Ireland or Scotland? An Insider's Guide to Helping You Choose

By+Laura Kinney and Amanda Norell

We all know about the “Luck of the Irish,” downing a pint at an Irish pub, Scottish kilts and bagpipes and even Scotch whisky, but if you’re traveling to either one of these legendary Gaelic countries, how do you overcome the clichés and uncover the mysteries? Two Life + Spaces staffers offer “insider tips”.

 

IRELAND

by Laura Kinney

Ireland is famous for its green hills and friendly banter. The laid-back nature of Irish people perfectly blends with the rolling countryside, making it an easy place to fall in love with. Somehow, and somewhat sporadically, I lived in Ireland for three years. Going to school in the scenic university town of Maynooth, just west of Dublin, was a “gateway” into Irish life that gave me the opportunity to use Kildare as a home-base while exploring the entire island. After the years and numerous visits, I haven’t been everywhere I would like, but these are the places that I’ve not only ‘been to’ but that I always return to.

 

The “Garden of Ireland”

 

Ease into sightseeing by heading south toward the “Garden of Ireland”: Wicklow. The Dublin-Wicklow Mountains, seen from the capital, are spectacular. No visit to Ireland is complete without a “trip up the mountains.” You could spend hours driving through Wicklow National Park (more than 49,000 acres of natural beauty), but here are a few places that stand out for their historical importance and awe-inspiring views:

Powerscourt Estate, less than an hour from Dublin city, is 47 acres of gardens, grottos, and terraces- all part of the grounds of a Palladian-influenced mansion. There was once a 13th century castle on the site and the gardens themselves have been tended for more than two and a half centuries. 

The name, meaning “valley of two lakes,” gives an indication of the landscape you’ll be surrounded by when you get to Glendalough, a monastic site established by St. Kevin in the 6th century. It’s no surprise holy men came to this area−the landscape lends itself to something spiritual. 

Travel Notes: The roads through the mountains are often narrow, winding, and difficult to navigate, so hiring a coach service is advisable. There are tour buses available directly to Glendalough from Dublin city, while Dublin Bus offers a touring bus to Powerscourt.

 

In Dublin’s Fair City

 

Ireland’s capital has become an international hot spot but somehow manages to keep its charm. Getting around is easy: many sights are within walking distance or a quick ride on a bus. The Spire on O’Connell Street is a great place to start, and from there you can see the General Post Office. During the Easter Rising, the “GPO” was used as a headquarters by Irish Republicans. With bullet holes remaining in the columns and the facade, this building remains a symbol of Irish nationalism. Heading south toward the River Liffey, the views of the city are beautiful and (on a sunny day) colorful. Take a moment at the bridge to look around− you’ll see the Custom’s House (to your left) and the Ha’Penny bridge (your right). 

On the south side, Trinity College Green and Grafton Street are great places to get a feel for Dublin. The Grafton shopping district is the site of the Molly Malone statue and a range of street performers entertain here. Have tea at the iconic Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton and then follow the street to the other end and find yourself at the beautiful Saint Stephen’s Green. This city-center park is perfect for a romantic stroll or breath of fresh air. As you continue to explore the area, you’ll pass by the National Library and Leinster House on Kildare Street where the Dáil (Irish Parliament) meets.  

Taste and decide on a local rivalry for “best pint of your life” by visiting O’Donoghues (on Suffolk Street, just down the lane from Molly Malone) and Mulligan’s (a 10-minute walk to Poolbeg Street).

Travel Notes: Dublin has a wealth of attractions to offer visitors- all dependent on interests and ages. Suggested: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin Castle, Phoenix Park, Guinness or Jameson

 

Coastlines

 

Western Shore 

 

The Cliffs of Moher are perhaps the most iconic part of the island. Seen recently in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, these were made famous as the “Cliffs of Insanity” in the Princess Bride. The newly-built visitor centre gives information about the geology and history of the area, but nothing compares to standing hundreds of feet in the air with the crashing sea below. This is “must-see” Ireland. 

 

Northern Ireland

 

Hopping over to the UK is as easy as driving north, and you definitely should to see the Giant’s Causeway. The hexagonal rock formation jutting out into the sea is either the result of a giant’s feud, an overseas love story, or volcanic activity. The strong winds from the North Channel of the Irish Sea and the crashing waves make this a dramatic example of Ireland’s wild side. Nearby attractions that are more than worth the stop: the impressive ruins of Dunluce Castle and the Bushmill’s Distillery. 

 

Ancient Monuments

 

Less than an hour away from the capital is the impressive neolithic group at Brú na Bóinne.  Older than Stonehenge, and with a more educational and personal tour, Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth are a wealth of history and archaeological information. Tour guides take you inside the chambers of the tombs and recreate the solstice illumination for you – ancient engineering up close and personal!   Tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis and cannot be reserved. The last tour is 1 hour and 45 minutes before the closing time of the visitor centre.  

On your way back toward the city, make a stop at the Hill of Tara. It is windy. The ground is wet and mucky. But, this is the site of the High Kings. The hill, though just over 500 feet, rises up out of the countryside and offers a commanding view. Some of the monuments that remain (although buried by the centuries) are the Mound of the Hostages, Cormac’s House, the Royal Seat, and, most predominantly, the Stone of Destiny - Lia Fáil. 

Travel Notes: The flights are overnight and arrive early morning Dublin time (generally around 7 am). Don’t underestimate jet lag, it may knock you out! Take clothes that can withstand a bit of rain/ wear and tear from hiking.

