The ultimate guide to backpacking Ireland
Four leaf clovers, leprechauns, travellers, beer… just some of the many things that come to mind when you think of Ireland. However, the real Ireland is even more enchanting. Its landscapes are breath-taking, ranging from wild and rugged mountains to green hills and valleys. It has beautiful, historic cities, a great musical culture, fantastic pubs and most importantly, a warm, welcoming hospitable people. And yes, lots of beer. All this, and more, is what makes backpacking Ireland so amazing.
Lough Tay, Dublin : gregda
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Best time to visit Ireland
Ireland is known for its emerald green landscape, but there’s a reason for this: the weather. Ireland tends to be quite rainy all year round, however, it’s no worse than parts of England. The climate is best summed up with one word: changeable. You can really see all four seasons in one day here. The wettest months tend to be in Autumn and Winter, and the driest in the spring, but this changes year by year. So remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad preparation! Remember to bring your waterproof jacket and a jumper whenever you go, and don’t let the weather dictate your plans!
There’s not that much seasonal variation in temperature either, with the summer months averaging highs of around 13-18 degrees. On the flip side, winters don’t get too cold. One thing that does vary widely, however, is the length of the days. In winter, the sun goes down around 4 pm, but in the middle of summer, it doesn’t get dark until after 10 pm, allowing you to sit out long into the evening. Ireland is pretty small, so the differences between places aren’t too drastic. It’s generally a bit rainier on the west coast, with clouds coming in from the Atlantic, as well as getting a little cooler the further north you go.
Best time to visit Northern Ireland
The best time to visit Northern Ireland for a backpacking trip is in late spring and early summer, when you’re likely to get the most sunshine. However, if you’re doing a short city break, you can go at any time of year, as you’re unlikely to get extreme weather. The coldest months are between late February and early March, with very little chance of snow. The driest areas are around Belfast and the eastern coast, which get significantly less rainfall than Galway, Cork and the rest of the south/west.
Best time to visit Dublin
Dublin’s where you’ll find the driest climate relative to the rest of Ireland. It’s also pretty mild, with winter temperatures similar to those in Southeast England. The driest months in Dublin are between February and April, but the best time to visit Dublin is in late spring, when the temperatures are a little warmer. Given that the city has plenty to see – the weather usually isn’t too much trouble anyway, as there are plenty of pubs and free museums to duck into.
Best time to visit Galway
The west coast, around Galway, is the wettest part of Ireland. However, it’s slightly warmer than Dublin. So, if you’re lucky, you might get some hot, sunny weather – with the isolated white-sand beaches making it worth the risk! The best time to visit Galway is probably when it’s driest, in the late spring and early summer.
Best places to visit in Ireland
Ireland’s landscapes are beautiful, ranging from the dramatic to the gentle. Each of its national parks have their own unique character and can be just as breath-taking as more well-known destinations (if a bit rainier!) Apart from Dublin, its cities are relatively small, but are full of life, easily walkable, and have a rich history. To help you choose where to spend your time we’ve listed some of the best places to visit in Ireland including the most scenic places the country has to offer, as well as the best cities in Ireland to visit:
Mount Errigal and Dunlewy Lough, County Donegal
As you approach the Derryveagh mountains, all you see are dark shadows on the horizon. Before you know it, you are amongst them, with the long, unfenced road winding through the valleys. Drive far enough and you’ll come to Dunlewy Lough, which sits down in a quiet valley, cut off from the outside world. Rising above its shores is Errigal, the highest mountain in Donegal, and one of the best hikes in Ireland. However, the steep, rocky slopes means the route can be challenging.
If you’d prefer something a little more gentle, you can also take a walk down around the lake. This will take you a forest in which you’ll find a hidden world covered bright purple flowers and almost luminous green mosses. You’ll also pass an abandoned church, where you can sit and look out over the water!
Glencolumbkille and Malin Beg, County Donegal
Glencolumbkille sits on a stretch of coast Donegal’s southwestern corner. As you travel round the cliffs, you’ll be greeted with the spectacular sight of grey, stony headlands and jagged rocks being pounded by the mighty waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, you’ll reach the beautiful white sand beach of Silver Strand: a serene, isolated cove, hidden beneath the steep cliffs.
Just behind Glencolumbkille are the Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) cliffs, some of the highest sea cliffs in Ireland. Here, a jagged mountainside plunges straight down into the ocean. The colossal scale of this is difficult to capture in any photograph: really huge waves end up looking like tiny ripples. If you want to explore, there are great hikes in the area, including the so-called “One Man’s Path” a narrow, rocky trail with sheer drops on either side. Just be careful, this should not be attempted if you’re not an experienced hiker – even if it is a great place for getting that perfect Instagram shot!
Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow
The northern edge of this national park can be reached by taking a €3.30 local bus service from Dublin to Enniskerry, meaning it’s ideal if you want to escape the city for a while. If you’re really keen, you can hike along the so-called “Wicklow Way,” a 130 km interlinked network of roads and paths stretching all the way down through the county. If you don’t feel up to that, you can simply wander along the trail for as long as you like, through fields and glades filled with ferns, wildflowers and shamrocks. One great walk, which takes about an hour each way, is from Knockree hostel to Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest in Ireland. Seeing it this way also allows you to avoid paying the entry fee!
Copper Coast, County Waterford
If you want a day by the sea, some ice cream or fish and chips, head on down to the scenic little harbour town of Dunmore East. It’s an hour away from Waterford city by bike, or 20 or so minutes by car or bus. The little sheltered cove is gorgeous, with golden sand and deep blue water, overlooked by cliffs on both sides. If you don’t feel like getting your feet wet, sit outside at the Strand Inn, which overlooks the beach, looking out towards Hook Head and its famous lighthouse.
From Dunmore, you can head around the coastline along the so-called “Copper Coast”, which has been designated an UNESCO Geopark. Even if you’re not a geologist, it’s easy to appreciate the beautiful cliffs and seaside villages, such as Stradbally and Tramore, which literally means “big strand”. Here you’ll find a 5 km stretch of golden sand where you can hire surfboards, fish, or go sea kayaking.
Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry
With sea on three sides and towering green mountains behind, the Dingle peninsula is a spectacular setting for a drive by the sea. We’d recommend you stop off at Inch Beach, a spit of sand that juts out into the bay for miles, with towering dunes full of wildflowers. On the right side, you can see the Dingle Peninsula, to the left the golden shores of the Iveragh Peninsula.
From Inch Beach, you can head along the coastal roads to the colourful little harbour town of Dingle. But, if you’ve got a little time, it’s worth taking a minor detour down to Minard Castle. The roads are a bit narrow and windy, but it’s definitely worth it. You’ll not only be rewarded with the sight of a medieval stone tower, but also a quiet little beach with a clear mountain stream flowing into the bay.
From the colourful town of Dingle, you can head up towards Conor Pass along Spa Road, which snakes away out of sight, tightly hugging the undulating landscape. If you look hard on a clear day, you can even see the rocky pyramid-shaped Skellig Islands jutting out of the sea. If they look familiar, perhaps that’s because they were used as a location in the new Star Wars films!
