Driving through Ireland, one thing is apparent: The Irish love a castle. For every county, most cities, and random points in between, there is a castle. Granted, many are little more than ruins now, but castles none-the-less. Carlow County? Has a castle. The rugged coast of Kilmurry? Has a castle. The capital city of Dublin? Has a castle. (Of course!)
According to the website Enjoy Irish Culture, there are more than 30,000 castles and castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. That may seem extreme, but remember that this tiny island has seen more than its share of invaders. With every invading force came a castle. Not to mention the Irish landowners and settlers, who erected castles to defend against said invaders.
A country dotted with castles is the result, and that’s one of the things we love about Ireland! Each one is a portrait of Irish life and history through the ages. Together, they tell tales of adventure, war and prosperity. Many were family homes for generations, while others changed hands too often to keep track. And some stand silent and alone, keeping their secrets to themselves.
The remains of 800 year old Carlow Castle (an Irish National Monument), left unguarded but surrounded now by modern apartment and office buildings.
No visit to Ireland would be complete without a visit to a castle. We firmly believe the more, the merrier. Be warned: Time will slip quickly away as you explore the ruins, imagining that you are the Lord of the Castle! While none of these tours last more than 60- to 90-minutes, you’ll find yourself spending much longer. You could tick off several in a day, but we suggest taking your time. Make each one a Castle Day Trip, and explore the surrounding “kingdom”. To start, here is our list of the five best castles to visit on an easy day trip from Dublin – or any other city in the Republic.
The Top 5 Castle Day Trips from Dublin
Alright, so technically not a day trip from Dublin, but an important castle to see, none-the-less. As early as 840CE, Vikings were in Dubh Linn, establishing the Norse Kingdom of Dublin. In the basement of the Dublin Castle, you can see evidence of the Viking settlement, and later fortifications that show this site as a capital city since ancient times.
In 1204, King John decreed that a castle be built to provide a “safe place for the custody of our treasure…for the administration of justice and, if need be, for the defense of the city.” Ironically, the Crown Jewels disappeared from the castle about 700 years later, and have never been found.
The Chapel Royal was updated to its current Gothic appearance in the 1600s. What was then the Wardrobe Tower was converted to storage for the records of government, becoming the Record Tower. Renovations have begun, and it will reopen as a museum in 2019.
For hundreds of years, Dublin Castle was the residence of the Monarchy’s representatives, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland or the Viceroy of Ireland. The castle was severely damaged by fire in 1684, and was rebuilt as a Georgian palace. The Record Tower, which dates from about 1230, is all that remains (above ground) of the medieval castle.
Once Ireland won independence in 1922, the castle was turned over to the Republic, and held the Four Courts. In 1938, it was decided that Ireland’s Presidents would be inaugurated in the castle. Today, the castle houses many state offices, and is used for official functions and foreign affairs. It is open to the public on both self- and guided-tours. The Castle complex includes the free Dublin Gardens, the Chester Beatty Library, and the Coach House exhibition space.
The Chapel Royal was a later addition at Dublin Castle. Today, it is only accessible on a guided tour or, apparently, if you’re filming an episode of HBO’s The Tudors.
Dublin Castle is open daily, except for Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Self-tours of the State Apartments and exhibitions are available for €7. Guided tours are €10, and include the Viking Excavation and the beautiful Chapel Royal. There are discounts for seniors, students, children, and families. Check hours and fees here, and purchase tickets here.
Dublin Castle is in the historic area of downtown Dublin, just behind City Hall on Dame Street (R137). It’s easy to enter from either Palace Street or Cork Hill. Coming from the Christ Church area, Ship Street Little leads to the Castle complex as well. The Castle is in walking distance from most downtown attractions and carparks.
Beautiful Kilkenny Castle is surrounded by lawns and gardens, perfect for a day trip picnic and epic photo ops!
