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How to plan the ultimate Irish road trip

The latest lifestyle, fashion and travel trends

The latest lifestyle, fashion and travel trends

As soon as you take your first trip to Ireland[1], it's easy to see why the Emerald Isle has become synonymous with magic and fairytales. The country, home to just 4.7 million people, is just across the Irish Sea but feels a world away from the UK. The lush green landscapes perfectly contrast with wild seas and overgrown castle ruins, with the west coast offering other-worldly charm and the east a true sense of community.

Whether you're in Ireland for a weekend or a week, we've detailed where to go and what not to miss while on The Emerald Isle.

If you're in Ireland for... a weekend

Suggested weekend route: Dublin to Galway[2][3]

A weekend road trip[4] may sound crazy, but in Ireland it can be done as it takes just over two hours to get from one side of the country to the other.

Flying into Dublin on the Friday evening, either bus into town or pick up your rental car from the airport and check into your hotel.

Dublin

Dublin, Ireland (Unsplash)

The first point of contact for many travellers to Ireland, Dublin is the ideal place to immerse yourself in Irish culture. From the historic Trinity Library, to the pubs in Temple Bar and the Guinness Storehouse, there's a reason Dublin is one of the most liveable cities [5]in the world.

What to see & do: you could easily spend your whole weekend in Dublin, walking through the cobbled streets and dropping in at a pub or two, but the star attraction here is the varied architecture found around the city. From the old-timey pubs along the cobbled streets, to the historic Dublin Castle and the extremely Instagrammable Trinity College Library, the buildings here are a thing of wonder.

When you need a break from wandering the streets, head to the Guinness Storehouse for a pint of the stout in its homeland.

Where to eat: for a fancy dinner, check out the Michelin-starred Chapter One[6] for a new twist on Irish ingredients. After some hearty pub grub? Try L.

Mulligan Grocer [7]for its wild garlic butter chicken kiev, and if you're after something cheap and greasy, you can't beat a kebab from Zaytoon[8].

Where to drink: for a traditional Irish pub with live trad music and plenty of Guinness, hit up O'Donoghue's[9]. If you're sticking closer to Temple Bar, try The Palace Bar[10] for a pint or for live gigs and an intimate atmosphere, go to Whelan's[11] for a guaranteed good night.

Where to stay: for an ultra-modern and chic hotel, look no further than The Dean, located in the heart of the city. Rooms from GBP91 per night, deandublin.ie/[12]

After you've spent a night and most of your Saturday in Dublin, get in your car and follow the M4 motorway out of Dublin, veering off to follow the M6 to Galway. The drive should take around two hours so aim to get there for dinner.

Galway

Galway, Ireland (Shutterstock)

Steeped in history, Galway is the perfect antidote to Dublin's cityscape, with live music echoing through the streets, colourful pubs and fresh sea air.

What to see & do: Galway is the perfect walking city, so simply wandering through the streets and laneways, perusing through bookshops and eating at cafes will be a lovely way to pass the time.

If you're keen on an adventure, you can visit the nearby Aran Islands via a short ferry trip from Galway Bay or, in the summer, walk down to the harbour for a swim at the Salthill Beaches.

Where to eat: The Pie Maker [13]is located in the heart of Galway and features a lovely antiquated exterior. With just 12 seats inside, a table here is worth a wait as they offer an array of both sweet and savoury pies. Opt for the Irish sausage, black pudding and leek pie for a twist on the traditional Irish fare.

Where to drink: while there are plenty of excellent pubs to choose from in Galway, the best of the bunch is located a four-minute drive or a 20-minute walk from the centre.

In the suburb of Salthill, you'll find O'Connor's Pub [14]which is currently owned by third-generation O'Connors and was featured in Ed Sheeran's 'Galway Girl' music video. The pub offers live trad music with cool, antique-filled decor and a fantastic atmosphere, and is a must-visit for anyone staying in Galway.

