Ireland’s verdant green countryside is dotted with castles, from imposing stately edifices to atmospheric ruins, and no visit is complete without climbing to the turret-top of at least one of these beauties. Whether you’re looking for weekend activities to keep the kids busy, or you fancy swatting up on your Celtic legends and Irish history, here are our pick of the best Irish castles for you to explore.
1. Dublin Castle, Dame St. Dublin
There may be no turrets here, and not even a hint of a moat, but this collection of historic buildings in the heart of the Fair City is still well worth a visit. Wander at will around the outside of the Norman Tower, the nineteenth century Chapel Royal and eighteenth century Bedford Hall or take the tour of the State Apartments – the guided tours are well worth the extra €2. Standard admission is €8.50, while for children it’s €3 with or without the guided tour. Open seven days a week until early evening (4:45pm), it’s the perfect place to get some culture in before you hit the bars.
2. Cahir Castle, Co. Tipperary
One of Ireland’s best preserved castles, Cahir still has its keep, tower, walls and battlements, as well as a portcullis in full working order. Cross onto its rocky island in the middle of the River Suir to explore the thirteenth century complex. Don’t miss the scale model of what the castle looked like in the medieval period. Those of you lucky to bag Gravity Festival tickets this year will enjoy live music and street food all within the castle’s walls – Cahir is home to the annual charity event each September.
3. Kilkenny Castle, The Parade, Kilkenny
Commanding a crossing on the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle dominates the eponymous city and demands a visit. Restored to its 1830s glory, the interior is truly lavish and on a tour here you’ll see the library, the drawing room and the impressive Long Gallery, which occupies an entire wing. Guided tours cost no extra, though you may have to wait in summer as it can get busy – it’s worth noting that entrance is by guided tour only November to January. Open daily
4. Doe Castle, Co. Donegal
Doe Castle provides a masterclass in natural defences, surrounded by water on three sides and built into the rock on the fourth. But man had his hand in building the castle’s reputation as one of the strongest fortresses in northwest Ireland; the sixteenth century tower has walls so thick (some eight feet) that the dungeon could be located on the third floor. The castle achieved more modern notoriety in 2001 when Brian McFadden proposed to Kerry Katona here. Admission is free, though the interior isn’t open to the public.
Here’s your chance to be king (or queen) of the castle for a night. This fairytale-perfect thirteenth century castle was once owned by the Guinness family and is now a five-star hotel with 82 guest rooms, including the Presidential Suite with original fireplace and views over Lough Corrib. Although if you want the royal treatment it’s going to cost you, as rooms start at €305 a night! Can’t stretch to that? Go for afternoon tea instead, served daily in the spectacular Connaught Room for the princely sum of €34 per person (plus 15% service charge).
6. Bunratty Castle, Co. Clare
Bunratty Castle is Ireland’s most complete medieval fortress, restored in 1954 using fifteenth and sixteenth century furnishings and works of art to return it to its original 1425 splendour. Feast on an authentic medieval banquet inside the castle’s great dining hall (€53.50), or visit during the day to check out the Folk Park, a sympathetic recreation of a 19th century village completed with post office and pub, populated by actors in period dress. Arrive along the N18 between Limerick and Ennis.
7. Donegal Castle, Bridge Street, Donegal
Persian rugs, French tapestries and fine Jacobean architecture unrivaled in beauty and style by any other of its kind in Ireland; it’s hard to imagine that before the 1990s Donegal Castle sat in ruins. Now, proudly restored and standing tall on the banks of the River Eske, it makes for a fascinating visit in the heart of this pleasant little town.
You’ve heard of the Blarney Stone, of course, but there’s much more to this castle than just the chance to grab the ‘gift of the gab’ by kissing the legendary Stone of Eloquence. Keep your hands to yourself in the Poison Garden and stick to the boardwalk through the bog, before climbing the steps to the stone (you know you want to) and joining the queue to lean backwards off the parapet and kiss the stone. Save this until late in the day or arrive early to avoid the crowds.
9. Dunguaire Castle, Co. Galway
Reflected in the flat calm of Galway Bay, Dunguaire Castle is the quintessential Tower House and looks as if it might have been placed here with the specific aim of selling picture postcards. Be inspired to take your own perfect castle shot before heading inside to see where literary greats WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and JM Synge were once inspired themselves. There’s even a twice nightly banquet with live entertainment featuring extracts of their work.
10. Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary
You get plenty of bang for your buck at the Rock of Cashel, the rearing outcrop of limestone home to a full crop of medieval buildings including a twelfth century round tower, thirteenth century gothic cathedral and a fifteenth century castle. There’s plenty to see here (and a free 45min guided tour) but perhaps the best moment comes when you take a step back, and admire the collection of turrets, towers and crenellations from afar. You also won’t notice the numerous coach parties from a distance!