30 Free Things to Do in Ireland
Though Ireland isn't typically known as a budget destination, the kind of temptingly low exchange rates and reasonable airfares that appeal to budget travelers may put it on the radar. But if you need to partake in many of Ireland's most popular tourist activities, prepare to open your wallet. Fortunately, there is plenty to see and do in Ireland that won't cost you a euro – read on for 30 suggestions all over the country.
Visitors sticking close to Dublin can still get a taste of Ireland's rugged scenery on the Howth Cliff Walk, about 30 minutes outside the city. The 3.7-mile loop affords lovely meadow and sea views and passes a picturesque lighthouse. Hikers can even spot the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, built in the 15th century.
Just a couple miles from central Dublin, you can see 300 endangered plant species, as well as six that are no longer seen in the wild, at the National Botanic Gardens. Wander among the extensive gardens and inside several Victorian-era glasshouses. Self-guided audio tours are available as podcasts for no charge.
If you have Irish roots, stop in at central Dublin's National Library of Ireland. Staffers will provide free assistance in your genealogical search on weekdays during business hours -– no appointment is needed. Also worth checking out: Exhibitions on William Butler Yeats and Ireland during World War I.
No need to take a costly guided tour of Dublin – grab your smartphone and download the Dublin Discovery trails app for free. It will guide you on five two-hour tours all based on a specific theme -- for instance, "Story of Dublin" will teach you about the city's early history, including its Viking roots.
It doesn't cost a dime for art lovers to gaze at the more than 15,000 masterpieces at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Big names include Fra Angelico, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and many more. The museum also provides free audio guides, including special kid-friendly ones for children ages 6 and up.
The name is somewhat misleading – Chester Beatty Library is as much a museum about books as it is a library. On the grounds of Dublin Castle, if houses a collection of Qurans dating from the 9th century and beyond, Egyptian papyrus texts, and a biblical fragment surpassed in age only by the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Housed inside the Newbridge Silverware Visitor Center, this museum lets visitors view clothes and memorabilia from silver-screen luminaries including Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly; music fans will get to see famous outfits of Michael Jackson and the Beatles. Admission is free, but visitors can opt for a paid guided tour, too.
Tucked in Wicklow Mountains National Park, the tranquil Glendalough Valley is home to a well-preserved monastic city with structures from the 10th through 12th centuries. Don't miss the round tower, ruined cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, and surrounding cemetery. It's also just a short walk to the picturesque Glendalough Upper Lake. (Note: A fee applies if you visit the on-site heritage center.)
Ireland's first lavender farm provides a lovely setting for a stroll in Wexford. Mapped routes of up to two hours begin in the lavender fields and wind through the nearby woods. Children will especially love spotting fairy doors built into some of the trees. A parking fee of two euros applies during June, July, and August.
Take an enchanting walk in the 40-acre Altamont Gardens, which features a long riverside stroll under mature trees. Visitors will find a mix of informal and formal gardens, including a walled garden. Highlights include exotic shrubbery, rhododendrons, azaleas, roses and much more. Guided tours are available for a fee.
Anyone who expects to see traditional Irish crafts at Kilkenny's National Craft Gallery will be sorely disappointed -- instead, it's a decidedly contemporary showcase where visitors will find glass, textiles, ceramics and much more. But the surroundings are certainly historic – the gallery is housed in what once was the stable yard of medieval Kilkenny Castle.
Not far from the spectacular Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary's Holy Cross Abbey beckons as an easier-on-the wallet attraction. It's free to visit this restored 12th century Cistercian church, and guided tours are available Wednesday and Sunday (donations are accepted). Sights include Ireland's oldest church bell, a whispering arch, and a dazzling variety of medieval window patterns.
County Cork's Drombeg Stone Circle is atmospheric in its own right, but its seaside setting makes it a must-see. The 17 standing stones, dated to as early as 153 BC, likely once surrounded a burial urn. Excavations at the site have uncovered bones and other artifacts. The circle may also have been used to mark the Winter Solstice.
Visitors will find a permanent collection of more than 2,500 works at Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. Highlights include a permanent collection of Greek and Roman sculpture casts from the Vatican. European paintings are also on display, and temporary exhibitions feature Irish art from all time periods.
Cork and Kerry
Though one of the most breathtaking drives in Ireland, the Healy Pass is often overlooked because it is on the Beara Peninsula instead of the more-traveled Kerry or Dingle Peninsula. But this winding mountain pass between Cork and Kerry offers spectacular panoramas at every turn. Watch for fog, mist, hairpin turns, and of course, errant sheep.
