I didn’t really know what to expect when I booked my trip to Ireland this winter. All I knew was I’d always wanted to go because the scenery looked beautiful, and I had the money to do it since I had a full-time job.
My only exposure to the Emerald Isle was from the several period dramas I’ve watched and obsessed about over the years. I decided on a bus trip like I’d done in England and Spain before, just so I had the safety of a group, and so I didn’t have to drive around by myself on the other side of the road!
I’m only ever traveled overseas with my family, but I did this trip on my own since I didn’t know anyone that would want to or could go.
I saved all spring and all of a sudden, the trip was upon me. I flew overnight and got to Dublin at about 10am the day before the trip. I’d added a day because I noticed we didn’t spend a lot of time in Dublin, so I wanted time to explore on my own.
After taking some time to figure out the city bus system (I was staying just north of the city center in the suburbs), I made my way downtown and bought a ticket for the Hop On, Hop Off bus.
I rode the whole circuit first, which took about two hours and had 24 stops/sights. I passed by Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, the Guinness Storehouse, the pedestrian-only O’Connell Street, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, getting a good handle on the city.
Dublin is quite an industrial-looking city, and not what I’d call pretty. There were definitely “touristy” areas, but overall, Ireland doesn’t have nearly the amount of tourists that Europe does, so many of the top spots weren’t really all that crowded. The city is small too, with about 1.2 million people. Most of the sites were situated within walking distance, so I felt like I got a good overview of the city.
After touring what felt like the entire city in an afternoon, I went back to the hotel and proceeded to sleep for 12 hours. I’d planned on stopping by a few of the sites I’d seen on the tour and going inside the following day, but I didn’t even get downtown until 10:30am and I had to meet the tour group at 3pm, so I went to the Dublin Archeological Museum, which was small, but had some really amazing artifacts from the Viking age.
I met up with the group at 3 for another tour of the city, basically covering the same sites,
only fewer. That night, we went to an Irish Cabaret dinner, which was kind of touristy, but featured some cute dancers at least!
Day 2 dawned with a drive north towards Northern Ireland. Along the way, we stopped at Downpatrick, a cute town that holds the supposed burial place of St. Patrick. We drove through the beautiful Boyne Valley and mountains and got to Belfast after lunch.
Belfast has a pretty ugly and violent history, as does much of Northern Ireland. Although there is still some tension between Protestants and Catholics, the former industrial powerhouse city is actually quite safe these days.
It used to be a shipyard town and the Titanic was built and launched there, but these days, there’s not much going on. It was very industrial-looking and a little run down, but the brand new Titanic Museum hopes to bring more tourism to the area.
We spent the afternoon there after a quick driving tour of Belfast. I was excited to see the studio where Game Of Thrones is filmed (they film a lot in Northern Ireland) right next to the museum, which was built to look like the Titanic’s bow, same height and all.
As museums go, it was quite impressive inside with lots of interactive features. I spent the evening eating in a nice pub with some of my new friends and took a walk around the city’s pretty City Hall.
The next morning we were off to one of my most anticipated sites, Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim Coast.
When we got there, we hopped on a trolley bus down to the ocean and had an hour or so to explore. Giant’s Causeway is really indescribable. It was formed by volcanic activity thousands of years ago and is an extremely unique phenomenon.
There really wasn’t any guidance besides a headset if you wanted it. Visitors are free to wander around the rocks at their own risk (there is a safety officer hanging around in case someone is injured. Quite different than America’s litigious society!).
We moved on to Londonderry next, but only for a quick lunch stop, which was unfortunate. I think there’s a lot more to this city then we saw, so I guess I’ll have to add it to my list for next time!
We got to go inside a modern mall, which was neat to see how modern Ireland lives, and then I took a walk along the ancient city wall that encircles the old town.
We made another quick stop in Donegal and had time to pay 4 Euros to wander around an ancient castle that was largely intact.
We ended the day in Sligo, another suburban city, but there really wasn’t anything to see or do where we were staying.
Day 4 had us heading south to Knock, a village that attracts religious pilgrims to a statue in the town church. It was deathly quite since it was a Sunday, but this was really only a
coffee break stop.
Galway was next. It was quite rainy and cold in the city of Galway, but I wandered around the pedestrian street down to the water and back, stopping in some shops along the way. It was another city where I feel like I needed more time.
We stopped at Galway Bay, which gave us our first view of some amazing scenery. It was crazy windy, but really beautiful. We drove for several miles through The Burren, a really interesting, rocky landscape that’s unique to Ireland.
We wound along the narrow roads near the coast, through farms, fields and small villages until we reached the next blockbuster site, The Cliffs of Moher.
Nothing can really prepare you for the breathtaking view (or the wind!) at the Cliffs. I walked along one pedestrian path up a hill so I could get a good look back at them and the people on the road on the cliff edge looked like tony little dots. They really were amazing.
