Ireland is the magical emerald isle that I return to over and over again (sometimes twice a year!). It's all about the people and the landscapes that take your breath away, along with some of the best hotels and B&B's in the world. I've taken trips with my family, and also worked in Ireland on assignment with National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow. I fall for Ireland even more every time I go. I even love Dublin now - the first few times I went, I thought it was....fine. After really spending time there researching, interviewing, and exploring, I really did fall for Dublin. The most magical parts of Ireland are still outside of Dublin. Rent a car, and get ready for some of the most beautiful countryside you've ever seen.
EAT & DRINK
The Fumbally: My favorite spot for breakfast or lunch - off-the-beaten-path in a Dublin kind of way, which means a ten-minute walk from the center.
Dunne & Crescenzi - Wonderful crowded, happy spot for a classic Italian dinner in Dublin. Great wine list.
Queen of Tarts: Comfortably cozy, exceptionally cheerful space that serves crazy good carrot cake and tons of other treats from tiered trays piled up. Say hi to the "queen" herself, red-headed beauty Regina Fallon. Everything is made daily, in-house and there is also great sandwiches and crisp salads. I like the more spacious Cows Lane location - the original is just a two-minute away at 4 Cork Hill.
Murphy's Ice Cream: Addictive ice cream, handmade in Dingle with organic sugar and free-range eggs. Try special only-in-Ireland varieties like "Dingle Sea Salt" and "Toasted Irish Oats." Owned by delightful brothers Kieran and Sean! Central Bar at The Library Hotel:
Stag's Head: Classic, Victorian-era Irish pub. Always a great time.
Roasted Brown: Dublin's coffee culture is booming and this is a great place to explore it, a quiet spot on the second floor of Filmbase, amid the chaos of Temple Bar.
Etto: Small, convivial wine bar with great food like a meatball ragu & mozzarella sandwich with tomato, fennel, and marjoram soup. Loved coming here for lunch.
Fallon & Byrne: Multi-level epicurean paradise, coffee shop, and gourmet food hall housed in an Art Deco telephone exchange building.
Mulligan's Stoneybatter: Located in Stoneybatter, a short cab ride from the center, this gastropub focuses on great eats, craft beer and a very locals-only crowd.
Trocadero: Good for late-night eats, this glamorous restaurant serves classic steakhouse fare to the theater crowd and locals in a dimly lit Art Deco lair.
Forest Avenue: One of Dublin's most exciting new additions, a ten-minute cab ride from the city center in Ballsbridge. Inviting, open space and fine dining without an ounce of pretension.
Bewley's: You really can't come to Dublin without passing by Bewley's - it's smack dab in the center of busy Grafton Street. But even though it's super touristy, the food and coffee are great. Come for breakfast and get a window near the building's stained glass windows, from 1931 (Note: The website says the cafe is closed for refurbishment & will reopen sometime in 2016).
Library Bar at the Central Hotel - Tucked away on the second floor of the Central Hotel, this is a surprising local hot spot. The setting is gorgeous - plush red drapery, green walls, and dark wood panels. One of my favorite places for a grown-up drink in Dublin.
La Maison - Cozy French bistro on Castle Market Street. Sit on the second floor so you can watch people pass you by below.
Cobblestone Pub - For the best in traditional Irish music, try this spot, a short cab ride from the center of Dublin in the neighborhood of Smithfield. After 7pm, you'll hear locals on fiddles and harps, and the Guinness will be flowing.
Dublin's Coastal Villages
I discovered these villages while writing stories for NatGeo. Many are idyllic suburbs where Dublin families choose to live. They are easily accessible with the DART train from Dublin.
Howth - 25 minutes north of Dublin, this is a centuries-old fishing village that is now very popular in the summer, with lots of restaurants on the pier and the 800-year-old Howth Castle. I visited on a rainy day and we took cover at Nicky's Plaice, a fresh fish shop. If you meet Martin McLouglin, you've met the person you need to know in Howth. He is the son of Nicky and his family has lived in Howth for 200 years.
