South-East Ireland: Powerscourt, County Waterford, and County Cork
Our first day leaving Dublin was a journey south. Our goal was to get from downtown Dublin out to Blarney with stops along the way to see Powercourt Castle and Gardens, Kilkenny Castle, Waterford and the Crystal Shop, and Lismore Castle. Originally Waterford wasn’t quite on our list, but some encouragement from a book about places to see before you die had us adding it, and it made a perfect place to stop for the night. You can see all of the places that we stopped at in the embedded map.
Hotel: Waterford Marina Hotel
This was a quaint hotel right on the river in Waterford, which is not a large town. It was walking distance to the main area with all of the restaurants. We were also able to easily walk to the Waterford Crystal tour, which was why we were there. In addition, they had a triple room and parking was included. It was a bit of an odd parking garage system, but it was only one night so it was fine.
Powerscourt Castle and Gardens – This castle and garden is actually just outside of Dublin, and I think they do day tours from the city, but since it was part of our first day of driving, I included it here. The castle itself isn’t very big, and it’s mostly just little shops and a tea room, so don’t expect any state rooms or anything. The gardens are another matter entirely. They’re absolutely huge, and even on a rainy day when not much was in bloom, we enjoyed them immensely. I’d absolutely recommend checking this place out if you have some extra time. Make sure you get a map of the gardens and make your way over to the Japanese Gardens!
Powerscourt Waterfall – This is one of the largest waterfalls in Ireland, and it’s pretty impressive. It’s clear that the locals tend to come here for picnics, so don’t be surprised if it’s crowded on a hot sunny day. There’s plenty of parking though. It does cost 10EUR per car to enter, so make sure you have cash on you. We were probably here for 30-45 minutes climbing over the rocks and taking pictures. The waterfall itself is basically a 2 minute walk from the parking lot, so anyone can do this one.
Kilkenny Castle – Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to tour the inside of Kilkenny Castle, but even the exterior is impressive. It’s an easy town to find street parking in, and you can wander around the castle for a while as well as around town. We found a casual spot to grab some snacks as we walked around between the castle and the Cathedral Church of St. Canice and Round Tower. This was also closed, but it was cool from the outside.
Waterford Crystal Tour – This was an addition to our drive based on a book called 1001 Places to See Before You Die. While most of this book is the cliché places to do and museums, sometimes it throws me a hidden gem, and this was one of them. My grandmother has always been a huge fan of Waterford Crystal and I’m a materials engineer, so I jumped at the chance to see how they make it. The tour we were able to schedule online, and since we picked an early tour on a weekday, it was mostly just the four of us and some older people from a tour bus. It was very informative and they take you right through their factory while their artisans are working. The things they do by hand are incredible. These are some super talented people. I’d definitely recommend the stop if you have the time.
Lismore Castle – Lismore is another hidden gem that we had on our agenda as a stop on the way to something greater. Lismore is a small town, and the castle kind of just appears out of nowhere as you come around a corner. This is another one where you can’t go inside except for the guard tower area, but the gardens are unique. There’s also an art gallery inside the ground floor that had some very interesting pieces on the wall, but I’m sure those change. The parking for the castle is a bit confusing – Google Maps will take you to what is essentially the driveway to the gatehouse, but I’m not sure you can actually park there. We parked in an open lot for a park just around the corner.
Blarney Castle – Of course we had to kiss the Blarney Stone for good luck! That said, I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into. Being afraid of heights is definitely a detriment at this stop. First off, Blarney Castle and Gardens is actually gigantic. You can wander around for hours if you wanted to. The Castle iself is actually more of a ruin than any of the other castles we stopped at on our drive. While they’ve maintained the walls, the ceiling is completely gone, and it’s completely outdoors so no furnishings or anything like that. If you go on a busy day, what we heard is that you’ll find a very long line winding down through multiple floors of the castle. We ended up there on a bit of a rainy day at the very end of their opening hours, so there was basically no one in front of us. We meandered our way up the stairwell and checked out all of the offshoot rooms, learning about the history of the castle. Once you’re on the roof, you’ll wind over to what is essentially a giant gaping HOLE in the floor, where they’ve laid out a mat right over what is the stone. The stone itself is probably a 9 inches lower than the floor so in order to actually kiss it, you have to lay on your back while the guy who “works there” holds you so you don’t fall to your death. There’s a bar for you to (death) grip onto and he’ll tell you exactly where to kiss. They also have a photographer taking a pic for you if you want to pay for it. They do allow you to take your own pictures, so have your camera ready!
What we Missed:
Kilkenny Castle Inside – Unfortunately, due to issues getting the rental car in the morning, we arrived just after 5pm to Kilkenny. While parking near the castle at that time was super easy right on the street, it was already closed so we missed the interior.
Smithwick’s and/or Jameson Experience – we’re just not whisky people, but these are in that area. Smithwicks is right there in Kilkenny, so if you’re there for the castle, it’s an easy second stop in town.
There are a few other attractions that we had on our list – see here for those.
Where we ate/drank:
Powerscourt Cafe - This place was jam-packed the day we went, even though it was raining. It was justified though, because their food was excellent. It's similar to a cafeteria style so you have a bunch of sandwich and salad options. I'd also recommend getting one of their desserts - they're so yummy!
La Fontana - This is an Italian restaurant in Waterford. It's a family-owned business and a lot of the waiters are also from Italy, so you can believe the food is unreal. We got burrata, pasta, and desserts. We were completely stuffed full and basically rolled our way back to the hotel, but it was SO worth it.
General Tips and Tricks:
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.
For 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 :). For more info on driving in Ireland and rental car insurance, see here.
Look into the times that things close before you leave. We realized that we were at Kilkenny in late May, and two days later on June 1st, they extend their hours to 6PM so we would have made it.
Always ask your hotel staff for restaurant recommendations. Especially in small towns, they know the local spots way better than Trip Advisor would.