Travel 

10 Best Hidden Places in Ireland

The Top Attractions in Ireland That Most People Don’t Know About


Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland
(Photo: Skellig Michael via Shutterstock)

Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland

No one goes to Skellig Michael by accident. I certainly didn’t. My first encounter with this ancient monastic settlement about eight miles off the coast of County Kerry was a virtual one—I saw a picture of its craggy, windswept stone steps corkscrewing up from the white-capped Atlantic, and I immediately wanted to know more. Who carved them? Why? And where did the steps lead…?

As it turns out, getting the answers about Skellig Michael in person requires both persistence and good luck. You’ll need the services of a fishing trawler (there are plenty for hire from mid-April through mid-September in nearby Portmagee) and the good fortune of setting off on a clear day. Once on the island of Skellig Michael, climbing those stone steps brings you to the main attraction: a cluster of beehive-shaped stone huts dating back to the sixth century. That’s right—early Christian monks actually lived on this windswept outpost in the middle of nowhere.

These days, only a few hundred hardy visitors are allowed at this UNESCO World Heritage site on any given day. That’s a great thing, and one of the reasons why it’s one of the top attractions in Ireland that nobody knows about. If you go, you’ll feel like you have it all to yourself.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park, Ireland
(Photo: Torc Waterfall via Shutterstock)

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park, Ireland

If the words “free admission,” “easily accessible,” and “beautiful waterfall” get you excited, you’ll love Torc Waterfall in Killarney National Park. Only about four miles outside Killarney, this 60-foot cataract drops in from the Torc Mountains via a river known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl. It’s a scenic spot thick with natural beauty, just a short walk on a wide path from the parking lot.

The adventurous and physically fit can continue on from the waterfall and climb the 220 steps up the hill to a trail that (eventually) loops back to the parking lot. The two- to three-hour walk delivers views of the area lakes and includes a series of carved steps that require the assistance of a provided rope to navigate.

Aran Islands, County Galway, Ireland
(Photo: Inis Mor via Shutterstock)

Aran Islands, County Galway, Ireland

Gaelic is still spoken on the Aran Islands—40 minutes by ferry from Rossaveel, just outside of Galway—and many residents still get around the old-fashioned way: by foot, bike, or horse and buggy. The largest and most visited of the Islands is Inis Mor (or Inishmore), which isn’t exactly touristy but does offer many of the conveniences travelers appreciate, such as bike rentals, B&Bs, and a trendy youth hostel. Rent a bike to see the island on a day trip, and stop to explore the ruins of Dun Aengus, an impressive Iron Age fortress walled on three sides and open on the fourth, with nothing but a 300-foot drop separating the ruins from the open sea.

Inis Meain and Inis Oirr, the other two islands in the group, receive far fewer visitors and are truly unspoiled Ireland at its finest. If you visit on a clear day, you can see one of the top attractions in Ireland (the Cliffs of Moher) from the shores of Inis Oirr.

Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland
(Photo: Glendalough via Shutterstock)

Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland

Glendalough, Ireland’s “Valley of Two Lakes,” rests in a glacial valley in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains. Much like Skellig Michael, this “city of seven churches” was founded in the sixth century as a monastic settlement by hermits whose love of isolation appears to have been matched only by their love of fine scenery. These days, you can explore a cathedral, a distinctive round tower, decorated stone crosses, medieval churches, and other ancient stone structures.

Beara Peninsula, Counties Cork and Kerry, Ireland
(Photo: Lake Inchiquin on the Beara Peninsula via Shutterstock)

Beara Peninsula, Counties Cork and Kerry, Ireland

Everyone’s heard of the Ring of Kerry, and for good reason. It’s a lovely and scenic area, but it’s also chock-full of buses and tourists year-round. And while I’m not suggesting you skip the Ring of Kerry altogether, why not supplement it with a detour to the Ring of Beara on the wild and rocky Beara Peninsula in the far southwest of Ireland? The scenery is great, and if you’re a walker, so are the rambling footpaths. There’s no better way to experience Ireland’s wild natural landscape than with a drive or a stroll through this under-visited coastal peninsula.

Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland
(Photo: Legananny Dolmen, Mourne Mountains via Shutterstock)

Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland

Whether you prefer your epic fantasy stories wholesome and value-oriented (like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis) or with a dash of brutal realism (like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin), you may find the inspiration to craft your own tales in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland. This wild and romantic terrain is so rife with forests, rivers, grottos, caves, and follies that it’s said to have stoked the imagination of Lewis as he was writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And HBO shot on location in the Mourne Mountains while filming its Game of Thrones adaptation, making it one of the top attractions in Ireland for fans of A Song and Ice and Fire.

Hore Abbey, County Tipperary, Ireland
(Photo: Caroline Costello)

Hore Abbey, County Tipperary, Ireland

I’m a big fan of the Rock of Cashel, an undeniably spectacular collection of medieval buildings (including a 12th-century round tower, a Gothic cathedral, and a 15th-century castle) set atop a limestone outcropping. For lovers of history and medieval architecture, of which I’m both, there may be no better tourist attraction in all of Ireland.

But the crowds—oh, the crowds! If your idea of “intimate” doesn’t include a guided tour with 50 of your closest friends, then top off your visit to the Rock of Cashel with a trip to nearby Hore Abbey. This gorgeous deserted ruin has no tour guides, no crowds, and no entrance fee. On most days, it’s just you, the ghosts, and maybe a stray dog or two. Very much worth the visit.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
(Photo: Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge via Shutterstock)

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Nearly a million people visit the Giant’s Causeway every year. Only a quarter of that number makes it to the nearby Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which connects the tiny island of Carrickarede (“Rock of the Casting”) to the mainland. It’s a tourist attraction, no doubt, and it’s maintained by the National Trust. But because this 66-foot bridge sees only a fraction of the area’s visitors, I still consider it something of a secret. The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is open year-round, weather permitting (this is Northen Ireland, after all), and the National Trust charges a small fee to cross it.

Dunmore East, County Waterford, Ireland
(Photo: Alsal Photography via flickr/CC Attribution)

Dunmore East, County Waterford, Ireland

It was around this time last year that we named Dunmore East one of Europe’s best secret villages. Thankfully, the secret is still not out—and that’s good news for those of us who love getting off the beaten path on our travels. Packed with all the traditional charm you’d expect of a small Irish fishing village—thatched roofs, seaside cliffs, and sheltered coves—Dunmore East harbors another secret: It’s a sweet spot for scuba divers and snorkelers in search of World War I-era wrecks. Me, I’ve always preferred hiking boots to scuba gear, and Dunmore East’s moody clifftop rambles don’t disappoint.

Irish Seisiuns
(Photo: A Street in Galway via Shutterstock)

Irish Seisiuns

Not so much a place as a way of life, a seisiun (“session”) is an informal gathering in which people sing and play traditional Irish music. So much Irish culture, history, and heritage shines through in the music, and experiencing it with a pint in hand at a pub or a small town festival is one way to encounter the hidden beauty of Ireland without advance planning or lacing up your hiking boots for a ramble through the rolling green hills. Still an integral part of Irish rural life, you can usually find a seisiun on Sunday afternoons or midweek evenings, typically on Tuesday and Wednesday. Ask around and you’re sure to find one on your stay.

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