As with many of Ireland’s more touristy spots, there was a new museum and gift shop. Tourism has only become a thing in Ireland in the last 10 years or so.
After marveling at the natural beauty of Ireland, we took a scenic drive to Ennis, where we went to a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle. Yes, it was touristy, but less hokey than the cabaret dancing we saw.
We listened to some traditional music, complete with Irish harp, and had some mead, which is a cider flavored alcoholic drink that lords and ladies used to drink. I liked it!
We moved along to the banquet hall, where we sat on benches and were served traditional food, all without utensils, while listening to some traditional Irish songs.
The sun finally broke through on Day 5 as we left Ennis and headed past Limerick, stopping for a coffee break in Adare, which featured some cute thatched-roof cottages.
After that, it was off to Dingle, a seaside town, then on the 32-mile drive around the Dingle Peninsula.
I’m happy I was on a bus and not driving a car for this excursion, considering we were winding up and down one lane roads, while cars had to yield to us. We had to stop for awhile while one guy backed his car up the side of the cliff until he could pull over so we could pass. That was a little scary as I looked out the bus window and down the sheer drop into the ocean!
This was the Ireland I had hoped to see. Beautiful valleys with farms featuring dry stone walls, looking out over the green-blue water, smell of the ocean air and the sound of peaceful silence. It really was the stuff of dreams.
We stopped for plenty of photo ops before moving on to Killarney, a pretty touristy town that a lot of Americans visit.
We went to Muckross House, an 18th century restored home that Queen Victoria visited, sparking the tourism industry in Ireland. It rivaled the great homes I’ve visited in the U.S., with mostly original furnishings and a working farm, all situated on a beautiful lake. It was just too bad I couldn’t take photos inside!
The next morning we started off bright and early on the Ring of Kerry, supposedly the most scenic drive in Ireland. Unfortunately, the fog and mist was so thick, you could barely see you’re hand in front of your face. I was quite disappointed, but I guess you just had to laugh. (We got pretty lucky overall, with a couple of sunny days and mostly cloudy, but rain-free ones.)
We did get to see some scenery as we went up and down the hills, but when looking straight down into the ocean, all you could see was fog.
That night, we went to the National Folk Theater where we saw an interpretive dance-type performance. It was telling an old Irish folktale through dance, which was interesting at least.
On Day 7, we drove to Blarney to kiss the Blarney Stone. I wasn’t about the lean over backwards and kiss a dirty rock, so I wandered around the castle, which was built on top of a rocky cave.
The gardens and house were really stunning and I wish I’d had time to tour the house and check out more of the grounds.
We passed through Youghal before stopping in Waterford to check out the Waterford Crystal factory.
A guide took our group through the working factory where we watched glass blowers and artists working on the crystal. Most pieces cost more than my salary in a year!
That evening we arrived in Tramore, a seaside resort town. My hotel room had a cool balcony overlooking the sea with a view of a cute seaside amusement park.
We took a drive through the little town that had thatched cottages, a seaside race track, a light house and beautiful cliffs before making our way to a 300-year-old pub that’s been owned by the same family since the beginning.
Our local guide was also a musician and played us some traditional pub songs, as well as one of my favorites, “Galway Girl” that was featured in the movie “P.S. I Love You” (one of my favorites!)
With a pint of Guinness and some great music, it was a really memorable night, one of those that I always dreamed of when imagining Ireland.
We headed north towards Dublin on our last day, and stopped at one of the oldest weaving mills at Avoca before heading to Glendalough.
Glendalough is a ruined monastic settlement with one of very few complete watch towers and a haunting graveyard full of Celtic crosses. I wandered down to the lake and back, enjoying one of the few days of sunshine we had.
We ended the day back in Dublin, where I walked back towards the center of town with a few people from my group. After wandering around Trinity College again, we went to the Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s biggest tourist spot.
The museum was interesting, even if you’re not a beer drinker. At the end of the tour, we ended up at the Gravity Bar for a free pint and a 360 degree view of Dublin.
I traveled over 1,000 miles around Ireland and felt like I saw almost every major site. It felt different then the other countries I’ve visited so far in that there aren’t a lot of blockbuster sites and far less tourists. It was definitely manageable in 10 days.
Our guide, Kevin, was really amazing. He had to leave for two days because his mother-in-law died, but he was cheery, funny and knowledgable the whole time. A good guide really makes these trips worth it I’ve found. I learned so much about the history of Ireland as we drove.
Overall, I was charmed by the beauty of the landscape, the music, culture, the people, their friendliness and the pride they have in their heritage and country.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before and I can’t wait to go back. Although there are still other spots I wanted to visit (Connemara, Kildare, etc.), I feel like I came back rested, refreshed and more knowledgable of how another culture lives.