South East Itinerary (5-days)

Discover the scenic coastlines, ancient attractions and glorious gardens packed into the South East with this bespoke five-day route.

Beginning at Rosslare Port, County Wexford, this looped route takes in seaside villages, glacial valleys and bustling medieval cities before passing through a curious collection of historical sites. You’ll find opportunities to get lost in ancient Ireland, amble through award-winning gardens, overnight in a castle, and even learn how to shape red-hot molten crystal.

The five-day itinerary has also been designed to give you the freedom to do some exploring of your own, whether it’s check out that hidden gem your friend recommended or simply going off the beaten track for a few hours.

While this is ostensibly a driving route, there are excellent walking and cycling opportunities along the way.

Distances are calculated at an average speed of 50kmph and you can find more information on driving on the island of Ireland here.

Day 1

Rosslare to Kilmore Quay: 39km (24m)/47 minutes at 50km/h

Rosslare Harbour to Wexford Town

Departing Rosslare and with the Irish Sea to your back, head northwest and into the heart of Wexford Town, a sleepy port town scattered with medieval monuments among them the old town hall and twin churches. Tucked in behind a reinstated street front, Wexford Opera House is HQ for the annual Wexford Festival Opera. Pre-book a behind-the-scenes tour or plan your visit around their annual programme.

Wexford Town to Kilmore Quay

Hungry? You’re in luck. Wander into one of the many restaurants around the town for harbour-fresh fish or an inviting café to snack on tea and warm scones. Refreshed, it’s time for a trip back in time to ancient Ireland.

Welcome to The Irish National Heritage Park, and the land that time forgot. Resting on the banks of the River Slaney, the park recreates life in ancient Ireland with authentic replicas of structures dating back 9,000 years, overseen by informed and passionate tour guides.

Post time-travel interlude, move south to the Gothic grandeur of Johnstown Castle Estate. A walk through the ornamental gardens here – designed by Daniel Robertson of Wicklow’s Powerscourt Gardens fame – takes in lakes, pleasure grounds and tea-rooms. The grounds are also home to the Irish Agricultural Museum, replete with lovingly restored tractors, a blacksmith workshop and engaging interactive exhibitions.

Wexford Golf Club

Resting on Mulgannon Hill and commanding panoramic views across the Blackstairs Mountains and Irish Sea, Wexford Golf Club is an 18-hole parkland treasure. A 71-par course, Wexford Golf Club welcomes players of all standards.

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Your next stop is Kilmore Quay, a working fishing village overlooking the Saltee Islands, Ireland’s largest bird reserve hosting the likes of cormorants, guillemots and razorbills. It might be a small town, but there’s a huge amount to do here including sailing courses, nature rambles and diving among dramatic shipwrecks at Carnsore Point.

When night falls, grab a stool and order some award-winning local fare in The Wooden House, a 300-year-old pub capped with a traditional thatched roof. And yes, with the car parked up for the night, you can now enjoy that well-earned nightcap.

Day 2

Kilmore Quay to Waterford city: 68km (42m)/1 hours 21 minutes at 50km/h

Kilmore Quay to Waterford city

Leaving Kilmore Quay, head east past the ruins of 13th-century Tintern Abbey towards the Hook Peninsula. Perched on the eastern side of the peninsula is Hook Head Lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in the world. Histories of the castle recount a 6th-century monk keeping a beacon lit on the site to warn sailors of possible shipwreck. So scenic is Hook that Lonely Planet placed it first on their Flashiest Lighthouses list.

Once you’ve soaked in the panoramic Celtic Sea views from the top balcony, it’s time to move northwest again. Cross the River Barrow at the picturesque port town of New Ross (here, visit the replica Famine ship, The Dunbrody), before setting your sights for the Viking city of Waterford.

Waterford city

With a past shaped by Viking settlers and Norman invaders, Waterford is visibly moulded by history (the town celebrated its 1100th birthday in 2014). Buildings such as the French Church, Bishop’s Palace and Reginald’s Tower form a must-see area of the city known as the Viking Triangle.

