Ireland may be a small (ish) country, but in one week, we still only scratched the surface. We flew in and out of Shannon airport and stuck to the west/southwestern side. Our trip included the Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, and Rock of Cashel. Here’s how we worked our Ireland 9-Day Itinerary.
Day 1 – Fly to Shannon, Ireland
Many people want to see Dublin and perhaps the flight choices are more plentiful, but we chose Shannon instead. It’s a smaller airport on the western side of the country and closer to the places we really wanted to visit.
Day 2 – Arrive in Shannon and Drive to Dingle
Landing in Shannon after a long red-eye, we rented a car (booked ahead of time through Auto Europe, although locally it was arranged by Budget). Twenty years ago, Rick drove all over England on the “wrong” side of the road with the stick shift in the “wrong” hand. Even so, it took him a good hour to remember to look right when turning, to not drive too close to the left-hand curb, and to really, really, really not do a u-turn that sends you the wrong way into a roundabout. God Bless Sunday mornings and light traffic.
Setting a course for the 2.5 hour drive to Dingle, we passed south of Limerick, through the cute thatched-roof town of Adare, around Tralee, and once on the Dingle peninsula, through the Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland with lovely views, trickling waterfalls, boulders to climb, and exceptionally skinny roads. Yay for small rental cars.
Dingle itself is a charming little fishing town (thank you, Rick Steves), with its own dolphin in the harbor and traditional music coming from the pubs. We stayed at the Hillgrove Guesthouse, which is a short walk to everything we needed and right across the street from the Lidl grocery store for snacks and breakfast food. (We lucked out and avoided the Hillgrove’s nightclub, which is open on weekends. Our Sunday through Wednesday stay was quiet and peaceful.)
Day 3 – Slea Head Drive
Next morning, we headed out clockwise along Slea Head Drive that circles the western end of Dingle peninsula. There are a number of sights here, some free, some charging a few Euro admission. In order, we saw Dunbeg Promontory Fort, Beehive Huts, Slea Head, Coumeenoole Bay, Dunquin Harbor, Clogher Strand, Gallarus Oratory, and Kilmalkedar Church (photo below). You can read about all these places here.
Day 4 – West Side of the Ring of Kerry
Today, we drove from Dingle toward Cahersiveen, picking up the Ring of Kerry in Killorglin. There were a few ring forts and one castle ruin near Castlequin that were on our must-see list. We went first to Leacanabuile Stone Fort and Cahergall Stone Fort (photo below), then Ballycarbery Castle, ending up on Valentia Island on the advice of a local. To learn more about these places, read this post: 5 free things to do OFF the Ring of Kerry.
This was a full day of driving, and even though we had intended to see a little more of the Ring of Kerry, navigating through constant rain was exhausting. We got as far as Portmagee, just south of Valentia Island, then retraced our route for the two hours back. Just east of Dingle Town, we passed the Blue Flag Inch Beach long enough to take a picture of what would have been a great spot to linger on a nice day, grabbed some pub food on Main Street, and said goodbye to Dingle with one last stop into Murphy’s Ice Cream, home of the best locally-sourced ice cream. Ever.
Day 5 – Bunratty Castle and Ennis
Phase two of our trip found us leaving Dingle and driving straight to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, this time skipping the winding road through the Conor Pass. We stopped for lunch at the original Durty Nelly’s Pub within sight of the Irish Tower House. Built in 1425, it has been restored, and if you’re not claustrophobic, it’s worth climbing up and down the skinny spiral staircases hidden in the walls.
The 26-acre grounds surrounding the castle have been turned into a really great living museum, portraying everyday life in rural Ireland from 100 years ago. Fires burn in the hearths of the farmhouses, roosters crow in the fields, and the local policeman patrols the village street. After a little searching, we even found the hidden fairy garden.
By late afternoon, it was onward to Ennis where we had booked a family room in the Rowan Tree Hostel. It was the typical bare-bones accommodation for a good price. Perfectly adequate, clean, quiet, well-run and well-maintained, and within walking distance to the old pubs and shops.
Day 6 – The Burren and the Cliffs of Moher
We chose Ennis because of its central location to other attractions, but it turned out to be a lovely town in its own right. Nevertheless, we were out the door and in the car the next morning, headed up to The Burren, a 96 square mile area in County Clare that’s dominated by exposed, cracked limestone. We decided not to take the shuttle bus in Corofin to the National Park, instead driving ourselves through the Burren on the R480 toward Ballyvaughan. First, however, we stopped at the old Killinaboy Church simply because it looked cool.
A little further up the road, we came to Caherconnell, a well-preserved, circular stone fort dating to the 10th century. Just beyond that is the Poulnabrone Dolmen (photo below), a Neolithic portal tomb in the middle of a rocky field.
Lunch was in the quaint seaside town of Ballyvaughan, followed by a coastal drive west around Black Head. A pit-stop to climb on the extensive rock field at Murrooghtoohy Discovery Point was requested by the teenager in the backseat.
Continuing along the coast, we detoured to the Doolin Pier to check on boat cruises for the Cliffs of Moher, but the choppy water convinced us we’d rather see the 700 foot high cliffs from the top, which are truly amazing from any vantage point.
Day 7 – Rock of Cashel
It was another night in Ennis before today’s road trip to the Rock of Cashel. First, however, we couldn’t resist finding the ruins of Athassel Priory, which is just southwest of town and hidden down a country road in the middle of a pasture. We parked on a side lane and climbed over a gate, said hello to a couple of cows in the entryway, and had fun exploring the old grounds.
Another 15 minutes on the road and we were in the town of Cashel, where we joined all the other tourists at the popular Rock of Cashel. It’s an impressive fortress which was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster in the 1100’s. The ruins contain the remains of a chapel, round tower, cathedral, and cemetery.
Leaving the crowds behind, we found the footpath over to the less-visited Hore Abbey, a 13th century abbey turned monastery. Once again, it was over a gate and through the field to see the ruins.
Day 8 – Loop Head
Our last day in Ireland, and the weather was finally clear and beautiful. We spent the morning doing a little shopping in Ennis, and after lunch, we pointed the car toward the seaside, driving the Loop Head Peninsula to an underappreciated little spot in Kilkee called Duggerna Reef, known locally as the Pollock Holes. This was possibly one of our favorite places of the whole trip. While the tide is out, all kinds of rocks and critters are exposed. When the tide comes in (which it does quickly), the cliffs above are the best place to take in the view.
Our final stop was the Bridges of Ross, near the tip of the peninsula. Currently, there’s only one Bridge of Ross, but there were three when they were named. The natural sea arches tend to come and go over the centuries. Seeing the wave action there, we understood why. Visitors park in a lot and take a footpath since the arch is not visible from the road.
Day 9 – Fly Home
Sad day. One last overnight in Ennis and it was time to go home.
But good news if you’re an American citizen. We went through U.S. Customs in Shannon before boarding our plane. It seemed a little weird, but was really convenient. When we landed in the States, they dumped us out in the terminal like all the other domestic travelers. Also, for those with Global Entry, Shannon Airport has a bank of kiosks along the wall of the Customs area.