10 Things You MUST DO in Ireland

Ross Castle, Killarney © M. Erdvig

Ross Castle, Killarney © M. Erdvig

1. Explore Ancient Castles: Ireland is chock-a-block with castles. You see them in farmer’s fields, atop rocky outcrops, guarding rivers and in towns. Some are romantic ruins entwined with vines and trees. Others have been restored to their former glory and furnished with paintings, antiques and expensive fittings. Many castles rent by the week. One has been turned into a bank.

I prefer the lonely, battle-scarred castles that wear their age like a badge of honor. Observe how part of a wall was blown up by Cromwell’s soldiers leaving a gaping hole open to the elements. Notice a rusty cannonball from the Elizabethan Wars still stuck in a tower. Wander up small, spiral stone stairs that are waiting to stumble the unwary tourist – just as they were meant to slow down invaders. Look through arrow-slit windows at glimpses of the countryside. Feel the damp air and smell musty stone rooms. Battlements that once hid soldiers now house nesting birds. In the old ruins you can let your imagination run wild – to battles won and lost, pirate queens, bards entertaining at banquets, lords and ladies, serfs and knights. Each one has its legends, history and ghosts…if only you take the time to observe.

2. Walk the Beach: Choose a beach. Any beach. With a coastline over 3,500 miles long, Ireland has a surfeit of beaches. Search for seashells and smooth, round rocks. Explore a shipwreck. Feel the sand crunch under your feet. Hear the waves lap at the shore and sniff the briny air. Watch the birds wheeling overhead or playing tag with the waves. Look out for the tide! It can come in quickly and trap you where you stand. Bring a picnic or your surfboard or – if you are brave – your bathing suit.

3. Stay at a Bed-and-Breakfast: Ireland has elegant castles, modern hotels with spas and historic manor houses. They all have their place. But if you want to enjoy the real Ireland stay at a B&B. It is someone’s home where they take paying guests and provide a bedroom with bathroom and breakfast in the morning. Your hosts know the local area, the best restaurants, what sightseeing you should not miss and where the nearest laundry is. Most hosts are truly interested in their guests and are happy to dispense their knowledge with a delightful brogue and a touch of Blarney. Where else can you get so close to a real Irish family? 

4. Discover the Night: Go outside, look up and marvel at the darkness. In most of rural Ireland you can behold the night sky in a way you might remember from childhood. Without light pollution the magnificence of the Milky Way is strewn like a silken veil across the black velvet sky. Every spot above you seems to twinkle with a star if you look long enough. The moon seems close enough to touch.

5. Visit a Garden: Ireland is a paradise for gardeners. With its damp, temperate climate blooms can be found almost year round. Each season produces its own flowers from early daffodils and lily-of-the-valley to spring cherry trees and tulips, to summer roses and rhododendrons and fall heather and furze. You can visit gardens at ancient castles, elegant manor houses, serene abbeys, planned parks, little villages and even in big-city Dublin.

6. Learn a Legend: It looks like an old pile of stones. But there are interesting rounded depressions filled with rainwater in the boulder. A tourist has paused for a snack and left behind an orange peel. But what does the legend tell? Over a thousand years ago a saint found an abandoned baby and the monastery adopted the infant. But with no women about they could not feed it. So they prayed and a white deer appeared every morning. The monks milked the doe, and its milk was caught in the bowl-like depressions in the stone.  The baby thrived and today it is called the Deer’s Stone. What was it five thousand years before St. Kevin passed this way? Only the ancients know.

And why is that old tree covered with strips of cloth and trinkets? Could the fate of the English crown have been decided on an Irish battlefield? Am I walking in the footsteps of a pirate queen? Is this the wood the poets trod? Every inch of Ireland has a legend just waiting to be discovered by you.