Where to stay: for a touch of luxury in the heart of the city, opt for Hotel Meyrick. Overlooking Eyre Square, the hotel offers a spa, fine dining and elegant rooms. Rooms from GBP103 per night, hotelmeyrick.ie/[15]

After exploring the city on Sunday, either book a late night flight back to London from Dublin and make your way back across the country in time for the flight, or take the hour drive down to Shannon Airport and fly back to London from there - if you leave early enough you can make a de-tour to see the Cliffs of Moher on your way.

If you're in Ireland for... three to five days

Suggested five-day route: Dublin - Belfast[16] - Galway - Limerick[17] - Dublin

If you have a bit more time on your hands and want to do some more exploring, add Northern Ireland[18] to your to-do list.

Here, you can explore landmarks like the Giant's Causeway, the Dark Hedges and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge - where you can spot Scotland across the sea. After flying into Dublin and experiencing a night in the Irish capital, jump in the car and head two hours north across the border to its sister capital city of Belfast.

Belfast

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, near Ballintoy in Northern Ireland (Unsplash)

No place in Ireland has transformed so dramatically over the years like Belfast has. The Northern Irish capital that was once plagued by violence, now draws in tourists with its Titanic centre, lively bars and as a base for nearby attractions.

What to see & do: the Titanic Belfast [19]was named as the world's leading tourist attraction at the 2016 World Travel Awards and is a must-visit for every Belfast visitor.

The centre charts the creation of the Titanic and recreates the feel of the city's shipyards. In the city, the botanic gardens, St. George's Market and Ulster Museum are must-visits - the latter with a section that documents The Troubles.

Elsewhere, Game of Thrones fans will be delighted with a trip to the nearby Dark Hedges, which you can add on to your visit to the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge - all feasible to do in a day.

Where to eat: if you do happen to visit the Giant's Causeway, be sure to stop in at The Nook[20], a pub located in a former 18th century schoolhouse which serves some of the best seafood chowder you'll ever taste. Otherwise, in Belfast, get your food fix at Molly's Yard[21], a restaurant with a humble exterior that offers a 5-10-5 all-day menu, meaning you get a three-course meal for just GBP20.

Where to drink: with a fiddle player in the corner and a claim to be Belfast's oldest pub, you can't beat a pint and a homemade serving of Irish beef stew at Kelly's Cellars[22].

Where to stay: for a touch of decadence, opt for The Merchant Hotel in the city centre. With grandiose Victorian architecture, quirky decor, a two-AA restaurant and rooftop spa, The Merchant is hard to beat. Rooms from GBP155 per night, themerchanthotel.com/[23]

A nearly four-hour cross-country drive will take you to Galway for the evening, where you can drink and dance the night away (see our recommendations above).

The next day, extend your one-hour drive down to Limerick by stopping at Dunguaire Castle for a picture along the way as well as the iconic Cliffs of Moher - which is located about halfway between Galway and Limerick.

Limerick

Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare, Ireland (Unsplash)

The third-largest city in Ireland--home to Munster rugby, The Cranberries and cult comedy duo The Rubberbandits--can be found at the tidal entrance of the River Shannon. Relatively new to the tourist scene, Limerick cemented its stance as a go-to tourist destination in Ireland after being awarded the title of the first-ever Irish City of Culture back in 2014.

What to see & do: if you haven't already, make sure you head to the Cliffs of Moher, their beauty is apparent as soon as you set eyes on the dramatic cliffs and you can instantly see why it's the most popular tourist attraction in Ireland.

They're best visited on a grey day for full the full moody effect. Limerick itself is home to a number of lovely attractions, like King John's Castle, the Gallery of Art and St Mary's Cathedral, an ancient cathedral founded in 1168 by Donal Mor O'Brien, King of Munster

Where to eat: If you're in Ireland in the summertime, visit the Limerick Street Food Boardwalk Market for an array of cuisines. Otherwise, Hook & Ladder[24] is a cafe, furniture store and cookery school in one, offering the best local produce around.

