We began the steep climb up Slieve League, supposedly Europe’s highest sea cliffs in Ireland’s northwest corner. Only one other couple could be seen in the distance on this remote and rugged hike. The winds roared but the storm kept away just for a brief moment so that we could enjoy a piece of Ireland, unobstructed, wild and raw.
Finding these moments in a country that has become a favorite of tourists is far from easy with popular sites like the Cliffs of Moher and the Guinness factory topping most traveler itineraries while on the Emerald Isle. Ireland, like most countries in Europe, comes chalk full of famed sights that the crowds flock to no matter the time of year. If you seek a more undiscovered Ireland, one without the crowds and clicking cameras, head for the rolling green hills and seek out these off the beaten path experiences.
Skellig Michael, County Kerry
Part of the Skellig Islands just off of the coast of the famous Ring of Kerry, Skellig Michael presents one of Ireland’s most dramatic settings. While the island is a stunner naturally, it is perhaps best known as a monastic site. In the sixth century AD, a group of Christian monks somehow built a monastery on the island. They wouldn’t leave for the next 600 years, constructing beehive huts, a chapel, graveyard and more than 600 steps into a cliff face. Its makeup has even landed Skellig Michael on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Recently featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Skellig Michael still remains off the beaten path thanks to the limit placed on the number of tourists allowed on the island each day.
The Wonderful Barn, Leixlip, County Kildare
One Irish cottage after another tends to look the same. For architectural fans seeking something a bit different, you can find a decidedly unusual structure instead in Leixlip in County Kildare. Not your typical image of a barn, the Wonderful Barn boasts almost a corkscrew appearance. Commissioned by Katherine Conolly in 1743, the barn has a tapering cone design, which is then encircled by a staircase on the exterior. Built on the edge of the Castletown estate, it is believed that the Wonderful Barn was used as a grain store. Others contest that its strange construction was also intended to be one of Ireland’s architectural oddities.
The Sheep’s Head Peninsula, County Cork
Located below popular Ring of Kerry and the Beara Peninsula, the Sheep’s Head Peninsula protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean. The peninsula, whose shape looks like that of a sheep’s head, boasts tranquil scenery, the narrowest of roads and plenty of sheep along the way. At the tip of the peninsula, you can walk out to a small lighthouse. While you make the drive around the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, you will want to stop in the quaint town of Durrus. Cheese lovers can satisfy their fix at the Durrus Farmhouse Cheese site for a sampling of the award-winning cheese from the area. The Sheep’s Head Peninsula is part of the Wild Atlantic Way. There are a number of walking and cycling routes along the peninsula if you choose to ditch the rental car.
Grianán of Aileach, County Donegal
Usually without a soul around, you can experience the magic of a 1700 BC stone fort in Inishowen in County Donegal. Grianán of Aileach, a round stone fort, was first built back in 1700 BC. Perched dramatically on top of a hill, some 800 feet above sea level, the site commands breathtaking views of the countryside and the Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. Constructed largely without mortar, the impressive ancient site has bared witness to much of Ireland’s history. Linked to the Tuatha de Danann, a tribe that invaded Ireland before the Celts, Grianán of Aileach was the stage for many struggles of power. Legends swirl around the stone fort including that Saint Patrick visited here and the giants of Inishowen lay sleeping on the site until the sacred sword is removed.
Kilbeggan Distillery, County Westmeath
Most visits to Ireland entail a stop at the Guinness Storehouse or the Jameson distillery. If you want to go off the beaten path, consider touring the Kilbeggan Distillery just west of Dublin. Located in the town of Kilbeggan in County Westmeath, the distillery proudly identifies as the oldest working distillery in Ireland and the oldest continually licensed distillery in the world. Formerly called Locke’s Distillery, Kilbeggan was founded in 1757. A visit to the distillery showcases the art of Irish whiskey distilling on guided and self-guided tours. A visit details when it all began and how Irish whiskey was made in the past. You can also see whiskey being produced the traditional way to this day and even get a taste of the famous whiskey.
The Burren, County Clare
Most of Ireland bears a landscape of sheep dotted rolling hills of green. You wouldn’t expect to see a completely rocky setting of limestone. However, that is just what you will find in the Burren in County Clare. Meaning "rocky place," the area in the county’s southeastern corner stretches for 116 square miles. Resembling more of a lunar landscape, the desolate yet beautiful setting is one of Ireland strangest spots. Not only can you view a very different looking Ireland, but also the Burren is littered with Stone Age sites like the Poulnabrone Dolmen and the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb. Come springtime, the area surprisingly fills with wildflowers for a truly out of this world Irish setting.
Healy Pass Road, County Kerry and County Cork
While there are many impressive Irish drives, Healy Pass Road takes the cake. Located in both County Kerry and County Cork, the road cuts right down the middle of the Beara Peninsula. Connecting the towns of Lauragh and Adrigole, the road was built in 1847 to link Kerry and Cork Counties during the famine. Measuring just 8 miles long, Healy Pass Road packs in the punch with views of the Caha Mountains, Glanmore Lake and a squiggling road of switchbacks, known as the R574.
Slieve League, County Donegal
Most travelers to Ireland head straight for the Cliffs of Moher. However, many visitors pass up the chance to see sea cliffs that are twice as high up in County Donegal. Located in the small village of Teelin, you will find Slieve League. Believed to be the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe, Slieve League measures a towering 600 meters. Located on the southwest coast of County Donegal, from this dramatic perch you can snag views of the Atlantic Ocean, Sligo Mountains, and Donegal Bay. While you don’t have to hike to appreciate the cliffs, the more daring and skilled hikers who do climb One Man’s Pass are rewarded with some of Ireland’s most magical scenery. At the base of the cliffs, you will also want to spot the rocks called the Giant’s Desk and Chair for their strong resemblance to a school desk fit for a giant.
Mizen Head Signal Station, County Cork
Just below the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, you can reach Ireland’s most southwesterly point. Not only does the Mizen Head Signal Station mark the country’s most southwesterly point but it is also one of Ireland’s off the beaten path gems. Hailing from 1910, the Mizen Head Signal Station once functioned as a lighthouse keeper’s quarters, founded to help ward off ships from the rocks. In order to reach the station, you must walk across the Arched Bridge over a gorge. The cliffs surrounding Mizen Head showcase Irish dramatics with a wealth of sea life below such as Minke, Fin and Humpback whales and dolphins.
In Ireland, you could go the standard route of staying in bed and breakfasts and basic hotels. These accommodations are all fine and well, but the country covers in castles that have been converted into hotels for a truly unique experience. Staying in a castle in Ireland affords the opportunity to rest up in a piece of the country’s history. Travelers can check into castles like Castle Leslie in County Monaghan. Home to its namesake family since in the 1660s, the castle has been turned into a fine luxury hotel loaded with original décor and furnishings. In fact, each guest room boasts its own theme and unique history.
What are you favorite off the beaten path sights in Ireland? Share your Irish sightseeing secrets with us in the comments below.