Waterford Blaa

Introduced by the Huguenots in 1690, the blaa is a soft bread roll unique to Waterford city. Typically eaten at breakfast or lunch, these round bap-type breads are made using naturally fermented dough and are covered with a dusting of white flour.

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Reginald’s Tower

Reginald’s Tower is one of the finest examples of enduring medieval architecture in Ireland. Built in 1003, this stone tower is the oldest civic building on the island, withstanding invasions, sieges and air raids. It even has a cannonball embedded in the wall to prove it.

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No trip to Waterford would be complete without a visit to the House of Waterford Crystal. Here, master craftsmen teach guests the ancient art of turning molten crystal into glass masterpieces. With museums, restaurants, antique shops, art studios and more to explore, you’d be wise to choose Waterford city as your overnight location.

Day 3

Waterford city to Kilkenny city: 133km (83m)/2 hours 39 minutes at 50km/h

Waterford city to Rock of Cashel (Tipperary)

Leave Waterford for its neighbouring county, Tipperary, and the town of Clonmel. The largest town in the county, Clonmel (which translates as 'honey meadow') has medieval roots and sections of the old town walls remain visible. Also in Tipperary, and nearby Clonmel, is a significant a chunk of Ireland’s royal and religious history: the Rock of Cashel.

A former seat of Munster’s High Kings, if ‘the Rock’ looks more cathedral than castle, there’s a reason.

Deeded to the church by King Muircheartach O’Brien in the 13th century (lest if fall into the hands of his enemies), the rock’s 12th century round tower, 13th century gothic cathedral and Hall of the Vicars Choral are icons of Ireland’s Christian heritage. Ancient rumours tell of St Patrick baptizing Munster’s pagan King Aengus MacMutfraich here by accidently skewering the royal foot with his crozier. Ouch.

A spot of advice: there is a mild climb to the top of the hill and the actual site. Strong shoes are advised, but sneakers will provide adequate support. Access for visitors with disabilities is available, but prior arrangement is required.

The Rock of Cashel to Kilkenny city

From one ‘castle’ to another, sweep east across Ireland’s midlands to the city of Kilkenny. Laced with narrow lanes and sitting on the River Suir, the city boasts palpable medieval atmosphere. Pubs like Kyteler’s Inn (focus of some horrible histories) and the former merchant’s townhouse, Rothe House, add to the city’s ‘open museum’ effect. Undoubtedly, though, Kilkenny’s big draw is its eponymous castle.

Sold to ‘the people of Kilkenny’ for the meagre sum of £50 by the 6th Marquess of Ormonde, Kilkenny Castle is an icon of literally massive proportions. Highlights within the castle walls include secret stairs, the vivid Blue Corridor and quirky picture gallery wing. Outside, a meticulously planned 21-hectare garden (replete with classical statuary) is a chilled city centre retreat.

Cahir Castle

Perched on a rocky island on the River Suir, this imposing structure is one of Ireland’s largest and best-preserved castles. A national monument, the castle can be explored individually or with a guided tour provided in multiple languages.

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Campagne Restaurant

One of nine Michelin-starred restaurants in Ireland, Campagne is known for its understated elegance and French-inspired cuisine. Located under old railway arches, the curved interior features olive-green banquettes, abstract paintings and an open countertop allowing customers to see into the bustling kitchen.

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While in the area, set aside time to walk the Medieval Mile. Stretching from Kilkenny Castle to St Canice’s Cathedral, the route passes a host of historically relevant sites.

Come close of day, it’s time for rest. Countless cosy pubs, restaurants (among them the Michelin-starred Campagne), hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs pack the city, ensuring weary bones are well looked after.

Day 4

Kilkenny city to Huntington Castle: 69km (42m)/1 hour 22 minutes at 50km/h

Kilkenny city to Altamont Gardens (Carlow)

Day four sees the route sweep through the second smallest county in Ireland, and two handsome estates dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Before you set off, head for the High Street in Kilkenny city and one of its cafés to set yourself up with a belly-filling Irish breakfast.

Leaving the city and heading northeast, we cross into County Carlow. Near the River Barrow (an important inland link between Dublin to the east and the River Shannon in the west), you’ll find the ruins of Carlow Castle, a National Monument of Ireland built between 1207 and 1213. Down the road is the County Carlow Military Museum, housing militaristic relics in a 19th-century church. Just 30 minutes south of here sits Altamont Gardens.

