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February 12, 2024

These Are Our Favorite Towns in Europe’s Most Fun Getaway Destination

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Seemingly every corner of the Emerald Isle is filled with historic charm—each city both serving as a chapter in Ireland’s rich narrative and a gateway to its natural beauty beyond. Its capital city, Dublin, is rightfully beloved for its exciting pub culture, as well as the site of must-see itinerary stops such as the Trinity College Library and the Jameson Distillery. As amazing as Dublin is, though, there are a number of smaller cities dotting the country that deserve a closer look. 

From the charming medieval streets of Ennis, full of music, to the picturesque coastal town of Westport, framed by the rugged beauty of Clew Bay, Ireland beckons with a tapestry of experiences. Each city there is a unique gem with its own blend of history, culture, and modern charm.

Related: These Are the 10 Best Places to Visit in Europe’s Hottest Destination

Discover the friendly warmth of Galway’s Latin Quarter, where tradition meets a thriving arts scene, and traverse the charming streets of Cork, where historic architecture and a burgeoning culinary landscape enchant visitors. Venture north to Belfast, a city with a resilient spirit, where the echoes of history blend seamlessly with a dynamic present.

So, whether you’re drawn to the medieval allure of Kilkenny, the coastal charm of Waterford, or the cultural heartbeat of Limerick, this list is your passport to the best Ireland has to offer. Get your bladder ready for more beer than it can handle, and strap your walking shoes on tight, because these are the 10 best underrated cities on the Emerald Isle.

Best for Live Music and Pub Culture: Galway

Renowned for its art, music, and lively pub scene, Galway hosts over 120 festivals per year. 

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Nestled on the western coast, Galway is a cultural hub renowned for its lively atmosphere and artistic spirit. The cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter host colorful storefronts, while street performers add a dynamic flair. Wander along the Claddagh, explore the medieval Galway Cathedral, and soak in the lively street performances on Shop Street. Make sure to catch a traditional Irish music session in one of the city’s many cozy pubs. Tig Cóili is a favorite among both locals and visitors. With the stunning landscapes of Connemara National Park just a short drive away, Galway seamlessly combines city fun with natural beauty.

Where to Stay: The G Hotel

Designed by renowned milliner Philip Treacy, The G Hotel in Galway is known for its contemporary luxury. Located by Lough Atalia (a small lake by the waterfront), the hotel’s avant-garde interiors are truly stunning. Guests can indulge in Michelin-starred dining at Restaurant Gigi’s, relax in the spa, and experience Galway’s artistic vibe right at their doorstep.

Best for True Irish Charm: Cork

Cork: Kiss the Blarney Stone here. 

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Ireland’s second-largest city, Cork, captivates visitors with its friendly locals and a thriving food and drink scene. The English Market is a foodie haven, while the city’s historic architecture, including the iconic Blarney Castle, adds a touch of antiquity. Stroll along the River Lee, visit the historic Cork City Gaol, or explore the charming neighborhoods to uncover the city’s unique character.

Where to Stay: The River Lee Hotel

Overlooking the River Lee, this namesake hotel combines modern design with warm hospitality. The River Lee Hotel in Cork offers stylish rooms, a rooftop terrace with river views, and a superb restaurant showcasing locally sourced ingredients. Its central location makes it a perfect base for exploring Cork’s historical sites and culinary delights.

Best for Street Art and Industrial History: Belfast

Northern Ireland’s storied capital and industrial hub has its emerald side too. Belfast is adorned with over 3,000 acres of parks. 

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The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast, has transformed into a dynamic city with a rich history. The Titanic Belfast museum stands as a testament to the city’s maritime past, while the vibrant street art in the Cathedral Quarter reflects its modern, creative side. History buffs will want to explore the colorful murals of the Peace Walls, and take a stroll through the revitalized Cathedral Quarter. Don’t miss the iconic Giant’s Causeway, a natural wonder just a short drive from the city, and a visit to the country’s oldest whiskey distillery: Bushmills.

Where to Stay: The Merchant Hotel

Housed in a former bank, The Merchant Hotel in Belfast exudes opulence. With its towering ceilings, cozy decor, a rooftop gym with panoramic views, and an award-winning cocktail bar, it’s a luxurious retreat in the heart of the city. It’s also a short walk from landmarks like Titanic Belfast and the Cathedral Quarter.

Best for Medieval History: Limerick

Limerick: brimming with history.

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Nestled on the banks of the River Shannon, Limerick boasts a rich medieval history and burgeoning cultural scene. Coupled with its uniquely warm hospitality, Limerick is a hidden gem worth exploring. Explore King John’s Castle, stroll along the scenic riverside, and absorb the literary legacy at the Frank McCourt Museum. For a unique perspective, take a boat tour along the river to discover the city’s hidden gems.

Where to Stay: The George Hotel

Nestled on the banks of the River Shannon, The George Hotel combines classic elegance with modern comfort. The rooms are tastefully decorated, and the hotel’s central location allows for easy exploration of Limerick’s historical sites, including King John’s Castle and the Treaty Stone.

Best for Nature Lovers: Killarney

Killarney is home to Ireland’s highest mountains and one of its best walking trails—133-mile Kerry Way—if you’re not in a hurry. 

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Tucked away in County Kerry, Killarney is a gateway to the stunning landscapes of the Ring of Kerry. The town exudes old-world charm with its horse-drawn carriages and Victorian architecture. Surrounded by lakes and mountains, Killarney is a haven for nature enthusiasts and those seeking a tranquil escape. Take a scenic car ride and hike through Killarney National Park, cruise on the Lakes of Killarney, and explore the elegant Muckross House—a 19th century mansion. Torc Waterfall provides a picturesque hiking destination with breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes.

