Samuel Beckett Bridge at Christmas
Samuel Beckett Bridge at Christmas

December in Ireland: 6 Ways to Have Fun During Your Winter Vacation

Updated July 2023–Ireland can be great at any time of year, but December is not high on the list for most visitors, partly because it’s colder (average temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit/7 degrees Celsius) and the days are very short, which means you won’t see as much as you would during the summer months.

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However, if you’re spending a few days in Dublin, there are free museums to visit.

And across the country, there are greenways that you can walk or cycle on if the weather is dry, and let's not forget the many cozy pubs you’ll find in cities, towns, and villages across the island that are even more inviting with a roaring turf fire.

Here are 6 ways that you can enjoy December in Ireland.

1. Take a Winter Walk

Ireland’s mountains are small compared to ranges elsewhere around the world. But that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to climb.

In fact, during the winter months, they can be quite challenging.

With that said, I don’t encourage mountain hiking unless you are experienced given not only the mountain terrain that could very be snowy at higher elevations but also because of Ireland’s changing weather patterns — even over the course of a few hours.

Cyclists on the Great Western Greenway in County Mayo. Photo: Fiantas, Getty Images.

However, you can still enjoy the beautiful Irish countryside in December by taking to the country’s many greenways which have been developed with moderate walking and cycling in mind.

If you’re visiting the West of Ireland, I’d recommend the Great Western Greenway, which starts about 500 meters (a quarter mile) outside the town of Westport.

The 42-kilometer (26-mile) trek might be a bit long to attempt during the winter months but feel free to hop on the greenway at any entry point along the way.

Blacksod Bay in the distance from the Great Western Way. Photo: Gareth McCormack, Tourism Ireland/Failte Ireland.

The Mulranny to Newport section of the greenway is the most popular, with stunning views over Clew Bay and the hundreds of islands that are part of it.

You’ll see Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain, also in the distance.

Scenes from the Waterford Greenway. Photo: Luke Myers for Failte Ireland.

Greenways that are worth exploring in other parts of Ireland include the Waterford Greenway; the Old Rail Trail in County Westmeath; the Limerick Greenway; the Royal Canal Greenway, and the Suir Blueway/Greenway.

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2. Attend a Christmas Market

While cities like Budapest, Dresden, and Vienna have been firm favorites for visitors looking to explore Christmas markets in Europe, there are several Christmas markets in Ireland that are worth visiting in December.

WATERFORD

Ireland’s oldest Viking city comes alive during the city’s annual Winterval Market, which is one of Ireland’s most successful Christmas markets.

The Winterval Express Train at the Winterval Christmas Market in Waterford. Photo: Chris Hill, Failte Ireland.

This year’s event begins on Nov. 17th and runs through Dec. 23rd.

It includes the Continental Christmas Market Quarter located on John Roberts Square/Broad Street; the Elfstival Festival Family Quarter in Arundel Square; The Ever-Greenway Quarter at the city’s Apple Market; the Christmas Cultural Quarter at Great George’s Street/O’Connell Street, and the Winterval Wonder-Events Quarter located in The Viking Triangle.

Also in Waterford is the Parkswood Tree Centre Christmas Market in Passage East, about a 20 minute drive from Waterford City.

Photo: Getty Images.

Choose from a variety of arts and crafts holiday items, including paintings, hand-crafted gifts, unique garden gifts, and handmade Christmas cards, to name a few.

Locals can choose their own Christmas tree here.

This family owned market will open Dec. 1st and run through Dec. 23rd on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entry is free.

GALWAY

Galway City’s Christmas Market is also a very popular annual event and is in fact the long-running holiday market in the country.

An aerial view of the Galway Christmas Market. Photo: rihardzz for Getty Images.

This year’s market begins on Nov. 11th and ends on Dec. 22nd.

A 32-meter (104-foot) Big Wheel, amusement rides, and live musical performances are just some of the fun things you can expect to see at this popular family event.

In addition to the 50+ stalls selling Christmas ornaments and other holiday gift favorites, you can also expect to see plenty of food and drink at the Galway Christmas Market.

