Dozens of ancient castles are sprinkled across Ireland’s lush, green countryside in various states of ruin. If you jump in a rental car and start driving, chances are you’ll find one. The trick is deciding which ones to see. These 5 Irish castles will sate your curiosity for all things medieval … and let loose your inner child. Don’t forget your sword.
Sure, thousands of tourists swarm Blarney Castle in southern Ireland every year, but it’s still worth a visit. Here, you can kiss the notorious Blarney Stone and, as legend has it, get the “gift of the gab.” Climb 10 flights of stairs to reach the stone at the top of the castle’s main tower. Grip 2 metal bars, lie backwards and a castle worker will hold your legs while you reach out, upside down, over a sheer 10-story drop to kiss the stone. Don’t forget to have someone take your picture. Kissing stone aside, the best part of this castle is its floral gardens, spread over 60 acres. Take time to walk the paths for a 360-degree view of the tower built 600 years ago by Irish chieftain Cormac MacCarthy.
Even before you get to Ireland, book a banquet at Bunratty Castle. This fortress sits on Folk Park, an ancient Viking trading camp dating back to 970 A.D., just 7 miles from Shannon Airport in southwest Ireland. The current castle structure is actually the fourth castle to be built onsite. Due to the violent changing of hands over 200 years between Irish chieftains and English kings, the original castle (and the following 2) were destroyed in battle. Today, it’s the best place in Ireland to enjoy a traditional medieval feast. In the banquet hall, women dressed in medieval gowns serve you hunks of pork, potato soup, bread and goblets of mulled mead. You’ll sit on a long wooden bench and eat by candlelight, family-style, like the knights would have. The feast is set to the tune of a medieval instrument quartet, and with the cheery ambiance you’re sure to become fast friends with strangers around you.
Doe Castle in County Donegal in northwest Ireland is one of my favorites simply because it architecturally looks cool. It’s surrounded on 3 sides by water, and was built on a peninsula with a moat cleaved into the rock of the landward side. In short, Doe Castle looks like it’s floating. The best view of this castle is actually from a distance on the wide spot on the Carrigart–Creeslough road about 10 miles from the village of Dunfanaghy. High outer walls and 4 major defense towers ring an interior building with a 4-story tower and keep. While the interior isn’t technically open to the public, locals open the castle gates daily so you can meander inside. It’s one of Ireland’s more rustic castles, so don’t expect audio guides and tours. You’re on your own here.
Because Ireland doesn’t have an aggressive restoration program, many castles are crumbling. Not Cahir Castle. It’s one of Ireland’s largest, best preserved medieval fortresses, maintaining the keep, tower and defense structures from its original construction in 1142. It was the former stronghold of the Butler family (former Irish nobility) and is situated on a rocky island on the River Suir in Tipperary County, south central Ireland. Book a 30- to 40-minute guided tour in advance. Afterward, explore the spiral staircases, small side chambers and see the quilt-like Irish countryside from the top of Cahir Tower. Cahir Castle also features a 15-minute movie, Cahir Castle and the Story of Irish Castles, which gives a historical overview of the function of castle fortresses in Ireland.
Ashford Castle in County Galway is western Ireland’s fairytale castle. This nearly 800-year-old castle was once owned by the Guinness family and kept in spectacular condition. Later it was converted into a 5-star luxury hotel; now you can actually stay the night. Sounds cheesy, I know, but spending a night like nobility in a cozy medieval castle is worth the heftier price tag. Ashford is also one of Ireland’s most popular destination wedding venues because of its elaborate gold interior and extensive manicured lawns.