Historic castle ruins, enchanted coastlines, and endless fields of lush green - Ireland has all this and more. And if you find yourself on the isle of green, the best way to experience all that Ireland has to offer is by getting behind the wheel and taking the road trip of a lifetime. This Ireland Road Trip Guide is based on our 11 days in Ireland and how we made the most of them on the road.
Rental cars in Ireland are relatively affordable compared to the United States, though gas is expensive much like the rest of Europe. But at 84,431 square kilometers (32,599 square miles), the majority of sights and cities in Ireland are easily accessible by car - not to mention, there's no way you'd see nearly as much without your own set of wheels.
And of course, road trips are simply good fun!
It's fair to say that after spending about two weeks in Ireland that we have fallen in love. What we loved most about Ireland is not merely the tourist attractions, but the history deeply ingrained in this beautiful country that's visible around just about every corner. From the castle ruins to the cobblestone streets to the traditional pubs that local Irishmen have frequented for hundreds of years, Ireland is indeed a gem with something for travelers of all kinds!
Road Trip Starting Point: Dublin
Wondering where to start your Ireland trip? If you're traveling to Ireland, you will probably want to fly into Dublin, the Capitol and most populated city in Ireland, as it has been since all the way back to the Middle Ages! Dublin is an excellent starting point for immediately immersing yourself in Irish culture and charm. Visit some authentic Irish pubs around virtually every corner of the city and take some time to learn about the history of Ireland. Check out our One Day In Dublin Guide to learn more about what to do and see in Dublin during your time there.
Upon landing in Dublin, you can rent a car from the airport at a very reasonable price, especially compared to car rental companies in the United States. There is a multitude of car rental companies for you to choose from at the airport, but we typically use Enterprise Rent-a-car for most of our car rentals. While they are not always the "cheapest," per se, they offer consistently high quality and low (or no!) wait times. We've taken the gamble using other car rental companies in the past that flaunted lower prices, but as they say, you get what you pay for and often this lower price comes with inferior customer service, excruciating lines at the check-in desk, and hidden fees.
Wondering how to book accommodation in Dublin? We found hotels and even hostels in central Dublin to be a bit pricey, but we did find quite the steal without sacrificing hotel quality by shopping around in the surrounding areas. If you're traveling by car, it's worth it to book a hotel that's not right in the center of town. We went on Booking.com and found the Maldron Hotel in Newland's Cross, a 3-star hotel about 25 minutes from Dublin, for about USD 90 per night (check prices...).
Where To Go South of Dublin
As much as we loved Dublin, we only had a day or so to spend there before we had to head south to Killarney in County Kerry for TBEX, a travel blogging conference held in different tourist destinations twice a year. So south we went, driving along M7 but taking our sweet time so we could observe the Ireland countryside. That's what road trips are about, right?
Along the way, we came across the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois, Ireland. The first of would end up being many castle ruins we observed, even in hindsight the Rock of Dunamase was quite the sight to see and worth a visit! The ruins are steeping in history and will take you back hundreds of years as you walk through them. Better yet, the Rock of Dunamase is not overrun with tourists. During the 30 or so minutes we walked the grounds, we only observed a couple of other visitors.
If we had more time before we had to be in Killarney, we would have also stopped in Kilkenny, Cork, and any number of lovely towns filled with history along the way, but unfortunately, time was not in our favor this go-around. Check out this guide on Things to Do in Kilkenny or this guide to West Cork if you're looking for things to do the area!
Killarney: a National Park and Lots of Craic!
Jim and I had the privilege of visiting Killarney because it was the hosting place of TBEX, the world's largest travel blogging conference, this October. Situated along the Ring of Kerry and Killarney National Park, Killarney is one of Ireland's top tourist destinations, and it's easy to see why! The County Kerry town is booming with bed and breakfasts, golf courses, horse carriage rides around the park, a beautiful horse racetrack and other tourist attractions. You will adore the town's charm - and good ole craic, as they call it!
If you're looking for some authentic Irish entertainment, we highly recommend checking out Celtic Steps The Show at the Killarney Racecourse. We were treated to the show during a pre-party for TBEX and not only was the dancing impressive, but it was also a whole lot of fun too!
Another great feature of Killarney is that it boasts the second most accommodation in Ireland, with the only place beating it being Dublin! You can find everything from 5-star golf resorts to charming BnBs to budget traveler-friendly youth hostels. We stayed at Neptune's Hostel (check latest prices...) which was conveniently located right in the center of town and walking distance to many restaurants, pubs and shopping in Killarney.
One thing to note: While Killarney has heaps of accommodation, don't expect to just show up, especially during summer peak season. We have been told by locals that hotels are frequently entirely booked well in advance. Even during the fall season, we noticed many backpackers were turned away at Neptune's Hostel due to being at full capacity. Book ahead! In case you were wondering, we always use Hostelworld when searching for affordable accommodation, and that is where we found the best price for Neptune's Hostel.
Ring Around The Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is a famous Southwest Ireland circular route around the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. At about 180km long, there are plenty of noteworthy stops and sights to see along the way, from stunning coastal viewpoints to charming villages. Expect to see plenty of wildlife and farm animals roaming about, too!
While the Ring of Kerry is a route that can be driven along in one day (like we did), one can surely savor the journey by spending multiple days exploring stops along the way. There are plenty of accommodation options within the Ring of Kerry from cozy to luxurious.
Heading Up the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is a well-defined coastal route along the Ireland's North Atlantic coastline, and at approximately 2,500km (1,553 miles) long, it is the longest defined coastal driving route in the world! There are few keys stops we made along this coastal journey, including Galway, Sligo, and Giant’s Causeway - but there are plenty of other notable stops you can make on your trip!
