There is honestly nowhere like Ireland — there are tiny flowers everywhere that paint the hills with great swaths of honey, goldenrod, and amber; blurring with velvety emeralds and salty, misty blues. Fluffy sheep wander around ancient ruins, rising from the hills like crumbling guards — the last remains of a faraway land that you can still press your palm to. Feeling the sun-warmed stone that centuries of people have touched and lived around. I was there this past March for a few blissful days with my sister-in-law and it was one of the best vacations I have ever had. Here’s what we did:
London & Dublin
We flew into London because it ended up being cheaper than flying directly into Dublin. Plus, my sister-in-law, let’s call her Amy which is of course her name, had never been overseas before so our full day in London was a huge bonus. We held out for cheap flights because we knew we wanted to rent a car — which turned out to be $$$ — so we booked far in advance and used Hopper to watch the tickets.
Pro tip: If you decide to fly into a different location than your final destination, make sure you note which airports you’re coming in and out of. We flew into Gatwick, so I made sure our Ireland flight was also out of Gatwick so we didn’t have to bounce from airport to airport.
We had a super quick, sunny day in London so we walked everywhere — Hyde Park, Notting Hill, Covent Garden, Soho — and ended the night with dinner at Dishoom. Then we peeled ourselves out of bed at 4am to head to the airport and off to Dublin we went! Here’s our full day:
10:20am: Arrive in Dublin, bleary from early travel but high off excitement and the energy of the Hen party (British slang for Bachelorette party) seated behind us on the plane, knocking back mimosas like it was their job. Icons.
11:00am: Head from the airport to pick up our rental car. We went with Hertz, but there are several options to choose from. We had a fairly annoying experience, but that seems standard across the different companies. It all bad, amiright.
11:00am – 1:00pm: Meander haphazardly while freaking out about how to drive on the other side of the road. Drive into Dublin at the pace of a snail.
1:00pm: Check into our hotel. We stayed here, and it was perfectly lovely — and most importantly, cheap!
2:00pm: Lunch at Hatch & Sons.
3:00pm – 8:00pm: Explore Dublin! My favorite part by far was the Temple Bar neighborhood. Ultra charming, especially at night when all the twinkling lights turn on. There are tons of great pubs in this neighborhood with delightfully inebriated people spilling out onto the cobbled streets. We walked everywhere and had the best time just people watching and wandering.
9:00pm: We skipped dinner and just grabbed some coffee before heading back to our hotel to pass right out in a flurry of jet lag and car exhaustion.
Rental Car Tips
— We LOVED renting the car — it gave us such freedom and meant that we could see everything we wanted to at our own pace. But, you are driving on the other side of the road (if you’re coming from the U.S.), so be warned that it takes getting used to.
— We rented our car immediately after getting off the plane and then drove directly into Dublin. THIS WAS A MISTAKE. I highly recommend heading to Dublin on public transit or Taxi/Uber and then renting the car on the way out of the city. Driving in Dublin as we were trying to get used to the car was truly hellacious. At one point, I directed Amy down a one-way pedestrian-only street (don’t worry, she still loves me) and she had to reverse all the way back out of the street as Dubliners looked on, shaking their heads. And this was a high point.
— They just give you the car, without a lesson or any practice time. It is wild. So, ask as many questions as possible while you have someone right there to ask — we accidentally drove off the lot with the parking brake still on (hey, it was on when they gave us the car) and the navigation was yelling at us in French and it was a bewildering few minutes, to say the least.
— You will need insurance. Some people have told us, after the fact, that we shouldn’t have gotten the insurance because it is a scam and you don’t need it. BUT, Hertz would not let us leave with the car unless we bought insurance — the moral of the story is: be prepared to pay for insurance or show proof that your current car insurance will cover you driving overseas. We pre-booked the car for about $150, but once we added insurance it came out to around $500. MERP. Budget accordingly.
— The road signs are different. This is kind of a duh moment, but we literally didn’t think about this until we were actually driving and saw a blue sign with a white line through it and had no idea what to do. Screenshot the road signs before your trip and have them pulled up while you’re driving. Also be aware that a lot of directions are written on the road — this was very disorienting at the beginning but you get used to it.
— The roads are MINISCULE. They are smaller than the amount of interest I have when someone starts a story by saying, “So, I had this dream…” The country roads are also lined with stone walls that you WILL scrape. As an instinct, I wanted to hug the walls while driving because I was afraid of driving directly into another car. Don’t be like me (just in this instance, feel free to idolize me in every other way) — you have more room than you think and the cars coming at you can veer, the stone wall cannot (confirmed with experience).
— The car we had was on a setting where it would stop running when you stopped the car at stoplights, road signs, etc. This drove Amy absolutely crazy and made us irrationally afraid that we had somehow broken the car with our Cher-and-Dionne worthy driving. It’s actually just a setting you can turn on and off! Invest in international data so that you can Google these questions as they arise.
