Kinsale, Co Cork
Ireland has a centuries-old link with countries like Spain, Italy and France and boy does it show in this southern coastal town at the mouth of the River Bandon. Colourful buildings, fancy boats, tight winding streets and alleyways, a highly acclaimed food scene and even a slightly warmer microclimate give it a Med-ish feel, but the welcome is very much Irish. Take a walk to Summercove and watch the sun set over the main town. Drink in hand, obviously.
Westport, Co Mayo
A must-visit town for lovers of music, scenery, pubs and slightly more badass pilgrimages. Looming over it is Croagh Patrick: the mountain on which, according to legend, Saint Patrick prayed and fasted for 40 days. On the last Sunday of July, thousands take a pilgrimage to the summit (some even go barefoot), but hike it any time, even if you just worship the good views. The town itself is very charming, with trad music galore in the many, many pubs, and kids can be entertained at the Pirate Adventure theme park in Westport House.
Galway, Co Galway
No-one who’s been to Galway will be surprised that it’s received the mighty accolade of the world’s fourth best city to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020 awards. You couldn’t design a better “something for everyone” city. Contained in a very walkable area, there’s history, food, beaches, pubs, and more live music than Glastonbury. Make sure you saunter to the seaside resort of Salthill and, if you really want to stretch those legs, take a day trip to the glorious Connemara National Park.
Newcastle, Co Down
A real hidden gem about 45 minutes’ drive south of Belfast, Newcastle is a traditional seaside town with some important added bonuses. First, the ice cream. Several family-run makers battle for visitors’ favour and the loyalty of locals (opinions are never united). Then you have the Royal County Down golf club, lovely links regularly voted in the world’s top five courses and not owned by Donald Trump. But best of all are the jaw-dropping Mountains of Mourne, including Northern Ireland’s highest peak Slieve Donard, which are a walker’s paradise.
Kenmare, Co Kerry
The town of Killarney is a honey pot to the bears that are (mainly American) tourists looking for a very “Irish” town and others wanting doorstep access to Killarney National Park. But head a few miles south of the park, on the Ring of Kerry, and you’ll find Kenmare. It’s only small, but it has two streets brimming with great pubs, restaurants and shops, and is surrounded by dreamy, tranquil countryside. Opt for some very eco-friendly local transport and sign up for a horse or pony trek.
Dingle, Co Kerry
Apart from having the best name on this list, Dingle can also make claim to having some of the best scenery in Ireland. This historic fishing town – home to the famous Murphy’s ice-cream, including a very convincing gin and tonic flavour – has mountains to one side, the Atlantic to the other and the beautiful Inch beach (actually three miles long). Irish is the town’s first language, so Go n-éiri an bóthár leat (have a good journey).
Clifden, Co Galway
Another coastal town and why not? Situated roughly halfway between Galway and Westport (if you take scenic route via Connemara) and close to the stunning Kylemore Abbey, this pretty little town is most noted for two things related to its proximity to the USA: the first trans-Atlantic flight ended here when John Alcock and Arthur Brown planted their Vickers Vimy into a nearby bog, which just happened to be near the station from where Guglielmo Marconi was transmitting the first transatlantic commercial wireless communications.
Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
The name of Enniskillen is tragically linked with the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing, but that association masks a vibrant town with much to offer. Perhaps its greatest asset is its position at the heart of Northern Ireland’s lake district in Fermanagh. You can take an underground boat ride through the Marble Arch caves, hop between the lakes’ 150 islands in a kayak, or stay by Lough Erne, just like Barack Obama and David Cameron did at the 2013 G8 summit.
Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny
Kilkenny is the one stop shop for culture vultures visiting Ireland. If you’re after arts and crafts, the Kilkenny Design Centre is the place for you. Into foodie scenes? Kilkenny is one of Ireland’s food capitals, boasting superb gastro-pubs, a clutch of independent breweries and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Campagne. And if live entertainment is your bag, then turn up for Kilkenny Arts Week in August or the Cat Laughs comedy festival in June.
Wexford, Co Wexford
Nearby Curracloe beach was the location for Stephen Spielberg’s recreation of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan, but Wexford, on Ireland’s south-east coast, is better known for more sedate pursuits. You can take strolls through its idyllic streets or absorb centuries of Irish history at nearby places like the Irish national Heritage Park and the Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience. But Wexford’s big pull is its opera house, which holds a near-70-year-old festival every October.
Carlingford, Co Louth
Carlingford is a nice enough little place on the banks of Carlingford Lough, an inlet of the Irish Sea and a watery extension of the Irish border that you can cross between via a car ferry. The town’s real appeal, though, is on its outskirts. Lovers of the great outdoors can head to Carlingford Adventure Centre for anything from kayaking to frisbee golf to the vertiginous sky park (or just go for a walk); while more whimsical visitors can explore the Folklore Park or underground Leprechaun caves.