Ireland is one historic place: full stop. From ancient sites that pre-date the Great Pyramids of Giza to a gorgeously green landscape that’s amazingly home to thousands of castles, exploring the island’s history and heritage is one of the joys of a trip here.
But, perhaps nowhere is this rich history brought more vividly to life than in Ireland’s towns. Truth be told, practically EVERY town across the land can claim to be historic in one way or another, be it an early-Christian settlement, a Viking stronghold, an Anglo-Norman fortress or a medieval hub. So, we’re sweeping the island to bring you five of the very best. Shall we head on into town then?
1. Westport, County Mayo
Nestled beside Croagh Patrick mountain and Clew Bay, Westport in County Mayo is one of the standout towns on the Wild Atlantic Way. Built in the 1780s for workers from the magnificent Westport House estate, the town’s timeless charm lives on to this day, as anyone who walks along the scenic tree-lined Mall by the Carrowbeg River will attest.
But this spot isn’t some stuffy old relic of the past. Traditional shopfronts pop with colour, and there are plenty of pubs and eateries to keep you well fed and watered. Try Matt Molloy’s for a good pint and some traditional Irish music, and check out An Port Mór, an award-winning modern Irish restaurant that serves up delicious dishes such as roast rack of Mayo lamb and breast of West Cork duck.
2. Carlingford, County Louth
On the picturesque Cooley Peninsula in Ireland’s Ancient East lies a medieval gem that oozes character. Carlingford in County Louth is perfect for anyone who enjoys exploring cobbled streets and castle ruins. Start at the Carlingford Heritage Centre to uncover the history, legends and stories of this walled town. On a guided tour, you’ll hear tales of 12th century Norman invaders while you peruse the ruins of Carlingford Castle so get ready to be transported back to the Middle Ages!
Elsewhere in the town, you’ll find unique clothing boutiques, cosy tea rooms and plenty of excellent pubs and restaurants. PJ O’Hare’s is a local favourite where you HAVE to try the Carlingford Lough oysters. And don’t miss the framed leprechaun bones on the wall! Just out of town, the Carlingford Brewing Company offers tasty local craft beers and wood-fired pizzas in their taproom, along with finer dining in their Mill Bar and Restaurant.
Beyond the town: Get active at Carlingford Adventure, where land, sea and sky activities include laser combat, canoe rafting and rock wall climbing.
3. Enniskillen, County Fermanagh
Historic towns don’t come much more unique than Enniskillen, an island town between Upper and Lower Lough Erne in the Fermanagh Lakelands. Dominating the skyline since the 15th century is Enniskillen Castle, which houses two intriguing museums: the Fermanagh County Museum and The Inniskillings Museum. The former explores the county’s traditional rural life while the latter focuses on the military history of the area.
For a spot of shopping and a nice cup of coffee, stop by the Buttermarket Craft and Design Courtyard. This restored early 19th century dairy market is now home to some 19 or so art and craft stores, selling everything from ceramics and handmade jewellery to pieces by local artists. As for food and drink, the Enniskillen Taste Experience is a guided walking tour with lots of delicious food stops along the way! While The Boatyard Distillery lets you tour and taste the finest spirits in the region.
Beyond the town: It’s all about exploring the glistening Fermanagh Lakelands so try a boat trip to Devenish Island, home to an early-Christian monastic settlement.
4. Cobh, County Cork
Pay a visit to Cobh in County Cork and you’ll quickly see why Condé Nast Traveller called it “one of the most beautiful small towns in Europe.” St Colman’s Cathedral reaches high into the sky above the pretty waterfront, as rows of colourful shops and houses wind their way around busy streets. One row of houses in particular is so photogenic it has been dubbed “The Deck of Cards" and it’s a MUST snap sight.
But Cobh isn’t just a pretty face. This town has some serious heritage. Its strategic location means the town has always been an important naval site. Nowhere is this more evident than at Spike Island, Ireland’s Alcatraz, which has been a fortress, military barracks and prison down through the centuries and is a memorable place to visit. Cobh was also the Titanic’s last port of call before its ill-fated maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Titanic Experience Cobh is an essential attraction for anyone with even a passing interest in the “Ship of Dreams”.
Beyond the town: Head to Fota Wildlife Park to see rhinos, giraffes and other exotic creatures on your trip to Ireland!
5. Birr, County Offaly
Founded as a monastery by St Brendan of Birr in medieval times, Birr in County Offaly is one of the most historic towns in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. With tree-lined avenues flanked by Georgian houses, the town centre is a delight to explore. But the big draw here is Birr Castle, a postcard-perfect landmark surrounded by stunning gardens.
Birr Theatre and Arts Centre dates back to 1888 and it’s always worth checking if something good is on. You’ll find warm Irish hospitality as well as hearty pub grub at Kelly’s. For something a little more refined, Emmet Restaurant is a top quality establishment.
Beyond the town: For a day out to remember, visit the fascinating monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise on the River Shannon.