Green fields and hills give Ireland its “Emerald Isle” nickname. But with nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, rivers, and lakes, the island nation is also awash in blue. Rounding out all that unspoiled nature are ancient castles, historic villages, and pubs alive with traditional music. Here’s the best way to experience this colorful corner of Europe.
See the Wild Atlantic Way from the water
For 1,600 miles along the western coast, the Wild Atlantic Way driving route winds past prehistoric sites, lighthouses, and coves. The Dingle Peninsula section is one of the best places to soak up the area’s rugged beauty, particularly from the water.
Small-group tours in inflatables led by Dingle Sea Safari offer up-close looks at marine wildlife near the Blasket Islands, an archipelago uninhabited since 1953 and known for its soaring “Cathedral Rocks.” Nearby, Brandon and Tralee Bays, separated by the Maharees sand spit, are ripe for diving, while Castlegregory’s plentiful swells draw surfers, experienced and new.
Learn about Irish history through seaweed
The southwest’s rocky coves are rich with seaweed, revealing a little-known piece of Irish history. “In Lent, when people couldn’t eat meat, they would go down around these shores and get laver, or sleabhac, as it’s high in protein,” says Kerryann O’Farrell of Atlantic Irish Seaweed, whose guides lead educational sea vegetable walks at Derrynane Harbour. In County Kerry, Sneem Seaweed Baths encourage the marine plants’ purported therapeutic benefits through heated soaks in a wooden whiskey barrel overlooking Kenmare Bay.
Sip real Irish whiskey
In the 1800s, Dublin led the world in producing the “water of life,” or uisce beatha in Irish. A recent revival has brought five new distilleries to the city, among them Roe and Co., where the flavors experience lets visitors sample different whiskeys, learn how it’s made, and try their hand at mixing cocktails.
At the Irish Whiskey Museum, learn about the spirit’s history, then head over to the Whiskey Palace, located inside Palace Bar. Opened in 1823, the Fleet Street institution was a favorite of writers like Flann O’Brien. Today, it pours more than 400 whiskeys, including its own label.
Visit an Irish-speaking Gaeltacht island
Located eight miles off the southern coast, Cape Clear Island (Oileán Chléire) is one of Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas, which can be found in seven counties and on some islands. Get there via Cape Clear ferries, which sail from Baltimore, past the Fastnet Lighthouse, a 177-foot beacon built atop a tiny rock at sea.
Travel along a blueway
The River Suir was once one of County Tipperary’s main transport routes. Now the 33-mile Suir Blueway is one of Ireland’s three accredited blueways (dedicated trails for exploring water routes). You can join a tour and float past castles and under stone bridges from Cahir to Carrick-on-Suir.
Alternatively, the restored 13-mile riverbank towpath stretches from Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir, passing fishing huts, wildflower-filled banks, and the apple orchards of Bulmers Cider (also known as Magners). Nearby in Cashel, stay overnight at the historic Cashel Palace and visit the Apple Farm in Cahir, a family-run spot since 1968, where you can buy pies and chips made from the local Elstar variety.
Stroll Galway’s artsy Westend
While Shop Street and Eyre Square draw the crowds, the Westend neighborhood across the River Corrib is the soul of the city. Soak up the bohemian vibe at places like Bell Book and Candle, a treasure trove for new and second-hand books and vinyl; the monthly Flea Style Market inside the Galway Arts Centre; and the Crane Bar, which features some of the city’s best “trad” fiddle and bodhrán players.
Walking tours led by locals reveal the Claddagh ring origin story. The 2.5-hour food tour takes in culinary highlights in this emerging dining destination, where innovative restaurants like Kai turn out Aran crab served with kohlrabi and roe.
Float under the stars on a night kayak paddle
There are plenty of prime kayak spots in Ireland, but a nighttime paddle can open up nature in unique ways, says Jim Kennedy, of Atlantic Sea Kayaking, which takes small groups into the sheltered waters of Castlehaven Bay in County Cork. There, kayakers turn off flashlights and stargaze on clear nights or sometimes experience the bay’s bioluminescence.
The sounds of nature become heightened, from the screech of barn owls to the chatter of otters. “We use the kayaks as a medium to get into nature,” says Kennedy. “There’s so much going on with the skies and the darkness.”
Strike a pose in an underground yoga studio
The Marble Arch Caves is the longest known cave system in Northern Ireland and part of the wider UNESCO Global Geopark in County Fermanagh and Cavan. Over some 360 million years, water carved the limestone caves, making them a popular tourist attraction since the 19th century. Now, an hour-long yoga class held 164 feet below ground adds an intimate way to experience the subterranean sights and sounds.
After, explore the island-rich lakelands at Upper and Lower Lough Erne, where you can board a boat to Devenish Island, a monastic site and former key port, with ruins dating as far back as the 12th century.
Hike Northern Ireland’s iconic coast
Opened to the public in 1902, the three-mile Gobbins path in Islandmagee clings to dramatic cliff faces and travels along Edwardian bridges above crashing waves. A four-hour guided tour with Islandmagee SUP explores the Seven Sisters caves and nesting puffins (May to September). After, fuel up at Kings Road in Whitehead with loose-leaf tea and signature kombuchas from Belfast’s Craft Tea Brew Co. paired with filling breakfast fry-ups.
Imagine being a lighthouse keeper
Great Lighthouses of Ireland offers a guide to noteworthy beacons around the country. One of the most remote, St. John’s Point Lighthouse rises at the end of a narrow peninsula in County Donegal, looking out to Donegal Bay and County Sligo. Stay overnight in Clipper or Schooner, the former lighthouse keepers’ residences, and experience the solitude of keeping watch. Naturally, there’s no Wi-Fi, so unwind and read a book beside the fire, or explore the headland at sunrise.