A castle sits on an island as with hills in the distance.

Visiting Ireland? Here’s what the locals love

Looking for the best castles, golf courses, or restaurants? We asked resident experts to reveal their favorites.

Of Ireland’s many castles, 13th-century Cloughoughter Castle, in County Cavan, is a local favorite.
Photograph By Design Pics Inc / Alamy

Ireland may be relatively small, but its dramatic coasts, country roads, and historic cities have visitors wishing for more time. To help maximize your trip, we consulted local experts, ranging from food writers to photographers, librarians, and tour guides, for their best bets.

Find legends and lore on a mountain hike 

Walking is one of the best ways to get to know Ireland. “I’ve been walking for about 30 years, but I’m still trotting off to find new routes, and all of the walks seem to have stories,” says John G. O’Dwyer, author of 50 Best Irish Walks.

One of his favorites is a moderately challenging hike that leads to Coumshingaun, a lake hidden in County Waterford’s Comeragh Mountains, where 18th-century highwayman William Crotty is said to have stashed his treasure. “It’s something special, probably the biggest glacial coum [tarn lake] in western Europe,” says O’Dwyer. “You can accomplish it in four hours and it’s still off the beaten path.”

For a two-day option, O’Dwyer suggests St. Finbarra 22-mile trail following a traditional spiritual route in County Cork. “It’s out of the way, crosses four mountains and three valleys, and ends with a magnificent sweep into [heritage site] Gougane Barra,” in the southwest.

Feast on Irish flavors at a food truck

“Ireland’s casual food has been elevated,” says food writer Ali Dunworth. These days, food trucks, pop-ups, and shacks are fun places to sample soulful pub grub, snap-fresh seafood, and toasties (grilled sandwiches) oozing with farmhouse cheese.

Pop-ups like Caitlin Ruth at Levis’s Corner House in Ballydehob, County Cork, and Cáis (Irish for cheese) at Dick Mack’s pub in Dingle, County Kerry, are great options. But Misunderstood Herona food shack overlooking Connemara’s Killary fjord, tops Dunworth’s list. “I love to go for the mussels because they’re from the fjord that you’re looking into. My plan would be to go for something to eat, and then drive over to Glassilaun Beach for a swim.”

Visit a castle by kayak

From five-star hotels like Ashford Castle to teetering towers in fields with cattle, you’re never far from a fortress in Ireland. Marnie Corscadden, owner of Ballyseede Castle in Tralee, is captivated by Cloughoughter Castlein County Cavan. “Nestled on a small island, this dreamy castle is like something from a fairytale,” she says. “The fact that it’s so remote and can only be accessed by boat adds to its intrigue and allure.” Visitors can see it from the shore and reach it via kayak with outfitters like Cavan Adventure Centre.

(This immense fairy-tale castle was built for one person.)

Tee off at Donegal’s undiscovered fairways

Think of golf in Ireland and iconic courses spring to mind, including Old Head in Kinsale or Adare Manor, where the Ryder Cup returns in 2027. “But Donegal’s string of stunning links lie relatively undiscovered by most visiting golfers,” says travel writer Fionn Davenport. He suggests teeing off at Rosapenna or Dunfanaghy, both of whose links curve along Sheephaven Bay on the Wild Atlantic Way. “[Dunfanagy] features two of the loveliest holes in Ireland: the par-three ninth, a 120-yard bump across a rocky beach to a challenging two-tiered green, and the par-five 16th, where you’ll need a friendly wind and a decent smack if you fancy getting home in two [shots].”

Raise a glass to the traditional pubs locals love

Quincey Fennelly, managing director of Wicklow Wolf, one of the new wave of Irish craft beer breweries, says Doheny & Nesbitts is “a great traditional Irish bar” in Dublin. The Victorian classic, with its maze of rooms and mirrored partitions, is known as “the Doheny & Nesbitt School of Economics” for the politicians, civil servants, and regulars who booze and banter here.

In Bray, County Wicklow, Harbour Bar brings “a bit of everything with great music, great food in the Fish Bar and of course, great beer,” Fennelly adds. Dating from the 1880s, the ramshackle drinking hole feels at once like a timeworn home and hipster reboot of an Irish classic.

Learn a cúpla focal (few words) of Irish 

The Irish language has 14 words for salmon, 32 for fields, and 45 for stones, offering “unique ways” of seeing nature and “being in the world,” says Manchán Magan, author of Thirty-Two Words for Field. Learning even a few key words, such as diadhánach (the lonesomeness of a cow bereft of her calf) or teine chrios (the flashes of fire sparked on the stones of a road by a horse’s hoofs), gives visitors “a feel for an ancient tradition and insights into the mysterious glories of the natural world.”

If time allows, you can take a beginner’s course at Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille, County Donegal, or Oidreacht Chorca Dhubhnein County Kerry. Alternatively, Pádhraic S. Ó Murchú’s Turas Siar cultural center in Belmullet, County Mayo, accepts drop-ins. “He will happily let you practice whatever few Irish words you’ve learned on Duolingo as he guides you through some of the artifacts he has collected in the area over his long life,” says Magan.

(Here’s why learning a new language is good for the whole family.)

Spot puffins in the wild

Puffins arrive from the Atlantic to outposts like County Wexford’s Saltee Islands bird sanctuary and County Kerry’s Skellig Michael from May to July (book boat trips well in advance). “They’re known as the clowns of the sea,” says photographer Valerie O’Sullivan, referring to the birds’ colorful beaks and merry demeanor.

You can easily take a cellphone photo or bring lenses like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm and 70-200mm. “That will safeguard you for a lot of things,” O’Sullivan says. Watch for puffins bringing fish into their burrows, or moments when they turn their heads. The shot she’s striving for? A puffin in flight with a beak full of sand eels. “That’s the one I really want, but if you had it, you’d have nothing to go back for!”

See Trinity’s treasures at a turning point 

The ninth-century Book of Kells combines calligraphy, creativity, and a stunning state of preservation to dazzling effect. “The artistry staggers me every time I see it,” says Helen Shenton, librarian and archivist at Trinity College Dublin. “The pigments just pop.”

The book is housed in Trinity’s Old Library, a 213-foot-long, barrel-vaulted room said to have influenced the Jedi Archive in Star Wars. This summer is a special time to visit, with the last of the repository’s 200,000 tomes being decanted ahead of a major restoration. Visitors can watch staff in purple gloves gingerly removing the treasures; a new, immersive exhibit is set to open this autumn.

(A remarkably well-preserved, thousand-year-old book was found in a bog.)

Get lost on a bike ride 

In Ireland “there are thousands of miles of quiet country roads where everyone you encounter is more than willing to give directions and point out places to visit,” says Ciaran Cannon, a parliament member for Galway East, who cycled through all 32 counties for charity.

A growing network of greenways rebooting derelict railways, such as Royal Canal and Limerick, are great for taking in the countryside. Or rent a bike from Dick Ridge in Portumna for a 23.6-mile loop in County Galway that stops at the old mining town of Woodford and cheesemaker Teresa Roche’s Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese for “the best toastie this side of Geneva.”

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

Pól Ó Conghaile is the travel editor of the Irish Independent and author of Secret Dublin: An Unusual Guide. Follow him on social media.

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