
their "Ceili in the Kitchen" program in the evening. After the park is closed, all their performers come to the barn and put on a show of Irish music and dancing whilst eating delicious Irish food. This was a magical evening for all of us and I think our little one is still trying to figure out how to do Irish dancing. We LOVED it.
ROCK OF CASHEL
Out of all the historically important places we saw... this one is probably at the top. It is rumored that here at this site, St. Patrick converted the last Pagan king of Ireland to Christianity... thus changing the course of Ireland's history forever. It's a pilgrimage site for a lot of Catholics and we even saw a newly minted priest there with his parents taking a tour.
We got there just in time for a free guided tour around the site. Dad was very into it... but the kiddo lost interest from the beginning. Irish accents were kind of hard for her to understand and our tour guide had a thick one!
I wish we had gotten to see more of Limerick... but we mainly focused on King John's castle and then had to move on. So if you get to go into the city centre, let me know all about it!
Bringing over 800 years of local history to life, a visit to King John's Castle is a must when visiting Limerick City. The castle itself has a turbluent history dating back to Viking times and has undergone several sieges, battles and triumphs over its long history. King John's castle was a lot of fun for the kiddo because they had a lot of hands on exhibits, games and activities for the kids to do.
Walking along the upper castle walls provided some excellent views over the valley and the River Shannon. Ireland. Sheesh. What a beautiful country.
RING OF KERRY
One of the most popular things to do in Ireland and we had the best experience... which is rare during the summer. Typically, people get annoyed with the Ring of Kerry because it is filled with tour buses that go slow and lots of tour groups clogging up the sites. We had NONE of that. Let me expand on our little secret on how we accomplished it... I think it was due to several deliberate decisions and a happy coincidence that we made.
One of the highest priority things on our "Ring of Kerry" must sees was the Skellig Islands, as it is a big Star Wars filming site and my husband is a big Star Wars nerd. The Skellig Islands are actually a little off the ring and is a southern tangent ring of its own called the "Skellig Ring". Creative. Ok SOOOO because we wanted to see these islands, we had to book a boat tour and had a set time we had to be in Portmagee pier. Due to this, we started the northern part of the Ring of Kerry SUPER early. Definitely before any tour buses were on the road.
Our first stop was the overlook over Rossbeigh Beach. Would have loved to stay at this beach all day and swim. It was beautiful in the early morning light.
Second stop were some ring forts. The main stop is Cahergal Stone fort which has been restored to how it looked in its 7th century glory. We opted to stop at the lesser known Leacanabuaile Fort which is just as glorious but has moss growing all over it. Rustic.
Third Stop was Ballycarbery castle. We weren't able to cross the fence to go see it... and our drone wasn't working. Such a bummer! This link tells a great history of all of these sites that are really close to each other.
As our boat departure time edged closer, we had to make our way over to Portmagee for our fourth stop to get on our boat cruise to the Skellig Islands. Portmagee is a small and quaint seaside village. We had to split up on our next portion of the trip because small children aren't allowed to hike up the islands and that is what my husband wanted to do. The kiddo and I opted for just the boat cruise- which goes around the islands... our story is that we got terribly seasick and thought we were going to vomit on each other. BUT my husband had a great time hiking up Skellig Michael.
The hike up to Skellig Michael was incredible for him. He saw a million puffins and got to see all of the iconic filming spots from the Star Wars movies... he thinks he even saw Luke Skywalker somewhere up there. Besides being known for Star Wars, Skellig Michael is known for the 8th century monster that dots the island. The monastery is built into a terraced shelf 600 ft above sea level. It contains several buildings including a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs, six domed beehive cells and a medieval church. It's all built from stone from the island AND is still water tight... hundreds of years later... WHAT?!
We got back to Portmagee before him, ate lunch and tried to cure our nausea. We were a wreck. Once he was back we set off on a little hike up at the tip of Valentia Island. It was a very easy gradual walk to get a view of the Skellig Islands from land. The hike is called "Bray Head Loop Walk" but you can easily just do an out and back from the car park instead of the full loop.
Now for the secret... This adventure out in Portmagee, Skellig Islands and Bray Head walk-- took up the portion of the day. We were here from 10:00 to about 3:00. SO now when we get back onto the Ring of the Kerry, MOST tour buses have already been through and we don't see hardly any buses at all! It was glorious. AND because the days are so long in Ireland in the summer... we didn't worry about not being able to see the rest of the Ring.
Fifth stop was Derrynane Beach. Such a beautiful place. The wind was picking up as we got here and felt like we were too cold to swim, but there were definitely people in their swimsuits enjoying the water! At low tide, you can walk out to the Abbey ruins and explore them. Unfortunately we got there at the wrong time to be able to do that!
Sixth stop was Kenmare. Cute and colorful town at the end of the Ring Road. This town reminded me alot of towns in the Lake District of England. Lots of people in outdoor clothing and hiking boots. A definite outdoors-y vibe! We ate dinner here and afterwards took a little walk to the Kenmare stone circle which is just oustide the city centre. We caught it as the sun was going down and summoned some pagan goddesses as we danced around the circle.
Travel Tip- When planning your Ring of Kerry day,
give Killarney National Park it's own day.
This will also help with your ability to skip tour buses and crowds.
KILLARNEY NATIONAL PARK
This place deserves its own day, if possible. We had the best experience with Killarney Bike Rental and would highly recommend them! We booked bikes online for a day rental. You can pick up your bikes at any time within that day. We showed up and someone guided us where to park, showed us the bikes, and got us off and riding within minutes! They have all types of bikes for adults and children. The best part is that they are located across the street from a cycle path that leads directly into Killarney National Park. It was perfect for our timid cyclist because we didn't have to worry about any traffic. Seriously- such an easy and kid friendly day.
The first stop the bike rental company recommends on their family friendly route is Muckross Abbey. Ruined abbeys are kind of our favorite. So mystical and enchanting.
Next stop is Muckross House. This place reminded us of National Trust sites in England- big house with beautiful gardens and a cafe on site in case you're feeling peckish. It was a beautiful home. Also, horse and buggies were allowed on the cycle path.
Last stop on our bike ride route was Torc Waterfall. Another easy jaunt on our bikes and then we locked up the bikes for a short hike to the waterfall.
After we turned out bikes back into the rental company, we decided to drive into Killarney National Park. This is where we met with a LOT of tour buses. We were there later in the day so it could have been worse. We stopped at Ladies Viewpoint for some amazing views, a treat, and some walking around. We couldn't get over the beauty of this place. Wow.
Travel Tip- Again, if you can get to your first stop before 10:00 and then stay there for most of the day, you will skip a lot of the congestion with tour buses. Even then, we drove back to our Airbnb around 5:00pm and the town of Killarney was insanely busy with lots of traffic.
We couldn't leave Ireland without visiting this infamous place. Who came up with kissing a stone anyway? Don't they know about Covid? Gross. This place was the only place that we felt pretty annoyed with crowds. There were a million school groups here and there was a LONG line to kiss the Blarney Stone. Spoiler- we didn't get here before 10am.
There was surprisingly a lot to do here. Several different garden areas, playgrounds, cafes, and of course the castle. And yes, we waited in the long line to kiss a stone that was definitely not sanitized in between guests! The story of how the kissing of the stone came to be varies, depending on who you ask... but here are a couple of them!