One of the most amazing things about visiting Ireland is that no matter where you go, there is an adorable village, historical site or scene of natural beauty waiting for you. There are not many places in the world that I have found that offer as much in such a small space as Ireland does. The hidden gems in Ireland are everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.
In my many years of visiting Ireland, I have stumbled across quite a few stunning places in Ireland off the beaten path. Some of these have now become more popular (ahem Skellig Michael aka from Star Wars fame), but there are still so many more out there. Below I share some of our favorites in this beautiful country thus far with a few that are still on my wishlist to visit!
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The Best Way to Discover Ireland Off the Beaten Path
The best way to discover Ireland off the beaten path is to rent a car. I know that many visitors to Ireland feel nervous to drive on the other side of the road, but overall I will say that it is quite doable. In my planning a trip to Ireland post, I outline all the important things to consider when renting a car in Ireland and driving there. A brief summary – automatic cars are more expensive than stick shift, US credit card insurance policies don’t always work in Ireland and the country roads can be quite narrow, so plan more time than you think you will need.
Ireland is a small country and in recent years more and more motorways are being developed making getting across the country quickly much easier. However, it is on the narrow roads that you find the best hidden gems in Ireland. Our recommendation is to plan one part of your road trip taking the small roads and return to your starting destination using the larger highways as a quick way to finish your visit!
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Top 20 Hidden Gems in Ireland
For most people a trip to Ireland is not complete without a visit to the top tourist spots on the island like the Ring of Kerry in County Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher or even the Giant’s Causeway in the north. While all of these are spectacular sights well worth any visit, there is so much more to Ireland as well as a multitude of destinations that offers similar astounding natural beauty, rich history and intrigue – they just haven’t been discovered by the masses just yet! Read on as we share some of our favorites from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Stay at the Luxurious Killeavy Castle Estate
One of the things on most people’s wishlist for a visit to Ireland is to stay in a castle. While Ashford Castle is the big daddy of all castle stays in Ireland, it also comes with a very hefty price tag! Instead, why not grab a few friends and consider renting out Killeavy Castle Estate. This 4 bedroom castle can be rented out for around 2,000 pounds per night, which when you have 4 couples or a group of friends isn’t much more than a stay in a boutique hotel. Located only an hour from both Dublin and Belfast, this is a great choice for Ireland off the beaten path.
Hike to Slieve Gullion in the Ring of Gullion
For fans of Irish history, these Ireland hidden gems are a must visit. Have you heard of Newgrange in Ireland? It’s a very popular 5000 year old ancient site that is very difficult to get into as you need a booking. Why not check out an Ireland off the beaten path alternative at Slieve Gullion. While Slieve Gullion doesn’t compare in its grandeur, it does provide a unique opportunity to visit a passage tomb. The passage tomb at Newgrange is situated so that when the sun rises on the winter solstice, the inner chamber is lit up. Here at Slieve Gullion, the 5000 year old passage tomb’s inner chamber is lit up at sun set on the winter solstice.
Slieve Gullion is perfect for nature lovers as the only way to access the passage tomb is by hiking. There are multiple trails to the top, but a quick and relatively easy climb (and it is a climb just FYI!) up is from the top parking lot on the 8 mile scenic drive at the Slieve Gullion Forest Park. A marked trail leads to the south summit of Slieve Gullion, where there are spectacular views from the top of the mountain across the Ring of Gullion and the Mourne Mountains. For the best experience, considering hiring a local guide. We loved Brian from Mountain Ways Ireland. Slieve Gullion works well with a stay at Killeavy Castle mentioned above.
Kayak to Devenish Island in County Fermanagh
Ireland is filled with ruins from old castles to monasteries and everything in between, so what makes Devenish Island special? Well, the fact that this island is only accessible by water means that it is much less visited than other sights, but that it is also surrounded by beautiful waterways! On our recent visit to Ireland, we visited this magical island by kayaking from Enniskillen.
Kayaking in Ireland? Yep, it’s a thing and something that should be on every Ireland bucket list. County Fermanagh (pronounced fer-MAN-ah), located in Northern Ireland is the lakelands area where up to 30% of the county is waterways, so it only makes sense to see attractions in this area via the water.
