8 Surprising Things to Discover in Ireland
It’s no secret that Ireland is a land rich in culture renowned for its warm people, unforgettable music and spectacular landscapes: silky rolling hills stretch for miles, dramatic coastlines overlook the roaring Atlantic Ocean, enigmatic ancient ruins wait to be discovered, and solid waves crash against white-sand beaches.
But, there's much more to the Emerald Isle than first meets the eye. Here are the eight most surprising things we discovered on our travels:
Cinematic Ireland: scenery on screen
From grandiose castles in County Down to the historic pathways of Kerry and across the waterways of Wicklow, the beautiful island of Ireland is no stranger to the big screen. Plenty of locations have been used as an awe-inspiring backdrop for some of the theatre's most recognised pictorial moments.
The extraordinary 18th-century mansion, Castle Ward, was featured as the location of Winterfell in the ever-popular series, Game of Thrones. At the Cliffs of Moher you can hunt for Horcrux - just as Harry Potter did in the Half-Blood Prince. Or, catch a boat to the World Heritage-listed rocky islets of Skellig Islands, famous for the end scene of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Accommodation: unique sleeping experiences
Lonely Planet says “you'll find a warm welcome in interesting, charming accommodations” around Ireland and nothing beats sleeping under the stars.
In County Fermanagh, you can rest your head in a 180-degree transparent bubble dome nestled in the lush forest of family-owned Finn Lough Resorts - the perfect way to be at one with nature. Or, if you like luxury with the “outdoors”, you can escape to Killarney Glamping for a luxury camping experience set in the tranquil countryside of the Kerry mountains
For an equally "flashy" stay, cosy lighthouse towers from Donegal to Wicklow have opened their doors to visitors allowing stopovers by the sea.
Other one-of-a-kind stays include old converted narrowboats on the Shannon River, horse-drawn caravans in County Laois, the world’s first ever self-catering pub in the village of Aglis, and a fortress stay by the Boyne River. Whichever way you decide to spend your evening, the famous Irish craic is just around the corner.
Festivals: unexpected moments of magic
From coast to coast and everywhere in between, locals and visitors alike come together for days at a time to salute authentic Irish melodies, modern-day artists and immersive experiences.
Music lovers can attend the Fleadh Cheoil (festival of music), an eclectic music event held in some of Ireland’s oldest towns and boasting long-established songs, time-honoured dances and musical sessions. Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival has country music throughout the town, while Sea Sessions offers a platform for emerging Irish artists and established performers. And, if jazz is more your style, sway to moody blues at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, which has performances from some of the world’s finest jazz artists.
Foodie lovers can experience artisanal craft stalls, delicious food stands, live music, and mouth-watering fresh oysters at the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival and, for the nature-lovers, hike Cuilcagh Mountain at the Fermanagh Walking Festival.
Food: from paddock to plate
Boasting green valley’s and rich farmlands, Ireland's locally grown fresh produce is embraced by food aficianados. Surrounded by water, seafood reigns strong. Locally sourced smoked salmon, creamy fish chowder, garlic mussels and lobster are just a few of the freshest ingredients skillfully put together to create hearty and intricate dishes bursting with flavour.
Gourmet markets are scattered across the country making natural produce easy to source. Try St Georges Market in Belfast, The Greendoor Market in Dublin and The Milk Market in Limerick - just a handful of culinary destinations for your itinerary.
For a more hands-on approach to Ireland's food and drink scene, top-notch cooking classes are available no matter where you travel - try Heir Island on the stunning coast of West Cork for a weekend of gourmet quality food making, craft your own farmhouse country cheese in Corleggy or learn how to master sophisticated seafood dishes in Cork.
Surprising, Ireland boasts some ambitious winemakers producing winning blends. At Wicklow Way Wines, take a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery and enjoy tastings of the unique flavours.
The Surf: a swell time
The wild, cold Atlantic Ocean may not seem like the first choice for surfers. But, in what is described by International Traveller as “an unlikely surf revolution”, Ireland has well and truly earned its spot on the map as a mecca for surf enthusiasts.
Popular beginner-friendly surf spots include Tullan Strand, known for its golden shores and reliable breaks, or Eniscrone, best for having plenty of space in the water to hone your newly-mastered board skills. For confident wave-catchers, head to County Mayo or its nearby neighbour County Sligo – both popular for consistent waves and rugged shorelines.
One of Ireland’s most iconic natural attractions - the spectacular Cliffs of Moher - are visited for more than just their breath-taking views. Below the towering cliffs, thrill-seeking surfers can discover large waves only to be braved by highly experienced board riders. And when the weather is balmy, the East Coast of Wicklow and Dublin call the surfers to their distinctive and stunning backdrops.
Gaelic Games: ancient tribal field sports
Just a stone’s throw away from the majestic Irish landscapes and rooted deep within communities for hundreds of years lies a shared love for prehistoric Irish sport. Described as “well worth catching on your travels” by Rough Guides, the ubiquitous Gaelic Games, which consist of Hurling, Gaelic Football, Handball and Rounders are worth a watch.
Years of hard work, desire and commitment pour out of the extraordinarily highly-skilled amateur sports athletes, who take to the field on Match Day. The best part of being a spectator is that it’s extremely easy to attend a match: sporting events are held across the nation, throughout the year, from Galway to Dublin, Cork to Limerick, and all counties in between.
Nightlife: more than just local watering holes
Not all the best things are experienced during the day and there’s nothing quite like discovering a new place by moonlight. Pour your very own at Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse - locals say there's a science to creating the perfect pint. Once you've had a cold glass of the frothy brown stout, head to one of the nearby local pubs for a night filled with pointed-toe jigs from incredibly skilled Irish dancers.
Ireland has one of the best entertainment scenes in the world. Belfast has deep running musical roots and traditional music sessions are held across the city - head to Limelight for a gig - while the laid-back city of Galway packs a punch in terms of entertainment. There's artistic creativity on every laneway: think street performers, live concerts and art exhibitions.
For something a bit different, spend your evening star-gazing at some of the dreamiest viewing spots in Inishowen, County Donegal, where you can spot the jaw-droppingly beautiful Northern Lights. Whilst there’s no guarantee you'll see the lights, the trick is being in the right place at the right time and in accepting that chasing the auroras is an adventure in itself.
The People: a hundred thousand welcomes
The Irish are an extremely social bunch. It’s not uncommon for locals to give a light-hearted tip on how to pronounce Irish words, provide three different sets of directions to get to where you’re going (just in case one wasn’t enough) or ask you about your day. You’ll be asked “What’s the craic?” from fun-loving, generous and kind-hearted people who are eager to welcome you like a long-lost friend.
And, while there’s at least one pub on every street that’s full to the brim with both locals and visitors coming together to celebrate life, so too are there walking tours around the city (an invaluable way to explore your surroundings through the eyes of a local). Photography tours, nature hikes and gourmet food tours are all a great way to learn about the country and its people first-hand and with the insights of the Irish themselves.
No matter where you are in Ireland, its the people who make it really special.