Exploring Ireland is something everyone should have on their bucket list as the emerald isle is absolutely stunning.
From the beautiful Donegal in Northern Ireland, all the way down the Wild Atlantic Way via the stunning west coast to County Cork is breathtaking. Then you have the inland rivers, mountains, valleys, and waterfalls which are jaw-droppingly pretty, and a dash of Irish culture to go with it. What’s not to love?
The best way of exploring this country on your next trip is by heading to all the best-hidden gems in Ireland and we run through them for you below.
The first of the hidden gems in Ireland we are going to look at is the Cahir Swiss Cottage and it has quite an interesting story behind it.
The Cahir Swiss Cottage sits in County Tipperary outside the little town of Cahir in central Ireland. The Cahir Swiss cottage was built way back in the early 1800s by the first Earl of Glengal, Richard Butler, and is a part of Lord and Lady Cahir’s estate.
It was called the Swiss Cottage due to its resemblance to a cottage you might find in the Swiss Alps and its most beautiful feature is the thatched roof which is still very much intact today.
In the 1800s, Lord and Lady Cahir used it as a place where they, rather oddly, could live as peasants. Considering the upmarket interior and the size of the cottage, it was hardly the same same as the thatched cottages of the locals so they swung and missed here.
Eventually, the cottage was abandoned and it was then brought back to life in 1985 by the Irish Georgian Society and today is a great Irish museum you can visit.
One of the coolest hidden gems in Ireland to visit in my eyes is the Skellig Michael Monastery as it’s a bit of an adventure.
Sitting on the island of Great Skelling, 8 or miles off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in Country Kerry is the Monastery so it’s only accessible if you hop on a boat to get there.
The Skellig Michael Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was used in the 7th century as a monastic settlement. Its biggest claim to fame though was when it was used as the location for the last scene in Star Wars Episode VII because of the unique landscape.
If you want to visit the island and monastery, you should book a spot on one of the boats that leave from Portamgee between May and October. They get booked up early and only 180 people are allowed on the island each day.
The boat ride lasts an hour and you can explore the island for around 2.5 hours before heading back to Portmagee again.
The next of our hidden gems in Ireland lies on the east coast in County Dublin, and like many of the best-hidden gems, it too has a great story behind it.
Malahide Castle was built in 1185 by a man called Richard Talbot who was given the land and harbor of Malahide for his service to the crown. Originally, he built a wooden castle and then eventually a stone one which is the same Malahide Castle you can see today.
The Talbot family lived in the castle until the 1970s, that’s an amazing 785 years. Once the final Baron of Malahide died in 1973, the castle was inherited by his sister Rose and she sold it in 1975 to the Irish State.
If you fancy visiting the castle you can do so only on a guided tour and thousands of international visitors go on the guided tours every year. Visitors can even book the castle for functions and it’s also used for state summits.
Kinsale is one of the hidden gems in Ireland that has become a major tourist attraction and thus is quite busy. But, no Irish road trip would be complete without it since it has such beautiful scenery and a great vibe.
Sitting on the southern end of County Cork right on the sea, Kinsale was a beautiful fishing village with stunning views across the River Bandon estuary but its rise to fame has changed things a little.
Kinsale was named one of Ireland’s Most Beautiful Villages in Condé Nast and as the ‘The Gourmet Capital of Ireland, and thus became hugely popular with tourists from all over the world and locals alike.
Spending time in Kinsale is lovely as you’ll find many charming shops, top-tier restaurants, lively pubs, and you’re not far from the great beaches of West Cork either.
Another of the best-hidden gems in Ireland is also down in County Cork and like some of the other hidden gems, you have to get on a boat to see it.
Way out in the Atlantic Ocean on the most western point of Ireland sits Fastnet Rock and on top of it is a lighthouse that dates back to 1853, which is mightily impressive when you consider the building conditions they must have suffered.
A visit to Fastnet Lifehouse is an experience in itself as you’ll need to hop on a boat tour from Baltimore fishing port which will then take you past Sherkin Island and Cape Clear Island and then onto the lighthouse.
This is about as off the beaten path as you can get in Ireland and you’ll have breathtaking views of the coastline along with a chance of seeing dolphins and whales en route to the lighthouse.
The next stop on our best-hidden gems in Ireland is Kilmainham Gaol which is officially called County of Dublin Gaol. You’ll find Kilmainham Gaol right in the center of the city of Dublin and it’s an incredible place to visit with a rich history and great story.
Kilmainham Gaol is a jail that was built in 1796 and up until 1840, there was no segregation, all prisoners regardless of age and gender were in the same cell. This means there were men, women, and children all lumped together.
Each cell was provided with just one candle every fortnight for warmth and light – how brutal is that!
Luckily, not long before the Great Famine, Kilmainham Gaol added a female section which helped manage the huge rise in prisoners until the prison system couldn’t cope and most adult prisoners were sent to Australia.
The history doesn’t stop there though as most people will remember Kilmainham Gaol for its use by the British Army in the Irish Civil War. They used the jail for their prisoners of war.
Today, tourists can walk around the prison with a tour guide and learn all about its history and get a sense of the place.
A true gem that you should head to on an Irish road trip is the Irish Heritage Town of Adare in Country Limerick. Adare is a great place to visit as it’s, well, beautiful so much so it was named one of the most beautiful places in Ireland.
Sitting right next to the River Maige with the stunning surrounding countryside, the town is the perfect place to stay for a night or two for some peace and quiet. You’ll find accommodation in the form of hotels while you’re there, you’ll find plenty to do.
