Ireland is one of the globe’s most singular travel destinations, a feisty, twinkling country far more famous for the sum of its parts than for any specific sight or attraction. Its landscapes are raw and extraordinary. Its cities are animated and very much its own. Its histories – both ancient and contemporary – are full of tales of adversity and resolve. Tying all this together is the Irish character, a mythologised combination of bright-eyed bonhomie and bar-room banter: there’s good reason why the planet’s full of Irish pubs.
In some ways, in fact, the very general allure can make it hard to know where to start for visitors. Lovable Dublin falls naturally as the most popular first-time option, although for all the capital city’s stately architecture and riverside charm, it only partly hints at what the wider country has to offer. The real spirit of today’s nation might be up for debate – it’s as likely to be found in a Connemara village as a Cork street scene – but regardless, searching for it is rarely anything but hugely enjoyable.
It’s often said that there are two Irelands. Despite its economic woes, 21st-century Ireland is a modern destination, full of fresh creativity and long attuned to cosmopolitan, corporate thinking. At the same time, of course, it’s somewhere rooted in the strongest of traditions, a country marked by humour, hospitality and more than the occasional late-night tale. The craic of legend isn’t generally hard to find.
With all this in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that Ireland caters for such a broad range of visitor interests. Those in search of windswept hikes, Celtic relics and fiddle-and-song pubs will be well sated, but so too will those looking for on-trend gastronomy, family-friendly attractions or slick hotels. Ireland may be relatively small but its cultural impact worldwide continues to be enormous, and this is due to far more than just a romantic notion of how it used to be.
There are further benefits to the country’s compact size. Getting around is usually quick and straightforward, making it simple to cover more than one region on a single trip. Lose yourself in an Anglo-Norman castle one day, walk a soaring cliff trail the next, then find yourself enjoying the languid inland waterways the day after that. Or make the most of the rail network fanning out of Dublin by combining time in the capital with an excursion to Waterford, Galway City or Cork.
Various icons and images enjoy close associations with Ireland (see everything from craggy peninsulas to pints of Guinness) but the real beauty of the country is the fact that it transcends every cliché that people throw at it. Its potential for adventure – for real, blood-pumping adventure – is all too often overlooked, while for those who just want to take it easy, the options are copious. It’s no exaggeration to say that the scenery here is some of the most inspiring in Europe, and the culture it plays home to is as layered, fascinating and downright rewarding as any you’ll come across.