There's no better way of experiencing this wildly beautiful country than by exploring its varied landscapes – and the rewards can be spectacular. From majestic craggy mountains to lush lakeside woods, from broad sandy beaches to blankets of wild bog stretching as far as the eye can see, Ireland's great outdoors will never disappoint.

Walking

Gentle hills, rocky ridges, wild moorlands, spectacular sea cliffs, remote islands, warm hospitality and the gloriously unpredictable weather – all are part of the wonderful experience of exploring Ireland on foot. There is something for everyone, from post-prandial strolls to challenging 1000m peaks.

Where to Walk

For a small country, Ireland is packed with choice – from seaside ambles to long-distance treks in mountain ranges.

Day Walks

You can take a leisurely day hike in just about any part of Ireland. Some suggestions:

  • Barrow Towpath Along the River Barrow in Counties Carlow and Kilkenny, pleasant walks can be had along the towpath from Borris to Graiguenamanagh and on to St Mullins.
  • Glendalough The wooded trails around this ancient monastic site in County Wicklow lure many a traveller from nearby Dublin for a few hours' rambling.
  • Lough Key Forest Park The woods around this lake in County Roscommon have a wonderful canopied trail.
  • Sky Road In County Galway, Clifden's Sky Road yields views of the Connemara coast; it's suitable for walking or cycling.
  • South Leinster Way The prettiest section of this waymarked way is a 13km hike between the charming villages of Graiguenamanagh and Inistioge in County Kilkenny.
  • Brandon Way Not to be confused with Mt Brandon in County Kerry, the smaller Brandon Hill (516m) in County Kilkenny has a path that wends up to the summit from woodlands and moorlands along the River Barrow.
  • Killarney National Park Superb short walks on the shores of Lough Leane in County Kerry, plus the slightly longer Muckross Lake Loop.
  • Killary Harbour Scenic walks along the shore of this long, fjord-like inlet of the sea in County Galway.
  • Glen of Aherlow Fine walking amid lush woodland and low hills in County Tipperary with grand views towards the high Galtee Mountains.
  • Fair Head Easy paths lead to the top of huge basalt sea cliffs in county Antrim, with a panorama that takes in Rathlin Island and the Scottish coast.

Coastal Walks

Ireland's coastlines are naturally conducive to long and reflective walks with or without shoes on. Here are five to get you started:

  • Arranmore Way (County Donegal) This 14km trail makes a circuit of the wild seacliff scenery of this rocky island off the Donegal coast.
  • Causeway Coast Way (County Antrim) A waymarked trail that follows Antrim's north coast. Particularly spectacular is the final 16.5km of this waymarked way, from Carrick-a-Rede to the Giant's Causeway.
  • Wexford Coastal Walk (County Wexford) Follow 221km of trails overlooking vast sandy beaches, bird-haunted backwaters and the bones of old shipwrecks.
  • Sheep's Head Lighthouse (County Cork) A superb short walk leads from the road-end to one of the country's most spectacularly sited lighthouses.
  • Tory Way (County Donegal) A 12km looped trail around the rocky coast of Tory Island

Mountain Hikes

What Ireland's mountains lack in height (its tallest peak is a meagre 1040m) they more than make up for in stunning scenery and superb hill-walking opportunities.

  • Carrauntoohil (1040m; MacGillicuddy's Reeks, County Kerry) The ascent of Ireland's highest summit involves scrambling and challenging navigation; inexperienced hill walkers should hire a guide.
  • Slieve Donard (853m; Mourne Mountains, County Down) Northern Ireland's highest hill is a straightforward climb; its near-neighbour Slieve Binnian is more interesting.
  • Errigal Mountain (752m; County Donegal) This pyramidal quartzite peak is one of Ireland's shapeliest hills.
  • Twelve Bens (729m; County Galway) Though small in stature, Connemara's craggy hills offer some of Ireland's toughest terrain. The Glencoaghan Horseshoe is often cited as the country's finest hill-walk.
  • Mt Brandon (951m; County Kerry) The highest peak on the Dingle Peninsula has rugged trails that yield jaw-droppingly spectacular views.

What to Bring

For short walks on waymarked trails all you will need is comfortable footwear, a rain jacket and some food and water.

Hikers venturing further into Ireland's hills and bogs should be properly equipped and cautious, as the weather can become vicious at any time of year.

  • After rain, peaty soil can become boggy, so always wear stout shoes or boots and carry good waterproofs and extra food and drink.
  • Always take a map and compass (and know how to use them). Don’t depend on mobile phones (although carrying one with you is a good idea).
  • Leave a note with your route and expected time of return with a trusted person (either at your accommodation, or via email or text to a friend or family member), and let them know when you have returned safely.

Further Information

Tourist offices stock maps and leaflets with details of local walks. Online resources include the following:

Discover Ireland (www.discoverireland.ie/walking) Downloadable PDF maps and guides to more than 600 walks in the Republic of Ireland.

Irish Trails (www.irishtrails.ie) Affiliated with Sports Council, has details of more than 900 trails, including over 40 (mostly long-distance) waymarked trails in the Republic of Ireland.

Walk Northern Ireland (www.walkni.com) Descriptions and PDF downloads of more than 400 walks in Northern Ireland, from a 400m stroll to the 1000km Ulster Way.

Pilgrim Paths (www.pilgrimpath.ie) Twelve waymarked walking trails that follow ancient Christian pilgrimage routes.

Coillte Outdoors (www.coillteoutdoors.ie) Ireland's state forestry service has hundreds of walking trails on its properties.

Access

Unlike Scotland, England and Wales (and most other European countries) where there are public rights of way and/or a public right of access to most areas of uncultivated land, walkers and cyclists in Ireland have no rights of access to privately owned land, not even on wild moorland and mountain (unless it is part of a national park).

The absence of a legal framework has led to a rather fraught situation in recent years as the popularity of walking, mountaineering and off-road biking has increased, and numerous disputes have blown up across the country, forcing the closure or re-routing of some traditional walking routes.

Access has been negotiated with landowners for many national trails and waymarked walks (disputes over access is why many of these trails follow public roads for long distances). However, you will occasionally come across locked gates, barbed wire fences or 'no walkers allowed' signs – these are legal and must be obeyed.

For more information on access rights and responsible walking see the following:

Keep Ireland Open (www.keepirelandopen.org) Voluntary body campaigning for rights of access to the countryside.

Leave No Trace (www.leavenotraceireland.org) Educational charity promoting responsible use of the outdoors.

Mountaineering Ireland (www.mountaineering.ie) Good information and advice on the Access Policy page.

Waymarked Ways

The opening of the 1000km Ulster Way in the 1970s followed by the Wicklow Way in 1982 prompted the establishment of a network of 44 long-distance walking trails that total over 5000km in length. Though many of these would take several days, or even weeks, to complete, you can easily walk shorter sections of each trail as you see fit.

Our top 10 of Ireland's long-distance trails:

  • Barrow Way A 114km wander through some of Ireland's loveliest riverside scenery between Lowtown in County Kildare and St Mullins in County Carlow.
  • Beara Way A moderately easy loop of 196km that follows historic routes and tracks on a stunning peninsula in West Cork.
  • Burren Way This 123km walk takes in County Clare's unique rocky landscape, the Cliffs of Moher and the musical town of Doolin.
  • Cavan Way Impressive topographic variety is packed into this short (26km) route, taking in bogs, Stone Age monuments and the source of the River Shannon.
  • Dingle Way A popular 168km route in County Kerry that loops around one of Ireland's most beautiful peninsulas.
  • East Munster Way Starting in County Tipperary and ending up in County Waterford, a 70km walk through forest and open moorland, and along the towpath of the River Suir.
  • Kerry Way A 214km route that takes in Killarney National park, the spectacular Macgillycuddy's Reeks and the Ring of Kerry coast.
  • Sheep's Head Way Sweeping seascapes and splendid isolation mark out this 88km off-the-beaten-track peninsular circuit.
  • Ulster Way A route totalling 1000km, making a circuit around the six counties of Northern Ireland and Donegal. It can easily be broken down into smaller sections.
  • Wicklow Way Ireland's most popular walking trail is this 132km route, which starts in southern Dublin and ends in Clonegal in County Carlow.

Walking Guides & Maps

There are several good hiking guidebooks that cover Ireland, notably the Collins Press (www.collinspress.ie) series of walking guides.

