Top Destinations near Dublin for the Castle Lover
by Samantha A. M. Smith
If you only have a few days in Dublin, I would highly recommend taking in the surrounding area. The Republic of Ireland is the place to be if you love castle hunting and viewing beautiful architecture. With only a couple of days, you can get your fill by travelling within a ninety-minute radius from Dublin. I’m not one of those travellers who like to stay in one place for long, so even though my trips are short I like to move and see as much as I can.
The bus system in Ireland is good, but because I had limited time, I rented a car. At first, I was very nervous to drive on the left side of the road. After a couple of hours, I became very comfortable with it and it became second-nature. The key to driving on the opposite side is to have a good navigator in the passenger seat. Using “short left” and “wide right” directions helps you remember to stay on the correct side and removes any momentary doubt you may have when turning.
One thing I will say about driving in Ireland is the smaller highways are a bit nerve-wracking. You will be driving on a windy two-lane road with a 90 km/h limit. What I learned quickly is that if you drive a bit slower, the locals may tail quite close to you, but they’ll pass. A local told me, “if you’re nervous about driving that quickly on the small roads, slow down.”
The Irish are welcoming, kind, and friendly. Many of them open their homes to travellers through online platforms such as Airbnb. I recommend taking this opportunity for a few reasons: you learn more about the towns you’re staying in, you get the scoop on the best restaurants, pubs, and local attractions, and you’ll be able to stay in towns that are too small to support a hotel.
I spent five days in February travelling between small towns and through mountain ranges, and it was by far my favourite trip. I’ve listed a few of my favourite attractions that would appeal to the Castle-loving traveller.
Powerscourt Estate, County Wicklow
A beautiful house overlooking a small lake and extensive gardens, Powerscourt Estate is aptly named. A winding path leads through its gardens full of colour and fragrance, even in February. The grounds also feature a mountain backdrop of the Wicklow Mountains, as well as Ireland’s highest waterfall. The house is only 50 minutes by car from downtown Dublin.
Glendalough Monastic City, County Wicklow
This early medieval monastic settlement was a huge surprise. The site houses a tower, chapels, and the oldest burial grounds I’ve seen. The park includes a few hiking paths and ponds. I spent more time at the monastic city than I had initially intended because there was so much to look at, so much beauty in the crumbling walls, and so much history to see on the faces of the tombstones.
Kilkenny Castle, County Kilkenny
Kilkenny is not nearly as busy as Dublin, but it is primarily a tourist destination. Right in the middle of the city, Kilkenny Castle is impressive and in perfect condition. The rooms are colourful and decorated with authentic paintings. It is filled with history from the 12th century and is a need-to-see for any castle lover.
Only a couple blocks over is the Smithwick’s Brewery which offers one of the best brewery tours I’ve experienced. If you like beer, make sure to stop in for a tour.
Duckett’s Grove House, County Carlow
The ruins of Duckett’s Grove make it seem much older than it is, but in fact, it was built as recent as the 19th century. It looks so old because it was ravaged by a house fire in the early 1900s. The walled gardens are free to walk through, and there are small shops and tea rooms within the courtyard. This estate is home to crows, which gives it an ominous feel and is the perfect backdrop to an Instagram post.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
The small town of Cashel is home to classic Irish pubs serving a proper Guinness, restaurants with genuine Irish cuisine, and the Rock of Cashel. As I entered Cashel from the North, rounding a corner on the motorway, I was dumbfounded by the commanding presence of the castle. It is built on top of a rocky hill, hence the name, and from the parapet, you can clearly see the surrounding area. The castle is home to some of the most remarkable Celtic art pieces housed within well-aged medieval architecture.
Rock of Dunamase, County Laoise
From the road, the Rock of Dunamase doesn’t look like much, but once you climb the hill and enter the crumbling walls you can see how impressive this castle must have been in the 12th century. The view from the top of the mound is beautiful, and that’s where I realized the true beauty of the Irish landscape for the first time. In the middle of February with temperatures below 10 °C, the landscape was still a lush green covering the rolling hills of Ireland.
Belvedere House, County Westmeath
The first Earl of Belvedere built this country home as a hunting lodge, but he built more than just that. The house is well-maintained, and the grounds are massive. My entire afternoon was spent roaming the walled gardens, the fairy garden, and the woodland paths of Belvedere park.
Trim Castle, County Meath
Trim castle was my favourite location because it was the filming site for my favourite movie and the Mel Gibson classic, Braveheart. It was built with a very unique shape atop a hill overlooking the river. To see the keep, a tour is mandatory but also very reasonably priced. I would highly recommend it! The tour guide gives you a detailed history lesson and allows you to roam the many small rooms of the keep. The best part of the tour is the view from the roof that overlooks Meath county. It is a site you should take in, even if the weather is dreary. Trim castle is neighboured by small restaurants and tea houses, which were great places to stop in and warm up after the tour.
Bective Abbey, County Meath
Bective Abbey was a rather underrated site. It’s still in good condition, and it’s free to visit. The abbey includes a church, a tower, and cloisters with beautifully carved pillars. I was excited to learn that this abbey was another filming site for the movie Braveheart. It is a shortstop on a well-worth detour between Trim and Dublin.