7. Meet the Friendly Irish People: The number one request of visitor’s to Ireland is to meet the Irish. Strike up a conversation with people anywhere. Just a comment on the weather, a question about where something is or a friendly greeting on the street or in a shop can elicit the Irish interest in you as a visitor. Where can you meet Irish people? At the pub, in a shop, at Bingo night, attending the races, at church services, at a dance, in a restaurant, at a B&B. The list is endless. Forget the rule that you should not speak to strangers. After all in Ireland there are no strangers, only friends you have yet to meet!

8. Get off the Beaten Path: Turn off the GPS. Put the map away. Get off the highway and take that little road with grass growing in the middle of it. Maybe it is only wide enough for one car, but how many cars do you expect you will meet on such a road? If you do meet a car the local driver will likely know the nearest wide spot in the road where you can pass each other safely. A smile, a quick nod of acknowledgment with the other driver and you have safely navigated a little country boreen.

Where will the road take you? Probably over a hill and around a bend. Maybe beside a lake or up a mountain. If you are lucky, through a grove of ancient trees and past a fairy mound. Where will it end? Where else but the ocean? Ireland is an island after all.

9. Sing Along in Pubs: It is not always easy to find traditional Irish music or Trad as the locals call it. More often than not you will find country-western music emanating from the pubs. But keep searching or ask in town for a trad session. Usually they start late – after nine or even ten. But seeking trad out can be worth the trouble. Grab a table, order a drink and be prepared for toe tapping, hand-clapping music and songs you can sing along with. If you don’t know the words, just hum.

10: Take Time to Daydream: Take a deep breath. Forget the schedule. Throw out the itinerary. Stop and look around you. Observe what you are seeing, feeling, smelling and hearing. Breathe in the salty tang of the sea along with a whiff of pungent smoke from the chimney of a distant cottage. Watch the clouds scud across the sky – sunshine and shadow – followed by a thin gray veil of rain. A sudden rainbow, a blast of damp breeze and a quick shower scatters the grass with sparkling raindrops. Birds twitter overhead and on the hills sheep are baaing as they graze. This is what you saved and planned for. This is what you dreamed of. Enjoy Ireland!

© 2009 Michele Erdvig


Author: Michele Erdvig

Michele has done and seen it all in Ireland. Specializing in Ireland for over 40 years, she is one of the foremost Ireland travel experts in the United States. She writes guidebooks and blogs about Ireland, creates custom Ireland itineraries and dispenses free advice on her Ireland Travel Forum. www.IrelandYes.com

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  1. #11. Find the perfect stone to carry back with you (preferably small). The ancient Irish believed that stones, mountains and trees carried memories of what they’d seen in their time. Feel special about a certain place? Carry a small stone back from there and you’ll always carry some memories of the place with you. At the window above my writing desk I have 3 stones – one from Lindisfarne in North Umberland (UK), one from Lake Pend Oreille (Idaho) and one from the enchanted Hill of Uisenach (Westmeath) which is located in the geographic center of Ireland.

    I also have a 50 lb stone from the Rock of Cashel in my garden. That was a tough one to get home… wouldn’t exactly fit in a pocket or zip lock bag.

    As always …. very helpful article, Irish Fireside. I always look forward to the next post.


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  2. I am known far and wide for the state of my hiking boots, covered in Irish mud or graveyard grass. I love the road less traveled and have been amazed at the wheel of stars in the midnight skies of the Wicklow Mountains.

    I dig for stories and sing in pubs. Usually singing John Denver songs or Joan Baez, I also have a small collection of not-so-politically correct Irish uprising songs I learned in college, that have earned me a free drink or two.

    I’m not nearly as confident about slipping into local pubs as I wish I was, and I still get guilty vibes every time I walk on someones farm fields, no matter how carefully I close the gate and avoid the livestock.

    I’ve missed Blarney Castle, but have eaten homemade scones with farm butter at Castle Salem. I may have to go back and take a standard bus tour just to get to Bunratty, but for now I’ll share my endless photos and sketches of the empty village on Achill Island and my growing collection of the tiny churches of the Burren with anyone who wants to get their ear talked off.