Killarney National Park, County Kerry
Killarney National Park :@cochou33
Killarney, is home to one of Ireland’s most beautiful national parks, and its tallest peak, Carrauntoohil. It’s hardly surprising then, that you’ll find some of the best hikes in Ireland here. In fact, the “Kerry Way” signposted route runs through the county, for over 200 km, taking experienced hikers eight days or more to conquer.
However, you don’t have to be a seasoned hiker to enjoy the trail – you can always walk along one of its 20 sections. There’s a walking loop starting in Killarney, which takes in the Victorian stately home, a ruined monastery and old traditional farms. Nearby you’ll find Torc waterfall, which crashes down into a little pool, creating a surrounding mist. If you continue up the steps past the waterfall, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Killarney’s three lakes.
For a break while you’re driving or hiking round the national park, there’s no better place than The Strawberry Field Pancake Cottage. Renowned for its delicious pancakes, the café rests within Killarney’s isolated countryside. Afterwards, you can head on up to the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow valley, with steep, high sides. It feels incredibly isolated and cut-off, almost like going through a tunnel. Look one way and you’ll see the valley and lakes of Killarney open up in front of you, look back and you see the mountains closing in on each other.
Strawberry Field Pancake Cottage :@iaraanddavid_travel
Aran Islands, County Galway
The Aran Islands are three, isolated rocky pieces of land lying between the edge of Galway Bay and the North Atlantic. They’re pretty inhospitable and rugged, battered by the waves and winds, making the place feel like it’s at the edge of the world. The historic isolation of the islanders means that many of them speak Irish as a native language. In fact, we heard it being spoken on the Ferry, and by locals in the local pub. To get there, you can book a ferry and bus transfer from Galway, or from Doolin, in County Clare.
The two smaller islands, Inisheer (Inis Oír), and Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), are a little less touristed and easier to get around. However, if you’re visiting Inishmore (Inis Mór), the largest island, it’s a good idea to go for a whole day, as there’s a lot to see. It’s still only 14 km (8.7 miles) long: meaning that the best way to get around is renting a bike. Head around the coast and there’s a spot where, if you look hard enough, you can spot the silvery heads of seals bobbing up and down on the water. Continue a little further around the coast and you’ll stumble upon Kilmurvey beach, where the sands are a pristine, dazzling shade of white.
The island is also home to a handful of prehistoric stone forts, with the most well-known being Dún Aonghasa. However, if you don’t want to pay, it’s perhaps better to head to Dún Eochla, which perhaps even more impressive in scale. These historical sights blend in with its natural wonders, such as Poll na Bpeist or “the wormhole”. This natural, perfectly rectangular pool sits atop a bare, rocky clifftop. As calm as it seems, diving into the pool is strongly advised against. Sometimes, the drop down to the water can be about 15 metres, with waves crashing over the clifftops and draining down into the pool.
Connemara, County Galway
Connemara is another national park, in the west of the country, but it differs a lot to the others. The Wicklow mountains are characterised by rolling valleys and forests, whereas Killarney has huge lakes and dramatic rocky mountains. Connemara national park, on the other hand, feature huge, rounded hills that are curved like a camel’s hump. The roads wind through the misty valleys as you approach the park’s visitor centre, about an hour and a half away from Galway. From here, there are several well-marked walking and hiking routes, each for different abilities. The toughest one leads to the summit of Diamond Hill, going over boardwalk, and rocky slopes, with views of the sea on three sides and golden beaches in the distance. When you reach the summit, you can see all the way down to the Victorian grandeur of Kylemore Abbey.
Kylemore Abbey is a huge 19th century “castle” – but it’s the setting that really sets it apart. Unlike other, similar places, it is set against the backdrop of a steep mountain slope, with a serene lake stretching out in front. However, the main highlight is provided by the gardens. The manicured flowerbeds contrast beautifully with the surrounding wilderness and the kitchen gardens are full of juicy redcurrants, blackcurrants and raspberries.
North coast of Northern Ireland, County Antrim and County Derry/Londonderry
The north coast is probably the one of the most well-known and best places to visit in Northern Ireland. It’s known for its white sandy beaches, green fields and of course, the Giant’s Causeway. More recently, it’s gained fame as one of the locations for the acclaimed fantasy series, Game of Thrones. These Game of Thrones locations are worth seeing for the sake of their wild beauty, even if you’re not a fantasy fan. One such place is Ballintoy harbour, a tiny cove at the bottom of a single-track winding road, full of little fishing boats. Another recommended stop is at the Dark Hedges, otherwise known as the “King’s Road”, where ancient trees curve and twist to form an eerie tunnel.
If you want a little adventure, and are a fan of wildlife, catch the boat from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island. During the late spring and summer months, it’s home to a huge colony of birds who nest on its high cliffs, including cute little puffins! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see seals relaxing around the harbour. For something a little more daring, head to the notorious Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, where you can test your mettle by walking across a vertical drop above the rough, churning waves. If you’d rather just relax, there’s always the White Rocks beach, near Portrush, with its golden sands and dazzling white limestone cliffs.
The most famous sight around here, the Giant’s Causeway, is also worth seeing. Layers upon layers of hexagonal columns rise up out of the ocean, looking as if they were fashioned by a giant’s hand. the best part is probably the walk, which takes you over the cliffs, giving you a spectacular bird’s eye view. And for those in need of a little refreshment after a tiring day outdoors, the Old Bushmills Distillery is just a few miles away. Founded in 1608, it’s also the oldest continually-operating distillery in the world.
Mourne Mountains, County Down
This is where you’ll find Northern Ireland’s biggest mountain, Slieve Donard. You can reach it without a car, by taking a bus from Belfast to the seaside town of Newcastle. The route is quite easy to follow, but requires hiking shoes, as it can be a bit muddy in places. The views from the summit, however, are gorgeous, looking out for miles out over the coast. If you’d prefer to do something more gentle, you can also hike to a viewpoint part of the way up the mountain, or just walk along the beautiful seafront promenade with an ice cream.
Those people renting a car should also consider visiting the Silent Valley Reservoir. This huge artificial lake supplies the entire population of Belfast and is hidden away in the narrow space between the mountain slopes. It’s a beautiful and secluded location to sit, relax, or take a walk around.
Temple Bar, Dublin :@diogopalhais
If you ask anyone who’s visited Ireland about the best places to see, the Republic of Ireland’s capital is always high on the list. There’s s a lot to see, a lot to do, as well as a lot of visitors! The historical centre is packed to the brim with beautiful buildings and parks, many of which are free.
Free attractions in Dublin:
- Stephen’s Green: this 17th century square is filled with trees, ponds and sculptures, and was one of the spots held by the rebels during the 1916 Easter Rising.
- Merrion Square: another park in a city square, which is home to a famous statue of Oscar Wilde.
- Phoenix Park: this is the largest urban park in Europe, and home to a herd of deer! Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland is located here, and on Saturdays, you can even book a free guided tour!
Museums and Galleries:
As Ireland’s capital, Dublin is home to many of Ireland’s best public museums and galleries, many of which are free to explore, so take advantage of this!
- Chester Beattie Library: housed in Dublin Castle, this museum displays beautiful and rare manuscripts from places such as East Asia, the Middle East and North America.
- Irish Museum of Modern Art: situated in a former hospital, this place has six multi-roomed exhibits, which are constantly changing.
