County Kerry contains some of Ireland's most iconic scenery: surf-pounded sea cliffs and soft golden strands, emerald-green farmland criss-crossed by tumbledown stone walls, mist-shrouded bogs and cloud-torn mountain peaks.
With one of the country's finest national parks as its backyard, the lively tourism hub of Killarney spills over with colourful shops, restaurants and pubs loud with spirited trad music. The town is the jumping-off point for Kerry's two famed loop drives: the larger Ring of Kerry skirts the mountainous, island-fringed Iveragh Peninsula. The more compact Dingle Peninsula is like a condensed version of its southern neighbour, with ancient prehistoric ring forts and beehive huts, Christian sites, sandy beaches and glimpses of a hard, unforgiving land.
Kerry's exquisite beauty makes it one of Ireland's most popular tourist destinations. But if you need to escape from the crowds, there's always a mountain pass, an isolated cove or an untrodden trail to discover.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout County Kerry.
The jagged, 217m-high rock of Skellig Michael (Michael's Rock; like St Michael's Mount in Cornwall and Mont St Michel in Normandy) is the larger of the two Skellig Islands and a Unesco World Heritage site. Early Christian monks established a community and survived here from the 6th until the 12th or 13th century. The monastic buildings perch on a saddle in the rock, some 150m above sea level, reached by 618 steep steps cut into the rock face.
Sprawling over 10,236 hectares, this sublime park is an idyllic place to explore. Ross Castle and Muckross House draw big crowds, but it's possible to escape amid Ireland's largest area of ancient oak woods, with panoramic views of its highest mountains and the country's only wild herd of native red deer. The core of the park is the Muckross Estate, donated to the state by Arthur Bourn Vincent in 1932; the park was designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1982.
Macgillycuddy's Reeks is Ireland's highest mountain range, and towering Carrauntoohil is the country's highest summit, at 1040m. There are several routes up, though even the most straightforward requires good hillwalking and navigation skills, while others are serious scrambling or rock-climbing routes.
Opened in 1837 as a hunting lodge, this magnificent estate sprawls over 17 hectares incorporating a waterfall, beach and six different gardens, ranging from palms to a primeval fern forest with dinosaurs carved from fallen trees. Ireland's longest rope bridge, the 33.5m Skywalk, sways precariously 11m above the River Delligeenagh, which swirls through the property. Walled kitchen gardens and farm animals provide ingredients for its Thai restaurant (mains €10 to €16). It's also possible to stay here (double/suite from €92/145).
Lakeside Ross Castle dates to the 15th century, when it was a residence of the O'Donoghue family. The entertaining 45-minute guided tour combines an easily digested history lesson with real insight into life in medieval Ireland. The castle is a lovely 2.6km walk or bike ride southwest of the St Mary's Cathedral pedestrian park entrance; you may well spot deer along the way.
Derrynane House was the home of Maurice 'Hunting Cap' O'Connell, a notorious local smuggler who grew rich on trade with France and Spain. He was the uncle of Daniel O'Connell, the 19th-century campaigner for Catholic emancipation, who grew up here in his uncle's care and inherited the property in 1825, when it became his private retreat. The house is furnished with O'Connell memorabilia, including the impressive triumphal chariot in which he lapped Dublin after his release from prison in 1844.
Gallarus Oratory is one of Ireland's most beautiful ancient buildings, its smoothly constructed dry-stone walls in the shape of an upturned boat. It has withstood the elements in this lonely spot beneath the brown hills for some 1200 years. There's a narrow doorway on the western side and a single, round-headed window on the east. Gallarus is clearly signposted off the R559, 8km northwest of Dingle town, and is 400m east of the (paid) Gallarus Visitor Centre car park.
Some 3km northwest of Cahersiveen, two extraordinary stone ring forts situated 600m apart are reached from a shared parking area. Cahergal, the larger and more impressive, dates from the 10th century and has stairways on the inside walls, a clochán (circular stone building, shaped like an old-fashioned beehive), and the remains of a roundhouse. The smaller, 9th-century Leacanabuile contains the outlines of four houses. Both have a commanding position overlooking Ballycarbery Castle and Valentia Harbour, with superb views of the Kerry mountains.
A favourite weekend getaway for Tralee residents, Banna is one of the biggest and best Blue Flag beaches in Ireland, a 6km stretch of fine golden sand backed by 10m-high dunes, with fantastic views southwest to Mt Brandon and the Dingle hills. The beach is 13km northwest of Tralee, signposted off the R551 Ballyheigue road.