Tidy and Tiny: Top Towns of Coastal Ireland

By Rick Steves
Dingle, Ireland
On the colorful streets of Dingle, you'll hear a steady beat of Irish folk music ringing out through vibrant pubs. (photo: Pat O'Connor)
Kinsale, Ireland
Ireland's legendary green countryside is the backdrop for the coastal town of Kinsale, a winner in the annual "Tidy Towns" contest. (photo: Pat O'Connor)

When someone asks me about visiting Ireland, I tell them not to miss the southwest coast. This is the place to experience the wonders of the Gaelic language and old Irish civilization, as well as the country's contemporary charms. It's the most mystical, Celtic, spiritual, and rugged region of Ireland — and the towns along the way are just plain cute. There's even a competition for the best-kept town.

Every year, the Irish government holds a Tidy Town contest — and competition is fierce. Dozens of villages are judged for their beauty, charm, and, yes, tidiness. My own top contenders for the title of tidiest town hug the southwest coast, where each town is more endearing than the last. Beyond their pastel facades and prim potted flowers, Kinsale, Kenmare, and Dingle offer rich history, natural beauty, and warm Irish hospitality.

About a half hour south of Cork, Kinsale is a pint-sized Tidy Town winner, with 5,000 people, 25 pubs, and a super-sized history. In its day, this town was home to one of the most strategic forts in the British Empire. It had Ireland's best natural harbor and offered a gateway to both Spain and France — providing a potential base for either of these two powers to cut off English shipping. In what became 17th-century Britain's version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Spanish nearly took over Kinsale, almost gaining naval advantage over England. But England won and eventually built two huge, star-shaped fortresses to ensure control of Kinsale's narrow waterway.

The town's long and skinny old center is part modern marina (attracting wealthy yachters) and part pedestrian-friendly medieval town (winning the affection of scalawags like me). On my last visit, my local guide showed me a clever "Tumbler Cart" parked in the center of town. In the 18th century, this service vehicle made the rounds picking up the townsfolk's sewage, then dumping it in nearby fields. Today, it's just a delightful ornamental decoration filled with flowers — one of Kinsale's many quirky surprises.

Northwest of Kinsale is Kenmare, another recent Tidy Town winner that hooks visitors right away with rows of vividly painted shop fronts and a go-for-a-stroll atmosphere. And it keeps visitors around with the town square's traditional fairs and markets, as well as an ancient stone circle, opportunities for horseback riding and golfing, and the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre, which highlights the trade that put Kenmare on the map. (The town's knack for making exceptionally delicate lace helped it survive the devastating Irish famine of the mid-1800s.)

Quaint Kenmare is the perfect base for tackling the dramatic Ring of Kerry, the road that loops around the deservedly famous western peninsula. Along the way, treat yourself to a stop at the Kissane Sheep Farm to enjoy an up-close look at sheep farming and the expertise of Ireland's competent sheepdogs. Meeting the farmer, his family, and their well-trained dogs is one of the best hours Ireland offers. (While they mostly do demonstrations for tour groups, if you call ahead it's easy to join one of their scheduled demos.)

In the evening, I like to stir up a little serendipity just wandering the town. The pub scene changes every couple of years, but locals with the gift of gab are always up for a pint and a good time.

Farther north along the coast, colorful little Dingle — my favorite town in all of Ireland — perches on Ireland's westernmost point. The dramatic scenery of the remote Dingle Peninsula is enough to draw anyone, but the prehistoric wonders that dot this region make it particularly intriguing.

Dingle hasn't won a Tidy Town award yet, but it's only a matter of time. Its few streets, lined with ramshackle but gaily painted shops and pubs, run up from a rain-stung harbor always sheltering fishing boats and leisure sailboats.

For an English-speaking traveler, the best "sights" in this town are its people. You may not find the proverbial pot of gold, but you'll treasure your encounters with the engaging, feisty people who live here. Most transactions come with an ample side-helping of friendly banter. As an Irishman once joked to me, "How can I know what I think until I hear what I say?"

Dingle feels so traditionally Irish because it's part of the Gaeltacht, a region where the government subsidizes the survival of the Irish language and culture. Despite growing more touristy, Dingle's traditional charms are resilient. As the older generation slows down and fades away, a new generation of entrepreneurs is giving Dingle fresh vitality.

There's something delightful about small-town Ireland, where the people's connection to their culture and to their town is so vivid. These tidy little hubs offer a healthy dose of Irish culture, and their locations make them the perfect springboards for experiencing the plush beauty of the Emerald Isle. When the next Tidy Town competition rolls around, I'll be rooting for these three.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe (www.ricksteves.com). Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.