- National Gallery of Ireland: this fascinating gallery includes medieval, renaissance and modern works, including those of renowned local artists.
- National Museum of Ireland: this is not really one museum, but four, with three of them located in Dublin – specialising in Archaeology, Natural History and Decorative Arts.
Given its history full of literature, scholarship, conflict and revolution: Dublin is fascinating just to wander around. So, take advantage of a free walking tour, or explore these historical sites for yourself:
- Statues of O’Connell Street: this busy shopping street is full of statues of famous Irish revolutionaries, labour leaders, parliamentarians and reformers, including Daniel O’Connell, after whom it is named.
- GPO (General Post Office): this imposing stone building was the main headquarters of those taking part in the Easter rising, an armed insurrection that aimed to create an independent Irish Republic. There is a paid exhibition inside, but you can still visit the post office itself, which has beautiful floors and an ornate ceiling.
- Trinity College Grounds: you have to pay a steep charge to visit its historical library, which contains the precious medieval manuscript “the Book of Kells”. However, the grounds themselves are free to enter.
- Famine Memorial: this tribute to the millions of people who died and emigrated during the potato famine of 1845-1849, shows emaciated figures trekking along to the port of Dublin in search of a new life abroad (though many died during their journey).
- Glasnevin cemetery: this is the resting place for many famous Irish figures, including the musician Luke Kelly, of the Dubliners, and the writer Brendan Behan.
One paid attraction that is worth seeing is Kilmainham Gaol. This cold, grey stone building, located in a quiet suburb, has witnessed many key events in Irish history, including five rebellions. It is where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held and then executed. It has held prisoners from the subsequent Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War. Perhaps the most shocking fact, however, is how some victims of the famine committed crimes simply to be held here and have a roof over their heads.
Going out in Dublin can feel overwhelming, with hordes of tourists flocking into the iconic pubs of the Temple Bar area, which gets extremely crowded and quite rowdy. In terms of iconic bars, O’Donoghue’s near Merrion Square is a good bet. This spot has live music every night and is where the trad band “The Dubliners” started out. Although it’s packed with tourists, the crowd is generally less rowdy. Also worth a visit is the Brazen Head, which claims to be Ireland’s oldest pub, dating back to 1198.
For somewhere a bit more off the beaten track, head north of the river to the area of Stoneybatter, where you’ll find great pubs and cocktail bars, full of locals. We arrived in the middle of the “Stoneybatter Festival” which takes place in June each year. The events even included Wuffstock, a fancy-dress parade for dogs and their owners!
Find out more about all the free things to do in Dublin in our guide.
Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny :@kmitchhodge
Kilkenny, although compact, is worth visiting. Hundreds of years of history is packed into two adjoining streets, known as the Medieval Mile, which stretches from the cathedral at one end and the castle at the other. The space in between is teeming with history: from the Tudor Roche House to the Black Abbey. It’s not all grey, medieval stone though, the town is like a picture postcard snapshot of Ireland – with colourful pubs, restaurants and cafes on cobbled streets.
As well as being a medieval town, Kilkenny is known as being the birthplace of Smithwicks (pronounced Smith-icks), probably the second most well-known Irish beer (after Guinness). You can still visit the old brewery today, where you’ll get the chance taste the beer at different stages of the brewing process and smell the different types of hops used. This will give you all you need to bluff with even the most seasoned of craft beer snobs! Even if you’re not all that interested in this boozy barley beverage, the tour is fascinating simply from a historical point of view: it’s built on the ruins of an abbey that brewed beer until it was closed down by King Henry VIII. In the end, you’ll get the chance to sample a pint, with three different varieties on offer!
In the same way as with its historical sights, Kilkenny’s nightlife packs a big punch for its size, with over 15 bars and pubs within 10-15 minutes’ walk of one-another. It’s a historic town, so there are tourists, but it’s nowhere near as crowded as central Dublin. Plus, if you’re more of a fan of tea and coffee than beer, don’t fret! Kilkenny has some cute little cafes, including Cakeface patisserie, which serves up delicious baked treats.
Waterford is one of Ireland’s oldest cities, dating back to Viking times. The traces of this history are most evident in the old part of the city, the so-called “Viking Triangle”. In fact, there are six medieval towers scattered around. If it’s a rainy day, why not visit the “Museum of Treasures”? This is actually made up of three separate buildings, each within 3 minutes’ walk of each other: the Viking-built Reginald’s tower, the Medieval Museum and the Bishop’s Palace.
The city itself is incredibly pretty, its main street extending along a stretch of river for about a kilometre and a half. This creates a dazzling effect as the lights from bars, restaurants, and shops are reflected in the water. Step back from here, and you’ll end up on bustling pedestrian streets full of little squares, coffee shops and boutiques.
Given that it’s a relatively small city and not as much of a tourist hotspot as Dublin, it’s easy to wander from one place to the other without getting lost. We’d recommend a little bar called ‘An Uisce Beatha’, the Irish name for whisky literally translating as “water of life”. This pub hosts a lively, youthful crowd, with free music on most nights.
Cork is the Republic of Ireland’s second city, but sees less travellers than Dublin and Galway. However, it really shouldn’t, as it’s absolutely full of life, music and history!
Also just outside Cork is Blarney castle, one of the most famous attractions in all of Ireland. It’s a very touristy spot, and entrance costs between €14 and €18 (with online discounts available). Although this may seem like a lot, the castle’s gardens are huge and there’s a lot to see – in fact, you could spend the whole day exploring. The beautiful grounds contain a garden of poisonous plants, a glade filled with huge ferns and a waterfall, as well as a dungeon, where you can crawl through medieval stone passages on your hands and knees.
In the high season, queues for the castle can be huge, but you can avoid this by going on a weekday. Once you get to the top, you can admire the views, and kiss the legendary Blarney stone, which is said to bless you with the gift of the gab. The whole thing might seem like a bit of a silly tourist ritual, but it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere of the whole thing!
Cork itself is great for going out, with music around every corner and streets full of people. In the Victorian Quarter there’s Sin É, which serves a huge selection of whiskies, gins and beers, as well as having a traditional music session every night. If you want to listen to something a bit different, head down to the Crane Lane Theatre. This consists of three different bars, each with different things going on, as well as the theatre itself. There you can see free gigs (everything from jazz to reggae), DJ nights, and even take a dance lesson. Oh, and if you’re looking for a caffeine rather than alcohol-based pick-me-up, head to Three Fools’ Coffee or Cork Coffee Roasters.
Budget travellers looking for something to do can take a wander around the Campus of University College Cork. Here, you can enjoy the parkland, visit the exhibitions at the Glucksman Institute, and admire the beautiful stained-glass windows of the Great Hall, all without spending a cent. The English Market is also free to enter, but you’ll probably end up spending something! It’s situated in a building that dates back to 1786 and is full of stalls selling fresh meat, fish, vegetables and fresh local baked goods, as well as arts and crafts. There’s even a brightly coloured fountain filled with models of birds!
For something quirky to do, head to the Butter Museum: Cork used to be a centre of the huge Irish butter business, and even had its own Butter Exchange (like a Wall Street for butter). Just around the corner, you will see (or hear) Shandon Church. Here you can pay to climb the tower and have a go at ringing the bells yourself. A little less imposing is Shandon Sweets, a cute family run factory and shop, where you can enjoy some locally-made sugary goodness.
