Ireland has treasured and protected its ancestral past, with mysterious stone circles, cairns, and huge stone tables known as dolmens, standing perfectly preserved in pastures and on hillsides all over the island. Some of the oldest tombs predate the Egyptian pyramids by centuries, and in many cases, while the sites are preserved, their meaning and purpose remain intriguing riddles. To delve into this misty past, you’ll need to be intrepid and cover a lot of ground in the car, but it’ll be worth it—exploring these rocky symbols can be the most memorable part of any trip to Ireland.
Day 1: Knowth & the Boyne Valley
After an early breakfast, head north to the rich rolling Boyne Valley (about an hour’s drive north of Dublin off the N2) to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and this extensive Neolithic burial ground. This huge necropolis holds numerous sites, with three open to visitors—Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Register at the center to tour Newgrange first. A tour here, early in the day before it gets crowded, is spectacular. Next tour is the burial ground at Knowth with its extensive collection of passage-grave art. In the afternoon, head down the N3 to the Hill of Tara. Here mounds and passage graves date from the Bronze Age.
Day 2: Céide Fields
It will take a couple of hours to drive from Dublin to this remote location in north County Mayo, but your efforts will be rewarded. This extraordinary ancient site holds the stony remains of an entire prehistoric farming village on top of a cliff, with a bonus of breathtaking views of the sea and surrounding countryside. Spend the day exploring the 5,000-year-old site, and lunch in the excellent visitor center.
Day 3: County Sligo
In the morning, drive east to County Sligo. On the N4, south of Sligo Town, visit the Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Cemetery perched on a hilltop with wide, sweeping views overlooking Lough Arrow. The 14 cairns and dolmens here are often very quiet early in the day—with luck you might have them all to yourself. Then head on to Sligo Town and follow signs to Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. This extraordinary site has 60 stone circles, passage tombs, and dolmens scattered across acres of green pastures. They are believed to predate Newgrange by nearly a millennium. In the afternoon, if you’re feeling energetic, climb to the nearby hilltop cairn of Knocknarea—it’s believed to be the grave of folklore fairy Queen Maeve.
Day 4: Inishmurray Island
After a relaxing morning, travel by boat to the island of Inishmurray off the coast of Sligo. There you can spend the day wandering the impressively complete remains of the early monastic settlement founded in the 6th century. You can still make out its ancient chapels, beehive cells, and altars. If the weather is fine, pack a picnic lunch and eat on the sunny beach. Return to Sligo for the night.
Day 5: The Burren
Today begins with another long drive, but you’ll pass through some of the most beautiful parts of Galway and Mayo along the way. The Burren, in County Clare, is one of the richest areas of the country for ancient remains from the Neolithic period through medieval times. There are around 120 dolmens and wedge tombs—including the impressive Poulnabrone Dolmen—and as many as 500 ring forts.
Day 6: Skellig Michael
Day 7: Glendalough
Drive east today to County Wicklow, where the evocative ruins of the monastery at Glendalough are sprawled around two peaceful lakes nestled on the side of a mountain. Get a map from the visitor center before beginning your exploration of the round towers, chapels, and huts dotted around the wooded site. Don’t miss the ancient chapel known as
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