Dublin is the Republic’s main entry-point, a confident capital whose raw, modern energy is complemented by rich cultural traditions, and which boasts outstanding medieval monuments and the richly varied exhibits of the National Gallery and National Museum. South of the city, the desolate Wicklow Mountains offer a breathtaking contrast to city life.
If you arrive on the west coast at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes lie within easy reach. Clare’s coastline itself rises to a head at the vertiginous Cliffs of Moher, while inland lies The Burren, a barren limestone plateau at odds with the lush greenery characteristic of much of Ireland. To Clare’s south, Limerick’s Hunt Museum houses one of Ireland’s most diverse and fascinating collections.
County Kerry, south of Limerick, features dazzling scenery, an intoxicating brew of invigorating seascapes, looming mountains and sparkling lakes. Though the craggy coastline traversed by the Ring of Kerry is a major tourist attraction, it’s still relatively easy to find seclusion. In County Galway, to Clare’s north, lies enthralling Connemara, untamed bogland set between sprawling beaches and a muddle of quartz-gleaming mountains; in contrast, university cities such as Galway and Limerick provide year-round festivals and buzzing nightlife. Further north, Donegal offers a dramatic mix of rugged peninsulas and mountains, glistening beaches and magical lakes.
Dotted around the west coast are numerous islands, providing a glimpse of the harsh way of life endured by remote Irish-speaking communities. The Arans are the most famous – windswept expanses of limestone supporting extraordinary prehistoric sites – but the savagely beautiful landscape of the Blasket Islands, off Kerry’s coast, is equally worthy of exploration.
On Ireland’s southern coast, Cork’s shoreline is punctuated by secluded estuaries, rolling headlands and historic harbours, while Cork city itself is the region’s hub, with a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife. To Cork’s east, Waterford city houses the wondrous Viking and medieval collections of Waterford Treasures, while, in Ireland’s southeastern corner, Wexford’s seashore features broad estuaries teeming with bird life and expansive dune-backed beaches.
Inland the Republic’s scenery is less enchanting, its Midland counties characterized by fertile if somewhat drab agricultural land, as well as broad expanses of peat bog, home to endangered species of rare plants. However, there is gentle appeal in Ireland’s great watercourse, the Shannon, with its succession of vast loughs, and the quaint river valleys of the southeast.
Numerous historic and archeological sites provide fine alternative attractions. The prehistoric tomb at Meath’s Newgrange and the fortress of Dun Aengus on Inishmore are utterly mesmerizing; County Cork features many stone circles; and there’s a multitude of tombs and ring forts across the west coast counties. Stunning early Christian monuments abound, too, including those located on Skellig Michael and the Rock of Cashel and atmospheric sites at Clonmacnois, Glendalough and Monasterboice. Of more recent origin, the Anglo-Irish nobility’s planned estates, developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries around impressive Neoclassical mansions, are visible across Ireland.
Much of Northern Ireland’s countryside is intensely beautiful and unspoilt, though most of the major attractions lie around its fringes. To the north are the green Glens of Antrim and a coastline as scenic as anywhere in Ireland, with, as its centrepiece, the bizarre basalt geometry of the Giant’s Causeway. In the southeast, Down offers the contrasting beauties of serene Strangford Lough and the brooding presence of the Mourne Mountains, while, to the west, Fermanagh has the peerless lake scenery of Lough Erne, a fabulous place for watersports, fishing and exploring island monastic remains. Evidence of the plantation is also provided by planned towns and various grand mansions, often set in sprawling, landscaped grounds.
To get to grips with the North’s history, a visit to its cities is essential: Belfast, with its grand public buildings, was built on the profits of Victorian industry; Derry has grown around the well-preserved walls of its medieval antecedent; and the cathedral town of Armagh is where St Patrick established Christianity in Ireland. Further insights are provided by tremendous museums, including Derry’s Tower Museum and Down’s Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.