Galway, Ireland :@mymytudoan
Galway is smaller than Dublin, Belfast and Cork – but is very lively (perhaps, in part, due to its high student population). You can see this in the Latin Quarter – home to many medieval buildings and filled with narrow, cobbled streets onto which partygoers pour onto to at night to enjoy a drink in the open air. We went to the Quays bar, which blasted out cheesy indie and pop hits all night long. We also ended up in a great rock bar called Sally Long’s, after which we headed to the west end to hear some traditional music at the Crane Bar. There was a trad music session in the upstairs room, with everyone crowded around, sitting on stools, listening attentively to around 8 musicians on fiddle, tin whistle, flute and mandolin.
The historic Latin Quarter is also great for exploring during the day, and as you head further down the river, you’ll find another historical landmark, the Spanish Arch. This stone gateway, built in 1584, is connected to the remains of the city walls, and used to house the soldiers who manned the battlements. On the other side of this is the Galway City Museum, which is free to enter, and will give you an insight into what Galway looked like in medieval times. It also houses a full-size “Galway Hooker”: a sailboat designed to withstand the harsh North Atlantic weather.
Although Galway’s medieval buildings date back hundreds of years, the cathedral was only built in the 50s and 60s. It looks much older, but it’s actually the last great stone cathedral to be built in Europe. It’s worth visiting to admire the artwork underneath the dome, consisting of angels and stars set against an emerald green background.
Another thing that’s great about Galway is that if it’s a sunny day, and you don’t feel tramping around the streets or standing indoors, you can easily just head out to the area of Salthill. This is just 20 minutes’ walk from Eyre Square, past the west end and has some beautiful beaches, as well as a diving platform where you take the plunge into the not-so-tropical water of Galway Bay.
The island’s other capital city, Belfast, is very different to Dublin. It’s a much younger city and is perhaps less “classically beautiful”. However, it’s emerged from its turbulent past to become a great destination and has somewhat of an alternative feel in places. It’s also cheaper for going out than in a lot of cities in the Republic, with a great bar and restaurant scene.
In terms of sights, you’ll be spoilt for choice. A lot of hostels are located around the university, which is made up of beautiful redbrick buildings. Just around the corner, you’ll be able to see the Botanical Gardens, with its ornate Victorian greenhouse, as well as the Ulster Museum. Alternatively, you can visit the exhibitions at the City Hall, and take a tour of this spectacular building, which is full of marble floors and columns, stained glass windows and chandeliers. Best of all, every one of these attractions are completely free!
One of Belfast’s biggest draws in recent years has been the Titanic Museum, a huge shining metal structure, as high as the ship itself, where you can find interactive exhibitions and even a ride guiding you through the history of the shipyards. It may seem quite pricey, but the ticket also includes entrance to the Nomadic, a boat that brought passengers to the Titanic at Cherbourg, France.
If you want to go out somewhere that’s cheap and student friendly, the area around the University and the Dublin Road is a good bet. However, for something slightly more upmarket, the Cathedral Quarter is the place to go. Here you can find “the Harp Bar”, which is all red velvet seats and fancy decorations, or the Dirty Onion, which has an outdoor terrace in a ruined building. There are also cultural venues, such as the MAC and Black Box, which host art exhibitions, theatrical performances and films. Still, if you’d prefer something a little more alternative, it’s just a short walk to the Sunflower Bar, which hosts musical events ranging from ukulele sessions to bluegrass music, and attracts a young, progressive, activist crowd.
Londonderry : @kmitchhodge
Northern Ireland’s second city is definitely worth a stop, not least because it’s the only fully-intact walled city in all of Ireland. You can still walk round the top of the walls, free of charge, look down over the rest of the city. Within the walls themselves, you’ll find the “Tower Museum”, which takes you through the city’s eventful history, from prehistoric times to the sectarian violence that plagued the city from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s not all dark and depressing though: you’ll also hear about the city’s cultural heritage, including the band “The Undertones”, who penned the song “Teenage Kicks”.
The history of the Derry/Londonderry, is very contested, all the way down to the city’s name. It should come as no surprise then, that it has witnessed key events for people on both sides of the Unionist/Nationalist divide. The city saw historic civil rights marches in the 1960s and early 1970s. The predominantly nationalist “Bogside” also witnessed clashes between police and the local residents, as well as the incident known as “Bloody Sunday”.
It’s in the Bogside that you’ll find the Free Derry Museum (which shares its name with a famous mural), a place that recounts the story of this conflict. On the other side there is the Siege Museum, which focuses on 17th century siege during which the Protestants of Derry/Londonderry held out against an army led by the Catholic King James.
However, there’s more to the city than the dark days of its past, with plenty of cheery, and good value bars and restaurants. One such place is Sandino’s, which is full of posters and memorabilia supporting various progressive causes, and often hosts great live music events. You can also pose with one of the city’s newest murals, a painting of the stars of Derry Girls, a hit comedy series set in the city!
Travelling around Ireland
Unfortunately, in Ireland, the public transport network isn’t as extensive or developed as in other western European countries. However, both buses and trains are relatively affordable, making backpacking on a budget in Ireland easy. There are easy links between a lot of the major towns and cities. But when it comes to more rural spots, provision can be a bit lacking.
Trains in Ireland are modern, comfortable and usually punctual, with good links on the east coast and to Galway. The prices here are reasonable too: an advance ticket between Dublin and Kilkenny can cost as little as €14, with extra discounts available for students. But there’s no direct line from Waterford to Cork, which makes a round trip by train difficult. Travelling by train also needs planning, as they often don’t run as regularly as buses or coaches.
In the west of Ireland, train links are much less developed, and although it’s easy to reach Galway, heading north through the scenic counties of Sligo and Mayo requires a lot of changeovers. It’s even harder to navigate the scenic and isolated county of Donegal, where there are no train connections at all. Indeed, in the past, many rural train stations were shut down in favour of a (short-sighted) transport policy favouring cars. On the other hand, some of these former lines, such as the “Waterford Greenway”, have been repurposed as cycle and walking paths – allowing you to explore the countryside away from the roads. Trains in Northern Ireland are pretty lacking too, and many places in the southwest, such as the beautiful Lakeland county of Fermanagh, have no railway lines at all. Luckily for tourists, in addition to the line from Belfast to Dublin, there’s one that stretches north, linking Belfast to towns on the scenic Causeway coast, such as Portrush and Castlerock. This same line then heads west alongside the sea and finishes in the city of Derry/Londonderry, with the last stretch of the journey overlooking the sea.
One of the easiest ways to get to places is travelling around Ireland by bus. A lot of the services, especially those between more major towns and cities, are comfortable and modern, and have lots of luggage space, as well as occasional internet access. These usually run more regularly than trains and are often just as quick. They also have routes between cities where trains do not, and if you’re travelling up the west coast without a car, buses are a lifesaver. They can reach beautiful rural areas and isolated counties such as Donegal where trains do not. In addition, local bus services will allow you travel to tourist attractions just outside cities. From Dublin, you can catch a bus to Enniskerry and explore the Wicklow Mountains, from Cork, you can head out to the colourful little fishing village of Kinsale.