Sandycove - Located south of Dublin, this town is known for its James Joyce connection, as it has the tower where Joyce spent six nights in 1904. The tower is known for its appearance in the opening of Ulysses, published in 1922. You'll probably also meet some nutty swimmers at Forty Foot, the area where several people swim every day. Eat at Cavistons Glasthule, a charming restaurant with the freshest fish. There is also a gourmet food shop next door.
Dalkey - We walked here from Sandycove, but it's probably easier with a car. It's one of Dublin's swankiest suburbs and an adorable town. Eat at Finnegan's, where Michelle Obama and her daughters ate fish and chips with Bono. We also walked to Sorrento Park, a wild and overgrown space that is totally off the beaten path, but has an incredible view of the coast. It's in the middle of a fancy neighborhood, and probably not interesting to most visitors. But I felt like I had discovered something really special.
A Short drive from Dublin
Glendalough - About thirty minutes outside of Dublin is this absolutely stunning park. You park at the Visitor's Center for free (skip the movie inside) and take a beautiful hike through the "valley of the two lakes." Allow a couple of hours to walk to the Upper Lake and to explore the monastic settlements that have stood here for over a thousand years. To get here, pick up the Military Road to reach Glendalough - it is one of the most charming drives through the Wicklow Mountains and picture-perfect Irish farms, lakes, and little towns.
Enniskerry - I've visited this picture-perfect town a few times now and loved stopping for lunch after Glendalough. This is an ideal day trip from Dublin if you want to get away for just a bit - you get a real taste for the Irish countryside by exploring the Powerscourt Estate, gardens, and waterfall, and stopping for lunch in Enniskerry. Poppies is our favorite for breakfast or lunch - great sandwiches, quiches, and vegetables. If you feel like ice cream, try a cone from the adorable Sugar & Ice near the town clock. Ever see the movie Leap Year, with Amy Adams? You'll recognize Enniskerry and Poppies, from the scene where they miss the bus. The entire Powerscourt area has been the backdrop for many movies, for how beautifully Irish it is. I've stayed at the Powerscourt Hotel (back when it was a Ritz-Carlton) and it makes for a lovely two-night stay, so close to Dublin.
The Westbury Hotel: The location is absolutely perfect - just off Grafton Street, so right in the middle of it all, but removed so it's super quiet. The second-floor lobby is gorgeous and relaxing - I loved sitting by the fireplace.
The Merrion: Come for tea if you don't stay - this is a gorgeous property housed in four former Georgian townhouses.
Number 31: A beautiful, quiet boutique hotel.
National Botanic Gardens of Ireland - If you have nice weather, hop in a cab and come here. Entry is free! The gardens are so beautiful and there are also exhibits like "Wild Ireland," which is overflowing with native Irish plants. Around the corner is one of Dublin's most authentic pubs, John Kavanagh (known as Grave Diggers due to its proximity to Glasnevin Cemetery). Eugene Kavanagh is the sixth generation of his family to own and operate the pub.
Winding Stair Bookshop: Located right near the famous Ha'penny Bridge, this bookshop is named for a William Butler Yeats poem. The second-floor restaurant is a great option for lunch with a view overlooking the River Liffey and the bridge.
St. Stephen's Green: Dublin's version of Central Park is so bucolic and lovely, located adjacent to Grafton Street. It's small and easily walkable - I love the swans swimming in all the ponds.
Little Museum of Dublin: The best part of this museum is the U2 exhibit, which chronicles the Irish band's rise to worldwide fame. It's housed in a townhouse next to St. Stephen's Green.
Sweny's Pharmacy: This is a true time capsule, a tiny jumble of apothecary bottles and old books. Go at 1pm on a weekday to hear a reading from one of James Joyce's works or just wander in and enjoy the atmosphere. It was actually a pharmacy for 150 years and now it's run by volunteers as a small shop. It's absolutely unique to Dublin.