Galway: a Musical Port City
No Ireland road trip would be complete without a visit to Galway, a highly walkable port city where the streets come alive at night with performers on practically every corner, particularly along the famous Quay Street. Along the cobblestone streets, you will find a vibrant pub scene and plenty of restaurant options. We noticed a lot of University students and backpackers wandering about, making it a great city to for enjoying a pint...or five.
From the very moment we arrived, we felt a warm welcome in Galway. We just so happened to walk by Heinz Beanz Cafe, where they were giving away free bean dinners to passerby in celebration of 50 years of Heinz Mean Beanz - naturally, we couldn't turn them down! There we met a lovely local, Meabh, who insisted on showing us around Galway.
Some notable sights in Galway include the Claddagh (where the iconic ring got its name) and the Spanish Arch, both of which are highly walkable from the center part of town. Through the Spanish Arch, you may recognize the waterfront area from Ed Sheeran's music video for Galway Girl !
We completed our night in Galway with fish and chips from McDonagh's, a maritime-themed chippy that we both enjoyed and highly recommend.
Sligo and Benbulbin: an Irish Plateau
Heading even more north, our next stop along the Wild Atlantic Way was Sligo. The main sight in Sligo becomes apparent as soon as you drive towards the town, as you will see the Benbulbin, an impressive natural limestone formation that defines the area's landscape. In the words of Jimmy, it's reminiscent of a plateau in Utah if Utah was more green than orange.
We were a little disappointed that there is no easy way to get up and around Benbulbin, but there is a walking path around the area. Either way, it's a unique sight to see in Ireland that will be a nice little detour from all the green, green and more green.
If you’re looking for quality accommodation at a reasonable price, we recommend spending a night in Sligo. We booked a room at the Clayton Hotel, (check latest prices...) a 4-star hotel that looks more like a castle on the outside than a hotel, for less than $100 per night. With your stay, you also get free access to the adjoining Club Vitae Health & Fitness Club. After spending some time in basic accommodation, this was quite the treat!
Before heading to Northern Ireland, we decided to make a pit stop at Fairy Bridges and Wishing Chair in Bundoran. This magical stretch of coastal cliffs on the Wild Atlantic Way got its name from myth in the 1700s that fairies haunted the area. Today, it’s a great place to catch some waves if you’re a surfer, or stretch your legs and snap some photos if you’re on a road trip.
Heading Up To Northern Ireland
As we crossed the border from Ireland to the UK part of the island, Northern Ireland, we immediately noticed some subtle differences. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been as obvious if we hadn’t already spent over a week seeing the majority of Ireland, but because we had, we couldn’t help but observe the difference in architecture, as well as the more industrial feel, right away. And if you paid much attention to history, you will probably have a basic understanding of why this is so. We are now firm believers that no trip to Northern Ireland is complete without learning more about the tumultuous and divisive history of this territory - some of which is still apparent today.
While we only had a few days to spend in Northern Ireland, the two stops we did make - Giants Causeway and Belfast - are two top destinations in the county. We'd love to hear from our readers about any others!
The Giant's Causeway: The Work of Giants
Walking along Giant’s Causeway’s perfectly symmetrical basalt columns, you’ll almost find it easier to believe the legend that it was the work of a giant Finn McCool than that of an ancient volcanic eruption. Dubbed an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway is a place of many myths and legends from which its name derives, but science tells us the over-40,000 basalt columns are the result of a volcanic eruption some 60 million years ago.
Either way, the Giant’s Causeway is an absolute must-see if you’re planning on visiting Northern Ireland.
Quick Tip: Paying for parking is not mandatory, nor is paying for a tour. We went just before sunset and had no trouble parking for free and walking right in (“closing time” is at 6 pm but you can technically come and go whenever you please from what we’ve noticed).
Belfast: Trendy Now, Troubles of Past
When we first arrived in Belfast, we immediately noticed how bustling and trendy much of the city is, especially in the university areas. Today, there is a growing culinary scene in the city that makes splurging on meals here worthwhile. But it wasn’t always this way, as locals will be quick to tell you.
Whether or not you’re a history buff, we believe it's practically a necessity while visiting Belfast to learn about the highly controversial history of Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, particularly the Troubles, the ongoing tension that divided Belfast and killed many throughout much of the mid-late 20th century.
The best way to immerse yourself in this history, as was recommended by a local, is a Black Cab Tour. We booked our tour with Brian from Belfast Mural Experience and were so impressed by how much history he engulfed us in through political murals in such a short amount of time! You will gain an authentic perspective of this city in a way that only a local who lived through it can give you.
Our Ireland road trip was concluded by driving back to Dublin from Belfast to drop off our rental car and catch a flight.
Some quick stats about our trip:
Distance Driven: 1,372km / 852.5mi
Gas Cost: approx 150EUR (we forgot to calculate exactly, but we filled our tank a total of 3x and it cost about 50EUR to fill each time. We dropped the car off with the tank on empty!)
- Time on the road: 19hr, 30min
While there are undoubtedly endless other ways to experience Ireland, we hope that sharing our Ireland experience in this Ireland road trip guide convinces you that Ireland is a fantastic place to visit and take a road trip in!
Still not sold on reasons you should visit this charming and stunningly green land? Here are the Top 60 Places to visit in Ireland through the eyes of some of the worlds top bloggers. Need more road trip inspiration as well? Check out our friends Laura and Pete over at PassportCollective for some places we did not have the pleasure of seeing.