There are a lot of isolated sights in Ireland that can’t easily be reached by bus or train, and require you to take an organised tour. Some of these go directly from the hostels, and are pretty good value. Another alternative is travelling around Ireland by car for the ultimate Ireland road trip! This will allow you to see ruined churches, abbeys and abandoned stone cottages, as well as letting you stop to get out and appreciate the landscape: something you’ll want to do every five minutes or so! Just be aware that the roads in some rural areas are full of cracks, are narrow, and sometimes even have sheep wandering across them.
Accommodation in Ireland
Ireland is a popular place for backpackers, meaning that there’s a wide range of hostels and budget accommodation. Hostels in cities such as Dublin and Galway tend to be bigger, with more going on, but can be quite busy. In the countryside, or smaller towns, such as Kilkenny, you can find cute little places with just a handful of rooms, where it’s easy to get to know other guests!
Hostels in Dublin and Galway are significantly more expensive than other places, with prices soaring on the weekends. However, nightly rates in Dublin can more than double to over €50, the price of a weekend room in Galway is more reasonable at around €30. Strangely, the same is not true of Cork, where prices remain pretty steady.
Where you stay in Dublin depends a lot on what you want to do. Gardiner House Hostel is about 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre, allowing you to avoid the noisiness of the city centre. Another great spot, Abigail’s Hostel, is right in the middle of Temple Bar, hosting nightly pub crawls and surrounded by lively pubs, bars and clubs. There are also a couple of places that are a little closer to the city, but in the quieter areas, such as the Four Courts Hostel. All these places have facilities including storage lockers and fully-equipped kitchens, as well as providing a free breakfast and wifi.
There’s also plenty of choice when it comes to hostels in Galway, with almost all of them being rated above an 8 on the Hostelworld website. Sleepzone is good if you want somewhere central at a reasonable price: it’s five minutes from Kinlay Square Centre, most of the dorms are ensuites and there’s a fantastic kitchen, TV room and outdoor terrace. Kinlay Eyre Square Hostel, which is just around the corner, is another good choice. But if you want something a little quieter and still within walking distance of the city, you can stay at Nest Boutique Hostel, located right beside the beaches of Salthill.
Hostels in Cork are pretty few and far between, with the choice essentially coming down to Kinlay House Cork and Bru Bar & Hostel. Both are located at the northern end of the city centre, close to sights such as the Shandon Bells and the Butter Museum. Both also offer free Wifi and free breakfast. Bru Bar & Hostel, as you might guess from the name, it has its own bar with discounts available for guests! But if you want to relax, go for Kinlay House, you can get access to the pool and gym next door (which includes a jacuzzi and steam room) for €5.
Some of the best hostels we stayed in on our trip were in rural areas, where you can find small, cosy places that feel more like guesthouses. One of those places is Tom’s Cottage, an eco-friendly hostel that’s a 15-minute drive from Waterford. Apart from a couple of houses across the road, there’s nothing but green fields all around, making it the perfect place to relax and recharge. Tom, who runs the hostel, is an incredibly friendly guy, often even inviting guests to hear him play in an Irish trad music band at the local pub.
When it comes to city hostels, Belfast is really good value. Global Village, Vagabonds and Botanical Backpackers are all rated at 9 or above on Hostelworld. They’re also located in the youthful Queen’s Quarter, nearby Queen’s University Belfast. You can get a bed from about £14 and all of them offer free breakfast, WiFi and a common room to relax and hang out in.
There are also plenty of hostels in the towns and villages in the north coast. Bushmills Youth Hostel is perfectly situated, just 5 minutes’ walk from the Old Bushmills Distillery and a short bus ride from the Giant’s Causeway. The village itself also has plenty of pubs, restaurants and cafés. If you don’t mind being a little more isolated, the Sheep Island View hostel in the village of Ballintoy is a good shout. Its picturesque location overlooks the sea and cliffs, and is only a short walk from a cute little harbour and beach. Outside Belfast and the north coast, there aren’t so many options when it comes to hostels in Northern Ireland. While there’s not many dorms in Derry/Londonderry, Hostel Connect is great value and fantastically located, with beds for as little as £17.30 (€19.26).Compare all hostels in Ireland
Ireland Backpacking Itinerary
Connemara National Park :@benorloff
There are endless things to see and explore in Ireland, and you could spend years without having discovered all that it has to offer. However, this being the real world, most people don’t have that much time or money. So, to help you, we’ve put together a few rough travel itineraries. Given how different every backpacker is, we’ve tried to make this relatively flexible. Just bear in mind that it’s not exhaustive and you may want to skip certain places or choose to discover somewhere else entirely.
We’ll start with a simple Ireland itinerary, for 7 days long, as many backpackers won’t have much more time than that. Lack of time shouldn’t put you off though, as there’s plenty you can see if you manage it right.
Day 1: Dublin
This is where you’ll most likely be arriving into, whether by boat or by plane. Depending on the amount of time you have, you can explore some of the free museums, or Phoenix Park (which doesn’t close, meaning you can go and visit later in the evening to save some time).
Day 2: Kilkenny
The journey here from Dublin is less than two hours by bus or train. This means you’ll have time to explore the medieval sights of the city, whether it’s the castle, cathedral or abbey! If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can always pop into the brewery.
Day 3: Waterford
Again, this Viking city is a short hop by bus or train from Kilkenny. You can either wander around and take in these sights for yourself, take a city tour, or visit one of the city’s museums. If you’re more of a sporty type, you can head out along the Waterford Greenway cycle route!
Day 4: Cork
The easiest way to get here from Waterford is by bus, as the train takes a long and complicated route. Once you’re here, you can head out on a local bus to Blarney to explore the castle and gardens. Or you can choose to stay in the city and ring the bells of Shandon at St. Anne’s Church, as well as visiting the Butter Museum, university campus and English Market.
Day 5: Galway
The bus journey from Cork to Galway takes a little longer, at around two and a half hours. But this will still allow you to explore some of the main sights, such as the Cathedral and Spanish Arch, as well as enjoying the local nightlife.
Day 6: Galway day trip
Galway is a good base for exploring some of the most scenic areas in Ireland. From here, you can take a day trip out to Connemara National Park, or to the Aran Islands. Those of you who have a car can always spend a night in Connemara if you want!
Day 7: Dublin
From Galway you can take a bus or train straight back to Dublin. Spend your afternoon exploring more of the free museums and galleries, wandering around the city centre parks, or heading out to Kilmainham Gaol.
If you’ve got a car, and enjoy the outdoors, you can easily do a day trip out to the Wicklow Mountains instead of spending a second day in Dublin (or skip a destination and go to Killarney national park instead). If you’d rather explore the big city more, you can even catch the bus or train from Cork straight back to Dublin. It’s all up to you!
Even though it’s a small island, for an Ireland itinerary, 14 days isn’t that long. Given that lack of public transport in some places makes things complicated, the guide below sets out separate routes for travelling with and without a car, giving you some alternatives if you want to alter your journey a bit.
By public transport
Day 1: Dublin
(See section above)
Day 2: Kilkenny
(See section above)
Day 3: Waterford
(See section above)
Day 4: Cork
(See section above)
Day 5: Killarney
Take a day trip out through the National Park by bus, a boat trip around the lakes, or visit Ross Castle, which is just a short walk away!