The Ordnance Survey of Ireland (www.ose.ie) and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland (www.nidirect.gov.uk/ordnance-survey-of-northern-ireland) cover the entire island with their 1:50,000 Discovery/Discoverer series (€8.99/£6.50 per sheet). There are also more detailed 1:25,000 Adventure/Activity maps (€12.99/£7.80) covering popular areas such as MacGillicuddy's Reeks & Killarney National Park, the Wicklow Mountains, the Mournes and the Causeway Coast.

Maps produced specifically for walkers include the following:

Harveys Superwalker (www.harveymaps.co.uk) Waterproof 1:30,000 hill-walking maps covering Connemara, the Mournes, the Wicklow Mountains and MacGillicuddy's Reeks.

EastWest Mapping (www.eastwestmapping.ie) Walkers' maps of the Wicklow Mountains, the Wicklow Way and the Blackstairs Mountains & Barrow Valley.

Golf

With over 400 courses dotted around the island, golf is one of Ireland's most popular pastimes and – for the most part – lacks the exclusivity that comes with the game in other parts of the world. There are plenty of parkland courses, but the more memorable golf experiences are to be had on a seaside links – the Irish coastline is home to 30% of the world's links courses.

Most golf courses are privately owned, but all welcome non-member bookings and walk-ins: to avoid disappointment, book the better-known courses in advance. For the top courses, expect to pay €100 to €250 or more per round; lesser-known courses charge as little as €25, depending on when you play. Some courses will insist that you have a registered handicap from your home country. Most courses will also rents out clubs, but they're not usually very good.

A great option is to rent a customised set of clubs at Dublin or Cork airport through www.clubstohire.com, which you can drop back at the airport when you leave.

Our favourite courses:

Ballybunion Golf Club, County Kerry

Royal Portrush Golf Club, County Londonderry

County Sligo Golf Course, County Sligo

Portmarnock Golf Club, County Dublin

Waterville Golf Links, County Kerry

Lahinch Golf Club, County Clare

Killeen Castle, County Meath

For more information, check out Golf Ireland (www.golf.discoverireland.ie), or the Golfing Union of Ireland (www.golfnet.ie), both of which offer booking services.

There are specials and discounted green fees available throughout the year: a good online resource is www.teetimes.ie, where you can book heavily discounted green fees at dozens of courses throughout the country.

Cycling

Ireland has a lot to offer the cycle tourist, not least in the huge network of minor roads that criss-cross even the wildest parts of the island. Take along a good map and a spirit of adventure (and decent waterproofs, of course), and you can clock up hundreds of kilometres of happy exploration.

Several operators offer guided and self-guided cycling tours in Ireland, including the following:

Iron Donkey (www.irondonkey.com)

Ireland by Bike (www.irelandbybike.com)

Where to Cycle

  • Great Western Greenway This 42km-long, mostly off-road and hugely popular cycleway stretches from Westport to Achill Island in County Mayo.
  • Killarney National Park The park offers an adventurous boat-and-bike adventure via the lakes of Killarney and up through the impressive Gap of Dunloe.
  • Kingfisher Trail A waymarked, long-distance cycling trail stretching some 370km along the back roads of Counties Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan.
  • Clifden Cycle Hub The 'capital' of Connemara in County Galway is the focus of four looped cycle routes, ranging from 16km to 40km in length, including the scenic Sky Road.
  • Waterford Greenway A 46km, all-abilities trail that opened in in 2017 along the lines of a railway track between Waterford city and Dungarvan.

Horse Riding

Whether it's a gentle hack or a gallop across a wild beach, riding is one of Ireland's most beloved pastimes, and there's something for riders of every level. There are hundreds of centres throughout Ireland, offering possibilities ranging from a one-hour walk (from €25/15 per adult/child) to fully packaged, residential equestrian holidays.

Surprisingly, there is no legislation governing the set-up and conduct of horse yards, but the Association of Irish Riding Establishments (www.aire.ie) has over 200 member schools and centres spread throughout the country. Being AIRE-approved means that the yard has qualified instructors, a resident first-aider, child-protection schemes and insurance certification – and, crucially, that all of the horses are maintained according to an acceptable standard of care. We recommend that you stick to AIRE-approved centres.

