The Emerald Isle boasts a wealth of history – tales of rebellion and oppression, ancient ruins, mystical legends, religious wars and a beautiful landscape – but it’s the spirit of the country what makes it so loved the world over. The people are super-friendly and they love to have a good time. Remember those fun Irish folk you met on your travels? Prepare yourself for an entire country of them. And the best thing is: they’ll welcome you with open arms.
Dublin, a cosmopolitan energy
An explosion in multi-culturalism due to Ireland’s (now finished) economic boom in the Noughties has resulted in a throng of immigrants and tourists, creating a cosmopolitan vibe. It’s an extremely social city and the best place in the world to sup most famous export, Guinness. Learn how to pull a perfect pint of the renowned black stuff at the Guinness Storehouse. It can be thirsty work, so knock back a couple at the dazzling 360C bar, which offers striking city views.
Those in the mood for culture and history should visit the free National Museum of Ireland. It charts the interesting past of this great country. And its biggest drawcard is a couple of 2000-year-old bog people, preserved until they were finally found in 2003. Historians believe the bodies were sacrificed to fertility gods to guarantee a good harvest – let’s hope it was plentiful. There’s also a chance to view Viking relics and Egyptian artefacts and peek into Ireland’s natural history.
For a taste of the country’s gruesome history, visit the eerie Kilmainham Gaol – the setting for the ruthless execution of 14 nationalists involved in the 1916 Easter Rising. Socialist leader James Connolly, who was so badly wounded from fighting that he only had days to live, was strapped to a chair to be executed by firing squad. You can see where it all went down on visits to the prison chapel and execution yards.
For a more pleasant experience, hit the boutiques of Grafton Street for an afternoon of shopping. Here you’ll find fashionable frocks and edgy accessories. Deck yourself out on a wide variety of retro clothes and funky jewellery at Cow’s Lane Market, in Temple Bar. Stay in the area after the sun sets; Temple Bar is loaded with great after-dark haunts. You’ll find a genuine Irish experience at boozers such as Hogans in George Street and Whelans, in Wexford Street, famed for its live music and late bar. Stop for a cheeky pint and a nightly dose of live traditional music at Dublin’s oldest boozer, the Brazen Head, founded in 1198.
Cork, culture with an edge
Energetic Cork serves up edgy art galleries, sizzling clubs and packed boozers. It was voted the 2005 European Capital of Culture, and the legacy of that lives on in new buildings, restaurants, bars and arts centres springing up all over town. A visit wouldn’t be complete without sampling the local brews – Murphy’s and Beamish. A must-see attraction is Cork City Gaol, which was used from 1823 and 1923, and is a vivid reminder of Ireland’s troubled past. The hellish living conditions are realistically recreated by true-to-life models of depressed prisoners and stern guards. Despite this, times were so bad during the potato famine of 1846-49 that starving people committed crimes so they could be sent to jail, where they’d get food and shelter. Also take the time to explore the city’s majestic opera house.
Galway, bohemia reigns supreme
The spirit and youthfulness of the west coast of Ireland is exemplified in Galway. Students make up a quarter of the city’s population, so there’s a buzz wherever you go. The streets of this bohemian city are lively, with street performers and musicians. It’s also one fo the few places in Ireland where you’ll hear the Irish language being spoken on the streets.
Galway’s packed with energetic pubs and the place gets even wilder than usual at the end of July for the annual race week, one of the highlights of the summer. If you want a break from the action-packed cobbled streets, walk over salmon-filled River Corrib, and along the lengthy promenade, which leads to the seaside suburb of Salthil. Here you’ll find Galway Bay, where the region’s famous oysters originate.
Kilkenny, good times guaranteed
Kilkenny is known as the festival capital of Ireland, so you’re guaranteed to have a good time here. There’s a thriving music and arts scene in this town, 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. There’s more than 60 bars in the town so the only problem about a night out will be deciding where to go. Also check out Kilkenny’s famous castle, which sits majestically on a sweep in the River Nore.
Northern Ireland’s capital, once a city under serious threat of bombs and bloodshed, is now one of the UK’s hottest weekend break destinations. With an enticing nightlife and edgy charm, many of the legacies of Belfast’s turbulent history have become star attractions for tourists who are visiting in their droves. Belfast may no longer a troubled hotspot, but its past won’t be soon forgotten. You can learn all about The Troubles on a black-taxi tour of West Belfast’s political murals (below left) painted on the terraced houses of the Catholic Falls area and Protestant Shankill district, and the Peace Line that divides them. You can choose to be guided by either Protestant or Catholic drivers, depending on which you lean to religiously or politically.
Belfast Titanic, 100 years of infamy
2012 is the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, the infamous ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner that was built by Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyards. Although the ship sank when it hit an iceberg, at the time, Belfast had built the world’s most advanced piece of technology and the city still takes pride in the piece of engineering genius.
Titanic Belfast, opening in April, will be a ‘must- see’ visit in any tour of Belfast and Northern Ireland.Housed in a purpose-built building beside the historic site of the ship’s construction, the exhibition covers nine galleries and tells the story of the Titanic through a state-of-the-art experience. Though new developments, such as Belfast Titanic, might now dominate the Belfast skyline, make time to visit the lavish 19th-century City Hall, and Belfast Castle with its stunning gardens. For cutting-edge art and culture, make sure spend some time on the generated waterfront.
Party city, and a rise in cafe culture
Belfast’s reputation as a party city has much to do with the stretch known as the Golden Mile, a kilometre of pubs and restaurants including lively boozer/ club Lavery’s and student favourite Eglantine. If you prefer cosmopolitans to Guinness, head to trendy bar Irene & Nans. Café culture has really taken off in Belfast, with plenty of options on Botanic Avenue for a cup of coffee or a delicious snack. Chain cafe Clements makes an excellent cappuccino and for good and affordable local food try Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Street or The Barking Dog bistro in Malone Road.
The Giant’s Causeway, a natural wonder
The Giant’s Causeway is one of the UK’s greatest natural wonders. Scientists say that the honeycomb-like formation of six-sided basalt columns were formed by eruptions more than six million years ago. The Causeway should be included in any visit to Northern Ireland. Those with a head for heights can cross the nearby Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
Fly London to Dublin with Ryanair from £16.99; fly London to Belfast from £20.99 with Aer Lingus
When to go: Anytime, but summer will mean there’s more people out and about.
Currency: Euro: 1GBP=1.16 EUR
Accomodation: Hostel dorm beds from €12 a night, private rooms from €20.
See: discoverireland.com; discovernorthernisland.com