Day 6: Killarney
Take a trip out to see the gorgeous Dingle peninsula, and maybe even go whale watching.
Day 7: Cork
Use your second day in Cork to explore some of the sights of the city, or head out to Blarney, whichever you missed the first-time round!
Day 8: Galway
(See section above)
Day 9: Galway day trip
(See section above)
Day 10: Dublin
(see section above)
Option 1: you can take the bus to Letterkenny, in County Donegal, basing yourself there for two or three nights. You can then take day trips out to places such as Errigal, Slieve League or the Inishowen Peninsula, before heading back to Dublin for another night before you get your flight.
Option 2: you can get the train or bus up to Belfast, stay there a night or two, then head up to the north coast for a night. After this you can head back to Belfast and then to Dublin (if you’re flying home from there).
Option 3: if you don’t want to go that far, you can simply go hiking in the Wicklow mountains, and take some extra time to explore Dublin’s many sights.
Day 1: Kilkenny
Head straight from the airport to this beautiful medieval town.
Day 2: Waterford
Day 3: Cork
Use the drive from Cork to see some of the breathtaking Copper Coast, and maybe visit some scenic villages along the way.
Day 4: Cork
(See section above)
Day 5: Killarney
Check in and then head off to explore the beautiful Dingle peninsula, stopping off at the beach if it’s a sunny day.
Day 6: Killarney
Take a trip around the Ring of Kerry road to see some stunning landscapes, or park up somewhere in the national park to do a hike. It’s also worth making a slight diversion to see the Gap of Dunloe.
Day 7: Galway
Head to Galway, perhaps stopping off at the famous “Cliffs of Moher” along the way. Use the rest of the day to explore the town and its sights!
Day 8: Galway
You can use this day to see the Aran Islands, either driving or taking the bus to the ferry terminal.
Day 9: Connemara
Head out to Connemara and explore the unique mountains. You can take the Connemara Loop route (see below), go hiking, or even do some water sports on Killary Fjord.
Option 1: take the car up the West Coast, along the Wild Atlantic Way (see below) to Donegal. There you can visit the cliffs of Slieve League and nearby beaches, then head on up to the Derryveagh Mountains and Glenveagh National Park. You can spend the third day exploring more of Donegal or visit Derry/Londonderry, just over the border.
Option 2: take the car up to Belfast and then spend a couple of days exploring the north coast or go to Derry/Londonderry.
Option 3: head to the Wicklow mountains, and spend a couple of days hiking and exploring, before heading back to Dublin. You can even go back to the city a day earlier, if you want more of a chance to see all its sights properly.
Once you get back to Dublin, you can return your rental car and spend the next couple of days exploring the city.
Day 13: Dublin
Day 14: Dublin
Given its small size, it’s pretty easy to put together a Northern Ireland itinerary. However, if you’d like to visit the west of Northern Ireland as well, transport can be a bit of an issue. To help with this, I’ve put together one itinerary for those with a car, and one for those without a car.
Without a car
Day 1: Belfast
Here you can spend the day exploring the free attractions around the University, including the museum and botanical gardens. Afterwards, why not go out to explore some of the pubs and coffee shops around the Cathedral Quarter? Here, you can find out what exhibitions and events are going on at the MAC or Black Box.
Day 2: north coast
In the morning, take the train to Coleraine. Then, take the train to Portrush, where you can go to the beach, go surfing, or just enjoy an ice cream by the sea. Alternatively, you can head to Bushmills, from where you can take the bus or walk to the Giant’s Causeway, and take a tour of the whiskey distillery.
Day 3: north coast
You can take the bus from either Portrush or Bushmills to Ballycastle, from where you can head off to see the wildlife of Rathlin Island. Another option is to go to Ballintoy harbour, which (as mentioned above) was a filming location for Game of Thrones.
Day 4: Derry/Londonderry
Take the bus from Bushmills or train from Portrush to Coleraine. From there, you can take the train to Derry/Londonderry. You can explore the city walls, cathedral, Guildhall and museums, and have a night out if you’re feeling like it.
Day 5: Belfast
On returning to Belfast you can visit the Titanic Experience museum, as well as taking a tour of the City Hall.
Day 6: head home or take a day trip to the Mournes.
From there, you can head home, or if you want to explore a bit more, take the bus down to Newcastle. You can even walk from the town to the peak of Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest mountain.
With a car
Day 1: north coast
Drive from the airport in Belfast up to a hostel in Bushmills or Portrush. On the way you can visit various scenic spots, some of which have been in the TV series “Game of Thrones”, such as the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy harbour. Later on, you can visit the Giant’s Causeway, and then, if you’re staying in Bushmills, make a stop at the legendary distillery. You can also take the beautifully scenic Antrim coast road (see below) – a scenic, but indirect route.
Day 2: north coast
On your second day, you can visit the seaside town of Portrush, and go for a surfing lesson, or just enjoy a day by the sea. You can also get the ferry from Ballycastle to go and enjoy the wildlife there.
Day 3: Derry/Londonderry
Option 1: head back to Belfast for a couple of days, and see some of the things you missed.
Option 2: go and explore Donegal, just over the border before heading back.
Option 3: continue your Northern Ireland journey, by going to see the beautiful Lakelands of County Fermanagh. From there, you can head back east to Newcastle and the Mournes (see section above), before returning to Belfast.
When you take a car around Ireland, it’s not just a mode of transport. For many people, doing an Ireland road trip is a long-held dream. There are plenty of amazing roads through the breathtaking countryside, so we’ve included a short selection of some great routes that you can include in your itinerary:
Causeway Coastal Route – County Antrim and Derry/Londonderry
This route stretches all the way from Belfast, heading past castles, green forested valleys, little beaches and harbours, as well as Game of Thrones sights. The most scenic part of it is probably “the Antrim Coast Road” which was built in the 19th century. It runs along a small stretch of ground beneath the foot of the cliffs and the sea, making it a beautiful drive.
Wild Atlantic Way
This 2,500 km signposted route covers the entire length of Ireland’s west coast, from just outside Derry/Londonderry all the way to Kinsale, outside Cork. The website Wild Atlantic Way lets you customise your journey, so you don’t have to tackle the whole thing in one trip:
Ring of Kerry
This road takes you right around Killarney National Park, taking in some of its most remarkable and beautiful sights, such as Moll’s Gap and Torc waterfall. Conveniently, it starts and finishes in the town of Killarney, where there are plenty of hostels.
Like the Ring of Kerry, this signposted circuit takes you around the beautiful mountains, lakes and fjords of the Connemara National Park.
(Bonus non-car route) Waterford Greenway
You don’t need to have a car to explore the Irish countryside at your leisure, and the Waterford Greenway is a great example of this. Built along a disused railway line, it cuts through beautiful landscapes on its way from Waterford city to the harbour town of Dungarvan.
Cost of backpacking Ireland
When you’re backpacking around Ireland, you’ll notice that prices can vary widely from place to place. Restaurants, groceries and accommodation in bigger cities tend to cost a lot more than rural areas. Northern Ireland is also generally cheaper, especially when it comes to alcohol. So, if you’re going through Northern Ireland on your way to the Republic, and enjoy the occasional drink, it’s best to stock up on alcohol there and take it with you.
