What should we know about vacationing in Ireland/Scotland in late spring?
February 23, 2011 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Planning in two-week vacation with the wife in Ireland and Scotland. We've never been to either before, what should we know?

Basically, just looking for the "wish I had known when I went" kind of things. There's a pretty good number of previous questions about Ireland, but I didn't see much about Scotland, so more Scotland info will be much appreciated. This will be our first time traveling to Europe (I've traveled over the Pacific pond, but never the Atlantic) as well.

We're planning about a week in each and planning just to visit Ireland and Scotland. We're more history than hiking folks, but walking around cities or a light hike is certainly up our alley. And stuff that's sort weird, so torture museums or crypts, yes. Thousand year-old pottery? Maybe less so. Oh, and we're very much into fiddle and bodhrán style folk music.

We're planning on maybe this May or June. Anything specific to traveling around then? Will there already be seas of tourists? Will the weather be miserable? Note, we are from Vancouver, so our definition of miserable is probably more liberal than some folks'.

For Ireland, we're thinking Dublin and then one city in the west, either Galway, Limerick or Cork (any of those stand our particularly?).

For Scotland, considering Edinburgh, Glasgow or both. Again, either of those rank above the other? Better to pick one and try to see some outlying stuff or split the difference and do both?

My wife's family is almost entirely Scottish and her grandmother was born on the Isle of Skye, so we'd kind of like to go there. However, it seems pretty far from the large cities. How easy is it to get out that way? Worth taking the time? It would be nice to see one of the really rural areas, but it's not like there's specific distant relatives we'd be going to visit (at least none she knows about).

Is it worth even considering taking the ferry from Ireland to Scotland, or just fly?

Other miscellaneous thoughts, things that were fantastic and shouldn't be missed, great places to stay/eat, cheap flights, etc. are all much appreciated!
posted by Nelsormensch to Travel & Transportation around Ireland (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I drove from Edinburgh to Skye, and I highly recommend it! You can do the drive in two days with a stop in fort William (plenty of time to stop and see things along the way) or in one day (about six hours driving) if you want to push right through. I loved Scotland and am looking forward to going back. I'd personally leave Glasgow for now, and focus on Edinburgh and then driving north.
posted by Nothing at 7:31 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, I am trying to remember the names of the places I stayed, because there were some good ones. Will post if I can find them.
posted by Nothing at 7:32 AM on February 23, 2011

Of your western Ireland options, Galway would be best. My wife and I stayed in all three on a trip to Ireland and found Cork depressing and Limerick bleak. Plus, from Galway you can easily head out and spend a day on the Aran Islands and climb up to an iron age fort overlooking the Atlantic.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:34 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Glasgow is a lot of fun (and perhaps has a bit more life to it), but Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So, if you visit one, you should probably go there. I'd second the drive the Road to the Islands. Skye is stunning and looks a bit like Patagonia in places. If you want a great (but not cheap) meal there, the Three Chimneys restaurant is fantastic. Hope for good weather, but expect the worst. We went in late April last year and there was still snow anywhere above 300m.
posted by rhymer at 7:40 AM on February 23, 2011

Do not miss Edinburgh.
posted by something something at 7:50 AM on February 23, 2011

Your itinerary basically describes my honeymoon. For Scotland, definitely visit Edinburgh. Just a magnificent city, and one of the most beautiful I've seen architecturally. We went during the Edinburgh festival and the place was a madhouse, so we ended up staying on a B&B a few miles away from the city center and just using the local bus to travel back and forth. Didn't have any problems. We also took a day tour through this outfit and found them quite good. Highly recommended. The trip we took ended up taking us into the Highlands, etc... and it was a lot to cram in in one day, so you might try it yourself at a more leisurely pace.

Which brings me to Ireland. Rather than go through a tour operator, we rented a car and drove throughout the entire country, basically. The weather was terrible the entire trip but we had a great time. We found the Rick Steves Ireland tour book to be invaluable. It is quite frank in telling you what to avoid and where the tourist traps are, and recommended some fantastic out of the way places as well. Some of the cities we visited in Co. Clare and Co. Cork (which we never would have otherwise, if not for the book) were really fun and relaxing.

