No matter how many times I return to Ireland, there are five top spots that head up my ultimate Irish bucket list. Looking for an authentic Irish experience? Here’s where you need to go.
Best city adventure: Belfast
Not Dublin, I hear you ask? Well, yes, Dublin is an amazing ‘fair’ city, but if you head to Ireland you are probably going to pass through there on your way in or out. However, situated in Northern Ireland is Belfast – a destination you should add to your must-see list.
It’s so much smaller than Dublin (300,000 residents compared to more than a million), it’s easier to navigate and the recent challenging political and social history means it’s a city that seems to try harder to please. In particular, the ‘Troubles’ in the ’60s, ’70s and ’90s have left a legacy.
Those interested in this internecine conflict will be fascinated by the Black Cab tours of murals and peace walls. Earlier history is celebrated in the new Titanic Belfast centre, opened in 2012 and already winner of multiple best tourism experience awards. Built on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyards, you can do Titanic-themed walks around the shipyard and drawing rooms where this ill-fated vessel was designed and launched.
As you would expect, Belfast pubs are dark, historic, heaving with humanity and full of fun, craft beers and craic. In particular, the Crown Liquor Salon, replete with gas lamps and carved mahogany banquettes, evokes Victorian times and customs.
The stunning architecture and gardens of Queen’s University is worth the short walk from the city centre. Opened in 1849, it boasts world famous alumni including writer Seamus Heaney. A port town, Belfast is naturally home to some of Ireland’s finest seafood. Try local favourite Mourne Seafood Bar for a mouth-watering array of mussels, oysters and shrimps.
Most atmospheric country town – Sligo
A 120km drive south-west from Belfast takes you back into the Republic of Ireland and the ancient town of Sligo. Situated on the coast at Sligo Bay, Sligo has the lot: stunning seaside vistas; rugged countryside hikes; a medieval abbey and unparalleled literary credentials as the home and heart of poet WB Yeats, celebrated in the Yeats Building near Hyde Bridge in the centre of town.
You can dash around for a day in Sligo, trying to cover much of what it has to offer – or settle into a comfy hotel or inn for two or three days and, at your leisure, enjoy the slower pace and community spirit of this ancient township.
Best Coastal drive – the Wild Atlantic Way
There are easier drives – and more well-mannered landscapes. But if rugged coastal scenery and brash, full-on Atlantic blasts tickle your sense of adventure, then here is where you want to travel.
Established in 2014, the Wild Atlantic Way is the most scenic, and arguably most authentic Irish experience. Stretching 2500km through three provinces and nine counties, it starts in the north in County Donegal and finishes in the south on the Celtic Sea at Kinsale, County Cork.
Along the way it is said to offer 1000 attractions and 2500 activities, including the famed Cliffs of Moher, The Burren environmental zone, the Dingle Peninsula and countless castles, shipwrecks, islands and foodie experiences. So it is fair to say that you will need a minimum of two weeks to even begin to explore this amazing tourist route. A word of advice – the weather can change in a heartbeat, so prepare for four seasons in a day and you’ll be alright.
To the (Irish Manor) born: Ballynahinch Castle
First established in the 14th century by pirate queen Grace O’Malley and her husband, the ‘modern’ home was built in 1756. Today the estate of Ballynahinch Castle encompasses 700 acres with lakes, sea frontage, forests and a walled garden.
Located in the heart of the Connemara region of Galway, it was recently voted the number one Irish castle by readers of Conde Nast magazine – and with good reason. Today the estate offers guided walks, boat trips, fly fishing, clay shooting, cycling for outdoor enthusiasts and a super luxury stay for those who want to treat themselves.
If the weather is inclement, there’s so much to explore and enjoy indoors, including whiskey-laden bars, sumptuous breakfast buffets, fine dining rooms and wall upon wall of ancient, family portraits. Once in a lifetime, everyone deserves an Irish castle experience – and Ballynahinch has the lot. If you have a car, the surrounding Connemara region is also replete with fabulous adventures.
Most colourful harbour town – Cork
Ireland has an abundance of coastal towns large and small. What sets Cork apart is its colourful and diverse architecture, quirky history and island location. Situated at the mouth of the River Lee, it is home to some 200,000 people and within easy driving distance of Limerick, Kilkenny and Waterford. Nearby Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’) is a picturesque historic port renowned as the last port of call for the Titanic. Kinsale, at the southern end of the Wild Atlantic Way, is a pretty fishing village and medieval fishing port.
Cork’s local history is quirky. You can visit St Anne’s Tower, Cork Butter Museum, Cork City Gaol, Black Rock Castle and kiss the Blarney stone at nearby Blarney Castle, all within a day.
There are local walks aplenty, hiking, fine and frugal dining options, pubs and bars and, for fans of the patron saint of Ireland, join the crowds at the St Patrick’s festival in March. Just to make it easy, you can fly in and out of Cork Airport to most European destinations.
Kaye visited Ireland as a guest of Tourism Ireland.
What’s on your Irish bucket list?
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