One saving grace is that the costs of travel are quite cheap – both with intercity buses and trains. However, if you’re travelling long distances by rail, it’s worth booking in advance to get a good deal. Also, there are plenty of free attractions. The countryside is full of gorgeous hiking routes, abandoned buildings, and castles and monasteries that are free to explore. In the cities, you can find green parks full of flowers, as well as museums, botanical gardens and scenic university campuses, many of which charge no entrance fee.
When it comes to food, it’s obviously best to stay out of the touristy areas. If you want something cheap, but don’t want to cook, there are supermarkets such as Dunnes and small shops such as Centra, where you can find salad bars full of rice, pasta and veggies, as well as fast food such as pizzas, cooked breakfasts and potato wedges!
Remembering the currency Ireland uses is pretty simple if you remember one thing: the Republic of Ireland uses the Euro, and because Northern Ireland is part of the UK, it uses British Pounds. Even though Northern Irish notes look different, you will still be able to spend English or Scottish notes there without any problems.
Budget for backpacking Ireland
When you’re backpacking around Ireland, travel costs per day can be difficult to estimate, depending on where you’re going, what and where you’re eating and where you’re staying. So, I’ve set out a rough guide to potential prices for each activity, at the lower and higher price ends:
Costs per day (Republic of Ireland)
Average Price – (Lower end)
Average Price (Upper end)
|€5 (short intercity bus)||€25 (small hire car)|
|€0 (free hostel breakfast)||€8 (breakfast in a café)|
|€5 (salad bar at a supermarket, deli or sandwich)||€12 (lunch at a café)|
|€2 (supermarket)||€6 (artisan coffee shop coffee and baked treat)|
|€6 (ingredients from supermarket to cook at home)||€26 (nice restaurant in Dublin including drink)|
|€8 (for a cheap bottle of wine, or four cans of beer)||€5.50 x 3 = €16.50 (three pints in a Dublin pub)|
|€15 (hostel in a rural area)||€55 (hostel on a weekend in Dublin)|
Costs per day (Northern Ireland)
Average Price – (Lower end)
Average Price (Upper end)
|£10 (intercity bus)||£20 (small hire car)|
|£0 (free hostel breakfast)||£6 (breakfast in a cafe)|
|£3 (supermarket “meal deal”)||£10 (hot café lunch)|
|£2 (supermarket)||£4 (coffee shop coffee and cake)|
|£4 (ingredients from supermarket to cook at home)||£10 (hot café lunch)|
|£2 (supermarket)||£4 (coffee shop coffee and cake)|
|£12 (for a dorm in Belfast)||£24 (for a shared private room)
Dublin has a reputation for being expensive, and once you get there, you’ll realise it’s not entirely undeserved. However, since it’s the capital, there are plenty of free attractions, which I’ve listed in the section “where to go in Ireland”, above. To help you out some more, I’ve set out some other tips for visiting Dublin on a budget below:
- Taxis in Dublin are extortionate – and can be about €18 for a 10-15 minute journey. It’s better to either walk or take advantage of the city’s many buses and trams. Another big cost is accommodation.
- Obviously, hostels are a great place to stay and meet other like-minded people, as well as for saving money, but prices skyrocket on Fridays and Saturdays, so it’s best to go during the week.
- Food and drink are obviously expensive in Dublin, especially in areas such as Temple Bar- meaning it’s often better to cook in or grab something ready-made from a supermarket.
- If you want to eat out, remember, the further you go out from the city centre, the less likely you’re going to get stung with high prices. If money’s a little tight, it’s perhaps best to enjoy one nice meal out, rather than going to a string of mediocre places and spending more money overall.
What to eat and drink in Ireland
Duke of York Pub, Belfast :@kmitchhodge
Traditional Irish food is rich and hearty, perfect for a grey, rainy day. One great thing about food in Ireland is the quality produce: fish from the nearby sea, fresh local fruit and vegetables, cheese from local creameries and freshly baked sweet treats. The best places to look out for fresh local produce are at the markets. Both Belfast (St. George’s Market) and Cork (the English Market) have centuries-old marketplaces serving up fresh fish, fruit and veg and cooked food, alongside arts and crafts.
One of the great delights of Irish cuisine is the bread, specifically soda bread and wheaten (or brown soda, depending on where you’re from). White soda is soft, fluffy and dense, and in the North is often served fried as part of a cooked breakfast. This makes it beautifully crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside: an unhealthy, but vegetarian-friendly treat. There’s also brown soda, or wheaten, which is rich, crumbly and best served with a steaming hot bowl of vegetable soup.
It may be a stereotype – but traditionally, the Irish do eat a lot of potatoes. Many people, especially the older generation, are connoisseurs, knowing all the different varieties. There’s no better way to enjoy these beautiful carbs than in champ: a dish consisting of crunchy spring onions mixed into potatoes with rich butter and milk to make smooth, creamy side. Alternatively, there’s Colcannon, in which flavoursome curly green cabbage is mixed in instead.
When it comes to pub food, the Irish do it really well. Some meals are similar to what you can get in Britain, but with a bit of a twist. The classic example of this is the steak and Guinness pie, ideally with a crumbly buttery crust, the beer adding to the rich, meaty flavour. If this sounds appealing, head to The Pie Maker in Galway, where you can also find chicken and vegetarian pies baked with a delicious spelt-flour crust. If that’s not your thing, try a warming lamb stew, or the most simple Irish dish of all, bacon, potatoes and cabbage.
For Irish snacks, the best place to go is the bakery. Here you’ll find beautiful, soft scones in a variety of flavours, as well as huge array of traybakes. One such delight is Fifteens, which you’ll only be able to find in Northern Ireland. These are delicious, squidgy treats made from 15 cherries, 15 marshmallows, 15 biscuits mixed up with sweetened condensed milk.
Ireland also has soft drinks and crisps you won’t find anywhere else. People are fanatical about Tayto crisps, but there’s a big rivalry here, as the brands are different in the North and South. We’ll leave it up to you to decide which you prefer!
On St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll probably find the usual treats, such as candy floss and chips, being sold around the streets. However, there are no real St. Patrick’s Day food traditions: green beer and milkshakes are both American inventions. If you really want to go traditional, it’s probably best to go with a hearty stew or lamb roast. Up North though, at traditional fairs, there are some odd food traditions. Go to the Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle and you’ll find people snacking on “dulse”, a type of edible seaweed, and “yellow man” – a type of honeycomb that’s liable to break your teeth if you’re not careful!
Ireland is pretty renowned for its beer, and Guinness beer is one of its main exports. You can even do a tour of their brewery in Dublin! The pub culture is also very prominent particularly in cities like Dublin and Galway.
Irish culture and people
Until relatively recently, Ireland was a very rural country and one of the poorest in Europe. It has had a long and turbulent history, characterised by war, colonisation, famine, violent revolution and sectarian tension. However, it also has a long tradition of scholarship, poetry and music. Although it’s now a thoroughly modern country, Ireland’s culture has been shaped by its history. One thing that can’t be denied however, is the warmth and hospitality of its people, perhaps owing itself to the that fact that, in the past tight-knit communities had to rely on each other to get through hardship. Below, I’ll set out some Irish culture facts to help you get by, and hopefully give you a deeper appreciation for the things you’ll come across.
