Ireland was a destination that we always dreamed of visiting, but somehow it always escaped our grasp. Shrouded in all sorts of traditions, myths and legends, we were never quite certain what to expect. We had also been a bit discouraged to visit, as everyone claims you must rent a car to fully enjoy the Emerald Isle. We finally decided to work on an itinerary using public transportation and a few tours, and we made it work for us. Here’s our experience.
How to get there
Arriving in Dublin should be easy enough to arrange, as there are many direct flights from the US. Recently we have seen many good sales, and we were lucky to grab a low fare from JFK with Delta. Most of the best sales are with Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus is the flag carrier airline of Ireland, and has interline agreements with JetBlue, United, British Airways, KLM, Etihad and Air Canada.
If you want to maximize your time, consider arriving in Dublin and departing from Shannon airport. However, note that Dublin is just 2.5 hours from Galway and Shannon, making it possible to circle the entire country and return from Dublin.
When to go
As you research your trip to Ireland, you will read this many times: you can experience all four seasons in one day. And it is absolutely true! The weather is unpredictable and has certainly shaped a lot of the traditions in this country. So it is best if you look up the weather averages for the time you plant to visit so you can have an idea of what to expect.
We visited in mid April. The temperature ranged from pleasantly warm to snappy cold in a few hours. It was cloudy most of the day, with passing showers in the morning and clearing out in the afternoon. We had our raincoats on all day just in case. Umbrellas are not helpful as it can get windy. However, we did not experience the bitter winds that most traveler reports warn you about.
How much time
In 7 days you will be able to see the most important sites in Ireland and have a good idea of what it is all about. If you have 3 more days, you can add Kilkenny, the Dingle Peninsula and a day trip outside of Dublin. For Northern Ireland and Belfast, you need at least 2 more days. We decided that we will visit Belfast as a long weekend destination in the future.
To rent or not to rent (a car)
A quick search on Ireland itineraries only comes up with driving options. But we don’t like to drive while on vacation! So after comparing our alternatives, we decided to do Ireland via bus and train and do not regret it.
Ireland is known for many scenic drives, like the Ring of Kerry, Dingle Peninsula and Connemara. One can certainly pick bus routes connecting major cities and most likely see some of these landscapes. However, we decided that for our short visit it would be more efficient to join tours for some of these areas. We like to travel independently, but sometimes these day trip tours are much more convenient. We have reviewed the tours we used in Ireland, and you will find the links on the itinerary.
If you like to drive, then by all means do so! You can still follow our itinerary, and perhaps add a few other sites along the way. Take the time to research about renting cars in Ireland. We did make a comparison before deciding to go for tours, and found that there are many hidden fees even if the rental price for a week seems cheap. At the end, we probably only spent $100 more per person by taking tours instead of renting. And that calculation assumes you do not pay for insurance. Note that some credit card companies still do not provide coverage in Ireland.
Where to stay
Hotels in Ireland were more expensive than anticipated. We did not find many below $100 a night. Though we always consider hostels, most looked run down and did not have private rooms. Ultimately we were able to find some affordable hotels and they were all well maintained with attentive staff. We are listing the hotels we used in each area, all convenient to public transportation and main sites.
Things to know
- Credit cards are accepted everywhere. We used very little cash.
- Departure to USA – note that you do USA immigration at Dublin airport. Lines are very slow and we were asked many questions. Make sure to arrive at the airport no less than 3 hours ahead of your flight. Lounges and duty free stores are located before the immigration/gate area, so do not get too entertained there before heading to the gates.
- Dublin Airport Executive Lounge (Priority Pass) – the lounge is rather small with few seating areas. For breakfast, there was not much variety and no hot items.
Day 1: Dublin
Beresford Hotel (across the Busaras bus station)
Dublin might be a small city, but there are many impressive historical landmarks and museums to explore. As our time in Ireland was limited, we decided to just see some of the highlights and dedicate more time to Dublin on our next visit.
For all of you book lovers, the library at Trinity College should certainly be in your bucket list. You will also learn about the history of the Book of Kells, an illustrated manuscript of the New Testament Gospels from 800 AD. Sadly, only a few folios are on display and no pictures are allowed.
TIP: Book your library tickets online to reserve an entry time. The lines are very long!
As you wander towards Dublin Castle, stop by St Patrick Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral. Both are monumental and worth taking a look.
Did you know that Dublin was one of the first cities to have 2 cathedrals? To avoid tensions, Christ Church is designated as the seat of the Archbishop, while St Patrick is known as the National Cathedral.
Dublin Castle has served as a government complex since it was built in the 18th century. The tour will take you to the ruins of the first castle built in this area by the first Lord of Dublin around 1204.
End your day in the Temple Bar area, where you can enjoy some live music and a pint of Guinness. There are a lot of cool places to choose from, but we had a great time at Merchant’s Arch.
Brunch: Lemon & Duke
Day 2: Cashel and Cork
The Metropole Hotel
Early in the morning, take the bus to Cashel. From the bus stop it is an easy walk to the Rock of Cashel. It is believed that the first Christian ruler of Ireland was converted here by St. Patrick. The view of the castle from the town is amazing!
