Ireland is a country of contrasts. To the west, its ocean coastline has towering sea cliffs, powder-soft beaches, medieval castles, historic villages and forlornly beautiful islands where locals still nurture ancient traditions. The midlands harbor lesser-seen towns and meandering blue trails that follow the path of the River Shannon along rich green countryside. Dublin and Belfast to the east and north offer all the rich culture and diversity you’d expect to find in a large, modern metropolis.

With so many places to choose from, it’s not always easy to know where to go in Ireland, so we've handpicked the best places to stay to suit every taste and every changing mood.

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1. Inishowen Peninsula, County Donegal

Best place for a road trip

This is the final slice (or trailhead) of the magnificent Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal odyssey that connects this most northerly tip of Ireland to the south along the western seaboard. The Inishowen has a hundred-mile sign-posted loop trail that covers the major attractions around the peninsula from any starting point. It’s one of the best places to visit in Ireland for a weekend, as it’s easily navigated over a couple of days.

Start the drive north by navigating the easterly contours of Lough Swilly before moving inland from Fort Dunree to discover a highlight, Mamore Gap. It’s a narrow, curving road that snakes through the Urris Hills with spectacular coastal views. Before weaving on towards Tullagh Strand, there’s a wonderful detour to Glenevin Waterfall. The route passes one beauty spot after another, like Five Finger Strand (which has hazardous swimming conditions) and Knockamany, before arriving at the top of the world at Banba’s Crown on Malin Head.

Planning tip: Travel in the off-season (November to Easter) for the best chance to catch Inishowen’s famous Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) stenciled onto a dark sky.

Sea stack standing in the ocean framed by other rocks on the cliff
County Mayo's jaw-dropping sea stacks tower over the crashing waves below © Bruno Biancardi / Getty Images

2. Northwest Mayo

Best places for beaches

With a jagged, vast coastline, towering sea stacks and off-the-radar islands, County Mayo offers beach settings that are framed by spectacular backdrops. Mulranny, with its bone-white powdery sand, has turquoise water that swirls around its contours. It once lured John Lennon and Yoko Ono on a "second honeymoon," and it’s also the gateway to Achill Island’s Keel Strand, which has miles of dunes to fly kites and jaw-dropping views of Slievemore and the Mweelaun Cliffs. 

Keem Bay is further west on Achill, and it is arguably Ireland’s most beautiful beach. It’s sheltered by giant cliffs that rise up to the north and south like a natural amphitheater. North of Achill is the Erris Peninsula which has Elly Bay, a safe beach with shallow waters, or Glosh and Crosshead Beaches, which offer dangerous, menacing waves. Head off-grid to Blacksod Pier to catch a ferry to the Inishkea Islands and discover a magnificent beach fringed by an abandoned village and pristine ocean waters.

Local tip: Rinroe, a secret cove north of Erris, has caverns that offer a good photo op.

3. Kilkenny

Best city for history

The medieval mile in Ireland’s prettiest city center is a living museum. Yes, there are countless ticketed heritage sites like Kilkenny Castle and the Medieval Mile Museum, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the area’s past (and rooftop views), but a ramble around "The Marble City’s" beating heart is the best way to discover its past. A self-guided walking tour of the Medieval Mile takes in sites like the Black AbbeySaint Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower and the Butter Slip – an atmospheric laneway that exudes old-world charm.

As one of the best nightlife spots in Ireland for centuries, expect the pubs in this pint-sized city to have a great backstory. Kyteler’s Inn on St Kieran’s Street harbors a dark past with trumped-up witchcraft convictions, and Kilkenny’s brewing pedigree is showcased at the Smithwick’s Experience on Parliament Street and Sullivan’s Tap Room on John’s Street.

4. Limerick City

Best city for sport

Large stadiums and racetracks orbit the heart of Ireland’s third city while its narrow cobbled lanes and broad avenues have pubs, like Jerry Flannery’s on Catherine Street or JJ Bowles near King John’s Castle, for post-match banter. The Limerick team is the reigning national champions at hurling, one of the fastest and oldest field sports on the planet, but it’s rugby that gets pulses racing in "The Treaty City." Thomond Park Stadium gives the backstory to the 1978 match, when the local team and underdogs beat the famous All Blacks from New Zealand.

A brand new multistory International Rugby Experience in O’Connell Street has redefined Limerick’s roofscape. Adare Manor, a resort and golf club a short drive from the city center, will host the 2027 Ryder Cup. The Great Limerick Run draws crowds every May weekend, and cyclists venture to the countryside for mountain biking at Ballyhoura or to the Limerick Greenway for off-road trails as far as Kerry.

Local tip: The University of Limerick has one of Ireland’s three Olympic standard Swimming Pools.

Group of gay men celebrating Gay Pride at home from their balcony
Dublin is one of the best places to celebrate Pride © David Levingstone / Getty Images

5. Dublin City

Best city for LGBTIQ+ travelers

A statue of playwright Oscar Wilde reclines on a bed of quartz near his home on Merrion Square with a wry smile that conveys playful puzzlement. About 120 years after he was imprisoned for gross indecency, almost to the day, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote, and Wilde’s hometown was engulfed with rainbow flags for the occasion.

