The Emerald Isle is a precious gem of a place—sparkling with soaring cliffs and hidden coves, epic coastlines and luminescent green fields. Yes, the cities—Dublin, Cork, Galway and the rest—offer treasures, to be sure. But to discover Ireland’s most thrilling attraction—its endless, unforgettable landscapes—one must leave behind the urban bustle. Where to begin? AAA Living’s Lucinda Hahn, a former resident of Ireland, pinpoints the best places to take in all that staggering beauty.

Western Islands: Archaeological Ruins and Cliff Views

Ireland is home to hundreds of small islands—each with a unique character and all just a ferry ride away. Some of the most intriguing islands lie off the wave-battered west coast. The three Aran Islands—Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer—are criss-crossed by stone walls painstakingly built by generations of islanders who eked out a meager existence from the fields and sea. On Inishmore, the spectacular views from Dun Aengus, a shrouded-in-mystery, Iron Age cliff fort—one of the oldest archeological remains in Ireland—is well worth the (relatively easy) hike. Inishmaan, the least visited, rewards those seeking solitude and a sense of timelessness.

Farther south, the two Skellig Islands rise pinnacle-like out of the Atlantic waters off County Kerry. Those willing to brave an 8-mile ferry crossing to Skellig Michael and then hike up some 600 uneven stone steps, find a marvelously intact monastic complex perched far above the churning sea. Enter the oratory and crouch in the beehive-shaped stone huts, where Ireland’s early Christian monks lived and worshipped between the seventh and 12th centuries. (Not so agile? See aerial footage of Skellig Michael in the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) On its way back to Portmagee, the ferry passes Little Skellig, where 23,000 pairs of gannets nest on every available ledge, making it the world’s second-largest gannet colony.

West Cork: Local Culture, Farm Stays and Villages

Ireland is filled with small farms, most family owned, where the land has passed down from one generation to the next. That’s part of the island’s visual appeal: About 70 percent of it is pasture—grassy fields rendered brilliant green by rainfall, dotted with sheep, cows or horses.

There’s no better place to soak in all that pastoral splendor than West Cork, a remote, rural pocket in the southwest. Here, amid stonewalled fields that stretch to the sea, it’s common to see farmers—and their trusty Border collies—bringing the cows in for milking. (Public roads are often used to herd the animals to and from, creating what’s known as an “Irish traffic jam”—a delightful photo op for travelers.)

Many farms in West Cork double as guesthouses or offer tours—a great way to experience farm life and culture. (Ask an older farmer what it was like when electricity reached the area—in the late 1950s and early ’60s.)

West Cork’s villages are inviting, too, populated by many writers and artists lured by the inspiring landscape. Allihies and Eyeries are famed for their colorful houses; Baltimore (pop. 350) is a vibrant fishing village overlooking a gentle harbor; and Clonakilty boasts some of Ireland’s best sandy beaches—and a famous black pudding.

Cliff Coast: Ocean Vistas, Cliff Walks and Wildflowers

If it’s visual drama you’re after, this coastal region between the cities of Galway and Tralee is the place to go. You’ll be wowed by panoramic views from dramatic ocean-cliff edges and feel blasts of fresh sea air as you explore extraordinary sights such as The Burren and the Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs of Moher soar 702 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Yep, it’s high up here, but sign-posted routes and nature trails make walking the cliffs, whether on your own or with a local guide, a pleasant way to experience Ireland’s raw beauty. (Wind down in nearby Doolin, a tiny town with a big reputation for live traditional music.) The Burren’s otherworldly limestone landscape has been likened to the moon, yet it’s home to 1,100 species of plants, many of them colorful wildflowers peeking through the hard stone. When the wind and the light are working off each other, it’s a place that—as Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote—“can catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

Ancient East: History, Archaeology and Grand Homes

Head into some 5,000 years of history in this region beyond Dublin. You’ll find a land of verdant meadows littered with Gothic towers and crumbling castles, Victorian manses and early monastic sites. They’re all latecomers compared to the 37 Neolithic passage tombs that rise from the ground in County Meath. The most famous tomb is Newgrange, older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge—with an inner chamber that illuminates on the winter solstice every December. Every landmark has stories to tell, from monastic Glendalough in the gentle Wicklow Mountains to great houses like palladian-style Castletown. You can feel the history here—a place where Ireland’s turbulent past has played out in unfailingly lovely settings.

Southern Peninsulas: Ring Drives and Beach Walks

In Ireland’s less-populated southwest, five peninsulas—Dingle, Iveragh, Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Head—stretch miles out into the sea. There’s an edge-of-the-world feel here; these truly are the farthest reaches of Ireland, and a popular local saying here is, “Next stop west: America.” The Dingle Peninsula’s Slea Head Drive shows off steep cliffs, lush pastures and lively little towns such as Dingle and Ballyferriter. The Iveragh Peninsula is a magnificent leg of land famous for its 100-mile touring road, the Ring of Kerry, which circles Ireland’s highest mountain range, passing fertile valleys and dozens of lakes, rivers and woodlands. Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Head offer their own quiet pleasures.

These are places made for wandering: Take any byroad; you simply can’t get lost.

Plan Your Irish Getaway

Your AAA Travel Advisor can help you plan and book a trip to the Emerald Isle, and offer exclusive perks and insider tips.

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