By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor
Doolin is a strange phenomenon. Tourists come here directly from Paris or Munich. It's on the tourist map for its traditional music. A few years ago, this was a mecca for Irish musicians. They came together here to jam before a few lucky aficionados. But now the crowds and the foreigners are overwhelming the musicians, and the quality of music is not as reliable. Still, as Irish and European music-lovers alike crowd the pubs, the bodhrán beat goes on.
Doolin has plenty of accommodations and a Greek-island-without-the-sun ambience. The "town" is just a few homes and shops strung out along a valley road from the tiny harbor. Locals generally divide the town into an Upper Village and Lower Village. The Lower Village is the closest thing to a commercial center.
Doolin is famous for these three pubs, all featuring Irish folk music: Nearest the harbor, in the Lower Village, is O'Connor's Pub. A mile farther up the road, the Upper Village straddles a bridge with the other two destination pubs, McGann's and McDermott's. Music starts in the pubs between 21:30 and 22:00, finishing around midnight. Get there before 21:00 if you want a place to sit, or pop in later and plan on standing. On my last trip, I hit Doolin on a mediocre music night. The craic is fine regardless. Pubs serve decent dinners before the music starts.
From Doolin, you can hike or bike (rentals in town) up Burren Way for three miles to the Cliffs of Moher. (Get advice locally on the trail condition and safety.) Doolin also offers boat cruises along the Cliffs of Moher.
The boats from Doolin to the Aran Islands can be handy but they are often canceled or run late. Even a balmy day can be too windy (or the tide can be too low) to allow for a sailing from Doolin's crude little port. If you're traveling by car and have time limits, don't risk sailing from Doolin.
Without a car, you can travel from Doolin on to Inishmore and then back to Galway by the bigger boats. So Doolin might work for you. But it's a longer trip to Inishmore (leaving less time ashore to explore the island before you turn around and sail back to Doolin), so consider an overnight stay on the islands.
Lindoonvarna, a town of 1,000 was known for centuries for its spa and its matchmakers. Today, except for a couple of September weeks during its Matchmaking Festival, it's pretty sleepy. (The bank is only open one day a week.) Still, it's more of a town than Doolin and, apart from festival time, less touristy. Lisdoonvarna has good traditional music in its pubs. I'd stay here, rather than in Doolin, and commute.
Pat O'Connor is the co-author of Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook