Ireland is such a small island that you can cover a lot of ground in a week and feel quite at home within two. But even with the best of intentions and all the energy in the world, you’ll never see it all on a short visit.
Let’s get one thing straight: you don’t have to rent a car to see Ireland. Millions of people don’t. Ireland has a decent public transportation network, and you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to tour bus excursions. And that’s a fine way to do it. This is your trip, after all.
However, if your ideal Ireland involves wandering through the countryside, visiting small villages, climbing castle walls, hailing history from a ruined abbey, or finding yourself alone on a rocky beach—you cannot do those things independently without a car. Out of the main towns, public transportation exists, but it’s slow and limiting. Every major town has car-rental agencies, if you decide to explore by car.
Just remember: they drive on the left.
The next step is deciding where to start. That decision can be made for you by where your flight terminates. If you’re flying into Shannon Airport, then it makes geographic sense to start out on the west coast. If you’re flying into Dublin, you might as well explore that city first, then either head up to the North and the ruggedly beautiful Antrim Coast, or south down to the Wicklow Mountains, Kilkenny, Wexford, and Waterford.
Still, if you fly into Dublin but your heart is in Galway, no worries. You can traverse the width of the country in a few hours, once you get out of Dublin’s stultifying sprawl. Just bear in mind that rural roads are not well lit or well signposted, so driving at night should be avoided. Being lost in unfamiliar territory (where it can be many miles between villages) is no fun at all. This is more of an issue in the winter, when it can get dark as early as 4pm, than in the summer, when it often stays light until after 10pm.
As to heading North vs. South, if you’ve only got a week to spend here, the southern regions probably have more to offer. They’re generally easier to get around, and the major sights are closer together. If you’re traveling with kids, Dublin and County Kerry have particularly rich troves of kid-friendly attractions. However, those in search of the road less traveled will be drawn northward, especially to places such as Mayo, Sligo, and the wilds of Donegal.
So taking all of these factors into consideration, the question remains: Where do you want to go? We can't answer that question for you, but we can give you some itineraries that will help you get the most out of this extraordinary and varied country—no matter how long you have to see it.
Take what you find here, and pick and choose the parts that appeal to you, add in your own favorite shopping or scenic drives, and turn it all into a holiday custom-made for yourself.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.