If you’re considering an Ireland vacation you would be forgiven in thinking that the ‘land of saints & scholars’ is all about bus tours, ancient ruins, and pretty scenery. And therefore, maybe a bit dull. You couldn’t be further from the truth! While Ireland is known for its history and stunning views, outdoor enthusiasts come to her emerald shores for world class hiking, cycling, and surfing.
While Ireland is known as an expensive destination, you can do an Ireland road trip on a budget, in comfort, and filled with adventure – and maybe a few castles.
Two Week Ireland Road Trip for Adventurous Families
Though Ireland is a small country, I don’t recommend trying to ‘see it all’ when you visit – you’ll do far too much driving and not enough enjoying. This itinerary leads you in a semi-circular exploration along Ireland’s southern coastline with stops and activities in some of the country’s most beautiful and unspoiled areas. By no means is this itinerary exhaustive – but it is enough to begin laying plans for a magical Ireland vacation!
Tip: to avoid backtracking I recommend booking flights that arrive in Dublin and depart from Shannon (or vice versa), though you can easily arrive and depart from the same airport if costs differ greatly.
Day 1: Arrive in Ireland
The majority of US flights arrive in Dublin in the early morning hours. While your body may be begging for rest it’s important to get on ‘Ireland time’ as quickly as possible – and the best way to do that is to get active! Unless Dublin is a ‘must visit’ for your family, pick up your rental car and bypass the city for the beauty of County Wicklow. Explore the magnificent grounds of Powerscourt Estate – the stunning gardens are a perfect place to let the flight stress melt away. The on-site Avoca Café will fill the gnawing in your tummy with fresh, locally sourced food. Eat at the estate or get a picnic to go and make your way to Ireland’s tallest waterfall where you will also find beautiful hikes and a lovely playground. From Powerscourt continue into the Wicklow Mountains, where you will spend two nights.
Lodging: For a truly budget option, the Glendalough International Youth Hostel is clean and spacious, with family rooms available. Bracken B&B is within walking distance of the Monastic City of Glendalough and the Wicklow Way walking routes.
Tip: Irish B&Bs include the famous (and filling) Irish Breakfast! You’ll be set til mid-afternoon after eating one of these!
Day 2: Explorations in Wicklow
The Monastic City of Glendalough, in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park is well worth your time. Explore the 6th century settlement and hike along woodland paths to St. Kevin’s cell and the Poulanass Waterfall. Walking trails through the Wicklow Mountains range in length and difficulty, but there is no finer way to spend a nice Irish day.
Tip: Use the interactive map at Ireland Family Vacations to fill in the gaps of your itinerary!
Days 3-4 (option 1)
From Wicklow you have a couple of really great options, depending on where your interest lie. For a wonderful taste of medieval Ireland, venture inland to Kilkenny and Tipperary for 2 nights.
Lodging: The self-catering cottages of Tir na nOg and Brigadoon near Cahir are spacious and perfectly located for exploring.
History abounds here. Kilkenny is a wonderfully walkable city. Kilkenny Castle is the royal palace of your imagination, while the ‘Medieval Mile’ brings the city’s history to life. If sport fishing is of interest, be sure to plan an afternoon at Jerpoint Park, where wild salmon and Brown Trout fill the river.
Sports minded? Then be sure to reserve your spots at The Kilkenny Way, a two hour experience which takes you into the 3000 year old sport of Hurling. Outdoor explorations around the Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle, Kells Priory, and Jerpoint Abbey – as well as Kilkenny’s food and craft trails will more than fill two days.
Days 3-4 (option 2)
If Blarney Castle is on your ‘must see’ list, drop south to County Cork from Glendalough. If you’ve a taste for whiskey be sure to stop at Midleton for the Jameson Whiskey Experience. Don’t worry- it’s family friendly.
Any animal lovers in the family? Fota Wildlife Park is definitely worth a stop. The 70 acre wildlife park is open air, no thick glass walls between you and the animals.
Tip: The VIP Family Experience is well worth the splurge if you’ve a budding zoologist!
Lodging: The White House Blarney is perfectly placed for touring this area. Be sure to enquire about the 25% children’s discount. For an ocean view, cliff walk, and easy access to Blue Flag Garryvoe Beach choose Castle Farm, just north of Cork City.