DUBLIN

Last year, the only Christmas market in Dublin will be held at Dublin Castle. Dates for this year's event have not been announced, although it seems as if it will run from Dec. 7th through the 20th.

Enjoying the carousel at the Dublin Castle Christmas Market. Photo courtesy of Dublin Castle for Failte Ireland.

Tickets are usually released in mid-November, so be sure to keep an eye on the Dublin Castle website and the Office of Public Works Facebook page for more details.

Expect to see over 30 craft vendors at the site, in addition to activities such as carol singing and horse carriage rides.

BELFAST

The Belfast Christmas Market, now in its 12th year, will run from Nov. 18th through Dec. 22nd.

As is customary each year, Belfast City Hall will be transformed into a traditional German-style holiday market with at least 90 wooden chalets.

Fun at the Belfast Christmas Markets. Photo: Brian Morrison, Tourism Ireland.

Expect to find lots of holiday gift items at this fun market, which also includes a food court with cuisines from 32 or more nations.

Lots of activities for the kiddos too, including a Santa Train and more.

CORK

The Cork Christmas Markets, also known as Glow Cork, will take place from around Nov. 25th through Jan. 8th, although official dates for 2023 have not yet been released.

Photo courtesy of Glow Cork Facebook.

Cork’s Grand Parade is the main location for the festivities, as well as Bishop Lucey Park, which is transformed into a winter wonderland.

Expect to enter the park through an ice tunnel and come out into what feels like a medieval village.

Other fun things to do at this market include taking a ride on the Ferris Wheel and Magic Nights by the Lee.

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3. Experience The Northern Lights and Star Gazing

While September and March are typically the best months to see the Northern Lights in Ireland, you can, if you’re lucky, see them in December too.

A Northern Lights display over Belfast.If you plan to spend December in Ireland, you might be lucky enough to see this beautiful display. Photo: Philip McErlean, https://www.flickr.com/photos/64320477@N05/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Under the right conditions (dark, clear skies with no cloud cover), they are best seen in Malin Head, County Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly point, and the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way if you are traveling north-south.

Other spots in County Donegal worth visiting if a Northern Lights sighting is on your agenda include Dunree Head, Fanad Head, and Glencolmcille, all on the Inishowen Peninsula.

If you are interested in receiving Northern Lights alerts, be sure to follow the Aurora Alerts Ireland Facebook page or the Donegal Weather Channel website.

Using telescopes at the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan.

December is also a great time to do some star gazing, and there are three dark sky parks that are perfect for this winter activity.

They include County Kerry’s Dark Sky Reserve, County Tyrone’s Om Dark Sky Park, which includes the popular Stars and Stones experience combining aspects of astronomy and archaeology, in addition to the Mayo International Dark Sky Park located in the Wild Nephin Park in North Mayo.

Read More: Ireland's Weather and What to Expect on Your Visit

4. Attend a Festival or Other Special Event in December

There are numerous festivals happening across Ireland throughout the year and December is no different.

Here are some that you might want to add to your list of things to do.

Yulefest Kilkenny

This festival is a combination of food and craft events, special Christmas concerts, and other entertainment, making it a top festival destination if you are in the Kilkenny area in December.

an aerial view of a city December in Ireland
Kilkenny at Christmas. Photo: Yulefest Kilkenny Facebook.

Some festival favorites include the Elf Village in Castlecomer Discovery Park and a crafts market at the popular Rothe House.

Since the 2023 festival program has not yet been released, you might want to follow the Yuletide Festival Facebook page for updates.

The festival usually begins at the end of November and runs through the end of December.

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Portmagee Old Year Festival

For close to 200 years, the residents of Portmagee in County Kerry have welcomed the New Year in the most unusual of ways.

The event is centered around a street parade led by a piper with blazing turf torches in his hand and a local resident dressed as the “Old Year.”

As it gets closer to midnight on Dec. 31st, the Old Year man becomes increasingly bent and aged in appearance until, on the stroke of midnight, a shot rings out and he collapses, apparently dead.

A vibrant young man depicting the “New Year” appears and takes over the parade, greeting the locals as he passes.