Different people travel differently (duh), but we enjoyed less structure and more spontaneity in our trip. Some things you have to book in advance, of course, but my advice would be to not worry so much about schedules or feel like you HAVE to see something in particular. You'll never be able to cram it all in and you'll probably feel rushed and enjoy your vacation less. Just relax and enjoy and keep your fingers crossed for good weather.
posted by Rewind at 7:52 AM on February 23, 2011

Also forgot to add - Edinburgh Castle is a must (from a history and beauty perspective), and on The Royal Mile there are several night ghost walking tours where you explore the underground city, Mary King's Close (where plague victims were dumped while still alive and left locked up there to die) and get told ghost stories, etc... Kinda kitschy, but kind of fun as well. It's a very walkable city.
posted by Rewind at 7:58 AM on February 23, 2011

Learn how to use single track roads with passing places if you're planning driving anywhere remote-ish! If there is an angry-looking local behind you, pull into a passing place and let them go past. Or even if they don't look angry. They might be hiding it well, but still be possessed with a huge desire to run you off the road. Most city-dwelling Scots don't get this either, so you get extra tourist karma if you get it right.

Driving to Skye: the roads aren't great; most of them aren't dual carriageway, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to overtake people. But if you don't mind following a Tesco lorry all the way there, they're probably fine.

Ferry from Ireland to Scotland: the thing there is that the ferry port is in Stranraer, which is further away from the Central belt than you might think, and not blessed by the best roads to get up there either. And you'd have to drive up to Belfast to get it (though you can then go and look at the one thing that all my Northern Irish friends point out to visitors - "the most bombed hotel in Europe"). Especially if you're not going to Glasgow, flying might be easier.

June is when a lot of places have graduation ceremonies - if you're planning on visiting St Andrews it might be worth checking the dates, as it will be much harder to find accommodation then. Less so in the big cities.

Weather: on Skye, wait five minutes and it will change. In Edinburgh, wait half an hour.

Weird: things in jars at the Hunterian museum and the Surgeon's Hall museum. Mine and countermine at St Andrews Castle. Glasgow Necropolis.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:25 AM on February 23, 2011

I looooove Glasgow but for your purposes I also suggest Edinburgh. It just has a lot more to offer for tourists - I'm an American who got married in Scotland so had a lot of American friends visiting for the wedding and this was my impression. It's not too big, you can do it in two days. In addition to the castle, check out the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood. My friend went to the Isle of Skye while he was here (I think he took a ferry?) and he took some gorgeous photos so now that destination is on my list of places to visit.

Food-wise, definitely try and get a square sausage roll for breakfast. Yum yum. I like mine with a fried egg and slathered with ketchup.
posted by like_neon at 8:30 AM on February 23, 2011

I would definitely recommend Edinburgh as a base, but you should not miss out on the chance to visit Glasgow. It's less than 1hr by train from Edinburgh, and there are trains every 15mins or so.
I wouldn't bother with the ferry from Ireland. Unless there is something that you particularly want to see on the SW coast of Scotland or the E coast of Ireland, it will just waste an entire day driving and sitting on a ferry. You can fly from Cork direct to Edinburgh or Glasgow.
The drive to Skye is beautiful. If you go from Edinburgh, you can stop off at Stirling to see another great castle (take the guided tour). If you go via Glasgow (maybe as an overnight), you can drive up by Loch Lomond. Either way, the drive through Glen Coe is spectacular. Other sights more-or-less along the way are Neptune's Staircase, Urquhart Castle, Eilean Donan Castle, Plockton, Glenfinnan and that's all before you get to Skye or any of the other Islands, so I would probably recommend taking your time and planning an overnight somewhere.
On preview, seconding coobeastie's recommendation of the Hunterian if you stop off in Glasgow, and Rewind's recommendation of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh.
posted by Jakey at 8:42 AM on February 23, 2011

My husband and I went to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Skye a couple years ago. Edinburgh was beautiful but I found it kind of dull and crowded. We stayed at the Priestville Guesthouse, which was lovely and quiet but located within walking distance of some restaurants and a main bus route. Glasgow seemed like more fun but it just didn't click for us--I got the sense that if we'd spent more time there, we'd have discovered more fun stuff to do. Skye was by far the highlight of our trip. We drove up in one day (well, I was a chicken about driving on the opposite side of the road, so my husband gallantly offered to do the driving). We stopped in Fort William for lunch. The drive was absolutely beautiful once we got about an hour outside of Glasgow. For the most part, we were alone on the road (granted, this was in March, tourism might pick up later in the spring). It was just us and the sheep and the beautiful landscape. There were lots of places to pull off and take pictures.

In Skye, we stayed at the Stein Inn and chatted with a family of Swedish tourists staying there, toured the Tallisker distillery, drove to Portree and a few other little towns, and ate more sticky toffee pudding than we should admit. We had so much fun, I'd easily choose to go back again. I guess depending on your travel/entertainment habits, it may or may not be for you, but we had a total blast.

