Ireland Travel Guide: Overview
Ireland is an enchanting place, and the serene, beautiful scenery features breathtaking views and stunning landscapes throughout the whole country. Lush, green seaside cliffs and the rolling countryside dotted with charming towns provide some of the best incentives to visit, but they are, by no means, the only. For a small country of less than 5 million people, Ireland has an outsize cultural influence on the world. This is partly due to its strong historical and cultural traditions of literature, music, folklore, dance, sports and storytelling—all of which are still abundantly visible throughout the country.
Yes, it rains, but that shouldn’t keep the modern traveler down. Throw on a rain jacket, and embrace the lush landscape, or escape indoors to strike up a conversation with your neighbor. When you’re here, it's not unusual to pull up a chair in a pub, sip on an ice-cold Guinness and find yourself enjoying a traditional Irish music performance.
So, tip back a cold pint of Guinness or taste some Irish whiskey, and enjoy the countryside, as well as the charming, warm people. All these worthwhile pastimes make visiting Ireland a truly special experience.
Beginning in the 8th century BC, it took the numerous Celtic tribes roughly 500 years to settle in Ireland. The last tribe, commonly referred to as the Gaels (“foreigner” in the local language), came ashore from Continental Europe in the 3rd century BC and set about creating the foundation of what’s now termed “Irish” culture. They even devised Brehon Law, an advanced code that remained in use until the early 17th century. Their swirling, mazelike designs are evident on artifacts from nearly 2,000 years ago, and this style is largely considered the epitome of the Irish aesthetic.
Approximately 800 years of English rule in Ireland nominally began with the Norman invasion of 1169, which was when the Anglo-Norman barons claimed pieces of Ireland for themselves. Over the next 300 years, they then set about consolidating their feudal power. During the English Civil War in 1642, the Irish stood against Protestant parliamentarians in the hope victory would lead to the restoration of Catholic power in Ireland. It would still be many centuries, however, before the Irish eventually gained their independence.
The Great Famine, or Irish Potato Famine (1845–51), was responsible for an estimated one million deaths, as well as a mass wave of emigration. In all, some two million people were forced to flee Ireland. Over the next hundred years, this caused the establishment of large Irish communities in the United States and other countries.
In 1948, Ireland officially left the British Commonwealth and became an independent republic. Tensions between Ireland and Britain (including Northern Ireland, which chose to remain part of Britain) have always been high and are largely rooted in the religious differences between British Protestants and Irish Catholics.
Much of the street violence and conflicts in the 1960s and ’70s cemented Irish distrust of Britain and helped the establishment of violent groups, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who positioned themselves as the protectors of the working class Catholics and others vulnerable to police and civilian brutality. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998—a series of negotiated statements between unionists, nationalists and the British and Irish governments—eventually resulted in the ceasing of conflicts between the two sides.
In the early 1990s, funds from all of Europe helped initiate a massive wave of economic growth in Ireland. Education and physical infrastructure received large investments, and favorable tax incentives made Ireland an appealing option for high-tech businesses looking for a way into EU markets. In less than ten years, Ireland went from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. This dramatically increased GDP meant the nation suddenly had an economic model of success that was the envy of the entire world. Ireland soon became synonymous with the term “Celtic Tiger.” Many US-based tech companies (e.g., Google, Apple, Airbnb and others) still have large offices and operations in Ireland today.
Ireland is often self-described as the land of Cead Míle Fáilte. (This roughly translates to “a hundred thousand welcomes”). The phrase is often even inscribed on pub placards. Conversation is a large part of this culture. Park yourself in a pub for a beer, and you’re almost certain to have a conversation or two by the time you finish your drink.
Ireland also has a very rich history of literature, music, folklore and sports. For such a small country, it has an outsize tradition of world-renowned writers, as evidenced by the works of James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Ireland's four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.
In addition to well-known folklore traditions, such as the leprechaun and Halloween (a holiday with its roots in the Gaelic festival of Samhain), storytelling, music and dance are all prevalent parts of Irish culture, and they constitute some of the best reasons to visit the country. Traditional Irish music is still alive and strong throughout the country. Ireland is one of the few places in Europe where soccer shares the spotlight with other sports, such as Gaelic football (the most popular sport) and hurling—both of which are native to Ireland and have historical roots in Gaelic sporting traditions.
While most of the country identifies as Catholic, adherence to religion varies. Some neighborhoods and areas with strong religious traditions impact social behavior, but in the cities and among many younger people and non-Irish European residents, you often find a more casual or nonexistent religious sentiment. It’s clear much of the Irish religious landscape is changing rapidly, as evidenced by the controversial (and lopsided) vote in 2015 to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that upset the country's more devoted Catholic population.
