Some of Ireland’s most impressive attractions are right on Dublin’s doorstep – take a break from exploring the city streets by venturing out of town with one of these top excursions. Take your pick from atmospheric religious sites, amazing prehistoric architecture and picturesque seaside towns. Or do them all. You won't be disappointed.
Glendalough – monastic majesty in heavenly surroundings
With beautiful scenery like the Upper Lake it's easy to see why monks were attracted to Glendalough © Rafal Stachura / Getty Images
Although it’s only 25km south of Dublin, the scenic valley of Glendalough feels like another world, nestled in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Two lovely lakes set in a granite-girt glen provide the backdrop for one of Ireland’s most impressive monastic settlements.
Established by St Kevin in the 6th century, this early Christian complex flourished in medieval times and is one of the most extensive monastic sites in Ireland. The impressive remains include a 30m-tall, 10th-century round tower, the 12th-century Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, several smaller churches and an atmospheric graveyard.
There are nine walking trails in total, ranging from 1 to 11km, and leaflets on these and nature trails are available to download or buy. Highlights include the Upper Lake, where you can explore another cluster of ancient stones including St Kevin’s Bed, a shallow cave where the saint is said to have lived. Many trails are also excellent for bird-watching.
A visitor centre at the entrance to the site has an exhibition and audiovisual programme explaining the history of the monastic settlement.
Getting there You can visit as part of an organised coach trip such as the Wild Wicklow Tour or with Dublin Sightseeing Tours (combined with Powerscourt below), or take St Kevin’s Bus which departs twice daily from central Dublin.
Powerscourt Estate – the pick of Ireland's garden estates
Sugar Loaf Mountain is the perfect backdrop to Powerscourt's gorgeous gardens © PHB.cz (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock
The epitome of 18th-century aristocratic elegance, Powerscourt Estate was laid out in the 1730s by Richard Cassels, the greatest Irish architect of the Georgian era. Dominated by the grand Palladian mansion of Powerscourt House, the landscaped gardens are among the finest in the country, with gorgeous views across an ornamental lake to the conical peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain.
The formal gardens, with terraces, towers, sculptures, and a fountain modelled on the one in Rome’s Piazza Barberini, provide endless scope for exploration – a map available at the ticket desk outlines various walking trails to follow. Look out for the Pets Cemetery, the final resting place of former owners the Wingfield family’s dogs and ponies, and even a favourite dairy cow.
At Powerscourt House there’s a selection of upmarket shops, a well-stocked garden centre and the Avoca Cafe, with more enticing views from the outdoor terrace tables.
Getting there The estate is 18km south of Dublin. Dublin Bus 44 departs every hour to the nearby village of Enniskerry, a 25 minute walk from the estate. You can also visit as part of a Bus Éireann or Dublin Sightseeing Tours combo with Glendalough.
Brú na Bóinne – a visit to Ireland's prehistoric past
Art and astronomy come together at the entrance to Newgrange © powerofforever / Getty Images
The fertile valley of the River Boyne, 40km northwest of Dublin, was once the focus of a thriving prehistoric civilisation. Its legacy includes Newgrange, one of the most remarkable passage tombs in Europe, which dates from 3200BC – some six centuries older than the great pyramids of Egypt.
Brú na Bóinne (Boyne Palace; a Unesco World Heritage Site) is a complex of ancient sites, including three passage tombs of world importance – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Of these, Newgrange is the most impressive. Its beautifully constructed, circular drystone walls measure 80m across and 13m high, encompassing around 200,000 tonnes of earth and rock. You enter the Newgrange tomb via a narrow, 19m-long passage guarded by huge carved stones decorated with spiral designs, to reach a burial chamber that once held cremated human remains. The passage is aligned so that it floods with light from the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice (an artificial illumination ceremony replicates the effect for visitors at other times). Access to the interior is only by guided tour and you’re advised to book ahead during the summer.
You arrive at the Brú na Bóinne complex via a superb modern interpretive centre, whose design echoes that of a prehistoric tomb, and which houses a fascinating series of exhibits on the pre-Celtic history of Ireland and includes a lifesize replica of the Newgrange burial chamber.
Getting there Mary Gibbons Tours will pick you up from your hotel for a guided visit to Brú na Bóinne, or you can visit as part of a Bus Éireann day trip. Another option is to take the train to Drogheda and get a taxi to the visitor centre.
Castletown House – grand stately homes don't come much grander
Examples of Georgian architecture in Ireland don't get much better than Castletown House © Eye Ubiquitous / UIG/ Getty Images)
At the time of his death in 1729, lawyer, politician and tax commissioner William Conolly was the richest man in Ireland. Castletown was built for him in 1722, and it’s the oldest, grandest and most imposing Palladian mansion in the country.
Set in the lush green countryside of County Kildare, 20km west of Dublin, Castletown was based on designs by Italian architect Allesandro Galilei, and extended by the young Irish architect Edward Lovett Pearce, recently returned from his Grand Tour of Italy. The opulent interior reflects these Italian influences, filled with polished marble, ornate plasterwork, Ionic columns, silk damask wall coverings and Aubusson carpets. The highlight is the Long Gallery, hung with chandeliers, swathed in exquisite stucco work and decorated with marble busts and family portraits.
A forty-minute walk from the Castletown Estate is the so-called Wonderful Barn, a bizarre, conical tower with an external spiral staircase. It was commissioned by Conolly’s widow, Katherine, in 1743 to provide employment for local people during a time of hardship.
Getting there Bus 67 (every 30 minutes) from Dublin will drop you at the gates of the estate, a 15-minute walk from the house.
Howth – a taste of the seaside
Amazing seaviews and amazing seafood are both available at Howth © Xin Tan / 500px
Just 9km northeast of Dublin city centre, and 30 minutes away by train, Howth is a pretty harbour village set on a rocky peninsula that offers bracing clifftop walks with great coastal views.
Pick the right day and just a few steps from the train station you’ll find yourself in the middle of Howth Market (Saturdays, Sundays and bank holiday Mondays 9am to 6pm), a scrum of stalls selling everything from artisan food to Irish crafts, jewellery and antiques.
Behind the village lies Howth Castle, home to the Gaisford-St Lawrence family since the 12th century. It’s open to the public on guided tours during the summer or through tour operators. At other times you’re free to wander around the castle grounds, famed for their early summer displays of colourful rhododendrons and azaleas. For a wilder experience, try the Howth Cliff Walk Loop, starting from the train station and offering amazing sea views.
The Oar House, set amidst the bustle of the fishing harbour’s West Pier, is the ideal spot for a seafood lunch – from fish and chips to sea bass fillets with fennel and dill and lemon dressing. Both Island Ferries and Howth-Boats run trips from the harbour to Ireland’s Eye, a small island with the ruins of a 6th-century monastery. It’s also a nature reserve, with seabirds nesting here in large numbers and seals basking on rocks around the shore.
Getting there DART trains run from central Dublin to Howth every 20 to 30 minutes.
This article was first published in September 2015 and updated in July 2018.