Most visitors to Ireland are eager to sample its many natural wonders, including its vibrant culture, traditional music, and of course, its most famous export, Guinness!
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But not everyone puts its cities at the top of their list, apart from maybe Dublin, the capital.
But why settle on just one city experience when there is more to explore?
These 4 Irish cities have their own unique personalities, each of them transformed over the years by various events in Irish history yet emerging in the 21st century as urban hubs that exude charm and a friendliness that is surely part of the Irish vacation experience.
Sit back and take a virtual tour of these 4 cities in Ireland to explore, including Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Limerick.
The first of our 4 Irish cities in Ireland to explore is the city of Dublin, the country's capital.
Several historical events shaped Dublin as a city, including the Viking invasion of the 8th century and the Norman takeover in 1170.
In addition, Dublin being the seat of British power in Ireland over the following centuries also left a profound effect on the city, until the country gained its independence in 1921.
As European cities go, Dublin is one of the smaller cities in the EU, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on awesome attractions.
I asked Ireland on a Budget Tourism Ambassador Alan Byrne to come up with some suggestions on what a first-time visitor to Dublin might want to add to his or her itinerary.
The Guinness Storehouse
Alan suggests that you put aside 3-4 hours to really get the most out of the Guinness Storehouse experience.
Although you won’t see the stout being brewed, you will learn about the famous Arthur Guinness and the product that he made.
There are seven floors dedicated to the 250-year-old Guinness brand.
They include the following:
- a huge waterfall and the Arthur Guinness Gallery on the ground floor;
- an exhibit on the beer-making process on the first floor;
- a Tasting Experience on the second floor, where you’ll learn to identify the aromas in Guinness and get to sample some at the same time;
- a gallery of Guinness advertisements on the third floor;
- and perhaps, one of the most enjoyable experiences at the Guinness Storehouse is the opportunity to learn to pull your own pint, which can be found on the fourth floor.
The experience culminates in a rooftop experience at the Gravity Bar, where you can enjoy fabulous views of Dublin.
Alan suggests stopping at the restaurant, where quality Irish food is served, and timing your visit close to either lunchtime or dinner.
A guided tour for adults is €25.
Book of Kells/Long Room Library
This is one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures.
The Long Room, a working library since 1732, is home to 250,000 of the country’s most ancient texts.
The Book of Kells is of course what most people want to see.
The 9th-century manuscript contains the four Gospels of the New Testament, all in Latin and created by hand.
Alan suggests booking your tickets in advance since this attraction gets very crowded.
For the best value, he recommends taking the Trinity College campus tour, which includes admission to the exhibition.
Pro Tip: Alan tells me that students at the college can take three guests for free, so if you know one, you’re definitely in luck!
If you go directly to the Long Room Library, your visit should only take about 30 minutes, if you choose to take the tour, expect it to take about an hour and 15 minutes in total.
A standard ticket for adults is €16. Students and seniors (over 60) pay €13 and admission for a family of four, with children under 18, costs €32. For groups of 10 or more, individual tickets cost €10.
Book a Tour of Dublin with Alan Byrne
Alan says that if you want to get a sense of how Dublin was shaped by British rule for over 800 years, you should visit Dublin Castle.
The grounds are free, but you will need to pay for the tour.
The castle was built in the early 13th century on the site of a Viking settlement.
On a guided tour, you’ll see the lavish State Apartments, where much of Dublin’s high society in the 18th century socialized; the Chapel Royal, a Gothic Revival building famous for its fine plaster decoration and coats of arms; and the Viking Excavation located in the lower ground floor level of the castle.
The remains of the Viking settlement were accidentally discovered there in 1986.
Tickets are €12 for adults, €10 for seniors aged 60 plus and students, and €6 for children ages 12-17. A family ticket for 2 adults and 5 children under 17 is €30. Expect to spend an hour at this location.
Dublinia/Christchurch Cathedral Tour
If you want to learn about Dublin’s Viking and medieval roots, you should check out Dublinia, an interpretive exhibition that aims to replicate life in the city over 1,000 years ago.
The attraction is located beside Christchurch Cathedral, the oldest functioning building in the city.
Get a feel for the Viking way of life by learning the skills of a Viking warrior. You can even try on Viking clothes, become a slave, and stroll down a noisy street.
In medieval Dublin, experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the crowded city.
View some of the artifacts that were found during the excavations and immerse yourself in an audio-visual experience that will take you on one man’s life journey.
Alan says that guided tours of Christchurch include climbing to the bell tower and ringing the famous bells.
Combination tickets can be purchased for both attractions, which, he says, will save you about 40 percent on admission.
Combination prices for adults are €18; €15.75 for students and seniors; €9.50 for children and €45 for a family of four.
