County Clare combines spectacular windswept landscapes and vibrant Irish culture. The ocean relentlessly pounds Clare's coast year-round, eroding rock into fantastic formations, and fashioning sheer rock crags including those at the iconic Cliffs of Moher and at ends-of-the-earth Loop Head. Right along the coast, the waves are a magnet for surfers, and surf schools set up on many of Clare's beaches in summer.
Stretching down to the shore – and out as far as the Aran Islands, linked to Doolin in summer by ferries – is the moonscape-like bare limestone expanse of the Burren, which blazes with wildflowers in spring.
If the land is hard, Clare's soul certainly isn't: traditional Irish culture and music flourish here. And it's not just a show for tourists, either. In larger towns and even the tiniest of villages you'll find pubs with trad-music sessions year-round.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout County Clare.
Also known as the Portal Tomb, Poulnabrone Dolmen is one of Ireland's most photographed ancient monuments. Built more than 5000 years ago, the other-worldly dolmen (a large slab perched on stone uprights) stands amid a swath of rocky pavements; the capstone weighs 5 tonnes. The site is 9km south Ballyvaughan and visible from the R480; there's a large free parking area and excellent displays.
Covered in turf and cut into the hillside, the cliffs' state-of-the-art visitor centre has engaging exhibitions covering the fauna, flora, geology and climate of the cliffs, and an interactive genealogy board with information on local family names. Free information booklets on the cliffs are available, or download the app (also free) online. Booking an off-peak visit (8am to 11am and 4pm to close) online, 24 hours in advance, brings the adult entrance fee down to €4.
Book ahead to watch chocolate being made in small batches using rare Trinitario cacao beans and raw sugar on a 45-minute tour of this heavenly smelling cottage-housed chocolate factory in a picturesque hillside location. If you don't catch a tour, peer through the factory's glass viewing windows from the chocolate-filled shop. Its on-site organic cafe (dishes €8 to €14; Wednesday to Sunday) uses chocolate in creations like parsnip, cacao butter and white-pepper soup, and grilled halloumi and chocolate-and-plum-chutney toasties.
The Burren's wildflowers are the inspiration for the subtle scents at this wonderful perfumery and floral centre, which creates scented items such as perfumes, candles and soaps that are beautifully packaged in handmade paper. A 10-minute audiovisual presentation details the area's diverse flora, including many fragrant orchids that grow between the rocks. You're free to wander its flower and herb gardens, which provide ingredients for dishes and herbal teas served at its tearoom.
One of Ireland's most famous prehistoric grave sites, Gleninsheen lies beside the R480 7km south of Ballyvaughan. It's thought to date from 4000 to 5000 years ago. A magnificent gold gorget (a crescent of beaten gold that hung round the neck) found here and dating from the late Bronze Age is now on display at the National Museum in Dublin.
Creamy St Tola goat's cheese is served at some of Ireland's finest restaurants, with award-winning lines including ash log, Greek-style feta and gouda-style hard cheese. Call ahead to see if you can join a tour on which you'll pet the goats, watch them being fed, see a cheese-making demonstration and taste the products. The farm is 11km southeast of Ennistimon (16km northwest of Ennis), signposted off the N85.
Dating from the 15th century, square, hulking Bunratty Castle is only the latest of several edifices to occupy its location beside the River Ratty. Vikings founded a settlement here in the 10th century, and later occupants included the Norman Thomas de Clare in the 1250s. It's accessed via the folk park, a reconstructed traditional Irish village with smoke coiling from thatched-cottage chimneys, a forge and working blacksmith, weavers, post office, grocery-pub, small cafe and more. Tickets are 10% cheaper online.
This uninhabited, windswept and treeless island in the estuary 3km southwest of Kilrush was the site of a Christian settlement founded by St Senan in the 6th century. Its 36m-high round tower, the best preserved in Ireland, has its entrance at ground level instead of the usual position high above the foundation. The evocative ruins of six medieval churches include the 9th-century Cathedral of St Mary (Teampall Naomh Mhuire) – part of St Senan's Monastery.
The centrepiece of this fascinating historic site where St Tola founded a monastery in the 8th century is the four-storey, 15th-century O'Dea Castle. Today it houses the Clare Archaeology Centre, which has a rooftop castle walk and a museum displaying local artefacts. You'll also find a tearoom and a bookshop. A 5km history trail around the castle passes some two-dozen ancient monuments, from ring forts and high crosses to a prehistoric cooking site. Dysert O'Dea is just off the R476, 5km south of Corofin.