The Perfect 7-Day Ireland Road Trip: Hidden Gems
Every year my parents and I try to take a trip together, and a few years ago we took what is still probably our favorite trip to-date—a 7-day roadtrip through the Republic of Ireland.
Over the course of a week we saw breathtaking scenery, ate our body weight in great pub food (and good beer), stayed in charming B&Bs, and explored some of the more under-the-radar best spots Ireland has to offer.
To do it properly, a car is definitely necessary (it IS a roadtrip, after all). If you’re only visiting the main cities then you can potentially get by with public transportation (or join a group tour), but if you’re wanting to go off the beaten path then a car is necessary. More on renting a car and driving in Ireland at the end of the post!
Putting together a full road trip in a foreign country can be daunting, and it’s so hard to choose which things to see and make sure you build in enough flexibility to discover new things on your own. So I’ve outlined how we created our 7-day Ireland itinerary and why I made the choices I did. Hopefully the pics are inspirational and the details super helpful in planning your own adventure!
Why we chose what we chose
We visited in early August, which is still very much in peak tourist season (though on the tail-end). I kept reading all these horror stories about tiny roads congested with tour buses and crowds at big sights such as the Cliffs of Moher preventing people from getting decent pics, and so I planned a different kind of trip.
As I did my research, I basically looked for hidden gems. My goal was to see some of the best of Ireland, but a little off the beaten path. That doesn’t mean they’re hard to get to or super remote in most cases, just that they’re not the most well-known routes or stops, so you’ll get to see a less-crowded side of the country. Also, my parents are not so much city people, so our focus was on finding gorgeous scenery and enjoying pieces of history and culture as well—so we skipped Galway, Waterford, etc.
A 7 day Ireland itinerary for scenery
- Day 1: Arrive in Dublin, pick up your rental car, and hit the road toward Kilkenny
- Day 2: Kilkenny to Sheeps Head Peninsula to Kenmare
- Day 3: Beara Peninsula (back to Kenmare)
- Day 4: Dingle Peninsula, up to Kilkee and Loop Head
- Day 5: Driving across the country (including Clonmacnoise) back to Dublin (turn in rental car)
- Day 6: Dublin
- Day 7: Fly home
I’ve included a section on tips for driving in Ireland at the bottom of the post.
We flew into Dublin and ended back up there at the end of the week, making a big loop. Getting our rental car was a three-hour fiasco because the company wouldn’t accept my insurance waiver (pro tip: make sure you have a copy printed out from your credit card company, if that’s what you’re using).
But we finally hit the road and headed toward Kilkenny, in County Kilkenny. It’s an easy drive, could easily be done as a day trip from Dublin. But Kilkenny is so great that I think it deserves an overnight as well.
Kilkenny is a small (about 25,000 people) medieval town that came to prominence during the Norman occupation and offers tons of religious history, incredibly well-preserved medieval architecture, the Smithwicks brewery, and charm in abundance. It often gets overlooked but I recommend its inclusion in any Irish roadtrip itinerary.
We stayed at an awesome B&B, Rosquil House, and it was our favorite of the entire trip. Phil and Rhoda are so nice and welcoming, and the food was great!
Read more about our stay in Kilkenny, Ireland
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Despite its size, Kilkenny has tons to keep you occupied. A visit to Kilkenny Castle is a must, for starters. The Norman castle was built in 1195 and played a major role in the town’s defenses. When they restored it they put in an 1830s setting (which I think means the landscaping and grounds?).
Another place you have to stop by is St. Canice’s Cathedral (also called Kilkenny Cathedral). The church itself dates back to the 13th century, but the round tower is actually from the 900s. Going even further back, the site it stands on was used for Christian worship back to the 6th century. For a fee, you can climb the 102 steps in the tower and get a pretty great 360-degree view of Kilkenny and the surrounding countryside. Fun fact: St. Canice’s is the second-longest cathedral in Ireland, beat only by St. Patrick’s in Dublin.
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And don’t overlook some of the great sites right around Kilkenny. Nearby Thomastown offers up Jerpoint Abbey (also 12th century, and likely built over an earlier Benedictine monastery). It’s about an easy half-hour drive through very pretty scenery, including a number of pull-outs where you can stop and see other ruins along the way. The abbey is famous for its stone carvings, and is really great to walk around in on a beautiful day. The charming close-by town of Inistoge is great for a stroll and bite to eat as well.
