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Essential Things To Know Before Going To Ireland

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Ireland has a special place in our hearts. I fondly remember our time living in Dublin back in 2003 on a working holiday visa, and we’ve returned many times since on short vacations and to catch up with old friends.

Having experienced the country from both a traveler and local perspective, what we’ve learned is that Ireland will surprise you. Although being in the EU and very well developed, you should never assume a trip there will be a breeze – there are many things to know before going to Ireland if you don’t want to blow your budget, or get yourself lost.

There are also a few things to know to ensure you get the most authentic experience possible. Sure, you can do tours of Ireland and learn about its history and culture from a coach seat – or you can get off the beaten path, mingle with the locals, and discover the true essence of Ireland.

Here’s how you do just that…

Things To Know Before Going To Ireland

1. Don’t Skip Dublin

The temple Bar in Dublin

Most visitors arrive and exit out of Dublin to explore the Irish countryside. While you should absolutely go out and explore the rolling hills and amazing coastal areas, we recommend you spend a few days walking around and getting to know this city FIRST.

It’s not a big city by world standards, but it’s big on energy, history, and atmosphere. It’s the perfect introduction to life in Ireland.

Walk around the cobbled streets and admire the architecture of its medieval buildings, sit in a tavern and enjoy the sounds of local Irish folk music played by a band in the corner, or step back in time and learn about Ireland’s history and heroes at Trinity College or Dublin Castle.

There’s much to discover in Dublin, and it sets the bar pretty high for what you’ll experience on the rest of your trip.

Some of our favorite attractions in Dublin you should check out are:

  • The Guinness Storehouse
  • St Stephens Green
  • Trinity College
  • Dublin Castle
  • Phoenix Park
  • Guinness Lake and Wicklow Mountains
  • Endless great pubs!
  • Temple Bar District

Here are our favorite things to do in Dublin, and our favorite Dublin pubs.

Dublin is also a very walkable city, which is another good reason to make it your first stop. As from here on out, you’re going to need to…

Top tip: Before you have the pint at the Guinness Factory, make sure you buy the dark Guinness Chocolate bar in the gift store. Then go up, have your pint and eat the chocolate – most amazing flavors ever.

2. Hire a car

Coastal road sloping downhill towards the ocean
Achill Island

The best way to see Ireland, and the way we did it, is to self-drive. It’s not a big country, and navigating the roads and towns is relatively easy.

They drive on the left side of the road in the Republic of Ireland, the same as the UK, and they also have roundabouts. If you don’t have roundabouts in your home country, they take some getting used to but it doesn’t take long. My advice is to watch what everyone else is doing and follow suit.

You will also find road signs are not the best in the world, by anyone’s standards, so you should get yourself a GPS to help with navigation. Signs are often written in English and Irish Gaelic, which can be confusing.

Oh and you can’t turn left on red – Americans, take note.

Speed limits are in kilometres per hour, so if you drive over from England and your car operates on miles per hour, you’re going to need to do some maths!

Public transport is fine for getting around cities, but is a pain to get from town to town. There are usually only a few buses a day and they have so many stops you’ll find you spend your entire trip on the bus!

See rates and availability for car hire in Ireland.

Note: If you don’t want to self-drive in Ireland, check out this 8-day tour of Ireland Craig did with Globus, a leader in group travel.

3. Plan to spend a decent amount of time in Ireland

Man standing on a cliff overlooking a beach

Although Craig loved the 8-day tour of Ireland he did, it did feel a little short. It was a great introduction to Ireland, but didn’t allow enough time to sit and indulge in the vibe.

Having been to Ireland many times before and living there, it wasn’t a problem on this occasion, but I would say that if you only have a week to spend in the country then don’t try to rush to see everything – pick a few places and spend a few days in each.

Ideally, you should plan at least 2 weeks to explore Ireland (including Northern Ireland).

4. Learn about Irish Drinking Culture

Man standing outside the entrance to a pub with two wine barrels
Craig at The Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub

You won’t get a better understanding of the Irish culture unless you spend some time in their pubs. Going to Ireland and not drinking a pint of beer in a pub is like going to Sydney and not seeing the Opera House. Ireland has a pub on almost every street corner and one in between.

It’s no secret that Irish folk love to share conversation over a pint or two. If you happen to be drinking with the locals, there’s a few important cultural things you should know.

First, you should always buy a drink for someone who buys you a drink. In Ireland, and the UK in general, it’s polite to buy “a round.”

This is when you take it in turns to buy everyone in your group a drink, and when everyone’s finished, it’s someone else’s turn to buy a drink.

It does mean if you’re out with 4+ people, you’re drinking 4+ pints. Prepare for hangovers. Or better yet, pace yourself with alcohol. Have a soft drink between pints.