Give yourself 1-2 hours to see both.
This Victorian prison is now a very popular museum. Fourteen of the leaders of the 1916 Irish uprising against the British were imprisoned here and later executed.
A tour of the museum covers some of the most tragic events in Ireland’s struggle to break away from British rule, from the 1780s right up to the 1920s.
Since tours of Kilmainham Gaol book out weeks in advance, Alan suggests purchasing a resale ticket on the day of your visit at 9:30 a.m. If you simply turn up at the site, you will not get in.
The attraction is not far from the Guinness Storehouse. Give yourself 1.5 to 2 hours for the whole experience.
Admission for adults is €8; for seniors (60+) and students, €6; children (12-17), €4; and for a family of 4 or 5, €20.
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Entertainment in Dublin
Rather than heading to the touristy Temple Bar section of the city, Alan suggests that instead, you take in a traditional Irish music session at either The Cobblestone in Smithfield, McNeills on Capel Street, or O’Donoghues on Merrion Row.
“The music is not staged,” says Alan, referring to the sessions at any of the above pubs.
“It’s just played by a gathering of friends. But don’t make a big fuss. Just act natural, or you’ll stand out as a tourist.”
Read more: The Best Time to Visit Dublin
The second of our 4 cities to explore in Ireland is Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland, which is technically part of the United Kingdom but on the island of Ireland.
The plantations of Ulster that took place between 1609 and 1690, when Gaelic clans like the O’Neills and the O’Donnells were forced to give up their land for the newly arrived Scottish and English settlers, forever changed the cultural and economic landscape of Northern Ireland, including Belfast.
The city emerged as a Protestant community in its early days immediately after the plantations.
In the 17th century, it was known for exporting wool, hides, grain, butter, and salted meat to England, Scotland, and France.
In addition, barrels of wine were imported from France and Spain, and in the late 17th century, the city traded with the North American colonies, accepting tobacco and also sugar from the West Indies.
This set it up as an industrial hub, which continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries.
The story of its industrial growth is best told in the popular attraction known as Titanic Belfast.
There are many interesting exhibits to see, including a number of artifacts that help tell the story of Belfast’s growing linen, shipbuilding, and engineering industries, as well as the emergence of the Titanic.
Other artifacts on display include:
- the different types of bone china that were used by the liner’s passengers;
- the original 33-foot Titanic plan created by The White Star’s architect, Cecil Arthur Allen;
- a launch day ticket, which still bears the original perforated stub,
- and the original promotional brochure advertising the liner’s ability to cross the North Atlantic in style.
Expect to spend several hours at the museum, which is spread out over six floors.
Admission is £11.50 for adults and £8.50 for children ages 5-16. Children under 5 are free.
Belfast Black Taxi Tour
No visit to Belfast is complete without a tour of the real Belfast in a black taxi tour.
Your driver will take you through the parts of Belfast that no tourist would have dared enter at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Today, tours of West Belfast have been turned into a very popular tourist attraction.
It’s definitely an education as you drive through the still-divided area of the city, with Catholics on one end and Protestants on the other.
Don’t expect a neutral version of the conflict, though. Instead, sit back and enjoy the ride and your driver’s ability to put the 30 plus years of sectarian violence into context.
There are plenty of murals to see in the Catholic section and British union jacks in the Protestant neighborhood.
There are several companies offering tours. The most popular ones include Black Taxi Tours, Taxi Tours Belfast, and Paddy Campbell's Famous Black Cab Tours.
Taxi Tours Belfast charges £40 for the first two passengers and a lesser fee of £17.50 for additional passengers.
Black Taxi Tours charge between £50 and £120 for 1-6 people and Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours charges £35 for 1-2 people and an additional £15 per person over 2 people.
Most tours take an hour.
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The Cathedral Quarter
Belfast’s old warehousing district has been transformed in recent years with the addition of some great hotels, restaurants, pubs, and a vibrant street art culture that can be found here and in other parts of Belfast.
The notable attractions in the Cathedral Quarter include the 5-star Merchant Hotel, a historic 19th-century building that originally housed the Ulster Bank.
Its most striking asset is its Great Room, featuring Ireland’s largest chandelier.
You can avail of a special Afternoon Tea at the hotel, all for £32.50 (Monday-Friday) or £37.50 (at the weekends).
It includes finger sandwiches, scones, a delicious selection of seasonal cakes, pastries, and other treats, as well as tea or coffee.
Belfast City Hall
This is one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings and serves as the civic building of Belfast City Council. Located on Donegall Square, it opened its doors in 1906.
The White Linen Hall, an important international linen industry exchange, once stood where the city hall is now located. The area is close to the city’s Linen Quarter.
