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, Aran Islands
- 9 days, add: County Clare/Burren, 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 (sleep in Dublin)
Day 2: Dublin (sleep in Dublin)
Day 3: Dublin (sleep in Dublin)
Day 4: Rent car, Glendalough (sleep in Kilkenny)
Day 5: Cashel (sleep in Waterford)
Day 6: Waterford (sleep in Waterford)
Day 7: Explore County Wexford, Cobh (sleep in Kinsale)
Day 8: Kinsale (sleep in Kinsale)
Day 9: Muckross House and Farms (sleep in Kenmare)
Day 10: Ring of Kerry (sleep in Dingle)
Day 11: Dingle Peninsula Loop (sleep in Dingle)
Day 12: Blasket Island, Dingle town (laundry and rest; sleep in Dingle)
Day 13: Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, Dunguaire Castle banquet (sleep in Galway)
Day 14: Aran Islands (sleep in Galway)
Day 15: Explore Connemara (sleep in Westport)
Day 16: Drive to Northern Ireland (sleep in Derry)
Day 17: Explore Derry (sleep in Portrush)
Day 18: Explore Antrim Coast (sleep in Portrush)
Day 19: Belfast (sleep in Belfast)
Day 20: Drive to Valley of the Boyne sights (sleep in Trim)
Day 21: Return car and fly home from Dublin
By Public Transportation
For three weeks without a car, 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 information 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. If you're picking up a car at Dublin Airport, consider a gentler small-town start in Trim, and let Dublin be the finale, when you're rested and ready to tackle the city.
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 as dramatic in Ireland as they are in much of Europe, although expansion of the cruise-ship industry is slowly changing that. Dublin and the Cobh/Cork region get hit the hardest by cruise crowds. Travel during “shoulder season” (May, early June, Sept, and early Oct) is easier and a bit less expensive. Shoulder-season travelers get smaller 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.
Pat O'Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.