David and I were so excited to book our first trip to Ireland but we had a hard time deciding where to go as there are so many places we wanted to visit.
After much deliberation, we decided to base in Killarney for the first part of the trip.
We had heard that it was pretty touristy, but we actually found it to be very charming and it served as a great jumping off point to tour the Ring of Kerry, and visit the Dingle Peninsula and the Cliffs of Moher.
Also, while it was clearly a tourist town, we met a ton of locals everywhere we went who gave us recommendations and shared their tables with us at pubs. While I’ve heard good things about staying in Kenmare and Dingle, I am very glad we chose Killarney as our base and definitely recommend it.
Here are the Top Ten Highlights from our trip, and also some things we would have done differently:
Muckross Park Hotel
We had a wonderful stay at Muckross Park Hotel. The rooms were incredibly cozy and the breakfast was fantastic. While it is a bit outside of the downtown area, it did improve our proximity to Muckross House and Gardens, Muckross Abbey, Torc Waterfall, and Muckross Lake.
It is about a 15 minute cab ride from downtown Killarney, but is self-sustaining as there is access to three restaurants as well as room service.
We loved having drinks in Monk’s Lounge and also had dinner at Major Colgans, the hotel’s more casual restaurant. While the food was fine, we enjoyed it most for its ease, Irish ambiance, and live music and entertainment that starts at 8pm. It was the perfect place to relax and enjoy an Irish show with dinner after a day of hiking.
We were very happy staying at Muckross Park Hotel but it’s also nice to stay downtown for a couple nights so you are able to walk to all the bars and restaurants. While we did not stay here, we enjoyed drinks at the Great Southern and heard it’s a fabulous hotel. If the bar is a reflection of the hotel, I’m sure it’s wonderful.
One of the surprise highlights of our trip was the fabulous live Irish music in Killarney. As you walk the streets at night they are flooded with live music streaming out of all the bars. Our favorite place to enjoy a performance was Sheehan’s Pub. Downstairs, the music starts around 8:30pm. I would get there about 8:15 and try to grab a seat near the front windows. The place was relatively empty at 8:30 and then by 8:45/9 completely packed.
Upstairs they have a piano bar that looked incredible. I wanted to go so badly, but the music didn’t start until 11:30pm and I just couldn’t stay awake. We heard it’s a ton of fun and I don’t doubt it.
A “99” is essentially Ireland’s version of a soft serve ice cream cone. While we were in Killarney EVERYONE was eating them (we were also there during the first nice week in months). You can spot a place selling a 99 because they have giant plastic ice cream cones outside. They are delightful. The texture is a little less creamy but the flavor is more so (must be that fresh Irish cream!) than the soft serve we get in the States and it come with a giant chocolate flake. They cost around 2 euro.
Since we knew we wouldn’t have time to do the Jameson Tour in Dublin, we decided to do a whiskey tasting at Celtic Whiskey Bar & Larder in Killarney. This ended up being a great choice as our host was incredibly knowledgeable and gave a well-rounded history of Irish Whiskey that focused on the industry as a whole instead of just a singular branded experience. We signed up for a whiskey and cheese pairing which paired four different kinds of whiskey with locally made cheeses. I don’t really love whiskey, but I greatly enjoyed this experience and learned a lot (and I do love cheese!).
The class is in a room off the Whiskey Bar which is really fun and has great food. I highly recommend staying after for more drinks and a bite.
Killarney Brewing Company
Before heading to Sheehan’s for music we stopped off at Killarney Brewing Company for pizza and beers named after local myths and legends. As far as I know, it’s the only local craft brewery in Killarney. As far as food goes, they only serve wood fired pizzas but they were delicious. We had to ask the bartender where the beers get their names, but he was more than happy to tell us the story behind each one.
Muckross House, Abbey and Lake, and Torc Waterfall
These sites were easily the highlight when it came to attractions located on the driving portion of the Ring of Kerry. If I’m totally honest, I would probably skip doing the whole Ring and just pop over to these sites, which are easy to access (especially if you are staying at Muckross Park Hotel).
