Vibrant cities, otherworldly monuments, ancient castles, sweeping beaches bordered by jade-green fields, cosy pubs with crackling fires and toe-tapping traditional music sessions – Ireland offers a multitude of memorable experiences. And its compact size makes it possible to fit many in, even on a short trip. This itinerary takes in the country's definitive highlights.
Covering less than 1000 scenic kilometres on good roads, this route makes a sight-packed, week-long driving loop; Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick and Galway are ideal overnight stops. You could easily make the trip shorter by only visiting a selection of the places below. It's also possible to cover this itinerary by bus (or in some sections, by train), but allow longer for connections and some minor backtracking.
Kick off your journey in the buzzing Irish capital. Stroll through stately St Stephen's Green, learn about the country's Bronze- and Iron-Age history, Viking heritage and Celtic customs at the exceptional National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology, and stop for lunch in casual or formal surrounds at Fade Street Social. Afterwards, visit prestigious Trinity College to see one of the world's oldest manuscripts, the Book of Kells. Fans of the 'black stuff' will want to hit the Guinness Storehouse, while history buffs shouldn't miss Kilmainham Gaol. Cross the Ha'penny Bridge over the River Liffey for dinner at restaurant/bookshop the Winding Stair. Dublin's literary history and its legendary pubs both deserve thorough exploration; combine the two on the animated Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Sleeping options abound, from state-of-the-art hostels like Isaacs Hostel to refined townhouse digs such as Trinity Lodge.
Situated 125km southwest of Dublin, the delightful 'city' (really, town) of Kilkenny is Ireland in microcosm. Straddling the swirling River Nore, it's crowned by a magnificent castle and dazzling cathedral. After exploring its ruined abbeys, tangle of medieval lanes such as sloping Butter Slip, and art and craft galleries including the excellent National Craft Gallery & Kilkenny Design Centre, dine on some of the finest Modern Irish cuisine in the country at Campagne, then linger over a pint at historic Kyteler's Inn. Amid beautiful grounds, turreted mansion Butler House has individually decorated hotel rooms with atmospherically creaky floors.
Rock of Cashel
Appearing like an apparition above the fertile plains of County Tipperary, 62km southwest of Kilkenny, is the iconic Rock of Cashel. Dating from the 4th century, 'the Rock' was a centre of power for Irish kings for over 400 years. Within its stone walls, surviving structures include a complete round tower, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral and an exquisite 12th-century Romanesque chapel. Allow a couple of hours here before a gourmet lunch at nearby Cafe Hans.
Set in a glittering estuary on Great Island – one of three islands that fill Cork Harbour – just over 100km southwest of Cashel, Cobh (pronounced 'cove') was the ill-fated Titanic's final port of call. The original White Star Line Offices, where passengers embarked, are now home to the poignant Titanic Experience Cobh museum. Around the back, the Titanic Bar & Grill has a panoramic terrace. History also comes to life at the fascinating heritage centre Cobh, The Queenstown Story, housed in the old train station; if you're tracing your Irish ancestors, there's a genealogy centre here. Lording it over the town's steep streets and colourful terraced houses is the colossal St Colman's Cathedral.
Just 25km northwest of Cobh, the elegant Georgian parades and narrow alleyways of the Republic of Ireland's second-largest city, Cork, spill over with lively restaurants, pubs, music and theatres. County Cork is renowned as Ireland's gourmet heartland, and its bountiful produce is showcased at the ornate Victorian-era Cork English Market. Upstairs, the Farmgate Café serves market-driven dishes; get a balcony table for a bird's-eye view. Electric has a Modern Irish menu as well as a fabulous bar with a deck overlooking the River Lee. A Cork landmark for over 200 years, the grande dame Imperial Hotel has an unbeatable city-centre location and intriguing history. Head 8km northwest for 15th-century Blarney Castle. (Just think twice before kissing the much-puckered-up-to Blarney Stone to acquire the gift of the gab.)
An impossibly quaint clutch of thatched cottages make up 'Ireland's prettiest village', Adare, 93km northwest of Cork (and 84km north of Blarney Castle) in County Limerick. They were built as workers cottages by 19th-century English landlord the Earl of Dunraven during the construction of Adare Manor, now home to a magnificent hotel and golf course. The Adare Heritage Centre arranges summer tours of ruined Adare Castle, dating from the 12th century, and can also point you in the direction of other impressive ruins including a 15th-century Franciscan friary. Don't miss a meal at one of the Emerald Isle's dining gems, Restaurant 1826 Adare.
Just 16km northeast from Adare is Limerick City (the Republic's third-biggest), immortalised by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes. Overlooking the mighty River Shannon on King's Island, refurbished 13th-century King John's Castle is the stuff of medieval fantasies. Nearby is the 1168-founded St Mary's Cathedral. The country's inaugural Irish City of Culture, Limerick also harbours outstanding art at the Limerick City Gallery of Art, and artefacts at the hands-on Hunt Museum. Alongside lively George's Quay, the Locke Bar is a great spot for gastropub grub or just a pint. If you don't mind staying in the (noisy) heart of the action, the Boutique Hotel has groovy, great-value rooms and local artwork.
Galway City, less than 100km northwest of Limerick on beautiful Galway Bay, has an artistic, bohemian soul. The city itself is the chief attraction here: allow time to wander its narrow laneways lined with brightly coloured shopfronts, stroll its seaside promenade to Salthill, and check out its cracking live music scene. The Crane Bar and Tig Cóilí are fantastic bets for trad music; for the next big Irish acts before they hit the big time, head to Róisín Dubh. Seafood is the city's signature delicacy; try it at Oscar's or Michelin-starred Aniar, or tuck into home-style fish and chips at local institution McDonagh's. Galway is awash with accommodation, from heaving hostels such as Snoozles to funky design properties like the House Hotel.
Unfolding northwest of Galway, the wonderfully remote Connemara region is one of the country’s major Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas. A half-day-or-so's drive (or bus tour) lets you discover its undulating bogs, vast valleys, mountainous peaks and brooding lakes. Top stops include the charming fishing harbour of Roundstone, Leenane on Killary Harbour (Ireland's only fjord), and Connemara's 'capital' Clifden, with the panoramic 12km-long Sky Road providing dizzying coastal views. Back in Galway, it's a straight 200km shot east to return to Dublin.