Our first self-driven European vacation was 8 days in Ireland with a couple of good friends. I wanted to make this post just to share some tips, our thought process along the way, and our route. We loved every minute of this journey, and we think you will too.
Day 1: Arrive Dublin airport and take the 747 bus from the airport directly to city centre. Cost is 7 Euros per person each way. Our hotel was the Ashling Dublin. This was a 4 star rated hotel on the west end of the city sitting right on the River Liffey (the main river running through the city). The hotel has a decent location. Very close to the main train station in town (Heuston Station), right by a LUAS light rail stop, and very walkable to Guinness and Jameson. The LUAS line is a French designed light rail system that runs into the city centre. You can buy a day pass for a few dollars and ride it back and forth all day. There are unmanned kiosks to buy your passes from. The walk from Ashling is about 30 minutes to the city centre. A nice walk, but it takes a little time.
Our first day in Dublin, we were mostly recovering from jet lag. We did wander down a few blocks to have some lunch at a pub and then into the city to check out Temple Bar, Dublin Castle and Trinity College, as well as just see what else we could find (and buy our SIM card).
Day 2: This was our only full day in Dublin. It was spent seeing some of the tourist sites, including the Guinness Storehouse, The Book of Kells (The oldest illustrated new testament that exists), sampling local fare (check out Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and Murphy’s Hand Made Ice Cream), popping in and out of pubs and planning the rest of our week. We ended with some karaoke with locals at a pub just west of the Ashling. A note: Murphy’s ice cream is hand made in Dingle, and you can catch the original location later in the trip.
Day 3: The morning started by taking a cab from The Ashling to the downtown Hertz location, which is a bit south of the city. We got our car lined up, and headed out towards our first stop in Galway. Adjusting to a left handed manual transmission on the left side of the road was interesting, but I got the hang of it rather quickly. Be careful, as your mind wants you to drift to the left onto the shoulder. Navigating through Dublin to the main highway was tricky, but the GPS came in huge for this. I’m not sure what we’d have done without it.
The drive to Galway was scheduled at a little over 2 hours and 15 minutes, but we made plenty of stops along the way as we came upon interesting things. Our first stop was at an old Monastic site called Clonmacnoise. There was a small cover charge to view the grounds. It was a good place off the beaten path to stretch our legs and soak in some scenery. Worth seeing if you like, but I wouldn’t call it a must see.
We continued along stopping at tower houses and castles as they popped up, or as we came across them on our Atlas (it had notable castle sites on the atlas). We landed in Galway in the early evening, found our B&B, and headed into the city for some dinner. The B&B was nothing to write home about, so I won’t mention it. Galway was not huge, but busy and had lots of traffic. This is a college town on the bay, known for its traditional music. It’s worth a night’s stay or two if you want to catch some Irish music at some good pubs. An extra note. We did drive west of Galway slightly to a beach called Silverstrand. This was very scenic with a bluff that you can walk up to looking over the beach. This is worth the few minutes of driving.
Day 4: We day-tripped from Galway northeast into Connemara National Park. This was one of our favorite days. Heading toward the town of Clifden, we discovered the Sky Road, which is a giant scenic loop overlooking the coastline. There were some amazing view here, as well as a castle (that we didn’t spot). The castle is called Clifden Castle, and it can be walked to, if you spot it. From Clifden, we continued on to Letterfrack, where the entrance to Connemara National Park is. We had a bit of lunch in Letterfrack at a grocery store, and headed into the park to hike Diamond Hill. This hike took a couple hours to peak the hill. At the top of the hill is a breathtaking view of the 12 Bens, a mountain range with 12 peaks. Down below, you can see a view of Kylemore Abbey on the lake. This is a huge estate that you can tour, but we ran out of time. I’d recommend planning to stay the night in the Connemara area, as we wished we’d had more time here.
After climbing Diamond Hill, we headed onward around the loop north to Leenaun, Ireland’s only Fjord, before heading back south toward Galway. Be sure and stop in Cong, a very cool little town. We headed into Galway for the evening for dinner, and then we rested up at our B&B
Day 5: We were up early to have breakfast and get some tips from our B&B owners before heading south towards Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. Doolin was a great little town where we stopped for lunch, but we met a couple of unloading tour buses and headed on our way. You can actually walk the cliffs from Doolin for free, but the actual tourist site starts a few miles south. As mentioned, the Cliffs of Moher are very touristy, and there is a cover charge to enter the park. In my opinion, it’s not to be missed; however, my understanding is that there are several places south of the tourist spot to visit the cliffs with no fee and no crowds.
