The ultimate Ireland bucket list
(for all who hate bucket lists)
Planing your Ireland trip will be an adventure from the minute you decide to explore the Emerald isle. With spectacular landscapes, deep history and a welcoming culture it is a paradise for every open and culturally curious outdoor enthusiast. Ireland has been a popular tourist destination for years. Therefore some major tourist attractions are well known by people all around the world. It’s very likely that during your pre-travel research you will come across an uncountable amount of articles, blogs and websites. All of them claiming to list “The top 10 places to visit in Ireland”, to tell you “The perfect Ireland road-trip itinerary” or to name “The must see attractions in Ireland”. Most likely every “Ireland bucket list” will promote the same few places, and most well-known guide books will send you on a route that millions of people have followed before.
So if all those sources say the same it must be right, right?
Ireland’s well known tourist attractions are for sure beautiful and, compared to other places in the world, quite unique – but they are definitely not a secret anymore. The tourist trail has forged its way for decades now, starting in Dublin and exploring parts the south/west coast of the island. Most tour companies strongly focus on this area resulting in one big advantage: ‘Easy Access’. Most major tour companies will be catering for every budget and every preferred style of traveling. No matter if you want to join a set itinerary in a big coach, drive yourself or hire a private guide – you will be spoilt for choice. If you don’t know what style of travel will suit your Ireland trip best, take a look at this compact guide on how to decide what’s the best way for you to travel Ireland.
Why is this Ireland bucket list different from the rest?
Here in this blog I put together a few suggestions for everyone who isn’t afraid to get off the beaten path and discover Ireland’s hidden gems. Most of these places are far off the common tourist trail and, if at all, take up only a small side-note in most guide books. The activities only require an open mind and pay off in life long memories.
This is for everyone who doesn’t need to tick the big Ireland bucket list. Your friends and family will probably never have heard about any of these places – they however will definitely want to come after they hear your travel stories 😉 .
This is for everyone who wants to immerse into the local culture. You might not meet any other tourists but friendly locals will probably approach you curiously to ask about your story.
This is for everyone who looks for an adventure. The real magic happens when you get out of your comfort zone, ditch the plan and loose the smartphone. Ask the farmer for the way to his favourite local pub and follow the DIY-sign for the coffee and best chocolate cake stop.
1. Slow down – experience more!
My first and most important advice for your Ireland bucket list is to take a deep breath and slow down. There is no way you can visit every place of interest in a week or even a month – and why would you want to? A lot of tour operators and travel guides make suggestions on how to cover the whole of Ireland in less than a week. While I understand that visitors want to make the most out of their, probably once in a lifetime, trip to Ireland I doubt that spending 80% of your holiday in the car is the best approach. Especially if you don’t feel the need to hit the biggest tourist attractions or to tick a box, you might as well slow down and enjoy your own unique Irish adventure.
“Hurry less – remember more! It’s about the quality of the time you spent in places not about the quantity of places you saw in Ireland. Pick one general area and take the time to immerse into the local culture, drop the guidebook and discover for yourself. Make the journey your own and one you will never forget!”
2. Cliffs & Coast
The rugged and wild coastline is definitely Ireland’s most stunning attraction. Soaring cliffs are rising high from the Atlantic – formed over centuries by crashing waves. All over Ireland, especially along the west coast following the Wild Atlantic Way, spectacular views over cliffs and coastline are waiting to be discovered. And if you want to take in the panoramic views without meeting other tourists you have hundreds of options to choose from (and only a few to avoid).
Achill island – Keem bay
Achill island is the largest island off the island of Ireland. Connected with a bridge to the mainland, Achill is situated just off the Irish west coast. The island is not only a scenically spectacular example for an Irish speaking community (Gaeltacht area) but also features Ireland’s highest sea cliffs. Starting from the picturesque beach at Keem bay, a panoramic hike takes you 688m above sea level to the spectacular Croaghaun sea cliffs.
Dun Briste – the broken fort – a majestic sea stack broke loose from the mainland many years ago. Local legend has it that Saint Patrick himself struck the ground with his crozier, splitting a chunk of the headland off into the ocean. All to trap a pegan chieftain, who refused to convert to Christianity, on the sea stacks top. Historic documents however indicate that in 1393 it was separated from the coast as a result of roaring high seas and violent stormy weather – which to me creates an equally magical image.
Nowadays Downpatrick head is one of Ireland’s most striking landmarks, a Discovery point along the Wild Atlantic Way and an insider tip for your Ireland bucket list. The entire region – the north coast of County Mayo – is so far off the beaten Ireland tourist trail that it’s very likely that you can enjoy the spectacular scenery all by yourself.