Day 2: Kilkenny to Sheeps Head Peninsula to Kenmare
After a lovely breakfast and a couple hours exploring Kilkenny in the morning, we hit the road westward, with the ultimate goal of exploring the Sheeps Head Peninsula and ending up in Kenmare for the night. We drove through Cashel not too long after leaving Kilkenny, and considered stopping at the famous Rock of Cashel.
Ultimately we just felt it was weirdly touristy and not worth our time, but we spent an enjoyable 45 minutes or so in the town itself, seeing some of the ruins just sprinkled around and having a (delish) muffin and coffee.
The Sheeps Head Peninsula was probably the most off-the-beaten-path thing we did (maybe tied with Loop Head), and if you were going to cut something from your itinerary it could be this. It’s fairly small, didn’t take a ton of time, but had beautiful, moody seascapes and we had the place to ourselves. Worth a visit if you can squeeze it in. It was sadly a kind of gray day, but still gorgeous.
We stayed at the delightful Rockcrest B&B in colorful Kenmare for this night and the next, and used it as a central base for visiting both the Beara and Dingle Peninsulas.
Also called the Ring of Beara, this was my parents’ favorite part of the entire trip, and it’s easy to see why. In my pre-trip research, the Beara Peninsula almost never appeared on people’s itineraries, but whenever I did find it mentioned, people RAVED about it. Because it wasn’t well-known, there was nary a tour bus in sight, yet it was still super easy to get to.
Read more about the Beara Peninsula and the route we took!
(Side note, I realize that I accidentally had a high-saturation filter on my camera during this trip, but I will say that this is also kind of what the colors look like in real life so WE ALL WIN.)
The scenery all along the drive is breathtaking, and it’s so interesting because it changes dramatically over the course of the drive. From stereotypical green hills and patchwork fields to crashing blue waves to hidden waterfalls, you get some of everything on this route. Make sure to stop in Eyeries for a bite to eat or a coffee.
If you want to, and have the time, you can take the Dursey Cable Car over to Dursey Island for beautiful views and a nice little walk around. We were short on time, but it would have been a gorgeous day for it.
One thing you should make sure to do (assuming good visibility) is wind your way up switchbacks to Healy Pass, one of Ireland’s great drives. The pass is in the Caha Mountains and cuts through the middle of the peninsula. You’ll get great views!
We used the Dingle Peninsula as our Ring of Kerry substitute, and we absolutely loved it!! It’s really centrally located (we based ourselves in Kenmare to visit both Beara and Dingle), and while it certainly had slightly more crowded roads than Beara, it was still pretty tame.
Dingle is the main the town, and a great place to stop for lunch—most of the other towns in the peninsula are a lot smaller. We had a great lunch at Deidre’s Cafe (the best fish & chips I had the whole trip)! I think it’s cash-only, as a heads up.
The peninsula is 30-40 miles around (depending on your route), and only about 10 miles across, but they can be a harrowing 10 miles! As with all things in Ireland, don’t be fooled by short distances, because the drive will take you a lot longer—between narrow roads, traffic, and stopping 927 times to take pictures. After hitting Inch Beach and then Dingle, you’ll head out around Slea Head Loop.
The Dingle Peninsula is one of the areas known for holding tight to the old Gaelic language and ways, so the signs and a lot of what you’ll hear spoken is in the old Gaelic.
There are dozens and dozens of interesting ruins and other historical things of note on the Dingle Peninsula, but if you’re going to pick just one, it has to be the Gallarus Oratory (Dun Beag might be #2). It dates to somewhere between the 6th and 9th centuries and is super cool.
Our last major “stop” of the day was Conor Pass. It’s the highest in Ireland and has CRAZY views, but will only be worth your time if it’s a pretty clear day. I’d probably skip it otherwise (plus, driving it in fog would be pretty stressful). The drive winds through narrow passes and steep drop-offs, cresting at around 1,300 feet with a great valley dotted with lakes.
Make sure to give yourself plenty of time and really watch for other drivers…it’s effectively a one-lane road (one and a half if you’re being generous), so your drive will entail pulling over frequently and letting others pass going the opposite direction.
