Just 45 minutes south of Dublin the sounds of Temple Bar fade, the city lights turn to distant specks, and the busy highways turn to dangerously curvy side-roads. As you enter the wilderness of the Wicklow Mountains, purple heather extends for miles ahead of you, transforming into a rich burnt orange in autumn. Grazing sheep wander aimlessly, dotting hillsides and crossing roads. As you pass through the small towns of County Wicklow, charming cottages nestled unassumingly in groves of leafy trees shine with patches of sunlight, giving you a glimpse of their hominess.
It all looks and sounds like a fairytale. And maybe it is.
"This is my one and only life. And it's a great and terrible and short and endless thing."
-- P.S. I Love You (2007), filmed in part in Wicklow Mountains National Park
Why County Wicklow?
Figuring out where to go in Ireland can be a challenge, especially when it is your first time. Most people I talk to want to explore Dublin for a few days, but then they only have a few days left of their week-long trip. That's why County Wicklow is a perfect fit, just an hour or so south of Dublin.
When is the best time of year to visit?
When my husband and I went on our honeymoon, we didn't have much time in Ireland (we did a whirlwind trip through Europe) so beyond Dublin we decided to go to County Wicklow. It was fall. Everything was orange, red, and green. Leaves crunched on the ground and the wind blew us all over the place. But the magic of the place was palpable. Ireland instantly became our home away from home.
But while fall in Ireland has a special place in my heart (and my pocketbook), summer would be an incredible time to go. Fall tends to be the rainy season (though, it's Ireland, so rain can happen any time) so it tends to be the least expensive time to go. But, if you can put up with a little rain and wind, it has spectacular colors and a very cozy feeling. In summer, the purple heather is in bloom, making the landscape gorgeous, and the days are longer, leaving time for pleasant evening strolls.
What about winter and spring? I don't think you can go wrong with a trip to Ireland at any time of year. In spring, the flowers begin to bloom and there are less crowds than in summer. In winter, the occasional snow makes for gorgeous landscapes.
What do I bring for the weather?
Go for layers at any time of year. Bring a warm layer (top and bottom), a real rain coat, sunglasses, comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and an umbrella.
Where to stay?
For optimal sightseeing, we recommend staying in the town of Laragh (pronounced la-rock). Matthew and I had an incredible experience at Trooperstown Wood Lodge. The same owners also run Heather House B&B and both lodges have breakfast at the Wicklow Heather Restaurant, recommended below. If you are looking for a more unique experience, try the Glendalough Hermitage. Drawing from the pilgrimages people have made to the area for centuries, the Hermitage is a place of spiritual peace and tranquility for visitor's from all over the world. Their saying is: "Hospitality is a little food, a little fire and an immense Silence."
What to do?
Spend the day at Powerscourt House & Gardens, taking time to explore the grounds and learn the history. While you are in the area, visit the Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland's highest, and Powerscourt Distillery to learn about the local distilling process. Also check out Glendalough Monastic Site and the surrounding area (including Poulanass waterfall and the caves of St. Kevin), home to a 6th century Christian settlement.
While in Glendalough, hike Upper and Lower Lake, taking advantage of the numerous trails and surrounding sites. For the fullest experience, try the white route or the purple route on the walking trail map provided by Visit Wicklow. The purple route leads to a historic mining settlement and returns the same way while the white route goes all the way around both lakes and takes most of the day. All of the paths provide incredible views and access to wildlife.
Perhaps the best way to get a feel for Ireland is to take a scenic drive or two.
Old Military Road Drive
From Laragh, journey up the Old Military Road (R115). Along the way, stop at various sightseeing spots. Be sure not to miss Glenmacnass Falls and Sally Gap. From Sally Gap, right turn onto R759 towards Tinnehinch. Make a stop at the Lough Tay Viewpoint before taking another right onto the L1036 towards Roundwood. Nearby you will see Victor's Way Indian Sculpture Garden, a garden full of bizarre, macabre sculptures and perhaps the strangest place you will visit in Ireland. Stop for a meal in Roundwood before making your way back to Laragh on the R755.
