How we got to see the best of Ireland in 11 days
As you might have read in my Saint Patrick’s Day post, my bestie Jen and I took a girls trip to Ireland this spring.
That’s right! Eleven days. No kids. No men. Just me, my best friend, a suitcase, and that was the just the beginning of it!
No one would’ve needed to twist my arm to extend this vacation by a few weeks. Or, you know, forever. It’s hard enough to come back from any vacation, but when you’re visiting somewhere as scenic and welcoming as Ireland, well, it makes leaving that much harder. It was clear when we first started planning this trip that eleven days was going to be tight. There’s just so much we wanted to see and do, it seemed impossible to squeeze it all into such a short amount time. But by God, we did it!
I won’t lie. It took a lot of planning and researching. It meant pre-booking a lot of things. I don’t care what anyone says. One does not simply go to Ireland for eleven days without some kind of a plan. Not if you want to get the most out of your time there. This itinerary is not for the faint of heart. We dangled from high castles, teetered a hundred feet over crashing waves on a rope bridge, and stood at edge of the highest cliffs in Ireland. (Apparently everything we did was very high).
It’s almost impossible to describe how amazing this vacation was. Not only did we get to experience some of the most breathtaking scenery this island has to offer and do all the things we wanted to do, but the weather was actually fantastic.
We’re talking clear blue skies every day, and less than twenty minutes of rain, total. From what we heard, this is practically unheard of for that time of year. Some might call it luck. Personally, I like to think it was our sunny dispositions that caused the sunshine to follow us everywhere. (You’re welcome, Ireland.)
I’m so excited to share the highlights of my trip with you. Whether you’re planning a trip there yourself and are looking for travel tips, or for some odd reason just want to read about how two grown women succeeded in escaping the mundanities of everyday life for a short time, then sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride!
- Day 1 – Dublin
- Day 2 – Dublin
- Day 3 – Waterford
- Day 4 – Blarney & Cork
- Day 5 – Northern Ireland
- Day 6 – Galway
- Day 7 – Aran Islands & Cliffs of Moher
- Day 8 – Cong
- Day 9 – Galway
- Day 10 – Dublin
- Day 11 – Dublin & home
DAY 1 and 2: DUBLIN
If you want to get technical, I was actually gone for 12 days. My flight left Ottawa at 1:00 pm on March 20th, stopped for a short four-hour layover in Toronto, and landed in Dublin at 5:00 am on March 21st. Jen, who was flying into Dublin from Chicago, landed (get this!) at the same time. The stars were aligned, Fate wanted it, and so it was!
After getting our luggage and clearing customs, we took a cab to our hotel, The Morgan on Fleet Street located in Temple Bar. If you’re visiting Dublin, Temple Bar is where you want to stay. It’s a lively neighbourhood spread over small streets and cobblestone pedestrian lanes, where you’ll find the more popular pubs and neat shops of all kind. It’s also central to pretty much everything, which is perfect because none of those awesome things are open at 6:00 am. The hotel wasn’t able to check us in early, which thankfully is something we anticipated. We dropped off our bags and set out to begin our adventure!
And an adventure it was since our quest to find coffee proved to be quite a thing. We literally walked miles just to find a cup. Nary a Starbucks or Caffé Nero were open! I love the Irish, really I do. But I don’t get how they can just accept this lack of open coffee shops between 6-8am on a Thursday morning. It’s offensive. There. I said it.
Note: We eventually circled back to our hotel and had coffee and breakfast there. It was quite literally the only place that was open. So we enjoyed the hot Irish breakfast with more than one mimosa. We earned it, after all.
One thing I almost always do when I travel to larger cities, is purchase 48-hour Hop-On Hop-Off bus tickets. It’s great. You get to hit all the main tourist spots and do it all on your own time over two days. This trip was no exception. We booked the tickets via CitySightseeing.
I will say that if you’re staying in Temple Bar and you’ve got a good set of legs (and appropriate footwear), you can actually get away without these tickets. I hate to say it because I do love me some Hop-On Hop-Off (haha!), but I really mean it when I say that Temple Bar is central. Jen and I were simply too tired to sit on a bus by this time, so we chose to walk everywhere to stay awake. And once we got started walking, we didn’t stop!
