Beyond the mythical clichés and tourist daydreams of leprechauns and endless pints, the true Ireland can be found in its stunning landscapes, remarkable history and rich, layered culture. Best experienced through a serendipitous, go with the flow approach, visitors often stumble upon some of the country’s brightest gems by simply not having a plan. Whether visiting medieval Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland, awe-inspiring Cliffs of Moher, the Galway Oyster Festival or experiencing live local music at one of the many pubs in the Temple Bar district of Dublin; Ireland travel offers visitors a unique and charming adventure met with the warm and welcoming ‘cead mile failte’ spirit of the people.
The island of Ireland consists of 32 counties, six of which make up Northern Ireland. As the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast has undergone a major renaissance and has transformed into one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. Now a vibrant and pedestrian-friendly city; guests can stroll through the City Center and shop at Donegall Place, visit St. George’s Market, Belfast Castle or the fantastic restaurants along the Golden Mile. For an artistic glimpse into the history and religious segregation that was present within the city, a Black Cab tour will take visitors throughout the sectarian areas to see the beautiful political murals along city homes and buildings. Just a short hop from Belfast is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Giant’s Causeway. The coastal drive alongside the Atlantic waters and through the rolling glens is rated one of the top driving routes in the world. Londonderry (Derry) is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and is the only remaining walled city in the country. Whether attending a lively football or rugby game, shopping in the unique Craft Village or visiting one of city’s many cultural museums, Derry and its residents are more than happy to share their ancient city with visitors.
From Northern Ireland, travelers can make their way down the eastern coast of the island to the many counties of Ireland East. As the county’s capital, Dublin is a thriving cosmopolitan city with a young population. Native sons like James Joyce, W B Yates and Oscar Wilde are immortalized in the traditional pubs, museums and cobblestone streets, while sophisticated new restaurants, designer boutiques and pulsing nightclubs emit the very essence of modern Europe. Old city staples like the Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle, Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery top the list of must-see attractions, and pedestrianized Grafton Street is Dublin’s most popular shopping street peppered with street performers, trendy shops, restaurants and cafés. Walking and literary pub tours are excellent ways to discover the city, as well as downloadable iWalks which are free podcast audio guides given by Dublin Tourism. For the best insight into the city, strike up a conversation with a Dubliner.
The city charms of Dublin and the eastern coast give way to the famous counties of Ireland West. Famous for its summer festivals (oysters, anyone?) and diverse population, Galway is a popular tourist destination that gives off an inviting bohemian vibe. Limerick, though a smaller city than Dublin or Galway, is on the rise as a destination of favor with travelers looking for an authentic Ireland experience. Nightlife and shopping are abundant in Limerick, but guests tend to come for the ancient Gregorian architecture and river-lined attractions, such as St. John’s Castle (which is now a museum). The Southeast has an enviable sunshine record and has attractive sandy coastline and rolling, green countryside. Counties Waterford (think crystal) and Kilkenny are two less-trafficked regions, offering visitors a tranquil escape surrounded by farms, traditional stone cottages and castles. Along the Southwest, Cork is Ireland’s largest county as it combines medieval castles and cathedrals set alongside rich agricultural land, mountains and sea ports. Beyond the world-famous Blarney Stone, Cork offers a myriad of pristine golf courses, museums, markets and trendy entertainment and dining districts.
No longer does Irish cuisine solely consist of boiled meats and potatoes. A major culinary resurgence has been taking place in the past decade, sparking a new generation of chefs and artisan producers that have been turning out creative, fresh and high quality cuisine. Though the island is now scattered with refined new eateries and even a handful of Michelin starred restaurants, tradition dies hard—especially here. Ireland wouldn’t be the same without staples like boxty (potato pancakes), corned beef and cabbage, Irish lamb stew and coddle--and rest assured, they are still served in abundance. Well known pubs like The Brazen Head, Johnnie Fox’s and Smuggler’s Creek all serve some of the best local beers and pub grub in the country, while trendy places like Thornton’s in Dublin and the Belvelly Smoke House in Cork are helping to put Ireland on the gastronomy map.
Ireland has four main international airports: Dublin Airport (DUB), which is the busiest in the country and the home base for Aer Lingus; Shannon Airport (SNN), which mainly serves Limerick and the mid-west section of Ireland; Cork Airport (ORK), located in the city of Farmers Cross; and Belfast International Airport (BFS), which is located 13 miles from the city in Northern Ireland. Car is the most convenient way to get around while in smaller cities and villages. Car rental companies are based both in airports and throughout the country. While in larger cities, such as Dublin, Belfast or Cork; getting around by taxi is ideal. Many cities also have pedestrian-only districts where walking around is the best way to take in the surroundings. For senior travelers over the age of 66, Ireland has recently initiated the Golden Trekker plan which allows them to travel the country by train free of charge in 2010.
With few extremes, Ireland has an overall temperate maritime climate. The average annual temperature is around 48°F (9°C) with summers averaging around 66°F (19°C) and winters at 36.5°F (2.5° C). With the proximity to the Northern Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea (and gentle southwesterly winds from the Gulf Stream), summertime highs usually do not surpass 77°F (25°C) and lows in winter will not dip below 23°F (-5°C). Rain is almost a guaranteed constant at any time of year, but the most ideal times to visit are in late spring and early summer, when the weather is pleasantly mild and many cultural and food festivals are in full swing. No matter what time of year visitors choose to come, Ireland’s weather adds to the genuine mystique of the country, displaying itself through a kaleidoscope of colors and vistas.