Iv’e been mulling over jotting down a guide that goes something along the lines of ‘The Best Places to Visit in Ireland: A guide to Hidden Gems’ for a fair aul while.
Why, ta fu*k?! Well, we already have a stupidly detailed guide to 103 of the top things to do in Ireland, that’s packed with both unique things to do and tourist favourites.
But I fancied researching and writing something a little different. Something that’d tweak the interests of both tourists and locals alike.
A guide to hidden and ‘secret’ Ireland that’s wedged with advice on where to go in Ireland if you want to see incredible natural and man made attractions that people often miss.
The result is the article below – a detailed guide on where to visit in Ireland if you want to hop off-the-beaten-track and see the island through a different lens than many that visit.
Note: I’ve chopped this guide up into a number of sections. Just click into the little table of contents if you want to have a browse.
Table of Contents
The Best Places to Visit in Ireland (if You’re on the Hunt for Hidden Gems)
I often get emails from people asking where to go in Ireland that’s a little off-the-beaten-path. If you’re one of those people, this first section is just for you.
Below, you’ll find 10 top places to visit in Ireland that you (hopefully) will never have come across before. They range from rarely visited islands to caves hidden away in the countryside.
1. Bull Rock (the most unique of our hidden places to visit in Ireland)
The chances are you’ll have heard of Dursey Island in Cork (yep, it’s the island that’s accessible via a little cable car).
Off the western point of the island stands three rocks: Cow Rock, Bull Rock and Calf Rock. Bull Rock, pictured above, looks like something whipped right from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
If you’re wondering where to visit in Ireland that’ll make you feel like you’ve stepped into a different world, get Bull Rock in Cork to the top of your ‘to-visit’ list.
2. A fort in the middle of a lake in Donegal
The wonderfully unique Doon Fort in Donegal is a Western Stone Fort at the centre of Loughadoon, near Narin and Portnoo.
The fort has been linked with two families: the Breslin’s and the O’Boyle’s. It’s said that the Breslin’s occupied it from the 5th century, while the O’Boyle’s held it until it fell into disrepair.
Although Doon Fort is situated on private land, during the peak summer season the family that owns the land rent out small boats to those that fancy visiting it.
3. The Serpents Lair On Inis Mór (AKA ‘The Wormhole’)
Although it’s frequently referred to as ‘the Serpent’s Lair’ and ‘the Wormhole’, the official name for one of the best places to visit in Ireland is ‘Poll na bPeist’.
Now, while the finely-cut edges in the photos above look like they were cut with some enormous tool, the Wormhole was actually formed naturally.
Mad stuff altogether. Find out more about this natural phenomenon in our guide to Inis Mor’s mighty Wormhole.
4. McDermott’s Castle In Roscommon (it’s like something from a Disney movie)
You’ll find the other-worldly McDermott’s Castle in Roscommon on the beautiful Lough Key, not far from the little town of Boyle.
Stretching around 10km across and forming a rough circular shape, Lough Key boasts 30 plus islands scattered throughout its icy waters.
One of these islands is aptly named ‘Castle Island’ and it’s here that you’ll find the ruins of McDermott’s Castle.
Find out more about how to reach the castle along with the tragic tale behind it in our guide to McDermott’s Castle on Lough Key.
5. The Sligo caves that predate the Pyramids of Egypt
There’s something immensely special about this next spot. Welcome to the Caves of Keash in County Sligo.
The caves here form an ancient passage tomb cluster that are believed to predate the Pyramids of Egypt by a staggering 500-800 YEARS! Geological inspections took place during the 1900s that revealed how ‘early man’ used to use and live in the caves at Keash.
Evidence has also revealed that bears, wolves, arctic lemming, and other wildlife have lived here in the past. There are 17 caves in total. Learn more about them in our guide on what to do in Sligo.
6. Mountsandel Wood (the earliest known settlement of man in Ireland)
The whole story of Mountsandel Wood in County Derry is insanely interesting. It was at Mountsandel Wood that the earliest known settlement of man in Ireland was based.
Their arrival can be dated to between 7600 and 7900BC… which is pretty damn far back. Flint tools were found on the grounds here which indicate that Stone Age hunters camped and fished here for salmon.
There’s a lovely forest walk here that’ll take you around this historic little chunk of Ireland. Drop into our guide to the best things to do in Derry to read more.
7. The Lost Valley
Although you rarely see the Lost Valley in Mayo grace the cover of Ireland travel guides, I can see it becoming one of the top places to visit in Ireland (outside of the likes of the Storehouse and Moher) in the coming years.
