In the 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 33.3 million Americans—10.5% of the total population—reported that they are of Irish ancestry. A further three million people identified themselves as being of Scots-Irish heritage. This makes so-called Irish Americans the second largest reported ethnic group in the country, after German Americans.
With its fascinating history, spectacular nature and convenient modes of transport, modern-day Ireland has become a popular holiday destination. Moreover, several new emigration-themed attractions make it easy for American visitors to see how their ancestors lived and understand why they left the country. If you have Irish roots as well and planning a family heritage trip to Ireland, here the best Irish highlights you definitely wouldn’t want to miss…
When to go
The locals warn you that you should anticipate rain at any time. But thanks to Ireland being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, it is usually pretty mild and it hardly gets super cold. A particular good time might be in the so-called “off season” (March / April or September / October), when there are less crowds and the landscape looks particularly beautiful due to the changing seasons.
How to get around
Ireland is big for an island but small for a country, so you can easily see the whole of Ireland in one week! Here are your options…
Rental car: For maximum flexibility, this is for you. But make sure you feel comfortable to drive on the left and to navigate through the occasionally very narrow roads.
Guided bus tour: If you prefer to sit back and relax while listening to all those fascinating stories of Irish history, book a guided bus tour! There are also lots of day trips offered from Dublin to virtually all sightseeing highlights in Ireland, for example the half-day Wicklow Mountains film location tour by Day Tours Unplugged.
Train: Certain routes such as the Titanic Experience and Emigration Museum in Cobh are not served by guided bus tours, so trains are your best bet. Irish trains are comfortable and quick, but tickets can be very expensive if booked last minute, so try to book them online around 2-3 weeks in advance.
Public transport: Dublin is currently building an extensive new tramway system, but for the time being buses are your main public transport option to get around the city. The Dublin Area Rapid Transport (DART) rail line runs on Dublin’s coastline, which is supposed to be a very scenic ride.
Walking or Cycling: Many Irish cities, such as Galway or Cork, are small enough to walk everywhere. Dublin also offers a bike-share scheme with over 100 stations throughout the city.
Where to go
Start in Ireland’s capital Dublin, but don’t stay there! You haven’t seen the real Ireland unless you’ve been to the at least one of Ireland’s four stunning coasts…
The East Coast:
- Dublin: For a first overview of the capital’s highlights, check out my Dublin in a day post. Two must-dos for everyone coming here on a family heritage trip are the National Library, which is free to enter, as well as the brand new Emigration museum EPIC Ireland (14 € for adults), which I found to be truly epic! 🙂
- Wicklow Mountains: Just a one-hour drive from Dublin, you’ll find the spectacular backdrop of the filming locations for historical TV series Vikings (2013-ongoing). You can easily go there on a half day trip, for example with the specialised film location tour offered by Day Tours Unplugged. For more info on this tour, check out my Vikings film location post on my film-inspired travel blog filmfantravel.com.
The North Coast:
- Ballintoy: Northern Ireland is Game of Thrones land. If you’re a fan of the show, you simply cannot miss the ‘Dark Hedges’ on Bregagh Rd in Ballymoney and the ‘Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge’ near the small village of Ballintoy. Other than that, the views over the Atlantic Ocean are absolutely stunning!
- The Giant’s Causeway: This natural wonder is made up of more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. The scientific explanation is that there was an ancient volcanic eruption. The folklore story is that of a rivalry between Irish giant Finn MacCool and a giant from nearby Scotland. Either way, it’s beautiful!
- Belfast: This city used to be a place of big political upheaval. To learn more about the “Troubles” (the civil war between Protestant UK loyalists and catholic Irish nationals in Northern Ireland), take the famous Black Cab Tour. A must-do for all fans of the film Titanic (1997) is the world’s largest Titanic attraction Titanic Belfast Experience located on the former building site of the original ship.
- Derry: Like Belfast, Derry used to be a divided city. Countless wall murals tell the story of the “Troubles”. If you want to learn more about them, there is no way past LEGENDerry guide Garvin from City Walking Tours.
The West Coast:
- Galway: Ireland’s third largest city Galway is Ireland’s party town with lots of traditional Irish pubs to check out in the evenings.
- Aran Islands: Time stood still on these peaceful islands, which are best explored by bicycle or horse carriage and offer lots of scenic viewpoints along the way. From Galway, you can go there on a day trip by bus and ferry or even by plane.
- Cliffs of Moher: No Ireland visit would be complete without this impressive natural wonder! From Galway, it takes about one hour and 40 minutes drive to get there. Alternatively, you can jump on a guided day tour from Dublin.
The South Coast:
- Cork and Cobh: From Ireland’s second largest city Cork (2 hours 30 min. by train from Dublin), it’s a short 25-minute (scenic!) train ride to the harbor town of Cobh – the doomed Titanic’s last port of call in April 1912. Check out the interactive Titanic Experience and the town’s fantastic emigration museum, Cobh Heritage Centre, here.
- Blarney Castle: Ireland’s most famous medieval castle can easily be visited on a day trip from Dublin. Alternatively, head there from Shannon airport, which is just 7 miles away. If you’re up for it, you can kiss the famous Blarney Stone for good luck. Just remember that millions of other visitors have kissed it before you did…
- County Kerry: Beautiful beaches, typical Irish countryside and spectacular cliffs await on every corner of the famous ‘Ring of Kerry’. In the evening, stay in the beautifully traditional town of Killarney.
- Dingle peninsula: The coastlines here are steep and the roads narrow, but the view is breathtaking! Try if you can see the uninhabited island of Skelling Michael, which was used as a film location in Star Wars: Rogue One (2016).
7 Things you need to know
for your trip to Ireland
- Official language: English (you may also hear some Irish, also called Gaelic, especially in the countryside…)
- Official Currency: Euro (€) in the Republic of Ireland, Pound Sterling (£) in Northern Ireland
- Credit cards are widely accepted, but take some cash just in case credit cards may not be accepted (e.g. very rural areas)
- Cars drive on the left just as in the UK
- Tipping in restaurants with table service and taxis is about 10-15 %
- If you’re in a pub with a group of friends, it’s everyone’s turn to buy a “round” of drinks
- Hotels in Dublin tend to be either expensive or very quite far out of the city. I found AirBnB to be a good alternative, which will also get you in touch with the locals. If you’ve never booked an accommodation on AirBnB before, sign up via this link and I’ll give you 32 USD off your first booking!