Choose Your Own Adventure in Ireland’s Great Outdoors
When it comes to the great outdoors, Ireland is blessed with dramatic scenery and incredible landscapes. And while the Cliffs of Moher and the Giant's Causeway are two iconic spots to visit, there are tons of other adventures available that you might not know about.
Here’s your guide to a range of outdoor activities you can enjoy on the island of Ireland; the best time to experience them are from spring through early fall. We grouped them into levels of difficulty, so you can choose your own adventures in the Emerald Isle.
The term “on the green” is taken to another level when you’re in Ireland, where everywhere you look is awash in green without even trying. Ireland is considered one of the world’s premier golf destinations (Royal Portrush might ring a bell). With more than 400 golf clubs, including a third of the globe’s natural links courses, the island is a must-visit destination for golfers. You don’t need to be a member to play, all you need to do is book ahead and dress accordingly (the safest bet is smart casual). Don’t forget that in Ireland, they enjoy the 19th hole as well, that being a nearby pub where you can relax, talk about your game and bask in the glow of Irish hospitality.
While green is an important color for Ireland, so is blue, thanks to all the water. Get the feel of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands by taking a cruise down the River Shannon, the longest river on the island. Historically important for moving goods and people around the country, the river’s banks are lined with towns like Athlone and Shannonbridge, castles, monastic settlements like Clonmacnoise, forts and garrisons along its 161 miles.
On the Wild Atlantic Way, hop aboard a ferry at the foot of the Cliffs of Moher for a different point of view of these majestic heights, or go further and head out to the three rocky isles that make up the Aran Islands. In Northern Ireland, head to Ballintoy Harbour for boat tours along the North Antrim Coast; the traditional fishing village of Ballintoy may look familiar as it was the filming location for Pyke’s harbor in Game of Thrones.
Another great way to see the sights of Ireland via your own pace is by walking or hiking one of the nearly 1,000 trails around the island. Beginners might like Ballycotton Cliff Walk in Cork not only for its landscape views of meadows on one side and the Atlantic on the other, but also the fun wildlife watching (think Peregrine falcons, dolphins and whales). For hikes that span sea to hills to mountains, head to County Wicklow; in the Wicklow Mountains, you can spot Lough Tay, also known as Guinness Lake. Though the lake is on private property, you can get a bird’s-eye view; it’s one of the most photographed spots in Ireland for its quirkiness. (The Guinness family imported white sand onto part of the beach, making the lake look like a pint of the black stuff.)
If you’re looking for some love on the ‘gram, check out the Cuilcagh Boardwalk/Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail in County Fermanagh. You might recognize this series of 450 steps as Ireland’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the walk highlights the scenic wilderness of Cuilcagh Mountain. Another way to walk through Northern Ireland’s spectacular sights is via Saint Patrick’s Way: The Pilgrim Walk; it’s an 82-mile walking trail connecting key Christian heritage sites between Armagh and Downpatrick.
One of the easiest adventures you can have in Ireland is getting back to nature. Head to the Burren, found in County Clare, a rocky district full of cliffs, caves, fossils, rock formations and archaeological sites. More than 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found here and the Burren Nature Sanctuary is a great place to see many of them.
While in the area, get a sense of homegrown flavor on the Burren Food Trails that promote local food, sustainable travel and the culture of collaboration among artisanal producers. On these food clusters, you can visit farmers' markets and apiaries, meet the makers, take a cooking class, attend events and enjoy meals from farm-to-table and sea-to-fork. Stop for a bite of organic Burren lamb or fresh seafood at eco-friendly Gregans Castle Hotel or tempt yourself into staying overnight at this 4-star historic hotel with its majestic views of Galway Bay.
If you prefer your vacations with a side of physical exertion, Ireland is happy to oblige with its greenways. Cycling is not only great exercise, but a sustainable way to visit. The Great Western Greenway in County Mayo is a 27-mile cycling and walking trail laid on top of an old railway that closed in 1937. It begins in the seaside town of Westport and runs down to Achill Sound. County Waterford is home to the Waterford Greenway, a 28-mile trail also located on a former railway track from Waterford City to Dungarvan.