Plans for city hall began in 1888 after Queen Victoria granted Belfast its city status, in recognition of its rapidly expanding industrial base.
In fact, Belfast overtook Dublin in population during this time due to the plentiful nature of work in the city, although much of it was given to Protestants.
The interior of the hall has a number of notable features, including its grand entrance and grand staircase. Guided tours are not available at this time due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Otherwise, tours are free.
Crown Liquor Saloon
If you’re looking to relax for a bit in Belfast, the Crown Liquor Saloon is the place to go. It’s not only a respite from the city’s busy streets, but it’s also a historical icon in Belfast.
Owned by the National Trust, this place was once regarded as one of the finest gin establishments in the British Isles.
Its Victorian decorative features include 10 private booths, also known as snugs, complete with their own doors and stained-glass flourishes; tile mosaics on the floor; heated footrests at the bar and so much more.
You can also see all of the above attractions by taking a Hop on Hop Off bus tour of the city with City Tours Belfast. A 1-day ticket costs just $21.55 per adult.
Read more: 24 Hours in Belfast on a Budget
The third of our 4 cities to explore in Ireland is the city of Cork, the largest city in the southern half of the country.
Like Dublin, Cork also has a history of the Viking and Norman invasion.
For much of the Middle Ages, it was a busy port town exporting animal hides and woolen cloth, and like Belfast, importing wine for the upper classes.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, vast amounts of butter were exported from Cork, making way for the creation of a Butter Market in 1750.
What many people might not know is that Cork City was the only other British bastion outside of the Pale, the name given to the area in and around Dublin.
It was a stronghold that would last for quite a few centuries more.
Evidence of Cork’s history can be seen all around the city and forms the fabric of the following tourist attractions:
The fort, an early 17th-century star-shaped structure, played a pivotal role in the history of Cork for over 400 years.
It was built in 1601 as a defense for the city and was named after Queen Elizabeth I.
Because the original fort, constructed in timber, was pulled down in 1603 by the people of Cork, the current building that you see is from reconstructions that took place by the British in 1624 and 1626.
The fort was involved in the Siege of Cork, a battle that took place shortly after the Battle of the Boyne when James II tried to take back the crown from William of Orange, who had just defeated him.
Needless to say, it went badly.
During the decades following the siege, the fort ceased to exist as a defensive structure and in 1719, was used as a barracks.
Over the years, Elizabeth Fort had many uses, including its time as a prison for convicts as they awaited shipment to Australia and other far-off lands.
Expect to spend an hour to 1.5 hours at this attraction. Admission is €3. Children under 12 are admitted free of charge.
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The English Market
This Victorian-style market, founded in 1788, isn’t necessarily a showcase for English food these days.
In fact, it specializes in Irish food, much of it in the form of fresh produce and gourmet-style meals.
The English Corporation, which governed the city at the time, built the market, which was hugely important to Cork’s local economy, taking goods in from the surrounding farmland and exporting them abroad.
Because the natives were not welcome in the English Market at the time, another market cropped up in the 1840s that was established by the new, mostly Catholic local government.
It was called St. Peter’s Market.
Sadly, it no longer exists.
The Old Town Whiskey Bar at Bodega now stands in its place.
The upstairs area of The English Market consists of a café with seating. The remainder of the building remains unchanged.
While you’re in Cork, be sure to stop by, even if it’s only to see this historic building with its charming original features.
Cork City Gaol (Jail)
Cork City Gaol is located in the heart of Cork City.
It opened in 1824 and at the time, was described as the “finest in 3 kingdoms.”
During a visit, you’ll learn about the first execution that took place at the prison as well as some of the famous prisoners who spent time there.
They included the revolutionary Irish heroine Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth) from Sligo, who was arrested in 1919 and spent four months in Cork Jail.
The museum is open 360 days a year. Admission is €10 for adults, €8.50 for students and seniors, and €6 for children.
Tours of the jail are self-guided.
Choose between a guidebook, which is included in the admission price, or an audio guide available in different languages, which costs an additional €2 per person.
Expect to spend an hour at least at this tourist attraction.
St. Anne’s Church, the Shandon Bells
The Shandon Bells and Tower at St. Anne’s Church is one of the most important early 18th-century churches in Ireland and one of a small number that still retains its original bells.
The church was built in 1722, but the site has been a place of worship since medieval times.
It features a barreled, vaulted ceiling, colorful stained-glass windows, and a baptismal stone that dates to 1629.
Don’t leave this iconic Cork attraction without climbing the 132 steps to see incredible views of the city.