Or, for a change of scenery, take the 20-minute drive to one of Ireland's prettiest villages - Adare.

Here, you can dine at the award-winning 1826 Adare[25] or the equally rustic The Blue Door Restaurant[26] - both set in romantic thatched roof cottages.

Where to drink: if you're a rugby fan, Jerry Flannery's[27] is the pub for you. Named after a legendary Munster rugby player, the atmosphere here is lively even on non-match days. Nancy Blake's[28] is another lively bar that can get crowded on weekends but has a great beer garden hidden behind the traditional bar.

Where to stay: located in Limerick's Georgian Quarter, No, 1 Perry Square is a boutique hotel filled with vintage charm, with a delightful eatery and day spa to unwind in too. Rooms from GBP121 per night, oneperysquare.com/[29]

After a night in Limerick, head back to Dublin for your flight home or book your departing flight from Shannon to spend a bit longer in this vibrant city.

If you're in Ireland for... a week or longer

Suggested 10-day route: Dublin - Belfast - Donegal - Connemara - Galway - Limerick - Portmagee - Kinsale/Cork[30] - Wexford - Dublin

After spending a night in Dublin and Belfast (itineraries detailed above) drive two hours through Northern Ireland and once again across the border to windswept Donegal on the west coast. Another option is to spend your second night in Derry after exploring Northern Ireland, as you can follow the start of the Wild Atlantic Way down to Donegal the next day.

Donegal

Slieve League in Co.

Donegal, Ireland (Unsplash)

The largely Irish-speaking county is home to some of the prettiest beaches in Ireland, with a rugged coastline, towering mountains and sparkling lakes.

What to see & do: Donegal's stunning scenery is its main drawcard. Expect untouched golden beaches, castles in the most unexpected places and lush green land just waiting to be explored. For your beach fix, head to Ballymastocker Bay for stunning blue hues, be sure to visit the Sliabh Liag Cliffs to watch the Atlantic swells crash against the land and visit Glenveagh National Park for your nature hit.

Where to eat: in Donegal Town, head to Olde Castle Bar[31] for Irish stew and the freshest seafood platters around.

Where to drink: the award-winning Reel Inn[32] is dedicated to traditional Irish music, and has in-house live music most nights of the week.

Visit for a great atmosphere and a bit of a dance.

Where to stay: just a 10-minute drive from Donegal Town, you'll find Lough Eske Castle. The upscale castle, nestled between the lake and mountains, offers modern, yet decadent interiors and a world-class spa. Rooms from GBP180 per night, lougheskecastlehotel.com/[33]

From Donegal, it's a three-hour drive down through the west coast countryside to the rugged region of Connemara in Co. Galway.

Be sure to turn onto the N5 and then to the N59 to drive past the Kylemore Abbey on your way.

Connemara

Connemara National Park in Co. Galway, Ireland (Unsplash)

The hard-wearing land on Ireland's west coast is best seen in the beautiful and romantic Connemara region. Flanked by small yet picturesque bays and coves, the hills here are exposed and unkempt and the land largely untouched - which only adds to its charm.

What to see & do: the Connemara region is home to some stunning sights and the best way to experience this is through a hike.

Noel Joyce runs Connemara Hikes [34]and offers guided walks and cycle tours around the region. Born and raised in Connemara, Noel knows the region back to front and is a wonderful guide. The Kylemore Abbey is also a must-see as is taking a drive alongside the Connemara National Park to see the windswept mountain sheep and a visit to Dog's Bay for a white sand beach with shimmering blue waters.

Where to eat: if you're staying at Ballynahinch Castle[35] (detailed below), then a meal at its restaurant will only add to your magical memories of the region.

Elsewhere in the region, O'Dowd's Seafood Bar and Restaurant[36] has been run by the O'Dowd family for four generations and is famous for serving fresh local seafood like Roundstone lobster and Aran Islands hake.

