Early inhabitants of Ireland thought that this part of the west coast was quite literally the end of the world. The hostile and seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean stretched out in front of them mysterious and impenetrable, and nothing existed beyond the horizon. Known simply as “The Kingdom”, County Kerry lives up to it’s grandiose nickname and then some. The scenery is breathtaking and it is without a doubt one of the most amazing places in Ireland to discover spectacular landscapes and surprising wildlife.
Even though it has long been a popular destination to visit, tourism here has exploded in recent times, particularly in and around Killarney. This small town is the historic gateway to the stunning peninsula and serves as the start and finish point for most explorations of the “Ring of Kerry” that skirts its outer perimeter. The business owners we chatted with told us there were now people coming to Killarney from all over the world and that the numbers of visitors continues to grow year on year. It’s easy to see why.
To help you plan your visit (and trust us, if you’re not already planning a visit then you should be), we’ve put together this guide of what to do in Killarney.
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Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park lies just a couple of miles from Killarney’s town centre and is easy to get to on foot or by bicycle. There are dozens of marked walking routes that take you through lush green woodland, round the vast lakes surrounded by snow capped mountains and through the grounds of some impressive buildings. All of the routes are very clearly signposted with walking distances and estimated times and many are loops that begin and end at the same place. Here are the best bits of Killarney National Park:
This stunning waterfall is one of the main attractions within Killarney National Park, it’s about 10 minutes from Killarney town centre if you’re in a car, or an hour and a bit walking and somewhere in between to cycle. We discovered it by accident when we on our way through the national park, the day before we were due to explore it (whenever we see a sign that says waterfall we have to follow it!) and were really taken by it.
Torc Waterfall is 20 metres high and dramatically carves its way down through the forest canopy over a series of massive boulders. The huge trees that surround it are covered in a green lichen giving the short walk from the road an eerie feel.
Lakes of Killarney
Killarney National Park has three lakes that are all in close proximity, Upper Lake, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane. The surrounding mountains are reflected in the still waters making it a tranquil and otherworldly setting to really enjoy the nature and get back to basics.
The lakes are punctuated with tiny jagged islands that stick out above the surface of the water and are clearly home to a lot of the wildlife in the area. We spent a couple of hours walking around the lakes but you could spend all day relaxing on their shores.
This pretty, Tudor-style 65 room mansion overlooks Muckross Lake and Lough Leane. Once owned by Arthur Guinness, creator of the famous beer, it was eventually given to the Irish people, turning it and the surrounding estate into the Republic of Ireland’s first national park. There is a fee to get into the house itself which we didn’t do, but it’s entirely free to wander around the grounds and it’s impressive manicured gardens.
About a mile away from Muckross House you’ll find Muckross Abbey, which despite being almost 600 years old is incredibly well preserved. You really get a sense of the weight of history as you enter the graveyard, which though still being used today, has some headstones dating back to when it was originally built.
We were fascinated walking around inside the abbey itself, which although roofless is still in almost perfect condition. The rooms are separated by tiny doorways and narrow spiral staircases lead you to the upper floors. There is also a central courtyard which has a gorgeous, twisted ewe tree growing at its centre that was decorated with white roses when we went.
Dating back to the 15th century, Ross Castle is in remarkably good condition considering its age . Built on the banks of Lough Leane, it's a tranquil and picturesque place. You can pay to go into the castle and to get a boat tour around the lakes, although we didn't opt to do either as we had limited time.
We didn’t take a ride on one of these horse and carts (the car won), but loved watching them clatter by along the narrow paths around Killarney. They’re available to hire from the town centre or from any of the surrounding attractions, meaning you can take a ride around the whole of Killarney National Park on one if you want, or just from one of the above points of interest to another.
It’s a very traditional part of Irish life and the horses are clearly treated very well by their owners so despite not going on one we have no problem recommending it. The drivers will also treat you to a few stories about the local history and from what we overheard are quite entertaining!
The Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is the main reason that so many people visit Killarney each year as it has a reputation for being the most beautiful place in Ireland, which let me tell you is some accolade! There are a number of ways to get round it including coach tours and for hardcore cycling enthusiasts by bike. But we’d really recommend hiring a car as it puts you in control of where you stop and how long for.
The route traditionally runs anti-clockwise from Killarney, but for various reasons we chose to go the opposite way round. The main one was that there are a huge amount of coach tours that all follow the same anti-clockwise route and stop at the same places at virtually the same time. It means that if you get stuck behind them you’ll be sharing the attractions with dozens, possibly hundreds of other people at any one time, which although not a disaster is pretty easily avoided by just going in the opposite direction. We’d recommend heading straight into the Killarney National Park, on to Sneem and continuing in that direction or alternatively setting off early so you are ahead of the coaches.
The views are so spectacular and ever changing that we were pulling the car over literally every five minutes to take in the views. The narrow road winds high into the mountainside before dropping steadily into valleys, revealing new and even more beautiful scenery with every twist and turn. We spent about 8 hours driving the Ring of Kerry, but we could easily have spent even more time on it as there is so much to see and do, with incredible beaches, panoramic views out to the Skellig Islands as well as ancient buildings to explore. The Ring of Kerry certainly makes you understand where County Kerry gets its nickname from and why it has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful places in Ireland.
The Skellig Ring
We were recommended by our hostel manager John to make sure we included the Skellig Ring on our route around the Ring of Kerry, and we’re so glad we took his advice. The Skellig Ring is a short detour at the tip of the peninsula that takes you onto the tiny island of Valentia. In the summer months you can cross a bridge onto it at one side, drive around some of its perimeter and over its highest point before getting a car ferry from the other side back to the mainland and onto the Ring of Kerry.
When you get onto the island you’ll notice that every resident that passes you in the opposite direction waves at you, an indication of how tight the community must be here. As we were there a couple of weeks before the season officially started the car ferry wasn’t running so we had the pleasure of driving around the entire island, and it also meant that we didn’t miss out on any of the Ring of Kerry as we picked it back up exactly where we left off. It’s a detour of about 11 miles but is certainly worth it.
A Night Out in Killarney
Another reason Killarney is popular is for its amazing craic. Along with Tralee a bit further north, it’s the liveliest town in County Kerry and there are plenty of pubs, clubs and bars that are packed on an almost nightly basis. Plunkett Street was our favourite destination for nightlife, and in particular the traditional pub Courtney's which had a great live band and plenty of different spaces where you can dance, sit at the bar or just chill out depending on what mood you’re in.
Where to Stay in Killarney - The Black Sheep Hostel
We spent a while researching the best accommodation in Killarney and came across The Black Sheep Hostel online. Having spent two nights there, we really can’t recommend it highly enough! It’s in an old townhouse that is deceptively huge on the inside and has been newly and tastefully renovated so everything is shiny and brand new.
The staff are really friendly and welcoming and the social areas are perfect for meeting fellow travellers and relaxing in. The location is absolutely unbeatable as well as it’s right in the centre of town, a couple of minutes walk from all the great pubs, restaurants and shops as well as being a couple of minutes walk into the Killarney National Park.
We fell in love with Killarney and The Kingdom as soon as we set eyes on it, and would urge anyone thinking of visiting Ireland to make it a priority on your list of things to do there. And if you’re not thinking of visiting Ireland then you should be, even if just to see this incredible corner of the country.
Have you ever visited The Kingdom? What part of Ireland would you most like to see and why? Let us know in the comments down below!