Over the course of the first two days, we walked 35km around Dublin! We toured Dublin Castle, Trinity College and Book of Kells, explored Marion Square and St-Stephen’s Green, saw Christchurch Cathedral, St-Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, the Ha’penny Bridge, the GPO, Jeanie Johnston, Grafton Street, the Convention Center, Glasnevin Cemetary, the Georgian Doors, and the Spire of Dublin (known to the locals as The Stiletto in the Ghetto) only to name a few!
On the second night, we had dinner reservations at The Little Pig, a hidden gem tucked away in central Dublin. Its location is top-secret and you need a password to get in, though I will tell you that the food was phenomenal, the atmosphere warm and luxurious, and the cocktails strong and delicious. Very highly recommended!
DAY 3: WATERFORD
On day three, we took the train out from Dublin Heuston Station to Waterford for the day. Waterford is a delightful little seaport in southeast Ireland, and is the country’s oldest city. It was founded by Vikings in 914 A.D., and parts of its defensive wall core still remains to this day!
Leaving Dublin at 7:25am (just in time to grab a Butlers Chocolates coffee before the train left), we traveled through the quaint Irish countryside, marvelling at the beauty, the simplicity, and the many adorable sheep!
Once there, we toured the Waterford Crystal Factory where we got to see live crystal making! I picked up a lovely candy dish souvenir (it’s actually a coaster but I’m not fancy enough to use it as such).
We also toured the Bishop’s Palace, the Medieval Treasures Museum, and did a very cool (and slightly jumpy!) King of the Vikings virtual reality experience in a handcrafted replica of a viking house built in Ireland’s oldest city, Vadrarfjordr (Waterford).
We also stumbled upon a rather lovely crumbling old graveyard at Saint Patrick’s United Church. Lovely during the day, of course. I would not want to be anywhere near it after dark. There’s no way that place isn’t haunted. No. Way!
The best lunch of our entire vacation was at the Waterford Crystal Cafe. There, we were delighted to try their traditional Blaa, which is anything but blah! It’s a delicious soft, fluffy roll that is exclusive to Waterford and is famed for its floury crust. A must try if you’re in the area! We also indulged in my favorite dessert of the trip, a Strawberry & Clotted Cream cake. Omg. Just…omg.
We hopped back on the train and were back in Dublin by 8:30 pm, where Jen and I stopped in at The Teller Room for a pint, mussels and fries — sorry, chips — before heading back to the hotel for some much needed rest after a long, wonderful day!
DAY 4 – BLARNEY & CORK
Day four began with an early start at Molly Malone — also known to the locals as “The Tart with the Cart”. Before you ask, no, I did not rub her ta-tas for good luck. Judging by the look on her face, I’d say she’s been rubbed quite enough, thank you.
There at the Molly Malone statue we met our tour guide, Alec, from Extreme Ireland for our full day coach excursion to Blarney & Cork. I booked the tour through Viator and definitely recommend it.
We spent the early morning rolling through the Irish countryside and made our first stop at Rock of Cashel. The legend goes that this is where St-Patrick himself banished the devil to the mountains and saved the people. The devil had such a conniption over it that he ripped off a piece of the mountain and chucked it at St-Patrick. He missed, but that giant boulder still sits there to this day.
Our next stop was Blarney Castle, famed for one of Ireland’s most renowned treasures: the Blarney Stone. Do NOT, under any circumstance, let anyone convince you to skip the castle to “kiss the fecking stone”. We’re so happy we didn’t listen to the nay sayers. This part was by far a huge highlight of the trip for us!
After a harrowing climb up the castle’s 127 winding and narrow AF steps, Jen and I made it to the top to kiss the stone! They say that if you kiss it, you’ll be blessed with the gift of the gab! (The ability to speak with eloquence and fluency.)
It somehow escaped us that this exercise involves dangling yourself ninety feet over a gaping hole in the castle floor, on your back, and bending backwards while some teenage boy holds your life in his hands.
It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once! I can’t imagine trying to do this before the recent addition of the safety bars!
