Ireland’s Castles, Folklore, and Sea Cliffs Are Calling
Europe’s friendliest country is back in business.
“Vegetables have a connection to the magic world,” says Rose Greene, chef at The Fumbally Stables in Dublin. Here in Ireland, you’ll hear a lot of people talk about magic—and not in a woo-woo way, but with a very matter-of-fact tone, like mentioning the beef is grass-fed. And after tasting Greene’s foraged wild herbs with fermented juice dressing, smoked ethically sourced tuna, and sourdough waffles, it’s easy to believe that statement. Mythology runs through the land like rivers here, fairies are real, and pagan ruins have been mysteriously aligned with the summer solstice since before even the pyramids were built. Mystic is just part of the day to day.
Maybe the locals claim to enjoy spinning tales, talking blarney, and irreverently playing with words a la James Joyce, but the lands certainly look magical—and the local lore only adds to the charm. You might not spy changelings or find stereotyped leprechauns chasing rainbows, but you’ll feel like you stumbled upon pots of gold when you see fields of bright yellow mustard flowers looking like melted metal poured onto the hills. That’s in addition to the moss-covered roofs of cottages, roads carving between hedgerows and under tunnels of trees, pastoral green slopes that roll to the horizon, sea cliffs that make you catch your breath, and castles overlooking it all. Ireland is pretty much a fairy tale come to life.
Sure, maybe some of the stories are bolstered by a pint of Guinness and sip of Irish whiskey, but who wouldn’t want a little malt and oak flavor with their folklore? There’s obviously so much more to the country than a drink or two. In the thriving capital of Dublin and throughout the country, you’ll come across a burgeoning range of international food and cocktails made with homegrown Irish products. It’s not all Irish stew and soda bread. “Ireland had a long history of immigration,” says Kate McCabe, co-founder of Bog & Thunder tour guide company. “Honestly, a lot of the best food in the country right now is cooked by immigrants translating the cuisine.”
It might not be obvious where to find all that cuisine, but that’s where Kate’s company comes in. Bog & Thunder is one tour group looking to show visitors lesser-known but outstanding food, landscapes, and tales of Ireland. Along with her husband Max Sussman, the two explore how boats on rivers weave in and out of mythology and what food can show about ancient stories. “We want to be connecting travelers with the source,” says McCabe.
The company is also committed to regenerative eco-travel. In addition to giving back to the community and donating profits to farmers and wildlife protection, it’s part of the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, which pledges tourism companies to be carbon neutral by 2050. After all, woodland creatures need those forested homes to keep living in. Here are all the magical happenings to find in Ireland.
Enjoy old classics and new cocktails in Dublin
Ireland’s capital comes with equal parts solemn history and lively celebration, 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 legends. (Oh, and always be sure to pack an umbrella and raincoat.)
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, trending neighborhoods like Camden, or in more laid-back areas like Smithfield. Be overwhelmed by charming tradition at the old-timey Brazen Head before moving on to a more modern cocktail atmosphere. Check out the city’s up-and-coming mixology scene at either The Vintage Cocktail Club or 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 castles
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.
One way to hear about the old legends of the land here is via a lovely boat ride with Boyne Boats, where owner Ross Kenny tells soothing tales of history and mythology while gliding down a forested river. Passengers can also take turns paddling the traditional ancient-style currachs, while heading around the bends, seeing fairy houses along the banks, and gliding under bridges. You could participate in a Halloween-themed ride (since the holiday is originally from Ireland), or a Game of Thrones version, since Kenny built the same boats for the TV show and trained the cast to use them.
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. You can opt to stay the night in the castle, in the property’s farmhouse or glamping in gorgeous yurts on the castle grounds. If everything is booked, a fantastic alternative is Burtown House. This estate from 1710 is owned by a photographer/designer, which means every tabletop, wall, and corner is a piece of art begging to be instagrammed.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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, the isle 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 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Be sure to book early—tours tend to fill up fast.
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 Market Lane restaurant. 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.
Afterwards, 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.
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.
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. Don’t skip out on stopping by the state-of-the-art visitor center, where you can rest your weary feet with delicious treats after achieving your 10,000 steps daily goal along the cliffs.