Let me quickly preface this self drive Ireland itinerary by saying that this is not in fact the whole of Ireland. This guide pertains to the south of Ireland only. People living outside of the UK are often unaware that there is in fact a north and south divide politically and historically speaking of the country of Ireland (in fact Northern Ireland is technically in the UK). I was certainly unaware of this until I visited. And whilst you can drive across the border without stopping and the only visible change being the road lines changing from yellow (southern Ireland) to white (Northern Ireland) this history and heritage is still a part of Ireland today. Therefore we have divided our Ireland posts into a North and South guide too, so that when you visit you can enjoy each for its unique culture, history and tradition. So if you have plenty of time for your Ireland trip be sure and check out our 4 day self drive itinerary post for Northern Ireland too! Read on for our 5 day self drive Ireland itinerary. (NB start here if you are flying into Dublin, start on the other post if you are flying into Belfast!)
So why self drive Ireland? Many reasons! Mostly it’s to get the maximum enjoyment out of the scenery, Ireland is stunning pretty much everywhere you drive, and if you self drive then you can take it at your own pace, meaning stopping in every quaint village tea shop that takes your fancy, as it should be! It’s also surprisingly affordable to self drive Ireland. Our daily cost per person was roughly €150 based on shared accommodations at an airbnb or family owned and operated mid range bed and breakfast (€80), midsize car hire (€100), fuel, two pub/cafe meals (€60) and two attraction admissions daily (€60). And last but not least, accessibility; this trip is suitable and enjoyable for all ages. We took a pair of delightful octogenarians with us and each was able to participate and enjoy almost every attraction… I don’t want to ruin the surprise but one even kissed the Blarney Stone!
Day 1 – Self Drive Ireland Itinerary – Dublin
You will want a full day to explore Dublin, or even extend your stay to two full days if you like all the recommendations on our list for Dublin.
Dublin is an incredibly culturally, historically and architecturally rich city. As such there is a lot to cover here if you only have one day. After breakfast at your accommodations or a hastily grabbed coffee and snack we would recommend starting your day with a walking tour. The Dublin Free Walking Tour (tips based) would be our suggestion for a good general introduction to all of the historical and architectural highlights. But if you have a specific passion you will probably find a walking tour tailored to meet it! There are food trails and architecture tours specifically just to name a couple.
Your walking tour will pass and recommend many of Dublin’s incredible collection of museums, which all house incredible collections! You may want to make a list of these to explore on your second day in Dublin if you have the time. For example the Book of Kells, one of the world’s oldest books from 800AD, can be visited at the Trinity College Library Dublin.
The tour should take you through until around 2pm a somewhat awkward time if you are having a hankering for lunch, but a pub to the rescue! The Hairy Lemon is a trendy but traditional and culturally reflective Irish pub set in a 19th century house. Grab some traditional Irish fare for under €20 and perhaps a warm up pint before heading over to the main event… The Guinness Storehouse (our personal mecca ;))
The Guinness Storehouse is the traditional home of Guinness, now an interactive museum set in the original brewery buildings. You will want to spend a couple of hours here taking your time on the 7th floor to enjoy your free pint of the black stuff with a 360 degree view over Dublin. The gift shops are epic too and require nearly half an hour also! You can and should book tickets online in advance for approx €20 here.
Start (continue?) your evening right with another pub of course. Walk down to the Brazen Head in 10 minutes, Dublin’s oldest pub established in 1198! We opened a pack of Guinness flavoured chips purchased at the Storehouse to accompany our perfectly poured pints of heaven in this rustic looking bar.