Wicklow Gap Drive
From Laragh, drive west on the R756 all the way to Hollywood (Ireland, not California). Stop at the historic Glendasan Valley Lead Mines and the Wicklow Gap. Once you get to Hollywood, take a picture at the tongue-in-cheek "Hollywood" sign. If you wish to continue your drive, follow the West Wicklow Heritage Trail. Otherwise, go back the way you came.
West Wicklow Heritage Trail
Follow the map provided from Visit Wicklow to nine different heritage sites and more: Dunlavin, Castleruddy Stone Circle, Baltingglass, Kilranelagh Graveyard, Dwyer MacAllister Cottage, Knickeen Ogham Stone, Donard, and Athgreany Piper Stones.
Where to eat?
In Laragh, try Wicklow Heather Restaurant for any meal. It has a charming interior full of antiques and delicious food. Passing through Roundwood try Byrne & Woods Bar and Restaurant, for impressive cocktails and good grub. Passing through Hollywood, try Hollywood Inn for traditional Irish food done exceptionally well. Finally, on your visit to Powerscourt try Powerscourt Terrace Cafe located within the house. It is a walk up counter with homemade eats that are seriously impressive.
You Should Know . . .
Language: English and Irish (one of the gaelic languages), expect to see signs fully or partly in Irish
Tipping: 10-15% only in restaurants, but check first for a service charge
Driving: There's a serious joke I like to make with people about the size of the roads in Ireland. I say, "Take a highway in the US. Eliminate the shoulders. Eliminate one of the lanes. Make that road a little smaller. Add stone walls on either side. That's a two way road in Ireland."
Outside of Dublin, you are going to want to rent a car to see the best sights. But be warned: driving in Ireland can be difficult. If driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road down curvy single-lane two-way roads scares you, stick to the highways as much as possible. Some roads have four-foot stone walls on either side with blind corners and no shoulder. In many areas you have to pull off to allow other cars (and tourbuses) to come through. Plus, those yellow signs we have in the US to tell us how much to slow down on curves? They don't have those there. So don't say I didn't warn you.
For those SUV drivers in the US, here are some things to take note of:
drive on the opposite side of the car
drive on the opposite side of the road
walls on either side
pull-off points to allow for other cars
small cars have a better time
have insurance or pay
Make it romantic
With Make a Date of It we are always trying to emphasize how to make the everyday romantic. A trip to Ireland can be stressful and hurried or it can be romantic and adventurous. Which do you prefer? Here are a few tips to up the romance on your trip:
Tip #1: Take it slow
With so much to do and see, it is easy to try to cram in too many things. Pick the things you most want to do and designate which days you want to do them on. Then, allot yourself plenty of time. When Matthew and I visited Powerscourt we immediately realized we did not leave enough time to see what we wanted to see. They closed before we got half way through, so we came back the next day to get the full experience.
Tip #2: Be spontaneous
Ireland has many hidden surprises and most of them are not on this list (gasp). Don't be afraid to diverge from the plan a bit and see a new sight or experience something different. When Matthew and I were in Cork we stumbled upon a seanachaí telling stories in the attic of a local brewery. It was one of the best parts of our trip, and completely unexpected.
Tip #3: Find some privacy
In case you didn't know already, Ireland is a pretty touristy place. And for good reason! But that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities for a little privacy. Try sitting together and holding hands in the grotto of Powerscourt's Japanese garden. It's a hidden gem!
Download this 3-Day Itinerary for FREE using GoogleMaps
Day 1: Arrive and Explore
On your way to Laragh from Dublin, go to Powerscourt House and Gardens for the day. See the waterfall and distillery. Eat lunch at the cafe.
Check-in and get settled at your lodgings. Orient yourself with a map of the area.
Eat dinner at one of the place we suggested above, or somewhere that appealed to you upon arrival.
Day 2: Take a Drive
After sleeping to a reasonable hour, wake up and eat breakfast.
Then, go on a scenic drive like one of the ones listed above, and stop at all the best sights and a restaurant along the way.
Eat a romantic dinner and connect with your date.
See a show or listen to live music. Enjoy the local night life.
Day 3: Play and Depart
Eat breakfast and check-out of your lodgings. Store your luggage at the hotel or in your car.
Visit Glendalough for the day. Explore the monastic site, eat lunch, and take a hike around the lakes.
Drive back to Dublin, enjoying the final views along the way.
Feel free to comment or contact me with questions or comments. Enjoy your trip!