The Perfect Ireland Itinerary For The First Time Or Returning Visitor: Everything You Need To Know.
When people first started visiting Hello HENRYs + perusing our travel guides, one of the most common remarks was “OMG - how do you not have a guide for Ireland yet!?” Well, finally - it’s here! For those who don’t know, I was born in Ireland and together, Kelda + I have visited more times than we can possibly count. We even lived in Ireland for a while during our school years and our entire family, outside of ourselves + our parents, still lives there. I actually only just became a US citizen, along with my parents, last year - so, long story short, out of all the guides we’ve written, we’d say we’re pretty qualified to put together an Ireland itinerary.
Hands down, the NUMBER ONE piece of advice that we have is: Get out of Dublin. That sounds harsh…we love Dublin + there are so many fun things to do. What we really mean is - make sure that you see more than just Dublin. Unlike many other places that you might visit in Europe, Ireland is one that really requires seeing the whole country to have the best experience. Think of it this way - when most people dream of France, they dream of eating a baguette at a sidewalk cafe or drinking wine underneath the Eiffel Tower. While seeing the whole country would be wonderful, your French fantasies could be somewhat accomplished, even if you never left Paris. On the other hand, when people dream of Ireland, they dream of rolling hills, sprawling medieval castles and quaint country pubs - none of which are experienced in Dublin, resulting in some people flying home feeling disappointed.
Because of this, Ireland is not a place that you can easily tag on to your multi-stop Euro trip, just popping in for 48 hours. Ireland is, typically, a full trip in and of itself. We recommend a minimum of one week, but 10 days would be ideal. Without further ado, my itinerary + recommendations from my most recent trip…
DAY ONE - SHANNON
Unknown to many, Ireland actually has two major airports - Dublin + Shannon. Shannon is on the west coast + Dublin is on the east coast, but it actually takes just 2 hours to drive from one coast to the other. If you’re planning to do a road trip while in Ireland anyway, definitely research flights into both airports to find the best deal versus only considering Dublin. For this most recent trip, I was able to find a better deal flying into Shannon and, being the lesser known of the two airports, security and customs was a breeze. Once again, I was able to completely cover 2 round trip plane tickets with my Chase points…and no, we will probably never chill on recommending this card to you.
The theme for day one was really embracing everything traditional about Ireland. Below were some of the highlights:
Bunratty Castle + Folk Park - Tour an old castle, as well as the impeccably maintained grounds that are still home to farm animals + old buildings, such as a church + a school, from the days that the castle grounds were still prospering. This castle was actually used as a fortress back in the day, not for entertaining, so the inside may look a little different than the castles of your fantasies. We have another recommendation for a second castle further down the list! :)
Traditional Irish Folk Night - The heritage group that runs Bunratty Castle hosts a nightly folk night and medieval banquet with dinner + entertainment. We chose to do the folk night over the banquet, but have heard great things about both! We enjoyed a 3 course meal, free-flowing wine + drinks, along with 2 hours of live music, signing + dancing. Super fun way to kick off the trip!
Where We Stayed: Bunratty Manor Hotel
DAY TWO - COUNTY CLARE
Okay, Shannon is technically a town that is also in County Clare, but for our second day, we took to exploring the rest of the county + it is truly one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. No Ireland trip would be complete without it!! A few highlights from the second day:
Cliffs of Moher - No description necessary. I’m sure everyone has seen the photos. Jaw droppingly beautiful. Would definitely recommend grabbing sandwiches and coffee from the nearby town of Doolin + enjoying a picnic lunch on top of the Cliffs. We had also booked a boat cruise to see the Cliffs from the water, as well as explore the hidden caves + nearby islands, but the tour was cancelled due to rough water. Would still recommend booking + think it could be a cool experience! We were able to get our money back no problem, so worth booking and just seeing how the weather pans out!
Wild Atlantic Way - One of the most breathtaking drives that you will ever take. The Wild Atlantic Way runs almost the entire West Coast of Ireland and many of the sites in County Clare can be found along this road, so be sure to map your route accordingly.
The Burren - The Burren is a national park on the west coast of Ireland + a super rocky, but beautiful terrain. Almost 80% of all of the species of flowers, plants + animals in Ireland live in this region; it is stunning! Within The Burren, there are a few stops that I would recommend making: Ailwee Caves and Poulnabrone Dolmen. Poulnabrone Dolmen is free to visit + just a 10-15 minute stop. Ailwee Caves is a short 30-45 minute tour and just about $15. After your tour, there is a beautiful rooftop terrace where you should grab a drink or a snack and admire the expansive view of The Burren.