Kilkenny just may be the original Medieval Times. The historical district, called the Medieval Mile, includes the most important elements of Irish life in the middle ages: a cathedral, a pub, and a castle! Grab a map and start at St. Canice’s Cathedral just beyond the city wall. The adjoining Round Tower is the last remnant of Saint Canice’s 6th Century monastic settlement. On your way to the castle, you’ll want to stop by Kytelers’s Inn on St. Kieran’s Street. But be careful! Dame Alice de Kyteler was a witch, ya know. She escaped persecution, but her maid wasn’t so lucky. No, she was burned at the stake in Alice’s place. Sure, go on and have a pint in the 13th century pub, though. Then, on to the castle!
In 1172, the Norman knight Richard de Clare, best known as Strongbow, built a wooden tower at Cill Chainnigh, where several routeways came together to forge the River Nore. By 1195, the Earl of Pembroke, who happened to be Strongbow’s son-in-law, William Marshall, replaced the tower with a stone castle. Three of the towers from that castle remain at Kilkenny Castle today.
De Clare’s family line held the castle until 1381, when it was seized by the crown and sold to the Butler family of Ormonde. A politically successful family that was loyal to the Crown and to Ireland, the Butlers held Kilkenny until 1967, when they sold the castle – by then, abandoned and deteriorating – to the Castle Restoration Committee for £50. Along with Dublin Castle, Kilkenny is maintained today by the Office of Public Works.
Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile makes for a wonderful day trip from anywhere in Ireland!
Kilkenny Castle is open daily, but check the website for seasonal hours. Tickets are available at the Castle, and are €8 per person, with discounts for Seniors, children, and families. From February to October, tours are self-guided with a tour book. An English audio-guide is also available. November through January, tours are only permitted with a guide. Plan at least an hour for a tour.
Drive: Kilkenny is about 90 minutes from Dublin on the M9 motorway. Any GPS or street map will get you there. There is street parking available, though hard to find, along with several car parks around the Castle area. Driving Directions (Note: for convenience, we start from centrally-located Connolly Station in Dublin.)
Rail: Irish Rail service to Kilkenny leaves from Dublin Heuston station several times each day. In about 90 minutes, you’ll arrive at MacDonagh Station, about a 15 minute walk to the Castle. Return trains also run throughout the day. Fares are €11 to €13 each way.
You could spend all day at Malahide Castle, but it’s so close to Dublin, you can combine a visit with other sites.
Malahide Castle and Gardens
Dublin’s affluent suburb of Malahide is a meeting point. The Broad Meadow River meets the Irish Sea here. Chic boutiques meet beautiful countryside, and modern meets with medieval. The village makes a great day trip, highlighted by Malahide Castle Gardens.
The Malahide Estate was the Talbot family home for some 800 years, starting in 1185. Sir Richard Talbot accompanied England’s King Henry II to Ireland in 1174, and was granted the “lands and harbor of Malahide” as reward for his “war-like services,” in much the same way Strongbow came to hold Leinster.
The castle is thought to have been established around 1250. It was home to the Talbot family until shortly after the death of the Seventh (and last) Baron Talbot in 1973. On his death, the estate was passed to his wife Rose, who sold the castle to the Irish State in 1975.
With more than 200 acres, the gardens, walking paths, and sprawling lawns of Malahide are a great day trip destination.
The history of the Talbot family at Malahide makes Game of Thrones seem tame by comparison. The family lost 14 members on the same day during the Battle of the Boyne. Richard’s grandson (also Richard) was slain with eleven allies and their families at a banquet. Plus, the castle was repeatedly attacked, though it was only wrested from the family once, by Oliver Cromwell from 1649 to 1660.
While the castle is fantastic, the surrounding demesne is one of the only examples of 18th Century landscaped parks in Ireland. In his retirement, the Seventh Baron collected more than 5,000 plant species from around the world. Unfortunately, he also introduced the mosquito to Ireland. Thankfully, we didn’t find any as we strolled through the walled garden, a Victorian conservatory, and six other greenhouses in the Malahide Botanical Gardens. The parks include walking trails and sports fields spreading over more than 260 acres.
Malahide Castle is open daily year-round, except for the Christmas holiday. The Castle is open only by guided tours, which last 45 minutes and run throughout the day. Adult tickets are €12.50, and there are discounts for children, students, seniors, and families. You can purchase tickets in the Courtyard gift shop, and online directly from Malahide Castle or though the Shannon Heritage website. Your tour ticket also grants admission to the gardens; the courtyard and parks, though, are free.
