Did you know you could circle the entire coast of Ireland following 4 interconnecting road trip routes? In Northern Ireland we have the Causeway Coastal Route and Mourne Coastal Route. These then connect to the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East respectively. But here we are specifically covering Ireland’s Ancient East with a road trip itinerary that covers not only the ‘ancient’ attractions of the region but also the wider tourist attractions in Ireland’s eastern counties. Anyway, here is our take on Ireland’s Ancient East Road Trip Itinerary.
Ancient East vs Wild Atlantic Way
The Ancient East is a road trip covering the eastern counties and coast of Ireland. The Wild Atlantic Way is a road trip covering the west coast counties of Ireland. But I really don’t want to pit them against one another, partly because the ancient East feels like an olive branch after such massive investment and success in the Wild Atlantic Way. The East was feeling left out, and it felt a bit like a forced initiative to drive a bit of traffic to the other side of the country.
At the same time, the Ancient East is not so much a road trip route, at least it’s not waymarked in each direction (north to south or south to north), and the only real indication on road signs is when crossing county borders in the region. The focus is not so much on the coastline, as it is more about inland sites and tourist attractions, and historical discovery which is harder to sell through images and half-assed writing (I’ll try my best).
But there is also a lot to the Ancient East that is not really included in most itineraries as they’re simply just not ancient. Like breweries and distilleries, scenic spots of Wicklow Mountains, of course, Tayto Park, Ireland’s largest theme park, obviously doesn’t meet these criteria. So I will try to be more inclusive when it comes to a wider range of tourist attractions in the region so tourists can create an Ancient East itinerary to best suit their own personal interests.
Where to Start Ireland’s Ancient East?
This depends on the port of arrival/departure, which, for many, will be Dublin with fly-and-drives from Dublin Airport and sea crossing at Dublin’s seaports etc. Then Belfast and Northern Ireland also make popular vantage points for travel in the region (as we did from Bangor) and so I will be showing the best itinerary for Ireland’s Ancient East from North to South. However, you can easily just flip the route for the southern seaports and travel instead south to north.
I should also highlight a fairly significant pagan site just north of the border at Navan Fort in Armagh (nearby hotels). The site is less than 10-miles out from County Monaghan but is excluded from the Ancient East simply because it is in Northern Ireland (U.K.) and not in the Republic or Ireland. So, for those truly interested in the ancient sites of Ireland, this Navan Fort would be a good start (1hr 30mins north of Dublin).
We always add at least one night for relaxation and romance in a destination hotel, previously going with the Cliffhouse Hotel (Waterford) as the finish line of our Wild Atlantic Way road trip. This hotel again works with the Ancient East in Ireland. For this road trip, we instead started out with a romantic stay at one of Ireland’s Romantic Castle Hotels, Cabra Castle (booking here) as pictured below, near the northern borders of County Cavan. Then with busy days of travel and tourism ahead, we would just B&B the rest.
The North to South Road Trip Itinerary
I’d honestly split Ireland’s Ancient East Road trip into 3 separate sections, starting in the north and ending in the south. This is partly to do with the type of tourism involved but also the logistics of it all. The north is the tourist attractions above Dublin, before a somewhat stressful bypass of Ireland’s capital city to the Wicklow Mountains and the scenic centre of Ireland’s Ancient East. The further south you go, towards the cruise ports of Cork & Cobh etc. the more touristy southern attractions will include many of Ireland’s must-visit tourist destinations.
The Very Ancient East (North)
Counties: Monaghan, Cavan, Louth, Meath, Westmeath.
Highlights: Newgrange (Meath), the River Boyne (Meath), Trim Castle (Meath). It’s mostly in Meath.
Newgrange and Knowth (Meath)
One of only 2 UNESCO sites in Ireland, and among the world’s most important prehistoric sites, Newgrange (3200BC) dates way back from before the pyramids of ancient Egypt and Stonehenge etc… Along with similar passage tomb mounds Knowth and Dowth, they’re all a bit like hobbit holes only built by Stone Age (Neolithic) farmers as tombs to bury their dead. To visit the sites, tours are operated exclusively through the ‘Brú na Bóinne’ Visitor Centre Newgrange and Knowth (bookings here) (nearby hotels).
The River Boyne (Meath)
Much of the tourism in this region follows the River Boyne, including the Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) above which is the prehistoric landscapes including Newgrange within the bend of the River Boyne. But also nearby is the site of the Battle of the Boyne, fought between King Billy and King James II and to this date it remains a divisive event in the Catholic and Protestant communities on the island. Otherwise, a more scenic site on the banks of the Boyne would be Trim Castle pictured below (Nearby Hotels).