Loop Head & Kilkee
Once we came around the Dingle Peninsula, we headed up north toward Tarbert and took the ferry across to Kilkee to visit the cliffs and lighthouse of Loop Head. This truly is a less-known option and we were using it as a Cliffs of Moher alternative. We just didn’t want to have to fight the crowds at Moher and have gobs of people in our pics. I’m still bummed I didn’t see the Cliffs of Moher, but we had the entire Loop Head area to ourselves at sunset, and that was totally amazing.
More on why Loop Head is a great Cliffs of Moher alternative
No one around and no safety rails 🙂 We had our own photo shoot, including setting up a tripod to get a family pic!
This is one that I can’t tell you for sure was the right alternative, or if we should have just sucked it up and done the Cliffs of Moher. But Loop Head was a beautiful, peaceful stop on our trip that gave us as much chill time as we wanted.
A stop at Clonmacnoise Monastery
From Kilkee, we headed out the next morning toward Dublin. This is a super easy drive on major highways, and while there are several stops you could make along the way we focused on Clonmacnoise Monastery. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because it’s an easy stop to add—it’s right off the highway, about halfway between Galway and Dublin.
Clonmacnoise is an ancient monastic site dating back to the mid-6th century AD. Founded by St. Ciaran around 544 AD, it became a major center of learning, religion, craftsmanship, and trade during the Golden Age of Learning in Ireland (roughly 6th through 9th century), and several famous historical texts were written here as well, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries. It’s very well-preserved and you can see a lot of different elements all in one visit, including three high crosses, the cathedral ruins, seven churches (from about the 10th-13th centuries), two round towers, and tons of very old grave slabs and tombstones.
Read more on planning your stop at Clonmacnoise Monastery
From Clonmacnoise it’s an easy drive back to Dublin. We went to the airport first, dropped off the rental car, and then took a cab into the city and got settled in our hotel (Buswells Hotel, which was lovely and affordable). Dublin is one of those places that just grabs your heart from the first minute and carves itself a little place in there forever. I’ll tell you some of my favorite things here, but make sure to read the longer post on our stay there.
We only had a day in Dublin on this particular trip, so had to do a lot in a little time. We still didn’t feel rushed though…a lot of our time was less about specific things to do and more about just wandering the streets and soaking in the craic (fun, energy, liveliness) that this city exudes.
We made sure to start our day early with scones at Queen of Tarts, then head over to Temple Bar and walk around to get a sense of the vibe.
Explore the city from Temple Bar to O’Connell Street to St. Patrick’s to the River Liffey, and all the places in between. Take a tour at the Guinness Storehouse and learn how to pour a legit Guinness, or tour the Jameson Distillery if time allows (shameless work-related plug, there’s a gorgeous castle and distillery called Slane about half an hour away from Dublin that you should also check out!).
Head over to see the sad history at Kilmainham Gaol (jail), go see St. Stephen’s Green and Trinity College (the library is insane, one of the best in the world), and make sure not to forget Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Also eating…get you a steak and Guinness pie, some fish and chips, and a Smithwicks or Guinness to wash it down.
You can definitely do TONS in Dublin in a day, but I loved it so much I wish I’d had another day or two. I got to return in 2019 and developed the more detailed guide to a weekend in Dublin!
Tips for driving in Ireland
If you’re not used to driving on the left, or on very narrow, bumpy roads, then Ireland will be a bit of an experience. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! But you should make sure whoever is driving is a confident, patient, and alert driver. Obviously they drive on the left side of the road, which takes getting used to in itself. Even when you think you’ve got it, turning is often the main thing that trips people up (which lane to turn into). Just give yourself a sec and visualize, and you’ll do great.
Also note for rental car purposes, most cars are manual (stick shift), so if you need an automatic—I do—you’ll need to choose that intentionally and it’ll cost more. But definitely go that route unless you’re a very skilled manual car driver, as driving both on the left and using stick shift together can be very challenging.
Many of the roads in Ireland are super narrow one-lane roads with short walls on either side (no shoulder), scratchy brambles, and other things that can really rough up your car. One of the things that really stuck out to me about driving in Ireland was that people were pretty considerate and patient, giving way to each other and taking turns. Just take your time and take your cues from the other drivers in terms of which direction is yielding to whom and don’t get antsy. Sometimes we saw whole lines of cars pulled over to the side where they could find a bit of shoulder to let the other side pass.
So hopefully I’ve provided helpful tips and inspiration for a 7-day Ireland itinerary…a week can get your so much in a country this size!! If you have any questions as you’re building your own itinerary, hit me up in the comments!
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