Athlone, Galway, Wild Atlantic Way, & the Cliffs
We started our road trip by driving out of Dublin (driving got MUCH easier in this stretch) and heading toward Athlone. Everything in Ireland ended up being much closer than we thought it would be — the drive from Dublin to Athlone (which is half the country) is about an hour and half. We planned podcasts for the longer stretches — here’s a great list — and it was actually a really peaceful way to take in all the scenery.
Pro tip: We searched “castles” and “ruins” in Google maps to find different places to stop along our drives. Look for ones that don’t have hours of operation — they are usually free of tourists and walking up to them feels like stepping back in time (Outlander, here I come). Driving to different ruins also took us down some insanely beautiful (and insanely tiny) backroads. It’s all velvety hills and lush scenery pressing in from all sides. There’s nothing like it.
We stopped in Athlone as a good halfway point between Dublin and Galway. It’s an adorable town on a little lake with great lunch options. I had fish and chips, which is basically the only thing I ate for 15 days straight which was an excellent life choice. Also, beer! We went wandering to stretch our legs after driving (help I’ve become my dad) and peeked into a few shops.
After Athlone, we headed to Galway. We had cash on hand for tolls (isn’t it weird that tolls exist everywhere what is life) and breezed through the drive in another two hours or so. Galway was a huge hit with us — it’s popular for a reason — and we wandered around the charming little town and along the waterfront at Salthill for a dreamy few hours. At one point it started to hail (it hailed on us a shocking amount, more than all the times I have ever been hailed on in the U.S. combined) and we didn’t even care, that is how magical it was. Okay, so we cared a littttttle bit, but I digress.
We ate at Ard Bia at Nimmos, which was my second favorite meal of the trip. It’s a tiny little restaurant, right on the water, and extra romantic which was only a little bit weird for a sister dinner. Lol, who needs husbands!
After Galway, we packed back into our car and headed out along the Wild Atlantic Way — a stretch of coastline with a near lunar landscape. It’s wild to go from all those rolling, classic hills to these Arizona-like cliffs and exposed sediment. It was one of my absolute favorite drives of the trip and hardly anyone was on the roads (easier driving when there’s no one to run into or drive right behind you, radiating impatience like a complete tosser). We navigated to Kylemore Abbey — which is fascinating because it almost looks like legos and was (of course) under construction. Worth a visit anyway — we didn’t pay to do the tour, instead lurking around the edges of the property taking pictures like paparazzi and theorizing about the people who built the castle originally as a private residence and how much moolah they were rolling around in (we landed on: a freakin’ ton).
We circled back around through Galway and then headed to our Airbnb, about 30 min outside the city, in Kilcolgan. It was SO fantastic — a full cottage with the sweetest hosts named Pascal and Margaret. I highly recommend if you have a car.
And then finally, on to the Cliffs of Moher — the main event. This was the destination I was most excited to see before the trip and y’all they did not disappoint. We were warned from every possible party that the Cliffs would be CROWDED, but we actually arrived to see very few tourists considering it is the most visited site in the entire country. If you can, try to schedule them on a weekday (we went on a Monday) and in the off-season to get the best people-free views. It was windy and a touch misty, but it all just added to the overall vibez. One of the most breathtaking places I have ever been. We hiked (wear appropriate shoes, my friends) along the length for a few miles and it truly never got old. You can get right up (literally RIGHT UP) to the edge and Amy and I scooted on our stomachs like Nat Geo photographers to peek over the edge. A magical few hours.
Dingle, Cork, Kilkenny
After the Cliffs, we continued around the coast — hopping between little coastal towns, full to the brim with charm. We stayed in Dingle — which was highly recommend — and arrived in the worst rain we experienced the entire trip. We stepped out of the car and were instantly soaked and couldn’t see further than a foot in any direction. We hustled right into a pub and proceeded to Guinness it up (much better in Ireland go figure). The next day, we emerged from our hotel into a little wonderland. Turns out in the daylight — sans rain — Dingle is freakin’ adorable. We popped into Bean in Dingle for coffee and then lazily meandered (huge benefit of renting a car is that you are on no one’s schedule but your own and like leaving for college after 18 years living with your parents, the freedom is intoxicating) before hopping back in the car.
Driving away from Dingle, we encountered the scariest road of the entire trip, which was basically the side of the mountain Frodo and Co. were scaling in Lord of the Rings — only more steep. On one side is just craggy rock rising up for miles while the other side is just a sheer drop off into the sea. Fun! We made it with a hope and a prayer and landed by this beachy area and a lil ruin, right on the edge of the water. With great risk comes great reward.
At this point of the trip, we were basically bouncing from ruin to ruin — completely enamored with each new one we found. In between, we filled up on podcasts and Pringles (they have a shrimp flavor which completely perplexed us) and endless, velvet hills dotted with the fluffiest little clouds which turned out to be sheep clinging to the side of the mountains by stubbornness alone (felt a real kinship there). We popped into a little town for gas and had lunch at Latch Restaurant — complete with handwritten menus and wrinkled, weathered men wearing tweeds and caps. It was the most Ireland thing I have ever seen and I had been to the Cliffs of Moher like the day before. Authentic as all hell.
