UK & Ireland

Your bucket list: The most beautiful places in Ireland

With every bend on the road offering an epic view or beguiling backstory the most beautiful places in Ireland have to be truly extraordinary to make our cut

From the sweeping County Clare coastline to the cobbled medieval lanes of Kilkenny or the forlorn, windswept island of Skellig Michael, Ireland offers a rainbow of Instagram magic.

Whether your choices lead you to the great outdoors in an incredible sandy setting like Keem Bay in Mayo or to a towering architectural backdrop like the Rock of Cashel, you’re covered with these top ten unforgettably beautiful Irish settings.

1. Keem Bay: Ireland's most beautiful beach

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Flanked by two giant foliage shrouded cliffs, Keem Bay lies on the westerly shores of Achill Island and is accessible by a twisting narrow road forged into the mountainside. It’s the crescent shaped, flaxen sandy beach nestled below the cliffs that lures visitors to remote Keem Bay from the more popular locations along County Mayo’s coastline.

For the best views of this sheltered cove and its turquoise Atlantic backdrop, pull in on approach for a moment before descending the mountainside or hike 10 minutes up the hillside adjoining the car park at the beach to breath in the full magnitude of the landscape. Note: Access to Achill Island is by bridge from the mainland.

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2. Kilkenny City: Ireland's most beautiful city centre

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Kilkenny Castle, an 800 year old citadel, is the epicenter of the city’s network of cobbled lanes, handsome Georgian terraces and stone Tudor houses. From 13th Century Saint Canice’s Cathedral step back in time by following the Medieval Mile, a way marked walking route that curves its way along Kilkenny’s time-warped streetscape.

Behind the historic facades of its main streets is a vibrant and cosmopolitan pub and cafe scene. Stop by Kyteler’s Inn, once owned by Ireland’s first condemned witch, where ale has flowed for centuries. In fact, brewing ale was the backbone of the local economy from the middle ages and that history is explored at the Smithwick’s Experience on Parliament Street and Sullivan’s Taproom on John Street.

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3. Skellig Michael: Ireland's most beautiful island

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Bracing the full force of the Atlantic, this uninhabited rock rises 712 foot over the ocean and despite its jagged, foreboding appearance – it was the home of early Christian monks for hundreds of years. They carved 600 steps into the side of the mountainside that leads to a monastic settlement of 6th century beehive cells and a graveyard.

Now a UNESCO world heritage site- its remote, end of universe beauty captured the attention of Hollywood and the world when it became Luke Skywalker’s home in ‘Star Wars -The Force Awakens’ (2015) The cliff edge is filled with birds – including puffins – which were the genesis for Porgs – the fictional creatures that inhabited the island in the movie.

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4. Trinity College: Ireland's most beautiful university

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Trinity College is the pivot of Dublin City Centre; the axis point for all important cultural, economic and architectural landmarks. Its symmetrical west front occupies the full breath of College Green and is decorated with a series of limestone Corinthian columns, vast Venetian windows and an oak arched passageway that leads into the college grounds.

Once inside, the bustle of the city dissipates in a veritable suburban oasis – a space filled with statues, large greens, trees, a cut stone campanile and the ‘sphere within a sphere’ – a giant golden orb situated outside the Berkeley Library. The various faculty buildings are a collage of architectural design, some finished in Portland stone – others in brick. It was a setting for the lock-down hit television series ‘Normal People.’

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5. Connemara: Ireland's most beautiful landscape

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Connemara’s windswept landscape of contrasting beauty; from its westerly seaboard beaches, across its mountain ranges, lush valleys, misty boglands, to dark brooding lakes or brightly painted fishing villages nestled by the ocean – is unique and starkly beautiful.

Linger for a while at Kylemore Abbey, a splendid Neo-Gothic castle on a lakeside with a Victorian walled garden before exploring the park’s wild hinterlands that lie in the shadow of the Twelve Bens’ silver peaks. Drive or cycle the coast road and stop at the pretty harbor village of Roundstone before continuing to Sky Road – a trail where landscape, ocean and the heavens collide.

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6. Limerick City: Ireland's most beautiful riverfront

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Meander along the shoreline of The Shannon, the longest river in Ireland and Great Britain, while taking in Limerick City’s Medieval backstory. The river guides you over a series of stone bridges while the thick fortress walls and battlements of King John’s Castle dominate the skyline.

Capture it at its best in early evening when lamplight is reflected in ripples beneath the bridges and the city’s floodlit landmarks appear to float over their reflection on the water. Then sidestep to George’s Quay in the shadow of Saint Mary’s Cathedral and linger at a cafe or pub beneath the lantern lit trees that line the riverfront.

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7. County Clare: Ireland's most beautiful coastline

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County Clare’s coast has 60 miles of ocean views with the Aran Islands constantly on the horizon from Loop Head all the way to Black Head. The scenery climaxes with the staggering cliff top setting at the Cliffs of Moher, from 700 feet over the Atlantic. Lesser seen Loop Head offers a vertiginous, coastal hugging drive with blowholes and a compact lighthouse with marvelous oceanic views.

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8. Gougane Barra: Ireland's most beautiful lake setting

This off radar, peaceful valley, where silver streams, craggy mountains and alpine forest converge on the banks of a lake is one of the most beautiful settings in Ireland. A short causeway leads to a tiny island chapel with stained glass windows that looks like it might hover off across the glacially clear waters at any moment.

Saint Finbarr, patron saint of cork, established his monastery here in the 6th century and close to the chapel on the island is the remains of a hermitage. There are trails leading up the mountainside for panoramic views of the magical backdrop of green, blue and grey.

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9. The Rock of Cashel: Ireland's most beautiful building

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Rising 200 feet over the lush green Tipperary countryside, this panoply of ancient ruins looks like it has been carved by nature – with a round tower and a stunning 12th century Romanesque chapel crowning a limestone outcrop. The fortress is enclosed by a circular stone wall, and contains some of the finest examples of medieval European architecture.

Cormac’s Chapel is adorned with impossibly detailed masonry; carved arches, doorways or vignettes featuring an intricate centaur, grotesques and lion. For the best view – stop by nearby Hore Abbey to get the building’s magnificent scale and otherworldly setting perched on top of its naturally formed pedestal.

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10. Avondale: Ireland's most beautiful forest

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Once the estate of the statesman Charles Stewart Parnell, County Wicklow’s Avondale became the cradle of forestry with the pioneering and planting of the ‘Great Ride’ – a tree lined avenue that was the first of its kind in Ireland. Sequoia, spruce, exotic trees and shrubbery guarantee a vibrant melody of blossom and leaf in any season.

The 500 acres offers a network of wooded walks leading to a river, each with a unique theme – the cairn, pine tree, exotic tree or heath walks are all well signposted. The Railway Walk weaves through the forest, linking the estate to the pretty village of Rathdrum. It follows the path taken by Parnell when he would leave his Avondale House (currently being developed by the Irish tourism board) to take the train to Dublin.

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