Admission for adults is €5; seniors 65+ and students with a valid student ID, €4; children aged 5-15, €2. Children under 5 are admitted free. The price of a family ticket (2 adults and up to 4 children under 16) is €12.
Expect to spend an hour or so at this attraction.
The Crawford Museum
Known to locals as “The Crawford,” this wonderful art museum houses a large collection of work, from Greek and Roman sculptures to 20th-century stained glass works and paintings by local artists.
Many of the works in The Crawford Museum, which is housed in the former Cork Customs House, is a nod to the city’s “Golden Age,” reflecting the commercial ties that Cork has had with different countries and its development as a city in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The museum is open 7 days a week. It is free to visit.
Expect to spend several hours at this great Cork treasure.
Best Traditional Music Venue in Cork – Sin É
If traditional music is what you’re after in Cork City, look no farther than Sin É.
This Cork City icon first opened its doors in 1889.
Since 1978, live traditional music sessions have been played at Sin É (translated in English to “That’s It”) 7 days a week.
Read more: 36 Hours in Cork City
The last of the 4 cities to explore in Ireland is the city of Limerick, located on the River Shannon, Ireland's longest river.
Limerick, too, came under the influence of the powerful Vikings, holding on to power there for about 200 years until the Norman invasion in 1195.
Two years later, the city was granted its first charter from King Richard I of England, along with its first mayor.
Richard's brother, John, ordered a castle to be built in the city bearing his name, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city today.
Under Norman rule, Limerick prospered as a port and trading center.
In the 17th century, it was where several conflicts took place, including in 1642 when Irish confederates took King John’s Castle, in 1651 when Oliver Cromwell’s army descended on the city, and following the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when French and Irish forces went behind Limerick’s walls to regroup.
Its most prosperous period arrived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when Limerick emerged as a Georgian city, similar to that of Dublin.
You can still see evidence of this in the city’s terraced Georgian townhouses.
King John’s Castle
Archaeological excavations conducted in 1900 revealed that the Vikings once lived on the site where King John's Castle now stands.
Construction of the castle, which is located on the city’s King’s Island, was completed in 1210 on the orders of King John, who wanted to protect Limerick from encroaching Gaelic clans.
It is considered one of the best-preserved Norman castles in Europe.
The castle features an amazing exhibition that brings to life over 800 years of local history.
The visitor center includes state-of-the-art interpretive activities, as well as 21st-century touch screen technology, 3D models, and more.
You can even try on costumes and converse with costumed actors.
In the courtyard, you’ll discover a medieval campaign tent, together with a blacksmith’s forge and scenes similar to what the castle and its residents might have experienced during the city’s troubled times.
The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is €11.70 for adults, €9.50 for students and seniors, and €8.55 for children aged 4-18. Children under 4 are admitted for free. Family tickets are €31.95 for 4 and €49 for a family of 6.
Expect to spend several hours at this attraction.
The Hunt Museum
Outside of Dublin, The Hunt Museum, located in an iconic Georgian building in the heart of Limerick, is where you will discover some of the finest collections of Bronze and Iron Age monuments, as well as medieval and modern treasures.
The museum’s most notable treasures include a Syracusan coin said to have been one of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus, as well as works by Picasso and Jack B. Yeats.
The more than 2,000 items in the museum are from the private collection of John and Gertrude Hunt.
Admission for adults is €7.50 and €5.50 for seniors and students. Combination tickets covering the museum’s collection and various exhibits are also available. Children are admitted for free.
Expect to spend up to 2 hours at the museum.
The Treaty Stone
The Treaty Stone, located across the River Shannon from King John’s Castle, is of huge historical significance to the city.
It is here, in 1691, that The Treaty of Limerick was signed between King William of Orange and King James II.
After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the remainder of James II’s defeated army retired to Limerick under the command of Patrick Sarsfield, the 1st Earl of Lucan, where they held out a siege for over a year.
When they surrendered, they were given the option of safe passage to France with their families. Most, including Sarsfield, took this option in what became known as the “Flight of the Wild Geese.”
After arriving in France, they formed the Irish Brigade of the French Army.
The Jacobites who remained were allowed to keep their estates and their property on the condition that they supported King William.
The stone rests on a pedestal that was erected in 1865 by John Rickard Tinslay, mayor of the city. The pedestal is decorated with an image of the castle.
Traditional Music Pubs – Dolans
It might be a bit off the beaten track, but Dolans has become one of the best pubs in Limerick for a traditional Irish music session.
The pub is located on Dock Road, a few minutes’ walk from Sarsfield’s Bridge and the city center.
Have you considered any of these 4 cities in Ireland to explore?
Or perhaps you've already visited some of them. Do let me know in the comments below. And as always, free feel to sign up for my free e-newsletter.