Ireland is full of rich history, old glory and natural beauty. Recently, we got to spend 10 days exploring the entire island and it was a wonderful trip. We saw so many amazing places that picking top 10 was truly a challenge. From amazing cliff ocean views, to fairy tale castles and ruins, Ireland is a truly magical place with rich and vibrant history. Here is a list of my favorites for various reasons:
1. Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel has historic significance dating back to the 4th century where conquerors and kings used it as the center of power for Ireland. St. Patrick baptized Ireland’s first ruler King Aengus there in 427 AD. Most of the buildings on the current site date from the 12th and 13th centuries when the rock was gifted to the Church. We did a tour of the Rock of Cashel buildings and then walked down the road to Hore Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery (it’s worth the short hike).
2. Christ Church Cathedral – the church bells!
Even though St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the more known church in Dublin, I actually enjoyed Christ Church Cathedral a little more. The Cathedral dates back to around 1030. The crypt of Christ Church is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral dating to 1188 and is one of the largest medieval crypts in Britain and Ireland. Many historic pieces of stonework and fittings are stored here.
The coolest thing we did in Dublin was a church bell tower tour, which included us getting to chime the real church bells! That was awesome! We also learned all about bell ringing, its history, the combinations of sounds, the competitions that are held (who knew?), etc. It was really neat to hear the bell ringers’ passion for their work. This is probably the reason that Christ Church Cathedral ended up on this list.
3. Baltimore Beacon – beautiful cliffs
The Baltimore Beacon is a white-painted stone beacon at the entrance to the harbor at Baltimore. It was built at the order of the British following the 1798 Rebellion. It was part of a series of lighthouses and beacons dotted around the Irish coast, forming a warning system.
While this may seem like an odd addition to this list, it was a photographer’s dream location. The rock façade reflected the sun giving it a silvery sheen, intense green grass and flowers added a punch of color and the fog was rolling in, adding to the mystique of the whole scene.
4. Killarney National Park and Muckross House – stunning views
Killarney National Park is a huge sprawl of mountains, lakes, forests and waterfalls. The park includes the McGillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland. The views driving through the park are amazing.
The park is also a home to Muckross House and Gardens, Killarney House and Knockreer House.
5. Cliffs of Moher – spectacular cliffs
The cliffs rise 400 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and reach their maximum height of 702 feet just north of O’Brien’s Tower, few miles away. The cliffs boast one of Ireland’s most spectacular views. You can also hike on both sides of the cliffs for amazing views, but be very careful, there are places with no protection at a cliff’s edge.
Legend | there is a rock formation that closely resembles a woman’s head looking out to the sea – Hag’s Head. The old hag, named Mal, fell in love with the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and chased him all over Ireland. He finally ended up at Loop Head in Co. Clare, seemingly cornered. He made his escape by hopping across sea stacks towards the Cliffs of Moher. Mal went following after him but lost her footing and was dashed to pieces against the cliff.
6. Kylemore Abbey – lakeside gem
Kylemore Castle in Ireland was built by Mitchell Henry in 1867 as a gift for his beloved wife Margaret. In 1920 nuns of the Benedictine order who had been displaced during World War I from their convent in Yprés, bought the estate for the sum of £48K. The nuns opened it as a day school for the local girls and later a boarding school. Today, the nuns remain on site, but the school is closed. A big part of the castle was under construction in 2017, showing off scaffolding and workers, I’m not sure when construction will end.
Make sure to walk around the grounds and visit the neo-gothic church, walled gardens and Henry mausoleum. You can also take a guided tour and go on the Connemara’s most spectacular mountain hikes.
Legend | there is a legend that a beautiful white horse rises from the lake in front of the Abbey every seven years. In 2011, staff members claimed they saw a white horse on the lake’s surface. It was only white foam raised by the strong wind, but this story only fueled the legend.
7. Killkenny Castle – museum quality
Killkenny Castle is a 12th century castle located in Killkenny City, Ireland. It’s a large castle surrounded by beautiful park grounds. Today, the castle is a museum set up to reflect 19/20th century rich décor. The reason this makes my top 10 list is the sheer size of it and the fact that it’s restored and decorated with antiques. Also, there are museum guides in every space who are very knowledgeable and love to share the history of the castle, so ask them lots of questions. If you have a rental car and coming out in peak season, you may have to park further away and walk, there is limited parking available around the castle.
8. Ashford Castle – Guinness family home
The Norman castle dates back to 1228 when it was founded by the de Burgo family. The family was defeated in a battle in 1589 and lost their home to Lord Ingham governor of Connaught. It was transformed in 1715 by the Oranmore / Browne family with the addition of a French style chateau and in 1852 its owner Sir Benjamin Guinness extended the estate to 26,000 acres planting trees and adding two Victorian extensions. In the 19th century Arthur Guinness incorporated everything into the one large building it is today. Today, Ashford Castle operates as a luxury hotel.
9. Trinity College – Book of Kells
Officially the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth, Trinity College is the sole constituent college of the University of Dublin in Ireland. The college was founded in 1592 as the “mother” of a new university, modeled after the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Definitely visit the library while here, it is the largest one in Ireland. Also, the library is a permanent home to the famous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various texts and tables. It is believed to have been created circa 800 AD.
10. Blarney Castle – kiss the stone
Blarney Castle, Garden and Blarney House – the castle itself for me wouldn’t have made the list, but the gardens are beautiful and the Blarney House located on the grounds is gorgeous. Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster, one of Ireland’s greatest chieftans, built the castle nearly six hundred years ago.
Blarney Castle is home to the famous Blarney Stone. The legend claims that if you kiss the stone upside down over a sheer drop (there is an employee that will hold you), you will be granted the gift of eloquence. Just in case you’re planning on doing this, let me break this to you – you’re not kissing the actual stone, the real stone is several feet lower than what you’ll be kissing. So, no gift of eloquence for any of us. Also, there is usually a long line to get up to the top to kiss the stone, but the view from the top is pretty good.
Legend | the Blarney stone powers were reportedly thanks to a witch. She cast a spell to thank a king who saved her from drowning. Kissing the Blarney stone is said to give “The Gift of Eloquence.” The real history isn’t as fun – Robert the Bruce gave the stone to King of Munster as a sign of gratitude.
Blarney Gardens incorporate 60 acres of parklands, which include gardens, avenues, arboretums and waterways. The most amazing part was a 250-year-old Cedrus Libani tree and how its branch connects with another tree.
Blarney House is located on the park grounds and is a Scottish Baronial mansion. Built in 1874, it has now been restored to its former glory. The house is situated overlooking Blarney Lake and features a splendid interior. It’s only open for visitors June through August. The rest of the year, you can see the outside only.
Honorable mention: Bunratty Castle – medieval re-enactment
The site of present-day Bunratty Castle was established as a Viking trading camp in 970. Built in 1425, the castle is the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland and contains furnishings, tapestries and art from that period. Bunratty Folk Park, set on 26 acres, is a great recreation of 19th Century Ireland and features various types of farmhouses, a church, a magical walled garden and village street complete with pub, post office and various shops.
You can do a medieval banquet dinner show, it features a four-course meal and actors portraying medieval characters, and medieval music performed by live musicians. There are two dinners every night and reservations are required. The castle is closed to visitors for all of July but is open the rest of the year.