Ireland loves kids. Everywhere you go you'll find locals to be enthusiastic and inquisitive about your beloved progeny. This admiration, however, hasn't always translated into child services such as widespread and accessible baby-changing facilities, or high chairs in restaurants, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
Ireland for Kids
The bulk of the country's visitor attractions cater to kids almost as much as they do the adults that accompany them. Many visitor experiences feature activities tailor-made for young 'uns, which are often ramped up during the school holidays. Most activity centres offer kids' programs for all ages, while many museums have kid-friendly exhibits and some even cater guided tours to suit younger ages.
Most big hotels can provide cots if given adequate notice; note that during busy periods their often-limited supply may quickly run out, so be sure to give plenty of notice. You'll have to check with smaller hotels and B&Bs, as many only have them on an ad hoc basis.
During school holidays some of the bigger hotels operate kids' clubs that are either free or charge a nominal fee of around €5 per child per day.
On the Road
Children under five travel free on all public transport. Trains are ideal for families, as there's lots of room to move about and store all of your gear, including buggies and prams.
Child seats are mandatory in rental cars for children aged nine months to four years. All main car-hire companies can provide them (around €50/£35 per week), but you'll need to book them in advance or else risk being disappointed when you pick the car up. For insurance reasons most will insist that you fit the child seat yourself.
There are no legal restrictions on kids in any restaurant or cafe, but in practice many places (especially in higher price brackets, but not exclusively so) would prefer if you left the kids at home, especially at busy times or in the evenings. Then, high chairs suddenly become unavailable: if you're booking ahead, be sure to specify if you need one.
Children between 15 and 17 are allowed into pubs unaccompanied; under 15s must be accompanied and can only be in a licensed premises between 10.30am (12.30pm on Sunday) and 9pm (10pm between May and September), after which they must leave. In rural areas, however, some publicans will allow children to remain in the bar so long as they're under proper parental supervision.
Best Hands-On Experiences
Please do touch – here are some places that encourage little fingers and inquisitive minds.
- Errislannan Manor, Clifden Beach trekking on Connemara ponies with guided tours aimed at kids.
- Imaginosity, Dublin A hands-on museum specifically aimed at toddlers lets them explore a wizard's lair or even fly to Rapunzel's castle in a rocket ship.
- National Gallery, Dublin There are regular art workshops for young Picassos and Kahlos, usually during holiday weekends.
- Museum of Natural History, Dublin The Discovery Zone at the 'Dead Zoo' lets kids handle taxidermy exhibits and open all kinds of specimen drawers.
- Oceanics Surf School, Tramore Surf parties and summer camps aimed at kids as well as lessons.
- Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre This 3000-hectare nature reserve has plenty for young hands to do, including boat rides and a viewing station that gets you close to the action.
- W5, Belfast Northern Ireland's best science museum is an interactive whataboutery aimed specifically at the under 11s.
Best Outdoor Fun
Ireland is about much more than castles and museums. When the weather conspires, there's plenty to do.
- Brave Maeve Story Trail, Bray A 1.5km walking trail along the seafront aimed at kids, who uncover the story of a young giant along the way.
- Last Leprechauns of Ireland, Carlingford Enter a leprechaun cave in the company of a 'leprechaun whisperer' – is there a better invitation for adventurous young minds?
- Limerick City Kayaking Tours See Limerick and St John's Castle from an entirely different perspective with these kayaking trips along the Shannon.
- Killarney Riding Stables Learn to ride in one of Europe's most beautiful settings, along the lakes of Killarney National Park.
- Slieve Gullion Forest Park, County Armagh There's a fabulous and kid-friendly hike to the top of Slieve Gullion, from where the views are sublime.
- Wakedock, Dublin Kids can learn the very cool sport of wakeboarding right in Dublin's city centre.
- Wild Wet Adventures, Sligo Every kind of water sport on Lough Talt and Lough Easkey.
Best for a Rainy Day
It's not a question of if, but when. It will rain at some point, but luckily Ireland has you covered.
- Aillwee Cave, Ballyvaughan They've been keeping the rain out for more than two million years, and this extraordinary network of caves is a world unto itself.
- Celtic & Prehistoric Museum, Slea Head The world's largest woolly mammoth skull and a 40,000-year-old bear skeleton are just some of the fabulous artefacts at this museum.
- Galway City Museum Galway's archaeological, political, cultural and social history told in compelling detail – and there's lots of exhibits too, including boats.