If you haven’t come across it, the Lost Valley is a part of Mayo that has remained untouched since the villagers who lived there were evicted during the Great Famine.
The valley is now privately owned by the Bourke family. Before owning it, they were employed by a landlord to farm it and, interestingly enough, before that they were one of the families evicted.
Find out loads more about the lost valley in our guide to the best things to do in Mayo in 2020.
8. The Dark Sky Reserve (one of the best places in Ireland for star gazing)
So, there’s a gorgeous little corner of Kerry that is a designated International Dark Sky Reserve and one of only 3 Gold Tier Reserves on the planet.
This means that on a clear night the sky in this part of Kerry (known as the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve) is scattered with astronomical sights that you can admire with the naked eye.
Now, although this has been on a bucket list of best places to visit in Ireland that I’ve been attepmting to tick off for a while, every time I’ve visited the sky has been packed with clouds. Next time, definitely… OK hopefully…
9. The other-worldly Priest’s Leap Drive
The picture above (from Google Maps) offers a tiny (and blurry…) insight into what you can expect if you spin along the Priests Leap Pass.
This drive (or cycle) takes you through one of the most beautiful places to visit in Ireland. Those that spin along this road will be taken on a spectacular trip over Ireland’s highest mountain pass. You can kick-start the spin in Bonane in Kerry and you’ll be brought to your finish point in Coomhola in Cork.
Priest’s Leap is a steep, bendy and narrow mountain road that treats those that take it to magnificent mountain and wild landscape views. Love a unique road? Check out our guide to 5 of the craziest roads in Ireland.
10. The Croaghaun Sea Cliffs (the highest in Ireland)
A lot of people mistake the Slieve League Cliffs in Donegal as the highest sea cliffs in Ireland. The cliffs at Slieve League are the highest cliffs on the island of Ireland.
The highest cliffs in Ireland are the ones at Croaghaun, and can be found on Achill Island in Mayo where they stand at an impressive 688 metres (2,257 ft). Interestingly enough, they’re also the third highest in Europe.
The cliffs here can be found at the northern slope of Croaghaun mountain and can be admired if you hike around to the summit.
11. Donegal’s secret waterfall
If you’re looking for places to go in Ireland that few people have ever been to, this next spot will tickle your fancy.
Welcome to Donegal’s secret waterfall – a place that looks like a scene from a Jurassic Park movie. You’ll find this hidden gem on the Slieve League peninsula in Donegal.
The waterfall is located in Largy, a village nestled between the towns of Killybegs and Kilcar. Huge caution (and permission from a local farmer) is required if you plan to visit.
Warning, warning, warning: Please read this guide before visiting – you need to be aware of tide times before you even consider visiting this waterfall.
12. The Nine Stones
The Nine Stones in Carlow is one of the best places to go in Ireland if you’re looking to see several counties all at once. It’s from here that you’ll be treated to a view of EIGHT different counties…. all at the same time.
On a clear day, visitors to the Nine Stones can catch a glimpse of Carlow, Laois, Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny along with the mountains of Tipperary.
You could also see the coast of Wales, apparently! Mad stuff. Check out our guide to the best things to do in Carlow to read more.
13. Drop by Cú Chulainn’s Castle
Dún Dealgan Motte in County Louth (AKA Cú Chulainn’s Castle) can be found on a ridge overlooking the waters of Castletown River.
According to legend, the mighty Cú Chulainn used Dún Dealgan Motte as his base during a time when he was attacking the forces of Queen Meave.
Other tales state that this was where Cú Chulainn was born. Considering the interest in Cú Chulainn, especially from tourists, it’s strange that this place isn’t promoted better.
14. The Magical Gougane Barra (one of the most beautiful places to visit in Ireland)
There are certain places in Ireland that tend to rock you a little. You’ll have seen pictures or videos while you were planning your trip and you’ll have built an image of the place in your head.
But it just doesn’t prepare you for the real thing. The sights, smells and sounds that immerse you when you visit Gougane Barra in Cork have the ability to stop you dead in your tracks.
Places like this are what make Ireland special. The large valley and lake at Gougane Barra are enveloped by the rugged rock face of the mountains, which rise up to an impressive 370 metres.
Where to go in Ireland (if you’re in search of natural attractions that’ll knock you sideways)
This next section is dedicated to where to visit in Ireland if you’re on a quest to find hidden and off-the-beaten-track natural attractions.