Dublin, especially on Grafton Street, has its share of chain stores that can make the city feel very similar to other European cities. But I found some great new-to-me shops in Dublin that are centered around Irish design and products.
Avoca - Wonderful Irish department store that has been hand-weaving throws, rugs, scarves and more at their mill in County Wicklow (the same way it has been done since 1723!). Here, it is all about pure Irish tradition and heritage. There are several locations around the country, but I love the Dublin location for its top-floor cafe, its "hidden" garden and the gourmet food hall on the bottom floor. It's a wonderful place to browse and find a great gift that you can only find in Ireland, just off the madness of Grafton Street.
Kilkenny Design Centre - This is the most touristy of the bunch, but it's still worth a stop. It's a large store with a wide range of Irish designers and well-known Irish products like Waterford crystal.
Industry - If I lived in Dublin, I would dream of buying everything for my apartment here. It's just cool and gorgeous, with a range of new, upcycled or vintage items from all over the world.
Irish Design Shop - I absolutely loved this shop and Catherine Karnow shot here for our National Geographic assignment.
Jam Art Gallery - Focused exclusively on Irish art, this is a tiny, fun shop to stop by for a few minutes. There are two locations - the one on Patrick Street that I visited and a newer one in Temple Bar, closer to the tourist center. They're incredibly nice here!
Daintree Paper - There is a cute little coffee and cake place I liked called The Cake Cafe in Dublin and we walked through this cool paper shop next door as we were leaving. You'll see brides-to-be designing their wedding invites or moms creating baby shower invites so it's a nice snapshot of local life. The papers are gorgeous and you might pick up a sheet or two. The paper is also ethically sourced, something that you never hear about when it comes to paper (food and clothes? yes. But paper? not really).
Powerscourt Centre - This place blew me away because I never knew it existed! I love visiting Powerscourt Estate outside of Dublin, and this gorgeous mansion was the family's city home, now a collection of shops and restaurants called Powerscourt Centre. You walk in and are greeted with lovely fresh flowers for sale, and a sign detailing the history of the mansion. From there, there are a few levels of shops to explore. My favorite shop was Article on the first floor for cool European design - when you go in, look up at the ceiling to see the designs of the former sitting room. Upstairs, you can explore the bridal shop and salon and see the architecture of the former ballroom.
Cow's Lane Design Studio - Close to adorable cafe Queen of Tarts, Cow's Lane Designer Studio is run by a group of independent artists that switch off working at the shop. There is a wide range of jewelry, artwork, clothes and scarves, hand-poured candles and other fun items that might strike your fancy. Every Saturday, they host the Cow's Lane Designer Mart, featuring many of the artists that have products in the shop.
The rugged beauty of the Dingle Peninsula has long lured people to this remote locale on Ireland’s southwestern coast. And it’s due to this isolation that the area’s rich cultural heritage and ancient archaeological treasures have been exceptionally well preserved. Today, there’s a resurgence of families who are opting to raise children and open small businesses in the town of Dingle and beyond, giving this long-inhabited peninsula fresh energy and relevance. Creative types—jewelers, potters, weavers, and the like—lend an incredible artistic spirit to the town.
Visit Holden Leather Goods for handmade bags, belts, and accessories in town. But drive five minutes from downtown Dingle and you can tour the workshop where they’re made, housed in a stone schoolhouse overlooking the harbor. If you’re lucky like me, owner and designer Conor Holden will greet you with a hot cup of coffee and quick Irish wit when you arrive. In the end, I took home two exquisitely crafted bags made by Conor that will forever remind me of Dingle.
Murphy's Ice Cream (one of my favorite stops in Dublin) is made here and you have to visit the local shop.
Eat at Ashe's, a local favorite. I loved the curried mussels.
You have to do the Slea Head Drive (which begins and ends in Dingle) for the views, but don't miss popular pub TP's for lunch, just slightly off of the drive.
