Driving The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula
After leaving Blarney Castle, we finished our drive in Killarney, which I would basically describe as Ireland’s St. Louis – the gateway to the west! Just kidding – it’s literally nothing like St Louis. Killarney is actually a pretty busy city with plenty of places to eat and shop. We left for the Ring of Kerry the next morning and then came back to Killarney for one more night before heading out to Dingle and up the coast to Limerick. There are a lot of options on the Ring of Kerry, and most people only do the main route, usually by tour bus. I cannot recommend against this enough. It will be a huge mistake. Having our own adventure around both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula was the highlight of our time in Ireland and I am so glad that we had a car. For all of the places we stopped, check out the maps below.
For an overview of our whole trip to Ireland, check out our Google Drive doc here.
Hotel: The Fairview - Killarney
This hotel was actually perfect. We got a triple room with one double bed and one single – the room was large and clean and quiet. The owner of the hotel was wonderful - she gave us all kinds of recommendations from when to leave for the Ring to where to eat at night in town - and she was at the desk when we got there. She escorted us to our room and explained how to use the 100 year old elevator which only fit our luggage. We took the steps up one floor.
The location of this hotel is also perfect. It’s right off of the main road so it’s quiet but still 2 minutes walking distance to all of the restaurants and shopping, they have parking in a lot right next door, and they’re right on the path out of town to the Ring of Kerry and the National Park. They also serve a pretty great breakfast right in the hotel that we absolutely took advantage of because it was included in the price, which was also very reasonable.
Where we ate/drank:
Bricin – This restaurant is a bit difficult to find and you absolutely want to make a reservation as they get full, but it was excellent. The service was fantastic, the food was amazing, and the drinks were good. I highly recommend the duck. My friends also got the local meal - boxty - and they enjoyed it. When you get to the building, to get into the restaurant you need to go upstairs inside the gift shop. Don’t be fooled – it’s not some weird tourist trap. The interior is decorated in old school Irish style, and it's very unique.
Cronins Restaurant - This was a recommendation from our hotel owner, and she was absolutely right. We went by around 7/7:30 but they couldn't accommodate us until 8:30, so I'd recommend getting a reservation or going early to put your name on the list. I know one of us got the steak, one got the shepherd's pie, and I tried their soup of the day and everything was excellent. We even ended up hanging out long after close chatting with two Aussie girls that were in town for a wedding. The staff was excellent and didn't mind that we stuck around. Or at least, they didn't seem disgruntled, which is a great staff in my book.
What we did and saw:
Killarney itself is really great. On the nights that we were there, we spent a lot of time wandering the streets and shopping in the Aran Wool stores. We bought plenty of gifts there not only for friends and family but also for ourselves! The street that Bricin is on is actually closed off to vehicles is I remember correctly, and there are plenty of gift shops and restaurants and bars. It's a safe and easily walkable town.
Killarney National Park
A lot of the drive from Moll's Gap to downtown Killarney is either near or in the National Park. I think there are plenty of hikes that you can do in the area if you have the time.
Day 1 - The Ring of Kerry
The first thing to note when driving the ring of Kerry is that a lot of people say to go opposite direction from the route the tour buses take because then you don’t get stuck behind them. I read a ton of articles about it, and we ended up doing something different. We went the same direction as the buses but left before they did – around 8/8:30AM. This meant that we wouldn’t run into a situation where a bus was coming straight at us and we’d have to pull over as far as we could essentially right on a cliff. In the end, we didn’t see many buses because we did our own thing and stayed off the main road quite a bit. That’s my best advice about the Ring – if you have your own car, make sure you go off the beaten path, especially the Skellig Ring Road, which is one part of the Ring that a bus cannot take - they stay mainly on N70.
Here's some more details about each of our stops along the Ring in order as you go around the road counter-clockwise;
Castle Ruins – Ballycarberry Castle
This was probably asking for trouble because this road was technically "closed" and it was a rough ride, but it was a quick and cool stop and we weren’t the only ones that went to see it. You can’t/shouldn’t get too close to the ruins, but there’s so few people in the area and it’s so wide open that it makes for some awesome pictures (see the second photo in the collage up top). We were only there for probably 5-10 minutes.
