(This post was updated on January 4, 2021)
The patchwork of rolling green and ancient “lace” rock walls that make up the Irish countryside say a lot about the fabric that binds the nation’s history. It’s a story of sorrow and triumph, of losing everything and reclaiming independence, of marking territory and making something out of nothing. And you can see it all with a self-drive tour of Ireland.
Ireland’s ruggedly serene landscape is a study in opposites. Waves from the Atlantic crash violently into isolated rock formations inhabited by monks in the sixth century, while sandy beaches only a few miles away lap up the tide with grace.
Blink, and it is at once a grassy horizon dotted with sheep in the distance and a hazy, jagged marble-clad mountainscape.
Because this is Ireland. Where, in a single day, you can experience all four seasons and drive from tip to tail with relative ease.
Between The Wild Atlantic Way and scenery such as the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry beckoning, this is a country meant for driving.
If you don’t like the fun and flexibility that comes with planning every piece of your itinerary, one easy, all-in-one vacation option is a fly & drive package from a tour operator like Air Canada Vacations, which affords travellers a choose-your-own-adventure holiday to the Emerald Isle. With airfare, lodging across the Republic of Ireland, a car rental and suggested itinerary, you can see world-famous attractions, choose off-the-beaten-path activities or do a little bit of both.
We did the latter, which I definitely recommend. Although March and April can be a fine time to explore Ireland with the fewest crowds, I’d stick to the May through September timeframe for the best weather and to ensure every seasonal operation is up and running.
Ready for a self-drive tour of Ireland?
The beautiful thing about a self-drive tour of Ireland is that it’s a small enough country that you can see a lot in only a few days. Give yourself a week or two and you could do the whole darn thing.
You’ll probably need a bit of practise at first driving on the “wrong” side of the road if you’re accustomed to driving on the right, so take along a Post-It note that reads “STAY LEFT!” and stick it on your dashboard, then spend at least a couple of hours in your rental and take time to get used to turning into left-hand lanes, going through roundabouts in the right direction and pulling out of parking lots. Stay off busy roads and highways until you’re comfortable. It will happen — just be patient with yourself and stay safe in the meantime.
Here are my highlights from what I think is the best self-drive tour of Ireland if you have six or seven nights to play with…
Self-drive tour of Ireland: the Dublin area
Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel
We stayed in a castle! If this isn’t the coolest, most Irish-y thing to do, I don’t know what is. The Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in South Dublin is a four-star luxury castle that boasts modern amenities, so your old-world castle experience will be a comfortable one. The in-house restaurant is excellent and you’ll be within walking distance to a few attractions.
Pro tip: do High Tea here. And put the divine Kerry Gold butter on everything. A lot of it.
Killiney Hill and the Druid’s Chair
Go at sunrise or sunset to get the best panoramic views of Dublin. Climb to the top of the Druid’s Chair to reflect, set intentions, gawk or just generally become overwhelmed with emotion. We walked here from the castle hotel.
EPIC: The Ireland Emigration Museum
The world’s first fully digital museum, EPIC is tucked into The CHQ Building — a 19th-century vaulted warehouse near the famous River Liffey. I loved walking through Ireland’s history, learning more about the positive effects its emigrants had and still have around the globe.
Being able to digitally interact within the galleries felt like I’d walked onto the set of 24 with Jack Bauer in the CTU headquarters where with the flick of a finger, information is thrown from one screen to another. Very cool.
Set in a 400-year-old flour mill that later became a tannery, your tour here includes three tastings featuring Master Distiller Darryl McNally’s treasure trove of whiskeys. I liked the first one so much — the Dubliner Irish Whiskey Liqueur, with distinct honeycomb notes — that I hunted one down at the airport. My husband finished most of it without me knowing, so I need to go back to Ireland just to get a bottle for myself!
Where to eat in Dublin
Urban Brewing not only has delicious microbrews, but it also served up one of my most memorable dishes in Ireland: a pork belly bao. Oh, and the chips (fries) are pretty noteworthy, too.
Self-drive tour of Ireland: County Galway
A harbour city on Ireland’s west coast, Galway is one of the quintessential spots in Ireland to hear live folk music in the pubs. There’s a Latin Quarter with medieval city walls and it’s often considered one of the country’s most vibrant areas.
The Abbey, a grand sight that even a couple of diggers working out front can’t ruin, still houses an order of Benedictine nuns — all nine of them! What was for many years an international girls’ school in Connemara is now partially open to tourists who can peek inside the Henry family’s 19th-century home. Be sure to pop in for dessert (at a minimum!) and grab some of the lemon curd made onsite. Delish!
Simply walking the grounds made me stop to smell the flowers (imagine that — flowers in March!):
The Victorian Walled Garden in the back is beautiful, too, so be sure to take a look.
Dan O’Hara’s Homestead Farm and “the bogs”
I’ll be honest — I had no idea what bogs were before this trip. Unless you count the rain boots. Turns out it’s an accumulation of peat that’s so devoid of oxygen it preserves anything that becomes trapped in it — even for hundreds of years (including human bodies!). Every 30cm of bog growth represents a thousand years, and rather than just pickling everything in its path, locals used dried cuts of the stuff as a type of firewood.
It was fascinating to see the bogs up close, and how they’re cut and used, at Dan O’Hara’s Homestead, which is a little cottage that still remains as it stood in the 1800s before Mr. O’Hara was evicted and forced to emigrate.
