Ireland is a perennially popular tourist destination. But most Americans immediately think to visit the east coast capital of Dublin, the country's largest city, which promises plenty of cultural attractions and a (ahem!) robust pub scene. (Subtext: it's fun to get drunk here.) Fair enough.
But once you're past the MTV Spring
Break-era of life, the best vacations are often those that offer more relaxation than intoxication. And for that, look to Ireland's Atlantic-facing west coast. The rural Connemara region is postcard-pretty: imagine miles of rolling green hills, dotted with charming villages and outlined by craggy coastline. When folks call the Emerald Isle "enchanted," this is what they mean. You half-expect to see a cupcake-juggling leprechaun jigging on a hillside, the place is so god damn freaking adorable. (Sorry, cynical city slicker moment. Breathe. One, two…)
Online research will reveal plenty of possible ways to spend a vacation here. But we went ahead and pulled together a sample weeklong itinerary of dining, cultural attraction and sightseeing options for country daytrips and – in case you can't leave urban life too far behind – spending time in Galway, the area's largest city.
Fly into the town of Shannon, and then hit the road. Yes, Joe America, you'll have to drive on the left hand side. (First, it's daunting. Then, it's basically an excuse to do your best James Bond imitation at stoplights.) As you head into Connemara, highways will eventually give way to "major routes" that are narrow, winding, yet meticulously maintained roads. Farms stretch on either side. Green mountains rise all over. Cattle and sheep dot the misty landscape. (Be careful. It's hard to avert your eyes from the gorgeousness everywhere, but occasionally a white, woolly hitchhiker wanders into the middle of the road.) The deeper into the rural region you drive, the more infrequent the quaint villages you'll pass. Plan bathroom breaks and snapshot stops accordingly.
There are a number of bed & breakfasts throughout the Connemara region. But if you ask us, all roads lead (uh, figuratively speaking) to Renvyle House Hotel
), a pretty 2.5-hour drive from Shannon. The centuries-old property first opened as a hotel in 1883, and has hosted historic figures like Winston Churchill and W.B. Yeats. A rambling, picturesque estate nestled between a lake on one side and the North Atlantic on the other, Renvyle is basically a cozy cable knit sweater in architectural form: think a main foyers and common lounging areas swathed in solid Irish oak, plenty of warm fireplaces filling the air with the smell of toasty peat, and comfortable guest rooms that provide a warm, relaxing respite from the (occasionally howling) seaside winds outside. For your first night, relax from the drive with a game of Snooker (a variation of billiards), pore through pages in the library, or pour down a pint or ten in the bar, where friendly guests gather for conversation and live entertainment. And good news, gourmands: Renvyle boasts a renowned, Food & Wine
-honored restaurant with a daily-changing menu that using fresh, locally sourced meats, veggies and seafood.
An hour north of Renvyle, Westport is a charming seaside town worth a stop. Shop-lined streets are like spokes radiating from the village's hub, the Octagon, and stone paths and bridges crisscross the Carrowbeg River that flows through town. In 2012, Westport was named Best Place to Live in Ireland by The Irish Times
, the country's major newspaper.
Unwind amid the comfortable, homey décor at The Pantry & Corkscrew
), an intimate café-style restaurant that focuses on local, organic and responsibly sourced ingredients: from grass fed beef to free-range chicken. (Plenty of vegetarian options here, too.) If it's seafood you crave, try the so-deemed best chowder in Ireland at The West Bar
). This year the upscale gastro-pub won the National Chowder Cook-off; in June 2013 it heads to tony Newport, Rhode Island to compete in the Great Chowder Cook-off, which is basically the Olympics for chowders. And for rich, French-inflected cuisine, try Quay Cottage
, a cozy, wood-paneled and nautical-themed restaurant in – well, The Quay. It's a small port area a 15-minute walk from town center, and functions mainly as a strip of pubs and restaurants.
If your only association with "Irish music" is U2, get familiar with the Celtic sound of the popular native band The Chieftains. Their 2012 album, Voice of Ages
, celebrates the band's 50th year – so raise a glass (and take in nightly traditional music) at Matt Molloy's
), the Westport pub owned
by the Chieftains member. To really mix with the locals, check out R Walsh
, a no-frills bar once featured in a Guinness commercial. Or find some fellow tourists to dance with at C2 Nightclub
; a favorite for bachelorette parties (or as they're called here, "hen parties"), it's housed inside the Castlecourt hotel – so if you need to sleep things off, there's a bed nearby.
Tour over 30 antique-filled rooms of Westport House
.), a stately manse built in 1650 for the Browne family, descendents of famed "pirate queen" Grace O'Malley. (The Brownes still own it, and run a pirate theme park on site.) Just outside Westport is Croagh Patrick, considered the holiest hill in Ireland. Thousands of visitors annually make pilgrimage to its 2500-foot high peak, where it is said that Saint Patrick once fasted for 40 days. Make the two-hour climb and you'll be rewarded with gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside and Clew Bay. Also nearby is the National Famine Monument
, memorializing the million who died during Ireland's Great Famine.
About an hour west of Renvyle is the small coastal town of Clifden. Explore the village center and then sightsee in the spectacular countryside nearby.
Clifden tends to be considered the area's best dining destination, and Mitchell's Restaurant
) makes the case for why. Seafood is the specialty in this romantic, two-floor restaurant house in an old stone building. And for a light lunch, Upstairs Downstars
offers simple but scrumptious sandwiches and salads. And there's creative gourmet dining at The Marconi Restaurant
(in Foyle's Hotel; foyleshotel.com
), named for the first transatlantic telegraph station that once operated just outside of town. A model plane over the bar also nods to Clifden's distinction as the destination for the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. And beloved by locals are EJ Kings
) and Guy's Bar & Snug
, equally enjoyed for their food, drink, and live entertainment lineups.