 

SCOTLAND

by Amanda Norell

There is more to see in Scotland than bagpipes, kilts and highland cows (but don’t get me wrong – you will see your share of all three). At the risk of sounding cliché, there is something seriously magical about Scotland; the kind of magic that gets into your bones and makes you giddy just thinking about it. From the hospitality of the people, to the absolute jaw-dropping beauty of just about every inch of the country, Scotland will get its hooks in you and won’t let go. It’s impossible to see all of the beautiful sites in just one week – I was there for four months and barely scratched the surface of its wonders – but you can certainly have some memorable adventures. While there is still so much of Scotland I would love to see, I can offer some of my favorite spots to visit – some that qualify as typical tourist fare and others a bit off the beaten path. 

 

Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh. Where do I even begin? It was a chilly, gray day when I first visited this historic city but, despite the dreary conditions, I was immediately blown away by its beauty, charm and Old-World feel. There truly is something for everyone in this eclectic city – whether you want to hit Princes Street for some shopping, the tourist attractions along the Royal Mile, or stop for a bite or pint in the Grassmarket area, you will not be disappointed on a trip to Edinburgh. 

 

Edinburgh Castle

 

This might be the number one touristy thing to do in Edinburgh, but be sure to schedule a trip to Edinburgh Castle while you’re in town. Coming from the States, where we are slightly lacking on the castle front, how many chances will you get to tour one? Like many European castles, the Edinburgh Castle was once a small, self-contained village. Today tourists can visit a number of different museums and memorials within the castle walls, including St Margaret’s Chapel, one of the oldest surviving structures in Edinburgh.  

 

Calton Hill

 

If climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat – the highest point in Edinburgh – isn’t in the cards for you, the short trek up Calton Hill might be. While the climb won’t take your breath away, the views certainly will. I stumbled upon Calton Hill on a class trip to Edinburgh when I studied at the University of St Andrews. I came across the steps up to Calton Hill and let my curiosity get the best of me. I’m glad that I did, as I was rewarded with phenomenal panoramic views of Edinburgh, as well as the Firth of Forth that leads to the North Sea. 

 

Scottish National Gallery

 

Again, this might be a bit touristy, but the art nerd in me has to recommend the Scottish National Gallery. Home to greats including Rubens, Velazquez and countless others, the Gallery boasts quite an impressive resume, with a range of Scottish artists represented. Spend a rainy morning getting lost in the beautiful works on the Gallery walls – your inner art nerd will thank you later. Oh, and did I mention admission is free?  

 

St Andrews

 

During my junior year of college, I had the chance to spend four months living and studying in St Andrews, and to this day I still can’t believe my luck. Walking through this medieval town is like walking through a history book, with castle and cathedral ruins at its edges, cobblestoned streets and narrow alleyways. This small town along the east coast of Fife is known for its golf, but there is so much more to discover off the green.   

 

The Old Course

 

Since it is the birthplace of golf, let’s begin with the Old Course. Whether you’re a pro or not, the Old Course is a must-see when visiting St Andrews. If you are a serious golfer, you might want to plan ahead if you have your heart set on the Old Course – tee times begin booking in September for a year in advance! But if you’re just looking to play in golf’s hometown, there are number of other courses in St Andrews that have much shorter waiting lists. And if golf isn’t your thing, go take a photo on the historic Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole of the Old course – just to say that you did.

 

St Andrews Cathedral & St Andrews Castle

 

These might be some of the most remarkable sites in St Andrews. Start on the edge of town, just along the sea, and you will quickly find the awe-inspiring St Andrews Cathedral – at least what’s left of it. St Andrews Cathedral once served as the headquarters of the church in medieval Scotland, but now, centuries later, all that remains are a few stone walls. But don’t be fooled – even the remains are impressive! If you take a short walk west along The Scores you will find the remains of St Andrews Castle. Another medieval structure, it sits just along the North Sea. With histories older than the United States, walking amongst the ruins on these sites will make you feel as though you are truly in another world.

 

Royal Fever

 

As if this town wasn’t historically significant enough on its own, add a royal connection to the list. Both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (or Prince William and Kate Middleton, as they’re more commonly known) attended The University of St Andrews as students a few years back, and their presence is still huge in town. Take a walk by St Salvator’s Hall to see where the two lived and met their first year at university – oh, and did I mention I was spoiled and got to call those digs “home” as well? Afterwards, head across the street for a latte at North Point Cafe. You won’t miss it with it’s large window-sign reading: “Where Kate met Wills (for coffee!)”. And if you fancy something a little stronger Ma Bells, along the beautiful and (again) famous Scores, provides a traditional British pub feel and can set you up with a pint. Oh, and word on the street is that Wills was a fan of Ma Bells back in his undergrad days. No matter where you go in St Andrews, you can brag to your friends back home that you walked the same streets as the royals, shopped in the same stores, and ate where they ate – you’re basically royalty!  

 

Fife Coastal Path

 

I would run often in St Andrews and was always looking for new paths along the sea. It was about two weeks until my departure back to the States that I found the most perfect trail along the Fife Coastal Path with endless sea views to the left and beautiful countryside to the right. To say the views along this path are beautiful would be an understatement. Whether you head east or west of town, there is no shortage of grandeur along these trails. If you’re a hiker, jogger or just a fan of nature, take a stroll along one of the trails on the Fife Coastal Path and you’ll understand just how easy it is to fall in love with Scotland.