Hill of Tara (Meath)
Okay, as far as tourist attractions in Ireland go, the Hills of Tara is completely underwhelming. But sticking with the ‘ancient’ theme, the location served as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland where it’s said 142 kings reigned from, going right back to prehistoric times. Otherwise, at ground level, it’s just a lumpy field, popular with passing dog walkers, that would be a great place for a kids playground. It does look impressive from above but no drones are allowed. It’s also free to visit (Nearby Hotels).
Other Places of Interest (North)
There is the more direct option to Wicklow now following the main N2 motorway south, and bypassing Dublin with the M50 toll road. Alternatively, there are some nice spots along the coastal route past Dublin including the Windmills at Skerries, Malahide Castle, and the quaint fishing village of Howth (Howth Hotels). Of course there’s Dublin, but with traffic, and parking, and it’s really just not convenient for a road trip. It is however simple to reach Dublin on day trips, and a convenient base for travel Dun Laoghaire where it takes around 15-mins by Dart (high-speed train) for a day trip to Dublin (Dun Laoghaire Hotels).
The Scenic Ancient East (Central)
Counties: Wicklow, Kildare, Offaly, Laois, Carlow.
Highlights: Wicklow Mountains (Wicklow), Glendalough (Wicklow), Powerscourt (Wicklow). It’s mostly in Wicklow.
The Wicklow Mountains (Wicklow)
I actually proposed to Fanfan in the Wicklow Mountains (2013), inspired by the time she broke down in tears while telling me about a film called ‘PS I Love You’. We were in an Irish Bar in Bangkok at the time. Anyway, the remote mountain scenery of the Wicklow Mountains makes the perfect backdrop for any cliche Irish rom-com, and is also a must for every Irish road trip. Highlights include the ‘PS I Love You’ location we were engaged (Sallys Gap, R759 Road), the Vale of Avoca, Powerscourt, and Glendalough. But really it is just the spectacular scenery in between that keeps me coming back (Wicklow Hotels).
Definitely the highlight of the Wicklow Mountains, Glendalough is one of Ireland’s most significant Christian sites dating way back to the 6th century (although most surviving buildings are from around the 10th – 12th century i.e Saint Kevin’s Church). At the entrance near the main gate and graveyard, is an information centre with paid parking, but it is also possible to just park roadside in the area to explore the monastic site, lakes, and woodlands. There are also a handful of scenic walks and rambles in the area as well as parking again at the Glendalough Upper Lake for those not fussed for the 30-minute walk from the main entrance (Nearby Hotels).
Powerscourt House & Gardens (Wicklow)
I tend to avoid paid attractions, but admittedly do see the value in many of them once inside. Powerscourt was definitely one of them, set beneath the backdrop of Sugar Loaf Mountain, with ornate fountains and ponds… anyway, it continuously ranks top 3 in the World’s Top 10 Gardens by the National Geographic, and it’s great if you’re into magnificently landscaped gardens and big houses. Which apparently I am. We also grabbed some nibbles at the Avoca cafe, a local Irish catering franchise named after the nearby Vale of Avoca. Also, Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s highest Waterfall (or 2nd) at 121 meters is nearby (6km) but is a separate paid attraction (Powerscourt Booking) (Nearby Hotels).
Other Places of Interest (Central)
We did take a drive to Wicklow Town itself, which was nice enough with ancient cliffside castle ruins, and a bit of seaside charm. Our B&B host also highly recommended Mount Usher Gardens although our interests were further south by this time. Otherwise, The Japanese Gardens and National Stud Farm (Kildare) is an interesting albeit odd inclusion to an Ireland Road Trip. Then there’s Russborough House and Castletown House which both look to be like a poor man’s Powerscourt.
The Touristy Ancient East (South)
Counties: Kilkenny, Tipperary, Wexford, Waterford, Cork.
Highlights: Kilkenny (Kilkenny), Rock of Cashel (Tipperary), Blarney Castle (Cork).
From Wicklow, travelling south, I would always follow inland, away from Wexford and Waterford (sorry Wexford and Waterford), towards one of my favourite stopovers in Ireland at the medieval town of Kilkenny. The main tourist attraction here is Kilkenny Castle, a 12th-century fortress, set above the passing River Nore. But there is a lot more to tourism in Kilkenny including St Canice Cathedral & Round Tower, the Smithwick’s Brewery (now closed), and the quaint cobbled streets and alleys of the town centre. Also, check out the fable of the Kilkenny Cats (Kilkenny Hotels).
