By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor
Doolin, a small town perched between the rocky Irish region known as the Burren and the Irish coast, was once a strange phenomenon. Many music lovers would come here directly from Paris or Munich, as the town was on the tourist map for its traditional music. It had long been a mecca for Irish musicians, who came together here to play before a few lucky aficionados. But now the crowds and the foreigners have overwhelmed the musicians, and the quality of music is not as reliable, and I prefer Dingle’s richer music scene. Still, as Irish and European fans 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. Residents generally divide the town into an Upper Village and Lower Village. The Lower Village is the closest thing to a commercial center (meaning it has a couple of pubs and a couple of music shops).
Doolin is famous for three pubs, all featuring Irish folk music: Nearest the harbor, in the Lower Village, is Gus O’Connor’s Pub. A mile farther up the road, the Upper Village--straddling a bridge--is home to two other destination pubs: McGann’s and McDermott’s. Music starts in the pubs between 21:30 and 22:00, finishing at about midnight. Get there before 21:00 if you want a place to sit, or pop in later and plan on standing. The craic is fine regardless, and 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 the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.