I’m sharing what we did with 8 days in Ireland – it was a lot but so worth it! From our driving route around the island, day stops, pit stops, driving time, favorite eats and hotel stays.
Oh Ireland, The Emerald Isle…Where to begin!?
Ireland was on my bucket list ever since I visited Scotland and England back in the summer of 2016 (see Part 1 and Part 2). I fell in love with the landscape of Scotland and Northern England – the mountains and old castles and just all of the history, so I figured Ireland should be next on my travel destinations.
So while I had the trip in my head for a year or so… the actual planning didn’t happen until a few months before. And even the weeks before. My challenges with planning was I wanted to do so much and fit everything in.
I shared my (rough) travel plans with a few friends that had been to Ireland before and as they got an idea of my proposed itinerary, they’d look at me with doubt in their eyes like, “How are you going to fit that all in?”… and “Oh no, don’t do that. You can’t do both Northern Ireland and Ireland in one trip. You need a least a month!”
Well friends, long story short we did fit just about everything in I wanted to see, minus one beautiful location (Dingle Peninsula). But let me just preface this travel guide by saying I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the exact layout of our trip. At least, not in the timeframe that we somehow managed.
Mine and Drew’s goal was to see a lot, because our thoughts were, “Well we’re spending all this time and money to travel so far, so we should try and see as much as possible.” Alas, that was our biggest mistake… But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Alright so let’s chat about some of our favorite cities, landmarks, restaurants and some tips that may be helpful if you ever plan a trip to Ireland.
A Whirlwind trip to the Emerald Isle
We flew into Dublin because it was the cheapest and my plans for this trip was to do a big circle around the island. So we’d start driving north to Belfast in Northern Ireland, make our way back down and around to Galway, The Cliffs of Moher, Killarney, Cork and back up to Dublin.
- Aer Lingus has pretty decent flights. We flew out of Chicago (though DTW would have been closer for us) and straight to Dublin – just a about a seven hour flight.
- We also flew at night so we’d arrive in the morning. In hindsight this made for a very rough first day of travel because we drove straight to Belfast then Ballygally, but we survived.
- Make sure to have everything for your rental car in order. What we thought was going to be a good deal (booking online beforehand) ended up costing us almost 3x as much at the counter, thanks to the Hertz associate convincing me the Chase Sapphire Reserve no longer offered collision coverage in Ireland. (Still haven’t researched any further.)
- We booked most of our hotels using travel points via Chase Sapphire Reserve. If you plan on traveling in the future, highly recommend this card. You get $300 travel credit (reimbursement on hotels up to $300), 3x the points on dining and travel, and other various perks. The annual fee looks like a lot, but the $300 travel credit and other perks make up for it.
Day 1 – Belfast and driving north to Ballygally
I wanted to see Belfast just because why not? We were already making our way north so it was a good first stop leaving the Dublin airport.
Belfast was cool but it was a little stressful driving for Drew, because he was thrown right into city driving, driving on the opposite side of the road and car, with little to no sleep.
But it was a cute introduction to Ireland!
Dublin airport > Belfast = about 2 hours.
Belfast > Ballygally = about 45 minutes.
We first figured out parking in a ramp (more stressful than here in America, or at least what we’re used to in the Midwest), got lunch, walked a bit, got some coffee at Patisserie Valerie, saw the Game of Thrones stained glass artwork, then made our way to the Belfast Castle < they have nice little walking trails if you’re up for a hike but it’s free to walk around the grounds.
We ended up eating dinner here at the hotel, as well as breakfast.
The grounds were beautiful and the oceanside stunning as well. We had an amazing first night’s sleep and then it was on our way to The Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and The Giant’s Causeway.
Ballygally Castle > The Dark Hedges = about 1 hour.
Day 2 – Northern Ireland
The Dark Hedges
Or, The King’s Road, to Game of Thrones fans. It’s really just a line of trees on a side road surrounded by farmland. It’s still cool to see though! Plus it was a quick little stop on our way to Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway.