You are a fan of the outdoors? Welcome to paradise. Ireland’s options to explore nature during scenic walks and stunning hikes seem just about endless. Some walking trails are now sign posted and easy to access but many of the spectacular hiking routes still remain a rather well kept secret to tourists. I know numerous hidden hiking gems along the west coast where I never met another person. Some of them amazing for a short scenic trail-run or walk along the rugged coastline, some perfect for a multi-day hiking/camping trip in the mountains. Most of these places don’t have signs or even paths. Especially for those who are keen to really get off the beaten track I can recommend to hire a local guide – it’s worth it!
Ireland’s highest stand alone mountain is Ballina’s house mountain. Growing up I could see Nephin from our living room window but I never even thought about climbing it. I only started discovering this beauty on my doorstep a few years ago when I moved back to Ireland after some time abroad. Now I know at least 6 different ways up to the top at 806m above sea level. Hiking up the steep open mountain requires at least a moderate level of fitness and I recommend exploring it with an experienced guide since navigating your way can be difficult. If you are up for a challenge and a spectacular hike, put Nephin mountain on your Ireland bucket list.
This is one of my personal favourites. The spectacular hiking loop is located on the very north-west end of my home county Mayo. Only very few people know about this beautiful walk along the rugged coastline, soft bogland under your feet and surrounded by friendly sheep the dramatic views will take your breath away.
Endless white sand dunes, crystal clear waters, dolphins popping up between surfers catching waves. Walking along unspoilt beaches, experiencing magical sunset boat trips and taking a dip in a turquoise blue bay. Ireland’s beaches are absolutely stunning but most of them aren’t on the common tourist trail. If you are into photography, water sports or simply romantic beach walks, you shouldn’t miss out on Ireland’s pristine beaches.
A big stretch of the coastline along the counties Mayo, Sligo & Donegal is rightfully known as Ireland’s surf coast. The land and the sea came together to form some of the most stunning landscapes you will find in Ireland. Whether you are looking to catch some waves yourself or you’d rather soak in the unique atmosphere from a golden beach after a spectacular hike – this stretch of unspoilt, raw beauty will be a highlight on your Ireland bucket list.
5. Irish Pub Culture
The ‘Irish Pub’ is an institution with a world wide appearance. So when you find yourself in the home country of pub culture you have to pay ‘the original’ a visit. Good news is you don’t have to hang out with all the other tourists to experience pub culture. In the end a pub, wherever it might be, is just a bar. It’s not about fancy interior or dating back a few 100 years. Irish pubs became a legend because of the communities who fill them every day! It’s the people who add the magic. The Irish are known to be a welcoming and open tribe. We love the chat and making new friends. Up to this day the pub is still a place where we Irish come to socialise, enjoy music and dance together – it’s your chance to join in!
My best advice is just wander into the pub around the corner, wherever you are. If in the afternoon for a cup of tea or after dinner for a pint – especially in small towns. Skip reading online reviews, ask your local host were they like going or just walk into one and see what happens.
The word Whiskey comes from the Irish word uisce beatha, meaning water of life, and was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe. But Whiskey is not only a drink of the past. Since the late 20th century its popularity is growing rapidly and distillers are evolving to create more daring and diverse brands.
A professionally hosted Whiskey tasting is an amazing opportunity to learn more about the past, present and future of Ireland’s most famous spirit and to experience its incomparable taste pallet. You’ll build the perfect knowledge base for many field trips exploring Ireland’s vibrant pub scene.
Ireland is probably one of the most famous islands in the world. But did you know that there are absolutely amazing islands off the island of Ireland?! Most of them are hardly discovered by tourists. The same families have been inhabiting them for generations. Their ancestors being pirates and Irish kings with lots of tails, stories and folklore around them.
The islanders are a friendly community and welcoming to visitors. Their community centres and small pubs are the best spots to immerse yourself into the Irish lifestyle. It’s easy to feel at home in a cosy island B&B, the perfect place to relax and unwind from modern day stress. The islands feature stunning scenery and spectacular hikes, cliff walks and running trails. At night, thanks to little light pollution, you’ll find yourself amazed by the breath-taking starlit skies.
The county of Mayo in Ireland has a large number of offshore islands. Some are big and close to the mainland like Achill Island, lots are small or in little groups but each island has its own unique character.
Clare island – with it’s spectacular cliffs, picturesque light house and thrilling history around the pirate Queen Grace O’Malley – is certainly one of my favourites. The even smaller and more remote Inishturk island is one of the best spots for star gazing in the country and an ideal swimming spot with fantastic clear blue waters.
