6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

Day trips from Dublin will take you to seaside escapes, historic houses, ancient sites and the Wicklow Mountains © no_limit_pictures / Getty Images

Dublin is Ireland's big hitter – a richly layered city full of culture, community spirit and character – but when you tire of urban exploration, there's plenty to see in the surrounding countryside, from days by the sea to fascinating sacred sites.

Whether you go by hire car or public transport, a day trips from Dublin will take you beyond the tourist crowds at Temple Bar and Trinity College to sites that capture the rich history of these green hills – grand country houses, prehistoric sites, religious hubs and dramatic scenery that inspired singers and poets.

Here's our pick of the best day trips from Dublin.

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Glendalough, for sacred history and heavenly scenery

Although it’s only 25km (15.5 miles) south of Dublin, the scenic valley of Glendalough feels like another world, tucked into the craggy valleys of Wicklow Mountains National Park, the jewel of County Wicklow. Two lovely lakes set in a glacier-carved glen provide the backdrop for one of Ireland’s most impressive monastic settlements.

Established by St Kevin in the sixth century, this early Christian complex flourished in medieval times to become one of the largest monastic sites in Ireland. The impressive remains include a towering 10th-century round tower, the 12th-century Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul and several smaller churches, plus an atmospheric graveyard.

Nine walking trails snake around this atmospheric complex, ranging from 1km (0.6 miles) to 11km (7km) – leaflets on these and other local trails that are good for birdwatching are available to download, or you can buy them on site. Highlights include the Upper Lake, where you can explore another cluster of ancient stones. Look out for St Kevin’s Bed, a shallow cave where the saint is said to have lived.

How to get to Glendalough: Glendalough is about 1 hour 20 minutes southwest of Dublin by car. If you don't have your own vehicle, you can visit as part of an organized coach trip such as the Wild Wicklow Tour or with Dublin Sightseeing Tours (combined with a trip to Powerscourt), or take St Kevin’s Bus which departs twice daily from central Dublin.

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6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

Glendalough is one of Ireland's most stunning glacial valleys © Anna Gorin / Getty Images

Powerscourt Estate, for a taste of how Ireland's other half lived

The epitome of 18th-century aristocratic elegance, Powerscourt Estate was laid out in the 1730s by Richard Cassels, the greatest Irish architect of the Georgian era. Dominated by the grand Palladian mansion of Powerscourt House, the landscaped gardens are among the finest in the country, with gorgeous views across an ornamental lake to the conical peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

It's easy to fill a day gamboling around the formal gardens, with their terraces, towers and sculptures. 
The handsome fountain was modeled on a fountain in Rome’s Piazza Barberini. A map available at the ticket desk outlines various walking trails to follow. Look out for the Pets Cemetery, the final resting place of much-loved dogs and ponies (and even a dairy cow) belonging to former owners, the Wingfield family.

To help you make a day of it, Powerscourt House has a selection of upmarket shops, a well-stocked garden center and the Avoca Terrace Cafe, with more enticing views from the outdoor tables.

How to get to Powerscourt: The estate is 18km (11 miles) south of Dublin – less than an hour by car. Dublin Bus 44 departs every hour to the nearby village of Enniskerry, a 25-minute walk from the estate. You can also visit as part of a tour with Bus Éireann or Dublin Sightseeing Tours, visiting Glendalough on the same trip.

6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

The lush grounds of Powerscourt House are a calm escape from Dublin's bustle © alredosaz / Shutterstock

Brú na Bóinne, where ancient Ireland comes to life

The fertile valley of the River Boyne, 40km (25 miles) northwest of Dublin, was once the focus of a thriving prehistoric civilization. Tantalizing elements of ancient history remain, including Newgrange, one of the most remarkable passage tombs in Europe, which dates from 3200 BCE – some six centuries older than the great pyramids of Egypt.

Today, the various relics in the valley are preserved as Brú na Bóinne, a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are three passage tombs here of global importance – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Of these, Newgrange is the most impressive; its beautifully constructed, circular drystone walls measure 80m (263ft) across and 13m (43ft) high, encompassing around 200,000 tonnes of earth and rock. 

Visitors enter Newgrange via a narrow, claustrophobic passage guarded by huge carved stones decorated with spiral patterns, to reach a burial chamber that once held cremated human remains. The passage is aligned so that it floods with light from the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice (an artificial illumination ceremony replicates the effect for visitors at other times). Access to the interior is only by guided tour and you’re advised to book ahead during the summer.

