Explore the unique landscapes, history and culture of the Emerald Isle with this 7-day Ireland road trip. See the highlights of Southern Ireland including three National Parks and two UNESCO World Heritage sites on this scenic, self-drive itinerary.
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Best time to visit Ireland
The best time to visit Ireland is during the two shoulder seasons: mid-April through May and late September through October. These times strike the balance between better weather (than winter) with fewer crowds (than summer).
December and January are the wettest months, and January is the coldest. While travelling is cheaper and crowds are sparse in winter, you will also find limited daylight hours and some sights may close altogether for the season. As you can see from my photos, both my trips have been in winter and the weather ranges from tolerable to quite pleasant.
May and June are the sunniest months followed by July and August, the warmest months in Ireland. Travellers visiting through this period will also benefit from longer daylight hours.
A few important things to consider as you plan your Ireland road trip:
- If you’ve heard something about Ireland’s narrow, winding roads, it is true. You don’t want to be navigating stone wall-lined rural roads in a hulking great SUV. A smaller vehicle is best for this kind of trip and will mostly likely come with the benefit of added fuel efficiency. Just make sure your luggage fits!
- On the topic of narrow, backroads: while they can be the most scenic and character-filled, they will also take longer to navigate than the nearest freeway. I have allowed extra time in this itinerary for rural roads and sheep/cattle jams, so consider that it may take you even longer. This is especially pertinent if you are travelling in winter when there are fewer daylight hours.
- Estimated drive times in the itinerary are for transit time only and do not include stops.
- Yes, you will be driving on the left and the driver will be seated on the right. Being an Australian in the US, I’m used to swapping back and forth. My best tip is to remember that as the driver, you should always be closest to the centre of the road.
- Remember to download Google Maps (or other preferred navigation tool) for use offline before heading out of Dublin. It is ideal to take a physical map as backup.
- Ensure you have travel insurance that will cover car rental in Ireland. If you are relying on the insurance that comes with your credit card, double check the conditions first.
- Automatic cars are more expensive to rent than manual vehicles, in most of Europe including Ireland. If you only drive automatic, make sure you specify that in your booking.
- Always have some cash on-hand for paying tolls.
- Irish National Parks are free to enter but charge for parking. No, there’s no lovely, efficient prepaid pass you can buy that covers the lot, unfortunately.
7-day Ireland road trip itinerary
I encourage you to edit this itinerary according to your interests. These are full days that cover a lot of attractions–I didn’t want to leave any highlights on the table. Even if you endeavour to see and do everything here, be prepared to skip a couple of things along the way if they don’t work out in regards to timing, weather or if you just want to take a slower day.
Day 1 – Dublin
Arrive in Dublin on or prior to day one and explore the city. I always recommend you start out in a new city with a guided tour (preferably on foot). Pay-as-you-wish tours are abundant these days and are usually of excellent quality as they are often a marketing opportunity for longer, more expensive, organized tours. We have taken city tours with both Strawberry and Sandeman in cities around the world and have had great experiences with both.
General introductory tours such as these will check off a lot of the highlights from your list. They will also help you earmark a few to return to later in your own time. In addition, use this opportunity to pick the brains of a local guide and get recommendations for places to eat and drink.
Whether you decide to take a tour or not, make sure you cover these important Dublin sights:
- St Patrick’s Cathedral
- Dublin Castle
- The Book of Kells, Trinity College
- The River Liffey and Ha’Penny Bridge
- Temple Bar
- Guinness Storehouse
Driving distance: Dublin is fairly compact and able-bodied individuals will probably find it easy to sightsee on foot.
Day 2 – Wicklow National Park and Kilkenny
Today is when the Ireland road trip really begins! From Dublin, take the M50 and R115 to the top of Wicklow National Park. Follow the R115 on a scenic drive through the National Park until you reach Laragh. The R115 is an old military road that follows the spine of the Wicklow Mountains, the largest continuous upland area in the Republic of Ireland. If you’ve watched season two of Modern Love, the episode starring Minnie Driver entitled “On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down” captures the best of this drive.