- Hazel Mountain Chocolate, Galway A 45-minute session watching how chocolate is made is as close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as you'll get in Ireland.
- National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin More a romper room for kids with a sprinkling of folklore, but still a lot of fun.
- Ulster Museum, Belfast A wealth of artefacts, from Egyptian mummies to swag salvaged from ships of the Spanish Armada.
Best All-Round Family Fun
Who says adults and kids can't enjoy the same thing? Here's a handful of places for the whole family.
- Ewe Experience, Glengarriff Funny, imaginative sculpture garden that makes for one of the country's most enjoyable nature walks. Keep an eye out for the pig in the bubble bath.
- Kells Bay House & Gardens, Ring of Kerry Walled gardens, a primeval fern forest with dinosaurs and Ireland's longest rope bridge are just some of the highlights at this 17-hectare estate.
- Killary Fjord Boat Tours, Killary Harbour Ninety-minute cruises of Killary Harbour, Ireland's only fjord, deliver great views and a visit to a salmon farm (where you can buy the smoked version).
- Tayto Park, County Meath A theme park sponsored by Ireland's best-known manufacturer of potato chips has plenty you can do, including a wooden roller coaster and a 5D cinema.
- Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh The story of Ulster emigration to the United States, told in one of the country's best museum experiences.
- West Cork Model Railway Village, Clonakilty There's a 20-minute guided circuit of Clonakilty, but the real treat is the huge miniature re-creation of the West Cork railway as it was in the 1940s.
Best for Learning
Fun can be educational, especially at the following attractions.
- King John's Castle, Limerick city The tour of a genuine medieval castle and its superb multimedia exhibit is highly educational.
- Irish National Heritage Park, Wexford town A brilliant, educational day out learning the whole history of Ireland.
- National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin Ireland's most prestigious museum is a fun-filled crash course in Irish cultural history…and there are mummified Iron Age bodies.
- National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar Ireland's rural history told in fascinating, easy-to-digest manner.
- Spike Island, Cobh Visit 'Ireland's Alcatraz', as this former prison island is dubbed.
- Ulster Folk Museum, Belfast A fully reconstructed folk village shows how the Irish used to live.
Best With Animals
Besides a couple of excellent zoos, Ireland does a good job of bringing humans closer to animals.
- Ark Open Farm, Newtownards Get up close and personal with lambs, piglets and ducklings, all of which you can pet and feed.
- Courtown Seal Rescue, County Wexford Meet orphaned, lost and injured seals before they're rehabilitated and returned to the wild.
- Dolphinwatch, Loop Head Take a cruise and get up close to the Shannon Estuary's 200-odd bottlenose dolphins.
- Donkey Sanctuary, County Cork A wonderful and worthy centre set up to help abused and abandoned donkeys.
- Dublin Zoo One of the oldest zoos in the world, the primary emphasis here is on having fun – and making sure the animals are well taken care of.
- Fota Wildlife Park, Fota Animals roam free in this fenceless island zoo, and you can get up close on a train – or even closer on a circular walk.
- St Tola Irish Goat Cheese, The Burren Meet (and pet) the goats who produce the milk that turns into one of Ireland's best-known cheeses.
Most museums and attractions targeting families have decent baby-changing facilities. Elsewhere, modern shopping centres in cities all have baby-changing areas.
In Ireland diapers are known as nappies.
Places to Stay
Some hotels welcome kids (with their parents!) and provide cots and toys. Most big hotels also have 'family suites' made up of adjoining bedrooms with a door between them. An increasing number of hostels have family rooms with four or six beds, some even with private bathroom attached. If you want to stay in one place for a while, renting a holiday cottage is ideal.
During school holidays, some of the bigger hotels operate kids' clubs that are either free or charge a nominal fee of around €5 per child per day.
BabyGoes2 (www.babygoes2.com) Travel site with family-friendly accommodation worldwide.
eumom (www.eumom.ie) For pregnant women and parents with young children.
Failte Ireland (www.discoverireland.ie) Some good ideas for family-friendly things to see and do.
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/family-travel) Inspirational articles about travelling as a family.
Northern Ireland Tourist Board (https://discovernorthernireland.com) Has a dedicated section to family travel.
When to Go
The best time to visit Ireland as a family is the same as for everyone else – pretty much any time from April until the end of September. The tourism industry comes alive during school-holiday times and bumps its prices up accordingly, especially during August, the height of the summer season.