How to Take a Vacation to Ireland with Your Kids (From Someone Who’s Done It Twice!)
Ireland is a wonderful place for a family trip. It’s a smaller country that’s very easy to navigate, which makes it a great first international trip for little ones. Road signs and major sites include information in both Irish (Gaelic) and English, and children are welcome just about everywhere. I’ve traveled to the Republic of Ireland with my family multiple times, and my children have had the honor of experiencing Ireland’s beautiful culture — its language, music, arts, food, and heritage sites — firsthand.
Interested in heading to Ireland with your family? Here are a few of my tips for having a unique and incredibly memorable trip with your children.
In this article:
1. Book your first two nights in Dublin.
One of the kindest things you can do for yourself as a family is to book at least two nights in the same place at the start of your trip. Most travelers fly from the U.S. into Dublin on an overnight flight. Once you arrive, the kids might be cranky. Even if they’re good to go, wait until about midday Irish time — that’s when the jet lag kicks in. One of the fastest ways to get on Irish time is to push through the tiredness and go to bed at a “normal” time that first evening. Booking two nights allows you to have an early evening in the first night, and the next to normalize a bit more without having to haul your stuff around. Dublin is a great place to do this because there are tons of things to look at and distract yourself from being tired, including free National Museums, delicious restaurants, and easy public transit. Consider the Trinity City Hotel or the Iveagh Garden Hotel for low-key luxe that’s super close to St. Stephen’s Green and public transit lines.
2. Take the public transit in Dublin.
Taking public transit in Dublin, including the Luas (the light rail) or the DART train in Dublin, is not only super easy, it’s really fun for the kids. The stops are all announced in Irish and English, and you can take it to lots of sites like St. Stephens Green, Trinity College, Temple Bar area, and the National Museum of Ireland. The Luas tickets can be purchased at a little kiosk at the stop.
3. Stay in a castle.
Staying in a castle that has been converted into a comfy hotel is better than any Disney vacation. Many castle hotels in Ireland are surprisingly affordable and offer all kinds of perks kids love, like high tea, falconry, and Alice-in-Wonderland worthy gardens. We stayed at Kilkea Castle and loved it! There’s a golf course attached (clubs can be rented) and acres of beautiful grounds to wander, with a lavish breakfast spread in the old castle. Kilkea Castle is not that far from Dublin by car, and you can day trip into the Wicklow Mountains and even down to the coast on the other side for some beach play.
4. Take the train.
While there are many small towns that are best reached by car, for transport between top destinations such as Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Tralee, Waterford, and all the little villages in between, you cannot beat the train. Traveling by train in Ireland is easy and a true pleasure for families. We brought along this travel deck of Uno cards and our family favorite travel game, Monopoly Deal, and purchased drinks and snacks on the train. We were able to score a little table and sat together chatting and playing games. We even had a gentleman sit with us for a while and give us some local’s tips for the area where we were headed. It’s a great way to travel, see the countryside, and spend some quality time together while no one is focused on navigating the narrow roads and driving on the left. Check out the Irish Rail map here.
5. Pick up a rental car halfway through the trip.
If you can take the train to all your destinations, you won’t really even need a rental car, but Ireland is a small enough country that you can cover a lot of ground in a car. Plus a car will get you access to less-trodden spots like the Dingle Peninsula and Donegal. Consider picking up your car outside of Dublin in a city you’ve reached by train, like Cork or Galway, and either returning it there or dropping it off at the Dublin airport at the end of your trip. When we wanted to spend time in Sligo and Donegal, we picked up our car on the fourth day in Galway and dropped at the Dublin airport and the price was not much more than dropping at the original destination. Book way in advance if you can.
6. Don’t ignore the inland counties.
Naturally you’ll want to spend some time at one of the beautiful Irish beaches and hit the library at Trinity College, but some of the true hidden gems in Ireland can be found between the coasts. For example, if Newgrange is too crowded for you, consider a visit to Rathcroghan (Rath Cruachan) where you can discover a huge un-excavated archaeological site including a magical cave — Oweynagat or Cave of the Cats — said to be the origin for Samhain, the Celtic tradition which modern Halloween is based on. The visitor center in Tulsk houses an excellent museum and you can book a guided tour with a local archeologist or do your own self driving tour. We stayed in nearby Roscommon and found the Abbey Hotel to be a perfect family overnight with an excellent restaurant and a pool. In Roscommon you can visit some enticing ruins including Roscommon Castle and Roscommon Abbey.
7. Keep an open day … or three.
In all the trips we’ve taken to Ireland, the one thing I’ve learned for certain is not to pack the itinerary too much. Part of the beauty and magic of Ireland is letting Ireland happen to you. Those moments of unscheduled time for wandering, chatting with locals, or just sitting in a pub (most welcome children until later in the evening) listening to good spontaneous music is when the true Ireland shines. When we travel to Ireland during the peak season, such as summer, we try to book our accommodations in advance to keep it simple, but if we travel in the less-popular times like winter or fall, we sometimes leave a day or two unbooked. Either way we always try to leave a few days unplanned and decide what we feel like doing that day. Don’t rush through Ireland; you’ll miss some of the best parts.
