Tales on Rail: The Essential Ireland — From Big City Scenes to Rural Country Roads

Ireland isn’t very big. To put it into scale for those of us in the US, it’s physically about the same size as the state of Indiana. Despite this, Ireland has more variety in landscape, people, and drinking songs than some of the US states twice its size. This is my guide to the essential Ireland sights and experiences based on its three primary settings: the big city, the quaint little town, and the rural landscape.

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Dublin: The Big City

As I mentioned, Ireland isn’t very big — and so “big city” here is a relative term. Dublin is a fairly walk-able city as far as European destinations are concerned, and there are always so many people wandering around that if you get lost, you don’t have to go too far to ask for directions.

Dublin is one of the literary centers of Europe, and so many of famous sites pay tribute to literature in some way — the Writer’s Museum features exhibits and belongings of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, and so on; one of the city’s most famous statues is a figure of Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock in Merrion Square; tour guides will point out St. Ann’s Church as the place where Bram Stoker was married; St. Patrick’s Cathedral houses the slightly creepy death mask of Jonathan Swift; and so on.

Beyond literature, Dublin is known for the Guinness Storehouse, the Kilmanhaim Gaol (Jail), the trendy Temple Bar nightlife, and Trinity College Library, which houses the Book of Kells. These attractions prove that Dublin can compete with any other European capital city in terms of balancing history with modern culture.

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Trinity College Library in Dublin

How to get there: Dublin’s main train station is called Heuston Station, and it serves south, southwestern, and western routes. The other primary station is Connolly, which serves the north, northwest, and southeast.

Train tickets or rail pass? This depends on how much of Ireland you want to see by train. All of the major cities are connected by train (Dublin, Galway, Cork, Waterford, Killarney, etc), so if you plan to visit four or five of them, a rail pass would be a great option. If you think you’d prefer to keep your traveling to one or two cities, point to point train tickets will suffice.

Seat Reservations required? Reservations are not required on all trains, though it’s best to purchase them to ensure a seat on the train.

How to get around: Although Dublin is mostly walk-able, it does rain a lot, and certain streets can be winding and difficult to navigate. Sometimes it’s easier to hop on a bus. The Dublin City Sightseeing Bus offers 2 days of hop-on, hop-off privileges, and it stops by all of the major sites in the city. While public transportation is also very reliable, this tour bus will quickly acquaint you with the major sites and give a historical overview of each part of town.

Jackie’s Travel Tip: This is a city that should definitely be explored at night! Dublin nightlife is truly something to experience. The Temple Bar area is lively any night of the week, and the bridges criss-crossing the River Liffey make for beautiful, atmospheric night photos.

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Weekend market in Galway

Galway: The Weekend Town

Galway seems to operate on a permanent “weekend vibe”: bar patios are always full of customers, stag/hen parties (bachelor/bachelorette parties) are always in town, and students are always wandering the streets. Thanks in part to the university, a majority of Galway’s population is under the age of 25.

Galway’s main street, Shop Street, has got it all — pubs, shops, cafes, street performers, bookstores — and it is also one of the main entry points for one of Galway’s most popular weekend attractions, the local street market. The market offers food, crafts, and wares from local artisans and is crowded with tourists and locals alike.

Located on the coast almost directly west of Dublin, Galway is a windier, quainter town with a different pace of life. While it still has the energy of Dublin, it doesn’t have many of the “famous European sights,” and so the real attraction is the people. When we were wondering around Galway on a Saturday afternoon, we were invited to have a few beers with a group of local Irishmen who were sitting on a patio on Shop Street, enjoying the sun and looking to make new friends. That’s pretty much how Galway operates.

How to get there: The train station is called Ceannt Station, located in the center of town. I took a train from Dublin to Galway and it was a little over two hours long. Galway is also connected by train to Limerick and Athenry. For connections to other cities and surrounding attractions (like the Cliffs of Moher), you’ll need to take a bus or rent a car.

Train Tickets or Rail Pass? If Dublin, Galway, and Limerick are all included in your itinerary, you might want to look into a rail pass. If Galway is only one of two stops, or your only stop, it would probably be better to stick to point to point train tickets.

How to get around: We said Dublin was walk-able, but Galway is really walk-able. A few of the main streets — Shop Street among them — don’t even allow vehicle traffic. There are several one-way streets and narrow streets as well, as so driving would be difficult (not to mention the whole driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road thing. And roundabouts!).

Jackie’s Travel Tip: Definitely visit the aforementioned weekend market — delicious food, and I purchased a beautiful piece of local artwork there as well. Also, if you’re interested in the Claddagh rings, Galway is one of the best places in Ireland to purchase an authentic one (just ask any local shop owner or bartender where to look). For a fun night out with the locals, visit Hole in the Wall — the many-roomed pub where everyone gathers to watch rugby games and horse-racing.

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A colorful street in Dingle

Dingle: The Tiny Town and Rural Landscape

Dingle sort of looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere. The Dingle Peninsula is named such after its only town, Dingle, which is also the western-most town in Europe. To give you an idea of what Dingle is like, I will tell you that its main attraction is a dolphin named Fungi — named such because he is such a “fun guy,” allegedly —  who is special because he showed up in the peninsula one day almost twenty years ago and hasn’t left since then. Boat trips travel out daily to visit Fungi, and he appears so often to swim and leap along the boats that if you don’t see him when you’re out for your turn, you get your money back!

The buildings in Dingle are colorful and bright, and like Dublin and Galway there is no shortage of pubs or quaint storefronts. The area surrounding Dingle is all cliffs, greenery, and beaches -- it is hailed by many to be among the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Here we see a different side of Irish life, one that revolves around farming, artisan craft work (we visited a jewelry maker and a potter as we passed through), and preserving the ancient ruins and cemeteries that still dot the countryside.

The Dingle Peninsula almost feels like a place frozen in time, untouched by modernity and disinterested in anything the big cities have to offer. And in case you ever forget where you are — all of the street signs are written in Gaelic, not English, as this is one of the areas of the country where Gaelic is the primary language used.

It’s nice to know that such a place still exists, especially in such a well-trodden area of the world as Europe.

How to get there: The nearest train station is in Tralee, and the next nearest is Killarney. Buses operate between each of these cities and the town of Dingle.

How to get around: You can walk the entirety of the town of Dingle in about two hours, potentially less. To explore the rural countryside, I would recommend a bus tour or car rental.

Jackie’s Travel Tip: Try Murphy’s Ice Cream shop — there are flavors like Sea Salt and Caramel Honeycomb. Yes. Also the ride out to see Fungi is way more fun than it sounds, and there are beautiful views of the town from out on the water.

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Feeding a lamb at a sheep farm outside Dingle

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first installment of my Ireland trip series. Next up: I take you on a ferry from Ireland over to Wales and England; I ride first class on a train to London; and more! Spoiler alert: the ferry had a bar, a movie theater, and chocolate croissants. It’s surprising I ever got off the ferry.

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