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'Leave the hordes in Dingle and head north': 6 insider alternatives to crowded tourist spots

Paul Clements picks six typically busy Irish landmarks – and offers up some equally impressive alternatives nearby.

The Maharees, Co Kerry
The Maharees, Co Kerry
Image: Shutterstock/Matthias Joekel

IRELAND IS RICH with heritage sites and dramatic scenery, but during the busy summer months, the best-known spots frequently become crowded, with overflowing carparks and lengthy queues.

The country hosted 9.5m international tourists in 2018, according to Tourism Ireland. Add to that the millions of locals wanting to see a bit more of their own country, and you have a busy day out indeed.

So where do those in the know go to see truly breathtaking parts of Ireland without the waiting times?

Paul Clements picks six of Ireland’s best-known and busiest landmarks, and offers up an alternative location or sightseeing spot to visit instead. Not far off the beaten track, but far enough away to avoid the hordes – while still being guaranteed history, heritage and sublime views.

The landmark: The Cliffs Of Moher, Co Clare

Swap it for: Kilkee, Co Clare

Unquestionably one of the most majestic of Ireland’s natural wonders, the Cliffs of Moher rise vertically out of the Atlantic ocean for almost 200m on the Clare coast. Tourists typically head for the viewing platform at O’Brien’s Tower, but the crowds can mean you’re bumping into your fellow tourists at every turn.

For a different scenic experience with rival views, it is worth the fifty-minute drive south to Kilkee on the Loop Head peninsula. The town boasts its own dramatic cliffs, with a stream flowing over them that turns into a funnel-like waterfall.

The cliffs here are much lower sloping and for photographers they are easier to capture. A cliff walk leads 3 km south of the town with ever-changing views of the craggy coastline and sea stacks. Unlike the Cliffs Of Moher, there’s no information centre here, but the views will give you more than enough to ponder over.

Duggerna cliffs  Kilkee 2 Duggerna Rocks at Kilkee Source: Flickr/Marlis Börger

The landmark: Glendalough’s Upper and Lower Lakes, Co Wicklow

Swap it for: Glendalough’s Seven Fonts, Co Wicklow

A captivating valley carved by Ice Age glaciers, Glendalough, in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, lays claim to some of the country’s best-preserved monastic ruins. The main sites are on the eastern side of two scenic lakes: the Lower Lake, and further west, the Upper Lake.

If your aim is to avoid the crowds, take a different route. Many visitors are unaware that some of the most interesting historical features at Glendalough are in a nearby field known as Seven Fonts. There you’ll find a collection of hollowed bullaun stones.

The word ‘bullaun’ comes from the Irish for ‘bowl’ and the stones were historically believed to have curative or magical powers. Tucked away off the main road, the field is unknown to many, so you may have to ask for directions at the visitor centre, but the hunt is worth it for this little-known swap.

8628568355_d2e7603eb3_z Glendalough, Co Wicklow Source: Flickr/Ana Rey

The landmark: Giant’s Causeway, Co Antrim

Swap it for: Port Bradden Harbour, Whitepark Bay, Co Antrim

In the eyes of the 18th century writer Dr Samuel Johnson, the Giant’s Causeway was ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see.’ Despite this dismissive put-down, hundreds of thousands of visitors make the trek each year to explore the stones at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For those who desire a quieter location, but still want an unusual photo opportunity, head a few kilometres west along the coast. Here you’ll find the stunning Whitepark Bay beach, tucked between two headlands.

The prehistoric caves at Port Bradden, which date from the Neolithic period (about 5,000 years ago) were inhabited as late as the 1800s and excavated in the 1930s. 
Pottery and flint tools were found in them. Although they are important archaeologically, they are not accessible to the public – but when the tide is right you may
be able to visit the entrance so bring your wellington boots.  

3499229_08f1af04 Whitepark Bay, Co Antrim Source: Geograph.ie/Kenneth Allen

The landmark: Dingle, Co Kerry

Swap it for: Castlegregory, Co Kerry

Most visitors make their way along the southern side of the Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne to the locals). They’ll spend time taking in the delights of Dingle, the port town where chic hotels and smart restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl with ice-cream and knick-knack shops.

Wave goodbye to the throng of tourists and take the thirty-minute drive over the twisting Connor Pass to the lesser-visited northern shore of the peninsula. Here, those in the know head to the village of Castlegregory to walk, horse-ride, swim or surf along the Maharees, the largest tombolo beach in Ireland.

Listen out for the croaking of natterjack toads, small amphibians with a distinctive song which can be seen at night in the Kerry colours of green and yellow (and where better to find out about them and get to know the locals than in Ned Natterjack’s pub?)

HPIM1280.JPG The view towards Tralee Bay from Castlegregory. Source: Geograph.ie/Jones

The landmark: Clifden, Co Galway

Swap it for: Omey Island, near Claddaghduff, Co Galway

In summer, Clifden – the so-called capital of Connemara – overflows with holidaymakers packing the restaurants, pubs and craft shops. There’s no shortage of activities, but it’s not quite a tranquil seaside retreat.

For a change of scenery and a break from the crowds, head out west along the Wild Atlantic Way towards Omey, a small island which can be accessed twice a day from Claddaghduff when the tide is right.

The island is joined to the mainland by a causeway that floods at high tide, so it is best to check the tide times in Clifden tourist office. You can walk, cycle or drive across the beach – corrugated with parallel rows of firm, ribbed sand – and join the only road to Gooreenatinny. Listen out for a snatch of the corncrake that still frequents the island.    

9701930321_94980f2e97_k During the Omey Races on Galway's Omey Island. Source: Flickr/cosmok

The landmark: Newgrange, Co Meath

Swap it for: Loughcrew Hills, Oldcastle, Co Meath

On a commanding ridge close to a loop of the River Boyne, the Newgrange passage grave – known as Brú na Bóinne, ‘the palace or homestead of the Boyne’ – is one of Ireland’s famed prehistoric sites. And because of this it attracts day-trippers in their thousands.

For a more intimate experience, you’ll find the Loughcrew Hills lying 30km west near Oldcastle. The highest point, Slieve-na-Calliagh (‘the hill of the witch’), is a modest 277 metres and it is just a ten-minute stroll to the top from the car park.

Panoramic views stretch from the cairns at the summit and, on a clear day, it’s said eighteen counties are visible. A repository of archaeology, history and mythology, it has the distinction of being the highest point of County Meath and a rarely-visited hilltop on Ireland’s Ancient East.

14319862655_1f718bfa9f_z Hawthorn trees at Slieve na Callaigh. Source: Flickr/robhurson

More: 10 of the best secret beaches in Ireland, according to beach lovers>

About the author:

Paul Clements

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