I stumbled upon the newly opened Dingle Cookery School, which offers classes with titles like “Spiced Beef and Chutney” and “Catch and Cook”—perfect for foodie enthusiasts who like hands-on experiences.
I absolutely loved staying at Pax House, with incredible views over the bright green Irish landscape (on a good day) and a wonderfully hospitable owner, John O'Farrell. My family also loves Heaton's Guesthouse. No matter what, book far in advance to get the best B&B's in Dingle.
More on National Geographic: Just Back from Ireland's Dingle Peninsula
GALWAY & THE WEST
Petra House B&B - I can still hear Frank Maher’s voice at the Petra House Bed & Breakfast in Galway. “Der we go now,” he would say as he placed a warm plate of homemade scones next to bowls of oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit while his wife, Joan, rambled around the kitchen, the scent of coffee and baked goods wafting through the air. Together, they have run Petra House, which doubles as their family home (which Frank built himself), for more than 20 years.
I could listen to Frank talk all day, peppering his stories with phrases like “They’ve been through the rough and tumble of life” or “We all mucked into it.” I’ve taken another one of Frank’s simple sayings with me along the way: “It’s nice to be nice.”
Here, rooms are comfortable but simple. There is no spa, fitness center, or Michelin-starred restaurant. But it is an incredible welcome to the west of Ireland.
Moran's Oyster Cottage - It's all about the setting here, a 30-minute drive from Galway. Housed in an old thatched roof cottage, Moran's is one of the most beloved restaurants in Ireland and there are a lot more than just oysters on the menu. Come while it's still light and watch the sun set over the water.
Connemara - This is one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland. From Galway, you can do a day-long drive on a loop, or choose to stay in some of the best hotels. Drive to Cong in County Mayo and stop at Ashford Castle, one of the greatest places I've ever stayed. Drive to Kylemore Abbey to see the beautiful Victorian Walled Garden and down to the cute town of Clifden, where I've stayed at the charming Quay House B&B before. From here, you hug the coast back into Galway. If you can, I highly recommend splurging on Ashford Castle - they did a huge renovation and it's absolutely stunning.
Aran Islands - There are three: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer, all with a harsh beauty and steep cliffs. For a day trip, take a morning ferry to Inishmore and return to Galway that evening. I went with my aunt, uncle, and several of their friends and we all rented bikes and stopped for lunch. There is very little "to do" but the views and sense of remote isolation are absolutely worth it.
Rathbaun Farm - One of my favorite stops in Ireland, this is a charming farm with the best scones, tea, and setting.
Adare - One of those picture-perfect Irish villages. Adare Manor is a gorgeous place to stop, eat, or just admire the grounds, and they will reopen in fall 2017 after a massive renovation.. If you stay overnight, also look into staying at Dunraven Arms, right on the main street in town. I like Aunty Lena's pub for a casual lunch or dinner.
KILLARNEY & KENMARE
Sheen Falls Lodge - If I think back to my room here, I remember dark pink carpet and a flowery headboard. The design and decor definitely needed refreshing when I was there. But the setting and grounds are incredible, and so is the breakfast. I would stay again if the rooms were renovated.
Park Hotel Kenmare - I did a spa treatment here and loved the property and spa so much. It's also a lovely place to come for drinks next to the fireplace, and I'd consider staying here on my next trip to Kenmare.
The Lime Tree - The most wonderful, cozy, delicious restaurant. I had dinner here during a torrential downpour and it was the most welcoming place to be.
Nicholas Mosse Irish Country Shop: Just outside the buzzy little town of Kilkenny is this gorgeous two-floor pottery shop: Nicholas Mosse. It makes you want to host afternoon tea at your house, and buy mugs with hand painted sheep on them. Have lunch or tea in the upstairs cafe (their quiches are delicious) and check out the 'seconds' area - pottery with ever-so-slight imperfections.
Mount Juliet Estate: A lovely, welcoming, luxury country hotel (it was a family home until 1989) set in the gorgeous Irish countryside of Country Kilkenny.