The Best Irish Road Trip: 22 Must See Destinations
One day, we decided we wanted to visit Ireland, and we made it happen in the form of a 10-day road trip around the middle and southern portion of the island. After an overnight flight, we arrived in Dublin first thing in the morning. Although we were very tired, we immediately when to the rental car pickup and started our drive for Day 1. Across the course of the drive, we encountered a wide variety of sights and scenery, such as intact castles and castle ruins, ring forts and and tombs, as well as traditional Irish-countryside, bit cities, and ocean views. When looking at a map of Ireland, you could draw a line west from Dublin, and we pretty much stayed below or within that line, including a stop at the southern-most tip of the country, Mizen Head Signal Station. Ireland is rich in history, age-old architecture, and beautiful natural elements, all of which contributed to the most memorable road trip to date. Here we’ve assembled a list of our plans and our favorite moments from the trip.
Our first stop after leaving Dublin in a rental car was the Irish National Stud & Gardens. If you are into horse racing at all, this farm is home to many famous racing and breeding studs. That being said, we aren’t into horse racing, so the point of our visit here was for the Japanese Gardens. They were created starting in 1906-1910 by a Japanese master horticulturalist and are very established. The gardens are world-renowned and are especially popular in Europe. They were easily some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen, and were the best Japanese garden I’ve been to before.
Stop two was Dunamase Castle, the ruins of a defensive stronghold built in the second half of the 12th century. It was built on top of a 9th century fort so there’s a lot of history on this site. Not a lot of the castle is left, but the site is pretty un-established so you are free to walk around and explore. It’s up on a hill in the middle of nowhere near a small countryside church, with a very small parking lot off a one-lane road. A lot of the sites we visited were developed, pay-to-get-in, tourist attractions that have set areas you can see, so it was really neat to be able to walk around freely and we had the place to ourselves. That night we stayed in Kilkenny. Since you travel overnight to get here for day 1, I would recommend keeping this day easy and short. Get to your hotel early for a light dinner and early bed time so you can be well rested for the rest of the trip.
The next stops were Jerpoint Abbey, the Rock of Cashel, and Hore Abbey. Jerpoint Abbey is in ruins and dates back to the second half of the 12th century as well. This abbey is known for its stone carvings, some of which are on display in the visitors center, but are mostly still intact in the walls and arches of the abbey ruins. Most are unmarked so you must keep your eyes peeled for the artwork all around you. The Rock of Cashel is a really cool site, and you can see it as you pull into town. It was built in sections, with the oldest, tallest, and best preserved piece being the round tower, which dates to 1100. The chapel was completed in 1134 with the rest of the portions being finished 1200 and later. The walls seem especially tall and are in good shape considering its age. From up on the hill where the castle ruins sit, we saw some abbey ruins in a nearby field and decided to check it out. This ended up being Hore Abbey, which was built around the same time period as the Rock of Cashel. There’s no parking lot, you just park on the side of the road and walk through a gate. The abbey sits in what is now a farmer’s field full of cows, so keep your distance from the animals and watch your step. It felt so weird to be avoiding cow manure while exploring the ruins of a beautiful, historic abbey.
Cahir Castle is one of the largest castles in Ireland and it’s situated on an island in the river Suir. You can explore explore this castle via guided tour, so make sure you book tickets. It’s only 30 minutes from the ever-popular Rock of Cashel, so even on a tour, you’ll find that you have most of the castle to yourself, since most people just skip it. If you’ve seen the movie Excalibur, then you’ve seen the interior lift gate, which still functions and has been featured in many movies. They don’t let just anyone lower the gate though, as it takes a long time and a lot of manual man power to raise it again. There’s also multiple canon balls that are lodged into the walls of the castle, still stuck there from a war many ages ago.
Drombeg Stone Circle is another one of those places that’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s a very small dirt parking lot off the side of a country road, and for miles all you can see is the rolling hills of the traditional Irish countryside. It makes you question if you’re even in the right place or not. When you think of stone circles, Stonehenge may come to mind. Drombeg has similar features, including the alignment of the axial stone and portal stones for the winter solstice, however, it’s much smaller and just a tad younger.
