Music, culture and adventure: 10 must-do Ireland experiences

Eoin Higgins
Photograph: Michael Grubka/Alamy

Sip craft gin on a distillery tour
Ireland has no shortage of characterful bars where you can sip a pint of the black stuff, but there are also plenty of craft breweries and independent distilleries to explore. In County Donegal, you can learn how gin is made during a fascinating tour of An Dúlamán distillery, named after one of the seaweed botanical ingredients picked for its gin (under moonlight when the tidal conditions are just right). Combine your visit with a tour of nearby Slieve League in Teelin. Parking is available close to the viewing area, but a walk up to these dramatic, windswept cliffs is far more rewarding.

Cycle along a disused railway line
County Waterford’s Greenway cycle route is loved by serious and fair-weather cyclists alike. Bring your own bike or hire one – try Greenway Waterford Bike Hire or the Greenway Man. The route is a hearty 28 miles long but you can break it up into smaller treks and go at your own pace. There are a number of food and drink options lining the way, from fuss-free fish and chips by AndChips, to posh Michelin-starred tasting menus at Cliff House Hotel; or try chef Paul Flynn’s revered bistro, Tannery.

A hike to the dramatic, windswept cliffs of Slieve League in County Donegal is a rewarding experience. Photograph: Shutterstock
Durrow Viaduct, part of the Waterford Greenway. Photograph: Andrea Pistolesi/Getty
  • Slieve League, The Cliff House Hotel, and the Waterford Greenway

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Feel the energy at a traditional music session
Cork’s River Lee has long been a source of inspiration to musicians, and the Lee Sessions is one such example. Running since May 2011, the “sessions” (traditional Irish music played informally) play out weekly in cosy bars across the city. Venues include some of the city’s most atmospheric bars: the Corner House (on Coburg Street), the Oliver Plunkett (Oliver Plunkett Street), the Long Valley Bar (Winthrop Street) and many other musical nooks and crannies.

Get a nature fix
The pristine Strangford Lough and its lush hinterland in gorgeous County Down is an ideal location for those who wish to escape from hectic city life and recharge in the wilds of nature. Stroll along tranquil woodland paths, hike to coastal villages, or spot wildlife on a designated canoe trail with Clearsky Adventure Centre. The lough produces some of the finest seafood on the island of Ireland, from its Portavogie prawns to its revered scallops, so is a natural draw for foodies. The cosy Balloo House is a long-standing favourite, but for epicurean edge, book a table at sister restaurant Overwood, which recently partnered with Michelin-starred chef, Danni Barry.

Escape to the coast
Counties Galway and Mayo tend to dominate classic west coast itineraries of Ireland, but the hidden gem of Sligo is quietly emerging as a worthy contender. Its forests, rivers and lakes fired the imagination of poet William Butler Yeats, but there is so much more to do here than admire the scenery. At Strandhill, a scenic beach town overlooked by dramatic Ben Bulben, a perfect day starts with a surf lesson at Strandhill Surf School, followed by a muscle-soothing treatment at Voya Seaweed Baths, then a hearty and wholesome lunch at Shells Cafe.

Forage for dinner
Ireland’s 186,000 miles of hedgerow provide an abundance of readily available foraging opportunities. None more so than in the “Garden County”, Wicklow, just south of Dublin. Don’t know your woodruff from your three-cornered garlic? Then join forager Geraldine Kavanagh for a guided foraging walk, or attend one of her Weekend Wild Food and Herbal Medicine retreats to learn more about the abundance of wild fruits, flowers, herbs and fabulous fungi that are there for the taking.

Strangford Lough. Photograph: George Munday/Alamy
  • Noble restaurant, Holywood, Strangford Lough, and Phoenix Park in Dublin

Visit Seamus Heaney’s homeland
Northern Ireland’s best-known poet and Nobel prize in literature winner, the late Seamus Heaney, is honoured at the HomePlace in Bellaghy. View artefacts from the Nobel laureate’s life and book your place for live talks and discussions with some of the world’s literary heavyweights. There’s a lovely little cafe onsite, too, where you can enjoy a tasty brunch or speciality coffee.

Kayak at sunset
About six miles from the marvellous Cliffs of Moher, North Clare Sea Kayaking offers one of Ireland’s best sea kayaking experiences. There are a number of options on offer – from splashing about in the wildlife-rich Ballyvaughan Bay, to following guided tours out to the abandoned Mutton Island. A sunset paddle begins about an hour before darkness falls and offers a chance to experience the unique scenic beauty of the Aran Islands through the prism of a setting sun.

Get a taste for Northern Ireland
Belfast – and its fertile hinterland – is a foodie’s paradise. Book in for one of Caroline Wilson’s Taste and Tour NI guided trails, or take a self-guided tour, sampling high-end cuisine at the world-renowned Ox and Deanes Eipic, or more casual fare at La Taqueria or The Barking Dog. The city’s bar scene is equally creative, with highlights including Liquor XXX, a homage to Latin American mixed drinks, and the acclaimed Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel. Outside Belfast in Moira, Chris McGowan’s Wine & Brine is a destination restaurant in itself, and the chef’s culinary masterclasses cover everything from curing and brining to fish preparation. Sunday roast more your thing? Make a beeline to Holywood’s Noble restaurant.

See another side to the fair city
It’s easy to get caught up with the classic Dublin sights, but this storied city has so much more to offer. Fab Food Trails guides you to the most interesting cafes, pubs, restaurants and food and beverage suppliers in town, while Gareth Downey’s Dublin Whiskey Experience leads you to the city’s top whiskey distilleries and bars. If it’s a Friday evening, join the highly entertaining hosts at the award-winning Little Museum of Dublin, whose Georgian House Party is an hour-long mixer and the best way to meet locals and fellow travellers as well as stocking up on some fascinating facts about the city. Need a break from city-based sightseeing? Clear your head with a wander, cycle or run in Phoenix Park: 700 hectares of green space with its own herd of wild fallow deer, ornamental gardens and an Edwardian mansion.

Fill your heart with Ireland
From the Causeway Coast and the Wild Atlantic Way to Ireland’s Ancient East, and the 11 cities in between, Ireland has plenty to explore. Now’s the time to start. Get inspired at