Dotting Ireland’s rolling green countryside are a variety of ancient castles, stoic reminders of the country’s medieval history. Some crumble in picturesque ruins, while others shine with ornate brilliance, thanks to restoration. Whether you’re visiting for a quick weekend or a taking a month to explore, no Irish journey is complete without checking out at least one of these old architectural relics. With that in mind, here are eight of the most mesmerizing castles in Ireland.
Perhaps the least Irish of all the Irish castles, the extravagant Ashford Castle is still a must-visit for anyone traveling to the Emerald Isle. Set in the sleepy rural village of Cong in County Mayo, the castle was built in the 18th century by the Browne family, who wanted it modeled after a French chateau. The result is a massive stone complex complete with Gothic windows, intricate parapets, and regal grounds. The interior, which now operates as a 5-star hotel, is the image of opulence, decorated decadently with lavish furnishings and brilliant artwork. If you don’t have the means to stay the night, you can still visit and explore the grounds for a mere five euro.
If you’re only able to journey to one castle during your stay in Ireland, make it this one. Located in Blarney, just five miles (eight kilometers) from Cork City, Blarney Castle is most famous for its eponymous stone. Also known as the “Stone of Eloquence,” the Blarney Stone is said to bestow the talent of brilliant speech (or “the gift of gab,” as the Irish say) on anyone who bestows a kiss upon it. However, the process of kissing it is slightly more complicated than advertised, as one must climb to the top of the castle, lie down, dangle over the edge, and pass under the slab in order to do so. If you’re not up to the task there’s still plenty to explore — the medieval stronghold also offers one of the most striking facades throughout all of Ireland.
Consisting of a single tower nestled within a basic four-wall fortress, Doe Castle isn’t one of the most architecturally significant structures in Ireland — its location is what makes it so incredible. Situated on a tiny peninsula just barely bigger than the stronghold itself, the castle is surrounded on three sides by water and connected to the mainland by a cobblestone moat. This makes for fantastic photo opportunities as you can capture the castle in the bay against the magical backdrop of County Donegal’s magical countryside. Plus, the tour costs only three euro and will provide you with the rich history of the MacSweeney clan who used the fortress for over 200 years.
Overlooking a bend in the River Eske, this impressive castle offers scenic views, but the true highlight is what lies in its interior. Donegal Castle remained in ruins for much of the last two centuries but was fully restored in the 1990s, a process which left it with beautiful halls, French tapestries, Persian rugs, and a variety of ornate decorations. The tour is self-guided and the castle is situated in the center of Donegal Town, so it’s easy to fit this one into your itinerary when exploring the medieval city.
You don’t even have to leave Ireland’s capital city to explore its historic castles. Built in the 13th century, Dublin Castle remains today as a major government complex and a patriotic symbol of Irish independence. For centuries, the castle served as the seat of the English and eventually British, administration in Ireland, but following the conclusion of the War of Independence, it became a stronghold of Irish power and pride. You can take the guided tour, during which you’ll learn about the interior’s many rooms — including the Viking-era basement — or you can look around on your own and marvel at the structure’s striking Gothic architecture and stoic character.
It may be in ruins, but this castle in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim is unrivaled in its majestic beauty. Perched atop a dizzying sea cliff, the ruins give way to vertigo-inducing drops on all sides and are only accessible via a precarious bridge that connects to the mainland. If you make your way across to the rocky outcropping that houses the crumbling fortress, you can navigate its open-air halls enveloped by the sea breeze and salt spray emanating up from the waters below. As an added bonus, fans of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” might recognize Dunluce Castle as the filming location for the scenes at the Castle of Pyke, the seat of House Greyjoy. Whatever you do, don’t look down!
Located in the center of the quaint medieval town of Kilkenny, this castle is one of the most recognizable in all of Ireland. What sets it apart are its three distinctive stone towers, which rise from the ancient structure and overlook the surrounding region. The grounds offer several attractions: a tranquil rose garden, a park, a cascading fountain, and a courtyard, while on the inside you can view the staggering decorated ceilings and extensive portrait collection of the Long Gallery. The castle also houses the Butler Gallery, which features work by local artists as well as a small permanent collection. Make sure to soak it all in, however — no photography is allowed inside!
Ross Castle offers an idyllic Irish experience. Erected right on the edge of a lake in Killarney National Park, this fortress provides picturesque views of the surrounding landscape, with placid waters to the east and west and woods to the north and south. All that remains of the original structure is a square keep surrounded by crumbling stone walls and a single looming tower, but set against the Killarney countryside, this makes for a picture-perfect Irish scene.
Cover Photo by Cathy Weatherston