Since we missed lunch in Doolin, we were in search of good food, and we found it south of Liscannon in Lahinch. Believe it or not, this is a surfing town, with a great fish and chips shop on the corner of the main drag. The name escapes me. This was a cool town to stop in and walk around. It looks like a golf town. I’m not sure if it’s designed for the Irish or for other tourism, but we liked the feel here.
From Lahinch, we headed south through Kilkee and Kilrush to the ferry station, where we ferried across to Tarbert. This didn’t save us too much time as opposed to driving around through Limmerick, but we enjoyed the experience on the ferry. From here, our goal was to reach our B&B in Castlegregory on the Dingle Peninsula. Diving south through Tralee, we made it by early evening, cleaned up and headed out for dinner in town.
Something we missed on this drive due to lack of time was the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. It’s supposed to be a great stop near Shannon, but by taking the ferry across, we missed this stop.
I must say, this was our favorite of all B&Bs by a landslide. The property was called The Shores Country house, and it did not disappoint. This property was on the beach, with mountains behind. The accommodations were perfect, and the food was absolutely the best we had in Ireland. The homeowner was spectacular. If you stay on the Dingle Peninsula, stay here.
Day 6: We were staying another night in The Shores Country House, so day 6 was a day trip. We planned to drive into Killarney to do some driving and hiking, and then return through Dingle in the evening. We spent the morning bike riding around Lough Leane, a beautiful ride at the entrance to the park. Lots of places to stop and stare at the beauty before moving on. There’s a short hike to a waterfall, and old family estate, castle, etc. After our ride, we drove south into the park on N71 (Ring of Kerry). Circling The Ring of Kerry in a day is possible, but we only drove up to Molls Gap before turning back north through The Gap of Dunloe. This road was horribly narrow and treacherous down through a gap between two mountains, but it was the best thing we saw on the trip. We drove through the Gap of Dunloe and met back up with the main highway, heading back west toward Dingle.
Dingle was a great town that we wished we’d had more time in. We had some dinner, and then stopped in a pub before heading back toward Castlegregory. We had two options for our drive back. Either head a good stretch east out of the way to avoid crossing the mountain, or go over Connor Pass in the dark, which is a narrow road over a mountain. The Pub Keeper assured us that the Connor Pass was safe and the best route. His idea of safe and ours varied wildly. We quickly hit dense fog on a road no wider than a toothpick. Not knowing the danger we were truly in, we slowly winded up and down the mountain, making it back to our B&B in one piece, but barely.
Day 7: The next morning, we decided to drive the pass again on our way east from the Dingle Peninsula. This was slightly out of the way, but we’d been told that the views from the pass were unbeatable. The stories were true. The Connor Pass was a stunning drive, and a treacherous one. We were inches from cliff faces in the dark the night before, and we hadn’t even known it.
One drive that we missed, but wished we hadn’t was the Slea Head Loop from Dingle. From Dingle, we headed west towards Cork and Blarney, with the goal of seeing Blarney Castle and kissing the Blarney Stone. Our stop in Cork was brief, but it seemed like a great city. It would be worth a night’s stay in this area. Blarney Castle was one of our favorite stops, as it was in great shape, and we were allowed to climb the castle steps, visit the old rooms, and get a view from the top before kissing the stone. The grounds themselves were beautiful with lots of other things to do here. We stopped for a quick lunch at the SuperValu.
Moving east, our stop for the night was in Ardmore at a working farm. The B&B was nice, but I would guess that you may find better. There was a great cliff walk here, as well as the ruins of St. Declan’s Monastery and tower house. Worth a quick stop if you’re driving through.
Day 8: The next morning, we had a long drive back to Dublin before catching a flight the next morning. We had to decide between which castle that we wanted to see. Our choices were Kilkenney Castle or The Rock of Cashel. We chose the Rock of Cashel, which had a lot to offer. One note, the castle at Cashel was cool, but we’d have had a more direct route back through Kilkenney, and it wouldn’t have forced us to miss Waterford. Another nice town to check out along the way is Dungarvan.