Clifden is a fabulous place to find some take-home souvenirs. Design Platform
) and its sister boutique, Millars
, offer high-end men's and women's fashion, plus décor items and furniture. Here's where to
go for cashmere scarves, sharp tweed jackets and designer dresses. The Emerald Isle is also known for the quality of its wool wear, and Lowry's
is a place to stock up on a few gorgeous sweaters before heading home. And be sure to visit O'Dalaigh Jewelers
), a family owned shop that has been crafting jewelry on site for thirty years. Here you'll find necklaces, rings, bracelets and more, many of sterling silver embedded
with gorgeous "Connemara marble": a valuable, gleaming green marble found only in this region of Ireland.
Bring your boots and trek to Clifden Castle
, erected in 1815 by the town's founder, John D'Arcy. It's all abandoned ruins now, and you can wander throughout the castle's stone skeleton for photo ops. Chat with locals about where to find many of the megalithic tombs
(ancient rock arrangements, think mini-Stonehenge) that surround the town. And if you have time, ferry over to nearby Inishbofin Island
, a tree-less island with a population of under 200. You'll find gorgeous walking loops, beaches with scuba diving opportunities, wellness spas, and a small community of artists who are inspired by the otherworldly beauty.
Before spending the rest of the week in Galway, relax at Renvyle House: order up a massage from the spa, or book an appointment for clay pigeon shooting on the grounds. (Golf, horseback riding and plenty other activities are easily arranged.)
If you want to keep moving, see if you can cram in a few more options from this "bucket list" of ideas. (Or cherry pick a few and add one to each of the previous days for a truly full calendar.)
Explore Connemara National Park
) and head to the summit of Diamond Hill, which is enough to provide new climbers a challenge (bring sturdy sneakers and water; you'll be fine), but rewards even major outdoorsy types with a picture-perfect panorama of Ireland's rural beauty.
Visit Kylemore Abbey
, an impressive Benedictine monastery. (It looks like the kind of place where winged gargoyles would perch.) They offer public tours of the Abbey, its Victorian Gardens, and on-property cathedral.
Drive the Sky Road
, a loop route that takes you through Clifden and along the rugged, breathtaking coastal scenery.
Grab a guidebook listing some of the many ruins
tucked away in the rural landscape, from old churches to Celtic tombs.
Explore the quaint town centers of Letterfrack
, and Recess
, to name a few, where family-owned pubs and shops – not cookie-cutter, pre-fab pubs - provide a dose of what Irish life is really like.
DAY FIVE, SIX, & SEVEN – DESTINATION: GALWAY
Before you head home, readjust to city life by spending a long weekend in Galway – Connemara's closest major city and the third largest in Ireland. It marks a halfway point before heading back to Shannon's airport, and offers a funky assortment of dining, shopping, and cultural options in a welcoming, walk-able setting.
Splurge on a stay at Park House Hotel & Restaurant
), a stately, luxury spot in the heart of the city center and just off a grassy park. Park House has a classy, old world feel; but if you'd rather go for a younger, trendier feel, check out The G
), which boasts a so-sleek-so-chic vibe that sort of feels like, well, a W. (It was the top hotel in the country by Travel + Leisure
.) If you're willing to stay just outside the city's center, The Twelve
) offers a boutique, luxury stay at a competitive price.
The city is pretty well full of great eats, but some favorites include The Quay Street Kitchen
, a homey nook that serves upscale comfort food using locally sourced ingredients. (The chalkboard specials are usually to-die-for.) Martine's Restaurant
) a romantic but unpretentious option with fabulous steak - all beef is 35-day aged black Angus – and a wine list with especially velvety reds. Cava Spanish Restaurant & Tapas Bar
), Galway's only Spanish spot, is renowned for its refined small plates. And Artisan
) offers a French bistro-style twist to Irish recipes, tucked away in a second-floor location overlooking Quay Street – a thoroughfare that bustles with shops and bars.
Galway is full of pubs offering music, great beers (including cool craft options), and lively scenes. Much of the action is packed on to Quay Street, where daytime shoppers give way to throngs of nighttime party people. There's little use in trying to pick favorites, but Tigh Neachtains
is famous for attracting a diverse cross-section: tourists and locals united by traditional bands, cold brews, and a copious selection of whisky, too. The Front Door
welcomes visitors into a two-floor space with multiple bars to meet people – and cozy crannies to tuck into for a romantic tete-a-tete. And you can avoid the college crowd at Halo
(halonightclub.ie), a stomping dance club with an "over 23" policy. (Can we export that concept to America, please?) These options and more are all within the main downtown area, but take a stroll over to Galway's West End, which has an artsy, hipster vibe. Clubs like The Blue Note
feature DJs spinning chill, jazzy house and a motley mix of local bohemians.
A helpful tourism center in the middle of town offers information on daytrips, activities, and sightseeing in and around Galway. But first, shop on Quay Street and hit up one of the regular weekend Galway Markets
near St. Nicholas Church, where artists, farmers, crafts people and small-batch grocers sell their wares. Galway Cathedral
is magnificent and impressive, with gorgeous stained glass windows splitting rays of multi-colored light through the cavernous stone space. And Galway Museum
is a world-class facility that highlights important local history. Tour the surrounding city limits for more castles and ruins, or hop a ferry to the Aran Islands
, where biking, hiking and breathtaking scenery abounds. (Plus there are usually plenty of fun festivals here.) And en route back to Shannon, make a detour by the impressive Cliffs of Moher
, the craggy landmarks rising up from the crashing Atlantic waves. This is one of Ireland's most visited sites – and most picturesque, often featured in music videos and films.