Where to Stay: The Ross Hotel

In the heart of Killarney town, The Ross Hotel offers boutique accommodation with a touch of Irish hospitality. With individually designed rooms, an atmospheric bar, and proximity to Killarney National Park, this hotel provides a charming escape in one of Ireland’s most picturesque locations.

Best for Arts and Culture: Kilkenny

Kilkenny: The castle is just a few doors down from here.

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Known as the “Marble City,” Kilkenny is a medieval gem with its well-preserved castle and cobblestone streets. The city’s rich cultural heritage is celebrated in its vibrant arts scene and annual festivals. Tour the impressive Kilkenny Castle, wander through the charming Kilkenny Design Centre, and catch a performance at the intimate Watergate Theatre. The Smithwick’s Experience offers a fun journey into the world of Irish beer brewing.

Where to Stay: Butler House

Located opposite Kilkenny Castle, Butler House is an 18th-century mansion turned boutique hotel. The beautifully restored rooms, stunning gardens, and proximity to Kilkenny’s medieval landmarks make it a serene and luxurious retreat.

Best Blend of Ancient and Modern: Waterford

A former Viking magnet, Waterford’s craggy shore is known for its hidden sandy beaches. 

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Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, is steeped in history, with its Viking roots and medieval landmarks. Visit the Waterford Crystal Factory for a fascinating tour, wander through the Viking Triangle to discover historic sites, and explore Reginald’s Tower—the oldest civic building in Ireland. Situated on the southeast coast, you’d also be remiss not to take a drive along the Copper Coast Geopark, a UNESCO Global Geopark, known for its stunning cliffs and coves.

Where to Stay: The Granville Hotel

Overlooking the River Suir, The Granville Hotel in Waterford is a charming blend of Victorian elegance and modern comfort. With its historic facade, stylish rooms, and a riverside terrace, this hotel captures the essence of Waterford’s maritime heritage.

Best for Shopping and Hospitality: Ennis

Ennis. Shop by day, pub crawl by night. 

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Located in County Clare, Ennis is a market town with a rich musical heritage. The narrow streets are filled with traditional Irish pubs, where lively sessions often spill out into the cobblestone lanes. Two of the best-known for their musical performances are Cruises Bar on Abbey Street and Brogan’s Bar on O’Connell. Explore the Clare Museum to delve into the region’s history, catch a live performance at the Glór Theatre, or use Ennis as a gateway to the stunning Cliffs of Moher.

Where to Stay: The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis

The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis combines traditional Irish hospitality with modern luxury. Set in a converted 18th-century manor house, the hotel features elegant rooms, a charming courtyard, and a renowned restaurant. Its central location in Ennis allows for easy exploration of the town’s historic sites and lively atmosphere.

Best for Maritime Culture: Wexford

Wexford’s world-famous Opera Festival (Oct. 18-Nov. 2, 2024) will feature over 80 events this fall. 

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With its charming quayside and medieval streets, Wexford is a coastal town known for its maritime history and artistic community. The Opera Festival draws visitors from far and wide (though you can visit the Wexford Opera House all year round), while the Irish National Heritage Park provides a fascinating journey through Ireland’s past. Wexford’s coastal location also offers opportunities for scenic walks and water activities. The scenic Hook Peninsula, home to the iconic Hook Lighthouse, is a short drive away.

Where to Stay: Marlfield House

Marlfield House, located just outside Wexford town, is a country house hotel surrounded by lush gardens. With antique-filled rooms, an award-winning restaurant, and a tranquil setting, it offers a luxurious escape while still being close to Wexford’s cultural and coastal attractions.

Best for Historic Charm and Ancient Sites: Drogheda

Built in 1808 as a defense against a possible Napoleonic invasion, Drogheda’s iconic Millmount Martello Tower (pictured here) houses a museum and is locally nicknamed “the cup and saucer.” 

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Positioned on the banks of the River Boyne, Drogheda is a town with a storied past and a modern, bustling present. The medieval St. Laurence’s Gate and Millmount Martello Tower are proof of its historical significance. You can climb to the top of the tower at the Millmount Museum, which showcases artifacts from the town’s past. Make sure to also visit St. Peter’s Church, which has been transformed into the Highlanes Gallery. It now features a diverse collection of contemporary and historic artworks. For a day trip, make sure to hit the Boyne Valley’s ancient sites nearby, including Newgrange, and enjoy the welcoming hospitality of this diverse and evolving town.

Where to Stay: Scholars Townhouse Hotel

In the heart of Drogheda is the Scholars Townhouse Hotel—a boutique gem that combines historic charm with modern sophistication. Set in a restored 19th-century building, the hotel features elegant rooms, each decorated with unique details that pay homage to its academic roots. During a stay, guests can dine at its critically acclaimed gastro-pub and stroll its private gardens. 

When to Visit Ireland

Ireland is gorgeous all year round, but ideal weather conditions for most travelers are to be found in late spring (May to June) and early autumn (September to October). During these months, Ireland experiences milder temperatures, blooming landscapes, and longer daylight hours, making it the perfect time of year for exploring the country’s picturesque scenery and spending ample time outdoors. Even better, these periods are less crowded compared to the peak summer months, allowing for a more relaxed travel experience. 

Flights to Ireland

Levels of tourism for Ireland haven’t yet fully recovered from the pandemic (in 2019 they had over 11 million annual visitors), but The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) estimates that around 7 million international tourists came to Ireland in 2022.

Flights from major U.S. cities to Dublin are frequent, and usually fairly priced during shoulder season, especially when booked further in advance. For the best deals, try booking an off-season trip, between late fall (November) and winter months (January to March), which tends to see lower airfare prices. However, keep in mind that weather conditions during winter can be cooler and wetter.

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