The party continues in the capital’s landmark gay bar, The George, which is one of the best places to visit in Dublin for members of the LGBTIQ+ community. Pantibar on Capel Street and Street 66 on Parliament Street are more laid back, and ‘Mother’ on Grafton Street is for weekend clubbing. The city’s annual Pride Festival rivals the St Patrick’s Day parade for bringing the city to a standstill. Both GAZE, a film event in September, and the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival in May mark the LGBTIQ+ community’s contribution to Ireland’s performing arts. 

6. Galway City

Best city for food

The scent of aromatic spices is carried on the fresh Atlantic breeze that passes through the cobbled lanes off Quay Street, the medieval heart of Galway. Top local restaurants like Ard Bia at Nimmos cluster around its southern tip at Spanish Arch because of its romantic setting, making it one of the best places for couples to visit in Ireland. It was once a trading post where galleons carried cargos of wine and food — along with explorer Christopher Columbus back in 1477.

Cava Bodega continues that fusion of the exotic with traditional with their imaginative tapas, and on Middle Street, Anair, the flagship restaurant of master chef JP McMahon is five minutes away. Éan, a contemporary space down the moodily lit Druid Lane, sells exquisite artisan pastries. With fresh catch arriving from the ocean to the city by the trawler load, expect humble fish and chips with a difference at McDonagh’s on Quay Street. Sheridan’s Cheese on Nicholas Street offers the best dairy produce from the land.

Planning tip: Travel in the September shoulder season for the Galway International Oyster Festival

O'Connor's Pub, group playing music at a table
O'Connor's Pub is a favorite spot to catch some live music in Doolin © Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

7. County Clare

Best place to catch a tune

County Clare’s coastline attracts visitors by the busload for the Micho Russel Festival in Doolin, near the Cliffs of Moher, late in February. It’s the place to catch a lively traditional (trad) music session at any time of year, with Gus O’Connor’s Pub packing in visitors to the rafters.

For something slower and more sentimental, visit the medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle or Knappogue, where you can listen to harpists and vocalists harmonize Ireland’s past over a glass of honeyed mead and spare ribs. Ennis hosts the annual Fleadh Nua every May, when the entire town moves in rhythm with the bodhrán. Its pubs showcase a nightly blast of trad at Brogan’s and Knox’s or contemporary live music at Nora Culligan's on Abbey Street.

Local tip: True music aficionados head to the east side of the county towards Lough Derg, where the pubs cupped in fern green valleys like Shortt’s Bar in Feakle host top performers nightly. 

8. Causeway Coast, County Antrim

Best place to hike

Located between Belfast and Derry on the north Antrim coastline, the Causeway Coast has a seascape that’s smooth as whipped cream in some locations and jagged as broken ice in others. But it’s always fascinating. At a 20-mile (34km) distance of moderate difficulty, and blessed with spectacular scenery, it’s one of the best places to hike in Ireland.

The eastern leg has stunning settings, like the Gobbins Cliff Path on Islandmagee Peninsula, but if time is restricted, travel west by train to hike to the heavy hitters that are crammed within 10 miles of each other. Starting at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which jigs and sways over the waves below, head west past the Giant’s Causeway to the spectacular Dunluce Castle that teeters on a cliff edge. Round off with a visit to the Old Bushmill’s Distillery to get the blood flowing.

Planning tip: Build in a detour to The Dark Hedges, 9 miles south of Carrick-a-Rede.

nice senior woman on mountain bike, cycling in sunset on the cliffs of Sheeps Head, County Cork, in the southwestern part of the Republic of Ireland
Families will enjoy exploring the oceanside cliffs and beaches of County Cork © Uwe Moser / Getty Images

9. West Cork

Best place for families

Ocean spray and homemade ice cream are just a taste of why this expansive, meandering coastline, with its necklace of charming seaside villages, is one of the best places for families to visit in Ireland. Take a walking tour around pretty Kinsale to discover stories of notorious seafarers like Alexander Selkirk, who inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Pirate Queen Anne Bonny. Or meander by the ramparts of star-shaped Charles Fort. For another epic activity, take a whale-watching boat tour from Baltimore to catch a glimpse of a magnificent Humpback or Baleen rise and fall beneath the clear ocean water.

Days can be spent lazing, surfing and horse-riding by the white dunes of Barley Cove or Inchydoney Beach or kayaking with seals near Glengarriff.  Ireland’s only cable car leaves from Beara (under maintenance until April 2023) to cross ocean waters to Dursey Island. Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southerly point, has an interpretive signal station that is accessed by footbridge over wild Atlantic waves.

10. Iveragh Peninsula, County Kerry

Best place for sensational views

For an out-of-this-world excursion, catch the ferry from brightly painted Portmagee to one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. Skellig Michael, a small mountainous Unesco World Heritage site, doubles as the windswept island sanctuary on the planet Ahch-To in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) and Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017).

Back on the mainland, the superlative landscapes will continue to impress with Ladies View, which has panoramic views over the Lakes of Killarney. Torc Waterfall on the northern tip of The Ring of Kerry is better recorded than photographed with the powerful sound of the water pounding in the background. Head to Cronin’s Yard to scale and capture Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain, which towers over the entire peninsula and ocean.

Planning tip: The ferry service to Skellig Michael is extremely popular (and weather dependent), so it’s necessary to book months in advance to secure tickets.

Introducing Ireland

This article was first published May 2021 and updated January 2023

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© Orlaith Martin / Lonely Planet.

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