Warm light covers a scenic bike path next to water as two people ride next too each other.

The essential guide to visiting Ireland

Here’s everything you need to know about exploring the Emerald Isle—when to go, where to stay, what to do, and how to get around.

Bicyclists roll along the 26-mile-long Great Western Greenway. Running from Westport to Achill in County Mayo, it’s one of many scenic trails around Ireland.
Photograph By PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS/The New York Times/Redux

Why you should visit Ireland

Landscapes as green and lovely as everyone says. Literary giants in Dublin; Titanic history in Belfast. A pint and good craic in a traditional pub. The lure of Celtic legends.

Best time to visit Ireland

Spring: Easter and St. Patrick’s Day draw crowds, but not quite as many as in the summer. It’s a bit easier to navigate popular sites in the bigger cities like Dublin and enjoy wildflower-dotted areas along the western coast.

Summer: The peak season brings plenty of events, like the Galway Arts Festival. Cycle a trail like the Great Western Greenway, kayak a blueway, or hike in Connemara National Park.

Autumn: October festivals, such as the Cork Jazz Festival and the enthralling Púca Halloween festival in County Meath, start filling the calendar. It’s also a great time to sample the local harvest at farmers markets in towns and villages.

Winter: It rarely snows in Ireland, but it rains quite a bit. There are fewer crowds, so winter visitors will feel more of the local vibe, especially in the pubs. Christmas is big, with holiday events like Winterval in Waterford.

Lay of the land

Cities: Capital city Dublin is easy to explore on foot, with Trinity College, home of the Book of Kells, not far from the EPIC Irish emigration museum beside the River Liffey. Laid-back Galway has a thriving arts and music scene plus ferries to the Aran Islands. County Cork and Limerick are market counties, with the historic English Market at the former and the Milk Market in the latter. Known for its shipping history—and mid20th-century troubles—Belfast is also gaining recognition for its food scene.

East: In County Wicklow, get lost in Powerscourt and Mount Usher gardens or hike in Wicklow Mountains National Park. In County Meath, history buffs find Neolithic monuments Newgrange and Knowth, plus other Boyne Valley treasures like Trim Castle and Loughcrew Cairns.

Southeast: The city of Waterford’s Viking roots are on display at the Waterford Treasures museums. In Kilkenny city, follow the Medieval Mile walking trail and explore the narrow alleyways that reveal hundreds of years of history.

Southwest: Backdropped by mountains like the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, gorgeous peninsulas, and colorful harbors, Cork and Kerry draw artists and writers. Killarney National Park and the Dingle Peninsula are sightseeing favorites during long summer days.

West: The sea-lashed Cliffs of Moher and the otherworldly limestone plateaus of The Burren are just a few miles apart in County Clare. To the north, County Galway is home to the blanket bogs of Connemara. County Mayo preserves Céide Fields, one of the world’s oldest archaeological sites.

(Follow the trail of Ireland’s legendary pirate queen.)

Northwest: Flat-topped mountains like Ben Bulben and Knocknarea overlook County Sligo’s lively surfing scene. Donegal is famed for Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) sea cliffs, endless golden beaches, and hilly or lakeside hiking trails at Glenveagh National Park.

The Midlands: The River Shannon, the country’s longest waterway, snakes through Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and feeds into Lough Derg, popular for boating. Clonmacnoise, founded in A.D. 544, preserves the ruins of one of Ireland’s most influential monastic sites.

Northern Ireland: The Causeway Coast leads to the natural wonders Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim. Visit Derry for its walled city and history. The Mourne Mountains are ideal for solitude and sea views.

Getting around Ireland

By plane: There are daily flights between Dublin Airport and regional hubs including Kerry Airport and Donegal Airport.

By bus: Bus Eireann is the national operator with local services in cities and towns. It also runs the inter-city Expressway. Private bus services, such as GoBus.ie, connects cities. Plan journeys via the app or website Transport for Ireland. Services in Northern Ireland are run by Translink.

By train: The rail network is operated by Irish Rail/ Iarnród Éireann, with good connections between main cities and towns. Trains from Dublin to Galway or Cork take around 2.5 hours. Rail services in Northern Ireland are operated by Translink.

By car: Driving in Ireland is on the left. Ireland’s network of motorways (M) includes the M1 from Dublin to Belfast, the M6 crossing the country from Dublin to Galway, and the M8 from Dublin to Cork. Road types include national (N), regional (R), and local (L). Regional and local roads can be narrow and winding, so allow for plenty of time.

By boat: There are seasonal and year-round passenger ferries servicing Ireland’s populated offshore islands such as the Aran Islands. These are for foot passengers (visitors can’t bring cars to the islands).

(Uncover the hidden legends along Ireland’s southern coast.)

Know before you go

Irish language: Irish and English are the country’s two official languages. Irish (a Gaelic language but not called Gaelic in Ireland) was the country’s first language until the 19th century, when English became dominant. While 40 percent of the population can speak some Irish, it is only spoken daily by about 2 percent of the population, particularly in the Gaeltacht, where place names and road signs are in Irish.

Hours: Some restaurants open only three or four days, especially in smaller towns or during low season (October to Easter). Kitchens can close as early as 8 p.m.

LGBTQ+: In 2015, Ireland became the first country to approve same-sex marriage by referendum. Ireland has lively LGBTQ+ communities in the larger cities like Dublin, Galway, and Belfast, and a calendar of pride festivals.

How to visit Ireland sustainably

Outdoors: Help preserve habitats by staying on the main trails and boardwalks. Consider joining a tour led by a registered guide to reduce your impact. Leave no trace—remove trash when picnicking or camping.

Shopping: Purchase from independent shops, markets, and small farms. Look for sustainable souvenirs and locally-made gifts like Aran wool sweaters, pottery and ceramics (the label will indicate where they are made).

Dining: Ireland is a land of fishers, farmers, and makers, so eating local isn’t too difficult. Plus, there are several sustainable tourism initiatives, including Origin Green’s certification program for food producers. Food tours are easy eco-friendly options, but you can also find individual spots on Tourism Ireland’s website. Tap water is drinkable, so bring a reusable bottle.

What to read

A Short History of Ireland, by John Gibney. The historian takes you through five centuries, from 1500 to 2000, covering key events including the Great Famine and the fight for independence.

Dubliners, by James Joyce. The famed novelist’s collection of short stories depicts life in Dublin in the 1900s.

Travelers’ Tales Ireland: True Stories, by James O’Reilly, Sean O’Reilly, and Larry Habegger. Short stories like kayaking around an island and climbing Ireland’s holiest mountain capture some of the country’s magic.

(For more tips on what to do in Ireland, see our Explorer’s Guide.)

Go with Nat Geo: with National Geographic Expeditions offers Ireland: Tales and Traditions of the Emerald Isle and Iconic Ireland itineraries. 
Yvonne Gordon is an award-winning travel writer based in Dublin. Follow her on Instagram.

Read This Next

10 best things to do in Ireland
The essential guide to visiting North Carolina
10 best things to do in Maine

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet