8 days in Ireland: Southwest or Northwest?
April 15, 2014 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Planning a trip to Ireland. Flying in and out of Dublin. 8 days, one car, three drivers. Help me prioritize where to go.

We know we definitely want to go to Galway/Clare (Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher, Burren, Connemara) and Yeats' grave in Sligo. We're also going to spend a day or two in Dublin at the end.

The question is whether we should use our remaining 3 days to see Cork and Kerry, or head up north to Donegal. (Additional points: If we do head north, is it worth crossing the border to take the long way back to Dublin via the Causeway Coast and Belfast?)

We like history and and archaeology and nature and music and good food. We'd prefer to get off the tourist track, but will tolerate the hordes for a can't-miss, Grand-Canyon-like experience. We don't surf and one of us (okay, me) does not know how to ride a bike. We'll be traveling light and cheap, but not camping.
posted by elizeh to Travel & Transportation around Ireland (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Really, based on having spent a few summer weeks in both, I'd say you can't lose. If you want my vote, then it's for Cork (Sherkin Island, Sheep's Head peninsula) over Donegal (Slieve League, Glencolmcille), but really only just. They are the correct two options to be choosing between!

I'd toss a coin, then focus on making sure you get to the best bits of whichever you choose.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:50 AM on April 15, 2014

If you're an American with any mid-sized road trips behind you, the distances from anywhere to anywhere are not going to feel that arduous, but at the same time, you don't want to be spending massive amounts of time in the car.

It's coin-toss territory, though I'd say Donegal, with perhaps a trip out to Mayo between Galway and Sligo for CĂ©ide Fields, which has a stark beauty to it nestled against some cliffs of its own, and maybe Achill Island, which can be bleak and bracing around this time of year but gets busy during the summer.
posted by holgate at 9:17 AM on April 15, 2014

North. Just the bus ride from Galway to Belfast in May (with a stopover in Sligo) was one of the prettiest travel experiences of my life, and I've been all over. If you go into Sligo town proper (grave is outside of town) there was a lovely little path by the river that started in the middle of town and ended in a sheepfield several miles away, with great views all along and locals just walking their dogs and relaxing. Donegal also seems to be where more of the outdoorsy stuff (horseback riding, hangliding, hiking) in Ireland congregates, which if the rest of your trip is heavy on museums and sites could be a nice change of pace. Cork is pleasant enough, but after spending time in Galway and Dublin it just felt like more of the same to me. The whole ring of Kerry area is also exceedingly crowded during the season.

Newgrange is the one thing I tell people never to miss. Have you ever seen 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'? It's like that, very dreamlike and hushed, and then you come back out into the sunshine and think deep thoughts about the nature of humanity. Worth the crowds if anything is. Plus, UNESCO world heritage site!
posted by theweasel at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm, tough call! Initial reaction is Cork/Kerry just because it's so gorgeous and really classic Ireland. Kinsale is a lovely town to spend time in near Cork. Donegal is beautiful, but the coast is a bit spoiled with a lot of houses by the sea. That said, Cork/Kerry will be more touristy -- though I disagree that they are that similar to Galway and Dublin (both of which are very different to me as well!)

I would also present a third option, which is to go to the North Coast of Northern Ireland -- Derry and Antrim, Giants Causeway, etc. This is personally my favorite part of Ireland (and I've been nearly all over) and because it's Northern Ireland, it's not nearly as touristy. (And Northern Ireland is incredibly safe -- don't worry about that.) Just a thought!
posted by caoimhe at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2014

If "off the tourist track" is your goal, Donegal, absolutely. Don't get me wrong, Cork/Kerry are beautiful, but they're a bit overrun during tourist season. Donegal is what you think of when you think of Ireland - windswept craggy rock-walled green fields, beautiful coastline, sheep, etc - but without most of the people. There's still pubs and music and stuff, but it's kind of the last untouched part of Ireland in a way.

Additional points: If we do head north, is it worth crossing the border to take the long way back to Dublin via the Causeway Coast and Belfast?


Newgrange is the one thing I tell people never to miss.