When in Dublin one must of course worship at the Temple Bar. Although only established in 1840 (relatively young for Dublin) this establishment is probably Dublin’s most famous pub. Let me clarify why though… It’s mostly because the Temple Bar stands on an entire street of bars named Temple Bar street. In fact you could very easily end up in the wrong temple bar as almost every establishment makes reference to the street name in their signed awnings. Not to worry, the real Temple Bar is great, picturesque, full of people and live music. But the whole street is like a drinker’s Disneyland, thus why it’s so popular to visit. Temple Bar (the bar) is often crowded so you may want to grab your dinner elsewhere along Temple Bar street. Be aware that prices are jacked here being that it’s a touristy area. We had traditional Irish fare at the Shack which was reasonable enough in price and quality for this area.
OUR TOP TIP
Stay in an airbnb in Dublin for the most affordable accommodations. We stayed with an Airbnb host in Swords, a half an hour away from the centre of the city by bus. As a bonus your host (and we suspect many others) will probably help round out your cultural experience of Ireland/ Dublin being full of “craic” and local knowledge.
Day 2 – Self Drive Ireland Itinerary – Galway
I do hope you’re not too hungover to start your day with a nice 2 hour drive from Dublin to Galway 😉 Galway is another place you will want to have most of the day to explore as it is an incredibly picturesque and well preserved city with visible evidence of its middle ages and more recent history everywhere in the architecture all around.
Spend your morning exploring one or more of Galway’s many castles. There are a ton around ranging from fully restored stately homes, to eerie towers now abandoned. There is no shortage to what you can find, and many excellent photo opportunities too!
Spend a pleasant afternoon getting to know the town of Galway. There are many areas to wander round, full of history and points of interest. Some to add to your list are Quay Street, Eyre Square and Galway’s medieval city walls which are actually incorporated into the Eyre Square shopping mall! An interesting way to bridge the gap between modernity and the cultural heritage of the city.
Even if you’ve already walked through it by day, be sure to return again by night to the Latin Quarter in Galway’s city centre. This contains many of Galway’s best bars for live music as well as some of it’s oldest and most historic bars to dine with a dash of drama! We were very pleased with the food and the history at the 17th century King’s Head pub down a little laneway off the Latin Quarter cobblestoned High street.
OUR TOP TIP
Galway is the home of the Claddagh ring jewelry culture in Ireland. Pop into one of the many jewellers to learn all about it and maybe even pick up a stunning and unique souvenir of your visit for around €100 or more depending on your choice of precious metal.
Day 3 – Self Drive Ireland Itinerary – Cliffs of Moher and Dingle
The fastest route is also fortunately the most scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher, at 1.5 hours drive from Galway. Once here you will want to take at least an hour to walk up either side of the viewing pathways and platforms for this spectacular natural attraction. Your parking price of approx €6 includes your admission to the cliffs.
Before the long drive to Dingle you may be wanting a lunch break. We suggest driving 15 minutes back north to the very small “one street” town of Doolin. After admiring the thatched cottages and the gift shop wares they house grab lunch at the pub or head just out from the main street to the Doolin Cafe for a no-fuss lunch of homemade savouries, soups, salads and/or sweets! Beware though – in high season this place is packed full of tourists and can be a bit overwhelming!
A three hour drive to Dingle should see you arrive there for around 3pm, although you may want to stop along the way and photograph some of the incredible scenery as you first slowly climb and then descend the practically single-lane drive of the Connor Pass.
Gather your wits again with a calming walk around the very picturesque town of Dingle perhaps grabbing a coffee in one of its many trendy cafes or pubs.
Jump back on the road to stay the night and dine in cheaper Killarney. Killarney is only an hour and ten minutes drive from Dingle. For dinner pop down to the main drag: the easy to remember Main Street. The street is lined with pubs and restaurants offering traditional Irish fare and music. However this street did feel a bit overly touristy and inauthentic particularly after Galway. We felt one evening was enough to see Killarney unless you have an interest to see some of the historic houses and parks in the vicinity.
