“In Ireland there are no strangers.
Just friends you are yet to meet.”
For Kiwis craving authentic experiences in naturally beautiful places, engaging with Ireland’s character-filled locals means an unforgettable journey into the heart of this enchanting island.
Not many destinations around the world can list as an attraction the warmth and humour of the locals but Ireland’s welcoming and witty population tend to ensure a trip to the Emerald Isle is measured in warmth other than that coming from an open fire in a pub.
A few years back, one of the judges of a travel awards competition told the Irish Independent how a friendly smile, a helpful manner and genuine interest in people had helped shape the Irish attitude to visitors: "What visitors constantly come back to is the people they engaged with," he said. "When we ask visitors what it is about the people, it's the smile. Irish people will smile at you, and without a word, that smile uniquely says, 'I'm not a threat, I'm only here to help, how are you getting on?' A smile can say so much; that gets mentioned a lot.
"There's a genuineness to the Irish - they're not being polite because they've been trained to be, it's very relaxed. It's not manufactured friendliness, it's a really authentic connection. They feel Irish people are genuinely interested in where they came from and why they came here, even to the point where the Irish love to say, 'Do you know what you should do…' and give them recommendations of where to go. It really makes Ireland quite magical compared to other destinations."
Oscar Wilde. Sinéad O’Connor. Bono from U2.
Three famous Dubliners proving Ireland’s largest city
is a city where culture thrives – and the craic.
Loosely translated as “enjoyable time spent with others, specially when the banter is amusing”, the term craic has become synonymous with fun and entertainment – and Dublin sets you off on that road with a hearty shove.
Located on the island’s east coast on the banks of the River Liffey, Dublin is a vibrant 1000-year-old city with a population of just over a million people. But is it the people who make the place or the place that shapes its people?
Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: Dublin is jam-packed with historic architecture, fascinating museums, modern cafés, traditional pubs and plenty of stand-out Irish characters.
Meet Dubliners at the Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland (established in 1198) south of Dublin’s River Liffey. Settle in for a pint and a yarn with locals. (The city is regularly listed as the friendliest in the world). Take a seat in the historic music room to enjoy a session of authentic toe-tapping Irish music.
When it comes to the city’s cultural hotspots, most can be found within easy walking, cycling and wheelchair access along Dublin’s River Liffey.
Courtesy Gareth McCormack
To the north of the river, find markets, ethnic eats, 18th century architecture and art and whiskey museums like the Jameson Distillery, one of the most famous whiskey distilleries on the island of Ireland (there are over 40 – and a similar number for gin).
To the south, enjoy galleries, museums, parks and contemporary landmarks like the Windmill Lane Recording Studios where famous Irish bands, including U2, the Cranberries and the Waterboys, recorded albums.
Summer celebrations include the ever-popular Dublin Pride. One of Europe’s biggest LGBTQ+ festivals, today’s event attracts more than 60,000 people from around the world, making it the largest cultural event in Ireland after Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day parade in spring.
A compact city, Dublin’s moderate climate lends itself to getting out-and-about in all seasons. According to citysiders, Dublin really comes into its own in winter with its pretty blue skies and chilly days.
Experience The Liberties, an historic working-class village in the city, on a walking tour guided by a resident of the storied neighbourhood. Other locally led walking tours will take you to the picturesque Howth Head hills on the coastal peninsula surrounding Dublin or through the city’s historic buildings to experience Dublin’s haunted history.
A UNESCO City of Literature, the city hosts Christmas markets, book and comedy festivals, and indoor concerts at venues like 3Arena and Wheelan’s, the city’s popular live music venue on Wexford Street. All that and Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, stages new work for local and international audiences during the festive season too.
As the Irish say, life is all about ‘craic’ – getting together and having a bit of fun. Year-round, Dublin is a great place for exactly that.
Galway, the little city on the west coast, two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Dublin, could easily pass as Ireland’s premier festival city.
A free-spirited, seaside destination known for maintaining its traditional roots, while pushing cultural boundaries, Galway is a city where old and new converge at popular annual festivals like the Galway Film Fleadh and Galway International Arts Festival.
Time your visit for September and you can slurp up your share of the world’s favourite bivalve mollusc at Galway’s popular International Oyster Festival. Followed in October by the city’s annual comedy and jazz festival.
Whether it is part of a festival, or in fact anytime of the year, Galway is famous for traditional music sessions, lively pubs and a rich history and food scene with themed walking tours that take you on a locally guided journey through Galway’s winding cobbled streets.
Good stays run by friendly locals are a hallmark of Galway. Try a local B&B or guesthouse, for example, or select from the character-filled hotels close to Eyre Square and the Latin Quarter.
And while exploring that area you must have a meal at locally-loved Kai Restaurant run by Kiwi chef Jesse Murphy.
And the next day perhaps follow a visit to McDonagh’s traditional fish and chips with a stroll down Salthill Promenade to take in views of the wild Atlantic Ocean.
Regularly touted as one of Ireland’s most exciting cities, Belfast, in Northern Ireland, is also one of its most storied – and you don’t have to go far in Belfast to come across the tragically emotive tale of the RMS Titanic, the world’s biggest ship at the time, built and launched in Belfast more than a century ago.
