The Emerald Isle is one of those places that I've always wanted to see but kept putting off because it just seems so close and easy to get to compared to the rest of Europe. I also experienced Dublin in college and thought I had seen all of Ireland (ha). Even though the pub scene is prevalent everywhere, I missed out on arguably the most beautiful part of Ireland--the Southwestern corner. So when my husband and I were thinking of an easy international getaway for Thanksgiving that we could do in less than a week, I'm so glad we thought to do this. In less than 6 hours via Aer Lingus we arrived at Shannon International Airport on Ireland's west coast and before we knew it we were off driving down narrow windy roads through the greenest countryside imaginable with sheep crossing the road and castles standing tall in the distance. THIS is Ireland! Being the end of November, the tourists were pretty much gone and the Irish were already decking the halls for Christmas--towns were all lit up, there were decorations in the hotel lobbies and some town squares were taken over by Christmas markets. It made for a cozy, authentic experience, which was so unexpected but nice.
When planning this trip we knew the places we wanted to see and there was a lot. To make it work, we drove in one big circle in the SW corner over the course of 4 days and we slept in a different bed each night. It actually worked out quite nicely and ended up being the perfect way to experience Ireland. After taking the red-eye from Boston, we were exhausted for our first day and had a lot to see. Having no rest for the weary, we fought through it but in return this is the greatness we got to experience:
From the airport we headed north into County Clare. This is the area known for its coastal beauty, natural landscapes, and traditional Irish music and culture.
Cliffs of Moher - Standing over 700 feet above the Atlantic, these stunning cliffs are the star attraction of County Clare and a must-see. Imagine grassy, green countryside coming to an abrupt halt as big waves crash below, and spectacular views. TIP: Follow the cliffs south for and walk towards Hag's Head to escape the crowds and get the best views. In the summer, if you're lucky, you'll be able to spot adorable puffins that use the grounds for breeding.
The Burren - The exact opposite of the grassy & green Ireland you see on postcards, this landscape is made completely of rocky limestone plateaus but is just as interesting. You can spend hours walking through, spotting old ruins, or you can drive through some of it which is what we did. TIP: From the Cliffs of Moher, follow R478 to Doolin, then continue along the coast on R477 for some amazing views of where the Burren meets the ocean.
Aran Islands - About an hour by ferry from Doolin or Galway, these islands offer remote, gorgeous landscapes, traditional Irish culture and lovely sweaters. They are best explored on bike. We did not make it here on this trip but they are on our list for next time.
McGann's Pub - Located a short drive from the Cliffs of Moher is the little town of Doolin. This pub is located right in town and offers traditional pub fare and a warm fire for the colder months. Food is offered all day and live traditional music is played nightly. (Toomullin, Clare Coast)
Food Heaven - Located about 25 minutes north of Shannon Airport is the quaint, colorful town of Ennis. This cute cafe located in town serves casual fare all day but most notably has the best fresh-baked scones I tasted all week. Add a pot of tea, and this was the perfect little morning stop on our way to the cliffs. (21 Lower Market St, Ennis)
Located on the coast where the River Corrib meets the Atlantic, just north of County Clare lies the city of Galway. The vibe is very Irish--streets filled with pubs, locals speaking Gaelic and street performers playing trad music. There is loads to do and its compact size makes it very walkable. After a day of sightseeing in County Clare we decided to spend our night in this lively and charming city.
Eyre Square - This is the main square in the center of town. While we were there, the space was dedicated to a festive Christmas market all lit up with decorations, carnival rides and food stalls.
Latin Quarter/High Street - An area packed with pubs, restaurants, shops and culture. High Street is pedestrian-only, so enjoy a leisurely stroll and take it all in. At one end is the river and the other is Eyre Square and you can easily walk the entire length in about 10 minutes.
Ard Bia at Nimmo's - A cozy, buzzing little restaurant down an unassuming cobblestone street serving up fresh, seasonal fare from local fish to steak to lamb. The food was excellent and the staff was super nice. Reservations recommended. (Spanish Arch, Long Walk)
The Salt House - The craft beer scene is on the rise in Ireland and this bar had all the local brews plus some. The people were super friendly, the fire was warm and the atmosphere cozy. I would definitely go back to Galway just to go to this bar. Tip: Try anything by Galway Bay Brewery for a taste of something local.(Raven Terrace)
Cupan Tae - A lovely little tea room for your afternoon pick-me-up and tray of pastries. They also serve espresso if tea just won't cut it. (8 Quay Ln)
The House Hotel - This eclectic, boutique-style hotel was perfectly located in the Latin Quarter. For less than 100eur/nt we had a comfortable, stylish place to rest our head and a hearty breakfast was included. Rates from 79eur/nt. (Spanish Parade, Galway City Centre)
Jurys Inn - This would be another good option, located just a block or two from The House Hotel. Rates from 59eur/nt. (Quay St)
NOTE: I highly recommend renting a car (yes they drive on the left side of the road but you can do it, I know you can!) because some of the amazingness we got to see would not have been possible without one. You may luck out with an organized tour in the high season but with that comes crowds and traffic and lots of it.
ALSO TO NOTE: Consider visiting in the off-season. We felt like we had the sights and roads to ourselves and got to experience local culture that you would otherwise not get if you were among the tourist masses. But keep in mind the days are shorter, temps are lower, and some businesses are closed for the season.
Whew, I never realized how much we actually accomplished on our first day, jet-lagged nonetheless, until writing it out. Stay tuned for day 2 because we're headed south to County Cork. Specifically the city of Cork and the lovely town of Kinsale, which may have been my favorite!