Blarney Castle deserves half a day as the extensive gardens- including the fascinating Poison Garden and the Rock Close- are incredible. Plan a visit to the seaside town of Kinsale. Arrive early enough for a Historic Stroll before heading out on a tour of the bay, where you’ll get a great overview of the seaside walks. Don’t leave Kinsale without eating- it’s known as the ‘foodie capital of Ireland’.
Didn’t make it into Cork City yet? Do that before heading to West Cork. Be sure to stop at the English Market for a few meal necessities or visit Cobh, the last port of call of the Titanic.
Lodging: Book a Luxury or Family Pod at Top of the Rock Pod Pairc. Enjoy the fun farm animals, evenings by the fire pit, and stunning location. Luxury pods have a small kitchenette while the walking centre features a full, shared kitchen. Need a bit more space? Consider a cabin at Waterfall Alpaca Farm.
Outdoor activities abound here! Local walks include the Pilgrim’s Way and the Alpaca Waterfall Walk. Farther afield the incredible Sheep’s Head Peninsula and Mizen Head, the most southerly point in Ireland, are spectacular. In nearby Bantry you will find horseback riding, whale watching, kayaking, and departure points for local islands.
Leaving Cork you’ll enter ‘The Kingdom’ of County Kerry. You’ll soon see why most Ireland itineraries include a few days here!
Lodging: Fáilte Hostel in the charming village of Kenmare has spacious family rooms and a 1:30am curfew has rowdy guests bunking elsewhere. Salmon Leap Farm, a bit closer to Killarney, can arrange local activities including horse trekking, angling, guided walks, angling, and guided hill walking.
Famed for the spectacular Ring of Kerry, Killarney is a tourist hot spot. And you’ll see why as there is so much to do. Jaunting cart rides here are wonderful- choose a ride in Killarney National Park or the Gap of Dunloe- the jarveys are filled with stories; it’s up to you to decipher the truth from the blarney!
Plan a day to explore either the Ring of Kerry or the Dingle Peninsula. Both are wonderful, filled with history, hikes, and hidden beaches. For a truly exhilarating activity, try coasteering, which includes rock climbing, caving, and jumping into the ocean (thankfully you’ll have a wetsuit!)
Looking for adventures a bit less adrenaline-filled? Do a bit of surfing on Inch Beach, go underground at Crag Cave, fly a hawk at Killarney Falconry, or spend the day hiking in Killarney National Park. The farthest reaches of the Dingle Peninsula are a Gaeltacht, where Irish is still spoken. In town many of the shops have a small signs stating Gaelige á labhairt anseo – Irish spoken here.
It’s time for the final leg of your Irish adventure, and we’ll end in fine style in County Clare. You have your choice of routes- either through Limerick city (if so, do plan to spend an afternoon at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park) or along the coast via Shannon Ferry.
Lodging: Doolin Hostel is perfectly located for touring the west of Ireland. Spacious family rooms and a policy against hen & stag parties guarantee a peaceful stay.
From Doolin it feels as if all of Ireland is at your feet. Walk along the crashing Atlantic Ocean to the Cliffs of Moher. Spend days exploring the Burren – guided and self-guided walks offer everything from foraging to archeology to ancient lore. And don’t miss the Burren Food Trail! Most locations – farms, gardens, bakeries, creameries, and restaurants- welcome visitors to learn about their local offerings and get a taste.
The Aran Islands, another Gaeltacht, are a short boat ride from Doolin Pier and a terrific day trip for walking or cycling. Your cruise back to Doolin may even include a side trip to the base of the Cliffs of Moher.
Active adventures are found a bit further south in Lahinch where Lahinch Adventures offers surfing, rock climbing, archery, cycling, kayaking, and hill walking.
If you’ve not yet visited a traditional Irish Pub for live music, Doolin is the place to do it. And go ahead and take the kids – an evening at the public house is a family friendly activity!
Your flight leaves today. It’s difficult to say goodbye to Ireland, but hopefully you’re taking home lasting memories and a desire to return!
Note: Not including Northern Ireland in this itinerary was quite deliberate. As ‘the North’ is part of the UK costs are 2-3 times higher there due to the exchange rate and can really do damage to a budget.
About the author: Jody Halsted has been traveling across Ireland for over a decade with her own children, discovering the most family friendly sites and activities on the tourist trail and off. Dedicated to Ireland family travel, her website Ireland Family Vacations, provides exceptional advice for a magical Ireland vacation. For families looking for a perfectly tailored Ireland vacation, Jody offers Ireland vacation coaching, working with your family to help you choose the perfect lodging, destinations, and activities to fit your budget, interests, and expectations.