This was one of my absolute favorite spots of our trip. The views were just gorgeous, the rope bridge was fun and it was just nice to be out walking about on the coastline. If you go to Northern Ireland, don’t skip this!
And if heights aren’t your thing, you don’t have to cross the bridge.
Book tickets in advance (here) and be sure to give yourself enough time to get there for when you have to cross the bridge.
Side note: We actually did not do the above, due to sleeping in a little too late at the Ballygally Castle hotel, taking our time with breakfast and underestimating driving time. It caused a lit bit of panic on my part, but all in all it worked out.
We stopped for lunch at the Red Door before going to the bridge, where we got some great advice on our second full day in Ireland from the kind barista at the cafe: “The biggest mistake people make is trying to fit too much in. You don’t get to experience the culture and take it all in.”
And it was during that conversation I started second guessing our trip and what the heck I had planned.
Another helpful resource I used to research and plan parts of our trip was the site “Ireland Family Vacations” – I used a lot of her articles for help with understanding what to expect when visiting certain locations.
i.e. Giant’s Causeway. and the fact that if you want to skip the visitors center and save some cash, park further away and walk or take a bus up. More details on her site linked in the article.
- Causeway Hotel – for tea and cakes. Right next to entry to Giant’s Causeway.
- Red Door Cafe – for sandwiches, coffee and tea. We got sandwiches here before the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, and then ate them before Giant’s Causeway.
After Giant’s Causeway, we were back on the road heading south. I honestly just picked a location that was a decent halfway point on our trek to Galway. So we stayed in Bundoran on the coast for one night before driving down to Galway.
- Giant’s Causeway > Bundoran = About 2.5 hours.
- Bundoran > Galway = About 2.5 hours.
As you can imagine, by the time we got to Galway we were thankful to be staying put for a couple of nights.
Day 3 – Pitstop in Sligo
On our way down to Galway from Bundoran, we made a stop in Sligo to see the Sligo Abbey. It was only about a 45 minute drive but I wanted to make sure to stop and see as much as possible on our long drives before our next stopping point.
In Sligo there was a public parking lot across the street from the abbey, so we just parked there, walked around the Abbey (self-guided tour) and then got some coffee and tea at Kate’s Kitchen before the long drive down to Galway.
- Sligo > Galway = About 2 hours.
Day 3 & 4 – Galway
I really loved Galway! Like, so much. The streets were so unique and fun with great night life and lots of food options.
I’m glad we spent 2 days here and took our time exploring. It was nice to not feel rushed to the next spot, and just leave the car in the parking garage for 2 days.
- Forster Court Hotel – I’ll admit that the teal decor at the adjacent Hyde Bar drew me in. I just randomly found this hotel on the Chase Travel site, and the teal chairs sealed the deal. Another one we looked at was Eyre Square Hotel, which we ended up getting coffee and breakfast at a couple of times because it was just a few buildings down. Staying at the Forster Court was pretty easy though, with the parking garage just around the corner (didn’t have to drag our suitcases too far) and a quick 5-minute walk into the city center.
- Burritos at Tuco Taqueria – Kind of like the local Chipotle, if you will. We just stumbled upon this while walking about but I was really craving some Mexican that night so it worked out perfectly.
- Pizza at Dough Bros. – the lines were long but man was the pizza delicious! I also found a sour beer I really love, called “The Púca” by The White Hag Brewing Company.
- O’Connell’s Bar – We walked into this small pub thinking the front area was all there was to it. As we got seated at the bar (with a lot of the older crowd), the bartender asks us if this was our first time to which we replied “Yes.” Come to find out there was a whole beer garden out back and that’s where all of the young people were hanging out. Also note: there is a Dough Bros. here in the beer garden as well. We found that out after we already waited in the long line at their main location.