5. Visit a Castle in Ireland

A tall, stone, rectangular shaped castle
Carrick Kildarnet Castle, Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland

Ireland is almost as well known for its castles as it is for it is for pub culture. You should absolutely make sure to visit a castle or two on your trip, even if you’re from the UK and are used to seeing them.

Ireland’s castles are all unique and have a storied past (usually bloody), as well as beautiful, fairy-tale like architecture.

Some of our favorite’s were Kylemore Abbey on the west coast, Dublin Castle, Malahide Castle, and of course the famous Blarney Castle.

6. Learn the lingo

Group of friends enjoying a beer in a pub in Dublin
Enjoying the craic with friends

You’ll encounter many slang words on your trip to Ireland, and you’ll have a hard time working out what they mean unless you know beforehand.

Here are some commonly used words and phrases you’ll hear:

  • “What’s the craic?” – a way of greeting, meaning “what’s new?” or “How are you?” Craic used on its own without a question form means “fun”
  • Gas – means funny
  • Grand – means fine or adequate
  • “I’m only coddin’ ya” – means “I’m only teasing you/joking”
  • Scuttered – means blind drunk
  • Give it a lash – means to have a go at something or to try something new
  • Banjaxed – means broken or not working
  • Manky – means rotten, dirty or gross
  • Spuds – means potatoes (definitely don’t want to forget this one!)

7. Pack for all weather, any time of year

Man standing on a cliff with the ocean behind him
Cliffs of moher

You should also be aware that Ireland can experience four seasons in a day. There is never a best time to visit Ireland, as even in the heat of summer months, you can land yourself in squally rain showers at any moment (although September and October are usually quiet in terms of tourism and have good weather).

Whatever time of year you visit, pack a warm jumper and waterproof clothing for rainy days. It’s best to dress in layers to accommodate changes in the weather.

Take an umbrella with you wherever you go. It’s totally possible to be raining in one town and sunny in the next one.

8. See a Hurling or Gaelic Football Match

Hurling match Dublin Ireland
Hurling match in Dublin

One of the best live sporting matches I have ever seen was the semi-final of the All Ireland Gaelic Football match between Donegal and Armagh in Croke Park, Dublin

The stadium was a sea of brightly colored orange and green jerseys, and the team flags madly waving in the crowd were incredible. The atmosphere was electric with fans screaming and cheering with every play of the ball.

It was a great cultural sporting experience and highly recommended if you get the opportunity.

9. Eat Irish Style

Beef & Guinness Stew on a plate
Beef & Guinness Stew

When we lived in Dublin we were meat eaters. Not too sure how we’d go now being vegetarians, but Irish food is delicious and hearty. They are known for their potatoes, and Irish locals pride themselves on their organic spuds.

Some of our favorites dishes in Ireland are potato and leek soup, bacon and cabbage, Guinness or Irish stew, and of course potato done in any way – mashed, baked, roasted or boiled, it doesn’t matter. The Irish don’t want you forgetting about those famine years.

10. Visit the outer Suburbs of Dublin

The view from Killiney Hill in Dublin, Ireland.
The view from Killiney Hill in Dublin, Ireland.

Dublin has many great outer suburbs that are worth visiting for a taste of local living. Our favorite was of course our student village, Rathmines, that was full of great bars and Irish pubs.

Donnybrook and Ballbridge are two of the more affluent suburbs in the South of Dublin, and are worth a leisurely stroll to see some of Ireland’s finest Victorian architecture. Shrewsbury Road in Ballsbridge is the 6th most expensive road in the world.

Dalkey and Killiney is where you may run in to celebrities such as Bono and Enya, who have homes in these upmarket neighborhood’s by the sea. You can reach these towns by the DART, the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (train service).

And Howth is a small fishing village popular for the climbing of the 171m high hill on Howth head, is located an easy train ride to the south of Dublin.

11. Umm, you might not want to kiss the Blarney Stone

One of the most iconic things to do in Ireland is kiss Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, which is kind of the Irish equivalent of throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain.

This centuries old tradition is said to give a person the gift of eloquence…aka, you get the gift of flirting.

It also used to be a toilet. Some people say that people pee on it, but I don’t see how that would work. For instance, you can only kiss the stone by lying on your back and pocking your head through a hole…much less…well, you can figure it out.

Today it’s more likely to give you the ick if you’re health and safety-conscious. It’s said that 400,000 people kiss the stone each year, which is why it’s nicknamed “The Saliva Stone” by the locals.

We politely passed on kissing it!

12. Irish people are extremely friendly (until they aren’t)

Blarney Castle, Co.Cork, Ireland
Blarney Castle- home to the Blarney Stone

Irish people are well known to be friendly and hospitable. They love a good chat and can spend hours talking your ear off in a bar.