“No matter which island you pick, stay for the night! Once the few day visitors are gone and the sun sets over the ocean you will get a glimpse at what is feels like to be an islander.”
It’s about the journey, not the destination. The Irish backroads are made to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Traveling by bike invites, like no other mode of transport, to soak in the unique atmosphere. It’s the easiest way to stop and discover hidden gems along the route. This healthy and sustainable way of traveling can prevent you from rushing through your itinerary. It can help you deepen your holiday experience on many levels.
Cycling trips for everyone!
If for a day or a week, on road bikes or e-bikes, with children or your grandparents. There is the right cycling itinerary for everyone who wants to enjoy a trip on 2 wheels.
In county Mayo alone you can find easy & safe greenways which are attainable for the whole family, rent e-bikes for multi-day bike packing adventures along the Wild Atlantic Way or get the sweat pumping on a road bike trip over the rolling hills and windy gaps.
Ireland wouldn’t be the same without those numerous friendly woolly white (and sometimes black) creatures. In spring time the whole island ups its cuteness level by adding lots of little lambs to the scenery. If visiting during the lamb season don’t miss out on a close up lamb cuddling experience on a sheep farm. At any time make sure to take quiet back roads through rural areas too. Just for the fun of getting stuck in sheep traffic jam.
Throughout the whole year I can highly recommend a visit to an Irish sheep farm. Especially along the rugged west coast farmers still rely on perfectly trained sheep dogs to herd their flock. To watch a demonstration of their skills shouldn’t be missing on your Ireland bucket list. Your visit helps to directly support the local farmers to continue on with their traditional trade. I promise you’ll be impressed!
9. Irish women & history
You should take a closer look on how strong Irish women shaped the island. Throughout history all over the world we have overlooked and forgotten the deeds and tales of women, no matter how impactful they might have been. Ireland is a country so rich of formidable women that some immutable forged their way into Irish history books. Don’t miss out on visiting places of historic significance and spectacular beauty to learn more about Irish history.
Queen Maeve of Connacht
The legendary Queen Maeve ruled over Connacht in pre-Christian times and is often described as strong-willed, ambitious, cunning and promiscuous. To this day we Irish tell the tales around the Ancient Queen of Connacht with great pleasure. You can find her historic footprints all over the West of Ireland.
Her grave is believed to be in a Neolithic passage tomb on the top of Knocknarea mountain in country Sligo. Legend has it Queen Maeve was buried standing upright so she can continue watching over Connacht forever. You can check out her panoramic views for yourself on a beautiful hiking loop around Knocknarea.
Born in 1530 on Clare Island, Grace – in her native language Irish known as Gráinne Ní Mháille – grew up to be Ireland’s famous Pirate Queen. In command over several ships and a few hundred men Grace fought her way into history books by notoriously raiding English ships and meeting Queen Elizabeth I. in Buckingham palace.
Throughout county Mayo, especially on the islands off the Mayo coastline, you can find historic monuments telling Grace’s story. All of them are situated in spectacular landscapes and shouldn’t be missing from your Ireland bucket list.
Mary Robinson became the first female president of Ireland and later the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Mayo native Mary Robinson is to this day a transformative figure for Ireland and The Mary Robinson Centre – Ireland’s first Presidential Library and centre for change – is being created at the moment in Robinson’s childhood home on the banks of the River Moy in Ballina. The centre will include a museum, archive, research and educational facility and events venue. It will be a top spot to visit on your women in Irish history tour.
Not only ruins of famous stones!
Many of Ireland’s castles aren’t just monuments of history. Surrounded by beautiful and extensive parks & woods they are the perfect place to enjoy a relaxed walk in nature or go exploring on the bike. Looking to put a royal experience on your Ireland bucket list? – Some castles offer luxurious accommodation, superb restaurants or unique wedding locations.
Belleek castle & woods
The grounds surrounding Belleek castle are one of the largest urban forests in Europe. Belleek is located just on the doorstep of my home town Ballina. The grounds are an amazing asset to all people living in the area. We locals love to take a stroll along the River Moy and through the woods. Leading up to a visit of the castle’s courtyard café for a hot drink and some home baking. The castle is a luxurious hotel with a superb restaurant. Therefore a real treat for everyone looking for a royal experience. Don’t miss out on a guided tour through the castle and its dungeons. Its the best way to find out more about its deep and surprising history.
You want to experience all that and much more?
Get in touch with Rachel’s Irish Adventures! We can build a private ‘off the beaten path’ tour just for you. Let us tailor an adventure to meet the needs of your personal Ireland bucket list.