The southernmost point of the country is Mizen Head Signal Station and on the way you’ll pass Barleycove Beach, which is said to be a hidden treasure on the Irish coastline. While the Signal Station itself is a small, fairly boring site, it’s the outside view that’s worth the drive. There’s a really cool bridge you have to cross – look down because that’s where we saw a bunch of seals playing in the cove below. You’ll also get unparalleled views of the coastline and surrounding cliffs.
Drombeg Stone Circle
Next we’ll start heading north along the western coast. We spent multiple nights in this area so we could see all the sights, most of which are along the Ring of Kerry, a 111-mile circular driving route outside of Killarney. This includes Cahergall Stone Fort, Ballycarbery Castle, the Kerry Cliffs, Staigue Stone Fort, Ladies’ Viewpoint, and innumerable views of the vast ocean and coastline. Cahergall Stone Fort is worth the stop and was my favorite ring fort we visited. It was built in approximately 600AD – it’s really cool to see the interior of the fort, where there are slanted steps all around the interior side where the top can be accessed. The walls are about 20 feet tall and are up to 10 feet thick in some places. Ballycarbery Castle is nearby and you can see it from Cahergall Stone Fort (and vice versa). It’s not on my list of favorites, but it’s a cool stop if you’re already nearby. It’s the ruins of an old residence built in the 15th century. There’s not a lot to see, but it is covered in really cool vines and it’s situated in the middle of a field of cows so watch where you step!
The Kerry Cliffs are a viewpoint within the Ring of Kerry Drive, which is just as beautiful and majestic as the Cliffs of Moher. This is definitely worth the stop. It’s the nearest landfall to the Skelligs, a group of islands that are off the coast that were featured in Star Wars, as well as many other popular films. You can schedule tours of the island via boat, but keep in mind that it’s a lot of stairs and sometimes the tours can get cancelled if the seas are too rough. This is cool if you’re a Star Wars fan, but is still a historic site – it’s a well-preserved Christian monastery which includes beehive-shaped huts, oratories, and crosses, as well as thousands of breeding puffins during the warmer months. We unfortunately didn’t have time for this tour, but if we did, we definitely would have done it. But there’s not enough time for everything so we had to pick and choose. Staigue Stone Fort is similar to the Cahergall Fort, but is a little older (300-400 AD versus Cahergall around 600 AD) and a little more rustic. The last stop on the Ring of Kerry before returning to Killarney is Ladies’ View, a scenic viewpoint that is one of the most photographed scenes in Ireland. The names stems from the admiration of the view given by Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting during Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1861. This is just a quick little stop that’s worth the view.
Continuing north, we’ll still be on the western coast, but now we are getting closer to being almost even with Dublin on the eastern coast. Bunratty Castle is a popular family destination, and the castle was renovated in the 1960s. Because of its popularity, it can be quite busy and the availability for exploration is fairly limited. It’s the collection of medieval furniture that was my favorite part and makes this castle still worth the visit in my mind. From dressers to bed frames, the collection of furniture shows off the most beautiful hand carved, wooden pieces you will see anywhere besides a museum. Plus, Bunratty Mead is a popular drink that’s still brewed nearby. It’s worth it to try a taste of this fine mead.
Next stop at Quin Abbey, which is some abbey ruins that were built between 1402-1433. Another abbey?! Yes, another abbey. In ruins, no surprise. But still an awesome site that’s worth the visit. Nearby is the famous Cliffs of Moher, which is always worth the stop. There is a visitors center and parking lot, where you can access the main point on the cliffs, which rise to 702 feet at their highest point and range for 5 miles over the Atlantic Ocean. There’s trail in either direction, but most people stay within a couple hundred yards of the visitors center. The cliffs are a sheer drop and play host to 30,000 breeding bird pairs annually.
