Ireland Is Open, and the Stiff Drinks and Sea Cliffs Are Calling Your Name

Europe’s friendliest country is back in business.

high angle view of a woman taking pictures at Dunquin Pier, along the Ring of Kerry on Dingle Peninsula
Dunquin Pier in Ireland's County Kerry | Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Getty Images
Dunquin Pier in Ireland's County Kerry | Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Getty Images

Lively pubs, friendly folk, and excellent craic—that’s what Ireland is made of. But more than just one round of Guinness after another, this beloved island nation in the North Atlantic has ancient ruins dating back thousands of years, majestic landscapes with rolling green hills that punctuate ash-gray skies, and alluring small towns whose rich heritage fuels a sense of national pride few other countries can match. And as tiny as the Emerald Isle may be—about the size of Indiana, with an even smaller population—it’ll beguile you with its charm, and perhaps even bestow upon you the luck of the Irish.

In fact, we’re already feeling pretty lucky: As of July 19, Ireland became one of many countries to officially reopen to international tourism. So if you’ve been dying to listen to a triad session while sipping on a cold one, explore medieval sites, or amble along Europe’s most dizzying sea cliffs, your long wait is finally over. Here’s what to expect if you visit Ireland right now, and everything to see once you’ve touched down.

How to visit Ireland and what’s open

Ireland is open to fully vaccinated travelers and those who can provide proof of recovery from Covid-19 in the last 180 days. Unvaccinated travelers must present a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours prior to travel, test again upon arrival, and undergo quarantine at an approved hotel. You’ll also need to fill out a passenger locator form at least 48 hours before departure. More info here.

After a long lockdown, bars and restaurants are back slinging pints and cooking up good grub for everybody to enjoy—but you’ll need to provide proof of vaccination to sit inside. Most shops, tours, museums, and hotels are open for business, but be sure to double check their status ahead of time. Even with many Irish folks opting for staycations that’ll coincide with this year’s tourist season, it should be easy to maintain social distancing (and nab some crowd-free photos) since many tourist attractions can only operate at 50% capacity.

Although the number of flights diminished during the pandemic, you can now catch a nonstop flight via Aer Lingus to Dublin from east coast cities like Boston, Newark, and New York from $570, and from Chicago for under $500; flights from LA and Dallas tend to run for $900+.

From there, enjoy the capital as it returns to its full splendor—or risk it all by driving on the left side of the road to explore the countryside and see what the island has to offer. Outdoorsfolk, history buffs, and revelers alike: Here are the best things to do in Ireland.

famous temple bar and street outside in dublin
Dublin's famous Temple Bar | Unsplash/Matheus Câmara da Silva

Enjoy old classics and new cocktails in Dublin

Ireland’s capital comes with equal parts history and debauchery, both of which can be found on nearly every street corner. Seek out famous Dublin attractions like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Old Library of Trinity College; stop in for a taste of the world-famous brews and booze at the Guinness Storehouse or the Jameson Distillery; and hit up the National Leprechaun Museum of Ireland to get enchanted by Ireland’s rich folklore and legends. (Oh, and always be sure to pack an umbrella.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true visit to Dublin without a night or two spent downing pints on the town, whether that be with fellow tourists from around the world in Temple Bar, or in more laid-back neighborhoods like Smithfield. Check out the city’s up-and-coming cocktail scene at Bar 1661, where you can try drinks inspired by poitín, a (once-illegal) spirit that’s essentially Ireland’s equivalent to moonshine.

Visit the countryside for ruins and rock n’ roll

The countryside is the ideal space to commune with the ancient spirits of Ireland—and there’s no better spot to do so than in the Boyne Valley. Just 45 minutes outside Dublin, this lush landscape is surrounded by prehistoric sites like Brú na Bóinne (or “the Palace of the Boyne”), which consists of the megalithic burial mounds of Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth.

A short drive from the mounds, you’ll also find the Hill of Tara, a seed of political power where the ancient kings of Ireland claimed their thrones. And for more recent history—or rather, a place that melds together past and present—check out Slane Castle, an 18th-century palace that doubles as a music venue and whiskey distillery.

Conquer your fear of heights along Ireland’s sea cliffs

Stretching along the North Clare coastline, the Cliffs of Moher—literally “the cliffs of the ruined fort”—are one of Ireland’s most recognizable vistas. From the edge of the towering stone walls, which reach as high as 702 feet, you can catch an extraordinary view out as far as the Aran Islands. If you’re up for a proper look around, there’s also a hiking trail from Doolin to Hag’s Head. Just try to resist standing too close to the edge—strong winds have sent a few people flying.

