Ireland is no longer a cheap country to visit—and hasn’t been for some time. The economic crash of the late 2000s and early 2010s drove prices down a bit, but hotels and restaurants are still pricey, and in recent years the euro/dollar exchange rate has not favored travelers from the U.S. But here’s the good news: You can visit a lot of great sites for free in Ireland, including some of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. You can also save a lot of money by sticking mainly to places that can be reached by public transport, thus eliminating the need to rent a car (every place we list is easily accessible by train or bus). You’d be surprised by how much of Ireland you can see without blowing the budget. We’re starting this tour in Northern Ireland (maybe you got a great deal on a flight to Belfast!), because it’s one of the more budget-friendly regions. For more information on train and bus timetables, see www.irishrail.ie and www.buseireann.ie.
Day 1: Belfast
Belfast is rich with free attractions—here are just a few. The excellent Ulster Museum displays artifacts from across 9,000 years of Irish history. Right next door is the Belfast Botanic Gardens & Palm House , only a short walk away from the campus of Queen’s University. Belfast City Hall runs free guided tours. Another exceptional Victorian landmark, Belfast Cathedral, is also free, as is Cave Hill Country Park, a tranquil place with good walking trails and incredible views of the city. Last but not least, because Belfast is still most famous for the sectarian strife of the mid- to late-20th century, a highlight of your visit may be to view the political murals remaining in what was once the epicenter of the conflict, the Falls and Shankill roads areas. These neighborhoods are now safe for visitors to explore, and the street art is free to see. To get the most out of them, however, you may want to spend some.
Days 2 & 3: Dublin
Ireland’s capital is also the number-one destination in the country for free sites. The Chester Beatty Library is, for our money, one of the best museums in Europe. The collection of illuminated gospels and early copies of the Bible, Torah, and Koran would justify a steep entrance fee, but it won’t cost you a cent. Three of the four separate museums constituting the National Museum of Ireland are in Dublin— Archaeology, Natural History, and Decorative Arts and History—and all are free. Each contains incredible treasures, and collectively have enough to keep you occupied for a day or more. All of Dublin’s best major art galleries are free, including the National Gallery of Ireland , the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Temple Bar Gallery, and the excellent Hugh Lane Gallery. Many of Dublin’s most historic public buildings, such as the Bank of Ireland/Parliament House and the Four Courts, don’t charge admission. You can walk right into the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, which is still a working post office, to see a few exhibits devoted to the Easter Rising, including the original Declaration of Independence. There’s no charge to visit the President’s House (Áras an Uachtaráin) in Phoenix Park, accessible only by tour (alas, only on Sat). Add to this the great public spaces such as Phoenix Park, St. Stephen’s Green, and Trinity College, and you’ll see it’s possible to spend a full 2 days here without spending a penny on sightseeing.
Day 4: Galway
Ireland’s artsy, seductive west-coast city offers plenty of free pursuits. The Galway Arts Centre usually has good exhibitions, and you can often score cheap tickets for performances. The Galway City Museum makes for a stellar introduction to the region, with its fine collection of artifacts from the medieval period onward. St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, the oldest church in the city, contains a 12th-century crusader’s tomb and other extraordinary historic pieces. Make sure you also devote some time to just wandering the streets of this eminently walkable town; its central medieval district is a tiny, twisty area with lots of photogenic corners.
Day 5: Galway to Cork
Busy, youthful Cork City doesn’t have a great deal of free historic attractions, but if you’re up for a large dose of culture, you’ll find plenty to do without paying a cent. Start with a trip to the Old English Market for a browse and a cheap lunch. Afterward, head to the Crawford Art Gallery—it’s one of the very best in Ireland and completely free. More excellent free art is to be found at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery on the campus of University College Cork. In the evening, check out a few of Cork’s exceptional pubs, among the best in the country for traditional music.
Day 6: Cork to Killarney
It’s not exactly difficult to reach Killarney National Park from Killarney Town; you just walk toward the cathedral and turn left. This 65-sq. km (25-sq. mile) expanse of forest, lakes, and mountains is crisscrossed with several well-conceived nature trails, plus more challenging routes for serious hikers. Formerly the grounds of a great mansion, the Knockreer Estate still has lovely gardens and beautiful views. Free sites in Killarney Town itself include the rather grand neo-Gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral. For dinner, the frugal traveler will be drawn to The Laurels—a lively pub in the center of Killarney town serving steaks, seafood, and stone-baked pizzas, with live music on the side.
Day 7: Homeward Bound...
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.