Summer is finally here which means that it’s time for yet another summer adventure! This year, my husband Dave and I are headed back to Europe. With Dave working in Germany again in June, it was a great opportunity to leave a few weeks early and take the scenic route, stopping in two other countries on the way over – Ireland and Italy.
Italy will be our primary focus this month as we have assembled quite a long wish list of new Italian destinations to visit since getting married in Florence two years ago. But our Italian itinerary left approximately four days at the beginning of the trip to devote to another country. After a quick browse of airfares, Ireland immediately shot to the top of our list.
Can you see Ireland in just four days, you ask?
Of course not! But with the help of a rental car, you can see a lot.
With limited time, we decided to focus our energies on the southern portion of Ireland’s “Wild Atlantic Way” and then finish our stay with two nights in Dublin. To save driving time, we flew into Shannon Airport on the west coast and then out from Dublin.
I’ll delve more into the itinerary in a moment, but first, a few words about our mode of transportation…
Renting a Car in Ireland
After departing Atlanta and a quick connection in New York, we landed at Shannon Airport at 10:30am and headed straight for the rental car counter.
After exhaustive research on the topic, we’d chosen Dooley Car Rentals for our car based on online reviews. Choosing the right car rental company in Ireland is essential as the process can be a bit complicated. There are several different insurance options to choose from and many companies will try to get you to add additional coverage at the counter which can double the price for your car. We chose Dooley because the reviews said their pricing was totally upfront with no surprises at the counter. That was important to me. Their website clearly explained the insurance options and prices.
We considered all the options for insurance and ultimately decided to play it safe and go with full coverage. This was despite the fact that my Chase Sapphire card would have covered us for a rental in Ireland (most credit cards will not). The primary reason was that any of the car rental companies would have placed an enormous hold on our card during the rental period and, in the event of any damage, we would have had to pay the entirety of damages on site and then worked through Chase to be refunded.
While I have no doubt this would have been taken care of by Chase eventually, with 3 more weeks of travel ahead, we didn’t want to take the chance of having thousands of dollars charged on our card while traveling in the event of an accident. For a shorter trip, I might have relied on my Chase card and forgone the additional insurance coverage to save the money. (Note: if you have the Chase card and you want to take advantage of their insurance coverage in Ireland, you’ll need a note from them confirming your coverage to present at the counter when you pick up the car.)
In this case, though, I think the peace of mind was well worth the additional $75 over the length of our 4-day rental. At the counter, the only additional option we were given was to cover the tires and glass for an additional $5 per day. We jumped at that option because everything I’d read online said that the tires and windshield were not covered under any insurance. Since they were two of the most likely areas for potential damage, the additional $20 seemed like a bargain.
All in all, a 4-day car rental picked up in Shannon and returned in Dublin cost us $265. Not bad for the total freedom it afforded us to explore the countryside without fear of any damage to the car. We booked the smallest car possible (a Nissan Micra) for the ease of navigating Ireland’s narrow country roads.
Another important note if you’re renting a car in Ireland, full coverage insurance does not cover putting in the wrong type of fuel. This happens more often than you’d think as the pumps in Ireland are green for unleaded and black for diesel – the opposite of how they are marked in the States. This is an extremely costly repair so be extra cautious when refueling and if you do put in the wrong type, do not start the car and call the rental company immediately. Draining the tank is far less expensive than the engine damage that would result from starting it with the wrong fuel type.
Driving in Ireland
Remember that like most of Europe, rental cars in Ireland are primarily manual transmission. You can get an automatic but book early and be prepared to pay twice as much for it. A word of advice…if you’ve never driven a stick-shift, Ireland is definitely not the place to give it a go.
Similarly, if it’s been years since the last time you drove a stick and your skills may be a little rusty, consider spending the money for an automatic. The last thing you want to be worried about when you meet a lorry on a winding one-lane road is what gear you should be in. They drive on the left in Ireland, which means you’ll be driving from what’s usually the passenger seat and shifting with your left hand (awkward even for experienced stick shift drivers).
One thing to watch out for are the “barrier-free” toll plazas along Ireland’s M50 motorway. We didn’t pass any of these on our route but if you do pass one, you are required to pay the toll online here before 8pm the following day. If you don’t, your rental car company will likely charge it to your credit card along with a hefty service fee for the convenience.
Once you’re off the main motorways, the roads are often narrow and many have shrubs or trees growing close to the road which can easily result in scratches down the side of the car (hooray for full coverage insurance!).
