Southwestern Ireland is steeped in beauty, especially at Killarney National Park, the Ring of Kerry, and the Dingle Peninsula. I highly recommend a rental car for this trip.
Killarney National Park boasts impressive scenery, the highest mountain range in Ireland, and famous lakes. There is a lot to do here. The northernmost attraction is the 15th century Ross Castle. This lakeside fortification features a tower house and keep. A worthwhile guided tour takes you up the narrow spiral staircase to many of the rooms. You can even see a portion of the original arched stone roof, complete with woven reeds and animal hair and clay plaster.
Just south of Ross Castle is a must-see attraction - the Muckross House. Built in 1843, this 65-room Tudor style mansion was under the ownership of beer baron Arthur Guinness for a time. The guided tour is extremely informative, taking you through many rooms of the house and giving you more history on the people that lived there than you can remember. Also be sure to meander around the gardens. Jaunting cars, or horse-drawn carriage rides, are available.
Across from the Muckross House is the Muckross Traditional Farm. It features three small working farms and some other buildings furnished in traditional style of the early 1900s. You’ll learn what life was like in the countryside before electricity. The highlight is the animals… you’ll potentially come across a draft horse, Irish Wolfhounds looking for a back scratch, and young calves, sheep, and piglets.
Just a few minutes south of Muckross is the trailhead to Torc Waterfall. A beautiful 5-minute walk brings you to the 80-foot high falls. Longer trail routes are available here too. Down the road is Ladies View. This scenic vantage point was so named because it was a favorite of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting. A surprisingly well-stocked gift shop is near the pullout.
If you want more amazing views, stay near the park. The Lake Hotel is a beautiful 4-star hotel with large rooms and is much more relaxing than staying in the touristy downtown of Killarney. Pay for the lakeside view rooms, which look out onto a tower house ruin and the mountains. The moderate dining option offers tasty upscale pub food, while the formal, expensive dining option features fresh fish and wild game. In the evening, the pub features a great drink selection and traditional music.
It’s time to drive the Ring of Kerry. Head clockwise toward Kenmare and westward towards Sneem. My favorite highlights are the 1700-year-old Staigue Ring Fort and the Cahergal Stone Fort. The drive offers many scenic pullouts and, if the weather is nice, you can catch jaw-dropping views of the Skellig Islands. To visit the islands, take a boat from the town of Portmagee. I suggest leaving the whole day for this drive, as it is often crowded with tourists and buses. Besides, what’s the rush when looking at priceless views? When you reach the town of Killorglin, go left to continue onto Dingle and stay there for the night.
The Dingle Marina Lodge is on the water and offers great value. The best dinner in town can be found at Out of the Blue Seafood Only restaurant, which has a daily-changing menu of the freshest seafood, including oysters, mussels, crab, Salmon, Turbot, John Dory, and Hallibut. Dingle’s numerous pubs are renown for traditional Irish music. Moriarty’s pub has the best pub fare, a fine selection of whiskey and beer, good music, and a fun atmosphere. Be sure to try Yellow Spot or Green Spot whiskey and the local Dingle Gin. Also check out the no-frills O’Flaherty’s Pub, the first music pub in Dingle. The Small Bridge Bar offers great music as well, and you’ll find singing at Dingle Pub. Other businesses transform into pubs at night, such as Foxy John’s and O Currain’s.
Today is for driving the Dingle Peninsula, which is a shorter and easier drive than the Ring of Kerry. You’ll be driving on the westernmost tip of Ireland… and Europe! Start by heading west. With good weather, you can see Skellig Michael, which is home to 6th century monastic ruins. Be sure to stop at the Dunbeg Fort, built sometime between 500BC and 500AD. While the fort is impressive, the cliffside views are even more amazing. Nearby are a group of beehive huts, which are small stone structures that may have been built as early as 1000BC. You can go inside them.
If you have time, the Great Blasket Centre is a worthwhile museum that teaches about the life and culture of those that grew up on the Blasket Islands. Enjoy the many pullouts that offer island views. Towards the end of your drive, be sure to visit the Gallarus Oratory. This early Christian church is believed to be around 1300 years old. You can park in the tiny free parking lot or the larger private pay lot that holds a visitors center. Further along is the Kilmalkedar church ruins and ancient ogham stone. You can either continue back towards Dingle, or make headway toward the Talbert car-ferry or town of Limerick to continue your adventure toward the picturesque Cliffs of Moher.