There are some isolated parts of Ireland, particularly in the west, where you can still see traces of the old, slow rural way of life. Many parts of the County Donegal, for example, still feel very cut off from the rest of the world. Here you can find Doagh Famine Village and Glencolumbkille Folk Village: which both allow you to see the type of two-room white cottages where whole families used to live, scraping a meagre living off the barren land. You can also witness rural life first hand, by visiting the working farms at Muckross House in County Kerry, which still use age-old agricultural techniques. If you’re a dog lover, and want to get a taste of life in the Irish countryside, why not go to see some sheepdog demonstrations at “Away to Me”, which is part of a working farm in southern Donegal?
It is also mostly in the western counties that you’ll find Gaeltachta, areas in which the Irish language is spoken in an everyday context. These include the Aran Islands and Connemara in Galway, as large areas of Donegal and Kerry. Irish shouldn’t be confused with the local dialect of English however, since it’s from a completely different language family. The first time you’ll encounter it will probably be on road signs, all of which are bilingual. In places like Dublin, you’re unlikely to hear it, but go into a pub in certain rural areas in the west, and you’ll hear locals switching seamlessly between English and Irish. But don’t worry, even in Gaeltacht areas, almost everyone speaks English at a native level too. Still, there are summer Irish language courses available in Gaeltacht areas if you’re interested in learning more.
Traditional music is a big part of Irish culture, and typically involves instruments such as the fiddle (violin), tin whistle, flute, banjo, guitar and uillean pipes (a type of Irish bagpipes). The style includes songs that tell tales of lost loves, historical events, misfortune and celebration, coming from a time when stories were passed down through word of mouth. There’s also more instrumental music, which is often played at lively traditional dances called céilis. The music also can be performed in a more casual, informal environment. A group of musicians often gather round a pub table, sipping beer and playing songs together, something that’s known as a session (séisun). This creates a warm and friendly atmosphere, with people in the bar chatting to each other rather than sitting in silence.
Northern Irish culture is similar to the rest of Ireland, and you’ll find traditional music, quaint rural villages and friendly, hospitable people there too. However, the tension surrounding historical events feels much closer. From the late 60s to mid-90s there was conflict arising from tensions between those who identified as Irish and support a united Ireland, and those who identified as British. Today, these tensions have greatly lessened, with both sides, especially young people, freely mixing with one another. In reality, they share most aspects of their culture, yet close links with southwest Scotland have left their mark here. You may hear this in the way people speak, and encounter Scots-language poetry, bagpipe performances and highland dancing.
Another aspect of life in Ireland is Irish Gypsy culture. Known commonly as “gypsies” but more accurately referred to as travellers, these people are a recognised ethnic minority group, making up around 0.5% of the Irish population. They mainly speak English, but also use “Shelta” or “Cant”, a language formed using aspects of both English and Irish. They are a traditionally nomadic, setting up camp in traditional “stopping places”. Traditionally travellers played a key role in the Irish economy, providing seasonal labour in planting or harvesting crops, as well as trading in certain wares. However, the historical prejudice against these groups has put increasing pressure on them: many cannot camp in their traditional spaces without fear of eviction, and they are often discriminated against by society at large.
Travel advice for Ireland
Not only is the Republic of Ireland a member state of the EU, it’s also part of the so-called “common travel area”. This means that British citizens technically don’t need visas or passports to cross the border. However, airport officials will check the ID of visitors travelling by air from the UK. Travelling from the UK by sea doesn’t require any ID, but it’s still best to bring either your passport or driving licence in case you need to prove your nationality at some point.
Northern Ireland is even easier to visit when travelling from the UK, as you won’t have to go through any sort of passport control, with most airlines accepting UK driving licences as a form of ID (to be safe, check your airline’s website before travelling). If you’re a non-UK citizen, it’s best to bring either your passport or national identity card. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland is even easier, as there are no controls or checkpoints, meaning you won’t need any documents to do so.
Although both the UK (including Northern Ireland) and Republic of Ireland are currently Member States of the EU, they are not part of the “Schengen Zone”, which abolishes internal border controls. This means that you will be subject to passport control when travelling from another EU country. However, if you are an EU citizen, this will only consist of a quick glance at your ID, after which you’ll be waved through. You’ll then have the same rights to travel/stay as in any other Member State, allowing you stay for three months with no further conditions. If you want to stay for longer, you may need to get a job, apply to study, or prove you have sufficient means to support yourself, including health insurance.
Please bear in mind however that the rights and visa requirements applicable to EU citizens travelling to Northern Ireland, as well as the requirements for crossing the Irish/UK border, may change after the Brexit deadline on 31 October 2019.
Visitors to Ireland from outside the UK and EU may not need a visa either. For Australian, Canadian, US and New Zealand citizens, as well as nationals of the other countries listed here who are visiting Ireland, visa requirements are practically non-existent. Citizens of these countries are entitled to visa-free entry for up to 90 days in the Republic of Ireland.
In general, the visa requirements in Northern Ireland are the same as the rest of the UK. Visitors from certain countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the USA or Canada who are flying to Northern Ireland (or elsewhere in the UK) can enter the country and stay for up to 6 months without a visa. However, they must bring the same documents as you would if applying for a visa. If you are travelling for tourism, this simply constitutes a travel document (i.e. a passport). If the travel document is not in English or Welsh, this must be translated into English. For any further document requirements that may need, please check this page. Also bear in mind however, that if you are already visiting the Republic of Ireland, you can visit Northern Ireland by crossing the border on land without having to go through any checks.
If you want to stay in the Republic of Ireland for a little longer, but are not an EU or UK citizen, there’s a chance you could apply for a working holiday scheme. These schemes are based on two-way agreements between Ireland and other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. There are specific requirements for each, and you can find the details under the following links:
There are similar schemes in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK for citizens of Australia, Canada and New Zealand (see more details here), but there is no UK working holiday scheme for US citizens.
So, to sum up, Ireland’s a great destination, with small, but lively cities, in addition to beautiful landscapes. There are plenty of places to go hiking, cycling, and when the weather’s nice, there aren’t many places with nicer beaches. It’s somewhere you can find complete isolation and serenity, or enjoy the atmosphere of a busy pub. It may not the warmest place in the world, but with all this to offer, don’t miss out on what is surely one of Europe’s most scenic, interesting and friendly destinations.
About the Author:
I’m David Irvine, and I’m originally from Northern Ireland. I’ve got a passion for languages, other cultures, and learning about local history. I’m currently based in Glasgow, Scotland, have previously lived and worked in Germany and in Portugal, and love nothing more than showing people around my favourite places, wherever I am. I’m a translator (of German, French and Portuguese), and love adapting travel writing for speakers of different languages. I’m also an occasional scribbler, passionate (geeky) fan of jazz music and amateur dramatics enthusiast. You can follow my travels (along with my partner, Iara) at @iaraanddavid_travel and find out more about my translating/blogging work on my LinkedIn profile.
Special thanks goes out to my girlfriend, Iara Calton, for helping me research my trip, taking beautiful pictures and putting up with my scatter-brained nature. Thanks too to Allie Mairs and Philip Tallon for their company on the second leg of the journey, especially to Phil, for driving us around for miles!