Ireland for beginners: a guide to the top ten places to visit
Posted on 09/03/2015
IRELAND: This land is a bewitching mix of dramatic scenery, high spirits and low temperatures, but where to start? Below are ten of the island's must-see destinations where, come rain or highly unlikely shine, you won't care a jot how cold it is.
The Cliffs of Moher
Dominating Ireland's craggy western coastline are the stunning Cliffs of Moher. Stretching out for five miles, the cliffs drop perilously into the churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes from as high as 700 feet.
It's no surprise that this dramatic scenery was chosen as a film location for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince but on a clear, calm day, the view over to the Aran Islands and Galway Bay is truly spectacular.
Ireland's lively capital is constantly awash with the sounds of lilting melodies, accented chatter and pint glasses on bars. With hallowed libraries and a tradition of literary Nobel Prize winners, the city is a joy for lovers of the written word, especially on Bloomsday - a city-wide celebration of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Wander the courtyards and ancient buildings of Trinity College - founded in 1592 by Elizabeth I herself - or drop into St Patrick's cathedral for one of the twice-daily sung services - whatever you choose to do, you'll find a pint of Guinness and a spectacular view over the city waiting for you from the Guinness Storehouse to bring the day to a magnificent close.
The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
A short walk from Cashel's town centre, the Rock of Cashel is a mighty collection of age-old fortifications, standing as a testament to the ancient power of the Irish Kings. The 'Rock' is in fact a grassy green hill, whilst 'Cashel' is derived from an old Irish word meaning 'fortress'.
For over 1000 years, the rulers of the surrounding lands used the Rock of Cashel as their stronghold and left behind a cathedral so resilient that it outlasted Cromwell's armies and even now welcomes the flocks of pious sheep who come to graze on its grassy doorstep.
Killarney National Park
Rolling mountains, stunning lakes and ever-green forests - Killarney National Park is one of Ireland's woodland treasures. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the park is home to the country's only remaining population of red deer which have lived here since the last Ice Age.
At the centre of the park, you'll find Muckross House - a charming 19th century mansion with gardens to match. Further exploration of Killarney's 10,000 hectares will show up some of Ireland's most diverse wildlife, including insects, birds and plenty of fishing opportunities.
This tidy little Irish town is full to bursting with west-coast charm and allure. From the bars, pubs and restaurants which carefully line its cobbled streets, to the old-time harbour with its scores of colourful fishing boats, you'll find an enchanting atmosphere at every corner.
The town is also a great base for exploring more of Ireland's countryside, including the popular hiking region of Connemara and the blissfully peaceful Aran Islands. Comprised of three islets - Inishmor, Inishmaan and Inisheer - these small communities have remained virtually untouched over the centuries, keeping up traditions and folklore of long-gone generations.
Brú Na Bóinne
This fascinating prehistoric site outdates the Egyptian pyramids and even has 1000 years on its English cousin, Stonehenge. Its translation - the Boyne Palace - goes only a little way to describing the extraordinary remains of this Neolithic necropolis.
The entire area covers three main sites - Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange. Of the three, Newgrange holds the most remarkable Stone Age passage tomb in the country, dating from around 3200BC, whose chamber floods with light on the winter solstice.
The Dingle Peninsula
Once you've exhausted the dramatic, cliff-lined coasts of County Clare, come a little further down the island to County Kerry. Here, you'll find the Dingle Peninsula, home to stretches of unspoilt sandy beaches, a clear blue ocean and excellent waves.
The small fishing village of Dingle is one of the peninsula's highlights, crammed with pubs, art and craft shops and highly-recommended seafood restaurants serving the freshest catch of the day. Don't miss a trip out to Great Blasket Island, from which you can look out over Europe's westernmost tip.
It's a truly spectacular sight to gaze upon the 40,000 hexagonal pillars slowly receding into the sea. As Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site, the natural wonder that is the Giant's Causeway is a staggering 60 million years old. The pillars are in fact made of lava, formed into hexagonal basalt columns upon cooling all those millennia ago.
Irish legend has a far better explanation for the formations, however, maintaining that they were built by the giant Finn McCool to fight his Scottish enemy Benandonner. The site is always rammed with visitors but an out-of-season visit gives the best chance of seeing the Causeway in all its glory.
Arguably the best foodie scene in the country according to Lonely Planet, Cork City is not to be missed for lovers of hearty Irish fare. From the glorious Irish pubs to the city's famous markets - stocked from floor to ceiling with mellow cheeses and extra-mature cheddars - the city is a culinary treat if you don't mind piling on a few additional pounds.
Otherwise, nurse a pint or two in the city's many traditional pubs, where there's always a band to accompany you, or a fine fiddle player to roll back the years and get everyone on their feet.
The Donegal Mountains
Fiercely independent, the county of Donegal sits a little apart from the rest of Ireland and it is for this reason that it has been allowed to go undiscovered for so long. The outlook may be bleak in stormy weather but even the briefest spell of sunshine brings the rugged mountains and jagged coastline bursting into beauty.
Wander through looming castles, scale the Errigal Mountain - the region's tallest peak - or ride the fantastic waves onto the vast and often empty beaches. If your tastes run to golf, the county is also home to some of the most breath-taking courses in the country.