A Beginners Guide to Planning an Ireland Itinerary
For First Timers, a southern loop around the island is a good introduction to Ireland; it has an excellent mix of scenery, towns and options that cater to visitors. It’s best to take at least 10 days for such a tour, this number just happens to extend beyond the one-week vacation most US citizens allot and the more ideal length of two weeks of travel.
With only a week and flying into/out of Dublin, time is extremely limited and distance – how far you can go versus how far you want to travel each day – must be considered. Driving in Ireland is not like driving in the US. Short distances can take a long time because of small winding roads, traffic, etc. Even the larger “motorways” can be slow due to traffic, accidents or just taking in the beautiful scenery and unfamiliar roads and signage. Visitors should expect to get lost at some point during their trip; it’s all part of the Irish Experience.
If you only have a week, it’s best to do one of two options: cover as much as of the island as possible with single night stays along the way OR plan on a series of bases along your route with multi-night stays that allow you to experience these areas with a bit more depth.
It is also important to be aware that Ireland has two major airports, Dublin on the east coast and Shannon on the west coast. Choosing the right airport or flying into one and out of the other can dramatically improve your experience and reduce unnecessary backtracking.
I’ve compiled two itineraries that offer a good “taste of Ireland.” The first option works best for those who like to see as much as possible or are okay with being on the go the entire trip… it’s an aggressive itinerary. Realize that you are sacrificing volume for quality – a lot of Ireland will be viewed through the car window. The second option means you’ll see fewer “big sites” in favor of more local experiences.
Itinerary 1: Southern Loop of Ireland – starting and ending in Dublin, moving each night
Day 1 – Kilkenny
Pick up your rental car at Dublin airport and head to town of Kilkenny. It’s a relatively quick drive (about 2 hours) and the town has plenty to interest you for the rest of the day with Kilkenny Castle and other historical buildings. There are several places just outside Kilkenny to visit such as Dunmore Cave and Jerpoint Abbey. Don’t do too much though, you’ll want a nice early start then next day.
Day 2 – Kinsale
Head to the seaside village of Kinsale making a couple of stops along the way. Main places of interest are the Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle, Blarney Castle, Cobh and Cork to name a few. There is no way you will fit in all these, but you could visit one or two. Kinsale also has a couple of forts nearby as well to visit.
Day 3 – Kenmare
The “long way” means you drive along the coast of Western County Cork and into County Kerry. Several stops can be made on the trip or you could opt for a side trip to the scenic Mizen Head or Dursey Head peninsulas, for example. Or you can drive directly to the town of Killarney for the sights you find there. The “short” way is to stick mostly to the main road (N22) between Cork city and Killarney. Although Killarney offers easy access the areas destinations, I prefer to stay in nearby Kenmare, especially during the busy summer season. A stop at Blarney Castle is an option on this route.
Day 4 – Clare
The first half of this day will be taken up driving from County Kerry to County Clare. Three to four hours depending on your route.
If you travel the land route through Limerick City, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park offers much to see and is worth even a quick stop. From Bunratty, head out to the coast to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, and if time permits, try taking some time to explore The Burren. The villages of Doolin, Lisdoonvarna or Ballyvaughan all offer great places to spend a night.
Alternatively, you can head up the Clare coast via the car ferry that crosses the Shannon River from Tarbert in County Kerry to Killimer in County Clare. You could travel to the Cliffs first, then move onwards to Bunratty or just head to Bunratty and experience the medieval banquet or Irish Night there. There are many lovely B&Bs in the Bunratty.
Day 5 – Galway
If you missed the Cliffs of Moher on Day 4, today is the day to go. You can take a half-day to visit the Cliffs and the Burren or just hit the Cliffs en route to Galway town for some great shopping and night life. If shopping isn’t your thing and you have the time, tour the beautiful Connemara region west of Galway town. Still stay in or near Galway however, if only for the many good restaurants, pubs, music and craic in the evening.
Day 6 – Dublin
The drive from Galway to Dublin can take as little as three or as many as four hours. There are stops to make if you like; the monastic ruins of Clonmacnois is along the way while the castle at Trim requires a bit of a detour. You may choose to drive directly to Dublin. Once in Dublin city, you won’t need the car any longer, but if you stay outside downtown Dublin, you may want to hang on to it.
Day 7 – Dublin
For those who give themselves a full seven days in Ireland, they can enjoy a whole day to explore Dublin departing for home on Day 8. Dublin is well worth a full day of exploration. The Hop On, Hop Off bus tour is ideal for an overview of the city. The Books of Kells, the National Museum, Kilmainham Goal and shopping, even if just window shopping, on Grafton Street are all top picks.
Extending Your Stay
This route also also works for a longer stay – ten days to two weeks is best. In this case, you can include several multiple night stays along the way. You can also do the above route in reverse, starting with a drive to Galway and working your way counterclockwise back to Dublin (see the next itinerary below.)
Itinerary 2: Southern Loop of Ireland – multiple night stays in several bases, starting and ending in Dublin
Day 1 – Galway
From Dublin airport, pick up your rental car and drive directly to Galway. Warning – this may be a tough drive for some international travelers, especially if they have difficultly sleeping on the flight. Stop as often as needed to stay safe, and once you make it into Galway, you can (hopefully) check into your B&B or hotel right away. You then have the rest of the day to explore Galway town.
Day 2 – Galway
Connemara is the area West of the town of Galway, and it’s a lovely scenic area that is well-worth a day to explore, either on your own or by bus tour (the Galway tourist office will help you with this). You can enjoy staying overnight in your same accommodations as the previous night.
Day 3 – Bunratty
This is a great day to travel south and explore County Clare. This will be your only single-night stay of your trip as you make your way from Galway into Clare. The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher and Bunratty Castle and Folk Park are all top places to be seen in Clare.
Day 4 – Kilkenny
Drive to Kilkenny but include several stops along the way. The Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle and the Swiss Cottage (also in Cahir) are well worth a stop. You may also want to include several destinations around Kilkenny (Dunmore Cave or Jerpoint Abbey) before ending your day in Kilkenny town. There’s plenty to see in Kilkenny such as the Castle, shopping, pubs and other historic sights. Stay overnight in or near Kilkenny.
Day 5 – Kilkenny
A second day in this area means you can make a day trip as you like – for those who insist on a visit to Blarney or would like a long driving tour of the Wicklow Mountains. Another suggestion is the Crafts Trail around Kilkenny with a stop in Carlow or Kildare. You will not run out of interesting things to see and do in and around Kilkenny. Stay a second night in Kilkenny.
Day 6 – Dublin
Time for Dublin! If you stay in town, you won’t need the car; if you stay outside of Dublin, say in Malahide north of the city, and you may want to keep it so that you can do a half day trip to Trim or the Hill of Tara. Otherwise, just enjoy Dublin and don’t worry about driving.
Day 7 – Dublin
Some lucky folks have a whole day to explore Dublin departing for home on Day 8. Dublin is well worth a full day of exploration. The Hop On, Hop Off bus tour is ideal for an overview of the city. The Books of Kells, the National Museum, Kilmainham Goal and shopping, even if just window shopping, on Grafton Street are all top picks.
Making Your Own Plan
Either of these itineraries also work if you are flying into and out of Shannon airport. You can include Dublin if you like, but those who fly in and out from Shannon often tend to stick more towards the West. Making a large loop up to Galway and a second loop down into Kerry will easily fill two weeks; a single week means keeping your loops smaller.
Wendy lives with her Irish-born husband in Southern California. When she’s not enjoying her local Gaelic Football, she is planning her next trip to Ireland.