The free festival harks back to a tradition that first began in 1727 when a French ship arrived at the local port on New Year’s Eve parading through the town in the same way.

a town by the harbor December in Ireland
A view of Portmagee at night. Photo: Fedev.

If your December in Ireland winter break involves delving into history and heritage, there is a wealth of castles, manors, museums, and exhibitions to explore across the island.

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Georgian Christmastide at Castle Ward

Experience an 18th-century Christmas just like the residents of the Georgian-style Castle Ward in Co. Down.

Atmospheric lighting promises to accentuate the interior of this beautiful house, and the halls, decked out in colorful historical garlands, will surely add to the festive atmosphere.

three women dressed up in costume December in Ireland
Living history actors play the part of servants, part of the Castle Ward Georgian Christmastide celebration. Photo: Castle Ward – National Trust Facebook.

Living history actors will take you to the servants’ quarters in the basement of Castle Ward, where preparations for Christmas took place, as well as the stable yard, which will also be decorated in appropriate Georgian holiday fashion.

Dates for the 2023 event have not yet been released. Last year's event took place from Dec. 2nd through Dec. 11th.

Regular admission charges to the house apply but the event itself is free to attend.

Dublin’s New Year Festival

Not to be confined to a New Year’s Eve celebration, this 2-day event includes an open-air countdown concert in College Green, a procession of light through the streets of Dublin, complete with street performers and dancers.

people holding a large clock December in Ireland
Costumed performers officially launch Dublin's New Year's Eve Festival. Photo courtesy Failte Ireland.

Stay tuned to the festival website to learn more about this year’s program of events.

Mussenden Carol Concerts

What better place to hear holiday sounds than at the iconic Mussenden Temple on the County Derry coastline?

a building on a cliff December in Ireland
The Mussenden Temple in Co. Derry. Photo: Emanuele Bresciari for Getty Images.

In mid-December, a selection of Christmas carols are performed at Mussenden by Counterpoint, a local choir based in nearby Coleraine.

You can expect to hear a selection of songs from the sacred to the secular, and from classical to pop.

The event also includes solo voice and instrumental pieces, as well as Christmas readings.

5. Enjoy an Indoor Attraction

Given the cool, damp weather at this time of year, along with much shorter days, indoor attractions are always a good idea to include on your itinerary if you are planning to spend December in Ireland.

Below are some that you should consider.

Marsh’s Library, Dublin

If you find yourself in Dublin, you simply must visit Marsh’s Library, the oldest library in Ireland.

Founded in 1707, the library holds about 25,000 books from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries along with 300 manuscripts and 80 additional books written before 1501.

a library December in Ireland
If you plan to spend December in Ireland, plan on visiting Marsh's Library in Dublin. Photo: James Fennell Tourism Ireland.

The collection covers medicine, law, science, travel, navigation, mathematics, music, surveying, theology, and classical literature.

Admission is €5 for adults and €3 for students. Children under 18 are admitted free, or you can purchase a joint ticket for €11 that will get you into the library and St. Patrick’s Cathedral next door.

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The Books of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin

No visit to Ireland is complete without visiting the Old Library Building at Trinity College where the famous Book of Kells is housed.

sign Book of Kells
Entry sign pointing to the Book of Kells Exhibition, Trinity College. Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

The 9th-century manuscript features a beautiful combination of Latin text and intricate illuminations. Before visiting, know that many of the books in the old library have been moved due to an ongoing restoration project.

Cobh Heritage Centre, Cobh, Co. Cork

If your ancestors traveled from Ireland to North America between 1815 and 1970, they likely left from Cobh on Ireland’s southern coast.

a cafe December in Ireland
The Cobh Heritage Centre. Photo: Peter Craine, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9364079

At the Cobh Heritage Centre, you’ll learn about the maritime, naval, and military history of the area and hear the stories of early emigrants who left from Cobh for the Virginias, the Carolinas, and Canada, as well as those who were forcefully shipped to the West Indies during the 1600s.

three statues December in Ireland
The statue of Annie Moore and her brothers on the harbor at Cobh. Photo: Courtesy Catherine Crowley for Failte Ireland.

Outside the center, you’ll see a statue of Annie Moore and her brothers, who were the first Irish emigrants to be processed at New York’s Ellis Island.

