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Explore Ireland Off the Beaten Path

Plan an unforgettable Irish adventure with AAA Travel

Ireland, a magical land of poetry and pubs, of castles and seaside cliffs, of lush landscape and lively people, makes for a wonderful adventure. 

Exploring the cities of Dublin or Belfast have their delights. But you’ll be missing something if you don’t visit Ireland’s small villages and see the countryside. Ireland has numerous famous attractions, but certain places (especially in the busy summer months) get crowded with tourists. 

To get a fuller flavor of the country and experience Ireland like a local, think about venturing beyond the top tourist attractions. You can unlock that experience on a tour with AAA Travel. Many AAA Travel advisors have toured Ireland extensively, and can draw on their experiences to help you choose the best experience.

Ireland Cliffs of Moher and the OBriens Tower one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland by MNStudio AdobeStock
Above all else, Ireland is a land of majestic natural beauty. Partner with a AAA Travel expert to create the perfect itinerary for your trip to Ireland. Photo: AdobeStock

Debbie Kaufman, AAA Washington’s group travel coordinator, explored Ireland off the beaten path on a recent trip. This story is inspired by her observations, as well as highlights of the memorable places she visited.

Discover the Aran Islands 

Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands, is located across Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. You could quibble about calling this “a lesser-known place” because this island does get its fair share of tourists in the summer; however, there aren’t many tourists on the island offseason. In fact, there aren’t many people on the island at all. 

Inishmore, which Kaufman visited, has a permanent population of around 1,300 people. The Aran Islands other two islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are smaller and more sparsely populated. Both are great options for a visit. Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran islands and one you can visit on a AAA Washington tour, has just 250 inhabitants and its own labyrinth of stone walls to explore. You can also learn how the traditional Aran sweaters are made: the thick wool, waterproof garments known as a fisherman’s sweater.

You'll find one-of-a-kind handicrafts, including hand-knitted sweaters, in the Aran Islands.
You’ll find one-of-a-kind handicrafts, including hand-knitted sweaters, in the Aran Islands. Photo: AdobeStock

Human settlements on the Aran islands go back at least to 1,100 B.C. Many people on the Aran Islands still live in stone houses. There are numerous little homesteads with a few cows grazing within stone enclosures. The people are friendly. They’ll ask you where you come from and want to know something about you (this is true all over Ireland). You’ll also hear Gaelic spoken on the islands, Ireland’s official language. Most of the inhabitants on the Aran Islands are fluent English speakers and will use a mixture of Gaelic and English when speaking with each other. 

Interested in a trip to Ireland? AAA Washington offers numerous land tours within Ireland, including to the Aran Islands. Click here to connect with a AAA Travel advisor and get expert insights for your trip. 

See the views from Dún Aonghasa

It’s a short walk to the cliff from the prehistoric stone fort, Dún Aonghasa, one of Inishmore island’s several dramatic cliffside forts. Located on the west side of the island that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, it consists of three large stone defensive walls. The furthermost wall leads to the cliff, and an awe-inspiring view of the breakers about 300 feet below. 

All three of the Aran islands are picturesque, with green rolling hills and fields that lead to dramatic views from rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic or Galway Bay. Many of the island’s residents get around on two wheels, and you can easily rent bikes. Hiking is another option. Expect a bit of workout. The terrain can be hilly and rugged.

Biking is a great way to take in the scenery while exploring Ireland's beautiful coasts. Photo: Lukasz Warzecha/Failte Ireland
Biking is a great way to take in the scenery while exploring Ireland’s beautiful coasts. Photo: Lukasz Warzecha/Failte Ireland

Delight in pub life

If you plan to imbibe in the occasional pint on your trip to Ireland, you’ll want to visit an Irish pub. This is true if you are on the Aran Islands or anywhere in the country. Ireland is a nation of pubs. The pub is the center of a town’s social life, where the Irish get together almost every day. 

In small towns, Kaufman noticed that everyone in the pub seemed to know each other. Their families may have been coming to this same pub for generations. They aren’t shy with visitors, either. Don’t be surprised if you become the object of curiosity. Expect to be greeted warmly by the staff, and have people come up and chat with you.  

Looking to see the real Ireland and don’t know which town to visit first? Connect with a AAA Travel advisor to create an unforgettable experience.