A few hours north in Southwest Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way, Sliabh Liag (or Slieve League) is the highest sea cliff in all of Europe, as well as one of Ireland’s best hidden gems. Reaching heights of 1,972 feet—nearly twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower—the cliffs were once a Christian pilgrimage. Now, visitors marvel at the tremendous view of the Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay nearby. For the truly adventurous spirits (and those not afraid of heights), venture beyond the viewing point onto One Man’s Pass which loops around the Pilgrim’s Path for some heavenly scenery.

people dining on a cobblestone street in cork, ireland
Cork is often called Ireland's Food Capital | Photo courtesy of Cork City Council

Eat yourself silly in Ireland’s best food city

Along the banks of the River Lee, Cork is an ultra-walkable cosmopolitan city with superb restaurants and a thriving craft beer scene. Spend the day shopping for edible souvenirs at the renowned English Market, filled with produce from local artisans, and if you can’t get enough, grab a meal made from the market’s best offerings at restaurant Market Lane. Meat-lovers ought to rub elbows (pun intended) in the narrow halls of Elbow Lane Brew and Smokehouse, while vegetarians should treat themselves to a five-star meal at Paraiso.

Use your culinary escapades as fuel to scale 132 steps and ring the famous Shandon Bells at St Anne’s Church; we promise you’ll find that the bird’s-eye view over the city is well worth the effort. And once you’ve ambled back down, unwind with some superb craft beers from Franciscan Well Brewery, a former 13th-century monastery slinging pints made in its microbrewery.

the colorfully painted Deck of Cards houses and St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh Ireland
Cobh's Deck of Cards houses and St. Colman’s Cathedral | Unsplash/Jason Murphy

Rediscover the history of the Titanic in Cobh

The village of Cobh is deeply entangled with the doomed ocean liner RMS Titanic, as it was the last port of call before the vessel’s ill-fated maiden voyage. At the Titanic Experience, elevate your knowledge beyond James Cameron’s 1997 classic and discover more intimate details about the passengers and crew whose lives were lost to the sea.

Beyond the world’s most infamous ship, this port town has plenty more history to offer. Along the harbor, gawk at the colorful Deck of Cards houses, built in 1850, as well as the famed St. Colman’s Cathedral with its carillon of 49 bells. Between 1848 and 1950, Cobh also served as the departure point for 2.5 million Irish citizens on their way to North America, a rich emigration history you can learn all about at the Heritage Centre.

Back view of woman pausing to take pictures through arch in ruins of Skellig Michael monasteries, County Kerry, Ireland
The ruins of Skellig Michael | Anna Gorin/Getty Images

See how 6th-century monks lived on an ancient island

Just off the coast of County Kerry in the Atlantic Ocean, venture to what seems like the edge of the world with a trip to Skellig Michael. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the home of 6th-century Christian monks who believed isolating themselves on the island would bring them closer to God (and in spring, it welcomes a colony of puffins). While it’s a tough trek—you’ll need to take a boat ride from Portmagee and hike up 600 steps to the top—the once-in-a-lifetime experience of walking among the centuries-old settlement is worth the effort. (If it sweetens the pot for anybody, Skellig Michael also doubled as Luke Skywalker’s hideout inStar Wars: The Force Awakens.) Be sure to book early—tours tend to fill up fast.

Hang 10 in one of Europe’s most unexpected surf spots

Head north along the country's west coast and hit the rocky shores of Bundoran, a seaside town renowned for the best surfing in the Emerald Isle, if not in all of Europe. Beneath gray skies, steel your nerves and catch giant waves at The Peak or Tullan Strand (or just watch the local pros do their thing) before refueling at one of the cafes around town like The Salty Fox, Foam, or Caroline’s. Take some time to explore this former resort town with a wee coastal stroll around Rougey Cliff or the West End Walk for breathtaking views of the fishing port of Killybegs, as well as the aforementioned Slieve League.

Get immersed in nature at Malin Head

The northernmost point of Ireland, Malin Head is famous for its eye-catching landscape and striking beaches. Here, you’ll want to submerge yourself in nature with a little fishing, a quick swim, or a study of the unique rock formations that dot the coast. Hike up to Banba’s Crown and be rewarded at the top with a glorious vista of the Inishowen Peninsula. From there, more daring hikers can continue along a quick, 1.1 mile trail that’ll guide them out along Hells Hole and the Devil’s Bridge—a deep ravine and equally-impressive natural arch—and back to Malin Head. Don’t be intimidated by the names: unbeatable views are in store for the brave.

A woman explores the unique hexagonal coastline at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, one of the region's top tourist attractions
The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland | Joel Carillet/Getty Images

And of course, visit the Giant’s Causeway

No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Formed over 60 million years ago by the rapid cooling of molten lava upon contact with the sea, the mind-boggling formation of hexagonal basalt columns are an international fixation, capturing the imaginations of artists and scientists for centuries. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive formations of the Camel, the Wishing Chair, the Giant Boot, and the Harp, as well as the state-of-the-art visitor center, where you can rest your weary feet with delicious treats after achieving your daily 10,000 steps along the cliffs.

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Yolanda Evans is a contributor for Thrillist.