Where We Stayed: The Wild Atlantic Lodge
DAY THREE - GALWAY
Prior to this most recent trip, I had actually never been to Galway! Between visiting family + other activities that the typical tourist would not need to schedule in, there was just never enough time to squeeze this city in. I am so glad that I added it in this time, as I had seriously been missing out! It is now, by far, my favorite city in Ireland and I could easily have spent a few more days there. A few of my best recommendations:
Hop On/Hop Off Tour - As Kelda + I have shared before, we are huge fans of a hop on, hop off bus when done in the right city. Sure, they are touristy, but they can provide a very simple + cost effective way to get to every landmark that is probably already on your list. Plus we really appreciate learning the history and fun facts behind each of the sites. For this trip, I booked a tour that picked up in Eyre Square in the heart of the city and had the best time!!
Salthill - For a seafood afficianado like myself, the Salthill neighborhood of Galway was a dream. This neighborhood is set right along the beach + had a palpable easygoing, coastal personality. There were so many great restaurants that we passed by. You really can’t go wrong. We stopped at two different places for a round of oysters + they were incredible. Afterwards, we walked along the beach. This would be the perfect time to grab one of Ireland’s famous 99’s - a soft serve ice cream cone with a chocolate Flake candy bar inside.
Latin Quarter - The heart of the city, packed with shops, bars, restaurants + people. We did some window shopping, listened to street music + grabbed drinks at The King’s Head.
Where We Stayed: Dublin Airbnb - Because we had such a jam packed schedule planned for Ireland, we actually left Galway in the evening + made the 2 hour drive across the country to be able to start our day bright + early. Prices for hotels + Airbnbs were crazy in Dublin for the time of our visit, with many mediocre hotels quoting over $300 a night. We opted for this Airbnb as it was affordable + the best price we could find for the location. In Dublin, I would recommend staying around the St. Stephen’s Green area.
DAY FOUR + FIVE - DUBLIN
After spending the first few days tucked away in the countryside or coastal towns, Dublin was a complete 180. My recommendations for Dublin could comprise a whole other guide, but below are just a few of the highlights. If you’re planning a trip of your own though, please don’t hesitate to reach out + ask us for more of our top Dublin recs!!
The Bank On College Green - Our super cool parents actually introduced us to this place on a Dublin trip a few years back + it is so up our alley. The most chic bar + restaurant located inside an old bank building. Lots of blush + gold accents + majorly Instagrammable. Definitely come here for a cocktail.
Glover’s Alley - Located across the street from St. Stephen’s Green, this restaurant was hands down the best meal of my life. Definitely was more than I would usually ever spend on dinner - Zach + I’s meals, along with a bottle of wine and tip came to $300, but well worth it. It was a 12 course meal - some courses just bite-sized of course - with service beyond anything I have ever experienced. Yes, it is pricey, but if you can swing it, definitely add this to your list!
The Winding Stair - Both this restaurant + Glover’s Alley were recs that we found on G.Spotting, the travel app created by Gwenyth Paltrow's Goop. This Dublin trip was our first time using the app + based on how much we loved both of the restaurants, we think it’s pretty trustworthy. Great food + a wonderful view of the famous Ha’Penny Bridge.
Kilmainham Gaol - This old prison is actually the most visited site in all of Ireland, so absolutely book your tickets early. I bought mine a month in advance + many of the tour times were already completely sold out. An incredibly moving + emotional experience that also helps to educate you on some of Ireland’s troubled + challenging history.
Jameson Distillery - Prior to this trip, I basically drank just wine + tequila exclusively and rarely branched outside of those two favorites. I was actually dreading this tour and the tastings that came along with it, but only booked the tickets for my fiance, Zach, who has quite the fondness for whiskey. However, I could not have been more wrong. The tour was so informative + cool and I actually found myself enjoying the whiskey as we did the tastings. The complimentary cocktails that we received in the bar afterwards were SO good. For a short trip, I would say to choose between either the Jameson tour or the Guinesss Storehouse. Doing both might be a lot.
Where We Stayed: Dublin Airbnb.
DAY SIX + SEVEN - COUNTY WEXFORD
On day six, we picked up Kelda + her boyfriend, Elliot, from the Dubin airport and began our journey down to Wexford located on the southeast tip of Ireland. Wexford is approximately a 2 hour drive from Dublin + is where our dad’s side of the family lives, as well as where we both lived during our time in Ireland. We almost don’t want to mention Wexford in this guide, as there are so many lesser known places that are very special to us, but it really is so beautiful so we have to share!
Baginbun Head/Beach - This is hands down one of our favorite places in the entire world. We have been coming to this beach as a family ever since we were toddlers and have so many fond memories. Beaches in Ireland are pretty cold, so I would be sure to wrap up in a sweater + not plan to swim, but this would be a wonderful stop to bring a book + relax or enjoy a picnic with friends.