The early afternoon was spent driving back to Dublin for a final night in the Ashling. We went out for a last dinner at Ireland’s oldest pub, called the Brazen Head for some great food and drinks before calling it a trip with a bit more karaoke.
This trip was unforgettable, and I hope we get to take another pass at it some day to see the things that we’re sure we missed.
Ireland Travel Tips:
We really wanted to have the use of at least one of our phones for GPS, web searches, local calling, etc. The best option that we found for us was to buy an Irish SIM card for one of our iPhones in Dublin. Tesco Mobile is a local carrier, and for around $25 you can buy at data package of 5 GB that is good for 30 days. By purchasing the 5GB plan, you also get free unlimited local texts and calling, so if you need to call a B&B owner or something while you’re there, it doesn’t cost any extra. This gives you a local Irish number, but it does disable your US number until you put your US SIM card back in the phone. It worked great for us, and we used the GPS and google on the road to see what different towns had to offer. Again, this basically puts your US calling plan on hold, and you’re acting solely on an Irish pay as you go plan, so there are no international roaming charges, unless you call a US or non-Irish number. There are a number of Tesco Super Markets in Dublin. The cards are sold at the customer service desks. Your phone will need to of course be global capable and unlocked to accept SIM cards that are not from your carrier. We use Verizon, and this was as simple as checking a box and calling to be sure that we were good to go.
Additionally, most B&Bs, many bars, restaurants, etc. do offer free WIFI, so if you opt not to buy a SIM Card, you can definitely do some web searching while you’re stopped to eat and at your hotels.
GPS AND NAVIGATION
We used a combination of methods to get us around. We did use our phone with the SIM card, but that somewhat relies on phone signal, which is spotty in the countryside. We also downloaded Irish maps to our Garmin GPS before we left. This ran about $70. We also took a couple of road atlases with us. One was provided by a friend, and the other was the official road atlas of Ireland, issued by the Irish National Ordiance Survey. You can find it here. https://amzn.to/2qSDZXf
Another option would be to rent GPS from the care rental office. We priced it, and it came out to about the same price as buying the maps through Garmin, so we opted to buy our own permanent copy and take our GPS with us. Either will work.
We found the best method by which to get local currency was via ATM. European ATMs do not charge usage fees, so you can get cash at the current exchange rate, and only be charged the standard foreign transaction fee by your own bank. This may be zero. In our case, my home bank charges a $1 fee per use for a non-bank owned ATM, so each swipe cost us $1. Compared to the exchange fees at a currency desk like Travelex, this is an amazing deal.
We also carried a few credit cards with $0 foreign transaction fees. Most places accepted Visa and Mastercard. We used our cards in grocery stores and restaurants to preserve cash. Be sure and put travel notices on your credit cards and debit cards, so they don’t get blocked. I also recommend writing down the phone numbers for your card companies in case they are lost or stolen. That way, you can call and cancel them if the worst happens. We also try to keep our credit cards in separate places. i.e. one in a wallet, one in a backpack or travel wallet. That way, if we lose the wallet, we hopefully still have a source of funding.
The food in Ireland we found to be generally good, if repetitive. Lots of fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, lamb stew, etc. There was more seafood near the coasts. The breads and jams are usually locally made and wonderful. The full Irish breakfasts consisted of their version of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, white and black pudding (a liver and blood sausage of sorts. Actually very good), and was excellent.
Many days, to get a break from the heavy dinner items and to lighten the load on the wallet, we’d snag a sandwich at a local supermarket. Either SuperValu, SPAR, or Tesco could be found in even the smallest towns. It’s also the cheapest place to get a soda (we’re addicted), so we stocked up on snacks at these places often.
We traveled mid-September. I’m not sure if we were lucky, or if we experienced normal weather, but most days were in the 50s to 60s with intermittent sunshine and very little rain. I wore shorts one day, but usually jeans and layers up top. We found ourselves regularly adding a layer to block the wind and/or removing a layer when the sun was out. A light wind breaker and a sweatshirt, should be more than sufficient on the cooler days. I’d suggest some waterproof hiking shoes like Merrell, KEEN, Columbia, etc. and a rain jacket. That way, you don’t have to lug an umbrella all over the place.
Pubs are everywhere, and there’s not really a wrong one to stop in. Good drinks, good music, great hospitality. Sit at the bar and chat with the barkeep. You’ll learn the most about what to see and do by talking to your B&B owners and the Pub Keepers.