During our visit we took a guided kayak trip to Devenish Island with Blue Green Yonder. While I would not recommend this for beginners, it was a true Irish adventure well worth taking the time for. The island itself is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Ireland and filled me with such peace – especially as we were the only people visiting the island! Pack snacks, layers and enjoy the island and monastic ruins all to yourself.
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Go Surfing in Sligo
Did you know that surfing is huge in Ireland? On the west coast of the country, in County Sligo, you can find the new National Surf Center as well as three surf schools for those looking to catch some waves. Strandhill is one of the most adorable hidden gems in Ireland well worth seeking out, located just a short drive from Sligo town. The Atlantic ocean waves here in front of the surf center are gentle and surprisingly the water is warmer than the Pacific ocean where I live, making it the perfect place to try out surfing. Our recommendation – send the teens out for a surf lesson while you go for a seaweed spa experience. Sligo Surf Experience and Rebelle Surf, a ladies owned and operated surf school, are our top recommendations in town.
Soak in a Seaweed Bath
Would you consider sliding into a hot bath filled with freshly harvested seaweed? This 300 year old therapeutic tradition in Ireland is now popular as a spa experience. This highly affordable spa experience is unlike anything else you might have tried around the world. You are provided a private room with a beautiful bathtub and steam shower area for your 50 minute experience. After a quick steam to open up your pores, you will slide into your bath for your soak. The texture is quite viscous which might take a minute to get used to, but it will soon envelop your skin into a moisturizing gel that is heavenly. For 45 Euro, this is a must do for any wellness traveler! Our experience was at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill, outside of Sligo, however there are various seaweed bath options throughout the country. If you are on the Wild Atlantic Way at all, I would highly recommend a stop here.
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Visit Achill Island
The Wild Atlantic Way is one of my favorite scenic routes in Ireland. The dramatic cliffs, the serene beauty and the isolated islands are just part of the charm. One of my favorite areas is Achill Island, known for its breathtaking cliffs and beautiful beaches. This island (connected to the mainland by a bridge, making access easy) is the perfect location for outdoor enthusiasts as there is hiking, swimming, kite surfing, kayaking and SUP.
En route to Achill, make sure to stop off at Keem Bay Beach which has to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland!
Achill Island is quite small with limited options for accommodation, but we loved the adorable and quite charming. Pure Magic for younger travelers or those looking for basic accommodation or the Bervie Guesthouse, which is comfortable and comes with some great perks like ocean views.
Hang out with Donkeys on Inishkea Islands
Another set of islands with stunning views is off the coast of County Mayo. The Inishkea Islands are a bit more off the beaten path as they are only accessible by private boat. People called these islands home for over 5,000 years until 1927 when a boating accident killed 10 young fishermen. The surviving family members were devastated in more ways than one, soon abandoning the island for the mainland. The land and homes on the island are still technically theirs, however, the only real residents are animals – sheep and donkey who roam the hills, grey seals basking on the rocks and nesting birds who come and go as they please.
Visiting the islands is a great opportunity to explore the ruins of stone cottages amongst tropical white sand beaches with only sheep and donkey as your companions. I would highly recommend a visit out to the islands if you can finagle it! We hired a boat through Gerahaty Charters, however during summer regular boat trips go from Blacksod Pier several times a week.
Go Underground at Marble Arch Caves
Did you know that Ireland has caves? I did not know this before a recent visit to Marble Arch Caves. Located in County Fermanagh, the Marble Arch Caves are the longest known cave system in Northern Ireland with over 11.5 kilometers discovered so far. These natural limestone caves have 3 active rivers running through them, providing a unique caving experience. When the water is at a certain level, you will need to take a boat to the start point of your tour. At other times, you will enter at the exit, going down 150 stairs. The short 1.5 km guided walk along a genly lit footpath takes you through some of the most unique features of the underground system. The visitor center provides a great deal of information about the caves and this geopark itself.
Take in the Views at the Howth Cliff Walk
One of my favorite day trips from Dublin is to Howth. The Howth Cliff Walk is one of the most beautiful walks I have done anywhere in Ireland. The color of the water is stunning set against the green hillsides. This is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the beautiful coastline that Ireland is known for, without going far from town.