This lighthouse is a bit off the ring road, but it’s so worth it. You’ll also have to pay here, but I promise the view from the top of the lighthouse is worth it. The drive down the hill to it – slightly scary to be honest, but again – worth it. Once you get into the lighthouse grounds, look for the man who works there – he’ll give you a tour and a history lesson. He’ll even walk up to the top of the lighthouse with you and point out the sights from the view. It does get pretty windy and cold, so make sure you have long sleeves, even on a sunny day. If it’s clear, you should be able to see all the way to the Dingle Peninsula. The views with the rocks also make for great photos. We did stay here for a bit longer than we probably should have - around 30 minutes.
Kerry's Best Cliffs
While the Cliffs of Moher are absolutely the more popular location in the country, I thought these were more interesting. You’ll have to pay to park and then you can wander around. The cliffs here are much less touristy than Moher, and they’re much more rugged. They're also off the main Ring of Kerry, so you'll want to follow signs for them if you don't have them in your google maps already.
St. Finian’s Bay & the Skellig Ring Road
Staigue Stone FortThe Skellig ring Road, which the cliffs are a part of, is technically separate from the main Ring of Kerry, and the tour buses cannot get around this road, so you’ll definitely need your own car or a small tour van. It’s by far the most impressive views on the Ring of Kerry, so I highly recommend it. The drive itself gives you plenty of water views, and we stopped at St. Finian’s Bay to take pictures and enjoy the weather. I’d recommend maybe using this spot for a picnic. That said, you aren’t supposed to go in the water so pay attention to the signs.
Staigue Stone Fort
This stone fort is also off the main path, and you’ll end up in the hills and suddenly come upon a circular stone fort. It was pretty fun to run around and climb up on and take pictures. We were only there for probably 10-15 minutes but it was worth the drive. There were barely any other people there too which made it more magical.
Kenmare is one of the major cities on the ring road. If you go clockwise, it’ll probably be your stop, but because it was on our way back, we stopped and wandered around and grabbed food on the main street. There’s plenty of places where you can eat outside, but you’ll probably need to run inside to grab a menu from the bar.
When I read about Torc, there were reviews that if you go up the 100 steps you’ll see the waterfall but if you keep going just a bit farther you’ll get an amazing view. So first of all, the waterfall is cool and it’s not too tough to get to. However, the “amazing view” I was promised if we kept going never came and we kept going for probably 10-15 minutes on pretty steep ground. At the end of a long day, my friends were not happy with me for continuing, so we turned back.
Our last stop of the day was Ross Castle right at the edge of Killarney (see the picture above for an idea of hat it looks like). This spot was pretty crowded around 6pm with both local families and tourists. You can tour the inside of the castle if you go at the right times, but we had missed it by the time we got there. It was okay though, because just wandering around it was picturesque. I can easily see why the locals like to hang out there. We actually thought about going back for sunset as well, but we were too exhausted.
Day 2 - Muckross House, the Gap of Dunloe, The Dingle Peninsula and the Coastal Drive
Muckross House & Gardens
We visited Muckross House the 2nd morning out of Killarney before heading up to the Dingle Peninsula. While we saw plenty of castles and large estate homes during our time in Ireland, this was definitely the newest and best tour. The entire estate has a guided tour that will tell you history of the house and explain the décor and the family who built it and lived there. This is also another one of the castles that's on the Heritage Card, so having either that our a student ID will get you in for a discounted rate. I do wish we had a bit more time to explore the gardens and grounds as they're huge and kept in meticulous condition right on the lake.
The Gap of Dunloe
The Gap was also a stop on our second day out of Killarney after visiting the Muckross House. google Maps will take you to the end of a road where you'll find a parking lot and a shop + tea house. If you walk just past those, you'll see a bunch of horse-drawn carriages available for hire. These will take you all the way out into the Gap itself, but we didn't quite have time for that. Instead, we decided to walk probably a mile out on the road (which is only available to drive for residents) and ended up with pretty gorgeous vies of the landscape. I think the horse drawn carriage would have taken about 4+ hours, and we did the walk and took pictures and came back in probably an hour. It's absolutely worth a stop, even if you don't do the whole day experience.
The Dingle Peninsula
The video is a look at our time in Dingle and the hike up to Eask Tower
The Drive From Killarney
The drive from Killarney once you hit the peninsula is incredible. I’d say even better views than the Ring of Kerry. You’ll pass multiple beaches crowded with locals if it’s a nice day. We actually pulled off the side of the road at one point and climbed down some rocks to take some of my favorite pictures of the coast.
