We have family in southern Ireland and try to visit at least once a year, always returning to our favorite places but adding in a few new destinations as well. These are the sites that we would highly recommend to other families.
Dublin is by far the largest city in Ireland and is a perfect place to start any trip – especially because it has the most flight options. We typically base out of the centrally-located Merrion Hotel and take a city tour our first day – there’s a wide range of tour options, from large free tours (tips encouraged) to group tours and private tours – and then we go back to our favorite places the following days. Trinity College is interesting for kids and adults alike – especially the amazing single chamber library – as is nearby Dublin Castle. The Dublin Zoo is always a hit. Be sure to check out the Natural History and Archeology Museums, and take a walk through the Temple Bar area.
We spend the majority of our time in Kinsale, on Ireland’s southern coast. Our kids love the town itself, with fun shops and cafes, a playground and artistic ramps that they always try to reach the top of, but the main attractions for us are Charles Fort, a star fort from 1682 where our kids spend hours playing and exploring, and the coast near Sandycove right outside of town, where we take daily hikes. There’s also a fun Ghost Tour through town that departs most summer evenings. Be sure to catch the Wednesday Farmers Market, held all year long.
We absolutely loved Ashford Castle – technically a resort, but really a destination. We spent two nights in the 888-year-old castle, exploring the castle and its grounds and taking advantage of a few of the activities. A highlight was falconry, where our kids released Harris Hawks in the forests surrounding the castle and then lured them back with food. We also loved horseback riding, which gave us a chance to see more of the castle land. And we had dinner one night in the castle’s dungeon, really bringing history to life for the kids, had a proper Afternoon Tea and played a dozen games of chess in the main hall. When we go back we’ll stay longer – there’s a lot more to do including boat rides, archery and tree climbing.
Fota Wildlife Park
Outside of Dublin, only the Cliffs of Moher see more visitors every year than Fota Wildlife Park. We visited on a cold November day and even our jaded safari-going kids had a fun time. Highlights were the free-roaming kangaroos and pelicans, the cheetahs, meerkats, and lemurs, and the highly-endagered Rothschild Giraffes. As at any park, there are fewer visitors on weekdays than weekends.
We have not yet traveled to the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, but it’s at the top of our list. I asked Karilyn from No Back Home to tell us why it’s one of her family’s favorite places:
The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a spectacular rock formation on the northern coast of Ireland composed of closely-packed hexagonal stone columns. Being avid nature lovers, the site was amazing to see, and for my 5-year-old, it was a perfect playground for a day of climbing, hiking and exploring. Science tells us these basalt columns are due to volcanic activity, however we like to believe Irish folklore that these fantastical stone arrangements were created by an Irish giant building a bridge across the sea to his most fearsome enemies in Scotland! Our first visit we took the easier 1km blue path from our hotel (the on-site Causeway Hotel). Our second visit we took the red path – more adventurous with 162 steep, uneven stairs at the bottom, but still doable for a 5-year-old. Afternoon visits are best for photography but morning visits are best for avoiding crowds. The visitor’s center and audio tour are excellent as well.
Carrick from Along for the Trip highly recommends a day trip to Howth:
Howth is a little fishing village on the eastern edge of Ireland on Dublin Bay, and is only a short ride on the DART rail from Dublin. Families can spend the day watching sailboats, exploring Howth Castle, or shopping for Irish crafts in Howth Market. Be sure to have lunch at one of the cafes along the pier where they’re serving up some of the best seafood dishes around. Families who are up for a short hike will be rewarded with gorgeous views of the harbor from the high cliffs above, and for something quirky, check out the Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio.
What kid is going to complain about another castle? The top pick of Marta from Learning Escapes:
Beautiful Birr Castle sits in the centre of Ireland’s ‘magical midlands’ and is an exciting place for kids. Protected by tall grey walls, the castle is the oldest inhabited home in County Offaly and hosts a plethora of record-breaking attractions. Its impressive Great Telescope was the biggest in the world when built in 1845, and is considered the largest historic scientific instrument still working today: it sits in the castle park and has a diameter of almost 2 meters. The castle gardens boast Ireland’s oldest suspension bridge, an adventure playground and the largest tree house in the country – an irresistible climbing experience that makes Birr an exceptional destination for little explorers.
Connemara Heritage and History Centre
And Lillie from Around the World “L” has this favorite:
The Connemara Heritage and History Centre near Clifden combines a gorgeous working farm with the history of emigration from Ireland, via the Dan O’Hara homestead. Our family spent a lovely afternoon there, and it ended up surprising us by being one of the best parts of our week-long Ireland road trip. Why? Because the people were so friendly, the stories so interesting, the animals so exciting, and the food (scones!) so yummy! This is a lesser-known gem.
While you’re in Connemara, Nicole from Arrows Sent Forth suggests Kylemore Abbey:
Kylemore Abbey is one of my favorite places in all of Ireland, and definitely the must-see attraction for families who venture up to the Connemara region. Their play trail is fabulous and the setting is gorgeous, with the Twelve Bens mountain range/national park as a backdrop and a lake perfect for Abbey reflections. Don’t miss the Victorian Walled Gardens. I highly recommend taking the shuttle there to save your kids’ legs. The downhill walk back is far easier.
Land of the Fairies
And finally, there’s no reason that a trip to Ireland has to be restricted to physical places! Last month in Dublin we hired Helena Byrne to entertain us one night over dinner. It was brilliant – an evening of Irish stories and songs where we learned all about Irish fairies, pookas and banshees. Helena’s stories transported us and gave us a much better feel for Irish history and mythology. She performs in Dublin regularly and tours the US, but if you can’t make the dates work, hire her to join you, or search out another member of the Storytellers of Ireland.
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