    It’s hard to get on to the road less traveled sometimes. Especially in a rental car. So check with your B&B hosts/hostesses for access information and local legends. Ordinance maps of Ireland are sold in Shannon and Dublin airports and the local historic sites are marked with little red dots. “Chasing dots” has become a required part of every trip.

    Also, the road less traveled has, by definition, less traffic and can be less traumatic for those uncomfortable with the switch to the left.

    Best easy to get to ‘off-road’ site in Ireland for me so far? The spectacular Beltany Stone Circle in Raphoe, Donegal, seen at sunset. Or maybe Slieve League cliffs in Donegal. Or the stunning view while taking that shortcut across the Dingle Peninsula….um…shortcut?


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  3. discover the night has alaways been one of my favorites. I’d add, embrace the rain and wind. wherever you are in Ireland amd in whatever season, you’ll have some of both. adds to the beauty, and of course, gives you a great topic to start up a conversation if you wish. that country music in the pubs isn’t so bad either, especially if you know some of the words to sing along.

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  4. I agree with Kerry: embrace the rain and wind. Rainy days at home are met with a different perspective now that I’ve traveled to Ireland a few times (my new perspective on rainy days actually came after our first trip).

    Regarding ‘Discover the Night’, it was our third trip before we got to see the beauty of the night, full moon and all. The weather just didn’t cooperate with us up until that point. 😉

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  5. I’ve never let the weather be much of a factor in Ireland. Sure nice weather is a plus, but as I look back at it, some of the greatest days and nights that I have had there was when the wind and rain were in action, and I still found fantastic places to explore and share with our friends.

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  6. Great advice, lovely memories and such wonderful attitudes for traveling Ireland. I’m getting homesick again 🙂

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  7. @Mindie Burgoyne

    “I also have a 50 lb stone from the Rock of Cashel in my garden. That was a tough one to get home… ”

    Is it legal or ethical to take pieces from a historical site? Hopefully this stone is from somewhere “near” the Rock of Cashel. Surely the owners of this blog do not condone taking pieces of Ireland’s historical treasures home as souvenirs?

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  8. I wouldn’t recommend taking home any rocks, flowers (fresh, dried, seeds, etc) or other items like that from Ireland.

    Firstly, there are rules, especially when it comes organic items (and note there’s a likelihood that stones will be carrying some extra stuff… including cow dung).

    Customs officials are extremely strict on the matter as a way of preventing invasive species and dangerous diseases (remember the mad cow scare?) from crossing borders.

    Many stones are protected… especially antiquities. In fact, officials in County Clare have officially asked visitors to not remove or restack any stones in the Burren.

    My advice… take some great pictures of the rocks or purchase some Connemara Marble before you leave Ireland.

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  9. although i used your website for info on our first Ireland trip, i had somehow missed this one! we just returned this evening from 8 magical days on the Emerald Isle and we actually did everything on this list! i truly believe it played a major part in making this the trip of a lifetime. i highly recommend anyone visiting to try to do all items..1-10! thanks Fireside!!

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  10. I am visiting your lovely country in 8 days time for almost three weeks. I cannot wait. I will be visiting friends, but they asked me what I would want to do while I am there.

    I have a tight budget and was hoping someone could give me some ‘cheap’ ideas of what to see and do… as a MUST… LOL

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  11. Your comments captivated me as I wish I had typed them myself. My friend and I are visiting Ireland this November and strive to get off the beaten path. From what I have read so far, traveling Ireland in November is as far off the beaten path as it gets.

    We would love to meet a local that would like to share what they know of Ireland, the real Ireland, someone that has a passion for Ireland. Are people like this easy to find in the small towns? Do you live in Ireland?

    We are spending 10-12 days from Dublin, Kilkenny, Killarney, Dingle, Mohr, Galway and then??? wherever… I appreciate your input…

    Kathy and Jasmine, Portland Oregon

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