On our first day in town we arrived pretty late (around 8:30pm) but the sun was still bright, so we headed out to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. The timing ended up being perfect as we came across the Abbey at golden hour and the light was beautiful, plus we had the place completely to ourselves. Just a five minute walk from the Abbey, we were then able to catch the sunset at the lake.
At Muckross House we opted to skip the house tour as was advised by multiple sources (it’s pretty long at 1.5 hours). Exploring the gardens and walking around the grounds are free and absolutely gorgeous. We were lucky to be there while the rhododendron and azaleas were in bloom. We probably spent about an hour poking around and taking pictures. There is a big green lawn there perfect for a picnic if you wanted to pick up food in town or grab something from the onsite café.
Just across the street there is a short path that takes you up to Torc Waterfall (only about a 5 or ten minute walk).
Gap of Dunloe
This was by far our favorite thing we did in Killarney National Park/on the Ring of Kerry.
We took a cab to Ross Castle in order to pick up a boat at 10:30 at Front Pier.
We booked the boat in advance online through Gap of Dunloe Traditional Boat Tours and took the hour and a half ride to Lord Brandon’s Cottage.
While it may seem like a long ride, we were fortunate to have a beautiful day and really enjoyed being on the water and seeing the park from that perspective. It is so peaceful and they timed the boats so that you practically have the lake to yourself. We only briefly saw two other boats the whole time we were on the water.
We docked at Lord Brandon’s Cottage where there is the option to take a jaunting cart to Kate Kearney’s Cottage at the other end of the hike, but we were looking forward to some exercise so we decided to walk. It was such a beautiful hike at just over 7 miles and takes about 2.5 hours.
Once we arrived at Kate Kearney’s we grabbed a quick lunch and then caught a cab back to town.
On one of our days with our driver, Mary, she took us to tour Skellig Ring and the Ring of Kerry. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t as in love with the Ring of Kerry as it was a very long drive where you mostly just get out of the car to look at views. Don’t get me wrong, it was very pretty, but it was a lot of time in the car and I thought the views hiking the Gap of Dunloe were more impressive.
We did, however, really enjoy the Skellig Ring.
We started off at a fabulous sheep dog demonstration. The place where we stopped had no sign, but Mary knew about it and said it was the best one in Killarney. It was called “Kells Sheep Dog Trials” owned and led by Brendan Fraser. It was fabulous and a joy to watch. David had seen a demo before, in New Zealand, but he said this one was better. It was about 30 minutes long and cost 10 euros per person.
We then continued on to visit Valencia Island, have lunch in Portmagee, see gorgeous views of the stunning Skellig Islands (a World Heritage UNESCO Site) and do a tasting at the Skellig Chocolate Factory. Finally, we were surprised to learn that there is a renowned artists retreat on the Skellig Ring called Cill Rialaig. We visited their Arts Center which sells art created at the retreat. It was fascinating to come across such an impressive gallery quite literally in the middle of no where.
I will be writing a post shortly about a day touring the Dingle Penninsula. There is so much to do that it seemed to warrant its own post.
Cliffs of Moher
While it was a long drive to the Cliffs of Moher (about three hours each way but we made stops along the way to cut up the drive), we are glad we got to see them. It did feel like a bit of a “check box” activity, but we figured since we had come this far, we may as well go a little further and see the Cliffs.
Did you know that the “Cliffs of Insanity” scene in Princess Bride was filmed here? I remember watching that film with my dad when I was little and laughing at that scene. It was fun to see some of the scenery in real life.
While we did have a driver this day, it was the one day where I think I would have been happy saving the money and just booking a tour since you essentially just drive there, get out and walk the cliffs, and drive back.
With the driver we were able to make a couple of other stops including:
- Adare Village
- Lahinch Beach
- Liscannor – We grabbed an amazing cappuccino and scone at a little coffee shop called Dodi
- The Rock Shop
- Brigid’s Well
- Doolin Village
- Burren National Park
We had such a great first half of our trip and loved everything we got to do and see. If you make plans to visit the Southwest of Ireland, I definitely suggest basing in Killarney. Do let me know if you have any questions or need any additional recommendations!