Ask nicely and you may also get to try a shot of poitín — traditional Irish moonshine — from a bottle hiding above the Homestead’s fireplace.
Places to eat in Galway
McSwiggan’s Pub was excellent. Our taxi driver suggested we try the duck, and it did not disappoint. Wash it down with a traditional Old Fashioned made with Irish whiskey.
Self-drive tour of Ireland: County Clare
In Irish that would be “Contae an Chláir,” and if you’re like me, you’ll love seeing signage across the country in both English and Irish as they try to maintain the language.
Co. Clare was probably my favourite overall area we visited during our self-drive tour of Ireland.
This turned out to be one of those things I didn’t even know was on my #TravelBucketList until we arrived. Our Doolin Cliff Walk (only 10 Euros per person) stands out as the best part of my entire trip; it helped that the sky was so clear we could see the Aran Islands.
If you have a couple of hours, you can do a full Cliff Walk alongside a castle until you reach the Cliffs of Moher, but if you’re short on time, Pat Sweeney can arrange for you to park your rental car just five minutes from the Cliffs for only 5 Euros.
Pro tip: stand well back from the Cliffs’ edges and be ready for very strong gusts of wind.
A Viking trading camp site in the year 970, the castle itself is 600 years old. There’s also a lovely little folk park that’s been constructed around Bunratty Castle that’s reminiscent of the way it would have been as Bunratty Village came to life in the 19th century.
Here, we learned about the families who’d lived in the castle — wealthy enough to have their own armies — and toured through recreated living quarters.
Best restaurants in Clare
Gus O’Connor’s in Doolin, along The Wild Atlantic Way drive, is the perfect stop for a bite near the Cliffs of Moher. It’s definitely what you expect from an “Irish pub.” Excellent fish chowder!
Self-drive tour of Ireland: County Kerry
A big shout-out first and foremost to Ballygarry House Hotel in Tralee, Co. Kerry, which was the the epitome of Irish hospitality. From the charming front-of-house staff to the beautiful rooms (each one decorated and laid out differently!) to the gorgeous food served in its onsite restaurant, I must admit that the entire experience here may have even trumped staying overnight in a castle.
Slea Head Drive (Slí Cheann Sléibhe) + Dingle Town
A circular drive that’s part of the Wild Atlantic Way, it begins and ends in Dingle. And Dingle is a special place. Not only is the drive around the Dingle Peninsula just about one of the most scenic I’ve ever taken, but the little town itself is adorable and perfect for a meandering afternoon.
Here, you’ll want to pop into Foxy John’s for a pint of Guinness. It’s a hardware store, bike shop and pub that also sells gardening supplies. It’s all very random and perfectly unique. From here, find one of the two Murphy’s ice cream shops for handmade ice cream that was so good I had to order two scoops (I went with the sea salt and Irish whiskey flavours).
If you can carve out a few hours in Dingle along your self-drive tour of Ireland, I’d urge you to do a Dingle Distillery tour. Its gin has been named the world’s best in a global gin competition, and this was another bottle I tracked down at the airport to take home. It’s exquisite, fragrant and uses botanicals found in the Dingle Peninsula. The bottle was emptied quickly.
Other things to do in County Kerry
At night, if An Droichead Beag has live music, go in for a Dingle gin cocktail and a few hours of “craic” (pronounced “crack”) — meaning a good time. We happened upon a fiddler and guitarist who played traditional Irish tunes so well at times I forgot they were live and not professionally recorded music.
Ring of Kerry
This drive is as stunning as the Dingle Peninsula so have your camera at the ready. There are a few “pull-offs” here and there on the side of the road to ensure it’s safe to stop for photos, so keep an eye out for those since much of the route is a narrow, two-lane highway.
Just a beautiful beach, perfect for a morning stroll or a few contemplative moments of stillness.
Part of Killarney National Park, this is a landscape photographer’s dream on the Ring of Kerry drive. It takes its name from Queen Victoria’s 1861 visit to Ireland; her ladies-in-waiting admired the view! And so did I…
Deeper into Killarney National Park, this breathtaking waterfall is only 20 metres high but cascades through a long path filled with moss-covered trees that I’m convinced are right out of The Princess Bride. Who knows — maybe some Leprechauns even live there?
Restaurants in Kerry
This one-week self-drive tour of Ireland will inevitably leave you wanting more. At the end of our visit, I drew up my remaining “best of Ireland tour bucket list”:
- Kellig Michael Island — built over centuries by monks beginning in the 500s, we watched a video about this island — made famous by Star Wars! — and I need to go back, get on a boat and cross the Atlantic to visit
- The Blarney Stone — I didn’t get to see it, much less kiss it
- Dingle Peninsula horseback riding — there aren’t many places where experienced riders can let loose and gallop on a beach, and this is one of them
- DNA testing — both my and my husband’s lineage is Irish, and I want to do DNA tests, then literally trace our Irish roots and share our family histories with our kids in tow
Be sure to check out Tourism Ireland for more travel inspo, even if you’re not planning to do a driving tour of Ireland.
And as they say in Ireland: Slaínte!
DISCLAIMER: I was invited to experience a shortened version of Air Canada Vacations’ Taste of Ireland package with Tourism Ireland to facilitate this post. All opinions and suggestions my own.