At Laragh, take the R756 into the Glendalough Valley. This glacial carved “valley of the two lakes” is not only one of the most beautiful natural sights of the Park, but it is also the location of a 6th-century Christian settlement founded by St Kevin. There you’ll find the ruins of the Monastic City including churches, Celtic crosses and a tower. If you want to stretch your legs a little more before continuing, take the 1.7km loop hike to Poulanass Waterfall.
Continue on the R756 as you head for Kilkenny. The 26 km section from Laragh to Hollywood is known as Wicklow Gap and is one of Ireland’s highest paved mountain passes (you’ll have an opportunity to take the actual highest paved pass in a couple of days). When the weather is clear you may be able to see as far as Snowdonia in Wales.
On arrival into Kilkenny, explore Kilkenny Castle. Opening hours vary throughout the year, so make sure you check for your travel dates and time yourself throughout the day accordingly. Kilkenny Castle is the 13th-century abode of William Marshall, 4th Earl of Pembroke, built as a symbol of Norman control. It became the property of the Butlers of Ormonde for around 600 years before it was handed to the people of Kilkenny. The Castle houses beautifully furnished rooms containing significant art and furniture pieces collected by its historic owners.
Finish up a day of sightseeing by wandering up Ireland’s Medieval Mile which is a 1km (0.6mi) discovery trail taking you from the Castle, through the centre of town to St Canice’s Cathedral.
Driving distance: Dublin to Kilkenny via the scenic route through Wicklow Mountains National Park 165km (103mi), about 3.5 hours.
Day 3 – Waterford Crystal, Jameson Whisky and Blarney Castle
Depart Kilkenny and arrive in Waterford in time for the opening of the Waterford Crystal factory at 9:30 am. Take the first available tour. It may be wise to pre-purchase tickets in advance to ensure you get that first tour slot. The self-guided program takes about 50mins.
The next stop is for whisky fans as we tour the historic Jameson Distillery in Midleton. A distillery tour with a tasting will take about 1.5 hours. Don’t linger too long though, we are off to kiss the Blarney Stone! Another 30 min drive and you will arrive at Blarney Castle and Gardens. Explore the almost 600-year-old castle and its beautiful surroundings. If you’re game, kiss the Blarney Stone. Legend has it, the stone bestows the gift of the gab on anyone who gives it a smooch. Spend the night in Cork.
Driving distance: Kilkenny to Cork via Waterford, Midleton and Blarney Castle is about 196km (122mi), 3.5 hours.
Day 4 – Killarney National Park and Ring of Kerry
Depart Cork early for the next leg of your Southern Ireland road trip. Today we have a lot of ground to cover because the journey is the destination. The Ring of Kerry is a scenic loop of the Iveragh Peninsula. The route is a section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way scenic drive. The Ring of Kerry showcases dramatic coastal landscapes, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, grand estates, castles and archaeological sites. The route also includes Killarney National Park. As you travel around the Ring, make sure you stop at the following spots:
- Ross Castle – On the banks of beautiful Lough Leane in Killarney National Park, you will find the 15th century O’Donoghue family tower house.
- Ladies View – A stunning viewpoint that has graced many an Instagram feed. It was named for Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting who favoured the vantage point during the 1861 royal visit.
- Torc Waterfall – The last must-see inside Killarney National Park is a 20m cascade.
- Moll’s Gap – A mountain pass between Killarney and Kenmare with views of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountains.
- Sneem – Stop at The Pyramids aka The Way the Fairies Went, to look out for Ireland’s legendary winged folk.
- Skellig Islands – The UNESCO World Heritage listed Islands off the Iveragh Peninsula shelter a colony of Atlantic puffins and featured as a location in Star Wars. We don’t have time to visit them on our schedule, but you can get as close as possible on the mainland by taking the Skellig Ring, an add-on to the Ring of Kerry. The 32 km (20 mi) detour includes some spectacular scenery, castle ruins and more.
