Do you imagine sheep and leprechauns or St. Patrick and Guinness when you think of Ireland?! It is true, we want the myths and legends to be true, but deep down, we know that the reality is probably very different.
So, what can you really expect from the cities – Dublin and beyond - on a visit to Ireland? Below are a few of the top-visited cities in Ireland.
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When planning vacations for our clients, we like to incorporate the highlights while getting them off the beaten path. We also want to consider our client's interests and passions when crafting a tour of Ireland. Golf enthusiast? Let's get you a few tee times! Whiskey drinker? Let's get you a driver guide that knows all the best local pubs! Interested in spending your nights in a castle? We can arrange a private castle stay or put you up in the iconic castles Ireland is known for!
For now, let us take a look at the top five spots in Ireland and what you can expect on a trip to the Emerald Isle:
1. Cork – the Rebel County
Cork is nicknamed the “Rebel County” and is considered the second capital of Ireland. Situated on the River Lee in the very south of the island, Cork is also a very compact city with old Georgian buildings and very narrow streets.
Have you heard of the Blarney Stone? It’s here! Legend says, if you kiss this magical stone, you will have the “gift of the gab,” which is an Irish way to say that you will be given an innate ability to charm people with words. This stone is at Blarney Castle, also one of Ireland's most spectacular castles.
Cork has also reinvented itself in recent years, with artisan coffee shops and art galleries popping up all over the city. In between, you can find many busy shopping streets, but the farmer's markets are a much better way to acquaint yourself with the locals. As for the surrounding area, there are many regions worth visiting, such as nearby Killarney or the Ring of Kerry. However, the small fishing towns of Cork are probably the most interesting part of the countryside, as is the harbor at Cobh, where the Titanic made its final stop in April 1912.
Cork may be the second capital, but the location and quiet country villages make this a worthwhile stop on a trip around the southern coastline of Ireland.
Dublin is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, with a colorful nightlife and an interesting variety of things to do. For example, where else can you uncover the history of the Vikings and drink it down with a Guinness?
Located on the eastern coastline, Dublin is the gateway to Ireland and the most common destination for international flights. Of course, it was once a colony of Britain, which means that Georgian architecture and remnants of the British Empire are prominent throughout the capital.
On the other hand, there is authenticity at every turn and just as many attractions. For example, Kilmainham Gaol, a jail turned museum, was first built in the 1800s and eventually used to imprison Irish leaders at a time when they rebelled against the British Empire. An enthralling story lies behind the prison and, best of all, you get to listen to this story as you walk between the prison walls.
Meanwhile, just across the road, St. James’s Gate is home to the very first and original brewery for Guinness. Once again, you can walk through the old factory, which is now a museum, and uncover the fascinating story behind the famous beer. As for the nightlife, Temple Bar is widely regarded as the “best night out in Europe” with traditional music and an incredibly fun atmosphere every night of the week.
That being said, the variety of local bars and nightclubs is staggering and far beyond anything we might see on this side of the world. Dublin is also the gateway to everywhere else on the island and the perfect stop before venturing further into the Emerald Isle.
3. Galway – the Cultural Capital of Ireland
Galway is often referred to as a “Bohemian” city and it is easy to see why with so much culture throughout. Galway is also the type of place that feels more like a local town than an urban area of any kind.
For many visitors, the main streets of Galway are much closer to what they expected of Ireland and certainly a lot more culture-driven than the capital. In fact, Galway can seem even more medieval than most cities in Ireland with the presence of cobblestone streets, churches, and ancient facades.
As with any city, you will find cafés and restaurants at every turn but also a particularly large number of craft shops. In case you might be asking yourself, these craft shops consist of books, clothes, souvenirs, Celtic jewelry, and anything else you can possibly imagine.
Meanwhile, Galway is full of museums and galleries which is largely due to the number of artists in the area. Most of these are open to the public and offer a great way to interact with some locals. After dark, the popularity of Galway is confirmed with live music in almost every bar on Main Street and a friendly atmosphere which is often the highlight for those who visit.
In terms of surroundings, Galway is also perfectly located to explore nearby Salthill or Galway Bay, but the Cliffs of Moher and the enchanting Burren landscape are usually the reason for it being so popular.
The Cliffs of Moher are just forty minutes from Galway and the drive also takes in the mystical landscapes of the Burren. The Burren is a truly bizarre limestone landscape where ancient tombs and relics can be found amidst the most impressive rock formations. As for the first of these landmarks, the Cliffs of Moher are 700 feet high and are the most popular tourist attraction in Ireland.
4. Belfast – the Birthplace of the Titanic
Even though Belfast is less than two hours north of Dublin, this industrious city is largely different from the capital of the Republic. For many visitors, it might just be a stopover en route to the Giant’s Causeway to the north, but nonetheless, it offers another perspective on this tiny landmass next to the Atlantic.
In case you might not know, “Republic” refers to southern Ireland, while Belfast, in the north, is technically still part of the United Kingdom. Anyway, life can seem somewhat subdued
at first but, rest assured, Belfast has many attractions that make it a “must-see” for visitors to Ireland.
Take the Titanic Experience for example, one of the most impressive Titanic museums in the world. You will find interactive experiences here and the attraction won a prestigious title at the World Travel Awards just two years ago.
The unfortunate history of Northern Ireland is usually the stand-out feature of the city. That is to say, Belfast has endured a very difficult past and visitors can uncover this dark side on an incredible tour of the neighborhoods affected by these troubles in West Belfast.
Likewise, Crumlin Road Gaol is a fascinating encounter and the Victorian architecture is interspersed with art galleries, lively bars, and fantastic restaurants. All considered, Belfast can feel quite different from the cities elsewhere in Ireland but the colorful history and unique attractions ensure this is the perfect place to stop en route to the Giant’s Causeway.
5. Kilkenny – The Smallest City in Ireland
Kilkenny is certainly the least visited destination on this list but quite possibly the most intriguing as far as cities are concerned. In fact, this is the smallest city in Ireland and as a result, Kilkenny has a very small-town feel.
At the very heart, you will find Kilkenny Castle, one of the most spectacular in the country. Almost every part of the castle is open to visitors and even the gardens can evoke images of medieval times. Indeed, this castle is symbolic of what you will find elsewhere in the city, for every narrow laneway seems to be cobblestoned with endless churches and abbeys to explore on either side.
As you might expect, there is no end to restaurants or bars in Kilkenny, and in spite of being smaller than other cities, it is just as popular with tourists. The River Nore also runs right through the center and the views from St. Candice Church are a sight to behold. While it might be the smallest city in Ireland it is easy to see why Kilkenny is so popular. After all, how many cities have such an awe-inspiring castle or a chance to step back to a time when horses and carts used to saunter through these very laneways?
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As you can see, there is something different to experience in every corner of Ireland. While the capital is much more like cities elsewhere in Europe, it still offers a truly authentic and genuine experience. At the same time, Dublin is also a gateway to the rest of the island and the many vibrant cities that are waiting to be explored.
Traveling to Ireland and staying in one place is a crime! You'll want to travel around Ireland and stay in a variety of accommodations and cities/towns to really experience Ireland. For that reason you'll want to have a solid plan/itinerary.
If you're ready to experience the luck of the Irish and want help crafting a memorable itinerary, reach out and schedule a complimentary consultation!
We can discuss which method of traveling Ireland suites you best- self-drive, joining an existing group tour, or hiring a private Driver-Guide (we connect you with the BEST in the industry).
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We look forward to helping you create your next memorable vacation!