Memail me if you'd like me to dig up any of our trip info. The car rental company we used was a pretty small operation, but the rates were good and they offered automatic transmission options, but I can't recall the name right now. I probably have notes on the places we ate, too... somewhere.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:54 AM on February 23, 2011

We're more history than hiking folks, but walking around cities or a light hike is certainly up our alley. And stuff that's sort weird, so torture museums or crypts, yes.

The Glasgow Necropolis is awesome. We were only in Glasgow for a very short amount of time (essentially overnight), but I'm very happy that we made time for the cathedral and the necropolis. We spent several days on Islay, which is incredibly beautiful and also full of excellent whisky and many many cool birds. If that kind of thing appeals. Let me know if you want more info about it.
posted by rtha at 8:59 AM on February 23, 2011

You can go to the Aran Islands from Galway on a day trip or stay overnight - my husband and I took a ferry from Doolin, which we loved. If you like music, they have great live sessions at the pubs there (though not much else).

We used Rick Steve's Ireland as our guide, which was amazingly helpful and saved us money at B&Bs.
posted by sabh at 9:10 AM on February 23, 2011

See Glasgow and Edinburgh, they are very different but equally interesting. Stirling is also nice, it's like a smaller Edinburgh and also has a spectacular castle and a number of other historical attractions.

And I second the drive to Skye. Glencoe, Fort William and Mallaig on the way there are all worth seeing. The train journey from Glasgow to Mallaig is an excellent alternative. It was recently voted in the top 10 most spectacular train journeys in the world.

If you don't make it to Skye then Loch Lomond is worth a short jaunt out of Glasgow. At Balmaha you can take a boat and cruise the islands. It's not Glencoe or Skye, but it's certainly beautiful.

Generally speaking the weather in May and June will be pleasant, but pack for changes at any time.
posted by fire&wings at 9:22 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would take Edinburgh over Glasgow for a first visit. See the castle. The Scottish Museum is good. If you can handle a big hill, walk up Arthur's Seat (it has a path, but it is a large hill). Eat lots of bacon butties. Go into nice places and scary places for tea. Edinburgh is a lovely city to wander in. I definitely recommend one of the night ghost tours -- silly but learned lots.

Be prepared for every possible kind of weather. Bring many layers.
posted by freshwater at 9:34 AM on February 23, 2011

Glasgow and Edinburgh are only about 50 minutes apart by road or rail. Pick one and do a day trip to the other.

I lived in Edinburgh for about eight years, so I'm a little biased towards it. There are lots of good suggestions for things to visit in Edinburgh in this thread. I'd add the Royal Yacht Britannia, which really impressed me.

I don't know Glasgow so well, but the Cathedral and the Necropolis are well worth a visit, and there's a lot of great architecture.

Definitely try and get up north. You don't have to go as far as Skye to see beautiful scenery though, so if the travel time is an issue you could explore Argyll and Kintyre, or the Cairngorms.

The weather will be changeable. It may rain, or it may be bright and sunny. Shouldn't be so many tourists at that time of year.
You shouldn't have any trouble finding folk music. In Edinburgh try the Royal Oak (website starts music).
posted by HastyDave at 9:43 AM on February 23, 2011

I did Ireland for two weeks in June a few years ago. Dublin-Galway-Cork. Took the train and it was a BRILLIANT way to get across the country. Iarnrod Eireann honors the InterRail one-country pass and I thought it a good deal. I agree that Cork is kind of meh, Galway is awesome (music! close to much natural splendor!) and Dublin is great for city-oriented folks. Since you say you're more history than hiking types, I do recommend the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College, and the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is great.
posted by smirkette at 9:46 AM on February 23, 2011

We did a 2-week driving tour of Ireland and Scotland about 5 years ago and had a great time. Get a small car and if you plan on taking the ferry from Ireland to Scotland make sure your rental agreement lets you do that.
We flew in and out of Dublin, and the first thing we did when we arrived was take the 1916 Rebellion walking tour. Really enjoyed it, and we needed an excuse to keep moving through the jet lag anyway.
Seconding the Glencoe/Fort William/Mallaig run. A Japanese rock band was filming a video at Eilean Donan when we stopped there. Fort William was a good B&B location.
posted by ChuqD at 10:21 AM on February 23, 2011

When people ask me which are the best months to visit Scotland I normally say May or September. Often the weather is really good and there are not too many crowds - but equally you are more likely to accept a few days of rain as being normal for the time of year. Late May and early June have spectacularly long days - particularly in the far north.