TIP: Entrance to the castle is free if your spend 15€ in any store or restaurant in town. Just be aware that the offer does not apply to the store right in front of the castle.
Take the time to walk around the cemetery grounds to see the beautiful celtic crosses.
In the distance, you will see the ruins of the Hore Abbey.
After visiting the town of Cashel, board the bus and continue the journey to Cork. The city is rather compact, and there are many themed walking paths that you can follow. After dropping our bags in our hotel, we made our way to the Cathedral of St Anne and St Mary.
We listened to the Shandon Bells at the Church of St Anne. The bells were first rang in 1752. You can go up the bell tower and make some music yourself.
Then we had a nice stroll on St Patrick Street, the main pedestrian shopping street in Cork.
Food: Gallagher’s Gastro Pub, Isaac’s, Cafe Gusto (breakfast), Priory Coffee
Day 3: Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is a 111-mile circuit in County Kerry known for the panoramic views of the Killarney National Park. This is one of the most popular day trips in Ireland, so be prepared to see a lot of tour buses, especially in the summer. Bus Eireann has a route through the park, but it only runs in the summer.
We visited the area as a day trip from Cork with Paddywagon. We reviewed our experience here.
Day 4: Blarney and Cobh
Blarney is easily reached by bus from Cork. Blarney Castle is one of the most popular tourist sites in Ireland. The castle dates from 1446 and is best known for the Blarney Stone.
There are a lot of myths surrounding the stone, and it is said that whoever kisses it will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence. The stone is located on one of the walls of the top floor, and to kiss it you must lay on the floor upside down, hold on to a railing, and lean back. Do I dare mention there is also a hole between the floor and the wall? Thankfully there is a man up there to assist you – and another one to take your picture!
Note that to get to the top floor you must go up 127 steps on a narrow staircase. There is one to go up and one to go down, so at least you do not have to negotiate the tiny steps with people going the opposite direction.
The castle gardens are beautiful and is a pleasure to just walk around. There is a small waterfall and some small caves. There is even a Poison Garden! But be careful, all of the plants are toxic!
Within the grounds you will also find the Blarney House, built in 1874. The house is open for visitors during the summer.
After you are done exploring the castle and gardens, take the bus back to Cork. From there, take the train to Cobh.
Cobh has a rich history as a major maritime port and in the shipbuilding industry. This seaside town served as a departure point for those to immigrated to North America, as well as for those sent to the penal colonies in Australia. But perhaps Cobh is mostly known as the last port of call for the Titanic.
The Titanic Experience is a museum that narrates the story of the ship and describes the last days after the ship left port. The museum is located in the same building as the White Line Star offices.
Here, passengers boarded tenders that would take them to the Titanic, which was anchored across the harbor. It is very moving to stand in the same balcony where so many people said their last farewells to their friends and family.
A bit farther along the pier you will find the Titanic Memorial Garden, built on the ruins of Cove Fort. The names of the 123 people who boarded the ship at Cobh are inscribed on a glass wall. Sadly, 79 were lost during the tragedy.
After this emotional visit, be prepared to walk uphill to St Coleman’s Cathedral.
And if you are looking for an insta-perfect picture, walk to the colorful Deck of Cards houses, built on a very steep slope. In order to take the famous picture with the cathedral on the background, you need to go the farthest wall of the little park that is on one side of the street. I didn’t realize this, so my picture looks like this:
But I enjoyed my day in Cobh, even with my less-than-stellar picture!
Food: Lemon Tree (Blarney), Cuppacity Coffee (Cobh)
Day 5: Galway and Cliffs of Moher
The Nox Hotel
We took an evening bus to Galway from Cork. Next morning, we headed to the iconic Cliffs of Moher with Galway Tour Company. Read about our experience here. If you have more time in the area, or you only want to see the cliffs, know that you can take Bus Eireann from Galway to the Cliffs.
After a long day out, we walked around Market Street in Galway. There are so many cool places to eat and enjoy a pint! This city has an incredibly fun vibe, so make sure to at least spend a night here.
Food: Tuco’s Taqueria, BurgerStory (Burgatory), The Pie Maker
Day 6: Aran Islands
Our day trip to Aran Islands was by far my favorite thing we did in Ireland. There is something to say about visiting remote islands that are still largely untouched. We joined the Faherty Tour of Inishmore to have a local’s point of view of the islands. See why we love the island so much, and what we have to say about the tour here.
Day 7: Connemara
Just outside of Galway is the region of Connemara, facing the Atlantic Ocean and bordered by mountains. This area has a very diverse landscape with lakes, mountains, bogs and a coastline. Read about our day trip with Galway Tour Company here.
Day 8: Galway to Dublin
On departure day, we took a bus from Galway direct to Dublin Airport (2.5 hours). Citylink and GoBus provide this service. Make sure to book online, as these buses can sell out. Pick a departure time that will get you to the airport at least 3 hours before your flight. Consider staying overnight in Dublin instead if you have any concerns about delays that may cause you to miss your flight.
Bus Eirann – bus transportation
Irish Rail – train information
Transport for Ireland – website with journey planner, including private and public buses