This cliff walk is typically empty of tourists despite its beauty. Locals looking for a beautiful nature escape head here on the weekends, so if you do drive parking may be tougher to get.
Listen to Irish on the Aran Islands
One of the most talked about places in Ireland from our Irish family is the Aran Islands. However I still have not had the opportunity to visit. Located not far from the Cliffs of Moher, just a ferry ride away, evenso most visitors don’t make it across the water to these magical islands. Visiting the islands can be done as a day trip from Doolin if you don’t want to tour all 3 islands, but more than a day trip would be needed to spend more time on the islands.
The Aran Islands are one of the few places in Ireland where Irish is still the main spoken language. Pair this with the the long and fascinating history of the islands, this is bound to be a favorite of any Irish itinerary. After seeing The Banshees of Inisherin, I am even more bound and determined to get here as that is what I had in my mind watching the film!
Skip the Crowds at Hore Abbey
On one of our many drives around the island, we found ourselves at Hore Abbey in County Tipperary. This 13th century Cistercian Monastery has an interesting history. Located only a short walk from The Rock of Cashel through private land (a cow pasture)! It’s free to enter and is a beautiful place to explore if you want to experience ruins without the crowds and to take stunning photos.
Potter Around Malahide Village & Castle
Located outside of Dublin, only 15 minutes from the airport is the adorable village of Malahide. For most visitors they pass by on their way to or from Dublin without a second glance, but I implore you to spend a bit of time in this adorable seaside town. It makes the perfect stop for a last night in Ireland before flying home as it’s close to the airport and will fill you with all things Ireland before you head off. The bustling village center has top tier restaurants like Townyard, cute boutique shops as well as lively pubs lining the main road. Want to get some fresh air, walk along the 4km riverwalk Coastal Route to get a sense of the local life here. While in town, you could also make a visit to the 800 year old Malahide Castle which is filled with walking trails that meander through 260 acres of park space. Recommended hotel is the Grand Hotel. Although very much a labyrinth to find your room, the spacious room and surroundings make it worth it.
Explore Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula
The Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula is in my opinion one of the prettiest and most unique places in all of Ireland. Often compared to the Ring of Beara or the Ring of Kerry, this drive is one of the best hidden gems in Ireland worth taking the time to explore. Highlights to check out include Dunquin Pier, Dunbeg Fort, and the town of Dingle. Before Fungie the famous Dingle dolphin went missing, I would have recommended a boat trip to see him. While that is still a fun adventure, you can also spend more time in the town of Dingle and then continue on to other small areas like Gallarus Oratory and Dunmore Head.
Bike the Carlingford Greenway Trail
One of the best parts of Ireland are the many Greenway bike paths located around the country. Greenway trails are former train tracks that have been converted to hike and bike trails. I have been lucky enough to ride on several – the Great Western Greenway in County Mayo on the Wild Atlantic Way, the Waterford Greenway on the eastern coast and most recently the Carlingford Greenway Trail north of Dublin. Carlingford is a small picturesque fishing village that is worth visiting on your way up the coast or even as a day trip from Dublin or Belfast. This colorful small town offers delicious dining options like PJ O’Hares, great boutique shops and of course the opportunity to get out on a beautiful seaside biking trail. For our bike adventure, we rented E-bikes from Carlingford Greenway Bikes.
Lough Key Park – A Castle, Treetop Walk & More
Lough Key Park in County Roscommon is located in a vast woodland area that includes 30 plus islands scattered around its waterways. This area is home to the ruins of McDermotts Castle, which is now called Castle Island or Castle Rock. Another larger residence was located on the mainland, but it burnt down and now all that stands is the Moylurg Tower. However, visitors can walk through the old servants tunnels through the area and up to the treetop walk.
Apart from visiting McDermotts Castle, there are a ton of cool activities for families to experience here. As mentioned above, you can walk through servants tunnels, do a treetop walk, go boating on the water and my favorite, experience Boda Borg.