Rock of Cashel (Tipperary)
‘The High King of Irish Monuments’. Leaving Kilkenny, it’s a long way to Tipperary (well, about 50-minutes) where the famous Rock of Cashel is found towering over the rather cute town of Cashel. It maybe worth an overnight stay here as well. Anyway, the Rock of Cashel looks rather spectacular set on its hilltop pedestal, but it is also possible to enter and explore the monuments of this medieval masterpiece through its visitor centre. This includes a Romanesque chapel, a Gothic Cathedral, the round tower, and Hall of the Vicars Choral…Anyway, advance bookings are recommended (Official Booking Here) (Nearby Hotels).
Blarney Castle (Cork)
I’ve passed Blarney Castle loads of times, but never forked out the pricey entrance fee, suspecting it to be a tourist trap for cruise ships on their quest to kiss the Blarney Stone. And it kind of is. So we visited instead when it was near empty during the COVID pandemic, and I was 1st in line to kiss the Blarney Stone and receive the famous ‘Gift of the Gab’. Anyway, aside from kissing the stone, Blarney Castle is interesting to explore, and the various gardens on the grounds are definitely an attraction in themselves. Whether it’s worth the entrance fee is up to you to decide. For us, it’s definitely a one-off. (Official Booking Here) (Nearby Hotels).
Other Places of Interest (South)
I have been around Ireland’s southern parts a few times before, and remember struggling to find much of interest in these visits. But there does look to be a number of relatively interesting tourist attractions in Waterford with the Museum of Treasures, Waterford Crystal, and Reginald’s Tower. In Tipperary, there is Holycross Abbey, and in Wexford there’s Kennedy Homestead and Hook Lighthouse. I also really like the medieval town centre of Cork (Cork Hotels), Lismore Castle looks well worth a visit, and the whole Titanic connection in Cobh in Cork is worth a visit (Cobh Hotels). Also our stay in the Cliffhouse Hotel as pictured below (Cliffhouse Hotel Booking).
How Long for Ireland’s Ancient East?
As always, this depends on interests and just how much you want to cover. But I think a decent start would be 6-days with 1-day covering the north (Meath), 2-days in the centre (Wicklow), and 3-days for the southern tourist attractions (Kilkenny and Cork).
Where to Stay on Ireland’s Ancient East?
I do link above to nearby hotels as we go along, but our idea was to start and end with a nice hotel, then it’s B&Bs in between. We also wanted to enjoy at least one of Ireland’s Romantic Castle Hotels, so we did this on arrival in Ireland, crossing the border into Cavan, with Cabra Castle.
Note, there is a strange policy with potentially a string of hotels in County Meath (our experience with the Castle Arch Hotel) where we received a phone call from the hotel asking for credit card details to confirm the stay we had already booked and paid for online. We refused (expecting it to be a scam) and our reservation was refused. It then took weeks of emails to the hotel, their social media, and phone calls before our refund was agreed.
How Much Does it Cost Per Day?
For a relatively comfortable journey, we were averaging around £120 (140 Euros) per day, although we did chip in for some extra luxuries and romance along the way. Also, this does not include car rental.
Hotels: We booked all our hotels in advance through booking.com with a mix of B&Bs hotel deals. So this cost us around £70 (80 Euros) a night including breakfast for 2.
Petrol: We brought our own car so have not included car rental in the above. Otherwise, we would have been spending between £20-£30 (23-35 Euros) on petrol per day including the occasional toll and parking.
Food/Drink: Most nights ended with local takeaway and a cheap bottle of wine for two, at around £18 (20 Euros). We’re from around here so eating out is no different to back home. But occasionally we’d go for pub grub and a couple of drinks which was closer to £45 (53 Euros).
Tourist Attractions: The main tourist attractions covered here cost between 8-18 Euros per person. This includes (at the time of writing) Rock of Cashel (8 Euros) Powerscourt (11.50 Euros), Newgrange and Knowth (13 Euros) and Blarney Castle (18 Euros). It’s best (maybe essential) to book in advance.
Afterthoughts: Is it Worth it?
This was honestly the hardest road trip to be excited for, where we would be spending £100+ per day to do similar stuff as we do on our doorstep in Northern Ireland. So I kind of want it done and dusted so we never have to go back again. As it’s very much a tick-list of things that I probably already did as a kid.
Whether it is worth it depends on personal interests. I would personally be drawn more to the remote reaches and dramatic coastlines of the Wild Atlantic Way. And I am also a cheapskate, who’s not fussed for paid attractions, so the road trip did felt like ripping off a bandaid to begin with.
But I was pleasantly surprised by it all, and am happy with every penny spent on the paid attractions, and the Ancient East Road trip as a whole. Otherwise staycations are not great value for money, at least when it comes to creating new experiences, but this is of course different for international visitors new to the scenery and local charm of the Emerald Isle.