Don’t let anyone fool you – the best places in Ireland aren’t the shiny visitor centres that rack up millions of visits per year.
They’re the natural attractions that have been around since the day dot. In the section below, you’ll find heaps of them to add to your Ireland trip itinerary.
15. The source of the River Shannon
The Shannon Pot in Cavan is where the mighty Shannon River begins. There’s a lovely bit of folklore behind how the Shannon Pot first started.
According to legend, it’s all linked to the legendary Finn MacCool. The story goes that Síonnan, the daughter of a chap called Lodan, came to the Shannon Pot to search for the Salmon of Wisdom.
When the great salmon noticed her, it was furious. It was so enraged, in fact, that it caused the pool to overflow. As the water surged dangerously, Síonnan became trapped and drowned.
The surge of water caused the River Shannon to form and the river still bears Síonnan’s name to this day.
16. The 1 million-year-old Crag Cave
If you’re looking for things to do in Kerry, Ireland, when it’s pouring down, get yourself to Crag Cave. This cave here was discovered by divers in 1983 and it’s thought to be a whopping 1 million+ years old.
Crag Cave is an ancient fossil system that was once filled to the brim with water, which eroded the rock into a beautiful maze of tunnels and chambers.
It’s easy to visit Kerry and to stick to the old reliables – if you’re planning a visit, try and carve in some time for the less-visited (but no less impressive) attractions, like Crag.
17. Avondale Forest (the birthplace of Irish forestry)
Avondale Forest was built in the 1770s by a lad named Samuel Hayes (the state bought Avondale much later, in 1904).
The magnificent 505-acre estate at Avondale is strongly linked to the birth of Irish forestry. It was within its grounds that tree species which are now commonplace in the Irish forest industry were planted and trialled in Ireland for the first time.
Interestingly enough, plots of trees planted between 1904 to 1913 are still visible today. There are several walks that you can head off on at Avondale that’ll take you deep into the forest.
18. Diamond Hill
If you’ve read our detailed guide on what to do in Galway (packed with hikes, walks and cosy pubs) you’ll have seen this place before.
The picture above shows the view that those who climb Diamond Hill (one of the best places in Ireland for a hike, in my opinion) will be treated to. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?!
There are two walks that you can do here: the first takes from 1 to 1.5 hours while the second can take up to 3. Read more in our guide to the Diamond Hill Walk.
19. The Knockmealdown Mountains
The Knockmealdown Mountains border counties Tipperary and Waterford. While they’re a fine spot for a weekend adventure, what makes them unique?
Every year, between May and June, sections of the mountain are covered in a beautiful blanket of pink and purple rhododendrons
There are several trails that you can head off on here, peaking at Knockmealdown itself and the famous Sugarloaf mountain.
Hit play above on the video shot by John McMahon. It shows the Vee Pass in all its glory, covered in Rhododendrons.
20. The North Mayo coastline
Many people completely miss the North Mayo coastline when exploring Ireland. Which is a shame, as the coastline here is some of the most rugged that Ireland has to offer.
It’s also home to the magnificent Benwee Head. You can nearly hear the whistle of the wind and the crash of the waves from the photo above.
There’s a 5-hour loop walk that you can head off on here (here’s a guide you can follow) that follows a bog trail and takes in cliffs, ocean, and incredible coastal views.
21. The cliffs at Kilbaha
The cliffs near Loop Head Lighthouse are one of the most overlooked places to visit in Ireland. Probably due to the Cliffs of Moher getting all of the attention.
Few visit the spectacular cliffs at Kilbha. And that’s what makes them that little bit more special. I’ve been 5 or 6 times and it’s rare that you’ll ever meet more than a handful of people.
Places like the cliffs at Kilbaha are up there with the best places to visit in Ireland. Visitor numbers mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s all about the impact the scenery has on you. And the cliffs here pack a big aul punch.
22. Kinnagoe Bay
Kinnagoe Bay in Donegal is one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland. Now, naturally enough it doesn’t always look like it does in the photo above.
However, I’ve been here on a dull winters day and it was still excellent. If you want to get the view seen above, you’ll find a spot to safely pull in on the road above.
If you’re debating visiting this part of Ireland (which you definitely should), dive into our guide to the 45 of the best Donegal attractions to whack onto you ‘to-see-sharpish’ list.
This is one of my favourite places to go in Ireland when I’m up in Derry for a couple of nights. You’ll find this waterfall in Derry’s Ness Country Park.