- Coffee at Eyre Square Hotel. Of course there are lots of other stops throughout the city. This was just close to our hotel and on our way to the city center.
- Ard Bia at Nimmos – this was a nice walk from our hotel, maybe 15 minutes. We ate breakfast here our first morning before walking around the Claddaugh. It’s a super small little place though, so get there early (like, 5 minutes before opening) if you want a table first thing.
Our first full day in Galway we walked around the Claddagh just exploring the area. I love being by the water so we just took our time walking around.
TIP: If you’re staying in Galway for more than a few days, consider booking tickets out to the Aran Islands. I think we would have done this had I planned a bit better.
Galway > Dunguire Castle = About 45 minutes.
Day 5 – Pitstop at the Dunguire Castle and Ailwee Cave
On our way from Galway to the Cliffs, we randomly decided to make a couple of stops. Essentially I was just looking around the map on our route for landmarks, castles and other fun things to see.
Dunguire Castle came up on the map so we ended up stopping there – you can just park along side of the road and walk right up. Then went for tea at Tea & Garden Rooms (in Ballyvaughan).
Side note: I took full advantage of all the tea times and little coffee shop stops. Drew realized it didn’t take a lot to make me happy on this trip. Give me all the tea and tea cakes.
Along our route we also saw signs for Ailwee Cave so we figured we might as well see what that was all about as well.
Dunguire Castle > Ailwee Cave = About 35 minutes.
The Ailwee Cave does have an entry fee but by the time we got to the gate we didn’t feel like turning around so paid the entry fee for the little tour into the cave. It was pretty neat.
Then by the time we were finally en route to the Cliffs of Moher, we didn’t have too much driving left to do.
Ailwee Cave > Cliffs of Moher = About 45 minutes.
Day 5 – Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher are, of course, a must-see. We ended up going on a fairly warm, sunny day but the wind off the ocean was pretty chilly, so dress warm.
There were also a lot of people, as expected. I’m not sure there is truly a “good” time of the day to go to avoid crowds but like I said, it was a really nice day with lots of sunshine and no rain in sight.
The sunny weather actually made it difficult to see all of the colors in the cliffs towards the south, but it was stunning regardless.
We drove down to Ennistymon for the night (about a 20 minute drive from the cliffs) where we stayed at The Falls Hotel. It was a nice location in that we could walk to the city center for dinner and breakfast.
- Breakfast – We ate at Foodie’s Korner the next morning, before departing down to Killarney. Kind of just your standard Irish breakfast place, but they had great pastries and coffee!
- Dinner – we drove down to the coast (Lahinch) because we wanted to see the sunset for dinner. We would have eaten at O’Looney’s Bar but it happened to be closed when we were there. It’s actually a cool location and you could tell it is a big surfer town.
The Falls Hotel > Killarney = About 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Day 6 & 7 – Killarney
We both really loved Killarney. It was so beautiful, being surrounded by the mountains and the cute little downtown. It was easy enough to get around with the car and we spent a lot of time in the National Park area.
We originally had only planned one day here but because both Drew and I enjoyed the area so much, we booked another night here instead of in Cork.
This is also where we glamped! I don’t remember how I came across glamping in Ireland but Killarney Glamping came up in a search and we just went for it. I actually booked this at the airport in Chicago waiting for our plane, so we were pretty excited for Killarney and our glamping stay even in the early stages of our trip.
Things to Do around Killarney
- Ross Castle – It was very very wet that day but we made the most of it walking around the castle and trails. I wore an insulated rain coat, similar to this one* (affiliate), that was the perfect coat for this trip. Though I did learn that after 8 years, the waterproof layer had worn off.
- Torc Waterfall – A hike with a few different routes, depending on your activity level.
- Ring of Kerry – We didn’t do this but wish we would have had more time.
- National Park – we walked around near the waterfall on the trails and watched the red deer.