The Kerry Way is one of Ireland's most well-known trails, winding more than 120 miles around the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. Any part of the route will include spectacular scenery, but highlights include Killarney National Park and its Torc Waterfall, the charming town of Kenmare, and views of the rugged Skellig Islands, home to a monastic settlement dating to the 6th century.
Visitors hoping to explore Ireland's many crumbling stone attractions won't be disappointed with Quin Abbey, a ruined Franciscan abbey in County Clare built in the 14th and 15th centuries. Don't miss the extensive cloisters, atmospheric graveyard and bell tower, which visitors can climb for views of the surrounding countryside.
Warm-weather visitors shouldn't forget about Irish beaches. One of the best is Trá an Dóilín in County Galway, a ruggedly scenic beach popular for swimming and snorkeling because of its crystal-clear water. Though many say it's a coral beach, what's actually underfoot is maerl, the remains of a coralline algae. There are changing facilities and lifeguards during swimming months.
Wander the vibrant cobblestone streets of Galway, a popular harbor city on Ireland's west coast. Galway City Museum offers a free look at the city's medieval past, while the Salthill Promenade offers beautiful bay views and fresh sea breezes. Don't miss the Spanish Arch, frequently home to street musicians and performers, which dates to 1584.
Connemara National Park in County Galway is jammed full of every kind of scenery: Rugged mountains, sleepy bogs, extensive grasslands and quiet woodlands. Visitors may also spot the famous Connemara ponies, known for their kind nature and sturdy build. There are four marked trails on the park's Diamond Hill.
Croagh Patrick in County Mayo is known as Ireland's holiest mountain, and the trek to its summit is a pilgrimage with a history dating back 5,000 years. The climb takes about two hours, so sturdy footwear is advisable. Other sights include the National Famine Monument and the Boheh Stone, carved during the Neolithic era.
Ireland's largest island, Achill Island in County Mayo, can be accessed by bridge and boasts a wide range of sights. One must-see is a deserted village, Slievemore, which has around 100 crumbling stone cottages. And don't miss remote Keem Bay, where high cliffs plummet down to a sandy beach at the edge of the frigid Atlantic.
As its name suggests, this branch of the National Museum in County Mayo celebrates traditional Ireland, from folklore to traditional trades and crafts. Outside, visitors can spot one of the county's five surviving round towers and explore Victorian gardens. A free guidebook can be downloaded online.
Ireland is replete with castles, and nearly all have admission fees to offset the cost of maintenance. One exception is Doe Castle on Sheephaven Bay, which likely dates from the 1400s. Restoration work is ongoing, so some spots may be off limits, but guided tours of the imposing Tower House are available Fridays through Sundays in July and August.
The Cliffs of Moher are more famous, but the Slieve League cliffs in Donegal are taller -- and more importantly, free to visit. At their tallest point, it's nearly 2,000 feet down to the Atlantic Ocean. There are several designated viewing points, but there are also hikes closer to the edge for more daring souls.
The well-manicured gardens surrounding Glenveagh Castle stand in stark contrast to the more rugged beauty Donegal is known for. Visitors will find a dazzling display of rhododendrons from late March through May, but there is color any time during spring, summer and fall. Note that there is an admission fee for the nearby castle.
Visitors to Ireland's northern County Donegal will find Grianán of Aileach, a restored, well-preserved ring fort that originally dated to 1700 B.C. Likely constructed by pre-Celtic invaders as a burial monument, it was built without mortar and has three terraces inside. Views from this hilltop monument are sweeping.
Check out one of the largest water wheels in Ireland at Donegal's Newmills Corn and Flax Mills, open to visitors from late May through late September. The oldest building here has been around for 400 years, but the complex is still busy grinding locally grown grains including barley, maize, flax and oats. Guided tours are available.
The Hill of Tara rises dramatically from the surrounding countryside in County Meath, and access to its archaeological sites won't cost a dime. One highlight, a grassy tomb called the Mound of the Hostages, dates to 2500 B.C. The Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny, may have been a coronation stone for Ireland's ancient kings. (Note: A fee applies if you visit the on-site heritage center.)
"Free" might be stretching it, but ponying up for a Guinness in many pubs across Ireland will be your ticket for an evening of traditional music, otherwise known as a "session." Most sessions are informal gatherings of musicians that inspire toe-tapping, clapping and yes, even a jig or two. About.com maintains a list of well-known sessions across the country.