Filling out the experience at Brú na Bóinne is a superb modern interpretive center, whose design echoes the architecture of nearby tombs. Inside, you can view a fascinating series of exhibits on the pre-Celtic history of Ireland and a life-size replica of the Newgrange burial chamber.

How to get to Brú na Bóinne: If you're driving, it takes less than an hour to get here from Dublin by car, going north along the M1. Another option is to take the train to Drogheda, then a taxi to the visitor center. Alternatively, Mary Gibbons Tours will pick you up from your hotel for a guided visit.

6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

Newgrange is one of the most dramatic tombs in all Ireland © Stephan Hoerold / Getty Images

Castletown House, for a reminder of Ireland's cosmopolitan grandeur

At the time of his death in 1729, lawyer, politician and tax commissioner William Conolly was the richest man in Ireland. Grand Castletown House was built as his country residence in 1722, and it’s the oldest and most imposing Palladian mansion in the country.

Set in the lush green countryside of County Kildare, 20km (12 miles) west of Dublin, Castletown was based on designs by Italian architect Allesandro Galilei, and extended by the young Irish architect Edward Lovett Pearce, recently returned from a Grand Tour of Italy. 

The opulent interior reflects influences drawn from across Italy: polished marble, ornate plasterwork, Ionic columns, silk damask wall coverings and Aubusson carpets. The highlight is the Long Gallery, hung with chandeliers, swathed in exquisite stucco work and decorated with marble busts and family portraits.

A forty-minute walk from Castletown Estate is the so-called Wonderful Barn, a bizarre conical folly with an external spiral staircase, looking for all the world like a wizard's tower. It was commissioned by Conolly’s widow, Katherine, in 1743 to provide employment for local people during a time of economic hardship in County Kildare.

How to get to Castletown House: It takes about 40 minutes to reach Castletown by car via the M4. Otherwise, bus 67 from Dublin will drop you at the gates of the estate, a 15-minute walk from the house.

Howth village, for a taste of the Irish seaside

Just 9km (5.6 miles) northeast of Dublin city center – only 30 minutes away by DART train – Howth is a pretty harbor village set on a rocky peninsula that offers bracing clifftop walks with great coastal views. Come on Saturday, Sunday or a Bank Holiday Monday and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Howth Market, a scrum of stalls selling everything from artisan food to Irish crafts, jewelry and antiques.

Behind the village lies Howth Castle, home to the Gaisford-St Lawrence family since the 12th century. It’s open to the public for guided tours during the summer or through tour operators. At other times you’re free to wander around the castle grounds, famed for their early summer displays of colorful rhododendrons and azaleas. For a wilder experience and amazing sea views, try the Howth Cliff Walk Loop, starting from the train station.

The Oar House, set amidst the bustle of the fishing harbor’s West Pier, is the ideal spot for a seafood lunch – from fish and chips to sea bass fillets with fennel and dill and lemon dressing. Island Ferries run trips from the harbor to Ireland’s Eye, a small island with the ruins of a 6th-century monastery. It’s also a nature reserve, with seabirds nesting here in large numbers and seals basking on rocks around the shore.

How to get to Howth: It takes half an hour to reach Howth by car in good traffic – expect the journey to take longer in weekend traffic. DART trains run from central Dublin to Howth every 20 to 30 minutes.

6 top day trips from Dublin to take you to the heart of Ireland

Amazing sea views and amazing seafood are both available at Howth © Xin Tan / 500px

Bray Head cliff walk, for breathtaking coastal views

For coastal landscapes with real drama, spend some time exploring the old seaside town of Bray. Once a popular holiday spot, the beachfront has a wonderful promenade with an old-fashioned aquarium, ice cream parlors and fading hotel facades.

From the base of Bray Head, at the seafront's southern edge, a signposted path runs for 7km (4.4 miles) along the clifftop to Greystones. En route, look out for black harbor porpoises, dolphins and basking sharks in the grey-blue waters. Birdlife includes sparrowhawks, kestrel falcons and hen harriers; on land, you might spot Ireland's only reptile, the viviparous lizard.

Arrive hungry in Greystones and pay a visit to the Happy Pear vegetarian cafe for some healthy but ridiculously tasty nourishment. Fans of sea swimming should pack a towel; Greystones is a popular spot for a dip, though the water can be bracing.

How to get to Bray: It's an easy 40-minute drive south to Bray along the M11. Alternatively, take the DART train from the city center to Bray, and return via the DART train from Greystones.  There are also bus routes from Dublin city center, but the journey can take twice as long as the train and it's not as pretty.

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