You can access The Limerick Greenway at Rathkeale or Abbeyfeale on the Limerick-Kerry border. It’s currently a 24-mile ride through the local countryside, but the goal is to double the trail to about 53 miles and reach Tralee. In Northern Ireland, greenways have become more popular as local communities raise awareness about traffic-free networks; the Comber Greenway (from Belfast to Comber) has been used as a template for change.
Put your arms to work instead of your legs with a kayaking trip around Dublin County. For epic views of the city skyline, as well as a chance to get up close to a colony of playful seals, kayak around Dalkey Island. Aim for Howth and the surrounding area of Ireland’s Eye and you’ll be rewarded with a lively restaurant and bar scene. Dublin's Grand Canal also offers 81 miles to be explored; choose from sections that are actually in the city center or further afield. If you're looking for a unique experience, try your hand(s) at night kayaking on Lough Hoyne in West Cork. The stars overhead aren't the only thing glowing — the paddles stir up phosphorescent organisms, bringing a whole new meaning to sparkling water.
Back on land, you can also see the sights of Ireland via horseback, whether that’s riding through the countryside or galloping along its beaches. It’s here in the “Land of the Horse” that steeplechase racing began, but your equestrian adventure can be much calmer and peaceful. There are horseback trails around the island and many stables located in Ireland’s Ancient East. At Hazelwood Stables in County Wexford, you can even go swimming with the horses during the summer months. Trot through meadows and ancient forests at Mount Juliet Estate when you book a trail ride with Mount Juliet Equestrian Centre in County Kilkenny.
Enjoy coastal riding on the beach with Bespoke Equestrian Ireland on the North Coast and get the best views of Mussenden Temple and the Causeway Coast. You can even book weeklong horseback riding adventures along the Wild Atlantic Way (from County Galway to the Burren) with Irish Horse Riding or beach-riding holidays in Sligo and Donegal Bay with Island View Riding Stables.
Even if you’ve never heard of the sport, you can try your hand at the ancient Irish game of hurling — the oldest and fasted field sport in the world — while you’re there. At The Kilkenny Way, you can visit the Legends Hurling Museum to learn about the history and its players. You’ll also get a tour of the stadium, which includes a chance to learn the skills of this 3,000-year-old game and test out your hurling ability.
Crank your vacation up a notch (or five) with some of Ireland’s most adrenaline-pumping adventures. Head to County Sligo for surfing, no matter your speed. Beginners will appreciate the gentle waters at Enniscrone Beach while learning how to surf. Experts with steel nerves can also test Mullaghmore Head, an infamous wave in the surfing community known for being challenging and unpredictable.
While there are great locations to go scuba diving in counties like Clare and Kerry, Northern Ireland offers a chance to explore two ships wrecked during the 1940s. Head to Portaferry to get close to a piece of history. Empire Tana, a.k.a. The Inner Lee’s Wreck was a World War II Liberty ship that acted as a block ship as part of the Mulberry harbor at the landing beaches in Normandy. Off the coast of Rathlin Island sits the Lough Garry Wreck, a former passenger ferry that sunk in 1942 while being used as a government transport ship.
Combine swimming with climbing, scrambling, jumping and diving into the Atlantic Ocean and you have a sport known as coasteering. This sport is a chance to experience the Northern Ireland coastline in a different way. Companies like Coasteering NI and The Jungle offer equipment and experienced group leaders to help anyone from 12 years and older get in the water.
Instead of going low, you can also go high and hike some of the island's tallest mountains. In County Down, there's Slieve Donard, which is the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains at 2,789 feet. In County Kerry, you can hike Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain at 3,407 feet. At the top, expect 360-degree views of the Irish countryside and the perfect opportunity to breathe in that fresh outdoor air.