Drive: Malahide Castle is an easy, 30-minute drive from downtown Dublin, and Google can get you directions. There is ample parking near the castle, but you will be vying for space with golfers and soccer families, so weekends will be crowded. Driving Directions
Rail: Malahide is in the DART Short Hop area, meaning that return fares from any Dublin area station are €6.15 per adult, €2.95 for children. It’s about a 30-minute ride from Dublin Connolly, followed by a short (15 minute) walk to the Castle. Trains run throughout the day.
Bus: Dublin buses go to/from Malahide Castle (stop 3645 on Route #42) in about 40 minutes from the Connolly Station area of Dublin. Fares are €3.30 Adult/€1.40 Child, each way.
Get a good look at Medieval and Viking life at King John’s Castle in Limerick.
King John’s Castle
After visiting a few Irish castles, a pattern emerges: Vikings invade. Vikings build a castle. Normans invade. Normans build a castle. And so it was in Limerick. An island in the River Shannon made just the sort of base a Viking Sea King, in this case, Thormodr Helgason, loved. He built the first Viking stronghold on Inis Sibhtonn in 922, and raided the length of the Shannon. Eventually, the kings who made this island their home, fell to the Normans under John, Lord of Ireland, in 1195. Limerick was given a charter, and King John ordered a castle built on that island. By 1210, King John’s Castle protected the area from King’s Island, and Limerick prospered as a port and trading center.
The castle was besieged throughout the 17th century, suffering heavy damage. Part of castle walls had to be pulled down. The castle hosted a barracks from 1791 until the British army units left in 1922. Later, 22 houses were built in the castle yard. Thankfully, all of that has been cleared away. King John’s Castle underwent a massive €5.7 million restoration and redevelopment from 2011 to 2013. Besides repairs to the castle, a brand new visitor center was installed, and a café with views of the courtyard and River Shannon.
A new exhibition at the castle tells the story of King John, brother of England’s Richard the Lionheart. (Bonus Factoid: King John never actually visited the castle!) You can also see the Viking foundations, and evidence of medieval buildings found beneath the castle.
A walk through Limerick, including a stop for lunch at the Milk Market, makes a memorable Irish day trip. (Photo: Limerick City & County Council)
King John’s Castle is open year-round, except for the Christmas holiday, though hours vary seasonally. (Check hours here.) While a tour of the castle lasts just an hour, you should allow more time for wandering the grounds and the rest of Limerick City. (Self-guide leaflets are available in several languages.) Admission for adults is €10.50, with child, student and family discounts available. Tickets are available in the Visitor’s Centre and online from Shannon Heritage.
Drive: Limerick is about 200km from Dublin. It should take a little more than two hours on the M7 Motorway (which does have tolls). A free car park is nearby at The Bishop’s Palace. Driving Directions
Rail: There are two Irish Rail routes from Dublin Heuston Station to Limerick. Both will take two hours, fifteen minutes, and cost €12 in Low Fare to €31 for Flexible, each way. (We usually go for the Semi-Flexible, which is €15 for this trip.) Option One runs throughout the day and requires one change at Limerick Junction. The non-stop is less frequent, but takes you right to Limerick Colbert Station.
It’s a twenty-minute walk (1.5km) from train station to castle. Along the way, you’ll pass St. John’s Cathedral, the Milk Market, and the Hunt Museum. It’s an easy, and enjoyable, way to spend the entire day in Limerick.
Dinner in an authentic Irish castle might make your day trip longer, but it’s worth every minute!
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
Bunratty may be our favorite castle experience in Ireland, because it’s so much more than a castle! Besides the usual castle tours, the complex includes a walled garden, and a heritage park to explore. Afterwards, you can stretch your day trip into the evening with a Medieval dinner show.
By now, you won’t be surprised to learn that Bunratty Castle sits on what was once a Viking trading camp around the year 970. The first Norman fortress here was an earthen mound with a wooden tower on top in 1250. Powerful Irish families repeatedly attacked and, eventually, defeated the Normans. The MacNamara Clan built the present-day castle around 1425, though it was later the stronghold for the O’Brien Clan from 1475 until Cromwell invaded.