- Shopping on High Street – lots of shops and wool markets
- Killarney Glamping – We were in Ireland in October and while we had somewhat chilly nights (about 40ºF or so), the heaters and electric blankets kept us super warm. I highly recommend staying here, even if it’s just for a couple nights of your stay in Killarney.
- Killarney Brewing Co.
- Murphy’s Ice Cream
- Underground Coffee
- Khao Asian Street Food
- Mug & Bean
- Any of the pubs for traditional Irish food!
Killarney > Cork (Blarney Castle) = About 1 hour 30 minutes.
Day 8 – Blarney Castle and Cork
We were nearing the end of our trip and I had one more major landmark I wanted us to see, and that was the Blarney Castle. It’s so neat that you can walk around the entire castle, check out all of the rooms, and learn what each room was actually used for.
Learn more about the castle and book tickets here.
You can also kiss the stone, which we did not do because it was cold and raining. But I’ve heard the lines get quite long so plan ahead for that.
After the castle, we had about another 30 minutes to get into the city of cork.
Driving into the city and trying to find parking was just a tad stressful. I think at this point of the trip we were both really tired and I was all planned out. We got into the city around 4 or so, got dinner at The Fish Wife (really good), walked around The English Market and then made our way to the hotel in Cork. It was also pretty rainy and cold. Needless to say we were kind of lame that night and just crashed early at the hotel.
We did find donuts the next day as we explored the city a bit more before deciding to start our journey back to Dublin a little early.
Cork was a neat city and had we had more time and energy, I think we both would have enjoyed it a bit more.
Day 9 – Making our way back to Dublin.
Originally, my plan was to try and potentially spend one night in Dublin or at least near the city so we could explore the area a bit. But like I said, at this point of our trip we were both pretty tired. And we heard driving in Dublin is not fun so I didn’t want to subject Drew to that stress of a mess either.
So, we didn’t even do Dublin. Which I am totally fine with. Drew and I aren’t huge city people and we really had such an amazing time exploring the countryside for the week.
But on our drive to Dublin, I happened to come across this restaurant called Anvil Restaurant, in Saggart Village, that had a lovely menu. To be honest, I chose the restaurant solely based on the fact they had chicken wings on the menu because I figured that’s what Drew would have wanted.
But then we both got huge delicious salads and we shared some pumpkin soup. It was just what we needed (yay greens!) before we got to our hotel for the night. We just found a place about 30 minutes from the airport and called it good.
At this part of the trip we were both ready to be home and sleep in one bed for more than 2 nights in row 🙂
More tips on planning your Ireland Vacation
- Driving – If you’re scared to drive, then driving around the entire island or renting a car might not be the best option for you. There are some tours and day trips you can take out of cities like Belfast, Dublin and Galway, to name a few.
- Hotels – Unless you want to pay top dollar for hotel stays, just know that a lot of double occupancy beds are going to be on the smaller side (not a queen). Also consider Bed & Breakfasts and Airbnb! We mostly used our travel points for hotel stays though.
- Food – If you’re used to eating a certain (healthy) way, be sure to just come to Ireland with an open mind. Some cities have fairly traditional food and not a lot of lighter options on their menu. I am past the point of stressing about eating a certain way on vacation and during traveling, but I totally understand when your body is craving greens and a smoothie. All in all though, the food was great.
- Trying to fit it all in – DON’T. Honestly, I wish I would have taken everyone’s advice before truly planning the trip and departing for the airport. I thought we could do it all and it’d be fine. But we were constantly on the go, and didn’t truly get a chance to take our time exploring all of the areas. I knew both Drew and I wouldn’t want to be in one area too long (he’s a busybody), but the amount of driving we did was a lot for less than two weeks. Not to mention a little stressful. All in all we both loved the trip and we got to see so much. But I wish I would have stuck to just 2-3 main spots with minimal driving. Killarney and Galway were our favorites for sure. If I could go back, I’d love to see Dingle Peninsula, maybe visit Killarney again and do the Ring of Kerry.