Looking at your interests I would agree with those who suggest you spend some time in Edinburgh - many good suggestions of what to see when you are there above. Then I would try to get to an island. To get between these locations you have some tour companies who could take you from Edinburgh - or you could take the train to Glasgow and then the (sensational) West Highland line up to Mallaig and hence over to Skye. A car would be great if you feel up to driving of course.

The website "Undiscovered Scotland" might help you find some quirky places that are far from the tourist trail (not hard). Peter Irving's "Scotland the Best" his personal pick of great things to do and places to go. The guide is (I suspect) mainly written for Scots discovering their own country - and thus has many unusual suggestions.
posted by rongorongo at 11:09 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It rains all the time and often upside down.
posted by tarvuz at 11:27 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It rains all the time and often upside down.

It rained and rained and rained and rained -
The average was well maintained
And when our fields were simply bogs
It started raining cats and dogs

After a drought of half and hour
There came the most refreshing shower
And then the queerest thing of all
A gentle rain began to fall.

Next day 'twas pretty fairly dry
Save for a deluge from the sky
This wetted people to the skin
But after that the rain set in

We wondered what's the next we'd get
As sure as fate we got more wet
But soon we'll have a change again
And we shall have a drop of rain.
posted by rongorongo at 12:09 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

We went to both Scotland and Ireland in November last year.

In Scotland we stayed in Edinburgh for about three days, then spent a week near Aberfeldy, using that as a base to explore the area.

Edinburgh is great, and well worth a visit (even if, like me, you happen to allergic to it). It's very pretty, but in a dreary sort of way. Edinburgh Castle is fantastic, but crowded with tourists. The museum of Scotland (not sure if that's what it's called, but that's what it is) is also good.

If you're an iPhone person, there is an iPhone app called something like "Ian Rankin's Edinburgh". Even if you're not a fan of Ian Rankin (he's a crime writer), it's a great walking tour of some of the interesting, but off-the-beaten-track bits of Edinburgh.

It's also worth going into the highlands. Go visit a castle or two (we like Castle Glamis and Castle Menzies), go to a distillery (everyone recommends Edradour, and it is indeed worth visiting). And definitely go for a ride on the West Highland Railway.

In Ireland we spent almost all of our time (a week or so) in Dingle, which is on the south-west coast. It's a great town, with lots of live music, lots of interesting drives, and easy access to the Ring of Kerry. We also visited Kilarney a few times, and could certainly have spent more time there. If you're near Kilarney, pop into the National Park and go for a jaunt. And there is also an awesome restored castle just nearby (but I can't recall its name at present).

Everyone like to holiday differently, of course, but places like Ireland and Scotland that are packed with history really work well when you pick a base and do that area properly, rather than touring around everywhere you can. Accept you wont see everything the country has to offer, and make a point to come back later and do another bit. Just IMHO, of course, but it works for us.
posted by damonism at 3:56 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recommend taking the fantastic TRAIN trip from Edinburgh to Fort William and picking up a hire car from there onwards.
You can also take the same train all the way to Mallaig, take the ferry on foot and then taxi to Portree.

In Edinburgh, having a car is more of a hinderance than a benefit, you will see much more wandering around on foot or using the bus.

If you don't already have waterproof over-trousers, drop into Tiso's on Rose Street (Edinburgh) to buy a pair. The secret to enjoying Scottish weather is dressing appropriately, and on the west coast that often means waterproof trousers.
posted by Lanark at 12:08 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Been to Ireland twice, including our honeymoon. One fun thing was to rely on our current B&B hosts to recommend/book us our next B&B in whatever area we were headed to that day. We were never disappointed, and word of our newly-married status often preceded us. :7)

Also, at the time, renting a car with an automatic transmission cost more. My brother skimped on this during his trip and REGRETTED IT. The driving is through gorgeous country, so trade off driving, but many roads are narrower and yet still pretty busy (in terms of e.g. slow farm trucks and impatient oil-delivery drivers) -- and you don't want a stick shift to add to your wrong-side-of-the-road confusion.

You're right not to take a package tour, though certain places it might be a good idea to compromise. For example, the roads on the Ring of Kerry are about four feet wide with sheer drops, and these vast tour buses completely dominate the road. You can either be the dominated car (who also doesn't get to see anything), or let a profesisonal driver take the wheel. *shrug* Your call. But driving our own car also let us do impulsive things like spend an hour at Yeats's castle, or get my picture taken next to an N17 sign.

Oh, and there were great walking tours in Dublin.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2011

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