When visiting a country for the first time there are always many places to see and things to experience. How do you choose? Popular tourist attractions can often be a let down because they are so often overhyped that by the time you get there, you already know what you are going to see. Sometimes this is because you know so much about the attraction, the experience doesn’t feel new. Other times, it is because it is so crowded with other tourists, you do not feel any personal connection.
This summer I took a trip to Ireland with my daughter. Ireland is famous for its touristy attractions, so it was with much trepidation that we scheduled many experiences that Websites, blogs, friends, and family said we had to go and see. Surprisingly, I enjoyed many of these. So here are my top seven touristy things that I really liked about Ireland.
7. Alcohol-Related Tours
It is not surprising that the Guinness Storehouse, the Old Jameson Distillery tour and the Irish Whiskey Museum are three of the most popular experiences in Dublin. In fact, alcohol-related tours are popular throughout the country. Admittedly, I am not a beer or whiskey drinker, but I have toured two Budweiser breweries in the United States and the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, so I have some history with alcohol-related tours. In Ireland, I experienced the Guinness Storehouse and the Jameson Distillery. Overall, I was really pleased with both tours, and I would highly recommend them to anyone who is traveling to Dublin.
The actual tour of the Guinness Storehouse began with a basic walk-through exhibit on the Guinness beer-making process, but the highlight for me was the 360-degree glass enclosure at the top of the Storehouse building called the Gravity Bar. It offered a spectacular view of downtown Dublin. In fact, while we were there, it was raining outside on one side and sunny on the other. After receiving a pint of Guinness, we hung around the bar for at least 30 – 40 minutes. I could have stayed all day. The views and atmosphere were the highlights of our day in Dublin.
I equally enjoyed the Jameson Experience where small groups and a tour guide were used to make everything feel more personal. It was housed in the location where a Jameson factory previously existed. The experience was very informative, interesting, and entertaining. I felt that I learned a lot and understood what makes Jameson unique among whiskeys. One thing that really impressed me at both locations was that a family (2 adults, 2 children) could purchase a special discounted tour ticket. Apparently, in Ireland, alcohol-related tours can also be a family bonding experience. In all, both tours were good fun and well worth the cost, time, and effort.
6. Visiting Country Houses
Ireland has no shortage of country manor houses to visit. Every tour of Ireland should contain a few, but how do you choose which estates to visit? I had no idea. Our tour company suggested three that were in different areas of the country: Belvedere House in Westmeath County, Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, and Muckross House in Killarney. All three were excellent representations of country manor life in Ireland and had special features that made them worthwhile visits.
At Belvedere House it was the Jealous Wall, built to block a view of a neighboring house. At Kylemore Abbey, we really enjoyed the extensive Walled Gardens, and at Muckross House, we learned a lot by seeing the servant’s quarters. Each place was unique and conjured up enough Downton Abbey excitement to hold my interest.
One thing I did learn is that it is a good idea to spread these visits out every few days, so you do not become fatigued by looking at old houses. Also, it is a good idea to investigate what else the property offers in addition to the house. Whatever properties you choose, give yourself enough time to fully see everything.
5. Walking the Cliffs of Moher
My visit to Ireland’s most famous natural attraction occurred on a very foggy day during a driving, windy rain. When we arrived, I wondered if it was worth walking up the hill to the viewing platforms around North Point and O’Brien’s Tower. I did, and there was no let-up of the rain and fog. I could barely see anything and the only photograph I took was of a small rock outcropping. It seemed like a total waste of time.
On the way back down, my daughter suggested that we keep walking to the South Platform. Amazingly, it looked a little clearer here, so we pushed on. Eventually, we got to the end of the protected walled area, but we felt adventurous so we kept going. We found that the Hags Head View was clearer, so we left the property and walked part of the Coastal Trail. There was a small wall here, but we were able to easily cross over to walk along the edge of the cliffs. Eventually, we had some clear views of the southern area of the cliffs. The north area was never clear.
The lesson I learned was persistence does pay off and even though our visit was not the perfect scenic experience I was hoping for, it was not a total loss. Even though it was a dismal day, I gained a glimpse of the majesty that makes this attraction so famous.
4. Seeing a Sheepdog Demonstration
I have seen this type of demonstration before in the United States. It was entertaining, but it was not something I felt I had to experience again in Ireland. Admittedly, I was not too excited about going to see dogs nudging and nipping sheep around a field. We saw the Caherconnel Sheepdog demonstration presented at Caherconnell Fort in the Burren region.
