Ireland’s capital is easily one of Europe’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities, a place in which visitors can sip their Guinness alongside the locals until the small hours, shop ’til they drop or soak up as much culture as they fancy. Temple Bar is the main drinking area, its cobbled streets lined with charming pubs, many of which belt out traditional music every night of the week.
Combine boozing with the city’s heritage by joining a literary pub crawl and learning all about the likes of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce over a few pints. You can also trace the history of the famous black stuff itself with a visit to the Guinness Storehouse. A more academic education can be found at Trinity College, where visitors can wander a campus that dates back to 1592 and see the famous Book of Kells, a manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament dating back to around AD800. More religious artefacts can be found at the 800-year-old St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral.
The Troubles have been a blight on Belfast’s tourism trail, but with those days dimming, the people of Belfast have much to offer the visitor and the city is embracing its future with confidence. As a result, the city offers a fantastic nightlife enjoyed by the large student population.
A Black Cab Tour is a great way to get to know the city and its history – drivers will show you the many Protestant and Republican murals painted on dozens of buildings in the west of the city. The grand Belfast City Hall dominates the central area and was completed in 1906. Opposite, the Linen Hall Library was established in 1788 and has 250,000 books.
The place to have your token glass of Guinness is the Crown Liquor Saloon, an extravagantly decorated Victorian bar with booths. Just outside the city centre, the Neoclassical Stormont Castle is home to the new Northern Ireland parliament and stands at the end of a grand avenue that provides great views of the city.
Ireland’s second city is also the European Capital of Culture 2005 and is perfect for whiling away a couple of days. It offers some fine Georgian architecture along the Grand Parade and South Mall, while St Finbarr’s Cathedral, built in 1879, is one of the city’s most dramatic buildings. The grand Holy Trinity Church, meanwhile, sits majestically on the River Lee.
Head to the Cork City Jail for a tour of the cells, complete with graffiti from past prisoners, and check out a good selection of artworks at the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery. For a taste of Ireland’s best foodstuffs, the English Markets offer a vast array of delicacies, while shopaholics will be happy to spend hours in the various boutiques and department stores in the city centre.
Just outside the city, Blarney Castle is high on everyone’s must-see list. It’s here where you can get into a precarious position to kiss the Blarney Stone at the top of the tower (you must hang upside down) in order to get the gift of the gab. The castle itself dates from 1446 and is surrounded by attractive gardens.
Head to the west coast of Ireland and you’ll find its spirit and youthfulness in the city of Galway. The place is packed with lively pubs and has a great music and arts scene. During race week at the end of July, the place is even wilder than usual. Indeed, the races are one of the highlights if you visit during the summer season.
The student population does well to keep the party going the rest of the time. Galway’s narrow streets and colourful old shopfronts lend to the atmosphere of the city, its focal point being Eyre Square. The city has a few remnants of its medieval past, such as the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra and the Spanish Arch, part of the old city walls.
As the festival capital of Ireland, you’re sure of having a good time in Kilkenny. The town is best known for its arts and music scene, so a visit during the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August is definitely worthwhile, but book accommodation well in advance. It also hosts the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in June and the Celtic Festival in October.
Kilkenny Castle is a huge towered edifice dating from 1172. It was home to the Butler family between 1391 and 1935, at which point it was sold to the government heritage department who now run it. There are guided tours around the castles and its gardens and parkland are particularly impressive. Opposite the castle, in its former stables, the Kilkenny Design Centre has a fascinating array of arts and crafts.
At the other end of town, the 13th century St Canice’s Cathedral is a simple yet impressive structure with a roundtower and a palace in its grounds.
Kilkenny is also known for its witch, Dame Alice Kyteler, whose four (rich) husbands died in mysterious circumstances in the 1300s. She escaped to England leaving her maid, Petronella, to take the blame and get burned at the stake. Her former home is now a pub, Kyteler’s Inn, on St Kieran’s Street.