Ireland’s reputation precedes itself, so first-time visitors might think they know what to expect: fields of clover, gabby locals, etc.
But there is so much more to Ireland than its stereotypical charms. Skip the over-hyped Guinness Storehouse and find better things to do with your lips than kiss the been-around-the-block Blarney Stone. Instead, check out these top 10 experiences for first-timers.
1. Literary Dublin
The Irish are known for possessing the gift of the gab. Not only can they talk up a storm, they can also put pen to paper with flourish (just ask one of Ireland's four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Experience Ireland's literary tradition first hand in Dublin, starting with a stroll through Trinity College's beautiful Old Library. There you will find one of the world's oldest manuscripts, the Book of Kells. If merely looking at books does not satisfy you, visit Dublin on 16 June, when Victorian-garbed masses take to streets to celebrate Bloomsday, a festival devoted to James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses.
2. Galway City
Located on Ireland's west coast, Galway is an excellent base for trips to the Aran Islands and Connemara. But no one would blame you for not wanting to leave the city at all. The young, college town is so wonderfully lively, even Dubliners flock here for raucous weekends away. The compact, cobblestoned city does not have much in the way of traditional tourist traps, but what Galway lacks in sight-seeing it more than makes up for in atmosphere. And by "atmosphere" we mean pubs. Soak up the old-fashioned charm at The Crane and Taaffe's, or hang out with young and hip Galwegians at The Blue Note.
3. The Rock of Cashel
Do not let the unassuming name fool you, the Rock of Cashel, is no mere rock. Rather, it is one of Ireland's most spectacular castles. The dazzling fortress stands proudly on a gently sloping hill in County Tipperary. The "Rock" is a historic treasure trove: its structures include a 12th-century Romanesque chapel and a 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
Traditional Irish music, more commonly known as "trad", is the heart of Ireland's pub scene (and Guinness is the soul, but more on that later). Doolin, a small village in County Clare, is celebrated as the center of Irish music, but lively sessions full of upbeat jigs and heartbreaking ballads can be found in pubs throughout the country.
5. Aran Islands
Located off the west coast of Ireland, three limestone outcrops form the idyllic Aran Islands. Irish is the main language spoken here, a fact that only add to the feeling that time has left these islands untouched. Inishmór, the largest island is home to Dún Aengus, an ancient stone fort perched high on a rocky cliff. The two smaller islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer are a good bet for those looking to get even further off the beaten track.
6. Ancient Ireland
When you think of Irish history, do you immediately summon to mind the Potato Famine or the Troubles? If so, it is time to go further back in time and visit one of Ireland's ancient ruins. The most impressive site can be found at Brú Na Bóinne in County Meath, a necropolis that includes the truly remarkable Newgrange. This ancient passage tomb was designed during the Stone Age with a chamber that floods with sunlight on the winter solstice, but it is well worth a visit on any day of the year.
7. Giant's Causeway
Located across the border in Northern Ireland, the Giant's Causeway almost feels as if it is in another world. The hexagonal rock formations jutting out into the sea are one of Ireland's most fascinating natural features. Part of the popular Antrim Coastal Walk, the causeway is a tourist hot-spot, but it is well worth braving the crowds for a chance to experience this geological wonder.
8. The Dingle Peninsula
County Kerry's sublime Dingle Peninsula boasts a scenic drive full of postcard-worthy vistas. The landscape features sandy beaches, Caribbean-blue stretches of ocean, and, of course, Dingle, the charming village for which the peninsula is named.
9. Cliffs of Moher
The heartstopping drop off of the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare might have safety-minded visitors wondering where the guardrail is. Get as close to the edge as you dare (but not too close - people have fallen off) and you will be rewarded with a spectacular view and the cool spray of the Atlantic on your cheeks.
10. The perfect pint
Pouring a pint of Guinness is practically an art form in Ireland, and no trip would be complete without at least one pint of the black stuff. Savour an expertly drawn pint at Mulligan's in Dublin, Matt Molloy's in Westport or Séhán Ua Neáchtain in Galway. Just avoid touristy pubs where they commit the sacrilege of drawing a shamrock on the head of your beer.
The article 'Top 10 Ireland for first-timers' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.