Encounter historic architecture around every corner on your visit to Ireland.
Encounter historic architecture around every corner on your visit to Ireland. Photo: AdobeStock

Tour the Dingle Peninsula

Our next “lesser-known place” that Kaufman visited is the Dingle Peninsula on the southwest coast. This area is north of the Ring of Kerry, one of the most popular tourist bus routes in Ireland; however, it gets far fewer tourists. Many Irish residents vacation here. You’ll see interesting prehistoric stone huts with dome roofs, known as a Clochán, built by monks around 1,000 A.D. You can see these stone huts in other areas in southwest Ireland, as well.  

As with most of the Irish countryside, the Dingle Peninsula is stunningly gorgeous with rugged green hills that end at a cliff overlooking the sea. Visit Coumeenoule Beach, a secluded spot surrounded by jagged cliffs with views of the Blasket Islands, but don’t take a swim here. (The Atlantic currents can be unpredictable and there are warnings against swimming.)

Venture across Carrick-a-Rede bridge

Carrick-a-Rede bridge in Ireland
AAA Washington’s Debbie Kaufman’s visit to the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is one of her favorite travel experiences. Photo Debbie Kaufman/AAA Washington

Another lesser-known place that Kaufman visited is a rope bridge in Northern Ireland originally built by a fisherman in the late 1700s. The Carrick-a-Rede bridge is located only about 7 miles from Giant’s Causeway, the 40,000 basalt columns that are designated as a World Heritage Site and one of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations. If you go to Giant’s Causeway, consider hopping over to this rope bridge. While the bridge does get its fair share of visitors in high summer, it’s off the beaten track for most tourists. 

The bridge spans 65 feet to a small island. It is a bit of a harrowing crossing as the bridge is about 100 feet above the rocks below. The island itself is basically a giant rock, where you can spot seals, porpoises and birds. There is also a pretty mile walk along the coast. 

Going to Ireland? Before you fly, don’t forget to stop by a AAA Washington travel store to order foreign currency (you’ll need euros) and get travel insurance.

Catch a wave

Learning to surf in Ireland is fun option in summertime. The water is cold and you’ll have to wear a wetsuit, but the waves are great and there are several surfing schools on the Irish coast to get you started. Plus, consider a visit to beautiful beaches on the Claddaghduff peninsula. These are small, relatively unknown beaches that are great for surfing and relaxation. 

From historic sites to quaint villages, Ireland is best experienced off the beaten path. Photo: Debbie Kaufman/AAA Washington

Traveling to Ireland with AAA Travel

AAA Travel offers numerous tours that will take you to the major attractions in Ireland and off the well-worn paths. Here are just a few options: 

  • Love the outdoors? Take a six-day Walk the Wicklow Way hiking adventure. The tour starts in Dublin, and passes through open moorland and small towns. You’ll be joined by a certified mountain hiking guide.
  • Take to less-traveled roads and charming villages on a multi-day adventure on the Countryside of the Emerald Isle tour. Visit Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, tour Old Midleton Distillery in County Cork (home of Jameson whiskey) and see the opulent gardens of the Irish National Stud in East Cork, see the Cliffs of Moher and overnight on the unforgettable Aran Islands. 
  • Want to see it all? The Best of Ireland tour visits many of Ireland’s highlights with stops in Dublin and Belfast, the Antrim Coast, the Giant’s Causeway, a walking tour of Galway City, a visit to a dairy farm, a tour of the Ring of Kerry, stops at Black Abbey, Rothe House and Kilkenny Castle, and more. 
  • From a day at the races in Dublin to a falconry experience in Cork, the Ireland Forever tour does it all. You’ll love your visit to an organic farm in Kinsale, lake cruise in Killarney and stop at the dramatic Cliffs of Moher.
Skip the crowds and consider visiting Ireland in the offseason or shoulder season. You never know; you might be the only human for miles.
A farm visit is a lovely way to experience Ireland like a local. Photo: AdobeStock

Get inspired for your trip to Ireland

Ireland is the second largest island in the British Isles, separated from Great Britain to the east. The land remains divided, consisting of the independent Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Both areas of the country offer plenty to see and do, stunning countryside, thousands of years of history and a lively, friendly people. 

There are so many great things to see and do in Ireland. AAA Travel advisors, who have toured extensively in Ireland, wholeheartedly endorse these travel experiences: 

1. Enjoying a whiskey distillery tour. The Irish invented whiskey in the early 1400s., and you are rarely far away from a whiskey distillery to this day. One popular tour is the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Dublin, home to the world’s best-selling whiskey.