After braving the stone, Jen and I wandered around the magical grounds of the castle. We spotted a fairy house, wishing steps, a poison garden, gorgeous flowers, and a waterfall. The skies were blue, the air was fresh, the company was perfect. It was truly spectacular.
DAY 5 – NORTHERN IRELAND
Our fifth day began with another very early start at Starbucks. Apparently that particular location on College Green subscribes to the notion that coffee + early weekday morning = good. To add to our delight, Jen and I were officially christened with our new Irish names!
Our first stop on this tour was in Northern Ireland’s infamous capital, Belfast. An iconic black cab picked us up and gave us a rather somber, brooding tour of this city, notorious for its longstanding history of political and religious turmoil. We visited several neighbourhoods that have been affected by The Troubles, places where homes used to be, where people were killed, where our cab driver had himself been imprisoned for three years. We saw the barbed-wire barriers still separating the Catholics and Protestants to this day, and made a stop at the Peace Wall where Jen and I signed our names in support of unity, accord, and peace.
The coach then took us to the next part of our journey, through the gorgeous Antrim Coastal Drive. We drove along Ireland’s north coast, staring out at the impressive sea views, and even got a glimpse of Dunluce Castle, a medieval castle moonlighting as the House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones! “What Is Dead May Never Die!”
After a two-hour drive up the coast, we got to spend an incredible afternoon exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Giant’s Causeway. This site alone made the tour. The hexagonal basalt columns are a wonder to behold. The magnitude of this place is beyond impressive and impossible to fully capture on camera, no matter how hard I tried. Also, the Legend of Finn McCool is brilliantly hilarious!
If you travel to Ireland, make time for this. Do it. Fit in your itinerary. You won’t regret it.
We capped off the tour with a stop in Carrick-a-Rede for a death-defying walk across its famous and terrifying rope bridge. Now, I’m not stupid. I’m sure they’ve put in all sorts of reinforcements and safety features and whatnot, but once you’re actually standing on this thing, and it’s swinging and bouncing and all you’ve got under your feet is rope, a thin sheet of wood plank, and waves crashing into rocks a hundred feet below…Well, you basically just want to shit your pants.
Trust me when I say this activity is not for the faint-hearted! If you’re afraid of heights, this is not the place to start facing your fears. Because once you finally manage to get across it, it suddenly dawns on you that you’ve got to cross the bloody thing again to get back!
After somehow surviving the adrenaline overdose, we waddled back to the coach for the long ride back to Dublin, where they decided to try killing us in a different way by playing P.S. I Love You on the entertainment screen. So. Much. Crying!
This tour was seriously incredible. It was a long, full day, filled with excitement, fresh air and so many memories!
Our fifth day ended with delicious take-away from Thai Orchid Dublin which we ate in our hotel room. It was time to pack up because early the following morning we would be taking the next leg of our trip to the west coast of Ireland: Galway!
DAY 6 & 7 – GALWAY
We woke up early on the sixth day and said goodbye to Dublin as we hopped on a train destined for Galway. I can’t help it. Every time I hear the name Galway, Ed Sheeran starts playing in my head. “My, my, my, my, my, my, my Galway girl!”
If you’ve never heard of it, Galway is a gorgeous little harbour city on the west coast of Ireland, where the River Corrib and the North Atlantic Ocean meet. Eyre Square, the heart of the city, is surrounded by pretty cobblestone streets, ancient stone buildings painted in every colour, charming boutiques, quaint cafés, and live street performers. It’s not uncommon to see a granny tottering around in a tweed coat dress and matching hat, right next to a guy with a blue mohawk wearing pants made out of a collage of patches. It’s Great Grandma’s kitchen meets Folk Fest.
As soon as we got in, we checked into our charming Bed & Breakfast called the Asgard Guesthouse. It was very reasonably priced and absolutely adorable. Located right on College Rd. and only a short walk from Eyre Square, it was easy for us to drop off our luggage and set out to explore on foot.