Where to drink: pick up a pint at O'Dowd's or stop off at Ballynahinch Castle for a tipple in the Fisherman's Pub. Day's Pub in Inishbofin and Power's Pub in Oughterard are the spots to be for trad nights during the summer.

Where to stay: if you're only in the Connemara region for a night, you must stay at Ballynahinch Castle. This hidden jewel is set on 700 acres of woodland and rivers with a backdrop of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range and offers a lovely pub, restaurant and fishing facilities on site. Rooms from GBP161 per night, ballynahinch-castle.com/[37]

During your drive from Connemara to Galway (itinerary above) stop in at Ashford Castle[38] for stunning views across Lough Corrib and try something a little different with a Hawk Walk at Ireland's School of Falconry[39].

Here, you'll get to walk through the castle ground and woodland with your guide and have the opportunity to fly your own Hawks. After an evening in Galway, follow the coast to the Cliffs of Moher and then down to Limerick for the evening (itinerary above). The next day either take the inland or coastal route for the three-hour drive down to Portmagee.

Portmagee

Skellig Michael in Co.

Kerry, Ireland (Unsplash)

A row of colourful houses along the harbour front welcomes you into Portmagee, a quaint village in Co. Kerry. Known locally as 'the ferry', the town is the gateway to Valentia Island - one of the most westerly points in Ireland.

What to see & do: spend time exploring Valentia Island or take a chartered boat out to Skellig Michael - a UNESCO World Heritage-listed towering sea crag where a small group of ascetic monks built a monastery between sixth and eighth century.

Here's you'll find the preserved monastic remains along with a number of sea bird colonies with the gannet, the puffin and the Arctic Tern all residing here.

Where to eat: a haven for seafood lovers, try the delicious hot and cold platters at O'Neills The Point Seafood Bar[40], crab claws at Fisherman's Bar & Skellig Restaurant[41] and the fish and chips at Smuggler's Cafe[42].

Where to drink: have a tipple at The Moorings Bridge Bar [43](part of the recommended hotel below) for an easy bar-to-bed situation.

Where to stay: The Moorings Guesthouse and Restaurant is basic but delightful and offers superb food in their restaurant with ever-friendly staff. Rooms from GBP86 per night, moorings.ie/[44]

From Portmagee, your next night can either be spent in lively Cork or charming Kinsale. Cork is just a two and a half hour drive away while Kinsale is a four-hour drive if you take the coastal route (otherwise it's just half an hour further from Cork on the inland route). If you take the inland route to Cork or Kinsale, be sure to stop off at Blarney, just outside of Cork to see the Blarney Castle[45] and - of course - kiss the Blarney Stone, said to give the kisser the 'gift of eloquence'.

Cork

Cork, Ireland (Shutterstock)

Set on the River Lee and surrounded by alleys, waterways, enchanting facades and stunning architecture, it's easy to see why Cork locals are proud of their city and why it's often referred to as the 'real capital of Ireland'.

Come for pint at of the traditional cosy pubs, stay for the lively local atmosphere.

What to see & do: head to Blarney Castle to kiss its namesake stone, or spend a day in the city visiting the English Market for the best local produce in the region, or tour the city's architecture with stops at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, the Elizabeth Fort and the Cork City Gaol. If you happen to be in Cork during the last weekend of October, the Jazz festival is always good craic.

Where to eat: for a cheap and delicious meal, grab the seafood chowder with soda bread at the Perry Street Market Cafe [46]for under EUR10.

For something different, try Market Lane[47] for an ever-changing menu reflective of what's fresh at the English Market.

Where to drink: head to Franciscan Well[48] for craft beers and wood-fired pizzas, The Castle Inn[49] for a tiny old-school pub experience, Mr Bradley's[50] on Barracks Street for a quiet pint and Crane Lane [51]for a good night out.