The three places everyone want’s to see include Franciscan Abbey, Trinitarian Abbey, and also Adare Manor. Both of the abbeys are wonderful examples of old architecture while the grounds of the Manor are stunning and feature the river, a golf course, and stunning gardens.
You can even book to have dinner at the Oak Room restaurant at the Manor, stay there in the hotel, and even get a spa treatment.
Dursey Island isn’t one of those secret spots of Ireland anymore, in fact, it’s pretty well heard of but not too busy as not many add it to their Irish road trip itinerary.
Sitting on the Beara Peninsula on the western end of Country Cork, the island is accessible via a cable car and is famous for bird watching but there are also some unique things to see on the island too.
The ride over on the cable car can only be described as exciting as you are suspended over the ocean! It’s also the only cable car in Europe that goes over the sea, which is pretty cool.
On the western end of the island, you will find three rocks – cow rock, calf rock, and the most famous, bull rock. Bull rock is a sight to see with its huge tunnel beneath it and old dwellings built into the rock.
It’s a fun island to explore and visitors should bring water and picnics as there is nothing on the island.
Benbulbin Moutain is one of Ireland’s lesser-known attractions and one of those semi-secret sports off the beaten path that should be on every Irish road trip.
You’ll find Benbulbin Mountain in County Sligo towards the northern end of the country near Northern Ireland and it’s an incredible place if you love hiking, exploring mountains, and seeing incredible views.
Benbulbin Mountain rises out of pretty much flat land to over 500 meters high and it has sheer cliffs on around many of its sides making for dramatic and rugged scenery. Hiking to the top will be tough but it is an option and the views are your reward as they are spectacular.
Be sure not to climb it from the north side as the winds are strong, approach from the south for safety. You should also ask the Sligo Tourism Ireland office about the best route as some of the areas around it are now private land.
Downpatrick Head in County Mayo is another of Irelands secret spots that you should head to on your visit. Downpatrick Head is pretty much a stack that has been eroded away from the cliffs that now stands on its own in the sea.
It’s often been said that Downpatricks Head looks a lot like a slice of cake as the layers on the cliffs look like a mixture of chocolate and cream – it looks like a piece of Viennetta to me.
Getting to Downpatrick Head is easy all you need to do is get to the town of Ballycastle and drive to the Statue of St Patrick that marks the trail loop head. From there it’s a short walk along the cliffs to Downpatrick Head and be sure to pick a clear day to see it in all its glory.
Coral Strand in County Galway is another of Irelands secret spots that is off the beaten path and it’s incredibly unique too. Coral Strand is a beach at the western tip of Ireland’s County Galway and a very unique beach at that.
This beach gets its name from the crushed coralline algae that it’s made out of and this kind of beach is very rare the world over. While walking on it, you’ll notice that the sand feels very different under your feet, and now you know why.
There isn’t much around Coral Sand, it’s very secluded and sits on the inside of a peninsula making it a peaceful place to stare into the sea, read a book, and have a frosty but refreshing swim in the ocean.
The small town of Cobh lies just a little ways from the city of Cork in County Cork. It’s a beautiful coastal town that is hugely popular with everyone from watersport enthusiasts to anyone looking to explore a bit of Ireland’s south coast.
Known for its colorful houses, lovely views, great traditional music, and jazz, this is a great place to soak up some Irish culture and get wet while doing so. The watersports on offer in the area include kitesurfing, kayaking, and SUP-ing in the protected bay around the area.
It’s also from Cobh that you can go on a boat trip to visit Spike Island which is home to a Monastery, a giant Fortress, and the biggest convict depot in the world. Hence the nickname “Ireland’s Hell” or “Ireland’s Alcatraz”.
The surrounding area around Cobh is also lovely and if you’re in search of some peace and quiet in Cork, all you need do is take a stroll along one of the many cliffs.
The Caves of Kesh sit in County Sligo in West Ireland are home to an amazing 17 different caves. The caves form the longest known cave system in Ireland and they hold human and animal remains that date back to almost 10,000 BC, before the Pyramids of Egypt.
In the 1900s, the caves were excavated and traces of bears, wolves, arctic lemmings, and even reindeer were found inside. Walking around and exploring the inside of the caves is pretty spectacular and not something you can do in most places in the world.
You can visit the caves quite easily by hiking up Keshcorran Hill and you’ll find the trailhead next to St Kevin’s Church. From there is just a 20-minute hike but the path can be treacherous when wet so bring good shoes. You can also go on a guided tour to the caves which can be booked at the Visitors Center in Kesh Village. They leave twice a day in the summer and once a day in the winter.
The Glens Of Antrim sit in Northern Ireland in County Antrim and they are a beautiful system of valleys that fall into the Irish Sea. There are nine valleys or Glens in County Antrim and each one of them offers something a little different.
If you love being out in nature then you will love spending time hiking around the Glens and they are great for kids too. One of the glens leads to Ballygally Castle which is said to be haunted, another goes to Carnfunnock where there is a beach maze that’s a lot of fun.
The most special Glen in Country Antrim is the one that leads to the stunning waterfall of Glenariff. It’s quite a strenuous hike but they have put in some steps to make it easier. The waterfall is quite skinny but long and powerful.
Whichever Glen you explore, or perhaps it will be all of them, you’ll be surrounded by Ireland’s stunning countryside.
Classiebawn Castle is a stunning castle that sits on a peninsula that juts out of County Sligo and into the Atlantic. Surrounded by beaches on each side and cliffs in front, and empty wilderness, the castle is quite a sight to see.
You’ll find it near the village of Mullaghmore and you can only walk around it as it’s a private residence so tours of the inside are not possible. But, the coastal hikes in the area are magical and only made better by the sight of the castle in the distance.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!