By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in Ireland, my plan for your best three-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities:
- 3 days: Dublin
- 5 days, add: Dingle Peninsula
- 7 days, add: Galway, County Clare/Burren
- 9 days, add: Aran Islands, Kilkenny/Cashel
- 11 days, add: Belfast, Antrim Coast
- 15 days, add: Kinsale, Kenmare/Ring of Kerry
- 19 days, add: Derry, Connemara, Wicklow Mountains/Valley of the Boyne
- 21 days, add: Waterford, Donegal
Ireland's Best Three-Week Trip (by Car)
Day 1: Fly into Dublin, rent car, Glendalough (sleep in Kilkenny)
Day 2: Kilkenny with side-trip to Cashel (sleep in Kilkenny)
Day 3: Waterford (sleep in Waterford)
Day 4: Explore Wexford (sleep in Waterford)
Day 5: Cobh (Kinsale)
Day 6: Kinsale (Kinsale)
Day 7: Muckross House and Farms (sleep in Kenmare)
Day 8: Ring of Kerry (sleep in Dingle)
Day 9: Dingle Peninsula loop (sleep in Dingle)
Day 10: Blaskets, Dingle town (laundry and rest; sleep in Dingle)
Day 11: Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, Dunguaire Castle banquet (sleep in Galway)
Day 12: Aran Islands (sleep in Aran Islands)
Day 13: Drive through Connemara (sleep in Westport)
Day 14: Drive to Northern Ireland (sleep in Derry)
Day 15: Explore Derry, then drive to Portrush (sleep in Portrush)
Day 16: Explore Antrim Coast (sleep in Portrush)
Day 17: Belfast (sleep in Belfast)
Day 18: Drive to Valley of the Boyne sights, return car (sleep in Dublin)
Day 19: Dublin (sleep in Dublin)
Day 20: Dublin (sleep in Dublin)
Day 21: Fly home
By Public Transportation
While this three-week itinerary is aggressive and designed to be done by car, most of it can be done by train and bus. For three weeks without a car, spend your first three nights in Dublin, using buses and taxis. Cut back on the recommended sights with the most frustrating public transportation (Ring of Kerry, the Burren, Valley of the Boyne, Connemara, and County Wexford). You can book day tours by bus for some of these areas at local tourist offices. For at least two people traveling together, taxis — though expensive — can work in a pinch if bus schedules don't fit your plans (i.e., Cork to Kinsale). If you have time for only one idyllic peninsula on your trip, I'd suggest the Dingle Peninsula over the Ring of Kerry.
When to Go
July and August are my favorite times — with long days, the best weather, and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. Summer crowds aren't nearly as dramatic in Ireland as they are in much of Europe. Still, travel during "shoulder season" (May, early June, Sept, and early Oct) is easier and a bit less expensive. Shoulder-season travelers get minimal crowds, decent weather, the full range of sights and tourist fun spots, and the ability to grab a room almost whenever and wherever they like — often at a flexible price. Winter travelers find absolutely no crowds and soft room prices, but shorter sightseeing hours. Some attractions are open only on weekends or are closed entirely in the winter (Nov–Feb). The weather can be cold and dreary, and nightfall draws the shades on sightseeing well before dinnertime. While Ireland's rural charm falls with the leaves, city sightseeing is fine in the winter.
Plan for rain no matter when you go. The weather can change several times in a day, but rarely is it extreme. Just keep traveling and take full advantage of "bright spells." Bring a jacket and dress in layers. Daily averages throughout the year range between 42°F and 70°F. Temperatures below 32°F cause headlines, and days that break 80°F — while increasing in recent years — are still rare.
While sunshine may be rare, summer days are very long. Dublin is as far north as Edmonton, Canada, and Portrush is as far north as Ketchikan on the Alaskan panhandle. The midsummer sun is up from 4:30 until 22:30. It's not uncommon to have a gray day, eat dinner, and enjoy hours of sunshine afterward.