We sipped lattes at Jungle Cafe, ambled along the river, walked under the Spanish Arch, toured the Galway City Museum, listened to an eclectic mix of music by street performers, popped in and out of shops where we found some great souvenirs for the family, and we didn’t stop until dark! We finally slowed things down at the Corner Brasserie, an incredible restaurant that served us the most delicious local seafood and pints! We enjoyed our meal so much we shut the place down!
The next morning we enjoyed an early breakfast at the Asgard Guesthouse before heading out on our next tour to the Cliffs of Moher!
This was the one tour we didn’t book weeks in advance. Ireland is notorious for its rain, cloud and fog, and visibility at the Cliffs is often an issue. Knowing this, we checked the weather forecast and waited until the day before to book it.
We chose the Aran Islands & The Cliffs Cruise tour through Galway Tour Company, and couldn’t be happier that we did!
The tour started off with a pleasant drive along the moon-like Burren region. We hopped aboard a ferry and made our way out to Inis Oirr (the smallest of the Aran Islands) where Jen and I hired bikes and cycled about 6km around the island, huffing and puffing our way through an impressive maze of mortarless stone walls. The Aran Islands are just about 18 square miles total, and contain approximately 1500 miles of stone wall!
We then jumped on a boat to cruise the bottom of the cliffs. It’s impossible to describe just how high they are, especially when viewing them bottom up! On our way back to the harbour, we spotted dolphins in the sea, swimming and jumping around our boat! We stopped in Doolin for a delicious lunch of crispy fish and chips, and then our coach took us up to the very top of the Cliffs of Moher.
There are no words to properly describe it. Breathtaking. Overwhelming. Heart-stopping. Wondrous. None of these do it justice.
As you can see from the pictures, we had the sunniest, most blue-skyey day! If I could suggest anything to anyone traveling to Galway, it would be to stay for a few days. Watch the weather closely. And when you see a window with no rain or fog, jump on this tour! It was worth every single penny, which is crazy to say because it was so inexpensive on top of everything!
We were so exhausted by the end of this day, I seriously can’t even remember where, when or even IF we had dinner. I do remember sleeping verrrry well.
DAY 8 – CONG
Okay. This was by far our guiltiest pleasure of the whole trip. And if I’m being perfectly honest, we enjoyed it entirely guilt free.
So, Cong is a village that sort of sandwiches the border separating County Galway and County Mayo in the province of Connacht. Population of 145, it was the hometown of Oscar Wilde’s father as well as the filming location for the 1952 Oscar-winning film, The Quiet Man.
It is also home to the medieval Ashford Castle. Built by the Normans over 800 years ago and owned for almost a century by the Guinness family, Ashford Castle is now enjoying a new life as an award-winning, 5-star luxury castle hotel. And we got to stay there for a night!
Our royal adventure began with a bus ride out of Galway with a quick transfer in Headford. The bus driver dropped us off right at the Ashford Castle Gates, through which we entered clad in clunky boots, grubby jeans and backpacks.
Our less-than-royal appearance did not upset the guard, Fiona, one bit. We were welcomed graciously onto the grounds with offers of calling up “The Car” to bring us and our backpacks up the drive.
Although our bags were heavy, and let’s face it, it would have been pretty cool to pull up to the castle in their posh black luxury car, we honestly just wanted to take it all in and opted to walk. Trust me, driving up to the castle wouldn’t have gotten us these pictures!
As we ambled up to the castle, all backpacks and boots, we were immediately greeted by name by the top-hatted doorman. Complimentary gin punch was served, a small tour was given, and we were shown up to our very posh room on the fifth floor.
The room was absolutely perfect, with an antique colored Waterford Crystal Chandelier, enormous windows overlooking the lake, Egyptian Cotton bed linen, fresh flowers, heated bathroom floors, electronic blinds, and a chocolate and poem at turn down service.
The castle is opulent at every turn. Everything screams royalty and demands that you sit and be served premium cocktails and fussy desserts. But there was no time, because we had booked ourselves a slot at the oldest established Falconry School in Ireland!
Led by the very knowledgeable and incredibly funny Dennis, Jen and I spent the next hour, hour and a half strolling around the Castle estate gardens flying our very own hawks!
Frodo and Bilbo were only about six months old but quite well-trained. Such an amazing and unforgettable experience! I’ve never done anything so cool in my life!