GPS can be invaluable in navigating through some of the more rural areas. We have T-Mobile’s free international data plan so we were able to use our phones for GPS without a problem but if you don’t have the ability to use your phone for navigation consider spending the extra money for a GPS unit.
Roundabouts are common throughout Ireland and because you’re driving on the left, you must yield to traffic coming from your right in a roundabout and signal before exiting the circle.
But enough about collision damage waivers and road rules! Don’t let any of the above information scare you off driving in Ireland. It is absolutely the best way to see the country, especially when you have limited time. Now let’s move on to the fun part…
The Wild Atlantic Way
Hugging Ireland’s western coastline, the Wild Atlantic Way stretches for more than 1,500 miles and is the longest defined coastal drive in the world. Beginning at Malin Head in County Donegal and winding its way down the coast to Kinsale in County Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way is dotted with jagged cliffs and deserted beaches. From film locations to Signature Discovery Points like the Cliffs of Moher, you could spend weeks exploring this scenic length of (mostly) pavement.
With just four days total in Ireland, we decided to devote the first two to the Wild Atlantic Way and, with keys in hand, we were ready to hit the road less than an hour after touching down at Shannon Airport.
Day 1 – The Cliffs of Moher and Galway
The forecast for our 4 days in Ireland was uninspiring with lots of rain expected (the norm this time of year) so when we landed to just partly cloudy skies, we decided to head straight for the Cliffs of Moher while at least it wasn’t raining sideways.
The drive from Shannon Airport took about 90 minutes and was mostly highway so Dave had a grace period to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road before confronting the single-lane-roads-used-for-2-way-traffic that are common in the Irish countryside. The drive was beautiful and in no time we were parking at the Cliffs of Moher and paying our 6 euro entry fee at the lot.
As Ireland’s most-visited natural attraction, the Cliffs of Moher rise 702 feet at their highest point and stretch for 5 miles along County Clare’s Atlantic coast. The area is home to 30,000 breeding pairs of seabirds including Puffins and even a pair of Peregrine Falcons.
Trails (mostly without railings, I might add) line the edge of the cliffs and we spent a solid hour walking in each direction enjoying the spectacular views. Near the visitor center, you can also buy a ticket to climb the spiral staircase of O’Brien’s Tower for an even better view. Built in 1835, the tower offers views to five counties on a clear day.
Since it wasn’t an especially clear day, we decided to skip that and spend our time exploring the nooks and crannies of the trails. I can’t imagine a better place to start your first day in Ireland and after wrapping up our visit to the cliffs, we headed north to Galway for lunch.
Galway wasn’t exactly on the way to our other destinations but I figured since we were just an hour away, we should check it out (PSA: that kind of logic can lead to some really long days touring Ireland!).
Once in Galway, we made a beeline for Eyre Square, the town’s hub. We were starving so it didn’t take long to choose a restaurant for lunch and we settled in for some fish and chips (of course). After lunch, we wandered the tangled streets of the medieval district for a bit enjoying the music of the local street performers before hitting the road for the drive back toward the airport.
For our first night, we had booked a hotel just outside of Limerick, about 30 minutes south of Shannon Airport. This meant backtracking toward the airport after day one but it put us in a better position to continue our journey the next day, to the Dingle Peninsula.
My hotel find for the night was the Woodfield House Hotel. It was an absolutely charming B&B straight out of Irish central casting. With cozy rooms and a lively pub downstairs, it was exactly what we needed after spending the previous night on a plane.
The pub had terrific food and we shared a delicious Guinness stew and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert (side note: how did I not know about sticky toffee pudding? It was amazing!).
Day 2 – Adare, The Dingle Peninsula, Killarney and Cobh
On our second day, we had a massive itinerary planned. We had hoped to tackle both the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. But once we had one day of driving in Ireland under our belts, a quick look at the map told us that we were ridiculous to think we could reasonably cover both in a single day. Each was worthy of a full day on its own.
Unfortunately, we had just one full day to spend in the area so we had to make some choices. We decided to focus most of our day on the Dingle Peninsula and then limit our Ring of Kerry stops to the more central Killarney area.
But first, since the heritage town of Adare was on our way to the Dingle Peninsula from Limerick, we couldn’t resist a quick stop to see the town’s famous thatched cottages. Often considered “Ireland’s Prettiest Village,” Adare dates back to the time of the Norman conquest and has been home to the Earls of Dunraven for more than three centuries.