Day 4 – Self Drive Ireland Itinerary – The Ring of Kerry
Be up early to drive 1.5 hours along the Ring of Kerry scenic coastal drive to Portmagee. From Portmagee if you have time and are visiting at the right time (between May and September) you’ll want to grab a boat over to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Skellig Michael where 600-800 AD dome-shaped monastic remains still stand. Tours can be found (for approx €50) and booked online in advance and most tours advise that their boats leave between 9am – 10am weather permitting. Sidenote: This is a location featured in the new Star Wars movies!
Your tour to Skellig Michael should have you back on dry land by around 3pm. Now circle the other side of the Ring of Kerry driving from Portmagee to Kenmare in 1 hour and 40 minutes. Whether staying or just stopping by you will want to at least stretch your legs in perfectly quaint Kenmare. Take your time walking the triangle of Kenmare’s three main shopping streets and cafes. Jam Cafe seemed to be the place to get a tea or coffee and we were glad to have stopped there. Just below the three streets past the park you can find the Holy Cross Church of Kenmare which is worth a photograph.
Stay in either Kenmare or make your way near to Blarney in readiness for Day 5 of the self drive Ireland itinerary.
OUR TOP TIP
Consider how important seeing Skellig Michael is to you before you book your trip to ensure you can plan it for between the months of May and September. As tours only run weather permitting try to allow an extra day of wiggle room in your itinerary in case you cannot take your tour on your intended day in the hope of better weather on either side of it.
Day 5 – Self Drive Ireland Itinerary – The Blarney Stone
Drive to Blarney Castle from Kenmare in 1.5 hours. You will need approx an hour to kiss the Blarney Stone and perhaps up to another hour if you enjoy also exploring the castle gardens and grounds.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is of course the main event here. Tickets (approx €15) can be bought online in advance here, but we did not find this to be necessary on the day of our visit. Although the website doesn’t mention it, on the day of our visit the last admissions to kiss the Blarney Stone were by 3pm, probably due to the popularity of this attraction. You will spend nearly an hour slowly shuffling up through the narrow winding castle stairways to get to your turn to be lowered backwards over the battlements to kiss the slightly slimy stone. Why would you want to do this you might ask? To return home with the ultimate trip souvenir of course: the Irish gift of the gab! Three of our party of four, including one of the octogenarians, made the climb and performed the kiss (and I’m certain you can tell that I am one of that number given the elegant prose you are presently reading!). There is a staff member to help lower you over and a photographer to officially capture the moment, although you can take your own photos too. It feels pretty safe and there are plenty of people getting a bit scared about the height so you won’t be alone if you shriek a little. And just remember, if a plucky octogenarian can do it, so can you!
With your knees still trembling a bit walk across the field from the Castle to “the Square” the traditional village street adjacent to the castle grounds. Here you can soothe your nerves with a pint and a bite at the traditional Muskerry Arms Bar before hitting the road of return to Dublin.
The drive to Dublin from Blarney Castle takes three rather un-scenic hours on the motorway. Hopefully you have more time up your sleeve and you can extend your trip back to Dublin by passing through Cobh for a viewing of the Titanic memorial. Cobh (then named Queenstown) was the last stop for the famous ship before it sank. Waterford is also an area to check out if you have time, being the home of the famous Waterford Crystal.
OUR TOP TIP
Have a 1 or 2 euro coin handy for each person kissing the Blarney Stone, the photographer and (especially) the guy lowering you over the battlements appreciate the clink of a coin in their tip baskets! Stone kissed safely? Best money ever spent!
Optional Extras! – Go to the north of southern Ireland!
If you find yourself with still more time to spare (me thinks perhaps you too have the luck of the Irish!) head on up to the north of Ireland. Specifically for the beach of Donegal, one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Ireland (north and south!).
From here you are then well placed to do your Northern Ireland self drive itinerary in reverse! If you are doing the north second. Or drive up to Belfast from Dublin in just 2 hours and do the Northern Ireland trip as per our suggested guide and end in Donegal to get some much needed relaxation after a full on two weeks of touring!