Cobh is also where the Titanic made the last stop on its fateful journey to New York and off the coast, the Lusitania was shot down in 1915.

Read More: Titanic’s Last Port of Call: Queenstown (Cobh) in County Cork

The National Famine Museum

If you want to get an accurate account of the harrowing period in Irish history called The Great Irish Famine, you’ll want to visit the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon.

a museum display December in Ireland
One of the new exhibitions at the National Famine Museum in Roscommon. Photo: National Famine Museum Facebook.

The newly revamped museum is the perfect place to spend a few hours on a cold December day in Ireland.

The interactive museum is part of Strokestown Park House, a Palladian-style mansion that was once the property of landlord Major Denis Mahon.

a dining room December in Ireland
One of the rooms in Strokestown House. Photo: Chris Hill, Tourism Ireland.

During your visit, you’ll find out more about the lives of luxury that Mahon and his family lived compared to that of his starving tenants.

6. Spend a few hours in an Irish Pub

If relaxing by an open fire seems like a good idea on a cold winter’s evening, you’re in the perfect country for it.

Ireland has more than 10,000 pubs by some estimates, which are popular with locals and visitors alike.

a sign on a building December in Ireland
People gather outside Sean's Bar in Athlone, Ireland's oldest pub. Photo: Chris Hill, Failte Ireland/Tourism Ireland.

If you’re traveling from Dublin to Galway, be sure to stop at Sean’s Bar in Athlone for a warm toddy (the pub has its own brand of whiskey) or a pint of Guinness.

Sean’s Bar is reputed to be the oldest pub in Ireland, with evidence showing that it was established as far back as 900 A.D.

The pub is as authentic as it gets, with an old-style bar, open fireplace, floors covered in sawdust, and walls that display the many artifacts found in the building and its surroundings over the years, as well as other memorabilia.

Dublin is full of authentic pubs.

If you want one with a real turf fire, you’ll find it at Arthur’s Pub in the heart of the Liberties.

a large building in a city December in Ireland
The exterior of Arthur's Pub, Dublin. Photo: William Murphy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

A fire is lit every day at the 200-year-old establishment, which is located beside St. Catherine’s Church where Irish patriot Robert Emmet was hung, drawn, and quartered in 1803.

You can enjoy an eclectic mix of Irish traditional music, as well as blues and jazz at this popular Dublin watering hole.

The kitchen is, however, closed until the spring of 2023 but toasted sandwiches are available during the day from a nearby restaurant.

A trad session at the Cobblestone Pub in Dublin. Photo: Giuseppe Milo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

There is no TV in Arthur’s Pub, so you can be sure to fully soak in the old-world atmosphere without the distractions of the modern world.

Other pubs in Dublin noted for their excellent trad sessions — and a great way to spend a December afternoon — include the Cobblestone in Dublin's Smithfield neighborhood; Devitt's of Camden Street; and O'Donoghues Bar on Merrion Row.

If you’re in Sligo for a couple of days, you must visit the old-style Hargadon Bros pub established in 1868.

This Sligo landmark is the perfect place to hide away for a few hours in front of a cozy turf fire.

a pub December in Ireland
The interior of Hargadon's Pub in Sligo. Hargadon's is the perfect place to visit if you're planning to spend December in Ireland. Photo courtesy of Hargadon's.

There are several intimate booths located throughout this rather long pub that is perfect for a chat and a pint of Guinness or a glass of the restaurant’s own wine from its vineyard in the South of France.

And of course, there’s an open fire too if you can get a seat close to it.

The simple Bangers ‘n Mash at Hargadon's with an artful touch. Photo courtesy of Hargadons Facebook.

Hargadon’s also serves up an array of delicious food, so be sure to grab a bite while you’re there.

The pub was Sligo’s only entry in the Michelin Guide “Eating Out in Pubs 2021.”

Are you planning to spend December in Ireland? Let me know in the comments below.

colette

Colette is a County Sligo native who created Ireland on a Budget to provide her readers with money-saving tips on how to get to Ireland and then save even more when they're there. She's a professional copywriter who lives in the New York area with her husband and two children.

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