The park here boasts 55 hectares of lush woodland, open parkland, and riverside walks… and the biggest waterfall in Ulster.
If you’re visiting Derry and fancy escaping the city for a bit, get yourself here – it’s a great spot for an early morning ramble.
23. Wicklow’s heart-shaped lake
You’ll find Ireland’s heart-shaped lake up in the Wicklow Mountains. If you fancy seeing it from the angle above, grab your hiking boots and make your way up Tonelagee Mountain.
The hike up to it takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, depending on pace and fitness levels (we did it in 2, and we’re reasonably fit).
The view out over the lake on a clear day is pretty damn special, to say the least, and it’s well worth doing. Check out our guide to the best things to do in Wicklow, Ireland, for loads more stuff to do in this neck of the woods.
24. The highest waterfall in Ireland
Our next spot is one of the top places to visit in Ireland when it’s raining. Why? Well, you can only see this waterfall when it’s lashing rain, or right after heavy rainfall.
At a whopping 150m, Sruth in Aghaidh an Aird (also known to as ‘the Devil’s Chimney’ online) is Ireland’s highest waterfall.
There’s a 45-minute moderately strenuous walk that’ll take you up to see it in action. See more of this place in our guide to the best things to do in Sligo.
25. The Ballaghbeama Gap in Kerry
People often make the mistake of believing that the best drive in Kerry is the Ring of Kerry driving route. It’s an amazing drive, don’t get me wrong, but there are plenty more drives worth doing in Kerry.
One of my favourite drives in Kerry takes a road through the wonderful Ballaghbeama Pass. The road here cuts across the mountains in the centre of the beautiful Iveragh Peninsula.
The road takes you along a wild scenic route where you’ll meet little traffic and plenty of sheep. You’ll also have the chance to soak up an endless number of mountain views.
26. The Marble Arch Caves
You’ll find the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh, in a borderless Park (the Marble Arch Geopark) which is located within both counties Cavan and Fermanagh.
The Marble Arch Caves are a series of natural limestone caves found near the little village of Florencecourt.
At around 11.5 kilometres in length, the caves form the longest known cave system in Northern Ireland. Visit our guide to the best places to visit in Northern Ireland for more things to do in this neck of the woods.
27. Coumshingaun Lake
We tend to get a lot of emails from tourists asking where to go in Ireland for the best views. One of the places that I tend to recommend first is Coumshingaun in County Waterford.
It’s on the Coumshingaun Lake Walk that you’ll see the view in the photo above all for yourself. There are a few different walks that you can do here.
The full walk takes between 4 and 6 hours to complete. You can find more info on the walk in our guide to things to do in Waterford, Ireland.
Often missed places to go in Ireland (man-made attractions)
The final section of our guide to the best places to go in Ireland focuses on man-made attractions that are regularly missed and that many people don’t know exist.
From the burial place of St. Patrick and a castle on a cliff to the oldest library in Ireland and plenty more.
28. Down Cathedral (the burial place of St. Patrick)
You’ll find Down Cathedral standing proudly on the Hill of Down where it overlooks the historic town of Downpatrick.
Down Cathedral is easily one of the best places to see in Ireland for those of you looking to visit sites that are heavily linked with St. Patrick.
It’s here, in the Cathedral’s grounds, that St. Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint, is buried. Although the stone that marks his grave wasn’t erected until 1900, it’s thought that St. Patrick died in 461.
29. The steps on Arranmore Island
Arranmore Island in Donegal is a very hidden gem. You’ll find this wild and remote island around 5 km off the Donegal coast.
You can explore the island by day (the steps above look incredible!) and kick-back by an open turf fire and listen to some traditional music in one of the island’s lively pubs by night.
30. Corkscrew Hill, Clare
Corkscrew Hill – it’s all in the name. You’ll find one of the most unique roads in Ireland between Ballyvaughan and Lisdoonvarna in the Burren region of County Clare.
The road, similar to the very bendy Healy Pass in Cork, was designed as part of a famine relief scheme. Click play on the video below to check it out.
31. Kinbane Castle
You may have read about Kinbane Castle in our guide to the most unique things to do in Ireland (if you didn’t, have a look now!).
Kinbane Castle was built on a small rock promontory known as Kinbane Head on the Antrim coast in 1547. The promontory extends out into the sea, making the location delightfully dramatic.
Those that visit can expect Isolated ruins, jagged cliffs and gorgeous coastal scenery. Make sure to visit if you’re driving the Causeway Coastal Route.
