24km (15 miles) E of Shannon Airport, 198km (123 miles) SW of Dublin, 105km (65 miles) N of Cork, 111km (69 miles) NE of Killarney, 105km (65 miles) S of Galway

In such a tiny country, a population approaching 90,000 is enough to make gritty Limerick City the third-largest city in the Republic. Strategically located on the banks of the River Shannon, the town was founded as a Viking settlement in the 10th century and grew in importance over the centuries. For many years, it struggled with endemic poverty, but today it is a busy place with a serious focus on business, and its shiny new office buildings stand as evidence -- although this city's new economy has been hit quite brutally by the recession.

Limerick is working hard to throw off the grim legacy bestowed by Frank McCourt's best-selling book Angela's Ashes, which described in excruciating detail a childhood spent there in poverty and unimaginable horribleness. Still, despite the effort to scrub itself up, the city suffers from a crime problem so serious that the Irish who once wryly dubbed this place "Stab City" have started calling it "Slab City." In 2008 it was the murder capital of Europe while Ireland was named the safest country in the same report.

The tourist board tries to put a positive spin on things, and we recognize that they are making efforts to clean the place up. But this still feels like a rough old town, and the area where its most impressive sights are located -- the riverside Medieval Heritage Precinct dominated by the 13th-century King John's Castle -- is no exception, so use extra caution when carrying handbags or pricey cameras, and pay to park in a parking lot rather than on the street.

Happily, the countryside around Limerick City is much less scary -- most of it is green, bucolic river basin and pleasant farmland. The picture-postcard village of Adare is definitely worth a visit (although you'll see everything from the end of a row of tour buses), as are Lough Gur, gorgeous Glin Castle, and Rathkeale.