Backroads Pro Tip
As a visitor to Ireland wishing to avoid giving offense to any locals, it’s a good idea to have a familiarity with the country’s turbulent history, particularly in regard to the historic tensions with England.
Good to Know
When traveling in Ireland, it’s good to keep the following in mind:
Ireland is in the European Union, and the official currency is the Euro. ATMs are the easiest way to obtain cash, and they’re readily available nearly everywhere. Irish ATMs don't charge you for transactions, but your bank likely will. Credit cards are accepted at most shops and tourist establishments.
Tap water is almost universally safe to drink in Ireland. It's kept to the same standards as other Western European countries.
Tipping is less expected in Ireland than in North America and is situational. Plan to tip 10 percent for good service in most restaurants or up to 15 percent at high-end locations. Pubs and bartenders don't expect tips. For taxis, you can round up to the nearest Euro. In hotels, €1 per bag is sufficient, and you can tip housekeeping staff at your discretion.
The Irish have a reputation for being friendly, chatty, welcoming people with a great sense of humor, and visitors will likely find this true. Sitting down next to a stranger in a pub and sharing a conversation is an undisputed Irish pastime and one of the great pleasures of visiting the country! If someone buys you a drink at a pub, it's customary for you to buy the next round.
Outlets are standard European plugs (types C, E and F), and the current is usually 230 volt and 50 hertz. If a US-made electronic item doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary.
Aside from visiting tourist sites and public buildings (which almost always have bathrooms, usually marked as “toilets”), entering pubs, restaurants or convenience stores is a good way to find a bathroom. Many travelers find rural areas and smaller towns are better for finding public bathrooms than busy parts of Dublin, which might require you to purchase an item from an establishment in order to use the facilities.
When To Visit Ireland
Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle” for good reason. Its beautiful landscapes are always green due to plenty of precipitation. While it can (and will) rain throughout the year, summer is the drier time of year, and it boasts warmer, longer days. It rarely gets too hot, and it's entirely possible to have many consecutive sunny days, but also be prepared for a change in weather at any time. As a result, June to August are the most appealing months to visit, but they tend to be busier. The shoulder seasons (May and September to October) feature fewer crowds.
No matter when you visit, be prepared for inclement weather and rain. Remember, though, a dry, warm pub is almost always close by, beckoning you with tasty beer, good conversation and a chance to meet new friends.
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- The harp is Ireland’s national symbol, making it the only country in the world to have a musical instrument as its symbol. Trinity College in Dublin has some of the oldest harps in the world.
- St. Patrick wasn't Irish! He was born in Great Britain—historians are unsure if he was born in Wales, Scotland or England—in the 5th century AD, and Irish raiders kidnapped him at the age of 16. For six long years, he was a slave and sheepherder in Ireland. When he finally went home, he studied religion to become an ordained priest, and he later returned to Ireland as a missionary. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on the day of his death: March 17.
- The Guinness Brewery in Dublin has a 9,000 year lease.
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Regions and Cities
Ireland is split into four provinces, with counties in each province. The northernmost province of Ullster is split between the Republic of Ireland and the separate country of Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.). The South West includes the counties of Kerry and Cork, two of Ireland's more beloved counties for visitors. Connacht province is in the west and, in addition to its scenic beauty, also holds some of the strongest Gaelic traditions in the country. Dublin is the main seat of Leinster province, the largest by population and, because of centuries of colonization, is home to many fine examples of medieval, Norman, Georgian and Neolithic architecture.
The capital and largest city, Dublin has thriving nightlife, great restaurants, lots of museums and culture. It’s also home to Trinity College and the Book of Kells.
Located on the banks of the River Lee, this is Ireland's second-largest city, and it’s known for good food, pubs, shopping and festivals.
On the River Corrib on the west coast, Galway is known as the City of Tribes. Boasting over 50 festivals a year, Galway's summer is filled with Irish music, food, language and culture. The area is split between two types of beautiful landscape: the gorgeous mountains to the west and the east's farming valleys.
Arguably the most popular tourist destination in Ireland, Killarney is a pleasant town that’s also the start of most Ring of Kerry trips.
Worth a Visit
Aran Islands: Famous for their traditional knitted “Aran sweaters” (sold all over the United Kingdom) and car-free roads, the Aran Islands are one of the few places left where you can experience a traditional Irish village that’s essentially untouched by the modern developments of the mainland. Here, Gaelic is still the first language of many locals, many of whom live in small farming communities and drive pony traps.
Skellig Islands: These islands (designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site) make a worthy side trip from the popular Ring of Kerry tourist trail.
