Ireland deserves a spot on everyone’s list of dream travel destinations. If you’ve never visited — or even if you have — the striking green countryside, ancient castles and miles of wild coastline will make a lasting impression on even the most cultured travelers. While it’s probably best known for landmarks like the Cliffs of Moher and the Guinness Storehouse (for good reason — they’re great), the Emerald Isle has so much more to offer.
Because we know it’s always more fun to visit a new place when you’re in the know, we’ve teamed up with Tourism Ireland and tapped some of our favorite travel bloggers and planners to get the inside scoop on where to go and what to do all over the island of Ireland. From cultural destinations to foodie favorites, these are some of the best secret spots only Irish locals know.
Experience A Touch Of Magic In County Monaghan
Tara Povey of the travel blog Where Is Tara? describes County Monaghan as underrated, and suggests checking out the charming village of Glaslough there. “Home to the famous Castle Leslie, [Glaslough] is a tiny, colorful town full of flowers and independent shops.” For great food in a beautiful setting, try the pizzeria Ambledown Cottage. The charming ambience, quirky decor and traditional live Irish music make this a truly special place to check out. They only do two seatings a night there, so Povey recommends booking ahead of time. If you fancy something sweet, the Glaslough Chocolate Company has got you covered. “[It] only opens for a few hours a day, and all of their chocolate is handmade. The honeycomb chocolate is to die for,” Povey says.
Enjoy A Mix Of Urban & Nature In Northern Ireland
Start in Belfast, which, according to Povey, is an incredible foodie destination. She suggests lunch at Taylor & Clay. “The menu is rustic, unusual and very tasty. I highly recommend the spicy roasted cauliflower with black lentil dahl,” she offers. If you’re looking for some culture, Povey advises checking out the thriving street art scene. “Take the Seedhead Arts Street Art Walking Tour to see the best murals and learn all about the artists,” she says.
More of an outdoors lover? “In autumn, I love Tollymore Forest,” says Dublin-based travel blogger and videographer Steven Sheehy. “The changing of the leaves around October is just magical.” And Sheehy’s secret tip: “Farther down south, near Downpatrick, you have the Mourne Mountains if hiking is your thing,” he says. His favorite is Slieve Bearnagh, one of the highest peaks in the Mournes. “It’s a more difficult climb than [just a casual] stretch of the legs,” Sheehy says, “but the views are worth it.”
Dine & Drink Like A Native In Dublin
A stop in Dublin is a nice addition to any Ireland itinerary. But, as Povey (who grew up there) points out, there are so many great places to check out there, it can be overwhelming. For food, a favorite of Povey’s on the north side of the city is Brother Hubbard North. “Their coffee is fantastic, and everything on their menu is incredibly tasty,” she says. “I love the avocado and eggs with spiced chickpeas and halloumi.” She assures there are plenty of vegan and gluten-free options, as well, so there’s something for everyone.
When you’re ready for a cocktail, Frank Kelly, founder of Hennessy & Furlong, a travel advisory company based in County Tipperary, suggests heading over to Ryan’s, a wonderfully preserved Victorian pub on the edge of Phoenix Park. “The staff are excellent, especially if you feel like trying one of the more bespoke Irish whiskeys,” Kelly says. And when you get hungry all over again, head to the pub’s steakhouse upstairs, one of Kelly’s favorite restaurants.
Explore The Quirky & Unique In County Kilkenny
Only two hours away from Dublin and 10 miles south of the tourist hot spot Kilkenny Castle, is a small, rural town called Callan. Kelly describes this as “a town where you will virtually come across no other tourists.” It’s also home to Fennelly’s, an old grocery shop and bar turned cultural café. “[Arts curator] Etaoin Holohan…and her sister, who is the chef, transformed this into kind of a cultural meeting spot for people to tell stories, to share music, to have film evenings, all embellished by really good local food,” Kelly says.
After Fennelly’s, Kelly recommends a visit to Highbank Orchards, an organic orchard and distillery nearby. “They distill wonderful apple brandy and apple gin, which is an absolutely wonderful treat,” Kelly says. They make cider, apple juice and syrups, as well. Pro tip: Make sure to tour the grounds if you go.
Get Active In County Waterford
Just a county away is Waterford, the beginning (or the end, depending where you start) of the Waterford Greenway, a 28-mile (46-kilometer) rail trail from Waterford to Dungarvan. The path, especially lovely in the spring, takes you through rich forests, tunnels and scenic coastal towns. According to Sheehy, “the Greenway cycle path…is perfect for families, adventure seekers and even folks who would be nervous getting on a bicycle.” He describes the trail as “beautiful, really safe and a great way to explore that part of Ireland.”
Go Wild In County Mayo
Heading west, you’ll find that the entire Wild Atlantic Way — the stunning scenic route that stretches along Ireland’s west coast — is filled with endless beautiful natural attractions. Downpatrick Head is one of Rachel Nolan’s favorites. “One of the Wild Atlantic Way signature points, this spectacular and off-the-beaten-track location is where millions of years of geological formation meets folklore, legends and…history,” says the tour guide and blogger who runs Rachel’s Irish Adventures based in Ballina, County Mayo. After parking, it’s just a five-minute walk up the cliff’s edge, from which you can view the awe-inspiring Dún Briste Sea Stack in the ocean. “For me, this is definitely one of the most spectacular sites along the Wild Atlantic Way — the views, the sheer beauty and wildness of the sea, yet the calmness of nature and the sheep wandering around also enjoying the tranquility.”
After working up an appetite checking out these gorgeous views, stop off at Mary’s Cottage. It’s a little café about 10 minutes away, with homemade breads and pies baked daily by a true “Irish mammy,” as Nolan says. “There’s amazing seafood chowder and all homemade cakes and everything,” she says. Pro tip: Mary does a to-go picnic, as well, so you could even stop there before Downpatrick Head and enjoy a lovely outdoor lunch with a view.
For an extra-special experience, take a trip to Clare Island, says Nolan. To get there, hop on the ferry from Roonagh Pier, which is just a 35-minute ride. Once there, Nolan recommends the Sailor’s Bar for its special catch of the day. And if you plan to make a night of it, she suggests the Clare Island Lighthouse for a unique accommodation.
Words by Jesse Sposato
From Tourism Ireland:
Think of this as just a sampling of the many hidden locations and experiences that make Ireland the truly special place it is. From its ancient heritage to its rugged landscapes, lively cities to artisanal food, Ireland is the perfect place to make your next vacation destination. Take a journey beyond the ordinary and let Ireland capture your heart. Start planning today at Ireland.com.
This article was paid for by Tourism Ireland and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.