We then went to the pool for a relaxing swim, spent some time in the steam room, showered and got all dolled up for our decadent steak dinner and oysters at The Dungeon. Afterwards, we slipped into the bar and spent the rest of the evening in front of a roaring fireplace, sipping fancy drinks that came with their own story, and chatting with our new friends Kevin and Sylvie from Manchester who, despite us mentioning our husbands several times, mistook Jen and I for “partners”.
The castle was phenomenal. It was everything we dreamt of and so, SO much more. The level of class and service this place offered went so far beyond expectation. Absolutely unforgettable.
DAY 9 – ASHFORD CASTLE & GALWAY
The next morning, we awoke in our princess beds and enjoyed a lazy and oh-so-luxurious breakfast in the George V Dining Room. The breakfast spread was quite something to behold, involving porcelain and silver place settings, delectable pastries of all kind, full Irish fare, a large ham, salted fish, whiskey for the porridge, and an enormous sheet of honeycomb to sweeten things up!
After breakfast, we walked several kilometers around the castle grounds, taking it all in before grudgingly having to check out.
With out feet stuffed in boots, we shrugged on our backpacks and walked to the village of Cong to catch our bus back to Galway, where we spent the rest of the day in a dream-like state, enjoying our last stint in the unforgettable west of Ireland.
After finishing up our souvenir shopping in Galway, we had dinner at Ard Bia which had been recommended to us by Jen’s friend and it was fantastic! We shared the rabbit ravioli starter, Jen had the steak and wine, I had the gnocchi and weekend cocktail, and both of us walked back to our Bed & Breakfast with full tummies, flushed cheeks, and enormous smiles!
DAY 10 – GALWAY & DUBLIN
For our last night in Galway, we stayed at the Corrib House Bed & Breakfast on Waterside, which was right next to the Corrib River. It was perfectly charming, with the cutest clawfoot bathtub and in-room tea station.
But the breakfast is what set this place apart from anywhere else. Even Ashford Castle. I’m not kidding. Not only did we eat in the most adorable tea room that ever was, the food was out of this bloody world. The fluffiest scones ever made. The perfect coffee. Cakes. Homemade breads. And the poached eggs…Don’t even get me started! It’s not surprising to learn that the Corrib House is the 2017 Winner of the “Best Breakfast in Ireland”!
After finishing what was most definitely the best breakfast I have ever had the pleasure of eating, Jen and I bid goodbye to Galway, hopped on a train, and headed back to Dublin for our very last night of the trip.
As it always goes, every good thing must come to an end. Husbands need to be fed. Children need to be reared. Jobs need to be done. And so with that in mind, we very strategically planned one hell of a way to end our vacation:
Massages and Room Service at one of Dublin’s top hotels!
The Shelbourne in Dublin is quite famous for its spa. After the massages, salt scrubs, facials, and champagne & ice cream finish we treated ourselves to, there’s no argument as to why that is.
Afterwards, we ordered room service, packed up our luggage for the voyage home, and slept very, very well!
DAY 11 – DUBLIN & HOME
As you can well imagine, it was hard to say goodbye, not only to Ireland but to Jen as well. We live in different countries and although we try to see each other at least once a year, it’s really never enough.
I couldn’t have asked for a better travel friend. Jen and I mesh. We’re both considerate about each other’s needs, we’re flexible, we’re cooperative, we’re open minded, and we’re a fecking riot! We laughed so much, picked up a bunch of new inside jokes that our families do NOT understand nor appreciate as we do, and now we have whole lot of new memories to add to our time together.
I won’t bother getting into my travel back home. It was long, hot, stuffy, and not a lot of fun. But I will say that it did feel good to be home, to see my kids and my hubby whom I missed very much despite all the fun I was having abroad. Everyone loved their souvenirs, particularly Mitch who especially liked the frilly white nightgown I picked up for myself at Twice As Nice in Galway. Win!
So there you have it. My complete outline of my 11 day trip to Ireland!
I hope you enjoyed reading this very long post and am impressed if you made it to the end! Stay tuned for my Ireland packing guide! xxoo