We stopped for photos at the 13th century Desmond Castle (one of Europe’s few remaining Norman castles) on the way into town and then parked along the main street to take in the quaint thatched cottages and rugged stone buildings. It was an adorable village and, luckily, it was small enough to enjoy in a brief stopover before we headed on to the Dingle Peninsula and the Conor Pass.
The Dingle Peninsula is Ireland’s most westerly point and one of the most popular sights along the Wild Atlantic Way. The peninsula’s only town is Dingle, a fishing village with a busy port and marina. The most scenic way to reach Dingle is to take a drive along the dramatic landscapes of the Conor Pass, the country’s highest mountain pass.
I’m not sure if I’d recommend tackling the Conor Pass on your first day driving in Ireland, but on day two it was a little more manageable. The roads are narrow (like most along the Wild Atlantic Way) but they also have the added feature of sheer drops off the side of a mountain. Fun!
The landscape is rugged and rocky yet strangely beautiful and was one of our favorite drives of the trip. At the end of the Conor Pass, the road slowly descends into the seaside town of Dingle.
Aside from its rainbow-colored store fronts, the town of Dingle is famous for two things – a dolphin named Fungie and Murphy’s Ice Cream.
Fungie, Dingle’s most famous resident, is a male bottlenose dolphin who has been visiting the fisherman of Dingle Bay for nearly 32 years. Frequent boat tours take visitors out to see the dolphin but no one knows exactly how old Fungie is so get there while you can!
We didn’t have enough time for an hour-long boat trip to see Fungie so we opted for Dingle’s second most famous attraction, Murphy’s Ice Cream. Handmade in Dingle, this artisan ice cream shop is unlike any other I’ve visited. Made with all natural ingredients including the milk of Kerry cows, Murphy’s creative flavors run the gamut from Sticky Toffee Pudding to Irish brown bread to gin (yes, gin as in “and tonic”).
Though the original shop is in Dingle, the popular shop can now also be found in Killarney and Dublin (it was so good we later searched out the Dublin location).
Next on the itinerary for Day 2, Killarney! As the primary hub along the popular Ring of Kerry, Killarney is best known for its idyllic surrounding areas, especially the verdant landscape of Killarney National Park. Killarney definitely caters to the tourist set and we were surprised by the number of large, resort-style hotels in town but not by the massive amount of tour buses we shared the road with.
We stopped first at Ross Castle, a 15th century fortress at the edge of the Lower Lake. In 1652, the castle was the last in Munster to fall to Cromwell’s forces. Though time has taken its toll, the main tower house has been restored and furnished in late 16th century style.
It’s only possible to visit the castle’s interior by guided tour and since we didn’t have many other castles on our itinerary we decided to hand over 4 euro each to take the tour. The tour itself was interesting but the views over the lake and the national park from the tower were alone worth the price of admission.
From the castle, we drove down the road a few kilometers and parked the car to make the hike to the Torc waterfall (beautiful and well worth the hike, though we later learned we could have parked much closer to the actual falls). After our hike we headed into Killarney proper in search of a late lunch before continuing to our final stop for the day.
That evening we arrived in one of my favorite stops of the entire trip, Cobh.
Pronounced “cove,” this seaside town is most famous as the departure port for the Titanic in 1912 and maritime history pervades its cobbled streets. Originally called Queenstown, Cobh was also Ireland’s chief port of emigration in the early 20th century with several transatlantic liners departing weekly.
Today, Cobh is a popular stop for cruise ships and visitors can learn more about its role in Titanic history with an hour-long themed walking tour or a stop at the Titanic Experience museum.
Our hotel choice for the night was the Commodore Hotel. Right across the street from the harbor, the Commodore had the perfect location and a rooftop garden with panoramic views over both the town and the waterfront. The room was comfortable and the pub in the lobby had good food and live music.
I originally added Cobh to our itinerary after finding a stunning photo of colorful houses fronting an enormous cathedral by the sea on Instagram. I’d never heard of Cobh but as soon as I saw that picture I just knew I had to see it for myself. Once we settled in at the Commodore, I was determined to wander around town until I found the spot where the amazing photo I’d seen was taken. The town’s not that big, I thought, how hard could it be to find? But it turned out to be more challenging than I expected.
The location of the church (St Colman’s Cathedral) was obvious as it towered above the town. And I even found the correct row of houses pretty easily. But I could not, for the life of me, figure out how someone had gotten the shot of both from such a high angle.
I walked along Bishop’s Road in search of the perfect view and finally realized that to get it, I’d need to hold my camera up over the 6’ wall lining the road and shoot blindly. And ta-da! That was it. There may have been an easier way to get the shot but I don’t have any idea what it was. I was just thrilled to have the photo I wanted!