Hook Head Lighthouse - Located about 10-15 minutes away from Baginbun is the Hook Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in the entire world! Such a beautiful spot, but be careful about going too far out to the edge of the rocks. The waves are extremely unpredictable + many people have been swept out to sea. I have a beautiful painting of the Hook Lighthouse, given to me by my grandparents, hanging in my home now + it makes me smile every time that I see it!
For us, we always spend a few days in Wexford to get as much family time as possible, but for the average visitor, 1 day would be plenty! You could make your way on to nearby Kilkenny or Cork.
Where We Stayed: Hook Head Bed and Breakfast Note this is a pretty remote location. If you’re someone who appreciates peace + quiet, being out in nature, etc, this would be a good spot, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a group of friends or family. Best for a solo trip or as a couple.
DAY EIGHT - COUNTY WATERFORD + KILKENNY
On day eight, we moved onto Waterford, the neighboring county to Wexford and where our mom’s side of the family lives, as well as where I was born! Again, for the average visitor, you could combine Waterford + Wexford in one day.
Kilkenny Castle - While in Waterford, we took our Nana on a day trip to Kilkenny. Kilkenny is one of my favorite towns in Ireland + one that I always recommend to visitors. It is just so cute + quintessentially Ireland…without being too quaint that you get bored. Remember from day one when we visited Bunratty Castle, we mentioned there would be a more glamorous castle recommendation to come? This is the one!
Beach Towns - Like County Wexford, there are so many beautiful beach towns in Waterford. For a first time visitor, I would just pick one county or the other. Tramore is one of our favorite beach towns in County Waterford + has lots to do. There is a small theme park + carnival year round, as well as great restaurants for fish and chips or other classics.
Where We Stayed - Shannon Springs Hotel - We actually left Waterford late in the evening on day eight to make the drive back up to Shannon. Our flight departed at 11AM the next morning, so rather than tack on a 2 hour drive to an already long day of flying, we decided to split it up and stay near the airport. If you’re in need of an airport hotel when flying in/out of Shannon, this was a great option.
If you’re lucky + have a few more days to spend in Ireland, below are a few of our other recommendations to add onto your trip!
Blarney Stone and Castle - If you have extra time, pay a visit to Cork, one of Ireland’s largest cities. There is plenty to do within the city, including visiting the Blarney Castle. The castle is more underwhelming than other Irish castles in my opinion, but most people visit to kiss the Blarney Stone anyway. Legend has it the stone bears “the gift of the gab.” My parents made the mistake of taking me to kiss the stone multiple times. I think that explains a lot.
Ring of Kerry - Another beautiful drive and area located in the southwest corner of Ireland.
Northern Ireland - Belfast, Giant’s Causeway, etc. - We have actually never been to Northern Ireland - which, confusing to many, is actually a separate country and part of the United Kingdom - but it is high on our list for our next visit. If you have a couple more days, there are some beautiful places (or so we have heard) that are worth a visit!!
Car Rentals - If you do plan to a road trip tour of Ireland, renting a car will be a must. As you probably know, you need to drive on the other side of the road in Ireland. In addition, a majority of the rentals are manual, not automatic. If you can’t drive a manual, be sure to select an automatic when booking your rental car. MOST IMPORTANTLY, verify that your insurance will cover you while in Ireland. I have strong rental car coverage through my Chase credit card + as a result, typically decline coverage when booking a car rental. However, many companies do not cover you in a small group of countries - including Ireland. In this case, I did need to purchase the additional coverage while in Ireland. When buying your insurance, do not buy through Expedia or similar, as their car insurance will not cover you while in Ireland either. Add coverage directly through the agency or in person.
Booking.com - Booking.com is the equivalent of Expedia/Orbitz for European hotels. Yes, you can still book hotels in Europe on Expedia, but we have found more options + better rates on Booking.com. Another reason that we love it is because they give both you and a friend a $25 refund every time a friend books a night using your referral code. For trips where we are planning to stay in multiple hotels, we literally send the same code back + forth and get a combined total of $50 off a night. For this Ireland trip, Zach + I stayed at a total of 5 hotels and were able to get a $250 refund by using this trick. Click here for our booking referral code to get you started!
So happy to finally have been able to put this guide together! There is so much more that we could share on Ireland - our home + one of our favorite places in the world, so please don’t hesitate to DM or email us with any additional questions. For help planning your own trip or a future vacation anywhere that you plan to go, don’t forget to check out our travel concierge services! We would be so excited to help you with everything from booking your flight deal, using miles/points effectively or crafting your entire itinerary.