You are probably like me and have no clue what this is. Boda Borg originates in Sweden and is very similar to an escape room in concept. Essentially each team of 3-5 players selects various rooms to conquer. Your room could focus on mental strengths, physical strengths or a combination of the two. It’s so fun, frustrating and addicting. It took us an hour to complete our “Mummy” room. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it as it was such a fun experience. Even though it’s not an Irish concept, this park and experience is a great family day out during your visit.
Hike at Deirbhiles Twist
The Deirbhiles Twist, a stone circle made from local granite, is the last part of a sculpture trail that leads through the North County Mayo. The granite stones are situated in the form of a spiral or twist. The Deirbhiles is one of many public arts projects that make up the North Mayo Sculpture Trail that was established to pay homage to the heritage of the region.
This can be a quick photo stop or you could explore through the vast rocky fields as much as you feel up to! I thought I could make it to the sea, but it looked to be a much longer walk than I had time for. Next time, I’d love to do the entire sculpture trail to check out all the different installations.
Get Adventurous at the Caves of Keash
Another adventurous opportunity to see an ancient passage tomb is here at the Caves of Keash in County Sligo. The caves here are part of an ancient cluster of passage tombs that are much like the ones mentioned above. Researchers have revealed that people lived in these caves very far back in the past. The 17 caves are not super easily accessible, but for those looking for an adventure they make a great day trip out of Sligo.
The hike to the caves is only about 20 minutes, however it can be slippery when the ground is wet, so we highly recommend good walking shoes and poles if possible. There are a few different sports for parking near the Keash Caves, with a few spots next to the start point. Before or after you walk, you can pop into the Visitor Center next door to the Fox’s Den Pub. They offer a guided tour twice a day from April to September which I highly recommend. Check in for tours outside of the peak season as they run less frequently.
Find Family Fun at Todds Leap
Not something that I would normally recommend when visiting a country, however this activity center is such a hoot and a great spot for the family to have some literal screaming fun to break up all the castles, sheep sightings and historical ruins. Todds Leap is a fun adventure center that has everything from a zipline, off roading (where even children can drive!!), climbing and shooting sports. This is a popular destination with stag parties (bachelor parties) and other gatherings, but is super family friendly too. We highly recommend the off road driving that allows you to test your skills on some muddy hilly routes. And don’t worry you don’t need to know how to drive stick shift as they have somehow managed to get these trucks American ready!
Make Soda Bread in a Traditional Irish Home
During our travels we love to get busy with hands on learning experiences. A true hidden gem in Ireland is Tracy’s Farmhouse Kitchen. Here you can spend an afternoon making soda bread in her family home (thatched roof and all!) while also spending some time out on the water trying your hand with standup paddleboarding. This is a great family experience that allows you to spend time with an Irish family, learning traditional cooking and getting some time in the outdoors too. If you are looking for a place to stay in the area, check out the Horseshoe Cottage, which is a converted stable. Enjoy freshly baked bread and fresh eggs you can gather yourself! Highly recommend adding these hidden gems in Ireland to any itinerary!
Experience the Slieve League Cliffs
Another Ireland hidden gem that I have yet to make it to, but that is high on my list is the Slieve League Cliffs. Apparently they are taller than the Cliffs of Moher, with a fraction of the tourists. While the Cliffs of Moher are seen as a must visit in the country, I have no doubt that there are just as many alternative locations along the coast that can be seen without the pressure of so many tourists. For your next itinerary, consider getting off the beaten path and heading here instead!
Tips on Getting off the Beaten Path in Ireland
Some tips to getting off the beaten path as a first time or veteran visitor to the island include hiring local guides who know their region of the country better than others. We recommend looking for guides through an Airbnb, through With Locals or other type services.
Additionally, we highly recommend self driving so that you can really explore the small village and towns along your route.
Finally, plan some of your trip based on unique accommodation options. I find that when you seek out a unique place to stay, you will find some cool hidden gems located in the same general area.
No matter what you do on this list, I assure you, you will have the best time. Whether you find yourself in County Clare seeing some of Ireland’s favorite scenes, on Dursey Island in County Cork visiting Ireland’s ONLY cable car, or soaking up traditional music in County Galway, there are so many fantastic spots in Ireland off the beaten path that it is difficult to go wrong! These are just some of my favorite hidden gems in Ireland, but I know even I have many more left to discover.
Where to next is the question!
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