Day 3 – Kinsale, the Rock of Cashel & Dublin
On our final day with the car, the plan was to make the drive to Dublin. But first, we started our morning by heading in the opposite direction, south to the adorable seaside town of Kinsale.
Located in County Cork, Kinsale was originally a medieval fishing port and has a prominent military history. Two 17th-century fortresses – Charles Fort and James Fort – overlook the town and the streets of Kinsale’s main shopping area are lined with neon-colored storefronts.
Kinsale is known as southern Ireland’s gourmet capital and is home a number of wonderful restaurants and annual festivals. Its yacht-filled harbor and colorful shops and cafes made for a lovely walk around town and the perfect start to our third day in Ireland.
By lunch time we were back on the road and Dublin-bound. On the way, we had just one more stop planned for the day – the Rock of Cashel. Located in County Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites and since it was just off the motorway on our drive to Dublin, we couldn’t miss it.
Serving as the seat of the Kings of Munster for several hundred years, the Rock of Cashel is said to be the site of the 5th century conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick. In 1101, the king donated his fortress on the Rock back to the Roman Catholic Church. Though few of the early structures survived, many of the buildings on the site date from the 12th and 13th centuries and the complex holds one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art found anywhere in Europe.
Amid stormy skies, we donned our rain jackets and took a walk around the complex including the extensive graveyard surrounding the main building. The graveyard featured a number of stone high crosses and panoramic views over the vast green blanket of hills below. After exploring the Rock of Cashel, we ducked into a crowded pub in the town of Cashel to get out of the rain and grab some lunch.
Fortified by another Guinness stew, we again hit the road for the last bit of driving into the city. By mid-afternoon we arrived in Dublin just in time to enjoy a Sunday afternoon of live Irish music.
For our stay in Dublin, we used Hilton points at the Hilton Garden Inn Customs House. The hotel had a great location along the River Liffey and was an easy walk to the Temple Bar area, our first stop in the city. Since we definitely didn’t need a car in Dublin, we had arranged for Dooley Rental Car to pick up the car from the Hilton’s parking garage the next morning (at no extra charge). So, after settling in to our room, we headed out to find a cold pint and some live music.
And we didn’t have to go far, as soon as we turned the corner into the cobbled streets of the Temple Bar area we heard lively tunes coming from nearly every pub along the street. We went straight to the most famous of the pubs, the Temple Bar Pub, and worked our way into the crowded main room where an Irish trio was in the middle of a set. Afternoon turned to evening as we enjoyed the music while sipping a pint and later we headed out in search of dinner before eventually retiring back to the Hilton.
Day 4 – Dublin & the Guinness Storehouse
For our final day, the plan was to spend the day exploring Dublin. We’d pretty thoroughly covered the Temple Bar area the night before but there was much more to see.
High on our list was the Guinness Storehouse tour and, on the advice of the hotel, we’d booked tickets the day before for a 10am tour time. After breakfast, we hopped in a taxi on another gloomy Dublin day to learn more about one of Ireland’s most iconic brands.
Founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759, the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate is synonymous with Ireland. Since opening in 2000, the Guinness Storehouse has provided visitors with seven stories of Guinness history including the brewing process, marketing campaigns, a tasting room and a 7th floor bar with 360 degree views over Dublin.
The tour is mostly self-guided so we were able to spend as much or as little time on each floor as we wanted. We took our time exploring the exhibits and enjoying the colorful history of the Guinness brand before adjourning to the 7th floor Gravity Bar for our free pint (included in the price of the tour) and the city’s best view.
Once you’re high above Dublin enjoying the best views in the city, you quickly realize Dublin is perhaps best appreciated from street level. Not that it doesn’t have some lovely cathedral spires, but overall, the city’s skyline is far less inspiring than most of its European neighbors.
After spending the morning at the Guinness Storehouse, we walked back toward the center of town and started a walking tour of the city including St. Stephen’s Green, the Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Trinity College area. After a full day of sightseeing we headed back to the Temple Bar area for one last Irish meal before our early flight to Italy the next morning.
We absolutely loved our time in Ireland and were grateful to have had the car to really maximize our short stay. Of course, if you’re not sure whether driving in Ireland is for you, you always have the option to base in Dublin or any of the other main cities and do day trips to all of Ireland’s best sights. Here are a few great options:
But if you are adventurous and like a challenge, there’s no better way to see Ireland than with your own set of wheels!
Next stop, Italy…first up, the island of Procida!