10 gems of the Emerald Isle

Rich in history, blessed with natural beauty, and boasting more than its fair share of cosmopolitan cities, ancient sites and epic vistas, Ireland has something for every visitor. In no particular order, here are 10 reasons why the Emerald Isle retains its sparkle.

1. Dublin

Ireland’s capital has enough distractions to keep visitors mesmerised for at least a few days. From world-class museums and entertainment, superb dining and top-grade hotels, Dublin has all the baubles of a major international metropolis. But the real clinchers are Dubliners themselves, who are friendlier, more easy-going and welcoming than the burghers of virtually any other European capital. And it’s the home of Guinness.

2. Connemara, County Galway

A filigreed coast of tiny coves and beaches is the Connemara Peninsula’s beautiful border with the wild waters of the Atlantic. Wandering characterful roads bring you from one village to another, each with trad pubs and restaurants serving seafood chowder cooked from recipes that are family secrets. Inland, the scenic drama is even greater. In fantastically desolate valleys, green hills, yellow wildflowers and wild streams reflecting the blue sky provide elemental beauty. Rambles take you far from others, back to a simpler time.

3. Galway City

One word to describe Galway City? Craic! Ireland’s liveliest city literally hums through the night at music-filled pubs where you can hear three old guys playing spoons and fiddles or a hot, young band. Join the locals as they bounce from place to place, never knowing what fun lies ahead but certain of the possibility. Add in local bounty such as the famous oysters and nearby adventure in the Connemara Peninsula and the Aran Islands and the fun never ends.

4. Brú na Bóinne, County Meath

Looking at once ancient and yet eerily futuristic, Newgrange’s immense, round, white stone walls topped by a grass dome is one of the most extraordinary sights you’ll ever see. Part of the vast Neolithic necropolis Brú na Bóinne, it contains Ireland’s finest Stone Age passage tomb, predating the Pyramids by some six centuries. Most extraordinary of all is the tomb’s precise alignment with the sun at the time of the winter solstice. Early engineering at its finest.

5. Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary

Soaring up from the green Tipperary pastures, this ancient fortress takes your breath away at first sight. The seat of kings and churchmen who ruled over the region for more than a thousand years, it rivalled Tara as a centre of power in Ireland for 400 years. Entered through the 15th-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, its impervious walls guard an awesome enclosure with a complete round tower, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral and the most magnificent 12th-century Romanesque chapel in Ireland.

6. Ring of Kerry

Driving around the Ring of Kerry is an unforgettable experience in itself, but you don’t need to limit yourself to the main route. Along this 179km loop around the Iveragh Peninsula there are countless opportunities for detours. Near Killorglin, it’s a short hop up to the beautiful, littleknown Cromane Peninsula. Between Portmagee and Waterville, you can explore the Skellig Ring. The peninsula’s interior offers mesmerising mountain views. And that’s just for starters. Wherever your travels take you, remember to charge your camera!

7. Causeway Coastal walk

Put on your walking boots and rucksack and set off along one of Ireland’s finest coastal walks, stretching for 16 scenic kilometres between the swaying rope bridge of Carrick-a-Rede and the geological flourish of the Giant’s Causeway. This is coastal hiking at its best, offering an ever-changing vista of cliffs and islands, sandy beaches and ruined castles, framed by scenic, seabird-haunted Rathlin Island at one end and the cheering prospect of a dram or two at the Old Bushmills Distillery at the other.

8. Clare Coast

Bathed in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, the iconic Cliffs of Moher are but one of the splendours of County Clare. From a boat bobbing below, the towering stone faces have a jaw-dropping dramatic beauty that’s enlivened by scores of sea birds, including cute little puffins. Down south in Loop Head, pillars of rock towering above the sea have abandoned stone cottages whose very existence is inexplicable. All along the coast are cute little villages like trad-session-filled Ennistymon and the surfer mecca of Lahinch.

9. Dingle, County Kerry

Dingle is the name of both the picturesque peninsula jutting into the Atlantic from County Kerry, strewn with ancient ruins, and its delightful main town, the peninsula’s beating heart. Fishing boats unload fish and shellfish that couldn’t be any fresher if you caught it yourself, many pubs are untouched since their earlier incarnations as old-fashioned shops, artists sell their creations (including beautiful jewellery with Irish designs) at intriguing boutiques, and toe-tapping trad sessions take place around roaring pub fires.

10. Derry/Londonderry

History runs deep in Northern Ireland’s second city. The symbols of the country’s sectarian past are evident, from the 17th-century city walls built to protect Protestant settlers, to the bipartite Republican/Loyalist name, Derry/Londonderry. But the new bridge that spans the River Foyle provides another symbol - of an attempt to bridge that divide and to look to the future as a city filled with a restless creative energy, expressed in its powerful murals, vibrant music scene and numerous art galleries, and now nominated as UK City of Culture 2013.