Where to stay: after a relaunch in January this year, The River Lee hotel is a stylish option for any visitor to Cork. Here, modern luxury meets Cork charm with art deco stylings and a restaurant that serves local produce. Rooms from GBP131 per night, doylecollection.com/hotels/the-river-lee-hotel[52]

Kinsale

Kinsale in Co. Cork, Ireland (Pixabay)

Kinsale is Ireland's answer to Italy's Burano - a village dotted with colourful houses and a twist on the traditional Irish exteriors.

A fishing town, head here for some of the best seafood in the country.

What to see & do: Kinsale marks the start (or end, whatever way you're looking at it) of the Wild Atlantic Way. Go for a drive along the coast, or simply spend your day strolling through the town, visiting the humble eateries and indulging in a pint or two - exactly how your holiday in Ireland should be spent.

Where to eat: Dinos[53] is an excellent sit-in Fish and Chip shop overlooking the harbour, but if you're there during the day head into Lemon Leaf Cafe's[54] delightful facade for a Kinsale Seafood Chowder with freshly baked soda bread. Simply divine.

Where to drink: live music is aplenty here, for the best pints and pub grub, head to Kitty O Se's Bar and Restaurant[55], Armada Bar[56] or Jim Edwards[57] - all within a five-minute walk.

Where to stay: for modern and chic rooms in the heart of the town, check into Long Quay House for the evening. Rooms from GBP112 per night, longquayhousekinsale.com/[58]

Whether you spent the evening in Kinsale or Cork, put aside at least three hours to drive up to Wexford, stopping in the town of Waterford or Dungarvan for lunch on your way.

Wexford

Hook Lighthouse in Co.

Wexford, Ireland (Unsplash)

Not the usual tourist hotspot, Wexford is a town at the mouth of the River Slaney filled with medieval lanes and oozing with tight-knit community charm. It's also home to one of the best beaches in the country which makes it well worth a stop during your road trip.

What to see & do: County Wexford is littered with things to do and Wexford Town is the ideal place to base yourself. Head to Hook Lighthouse[59] for the world's oldest operational lighthouse, or Johnstown Castle for a lakeside fortress with gothic towers.

Soak up some history in the 252-acre John F. Kennedy Arboretum and at Oulart Hill or see a performance at the National Opera House.

While there, a must-visit is Curracloe beach - featured in the films Brooklyn and Saving Private Ryan - the beach is windswept and beautiful. If you have time, a trip out to the Saltee Islands is also a delight, lying five kilometres off the coast of County Wexford and housing one of the best bird sanctuaries in Ireland.

Where to eat: no trip to Ireland is complete without fresh fish and chips and the Saltee Chipper [60]in Kilmore - a half hour drive from Wexford - offers the freshest there is.

Order your meal takeaway before you leave as it can sometimes be a long wait and sit on the Quay while you watch the sunset. In Wexford town, the Thomas Moore Tavern[61] is a pub-come restaurant, with the vibe of a traditional pub on the ground floor and the bistro on the upper level. Opt for the fillet steak for a taste of the local fare.

Where to drink: a town filled with lively, traditional pubs so opt for the Crown Bar[62] for gigs or Maggie May's[63] for live trad sessions and your next pint of Guinness.

Where to stay: the Talbot Hotel is located in the city centre overlooking the harbour and an ideal base for your stay in Wexford. Rooms from GBP72 per night, talbotwexford.ie/index.html[64]

As you leave Wexford the next day for the hour and a half journey to Dublin, put time aside to make sure you take a quick stop in Enniscorthy.

The quaint town was where part of the film Brooklyn was set and you can spot the filming locations around town.

After lunch at a local cafe, continue the drive back up to Dublin for your flight home - although after a week or more in Ireland you may never want to leave.

More about: | Ireland [65] | Northern Ireland [66] | road trip [67] | Travel 2019 [68] | Ireland travel [69] | Dublin [70] | Cork [71] | Galway [72] | Limerick [73] | Belfast [74]

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