32. The oldest library in Ireland
Many people that visit Dublin tend to visit one library – the Long Room in Trinity College. However, there’s another constantly missed library that’s just as central and just as, if not more, historic.
You’ll find Marsh’s Library, the oldest library in Ireland, tucked away behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where it has been since 1707.
Marsh’s holds a staggering 25,000 books and over 300 manuscripts. If you visit, keep an eye out for bullet holes in the bookcases, which were made during the Easter Rising.
33. Explore the only castle in the country with an intact moat
Out of Ireland’s many…. many castles, Drimnagh Castle is the only one that boasts an intact moat. The story of the castle here dates back to 1215.
The land that the castle occupies was given to a Norman knight, Hugo de Bernivale, in return for his family’s help in the invasion of Ireland.
The castle here has served as a set location in several films and TV shows, including the award-winning Tudors and The Old Curiosity Shop.
34. The Spire of Lloyd
Randomly enough, the 30m (100ft) Spire of Lloyd is actually an inland lighthouse that can be found on the summit of the Commons of Lloyd in County Meath.
It’s said that the spire was used to view horse racing and hunting during the 19th century. Inside the Spire, you’ll find a 164-step spiral staircase that leads to the top.
On a clear day, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the surrounding countryside out as far as the Mountains of Mourne in County Down.
35. The Swiss Cottage
Built during the early 1800s by a chap called Richard Butler, the Swiss Cottage in Tipperary was originally part of Lord and Lady Cahir’s estate and was used to entertain guests.
The cottage was carefully restored in 1985, ensuring that its unusual and quirky features remained intact.
A visit to the Swiss Cottage is perfectly paired with a trip to the wonderful Cahir Castle. You can stroll along the riverside to the Swiss Cottage from the castle in about 45 minutes.
36. Ireland’s most haunted castle
You’ll find the haunted Leap Castle 6km north of Roscrea in Coolderry. The castle here is said to be the most haunted in Ireland, with TV shows like Most Haunted filmed here over the years.
According to legend, a lady in red prowls the castle with a silver blade after dark. It all began during the time of the murderous O’Carroll’s, when she was held captive. She gave birth to a baby while in captivity and the baby was killed by one of the O’Carroll’s
Another reason Leap Castle is said to be haunted is due to the discovery of a secret dungeon that contained hundreds of human skeletons. It’s believed that the O’Carrolls would drop people through a trap door onto spikes laid out in the dungeon below.
37. Spike Island (home to ‘Ireland’s Hell’)
You’ll find Spike Island a short ferry ride from the little village of Cobh in Cork. Over the past 1,300 years, the Island has played host to a Monastery, a 24-acre Fortress and the largest convict depot in the world.
At one stage, the Island housed convicts prior to penal transportation. This is where the nickname ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’ originated.
Read more about Spike Island in Cork to discover more about its dark (and pretty damn interesting) past.
Hidden Gems and Secret Spots: Where to Visit in Ireland Have we Missed?
In no way shape or form am I saying that these are the only hidden gems that Ireland has to offer.
If you have another that you think we should add, pop a comment into the comments section below. Cheers!
Best places to see in Ireland: Frequently asked questions
We get a heap of questions from people planning a trip to Ireland. The vast majority of them revolve around where to go in Ireland and what to see.
Below, I’ve lobbed in some of the most frequently asked questions that we get. If you have one that hasn’t been asked, pop it into the comments section!
What are your top 10 places to visit in Ireland?
- Keem Bay on Achill Island
- Valentia Island near Portmagee
- The Kerry Cliffs
- Glendalough in Wicklow
- Croagh Patrick
- The Cliffs of Moher
- Donegal… in general
- Connemara National Park
- Kenmare (would happily live here)
Can you recommend where to go in Ireland in the winter months?
The winter months in Ireland can kill even the most finely planned trips to Ireland. Shorter days combined with bad weather are a terrible combination.
That being said, we get plenty of days of decent weather during the winter (it’s December as I’m writing this and we’ve had 3 days in a row of good weather).
Plan your trip as normal, but ensure that you:
- Are prepare for bad weather
- Have a plan b in place (e.g. an indoor attraction to sub in for an outdoor one if its raining)
What are the best places in Ireland for a hiking holiday?
Personally, I’d go for Wicklow (loads of hike options here) or County Down (the Mournes are incredible. However, there are plenty of hiking options across Ireland.