2. Visiting Baleek Pottery Factory in Northern Ireland. Established in 1857 and known for its delicately glazed plates, teapots and bowls, Belleek Pottery offers a 30-minute tour. See where the molds are made and the pottery is cast. The factory produces more than 100,000 pieces of pottery annually. 

3. Exploring Titanic history: Belfast is where the Titanic was built, and the ship also sailed to Queenstown in Ireland to pick up passengers on the doomed maiden voyage in 1912. You can learn about its history with a visit to the Maritime Mile in Belfast’s historic waterfront. Also, find more about the Titanic and the Irish emigration story at The Cobh Heritage Center, located in a restored Victorian-era railway center in Cobh in Cork. 

4. Touring Kylemore Abbey in Galway. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1920 at Kylemore Castle, a 40,000-square-foot private home built in 1868. The abbey was originally built for Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium after the Battle of Ypres in World War I. The abbey continues to this day and has become a major tourist attraction.

For photographers, there’s never a shortage of epic views that are worth capturing in Ireland. Photo: AdobeStock

5. Visiting the Cliffs of Moher. Often ranked among Ireland’s best attractions, these dramatic cliffs loom anywhere from 390 to 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. In roughly the middle of this 5-mile span of cliffs, don’t miss O’Brien’s Tower, a round stone tower built in 1835. From the cliffs you can see the Aran Islands across Galway Bay. Plus, see the large visitor’s center and its interactive exhibits covering the geology and history of the cliffs.   

6. Hiking in Killarney National Park. The oldest national park in Ireland (dating to 1932), this national park stretches across 26,000 acres, with waterfalls, woodlands and three lakes. Plus see the Muckross House, a 19th century mansion furnished with antiques and paintings. For those looking for a vigorous hike, you can also climb Torc Mountain, passing by the Torc waterfall.

7. Touring Kilkenny, with its numerous historic sites of importance along a “Medieval Mile,” including Kilkenny Castle (built in the 1200s), the Black Abbey and Rothe House, a three-house complex built between 1594 and 1610 by a wealthy merchant and politician for his family. 

8. Taking a cooking class. Mount Ballyknocken Cookery School in Wicklow offers a day or weekend classes that cover a wide range of styles. Many of the ingredients are sourced from nearby farms. Cook by day and then explore the nearby mountains and rivers after class. 

9. Visiting a farm. Farm tours are available all over Ireland, and many farms continue the age-old tradition of small-scale, family-owned sheep and cattle farming, as well as dairy farming. Take a few hours, learn something about farming life and sample the best milk and butter that you’ve ever tasted. 

10. Touring the Ring of Kerry. This is a popular 179-mile route through the southwestern Ireland in the County Kerry, with numerous historic sites, charming towns and scenery. Lots of bus tours do the circuit in one day during the summer months. Some highlights include Ross Castle, the Kerry Woolen Mills, Rossbeigh Beach and the Blue Pool.    

The dramatic Giant's Causeway is a must for many visitors to Northern Ireland.
The dramatic Giant’s Causeway is a must for many visitors to Northern Ireland. Photo: AdobeStock

Skip the crowds and travel during the shoulder season

Want to avoid the crowds? First, consider traveling offseason (in the winter or early spring) or during shoulder season (late spring, fall). The weather can be cooler, but Ireland’s climate is relatively mild even in the winter. There are lots of benefits to traveling offseason, including fewer crowds and more options for hotels and flights, plus it’s much easier to get reservations for restaurants, activities and experiences.

Second, why not explore parts of the country that don’t get much press? Hint: These places don’t usually appear in Top 10 lists in travel blogs. You don’t necessarily have to skip all the big attractions in Ireland (or even most), but you will be missing something if you don’t lay away a couple of days to explore Ireland off the beaten path.

No one knows travel better than a AAA Travel advisor. Pictured here is AAA Washington's Debbie Kaufman, exploring Ireland off the beaten path.
No one knows travel better than a AAA Travel advisor. Pictured here is AAA Washington’s Debbie Kaufman, exploring Ireland off the beaten path. Photo: Debbie Kaufman/AAA Washington

—Many thanks to Debbie Kaufman for sharing expert insights for exploring Ireland.

—Written by AAA Washington staff

—Top photo: AdobeStock

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