8. Take in some Gaelic sports.
Expose your kids to sporting events that have taken place in Ireland for over 3,000 years. Whether that’s a local kid’s Gaelic football game or a professional hurling match, it’s fun to attend an event that other parents and kids enjoy and that is uniquely Irish. Experience Gaelic Games offers the chance to try your hand playing some of the games yourself. You can also ask around if there are any kid’s matches coming up in nearby towns and watch one with the kids. We happened to be driving through a little village where a girls Gaelic Football match was taking place, and we stopped and watched on the sidelines for a while. The kids were around my son’s ages so it was immersive and relatable at the same time.
9. Consider visiting during National Heritage Week.
A few summers back my family took a trip to Ireland closer to the end of the summer—our school starts after Labor Day so we went in late August. It just so happened that we were there during the Irish National Heritage Week, which happens in August every year. Throughout the country there are free and low-cost events including forest walks, castle tours, access to national archeological sites, Irish railway heritage events (steam trains!) and more. The events are different every year but the focus is on sustainability in national treasures, from plants and animals to castles and historical sites. It is a great way to learn about Irish history and meet locals who bring their kids out for the events. It also takes place at a time that’s almost shoulder-season, too, so airfare and hotels are a little less expensive.
10. Mix up tourist stuff with hidden gems.
The big tourist attractions are attractions for a reason: they’re pretty awesome. Even if you like to do less touristy things, buckling down and doing some of them will help create iconic memories for the kids. But it doesn’t have to be all tourist stops, all the time. For example, if Blarney Castle isn’t appealing to everyone in your crew, consider nearby Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. Frequently when I am planning trips I will use Google Maps and find a popular attraction, then scroll around to see what else is nearby, make a note of it, and do a bit of research. Head to the medieval village of Kilkenny, but pick a random town along the train stop to visit, too.
11. Let everyone pick at least one activity.
When we went to Ireland with my son for the first time he was seven and we all had different ideas of what we wanted to do. I wanted to stay in a medieval castle and he really wanted to go to an amusement park called Tayto Park. We ended up cutting out a few things we thought we’d do (like Blarney Castle and the Ring of Kerry) and allotted for a day spent in Tayto Park. It ended up being one of our favorite things we’ve done there to date. For one thing, we were among the only tourists there; the park was full of Irish parents with their kids, spending the last hurrah of summer in an amusement park. We chatted while the kids rode the rides and it was a delightful, unexpected highlight.
12. Make the last night memorable.
When I first started traveling with my son I would often book the last night’s accommodation close to the airport for convenience — super handy when you’ve got a little baby. But as he got older, I realized that the problem with this plan is that it actually feels like you’ve ended your trip a night early. So a few years ago, whenever we’ve booked longer family trips, I’ve made sure the last night is somewhere beautiful. In Ireland, this is easy to do. There are castles, manors, and four-star accommodations you can stay at, all a stone’s throw from the Dublin airport (and some even on the metro line).
Good to Know
At the time of this writing, Ireland has no entry Covid-19 entry restrictions for visitors from the U.S., however businesses, venues, and attractions may have their own requirements for masking or proof of vaccination. This link to the U.S. Embassy in Ireland will help you navigate specific Covid-19 policies.There is also currently no restriction for travel into the U.S. regarding negative Covid testing. Check the CDC’s website for more information.
10-Must Haves for an Ireland Trip with Kids
1. A waterproof adventure travel map of Ireland from National Geographic. Get it before your trip so you can adventure-plan in advance. $14.95
2. Even in summer it rains in Ireland. A lightweight kid’s rain jacket will also work for windy coast days. If it’s colder, layer it up with a cozy Aran Islands sweater. $79
3. A compact travel umbrella small enough to tuck into your daybag (8 inches including the case) for those unexpected showers. $18.99
4. Pottery Barn Kids make sturdy rolling backpacks ($84.50) in a variety of patterns. They work great as kid’s luggage and can also be carried if rolling their luggage on cobblestones isn’t as fun as it sounds. Pricier, but also bigger, are the Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler ($249) which wheels and converts to a backpack.
5. Trails can get slippery no matter what time of year, so a waterproof kids hiking sneaker makes a great alternative to bulky rain boots, and are more comfy too. $53
6. Bring along a packable, reusable tote for grocery store runs or last-minute souvenir purchases. $29
7. I also pack a foldable travel duffle. For longer trips I use it for laundry (we pack light and do laundry at least 1x during our trips) and you can also use it to carry on all those extra treasures at the end of the trip. $20
8. Monopoly Deal ($4.99) has all of the basic rules of Monopoly, but it only takes about 15 minutes to play. Another favorite, this compact dice game ($7.25) is easy to learn and tricky to win.
9. Lightweight blank journals in my bag for trip notes and drawings.
10. A neck pillow for the long plane ride. If you don’t mind toting them around, this pillow ($35) comes in adult as well as little and big kid sizes. I prefer an inflatable neck pillow ($27.95), and this Eagle Creek one is soft and has a removable, washable cover.