Spend the night in Killarney and I highly recommend dinner at the Killarney Grand.
Driving distance: Cork to Killarney via the Ring of Kerry (including Skellig Ring) is roughly 273km (170mi) and takes 5 hours—remember what I said about the journey being the destination.
Day 5 – Dingle Peninsula and Slea Head
Today your Ireland road trip takes you through more wonderful coastal scenery on the Dingle Peninsula via another section of the Wild Atlantic Way. On your way through to the charming fishing town of Dingle, you will pass by Ireland’s longest beach, Inch. Skip through Dingle now, unless you need a quick stop for supplies and a bathroom. We’ll be coming back later.
Take Slea Head Drive for views of Sleeping Giant Island and the Blasket Islands. Also en route, visit archaeological sites such as the Beehive Huts which date back to 2000 BCE and Gallarus Oratory, a crude stone church built between the 6th and 9th centuries.
As the road loops back into Dingle, make a stop for lunch and a pint (for the non-drivers) at Dick Mack’s Pub. The Gaelic-speaking fishing village set the scene for movies such as Far and Away and Ryan’s Daughter. It is also known for its very high pub to resident ratio!
When you are done exploring, make your way to Tralee for the evening. Note, that the northern route to Tralee via R560 goes over Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest, paved mountain pass. The views are amazing but the road can get extremely narrow and windy. For a faster and less challenging drive, take the N86 via Annascaul. Either way, look out for the Blennerville Windmill on your way into Tralee.
Driving distance: Killarney to Tralee via Dingle Peninsula and Conor Pass 155km (97mi) 3 hours.
Day 6 – Cliffs of Moher and The Burren
Head north to the famed Cliffs of Moher, part of Ireland’s dramatic Atlantic coastline with views to the Aran Islands. The trip requires you to cross the Shannon River which can be done via the Tarbert/Killimer ferry or a detour through Limerick.
Whichever route you take, rejoin the Wild Atlantic Way scenic drive at Lahinch Beach and continue up the coast to the Cliffs of Moher. Follow up your Cliffs of Moher experience, with lunch in Doolin.
As you continue northward to your evening accommodation in Galway, you will be skirting The Burren. The rocky limestone landscape of The Burren is reputed for its unique flora and fauna. Here, in an incredible contrast, arctic plants live side by side with Mediterranean plants.
About 30km (18.6mi) out of Galway, make a brief stop at Dunguaire Castle which is right on your route. Dunguaire Castle was built in 1520 by the O’Hynes clan, on a rocky outcrop overlooking pretty Galway Bay.
Driving distance: Tralee to Galway via Limerick, Cliffs of Moher and The Burren 263km (164mi) 4.5 hours.
Day 7 – Galway and Newgrange
Take an hour or so to explore Galway, including Spanish Arch, looking across at nearby Claddagh, the namesake of the famous Irish ring design. You can find more on the Claddagh’s history and legend here.
Head northeast on the M6 towards Newgrange. Make a stop at Clonmacnoise to see some more important examples of Celtic high crosses on the bucolic banks of the River Shannon. The ruins of St Ciarán’s monastery also includes two towers, nine churches and more than 700 Early Christian gravestones.
The last stop before returning to Dublin is Newgrange. The archaeological site in the Boyne Valley is 5200 years old – that’s older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza! The large Stone Age burial mound has a passage and chamber that align with the rising sun annually on the winter solstice. 97 decorated stones called kerbstones, surround the tomb. Together with nearby passage tombs, Knowth and Dowth, Newgrange is part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed complex called Brú na Bóinne. Get more information on visiting Newgrange here.
Return to Dublin.
Drive distance: Galway to Dublin via Clonmacnoise and Newgrange 275km (171mi) 4 hours.
Ireland road trip map
Are you planning a road trip around Ireland? Was this guide helpful? Feel free to leave any feedback or questions in the comments below.
Peace, love and inspiring travel,