The Ireland Locals Love—and Visitors Have Yet to Discover

Jul 8, 2019

For every Cliffs of Moher or Trinity College Library—amazing sights, without question—a lesser-known jewel lies in wait on the Emerald Isle. Ever heard of Slieve League or Enniscrone, for example? Our point exactly. But what these places lack in name recognition, they more than make up for in gorgeousness, intimacy, and abiding local appeal.

Go in the fall (or even winter months)—and the experience becomes all the more local. The summer vacation crowds will be gone, and with them, the peak-season pricing. To start plotting your own Ireland adventure, read on.

Slieve League, County Donegal

Slieve League Cliffs, photo © Chris Hill

Almost three times taller than the more famous Cliffs of Moher, the Slieve League Cliffs tower 2,000 feet (give or take) above the Atlantic. Among the best places to take in the scene? The onsite picnic tables, which come with unreal panoramas—so pack the makings of a leisurely lunch. You can pick something up at a pub en route (they’ll typically pack sandwiches and salads, and you can’t go wrong with smoked salmon on brown bread in this neck of the woods)—or grab some of the artisanal baked goods and other local treats at the cliffs’ visitor center café. Afterward, walk off lunch along the area’s vista-blessed trails (if you’re up for a rewarding challenge, take the beloved Pilgrim’s Path).

While you’re in the neighborhood: Like many of the most memorable experiences in Ireland, the journey—which in this case would typically start an hour away in Donegal Town—is half the fun. So leave time en route for stops along the Wild Atlantic Way’s Northern Headlands section. You’ll see what we mean when you reach the car-stopping scenery of Fintra Bay and the harbor town of Killybegs.


Powerscourt House & Gardens in County Wicklow

Powerscourt House, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Just 20 minutes south of Dublin, you’ll find yourself in a seemingly different world: one where 47 acres seems a perfectly reasonably sized lot for a house—or at least this one. Having begun life as a medieval castle—and morphed into a viscount’s 68-room mansion in 1741—Powerscourt House (named after said viscount) makes for a worthy day trip.

Tour the gardens, which are stunning—particularly when they’re accessorized with ruby-red fall foliage. (Views framed by the Wicklow Mountains don't hurt either.) And plant nerds, take note: You’ll find everything from Corsican Pines to Giant Redwoods on the estate. But the one thing you can’t leave without seeing? The waterfall, which—at nearly 400 feet tall—is the nation’s highest.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Take a stroll around Enniskerry, an entire village started in 1743 to house the labor force of the Powerscourt estate. You'll have fun seeing—and making use of—the variously re-purposed historic buildings. Think charming pubs and shops in old residences.

Finn Lough Bubble Domes in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

Finn Lough Bubble Domes, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Impossible to say whether you'll have any fairy sightings on your trip, but there's one way to guarantee some serious magic: Travel to an ancient woodland in Northern Ireland and check in to a bubble dome. More or less a human-scale snow globe—with creature comforts in place of synthetic snowflakes—your dome comes with a full-sized bed, comfy seating, a heated floor, bathroom and coffee maker.

What you won’t find here is an Internet signal or TV. Nature provides the entertainment starting at sunrise—best observed from beneath your bubble dome's electric blanket. Daily breakfast is included, and you’ll want to load up: You’ll find lovely mountain biking and walking trails onsite. And for trail-weary muscles, there’s also a spa.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Head to Enniskillen Castle—a handsome riverside spread that dates to the early 1400s and houses two museums full of local treasures and lore.

Seaweed Baths in County Sligo

Voya Seaweed Baths, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

If there’s one thing you can’t fail to notice on Ireland’s shores (okay, beyond their devastating beauty), it’s seaweed. In fact, hundreds of species thrive here, making the local waters a hot spot of the wellness world, where hydrating and anti-aging seaweed treatments are trending. Then again, seaweed treatments have been trending in Ireland for centuries—one reason there was a bathhouse boom here in the early 1900s.

County Sligo became one of the epicenters of these seaweed soaks, and you can still experience the traditional Edwardian-era variety—basically, a tub full of soft seaweed and hot sea water—in Enniscrone: Head straight to Kilkullen’s Bath House, established more than a century ago, and now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. For a more modern, spa-like variation on the theme, book some time at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill. Either way, expect to emerge a silkier, smoother and serener version of yourself.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Visit the final resting place of one of the 20th century's literary giants. W. B. Yeats is buried at the Drumcliff Parish Church against a dramatic, mountainous backdrop.

Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Bushmills Inn

Taste uisce beatha—that’s water of life—at one of the oldest distilleries on the island (and the oldest licensed working distillery on earth). Located in the village of Bushmills on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the Bushmills Distillery has a history that stretches back over 400 years (in more recent history, the distillery halted production and lodged Allied soldiers during World War II). Today, you can tour the facility, learn about the whiskey-making process and taste handcrafted, small batch whiskey.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Take your newfound whiskey knowledge down the street to the Bushmills Inn and grab a seat in front of the peat-burning fireplace to sample another Irish whiskey or two. Golf fans may also want to check out the nearby Royal Portrush Golf Club, home to The 148th Open.

Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin

Literary Pub Crawl in Dublin, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Pub culture is alive and well in Dublin, as you’ll no doubt notice on most street corners in the center of town. The stories behind those pubs, however—the legendary writers who drank there, who jotted down ideas on napkins and ran up enormous tabs—may not be as obvious, but are every bit as compelling. So join a literary pub crawl to get the inside scoop.

With literary-themed actors for leaders, you’ll follow in the footsteps of Ireland’s greats. You may hit McDaid’s (a favorite of Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan), Davy Byrne’s (mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses), or the Palace Bar (a favorite of Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien). And after a few pints of Guinness, don’t be surprised at your own sudden literary inspiration. (This is where we politely remind you not to send any important texts or emails till the following morning.)

While you’re in the neighborhood: To broaden your knowledge of local history beyond the purely literary, visit the Little Museum of Dublin and EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum, the latter of which was voted Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction at this year's World Travel Awards.

Westport House

Westport House on the Carrowbeg River

Built atop the remains of a medieval castle that belonged to the fabled Pirate Queen (aka Grace O'Malley), this baronial home stayed in her family until as recently as two years ago. To see how Ireland’s other half lives, and explore centuries’ worth of amazing relics, download the new audio tour app (search Westport House on Google Play or the App Store) and wander the 30 or so spaces that are open to the public. And don’t miss a trip to the dungeons, which are among the few holdovers of the Pirate Queen’s era.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Explore the pleasures of Westport, from the tree-lined banks of the Carrowbeg River (aka the mall) to the local specialty that is Boxty (basically latkes, but with the possibility of bacon).

Kylemore Abbey in County Galway

Kylemore Abbey, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Smack in the middle of Connemara’s famously stunning landscapes—on the shore of Lough Pollacappul—sits a castle-turned-Benedictine abbey that’s well worth a visit. At Kylemore Abbey, you’ll find Victorian walled gardens, a Gothic church—and the loveliest tea rooms and woodland walks. You’ll also find a brand new exhibit: From Generation to Generation….The Story of Kylemore Abbey with artifacts that span centuries.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Visit one of the most fascinating, least expected museums that you’ll find in Ireland. The Quiet Man Museum in neighboring County Mayo is dedicated to the John Wayne classic of the same name.

St. George’s Market in Belfast, Northern Ireland

St. George's Market, photo © Chris Hill

Though there’s been a market on this site since the early 1600s, the version you’ll see—and trust us, shop in—was built in the late 1890s. Now a weekend market (open Friday, Saturday and Sunday), St. George’s has everything from crafts to jewelry to autumn produce on offer. (Though it was a T-shirt stand that seemed most intriguing to Queen Elizabeth during her visit five years ago.) You might not be greeted with quite the same fanfare as Her Majesty, but you’ll likely be greeted with live music, and locals who’d be happy to shoot the breeze over coffee.

While you’re in the neighborhood: Learn all about the so-called "ship of dreams" in the city where she was built at Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. 

Slane Whiskey Distillery in County Meath

Slane Castle, photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Located on the 1,500-acre grounds of Slane Castle—an estate that dates back more than 300 years—this new whiskey distillery is an exciting part of a current craft spirits boom in Ireland. Visit the distillery, located within the castle’s historic stables, to taste the smooth triple-casked whiskey. Several tours are available, such as a tour of the whiskey distillery on its own or a combination tour that also includes access to Slane Castle.

While you're in the neighborhood: Travel exponentially further back in time—as in, thousands of years—to any of the four UNESCO World Heritage-designated Megalithic Passage Tombs in the Boyne Valley.

Ready to go? Find your own discoveries on a trip to Ireland this fall. Get your vacation planning started with these deals.

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