Water Sports

Ireland has over 3000km of coastline and countless rivers and lakes, so no matter where in the country you may be, you're never far from a place to surf, windsurf, scuba dive or canoe.

Surfing & Windsurfing

Surfing is all the rage on the coast, especially in the west. The most popular spots include the following:

  • County Donegal Bundoran, the unofficial capital of Irish surfing, hosts the Irish national championships in April. Along the coast there are at least half a dozen top-rated spots for beginners and advanced surfers. Windsurfing and kitesurfing are equally popular around Port-na-Blagh.
  • County Sligo Easkey and Strandhill are famous for their year-round surf, and have facilities for travellers who seek room and board (with the room being optional).
  • County Clare Nice breaks at Kilkee, Lahinch and Fanore.
  • County Waterford Tramore Beach is a coastal resort that's home to Ireland's largest surf school.
  • County Kerry Surfers flock to massive Inch Strand for its nicely sized, well-paced waves. Brandon Bay and Ballybunion are also top spots.
  • County Antrim The beaches around Portrush afford good surfing and body-surfing. The swells are highest and the water warmest in September and October.

Scuba Diving

Ireland's west coast has some of the best scuba diving in Europe. The best period for diving is roughly March to October, when visibility averages more than 12m, but can increase to 30m on good days.

Top dive locations include Kilkee (Mayo), Baltimore (Cork), Castlegregory (Kerry) and Arranmore Island and Rosguill (Donegal).

For more details about diving, contact Comhairle Fó-Thuinn (CFT), also known as the Irish Underwater Council (www.diving.ie); it publishes the dive magazine SubSea (available online).

Canoeing & Kayaking

Ireland's long, indented coastline provides some of the finest sea kayaking in the world. There are sheltered inlets ideal for beginners, long and exciting coastal and island tours, and gnarly tidal passages that will challenge even the most expert paddler, all amid spectacular scenery and wildlife – encounters with seals, dolphins and even whales are relatively common. The Irish Sea Kayaking Association (www.iska.ie) lists providers of kayak tours and courses.

The country's inland lakes and waterways offer excellent Canadian canoeing. Northern Ireland has established a network of official canoe trails (www.canoeni.com), with infrastructure that includes access points, information boards, toilets and campsites. South of the border, waterways such as the Shannon, Barrow and Grand Canal (see www.waterwaysireland.org) all offer long-distance canoe touring possibilities.

Fishing

Fishing – whether in sea, lough or river – is one of Ireland's most popular pastimes. Ireland is justly famous for its salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing, and for its superb sea angling.

Top Irish angling experiences:

  • Fly fishing for brown trout on the big limestone loughs of Corrib and Mask (County Galway); the annual mayfly hatch here attracts thousands of anglers from all over the world.
  • Sea trout fishing on Lough Currane in County Kerry, one of the best sea trout fisheries in all of Britain and Ireland.
  • Fishing for salmon on the Blackwater (Cork), Laune (Kerry) or Roe (Londonderry), three of Ireland's top salmon rivers.
  • Shore fishing for sea bass in the southwest, or boat fishing for blue shark out of Kinsale – Ireland has some of Europe's finest sea angling.

The books Rivers of Ireland and Loughs of Ireland by Peter O'Reilly provide a comprehensive guide to fishing for trout and salmon in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Fishing Licences

Neither a permit nor a licence is needed for sea angling.

Permits Fishing for brown trout in many of Ireland's most famous loughs, including Corrib, Mask and the Killarney lakes, is free. However, most loughs and rivers require a permit (ask at the local hotel or tackle shop). Day ticket prices range from €3 to €20.

Rod licences In addition to a permit, a rod licence is required for all freshwater fishing in Northern Ireland (three days/14 days £3.50/9). In the Republic, a rod licence is needed only for salmon and sea trout fishing (one day/three weeks €20/40). You can buy them from local tackle shops and from some tourist offices.

For more information, see www.fishinginireland.info.

Rock Climbing

Ireland's mountain ranges aren't high – Mt Carrantuohil in Kerry's Macgillycuddy's Reeks is the highest peak in Ireland at only 1040m – but they offer some excellent rock climbing, notably in the Mournes, the Reeks and around Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains.