Yes, yes, yes, a billion times yes. One of your days in Dublin (a nice but fairly unexceptional city, if you ask me) should be swapped for a day trip from Dublin to Newgrange. You can even take the bus.
posted by pdb at 9:53 AM on April 15, 2014

Nine years ago my wife and I visited the west Coast ( Galway ) and then came to Kerry for the last week of the trip. We now live in Kenmare, Co. Kerry at least 1/2 of the year. That says it all for me--but as a tourist I don't think you will go wrong which ever direction you go. Personally I love Kerry because of the complexity and breadth of landscapes--rugged mountain passes( X 4+), seascapes, pastoral hillsides, highest mountains in Ireland, rivers, lakes, all the villages you can take and excellent restaurants. If you decide on Kerry and Cork send an email and I will be glad to spend 1/2 a day showing you the area and helping you get oriented. Enjoy Ireland. Final piece of advice--don't spend most of your time traveling in the car.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:01 AM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you like horses? Because in Kerry we have bog ponies, which are genetically unique and critically endangered; they are basically clawing their way back from near-extinction and are absolutely tiny, cute and adorable.

Also, Kerry and Cork offer both myself and rmhsinc, which Donegal does not.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would go North - and not just North-west, but North.

Derry is an amazing walled city with an incredible history. The Giant's Causeway is one of the coolest things in Ireland. The rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede will test your nerve. And the Glens of Antrim are pretty cool too.

Tourist dollars going into Northern Ireland are part of the peace process. Every tourist dollar spent in the North helps to move that region one step closer to stability. The Troubles have ended, and peace is holding, but the North still needs tourist dollars. No one is going to miss a few extra tourists in Cork - but your tourist dollar will have an impact in the North. And the North is part of Ireland too.

Go North: County Donegal, County Londonderry, and County Antrim.

And I agree with those above, definitely check out Newgrange.
posted by Flood at 10:56 AM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you already booked the flights? If not, then I'll suggest flying into Shannon and out of Dublin. That saves you a day and a hassle getting out of Dublin after your inbound flight. Shannon's easy going and close to many of the things you want to see.
posted by 26.2 at 12:31 PM on April 15, 2014

If you're considering North then definitely the Giant's Causeway. There's a lovely beach in Donegal called Rosses Point which is not far from Sligo Town. And if you come to Belfast I'll buy you a Guinness in the Crown Bar :)
posted by billiebee at 1:07 PM on April 15, 2014

Flights are booked - flying into Shannon almost doubled the price for some reason.
posted by elizeh at 1:29 PM on April 15, 2014

There's not really much of a border between Ireland and northern Ireland. I dove across it by accident when I went to Enniskillen. Some places still have spots which you could tell used to be crossings but now are just stretches of straight road.
posted by koolkat at 1:52 PM on April 15, 2014

Irish person here. I'd recommend staying in Galway for at least a night. Try to be there on Saturday for the market. Hit Roisin Dubh in the evening if they have live music on. Eat the fish and chips in McDonagh's. Take a day to walk in the Burren. The hills there are great for walking in. Stay in Doolin at least one night (lovely town + trad music). You can head to Moher from there.

If you're set on Aran, go there, but I prefer Inisbofin. It's almost as easy to get to.

The South-West has (for me) far more to see. Dingle and the area around it are gorgeous. Lahinch and Dunquin are great. You can head to Killarney if you want to see a town. If you can rent a car, the area is nice for driving, although the roads are quite narrow and the locals drive fast. You can still hitch around that area easily enough. Still, the Ring of Kerry is a wonderful drive.

Head to Cork to get back to Dublin easily. Returning from Donegal the roads aren't that great.
posted by nevan at 3:17 PM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

We just went last year, and I had a hard time figuring out where to go. I really do recommend Dingle--most people told me to go there, and we did, and we TRULY had a great time. The number of knowledgeable B&B owners there is off the charts.

I do think my experience was greatly enhanced by not going North, as we really would have been rushing around if we had. We missed the Cork area in favor of staying in Dingle longer.
posted by cobain_angel at 5:12 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

this thread is making me miss ireland and want to go back!

a word of caution on driving...if you're all americans and have only ever driving in america in american cars: take a few minutes to get acquainted with the car in the parking lot. the roads are all much narrower than here, especially in the countryside. and while you're figuring out how 2 cars are supposed to come at each other on a road that seems MAYBE a lane and a half wide, everyone else is driving really fast and passing you and cursing you!
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:35 AM on April 16, 2014

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