Beyond the stereotypes, Ireland and Northern Ireland are as characterful and fascinating as is any of their most colourful depictions. Take the time to explore; away from the city centres lie dramatic scenery perfectly suited to outdoor action and water sports, plus isolated secret spots to rival anywhere in the world. Whether it's escaping to Kerry's coast or marvelling at the Giant's Causeway, there's a host of unforgettable experiences in store Here's our pick of the highlights.
Often associated with rowdy St Patrick's Day celebrations and lairy stag dos, Dublin actually has far more to offer. It may be another Dublin cliché, but the city's literary past is fascinating. Visit the haunts of Bram Stoker and wonder where the Irish author found inspiration for Dracula, or take a literary pub crawl and commune with the ghosts of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and WB Yeats (dublinpubcrawl.com). Pop into the free National Museum of Ireland to see 2000-year-old bog people - human corpses naturally preserved in bogs over the centuries - who historians believe were sacrificed to gods of fertility.
With culture out of the way St Patrick’s Day in Dublin is likely to be one of the best parties you've ever stumbled through. Between March 17-20, thousands of Irish people: and visitors flock to the city for boozing, Irish music, and parade of street theatre troupes, dancers and marching bands.
DON'T MISS: Learn how to pull a perfect pint at the Guinness Storehouse, then knock back a pint in its 360- degree bar. which affords knockout city views. Guinness' advertising hall of fame is well worth a look as it includes commercials that date back to 1929.
Small. friendly Galway city epitomises what's brilliant about Ireland; it's brimming with history and atmosphere. Galway city centre is pedestrianised and this, along with the laid-back vibe, makes pottering around the sights - in which you should include the Claddagh area, birthplace of the eponymous ring - feel almost festival-esque. During St Patrick's Day the whole 'ns into one giant party and Galway can hold its own with Dublin on this one. Another social highlight is the Galway Oyster Festival (galwayoysterfest.com) in September. Only a short drive from Galway City, the mountaintops and vast bogs of Connemara feel wild and open and the coastline is stunning.
DON'T MISS: Ireland’s School of Falconry, in the dramatic Ashford Castle, is the oldest in the country and you’ll get a chance to fly your own bird of prey and see harris hawks, peregrine falcons and an eagle owl (falconry.ie).
Cork city, on the banks of the river Lee, is a buzzing university town. renowned for its food. The surrounding countryside is some of Ireland's most stunning. The coastline of west Cork, with its cliffs and ocean, is breath-taking. Sherkin Island, off the southwest coast, is wild and beautiful. Take the ferry over (tickets £8; sherkinisland.eu). Despite having an average population of 100, there are two pubs. The island is known for its high proportion of artists, writers and musicians Ireland's second-largest city, Cork is packed with boozers and tempting places to eat. Seafood in particular is a specialty. The town has been dubbed 'Ireland's little Venice' thanks to its bridges decked with twinkling lights.
DON'T MISS: Cobh, in County Cork, was the Titanic's last port of call and the town, with its tra9ic past, is worth a visit if the story fascinates you. Commemorative events continue until the end of the year (titanic100.ie).
Limerick is the county for cyclists, with almost 100km of bike trails snaking through scenic countryside. Limerick City, on the banks of the Shannon, has a lively centre and prides itself on food! Learn how to whip up local specialties at its newly opened cookery school (abbeycookeryschool.ie) and pick fresh produce at the food market (milkmarketlimerick.ie). You can skim past the main sights in a day, but', but make sure you take in John's Castle on King's Island, which contains the remains of a Viking settlement.
Sights seen, it's time to get on your bike. The Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Trail is Ireland's largest bicycle network of its kind, with 98km of trails to suit every level of prowess
DON'T MISS: The lively Limerick Riverfest takes place on the May bank holiday weekend. Expect a feast of live music, street performances. fashion shows and art workshops (Jimerick.ie/riverfest). The Great Limerick Run takes place on the same weekend Igreatlimerickrun.com.
Wild and romantic, the mountains, coast and beaches of Kerry are a nature-lover's paradise. The unspoilt Killarney National Park is all awe-inspiring mountains, ancient forests and shimmering lakes, perfect for hikers, “You might even glimpse herds of Irish Red Deer. From Killarney, begin the Ring of Kerry trail (you'll need a car for this one) which takes in gorgeous beaches, Iron Age forts, ancient monasteries and some of Ireland's prettiest villages.
DON'T MISS: Often making 'most beautiful in the world...' lists, the Dingle Peninsula, which stretches 48km into the Atlantic Ocean, is topped with mountains and tapers into steep cliffs and sandy beaches. The highlight is Fungie the Dolphin, a wild bottlenose dolphin who lives in Dingle i harbour and obligingly plays with the tourist boats which set out to greet him (dingledolphin.com).
Antrim, Northern Ireland, is home of the Giant's Causeway as well as being the county in which most of Belfast lies. Belfast has become one of Europe’s trendiest cities and is crammed with stylish bars, gourmet restaurants and pumping nightclubs. lt's also where the "Titanic was built and as such has a number of attractions based around the historic tragedy, including the brand- new Titanic Belfast museum (titanicbelfast.com).
One of nature's most impressive feats, the Giant's Causeway, with its 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. Resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, according to legend it was carved from the coast by the giant, Finn McCool. Nearby cliffs are teeming with birds.
DON'T MISS: Take the two-day North Coast Canoe Trail sea-kayaking route around the top of Northern Ireland for the chance to paddle up to the Giant's Causeway rather B than climb down to it from a car park (canoeni.com).
IRISH MYTHS AND LEGENDS
Whether or not most Irish people believe in the country's rich legacy of myths and legends, the stories are entertaining stuff.
Perhaps the most accessible is the infamous Blarney Stone 600-year-old Blarney Castle, Country Cork. After climbing the castle's narrow staircase, prostrate yourself on the roof, grab the adjacent wall, and, upside down, plant a smacker on the well-worn stone. Doing so is said to give the kisser the 'gift of the gab’: an ability to speak eloquently and charm anyone. Famous garrulous Blarney Stone-kissers include Mick Jagger, Billy Connolly and Winston Churchill.
Come to symbolise 'Irishness' the world over, the three-leafed shamrock has been a symbol of good luck for centuries. The druids originally believed the plant had evil-banishing powers and, later. the Celts also subscribed to the clover's sacred properties. Finally, Christians hijacked the symbol, claiming the three leaves represent the Holy Trinity.
Equally famous but perhaps harder to procure on a short holiday is the leprechaun. These little green-clad sprites are said to appear to human as old man. Legend has it that leprechauns store gold inn a pot which they hide, rather unsubtly, at the end of the rainbow. If you’re lucky enough to catch one, he must grant you three wishes before you have to let him go.