That being said, they’re not fond on talking about sex, religion and politics, possibly as a result of their history with Catholics and Protestants butting heads.

Keep conversation casual and fun and you’ll be fine!

Whatever you do, don’t say anything remotely negative about Ireland, and you’ll soon see those cheery smiles fade…

13. No need to carry cash

You can get away with paying for everything in Ireland with your credit cards. Most purchases can be made with contactless payment card or pin terminal.

Note that Ireland uses the Euro, but they also accept GBP Pound Sterling as well.

14. Ireland has 5 airports

Most tourists don’t know this, but Ireland has five international airports, not just Dublin Airport. You can reach Ireland from Europe and other parts of the United Kingdom by flying to either Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Knock or Belfast.

15. Northern Ireland is a separate country

People walking along the street with colorful shopfronts
Westport is a charming west coast town

You probably know this already, but you’d be surprised how many people we meet who don’t know that Ireland and Northern Ireland are not the same.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and may require a different visa to visit. You should look this up before booking your trip.

Places not to miss on an Ireland Road Trip

Now you have the logistical things you need to know down, let’s quickly cover the unmissable places and landmarks. These are the places we think you shouldn’t skip on a road trip around the Emerald isle…

Belfast

a castle
Belfast Castle. Northern Ireland

Belfast is another city not to be missed. It’s small and can be seen in a couple of days.

I recommend you do a black cab tour if you’re short on time. It will give you an up close and very personal look at the history of Ireland’s struggles and the incredible painted murals.

Belfast is much less touristy than Dublin and has a nice Botanical Garden. Another tour worth doing is of the impressive City Hall and of course the Titanic Museum.

Giants Causeway

Hexagonal shaped rocks by the ocean with the sun setting
Sunset at Giant’s Causeway in North Antrim, Northern Ireland

Giants Causeway is perhaps the most famous natural wonder in Ireland. Set on the rugged Antrim Coast, which has views all the way to Scotland on a clear day, these basalt columns date back milenia.

There are 40,000 columns of basalt in perfect horizontal sections at Giants Causeway, forming a pavement, which is unique natural phenomenon unique to this area.

Legend has it that these paved columns were used by giants walking over the sea to Scotland. There are many Irish folklore, myths and legends, which I highly recommend you read up on before you go as they provide entertaining stories.

Doolin

Doolin, County Clare -
Doolin, County Clare

One of our favorite towns on the west coast was Doolin, a small town with charm and a great live music scene in some of the coziest of Irish pubs.

It’s also close to the famous Cliffs of Moher, another natural wonder that Ireland is famous for.

Galway and Connemara

People walking down a city street surrounded by shops

Galway is a fun town with a great vibe and being a university town has a great student atmosphere. It has a slower pace than Dublin, but is big enough to keep you entertained for a day or two.

It’s also very walkable and has a nice central square and provides for easy access to the Connemara.

A highlight of our road trip was The Connemara Loop which had incredible rugged scenery and is not to be missed.

Dingle Peninsula

rocky headlands on the Dingle Peninsula
The gorgeous Dingle Peninsula

Other scenic highlight on a road trip is the Ring of Kerry and The Dingle Peninsula. We actually preferred the Dingle Peninsula over its more famous counterpart, but if you have the time drive both.

And the town of Dingle is wonderful – set right by the ocean with cozy pubs and great food.

West Cork

West Cork Coast WITH LUMINISCENT BLUE WATER
West Cork Coast

The West Cork region and Mizen Head also provided more of Ireland’s spectacular famous scenery. The city of Cork is also worth a day or two as an alternative experience to Dublin and Galway.

Kinsale and Kilkenny

Heading back up the east coast we found Kinsale, a charming little fishing town by the sea with classic Irish pubs and eating options to die for.

Further up the town of Kilkenny is worth a visit. Go check out the well known Kilkenny Castle and enjoy a pint of Kilkenny, our favorite of all the Irish beers and one of our top three in the world.

Final Thoughts

Man holding a glass of Guinness beer
Craig enjoying a pint at the Guinness Brewery

It’s no secret the Irish are known for their warm hospitality and the love of a pint of the black stuff, Guinness. We spent many nights in a cozy traditional Irish pub built of character, and filled with live music whilst digging into a hearty meal.

This is Ireland at it’s finest.

Whilst Ireland is famous for having one of the best pub scenes in the world, that’s not all it’s got going for it.

It also has spectacular coastal and countryside scenery, charming towns, historic castles, friendly people, and lots of interesting history.

I hope this guide helped you get excited about visiting this amazing country and helped you feel more prepared about going.

More Ireland Travel Tips

Need more inspiration for visiting Ireland and Northern Ireland? Here are some other useful guides…

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