Belfast isn’t just about the Titanic – there are sights and sounds to be had at the likes of the creative community of the Cathedral Quarter, the Crumlin Road jail, with its links back to the Troubles, St George’s Market and the Grand Opera House. But Belfast has an undeniably maritime feel to it and the Titanic is a big part of that.
City attractions include outdoor exhibits, museums and hi-tech displays, as well as deeper, more personal tours led by well-informed Belfast locals – and there’s even a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels to help you immerse yourself in the Titanic story.
Start by visiting the Titanic Quarter on Belfast’s upgraded and now thriving waterfront, where locals work and play to get among the ship’s heritage. Check out Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor exhibition, on the exact site the ship was constructed.
See the underwater exploration theatre and the remodelled passenger cabins, then head outside again to see the restored slipways where the Titanic was berthed.
Over on Queen’s Road, the Titanic’s design heritage is on display at the recently refurbished Titanic Hotel Belfast. A boutique stay with bedroom design inspired by the Golden Age of Ocean Liners, it also houses a permanent collection of art, artefacts and photos.
Whether Belfast is your Northern Ireland base, or your gateway, you will find some of Ireland’s most iconic and world-renowned sites and attractions just a comfortable drive away. Think the Giants Causeway, Mountains of Mourne, Glens of Antrim, Game of Thrones Studio Tour, Derry-Londonderry, Old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery to name just a few.
From north to south, east to west, Ireland’s bakers, makers and chefs are striving to demonstrate the strong connection between the place a product is grown or made and the plate on which it is presented. The result is amazing food experiences in the bigger cities, as well as in the farmers’ markets, distilleries, pubs, restaurants and food festivals around the island.
Take the Armagh Food and Cider Weekend held each year in September. The popular event in the north takes place in the middle of the apple harvest against a backdrop of gnarled apple trees. The festival heaves with folk sipping zingy ciders as they line up to talk to foodies like Simon Dougan, a local baker whose traditional approach has been passed down through the generations.
The eclectic taste trail of the Dingle Food Festival in the quaint village of Dingle in County Kerry is the highlight of this annual festival in late September.
But word is also out about other foodie events on Ireland’s festival calendar. Today, people travel from around the world for Galway’s International Oyster Festival and Kinsale’s Gourmet Festival.
Yet these are only some of the island’s culinary must-dos. Sleek wine-bars and brasseries are popping up alongside Michelin-starred restaurants in Dublin, Belfast and Cork, while simpler, more relaxed eateries celebrating Ireland’s abundant seafood are making an appearance in coastal townships and villages.
In the wilds of West Cork, Sally Barnes is one of Ireland’s best known sustainable fishers and fish smokers who uses traditional practices dating back through the ages.
Throughout the year, from her base at Woodcock Smokery, she sells fresh fish, hosts tastings and gives workshops on customary smoking, bringing Ireland’s sustainable approach to a whole new audience.
On arrival in County Donegal, pop into the Slieve League Cliffs Centre. Meet the family who run the centre. Find out where to sign up for a guided walk of Slieve League, a wildly picturesque pre-Christian pilgrim trail.
Find the medieval stone houses once lived in by monks by taking a side route in Dingle. The township itself is known for its charming pubs and some of the best ice cream in Ireland.
The Aran Islands, located almost 50km from Galway Bay, provide a unique window into traditional rural life.
Listen to locals chatting in the Irish language as you walk the islands’ narrow lanes. Duck into a cosy pub to listen to traditional musicians and see first-hand what results from holding onto the customs of Irish life.
If it’s a world-famous Aran jumper you’re after, go to the island of Inis Meáin (meaning, the middle one) where the chunky knits are still made. It’s the least visited of the islands – so you might be the only tourist there.
To learn how Ireland came to feature in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, take a side trip to Portmagee, a little village in County Kerry. Filming took place in 2014 but locals still talk about when Luke Skywalker came to town.
For the inside skinny about life on set, drop into the Moorings, a pub on Main Street, or stay at the Butler Arms Hotel, where many of the crew ate, drank and slept.
And you needn’t retreat indoors after the sun goes down. Arrive at the Ring of Kerry to enter one of a handful of Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserves in the world and the only one in the northern hemisphere.
So remote and light-pollution free is this part of the world that you’ll get to stargaze simply by taking an evening walk.
Turn up in August for the annual Skellig Star Party when locals turn out to read the stars and host a barbeque to raise money for a local charity.
How to get there
“ The other queue always moves faster.”
Ireland has five international airports,
each one located in a different region of the rugged 84,400sq km island.
Take a one-stop service from New Zealand,
through Asia, the US or the Middle East, and onto Dublin or Belfast on Ireland’s east coast to kick off your trip with a big city experience.
Arrive in Europe and take an onward flight
to Cork on the south coast or Shannon or Knock on the west coast for a lilted, more laid-back landing.
Whatever gateway you choose and however long your stay, expect extraordinary culture, deep history, top-rate culinary experiences and stunning landscapes.