Ring of Kerry: The country's most scenic tourist trail, it runs 120 miles through some of southwestern Ireland’s most jaw-dropping landscapes. A patchwork of heather-topped mountains, lush meadows and glacial lakes, the Ring of Kerry includes many highlights. Don’t miss the rugged Beara Peninsula or the Kerry Way, which is Ireland’s longest, oldest walking route. Killarney National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage biosphere reserve and another can’t-miss attraction. Gape at Ross Castle (from the 15th century), and, if you’re lucky, spot the wild red deer that roam here.
Connemara National Park: Most known for its wild countryside and herd of native Connemara ponies, this park offers a gateway to the famous Twelve Bens mountain range. It includes a vast network of both hiking and climbing trails, as well as the magnificent Kylemore Abbey. This former monastery is housed in arguably one of Ireland's most beautiful castles.
Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone: Possibly Ireland's best-known tourist spot, the Blarney Stone rests high on a tower of Blarney Castle. Located not far from Cork, the stone is reputed to endow the famed Irish eloquence on those who dare hang their heads over the parapets to kiss it. Extensive gardens filled with stone features and secret corners surround the castle grounds.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Ireland
Ireland is in the European Union. A visitor, therefore, must have a valid passport (at least six months before expiration), but no visa is required for US citizens. Entry is valid for three months within a 180-day period. Dublin is, by far, the largest airport and where nearly all transatlantic flights arrive. The three other international airports (Cork, Shannon and Knock) serve a number of European cities.
As a relatively small country with improved roads and highways, any Ireland travel guide will note that flying within the country is not very convenient or efficient. Irish Rail operates all trains within the nation, and most lines operate to and from Dublin. A massive modernization of the rail system is ongoing, including the introduction of many new trains. The frequency and speed of services are being considerably increased, especially on the Dublin–Cork line. Traveling by bus offers many options to connect to cities throughout the country. Renting a car is also an option, but keep in mind that, like in the United Kingdom, cars drive on the left side of the road, and the driver seat is on the right side of the car. This often makes driving challenging for inexperienced travelers. Taxis can easily be used for short-distance trips.
Ireland has two official languages: English and Irish. Irish (officially spelled Gaeilge) is in the family of Gaelic languages and is related to Scottish Gaelic and other Gaelic dialects. Most locals prefer to call it “Irish,” and the European Union recognizes it as such. Although the number of people who speak Irish as a first language is fast declining, it’s still an important part of the culture, and most Irish people know at least some basic words and sayings. Nearly all signs throughout the country are posted in both English and Irish, so travelers will notice the language around. (Good luck with the pronunciation, though!)
A few helpful phrases in Irish are:
- Hello - Dia duit (literally "may God be with you")
- How are you? - Conas atá tú?
- What's your name? - Cad es ainm duit?
- Pleased to meet you - Tá áthas orm bualadh leat
- Welcome - Fáilte
- Goodbye (short and general form) - Slán
- Cheers - Sláinte
Food and Drink
Although Ireland is not particularly well known for its local cuisine, both the quality and variety of food in general have greatly improved in recent years. This largely stems from the increasing number of immigrants in Ireland. In Dublin especially, one can easily find Middle Eastern kebabs, Vietnamese pho, Mexican burritos and others foods from all over the world. The demand for better food has also led to more sophisticated local cuisine, more fine-dining restaurants and a greater consciousness toward dining. Irish chefs are utilizing the quality of their local ingredients more often as well, specifically seafood, butter, cheese and locally grown vegetables.
In many smaller Irish towns and more rural areas, the traditional meat and potato dishes are just about everywhere. The local cuisine tends to be hearty, filling and lightly seasoned. Slow-cooked roasts and other meat dishes, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and dense bread (especially good with local butter!) are all mainstays. Don't expect too many spices or strong flavors.
While a tall pint of Guinness is certainly iconic of Ireland (and tastes even better than those served outside Ireland), the options for beer go far beyond this ubiquitous brew. From ales to stouts, light to dark, a large variety of beer awaits discovery, so see what's on tap at the pub, and taste what the country has to offer. If you want something stronger, you're in luck as Ireland is also well known for its whiskey. This particular liquor is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
Read Our Full Article: Irish Food - What to Know and to Eat
Ireland is generally a safe place to travel. That said, opportunistic crimes do occur, especially in busy parts of Dublin or in tourist-heavy areas. It's a good idea to keep all valuables you don't need during the day locked in a hotel safe. Since most places accept credit cards, it's also a good idea to take with you only a small amount of cash, one or two credit/ATM cards and maybe a copy of your passport. Keep these items in safe pockets or a money belt.
The US State Department reports there have been more incidences recently of ATM fraud as Irish criminals set up devices called “skimmers” that attach to the outside of ATMs and steal information from cards. Many Irish ATMs display warnings about skimmers. Look carefully at the front of an ATM, particularly the area around the card slot, to ensure it has not been tampered with before inserting your card. In case of emergency, call 999 or 112 for help.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Ireland adventure!