We drove into Cork and explored and stayed right outside the city, in Monkstown and grabbed dinner at The Bosun before heading on to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone (when in Ireland…) and then on to Kilkenny. If you rent a car, you really have endless options of what to do. Amy and I didn’t plan very much before we got over there — we just locked down our route and let the trip take us where it would. We spent a lot of our time searching out castles and finding historic places to hike around and explore. It was a very leisurely vacation — one of the few I’ve done, I’m usually in a bigger city for like 24 hours and have to pack absolutely everything into what feels like a blink — and I loved our winding, unhurried pace. In Kilkenny, we stopped at Matt the Miller’s for some live music where I saw a man absolutely slay on the flute — we spent hours cozied up to the scarred, weathered bar, sipping frothy beers and getting lost in the music.
Dublin Again, Then Home
Our route was basically a circle around the lower half of Ireland, so we ended up back in Dublin for our last night before we had to return the car and board our plane(s) to head back home. We had dinner at The Winding Stair, which was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. It’s this little restaurant tucked into the main strip and you actually walk up a winding staircase to get in. We sat on the second floor, next to a table of about 15 people who were having THE BEST time — laughing and drinking and sprawled across about 48 tables, leaving rings of wine pressed into the creamy white tablecloths. It was the perfect atmosphere for our last night in Ireland. We tried splitting steak and potatoes and our waiter was like “oh ladies, you’ll want your own” and then we proceeded to devour our own plates, much to our waiter’s satisfaction. The food was perfection, the room was cozy and dim, and the wine list was poppin. Highly recommend.
After dinner, we crashed early to ensure we’d get up at 3am to go return the car — a much breezier process than picking it up — and then headed to the airport for a full day of flying.
Tips for Packing
Preparing for the weather
We were in Ireland from March 6-15, and the weather was not bad — we had some sunny days in the high 50s and some more rainy, cold days in the low 40s. Here’s what I packed, outerwear-wise:
I also highly recommend these comfy leggings — I packed jeans but basically wore leggings the entire trip, MUCH more comfortable if they get wet and easier to be climbing all over hills and castles and Irish gentleman.
Be wary of overpacking
Both Amy and I took one roller carry-on and one shoulder bag and were totally fine with the amount of clothes and miscellaneous personal belongings we had. NOTE: Some airlines — we flew Ryanair and Norwegian — will weigh your carry-on luggage, so be careful about overpacking. I had a small heart attack on our return flight because they weighed my roller suitcase and it was hella weighty so in a panicked flurry before boarding, I took out like three coats — why did I pack three coats, you ask? Irrelevant — and wore them and held my iPad and book (again, very important additions to my luggage), then hid my shoulder bag under my coat and practically ran past the boarding people, dragging Amy who was yelling “do you want to take one of the coats off?!” I am a hoot to travel with!
Be strategic with your liquids
Amy truly blew my mind when we arrived at the airport and she had all her liquids just loose in this flannel bag in absolutely ginormous travel sizes. The largest bottles that could possibly be called miniature were all cascading out of her bag at random amidst her interjections of “I couldn’t possibly live without this” and “this cost EIGHT DOLLARS at Target so it’s staying.” I am usually the most high maintenance person in my stratosphere so this was a real ~moment.~
Apparently she usually plops (her word) her big ass flannel bag on the conveyer and breezes right on through security. Being incredibly hesitant about authority figures, I always pack my (incredibly tiny) liquids in an (incredibly tiny) Ziploc and still quake with fear at the prospect of being pulled into an (incredibly tiny) room where adults examine my life choices in the form of a bottle of rose toner and three full packs of acne dots but inevitably, no toothpaste. ANYWAY the point of this Graduate Thesis is that you’ll absolutely need to skimp on packing liquids and go with a clear plastic bag when you’re traveling internationally. The last time I flew into London, they threw away a very expensive bottle of Urban Decay foundation and I am unashamed to say I wept like a small child who let go of their balloon at a carnival. Unless you are checking a bag and to this I tip my hat to you, High Roller.
Prepare your entertainment beforehand
I hate the long flight lottery of which plane you’ll get — sometimes they are lovely and pimped out with tons of seasons of TV and every movie you’ve ever wanted to watch on a plane and plenty of chargers everywhere and sometimes they are about 1 billion years old and slightly falling apart and have a permeating smell that will cling to you forevermore. I always prepare in case of the latter and have about 80 books, podcast episodes, movies, and articles saved to my iPad to ensure I will never be bored. I also grab travel packs of melatonin for easier sleeping and bring a big ass scarf and cozy socks to ensure I’m not freezing my butt off. Something I always forget that is life-changing is chapstick. Chapstick is your best friend on a flight. Bring two. Bring seven. You can never have too many.
Many more travel tips plus all your in-flight essentials over this way — I also wrote this article and it’s hilarious you know you want to click.
WHEW. Okay that was the whole trip! We had the absolute best time and I hope if you’re headed over to the Emerald Isle, you can use some of these tips. Bon voyage!