Author: Terry Boles
Date of Trip: October 2015
One week unescorted in Ireland
Recently we took a one week trip unescorted trip around Ireland, beginning and ending in Dublin. You could use a different airport, like Shannon or Belfast, and accomplish the same thing. It is quite easy to get around the country via rail and bus. Both are owned by the government and they are prompt, safe and clean. There is also a major private bus company that runs intercity buses that is quite good and, in some cases, a better choice. It seems all of their buses have bathrooms on board, which might come in handy for a ride longer than a few hours.
In our case we flew into Dublin and went immediately to the train station and caught the train to Waterford. The station, like most of the train and bus stations in Ireland, are located in or near the city center. And other then Dublin, the other major cities in Ireland are not that large which makes them easy to navigate on foot, even with luggage. We spent the day and the night in Waterford, enjoying the medieval sights and the Waterford tour, concentrating our visit on the city area so we could walk to every attraction. We stayed at a smaller hotel, Dooley’s, directly across the river from the train station and just down the street from the Granville Hotel, where a visit to the spectacular bar should be on your list of things to do.
The next morning we took the intercity bus to Cork. The bus stop is directly across the street from the hotel and the trip took about 2 ½ hours with two stops along the way. It does dip down along the coast for some really nice views. You can see the last place the Titanic anchored before she sailed off on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The main bus station in Cork is, you guessed it, downtown. The local bus service also arrives and departs from there and we took the bus to Blarney, arriving about lunch time.
We stayed in the Blarney Castle Inn, right across from the Castle grounds and just around the corner from the Woolen Mills. I highly recommend it, it is full of charm. Room was huge. The bar was OK but we did not eat in the restaurant, they were having a private function there. However there is an excellent pub only yards away on the town square, where the locals go. When you go to the castle allow time to walk the extensive gardens. There are lots to see and you can get some great photo ops of both the castle and the grounds.
On that subject, I should mention that we generally always eat in pubs when we travel anywhere around Great Britain or that region. Best food, great way to meet the locals and always convenient.
The next morning we caught the first bus back to Cork, arrived around 8 AM and walked across the river to Paddy’s Tours office, where we checked our luggage for 5 Euros (remember Ireland is not part of Great Britain, they use Euros). Then we spent the rest of the day walking around the city and made two stops that we found quite interesting. One was the butter museum. If you are not familiar with the history of Irish butter and the role it plays, you should read up on it. Nice museum. And right around the corner is a lovely small church, St. Anne’s, where you can ascend a very narrow set of stairs, past the bells themselves and all the way to the top of the tower. And I do mean narrow, as in one person at a time and one way only. Once up there you can go outside for great views. On the way up you get the chance to pick a song and ring the bells. Great photo op.
Later that afternoon we caught the bus to Galway. We used Citylink for this instead of the government Bus Eireann, mainly due to times and the inclusion of a bathroom. Either one works and takes about the same amount of time, around 4 hours. However, note that the Citylink bus stop is actually across the river from the main bus station, but just a few hundred yards down the street from Paddy’s. The bus station and the train station are pretty much located together in Galway, in the city center more or less. We opted to stay at a hotel very close by, the Park House. This is a fabulous hotel and I highly recommend it. Lots of old world charm with all of the modern conveniences. We rated it the best hotel of our trip. It only has one restaurant, but it is a great one.
We were there two nights and got a package that included two breakfasts. We checked out very early on the last morning to catch the train to Dublin. The restaurant wasn’t opened yet so we thought we would miss breakfast. We mentioned it so someone and they opened the restaurant for us, seated us, and went back to the kitchen and brought us a selection of everything they had available, mostly pastries, fruits, and the like. With hot coffee. Can you beat that?
We spent both evenings in Galway walking the city and the entertainment district, checking out the sights and having dinner in two pubs, the Skeffington Arms and Quays. Both were nice. The Skeff as it is known is a very large and multilevel, not like a normal pub. But very old as well. The Quays is in the entertainment district, and looks like a local pub. In fact a local recommended it to us.
We took the Galway Tours full day Cliffs of Moher & Burren Tour, which departs at 10 AM from the bus station. They meet you in the lobby of the Park House and walk with you to the bus station and see you onto the bus. The tour stops at multiple locations allowing you to get off and walk around and see the sights. The guide was excellent, the bus was very comfortable, and really is the only way to see the Cliffs if you do not have your own transportation. You get two hours at the Cliffs to wander on your own and we were lucky enough to have a sunny day so the views were great. You also stop at another set of cliffs later on. though not has tall at Moher, you there are no areas roped off so you can easily climb right to the edge if you want to. We stopped at a great pub for lunch!
As I said we took the early train to Dublin the next morning. It is worth noting that there are two major train stations in Dublin, Heuston and Connolly. Be sure you know which one your train departs or arrives from, as they are on opposite sides of the city. Our train to Waterford departed from Heuston, and our train from Galway arrived there as well. However, we intended to take a day trip to Belfast and all of those trains use Connolly, so we opted to get a hotel near Connolly. There is a local bus service that runs between the two stations that is convenient to use, although it does make several stops along the way. If you need something faster you can always take a taxi.
We stayed at the Beresford Hotel, near Connolly. It was OK and certainly convenient but nothing to brag about. The restaurant is tucked in the back, but not half bad. The bar is better, and opens into the both the hotel and the street. I am not sure this is the safest place to be out and about late at night, but we never had any problem so maybe I was just a little paranoid?
We spent two days in Dublin, dividing the city into two walking tours. We included both the Guinness House and Jamison tours, the Temple Bar and district, Dublin Castle, Trinity College, etc. There is plenty to do here and each traveler will have his or her own must see items. You can see a lot in two days just walking but if you are determined to see everything possible you will need more time. You should not miss the Guinness or Jamison tours, both are very different and very good. Reserve a time for the Jamison tour online, it will save you from waiting. Those are guided and limited in number. Guinness is self guided.
We took a day trip to Belfast on the express train. It leaves Connolly several times a day. We got round trip tickets and left on the first train out, and got the 4 PM return from Belfast. The train station in Belfast is just outside of downtown, but there is a bus stop outside with several bus lines that all go to the city center. And your train ticket stub will allow you free bus fare to and from the city center, so no need to walk or hire a taxi. It is only a 10 minute bus ride.
We spent some time downtown, walking around and looking at the architecture. We also walked a few blocks to the Crown Bar. If you go to Belfast you will hate yourself if you do not go to the Crown. The interior is not to be missed. Of course our main point for going to Belfast was the Titanic Experience. It is a pleasant walk of about 20 minutes to the docks and the building, but I understand if some prefer to take a bus or a taxi.
Be sure to get your tickets in advance online, you have to pick a specific time to get into the exhibit. The tour is self guided and I would allow about 3 hours, give or take 30 minutes. There are places to eat and shop on the main floor. The exhibit is great, and well worth the trip. It sits on the site of the shipyards, next to the dry dock where Titanic was launched. There are other day trips out of Belfast and city tours that you can take if you have time. Travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland is seamless, no need for any travel documents. Just board the train or bus and take off.
I hope this gives you the confidence to tackle Ireland on your own. You do not need a guided tour. You do not have to adhere to someone else’s schedule, visit places you don’t want to go and miss some you do, eat where you are told to eat and stay where you are told to stay, or spend day after day on the same bus. Ireland is an easy county to get around, the people are friendly and the cities are small and easily walked. They speak English, so communications are easy whether you are in a conversation or reading a street sign. We went in early October and the weather was pleasant but the crowds were non existent.