Nearly 200 years later, after a succession of plantation owners and vacancies, Bunratty was restored and opened as a National Monument in 1962. Today, Bunratty Folk Park is an immersive experience where you can explore a 19th Century Irish village. Imagine browsing through period shops and meeting (or making) friends at the pub. Visit the places a resident might: the post office, the grocer, even a rural farmhouse. Interpreters in period costume make the setting that much more charming and educational. After a day roaming the cobbled streets, indulge in a Wild Irish Night – local singers, dancers, and musicians entertain while you enjoy an authentic, 19th Century Irish meal. Unfortunately, the village is only open from April to October, so you’ll need to time your visit.
While villagers enjoy their wild Irish nights, things are a bit more refined at the castle. Dinner there includes minstrels entertaining and telling the story of Bunratty Castle, while you enjoy a traditional Medieval banquet with the Earl of Thomond. There are usually two seatings each night, year round.
Besides the castle, Bunratty Folk Park gives you a taste of village life by day, and parties by night! (Photo: Bunratty Tourism)
A visit to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is €11.55 for adults, and also has discounts for children, seniors, and families. Wild Irish Nights are €30 per adult, €20 per child. The Medieval Banquet at Bunratty Castle is €57.75 for adults, and €23.35 to €38 for children, depending on age. Pro Tip Check the website for tickets and hours.
Bunratty Castle is a little more than 15km from Limerick Colbert train station, as a point of reference. Assuming you are already in Limerick, you have two options for getting to Bunratty:
Drive: It’s a quick and easy 20-minute drive between the castle and Limerick, and there is plenty of free parking on-site. If you don’t drive yourself, a taxi should run about €25 each way. If you’re driving from Dublin, allow about three hours. Driving Directions
Bus Bus Eireann line 343 will take you from the Caherdavin, Coonagh Roundabout in Limereick (near the city car parks), to the Old Creamery Pub outside Bunratty, in 15 minutes. It will set you back €7 to €11 each way.
Save on Sightseeing
The Heritage Card
Dublin and Kilkenny Castles are run by the Office of Public Works, and are included in the Heritage Card. At a price of €40 for adults (with family, student and senior discounts available), just visiting the castles isn’t worth it. However, the card covers admission to all OPW Heritage Sites in the country for an entire year! (With the exception of Muckross Traditional Farms in Killlarney.) That list includes the incredible sites of Brú a Bóinne – Hill of Tara, Newgrange, and Knowth – and all of the country’s National Parks. The Gallus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula, the beautiful Muckross House and Gardens, the Official Residence of the President, and more castles than you can possibly fit in one lifetime… all are included. If you’ll be in Ireland for a while, or will be visiting several OPW sites, the card is a bargain. (Brochure is here.)
The Dublin Pass
Like the Heritage Card, the The Dublin Pass can save you some money if you’re visiting several attractions in Dublin. From this list, Dublin and Malahide Castles are included, though it only covers the self-tour at Dublin Castle. Other popular Dublin attractions, like the Guinness Storehouse, Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals, and the Irish Rock and Roll Museum Experience are included, too. Plus, you get to ride the HOHO (Hop On/Hop Off) Bus! At €73 for a two day adult pass, though, do your math carefully to be sure you’re saving money. If you’ll be in Dublin for a week, you’re more likely to get value from the 5 Day Pass. It’s frequently on sale for about €88. Learn more here.
Leave It to Others
If you want an almost hands-off approach to seeing the castles, many tours are available from Dublin, and most other larger cities. Using a tour company doesn’t always save money, but it can save lots of time. One of our favorite sites for booking tours and activities is Viator. We have used them around the world, with excellent results every time. While we did not visit these castles with Viator, a review of our trip to Newgrange with them is upcoming.
Now we’re curious: Do you have a favorite castle, in Ireland or elsewhere? We’d love to hear about it, and your impressions of our Top 5 Castle day Trips from Dublin. Just leave us a Comment below! And if you loved this post, please share with your friends on social media. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing!
The Westin Dublin in the heart of historic Dublin earns 5 Stars from Expedia. (Photo: Starwood Hotels)
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