Consistently named among Ireland’s finest, the 40-acre Altamont Gardens acquired its current name in the late 18th Century, though dates from far earlier. With its arboretum, bog garden, Ice Age glen and serene lake, you’ll want to want to take your time here. Amble among rare azaleas, picnic beneath pink magnolia trees, ramble through the Nun’s walk or potter around the walled gardens. Just don’t rush.

Carlow is generously endowed with gardening attractions, so if you fancy embarking on a horticultural odyssey there, you can. The Carlow Garden Trail groups together inspiring gardens, arboreta, and mature forest parks across the county.

Altamont Gardens to Huntington Castle

Green pastures and river valleys pass by as you continue south west. Keep going until you spot Mount Leinster (the highest of the Blackstairs Mountains) rising to your right. Passing over the River Slaney once more and through Clonegal (the name translates as ‘meadow of the foreigner’) stop when you reach Huntington Castle.

Carlow Garden Trail

Gardeners love Carlow. On the Carlow Garden Trail, the stunning gardening attractions peppered throughout the county are grouped together like one big oasis of calm. Throw in the Blackstairs Mountains and the River Barrow, Carlow is like Ireland’s own Garden of Eden.

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River Shannon

The River Shannon (taking its name from a Celtic goddess) is Ireland’s longest river and meanders through no fewer than eleven counties. Its 360 or so kilometers of unspoiled waters are a haven for anglers, cruisers, nature-lovers and more.

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Castles don’t come much handsomer than Huntington. In fact, directors such as Stanley Kubrick have used it to backdrop their films. Once a garrison and captured by Cromwell’s forces in 17th century, the estate features forested trails, a farm with pot-bellied pigs, ornamental gardens and a Temple of Isis located in the former dungeon.

Also known as Clonegal Castle, house tours are available but are confined to certain months. To avoid disappointment, consult the castle website in advance of arrival.

As night approaches, why not spend the night in one of Huntington’s lavishly decorated guest rooms? Before bed, visit the award-winning Sha Roe Bistro and munch seasonal dishes beside an open stone fireplace.

Day 5

Huntington Castle to Curracloe: 106km (66m)/2 hours 7 minutes at 50km/h

Huntington Castle (Carlow) to Avoca (Wicklow)

Bidding farewell to Carlow, move northeast to Wicklow passing blanket bogs and heather-strewn hills.

In the shade of the Wicklow Mountains you’ll find the town of Avoca. Taking its name from the river on which it sits, Avoca is famed for its copper mines and Avoca Handweavers, the oldest working woollen mill in Ireland. Lunch in the award-winning café there is a tasty treat.

Avoca (Wicklow) to Curracloe (Wexford)

When you do depart Avoca, veer slightly south until you reach Arklow, a town founded by Vikings and the site of an epic battle during Ireland’s 1798 rebellion. Should time allow, pop into the town’s Maritime Museum featuring various items salvaged from shipwrecks and a naval mine from WWII.

Glendalough

Glendalough is much more than a 6th Century monastic settlement – it is an icon of Ireland’s Christian heritage. The glacial valley in which it is set has attracted nature-lovers, hikers, solace-seekers and spiritual pilgrims for thousands of years. Guided tours, walking trails and a visitor centre are all part of the package.

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Hugging the coast and travelling south, you’re nearing Curracloe Beach. If this sandy stretch seems familiar, don’t be surprised. Steven Spielberg used this very strand to recreate the spectacular D-Day scenes in the opening shots of Saving Private Ryan. Wade into the sea for a refreshing dip or simply amble through the dunes running from Raven Point to Ballyconigar near Blackwater. Finish the day, and your tour of Ireland’s south east in Wexford Town.

Keen to explore more? If so, options abound. To the west lies the 2,500km Wild Atlantic Way, the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. To the north is Dublin’s Doorstep; a journey defined by Christian icons, mountain parks and whiskey trails.

Useful Information

South East: Counties Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Carlow.

Information on counties Wexford, Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Carlow.

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