Cliffs of Moher
Only about 10 minutes away is Doolin, where you can take a ferry to the Aran Islands. As with the boat to the Skelligs, the availability is based on sea conditions. That being said, this is the one part of our trip that I don’t recommend to people. Don’t get me wrong, the islands are beautiful and there’s a really amazing hill fort named Dun Aonghasa that can be worth the visit (it’s on a 330 ft cliff edge overlooking the ocean). However, the ferry ride is long and extremely choppy (even those who don’t normally get sea sick were very ready to get off that boat), and this excursion is an all day event. You arrive in a cute little town and there are very few cars, so most tourists get around by paying for a horse drawn carriage. This makes for a very slow ride across the island to the fort, which is impressive but [to me] isn’t worth the journey. Plus, the Aran Islands are famous for their high-quality wool, which is sold there and all across Ireland as an expensive souvenir. But you’ll be disappointed to learn that there are no sheep on the island, so where does Aran wool come from..? Overall, I found that it wasn’t worth an entire day, which could have been spent on the main land or even on a trip to the Skelligs.
Our last stop in this area of the country was Dunguaire Castle a historic castle built in 1520. While on the smaller side, this is one of the few historic places we visited that was mostly intact. It’s on a tiny peninsula on an inlet of the ocean, so it’s location is very scenic. Perhaps the most popular feature of this castle though is the ability to eat a locally-sourced banquet dinner inside the castle, complete with wine, four courses, and stories told by actors in costume. This made for a great, fun night within the original walls of a historic castle.
To the East
From there, we started to head away from the west coast and into the interior / towards the east coast. This section of the road trip had the most amount of driving per stop, but the stops were well worth it. Newgrange is a 1,500 year old passage tomb that predates Stonehenge and even the pyramids. You can only access this site via tour from the visitors center, which only takes same day reservations. Once they’re booked for the day, they’re sold out, so arrive early. We arrived around 9am and received the next tickets for 11:30am, but there’s a few really cool exhibits to look at while you wait. I think if we had arrived much later than that, there would not have been many tickets left for the day, as it’s a very busy tourist destination. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip and I found myself truly in awe the entire time. Although it is called a passage tomb, it has more recently been said that “ancient temple” is a more fitting classification since it’s a place of astrological, spiritual, religious, and ceremonial importance. I couldn’t put into words how awesome this place is.
Our final stop before heading to Dublin for the airport was Trim Castle, the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. The keep has a unique 20-sided cruciform design and 10 foot thick walls. When we were there, it was being renovated on the interior. I’m sure it will be an even more awesome attraction once they’re done.
The Final List
Here’s the final assembled list of the things we did and places we visited. They are listed in order if you were to drive from Dublin, southwest and clockwise around the country and back to Dublin. If you had more time, you could easily add a northern portion before leaving Ireland. This takes over 20 hours of driving, which spread out across the course of 10 days really isn’t bad at all. The bolded ones were my favorites!
- Irish National Stud and Gardens
- Dunamase Castle (aka Rock of Dunamase)
- Jerpoint Abbey
- Rock of Cashel
- Hore Abbey
- Cahair Castle
- Drombeg Stone Circle
- Mizen Head Station
- Ring of Kerry
- Cahergall Stone Fort
- Ballycarbery Castle
- Kerry Cliffs (Portmagee)
- Staigue Stone Fort
- Ladies Viewpoint
- Bunratty Castle
- Quinn Abbey
- Cliffs of Moher
- Ferry to Aran Islands – not recommended!
- Dunguaire Castle
- Trim Castle
It may seem like a lot abbeys, ruins, and old castles, but each one is drastically different and has its own history and prominent features. Each one you explore holds a different secret, another hidden passageway, a unique tale that tells its history. It’s good to have a lot of variety in your trip (beaches/coastline, countryside, castles, abbeys, forts, etc.) but don’t be afraid to add multiples of each to a single road trip. You’ll find that each one is just as fun to explore as the last one and you won’t be leaving bored. Overall, this is my favorite road trip we’ve done so far and I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back and explore the northern portion of the country. Plus, I believe that renting a car and doing a self-driving tour is the best way to see the Ireland.