Dunluce Castle, Antrim Coast
Flung onto the foggy fringe of the Atlantic pond like a mossy millstone, Ireland drips with mystery, drawing you in for a closer look and then surprising you. An old farmer cuts turf from the bog, while his son staffs the tech helpline for an international software firm. Buy them both a pint in a pub that's whirling with playful conversation and exhilarating traditional music. Pious, earthy, witty, brooding, proud, yet unpretentious, Irish culture is an intoxicating potion to sip or slurp — as the mood strikes you.
At a Glance
Republic of Ireland
▲▲▲ Dublin Bustling Irish capital, with fascinating tours (historical, musical, and literary), passionate rebel history (Kilmainham Gaol), treasured Dark Age gospels (Book of Kells), intricate Celtic artifacts (National Museum: Archaeology and History), and a rambunctious pub district (Temple Bar).
▲▲▲ Dingle Peninsula My favorite fishing village (a traditional Irish-music pub paradise), which serves as a launchpad for the gorgeous Slea Head loop drive (or bike ride), featuring a wealth of Celtic and early Christian sites.
▲▲▲ Aran Islands Three windswept, treeless limestone islands in the Atlantic, laced with a maze of angular rock walls, crowned by Iron Age ring forts, and inhabited by sparse villages of hardy fisher-folk.
▲▲ Near Dublin Great day-trip options: North to the Boyne Valley's ancient pre-Celtic burial mounds of Brú na Bóinne and majestic Norman castle of Trim, west to the green horse-racing pastures of the Irish National Stud, and south to the graceful Gardens of Powerscourt and evocative monastic ruins of Glendalough.
▲▲ Kilkenny and the Rock of Cashel Best two destinations in Ireland's interior: the town of Kilkenny, with its narrow medieval lanes, cathedrals, and castle; and the Rock of Cashel, with its dramatic hilltop hodgepodge of church ruins overlooking the Plain of Tipperary.
▲▲ Kinsale and Cobh County Cork's two quaint harbor towns: Gourmet capital Kinsale, guarded by squat Charles Fort, and emigration hub Cobh — the Titanic's last stop.
▲▲ Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry Colorful, tidy town and ideal base for side-stepping the throngs flocking to drive Ireland's most-famous scenic loop route.
▲▲ County Clare and the Burren Ireland's rugged western fringe, with the take-your-breath-away Cliffs of Moher, stone landscape of the Burren, cozy trad music crossroads of Doolin, and handy Shannon Airport access from friendly Ennis.
▲▲ Connemara and County Mayo Lushly green and hilly Irish outback of cottages, lakes, and holy peaks, dotted with photogenic settlements such as Cong, Kylemore Abbey, and leafy riverside Westport.
▲ Waterford and County Wexford Gritty historic port town with famous Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre, and the hinterland of early Norman invasions, with a huge lighthouse and the JFK ancestral farm.
▲ Galway Energetic university city with thriving pedestrian street scene, great people-watching pubs, and the west coast's best base from which to reach the Burren, Aran Islands, and Connemara.
▲▲ Portrush and the Antrim Coast Unpretentious beach resort of arcades and amusement park rides, a stone's throw from the geologic wonderland of the Giant's Causeway, dramatic cliff-edge ruins of Dunluce Castle, and exhilarating Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
▲ Belfast No-nonsense industrial revolution metropolis, with stirring sectarian political murals, grandly domed City Hall, sprawling Ulster Folk Park and Transport Museum, and the charming nearby Victorian seaside retreat of Bangor.
▲ Derry and County Donegal Seventeenth-century English settlement ringed by stout town walls — infamous as the powder keg that ignited Ireland's tragic modern "Troubles" — with an insightful city history museum and access to the rugged beauty of Donegal.