However, the cream of the country's climbing is on its superb sea cliffs – from Malin Beg in Donegal and the cliffs of Achill Island, to the soaring basalt columns of Fair Head and perfect limestone crags of the Burren. Rock Climbing in Ireland (2014; €25) by David Flanagan covers 400 of the country's best routes. For all other information, check out Irish Climbing Online (www.climbing.ie).

Watching Wildlife

There are ample opportunities for spotting wildlife in Ireland. The country's mountains, lakes, bogs, wetlands and coastal waters are alive with birds, furtive furry creatures and sea mammals. Ireland's national parks and Northern Ireland's Areas of Outstanding Beauty are obvious places to start but there are also three Global Geoparks (Unesco-designated areas of geological significance), at County Mayo's Burren, County Waterford's Copper Coast and the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh/Cavan, that are also replete with wildlife.

Along the coast you can spot seabirds, seals, dolphins, Minke whales, basking sharks and even the occasional killer whale, humpback whale and fin whale.

Find out more at the following:

  • Ireland's Wildlife (www.irelandswildlife.com)
  • Ulster Wildlife (www.ulsterwildlife.org)
  • Whalewatch West Cork (www.whalewatchwestcork.com)

Midges

Midges are tiny, 2mm-long blood-sucking flies that appear in huge swarms in summer, and can completely ruin a holiday if you're not prepared to deal with them.

They proliferate from late May to mid-September, but especially mid-June to mid-August – which unfortunately coincides with the main tourist season – and are most common in the western and northern parts of Ireland, especially in boggy areas such as Connemara and Donegal.

Midges are at their worst during the twilight hours, and on still, overcast days – strong winds and bright sunshine tend to discourage them. The only way to combat them is to cover up, particularly in the evening. Wear long-sleeved, light-coloured clothing (midges are attracted to dark colours) and, most importantly, use a reliable insect repellent.

Mountain Biking

The lack of a legal right of access to private land has meant that off-road biking in Ireland lags behind the UK. That said, there are some excellent purpose-built trail centres, mostly in state forest parks on both sides of the border.

In many areas, local riders quietly work away at their own network of self-built trails; the local bike shop is a great source of information on these.

For more details, check out the following:

Mountain Bike NI (www.mountainbikeni.com) Full details of MTB centres in Northern Ireland.

TrailBadger (www.trailbadger.com) Useful database of mountain-bike trails in Ireland.

Biking.ie (www.biking.ie) Excellent resource including trail details, rentals and tours in the Republic.

MTB Trail Centres

Davagh Forest Forest trails for beginners, rock slabs and drop-offs for experts, in the heart of County Tyrone.

Rostrevor With a thigh-crunching 27km red trail and a terrifying 19km black, Rostrevor in County Down is reckoned by some to offer the best mountain-biking in Ireland.

Ballyhoura (www.trailriders.ie) This MTB centre in County Limerick has the biggest network of trails in the country, ranging from green to black, with the longest at more than 50km.

Ballinastoe (www.coillteoutdoors.ie) This trail centre on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin has a superbly flowing, 14km blue trail. There are plenty more trails to explore in the nearby hills.

Bike Park Ireland (http://bikeparkireland.ie) This purpose-built centre in County Tipperary has an uplift service to the top of the hill, and downhill trails for all levels of rider.

Ticknock MTB (www.dublinmountains.ie) A 13km-long network of purpose-built single track trails and forest roads in the Dublin Mountains offering varying degrees of gradient and difficulty. Access is at the bottom of Three Rock Mountain.

Coasteering

If sometimes a simple clifftop walk doesn’t cut the mustard, then coasteering might appeal. It’s like mountaineering, but instead of going up a mountain, you go sideways along a coast – a steep and rocky coast – with waves breaking around your feet. And if the rock gets too steep, no problem – you jump in and start swimming. Coasteering centres provide wetsuits, helmets and buoyancy aids; you provide an old pair of training shoes and a sense of adventure.

Providers include the following:

Coasteering Ireland (www.coasteering-ireland.com) Operates mostly in the Beara Peninsula (Cork) and the Ring of Kerry.

Coasteering NI (www.coasteeringni.co.uk) Operates in County Antrim near the Giant's Causeway, and at Glencolumbkille in Donegal.