Other than when to go, the question I'm asked the most when it comes to Ireland, is which destinations to visit. Of course, most people only have a limited time to spend, making the answer a rather difficult one.
If you have to limit yourself, these are my 5 favorite destinations that are truly not-to-be-missed.
Wicklow National Park
Located just 40 minutes from Dublin, Wicklow National Park is home to lots of stunning scenery that's been featured on television and in films, along with a number of attractions. If you like to hike, the Lough Tay to Lough Dan walk is particularly breathtaking, with gorgeous views of the towering Luggala Mountains, tranquil streams and emerald green hues everywhere you look. The lakes (Lough Tay is pictured above) have been prominently featured in the History Channel’s “Vikings,” and the Irish television series, “Ballykissangel.”
At Glendalough, also in the park, you can explore one of the best preserved examples of a round tower, medieval churches, decorated stone crosses and a cathedral. There are numerous hiking trails too, including one in which you can walk in the footsteps of St. Kevin. If you're up for a challenge, hike St. Kevin’s Way, an 18.6-mile path through the heather-covered hills.
Portmagee, and the Ring of Kerry
Portmagee is a tiny village on the southwest coast of Ireland along the Ring of Kerry. The Ring of Kerry is an absolute must experience for any trip to Ireland, and if you're looking for the best place to stay, you've found it here. It has a quintessential Irish feel with its row of brightly colored buildings along the main street which faces the harbor, and at the Bridge Bar, you can enjoy live music many nights of the week, as well as award-winning cuisine and a perfectly-poured Guinness. The Moorings is a B&B-style hotel that's adjacent to it, providing the perfect spot to lie your head down after an evening of fun. Portmagee is also the departure hub for trips to Skellig Michael, a now famous island that is home to preserved monastic settlements that date back to the 6th century.
The Aran Islands are one of the most fascinating destinations in all of Ireland, a place with an Old World feel where locals speak Irish Gaelic among themselves. The smallest of the three islands, Inisheer, is also the most peaceful. Few tourists make it here, and with a population of only around 250, it’s easy to get to know the locals. The two-square-mile island boasts a white sandy beach that faces crystal clear blue waters, where the local dolphin can often be seen playfully interacting with the ferry that glides in and out of the pier. The island is small enough that it can easily be covered on foot, though there are bicycles for hire and a number of pony and cart drivers willing to show you around for a small price.
There's no better place to stay than South Aran House, just a short walk from the main village. Not only are the hosts amazing, but you're sure to enjoy the fabulous meals and accommodation too.
The Dingle Peninsula
The Dingle Peninsula is home to that picture-perfect scenery you've probably seen in postcards and travel brochures, with cobalt blue waters that surround lush, emerald green hills dotted with thatched cottages, and golden sand beaches. In the backdrop are a range of mountains that form its spine, running from the Slieve Mish range to Mount Brandon, the country’s second highest peak. The peninsula is also known for its high concentration of ring forts and other ancient ruins, though its beauty is what’s most unforgettable.
The town of Dingle itself is an ideal place to base your stay with more pubs hosting live music every night of the week than you could possibly experience.
The Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
Driving to Northern Ireland, you won't have to show your passport at the border, in fact, there's little to tell you that you've crossed it, other than the different license plates and road signs that now indicate miles rather than kilometers.
This is where you'll find Giant’s Causeway, located near the town of Bushmills. Flanked by the wild North Atlantic and a landscape of soaring cliffs, this coastal area is made up of about 40,000 basalt columns and was created by a volcanic eruption that took place some 60 million years ago. It's inspired many artists, stirred scientific debate and sparked numerous myths and legends over the centuries. Nearby is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which invokes anxiety in some, though most feel it’s well worth making the crossing for the spectacular views. If you dare look down, watch for passing dolphins and even the occasional basking shark.
This same area is home to a number of "Game of Thrones" filming sites, including Ballintoy Harbour and the Dark Hedges. The Dark Hedges, a gorgeous avenue of ancient beech trees, and one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed spots. Planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, it was intended as a compelling landscape feature in order to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to Gracehill House, their Georgian mansion. Today, this almost magical stretch of trees remains an impressive sight after more than 250 years. It was used as a filming location in “Game of Thrones,” when Arya Stark escapes King’s Landing with the latest recruits heading for The Wall. As you walk down Bregagh Road, it almost seems as if the trees have some kind of magical power, drawing you in.