Dingle itself is pretty cute and also more bustling than I expected. We had lunch at one of the local pubs (they had really great squash soup) and then wandered up and down the streets for a bit. We were able to park in town just past the main drag in a lot off to the left.
I found Eask Tower on trip advisor as one of the top attractions in Dingle, but when we got out to the start of the “hike” we were the only ones there! I think it’s perhaps because it’s out of town about 15 minutes and the tour buses bring people to town but there’s no obvious way to leave town. That said, this hike was one of my favorite things we did in all of Ireland. You’ll know you’re at the rught spot because there’s a little hut right next to a gate that opens into a sheep farm. The land that the tower is on is privately owned by a farmer, but the hut at the start has a note saying you’re welcome to go up if you donate €2. Considering how much other things in Ireland cost, this was an absolute steal. Once you pay you can open the gate yourself and you’ll go up the hill straight through the middle of the sheep farm. They are pretty skittish, so don’t be surprised if they run away from you, but you can still get some pretty great, up-close pictures of sheep. Once you get past the next gate you’ll take a bit of a winding path up to the top. You’ll always know where you’re going because A. The path is pretty obvious on the ground and B. The tower itself is big enough that you’ll always be able to tell which way you’re going. Once you get to the top, you’ll be able to see all the way back to the Kerry peninsula on a clear day. The sheep do wander up there too so you may get lucky and get a shot with them in it.
The Drive up the Coast
We decided to take Conor Pass on our way off the peninsula instead of taking the main highway, and once again we were treated to unreal views. It did take us a bit longer than the highway option, but we wanted to catch the sunset off the coast on our way up to Limerick and the best way to do that was via the pass. I will say it’s a bit of a sketchy drive because it’s so tight in some places, but as long as you’re careful you’ll be just fine. It’s definitely worth the extra time! You'll have to add it to google maps, otherwise it'll take you back the way you came.
Ballybunion and the coastal drive
Once you come down from the pass, you take the coastal road up towards Limerick. I basically just went into google maps and picked a city that looked like it would have a place to eat and was on the water. When we pulled into Ballybunion (yep that really is its name) we were so pleasantly surprised. We parked at the grocery store and wandered toward the water in search of some dinner. Unfortunately, it was late on a Sunday so almost everything was closed except a fried chicken and pizza place that was not impressive. Probably should have gone into the grocery store and gotten some snacks. What we didn’t realize is that Ballybunion is actually a beach town. They have a massive beach with cliffs going up either side and a castle ruin at the top. It’s another one of those magical small towns that you won’t find anywhere but the Irish coastline. I’m so glad we stopped there!
We got into Limerick pretty late and had already eaten so we didn’t actually leave the hotel that night. We did see some super cute-looking restaurants on the river so if you’re hungry there are definitely options. Id recommend asking your hotel or Air BnB host for suggestions because we did hear that Limerick isn’t the safest city in Ireland.
What we Missed:
MacGillycuddy Reeks - Honestly I'm not quite sure what this is, but it's on a lot of the tour websites, so it seems we missed it :)
The half/full day Gap of Dunloe Tour - as I mentioned above, this tour on horse-drawn carriage is a 4+ hour thing, so if you have the time, it's probably great. Otherwise just walk as far as you can.
Skellig Michael - This is actually something I wish that we had the time to do. You can take a boat tour out to Skellig Michael islands and see the stone splinter buildings, including the Christian monastery. It's a World Heritage sight, so you know it's something special. It does, however, take up quite a few hours, and you have to go on a nice day otherwise the boat trip will be pretty miserable.
The General Tips and Tricks:
As I mentioned above, do the Ring of Kerry counter-clockwise but leave before the buses do. You'll probably read a lot of blogs saying to go opposite direction of the buses, but we found this to be better than having to pull over on a cliff to let a bus pass us.
Look into buying a Heritage Card – this is a good way to get entry into a lot of the historic places all over Ireland. You can get a great deal if you’re a student too.
or driving around this area, just a word of warning, the M roads are real highways, the Ns are basically country roads, and anything else is more or less slightly wider than one lane and you should be very careful going around corners J. For more info on driving in Ireland and rental car insurance, see my blog about that.
Always ask your hotel staff for restaurant recommendations. Especially in small towns, they know the local spots way better than Trip Advisor would.
For the continuation of our trip, see the following:
Limerick, Galway and the coast