In true Irish tradition, on the day we attended, it was cold and windy with a steady drizzle that seemed to blow sideways from every direction. Even though we were able to watch from a covered pavilion, we still became very wet. Much to my surprise, this turned out to be a terrific experience. Not only was it interesting seeing Border collies do their work in their own environment, but the owner and trainer was so open and honest about his life and his dogs, that I truly felt I got a taste of an authentic Irish way of life. I’m not sure if it would have been better on a clear, sunny day, but I do know that a local talking about his life while standing outside on a windy, rainy day felt very authentically Irish.
3. Driving the Ring of Kerry
When you tell people that you are going to Ireland, everyone says you must experience the Ring of Kerry. Truthfully, I was not even sure what the Ring of Kerry was and why it was so special. I soon found out that it was an incredibly scenic drive through mountains, valleys, and part of the Irish coastline. We drove the section of the ring from Killarney to Sneem and were very fortunate that the day was mostly clear. It did rain a few times, but the clouds were high, so the views were very impressive. In fact, the mixture of blue skies and dark clouds made for very dramatic photographs. We stopped at Moll’s Gap, Ladies’ View, and Tork Falls.
Our final stop was a guided tour of the Muckross House. Our lunch stop at Sneem proved to be an excellent choice because there were many places to eat and the town itself had many scenic areas. Even though we backtracked from Sneem to the Muckross House, it did not seem repetitive since the views were incredibly scenic in all directions. I would rate this attraction a must-see in Ireland. It was dramatically scenic and well worth spending a full day or two. My only regret was that we did not drive the entire ring. I really wanted to see more.
2. Listening to Music in a Pub
Everyone visiting Ireland looks for that authentic Irish experience of listening to a local band play Irish music in a small, cozy pub. It’s not always easy to find. There are many pubs that offer music, but sometimes they sound similar to many bars found in Boston, New York, or Chicago. I am a big fan of Celtic music and have attended many festivals throughout the United States. Many great Irish artists travel here to perform. In Ireland, I discovered that it was best not to focus on the quality of the music, but to get caught up in the fun of singing with the crowd at the pub. One touristy pub sing-along I enjoyed was at the Danny Mann Pub in Killarney. This is a very popular spot for tourists to visit. Amazingly, I enjoyed being a part of the crowd and getting caught up in the fun of singing the chorus to many Irish songs. Really, what could be more fun than singing “Courtin’ In The Kitchen” with a bunch of newfound friends?
1. Kissing the Blarney Stone
There is nothing more touristy than visiting Blarney Castle and kissing the Blarney Stone. Some people shy away from doing this because the idea of kissing a stone that multitudes of people before have placed their lips on, just sounds disgusting. I found that climbing the ruins of Blarney Castle was exciting and kissing the Blarney Stone was a lot of fun.
After climbing the narrow, winding stairs to the top of the castle, I had only about a 10-minute wait to kiss the Blarney Stone. There was one person who took my photograph and another who helped me to lie on my back and hang down to kiss the stone. Even though they moved quick, both were helpful and patient with me. Looking down about 90-feet at a sheer drop below me, I was excited and terrified at the same time. It was very safe because there were strong metal bars to hold onto, and the area below the stone was covered with protective metal bars. Even though I knew I couldn’t fall, it still felt scary. Fortunately, it happened so fast that I didn’t have much time to worry.
After the castle, I spent a good amount of time walking the castle grounds. The extensive gardens and natural rock formations were beautiful and peaceful. I especially enjoyed the Poison Garden, the Blarney House mansion, and the Rock Close which included a simulated Druid Circle and mystical pathways. If you visit, make sure you include extra time to visit the gardens. The nearby small town of Blarney is very charming and also worth visiting. In looking back on my trip to Ireland, this was my favorite experience simply because I allowed myself to get caught up in the touristy excitement of this Irish tradition.
The joy I reconnected with on my trip to Ireland was that sometimes it is okay to just have a little fun and be a tourist. There is a reason that so many of these sites have remained popular for many years. So when you plan your next visit to a new country, be careful not to approach the traditional tourist sites as an obligation. Allow yourself to be open to the anticipation and excitement of visiting a place for the first time. And rest in the knowledge that each experience (no matter how touristy) has the potential to enrich your understanding of people, culture, and the world. At the very least, it may just give you a great story and bring a smile to your face.