From the Cliffs of Moher to the halls of Trinity College, Ireland is full of places famous for their beauty…and often their crowds. If you’re planning a vacation to Ireland with your kids, we’ve got the inside scoop on some off-the-beaten-path locales that help you see the real Ireland. Read on for six hidden and unexpected things to do in Ireland with kids.
1. Do the Uncommon in Roscommon
If magical mystical, historical sites are your jam, you're probably thinking you'll need to endure the crowds at Newgrange. Instead, try visiting this area just north of Roscommon. Rathcroghan (Cruachan Aí), is a Royal Site, and the largest and oldest unexcavated one in Europe. Start off at the Rathcroghan Visitor's Center where you can learn all about the sacred sites around, including the history of Samhain (Halloween) and its origins here along with the stories of epic battles, legendary events and more. Kids can try on helmets and lift up weaponry, and catch a film about life in this Sacred Capital. Older kids will probably be up for the two-hour, archeologist led tour of the sites around, or pick up a map and do the self-driving version. There's also a cafe on site with top-notch scones.
Tip: Stay at the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon. It's classy but kid-friendly and has a pool! It's located just 20 minutes from the visitor's center at Rathcroghan.
2. See a Sheep Dog Demo in Donegal
On the rugged Donegal coastline, herding sheep is not to be taken lightly, and that includes having highly-trained sheepdogs to herd those sheep away from dangerous cliffs. Lifelong resident of the village of Malinbeg, in Glencolmcille, Francis (who started training dogs when he was a kid) and his wife Meghan are the proprietors of Away to Me (a command that means "go right" to sheepdogs). They'll welcome you onto their property and into their fields for a meet and greet with some of the loveliest pups in all the land (give Moss an extra pet for us). You'll enjoy enticing demos with sheepdogs at different stages in their training. Walk-ins are welcome but you can also arrange a visit ahead of time.
3. Go Downton Abbey, Irish Style
Downton Abbey was famously filmed in at Highclere Castle in north Hampshire, England, but Ireland knows a thing or two about lavish estates. The modern-meets-historic Carton House is a must-stay when you're looking for that perfect blend of fancy and family-friendly. Located about 30 minutes from the Dublin airport, it's easy to make this beautiful estate and golf resort part of your itinerary. We recommend staying for at least two nights (go out on a high note and stay at the end of your trip) just to take in all the Carton House has to offer. (If you can stay longer, do it!)
Choose from modern wing bedrooms (where families might be coziest) and Carton House rooms in the historic wing. You'll find three on-site dining options along with an afternoon tea service. And while the rooms are luxe, the lighting mellow and the atmosphere divine, don't stay in your room the whole time! Wander the halls like proper ladies and gentlemen, relax in the drawing room or read a book in the lobby.
And of course, the big highlight is the 1,110 acres you can roam. The grounds themselves invite cycling, walking and exploring. Click here for a downloadable map of the many sites to see.
If you've got a golfer in your group, arrange a round at one of the two Championship Golf Courses that are surprisingly affordable to play. There's also a spa on site and a beautiful pool the kids will adore.
Other fun, unexpected perks include an on-site Kildare Gallery of unique artwork, once-a-month paint nights and plenty of weddings. Given the Irish hospitality, you just might find yourself joining in a round at the bar with the bride-and-groom!
Tip: From Carton House you can explore the nearby village of Maynooth as well as take the 30-minute road trip to Tayto Park (see #7).
Learn more at cartonhouse.com
5. Meet the Legendary Weaver of Donegal Tweed
Take the drive up to the village of Ardara to meet a legendary handweaver of Donegal Tweed: Eddie Doherty has been doing his thing for more than 50 years and you can see it in every exquisite stitch. Get yourself a Donegal Tweed cap or scarf, or splurge for a cape—it will last you years. If Eddie isn't there when you stop by just linger. He's likely to pop back in at any minute and will graciously give you a demonstration of his hand loom.
Learn more at handwoventweed.com
Tip: The unassuming Charlie's West End Cafe on Main St, Drumbaran, Ardara had one of the best meals we had in Ireland, along with friendly locals and a good selection of vegetarian options.
6. Visit a Bookshop in Ballyshannon
The quaint little town of Ballyshannon doesn't get nearly the tourists as nearby Donegal Town, but it's big on charm. Our favorite spot is A Novel Idea, a perfect small town bookshop with a great kid's selection including lots of Irish-authored kids books. Also a great place to pick up a few souvenirs at a good price.
Address: Castle St, Townparks, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, Ireland
7. Play Local at Tayto Park
Tayto Park is a theme park and zoo, created by Ireland's #1 crisp maker, Tayto (crisps as in what we call potato chips in the US). Located about 45 minutes from Dublin. Tayto Park has animals and rides for bigs and littles alike. From the super-mellow Steam Train express to the thrilling Cú Chulainn Coaster—Europe's largest wooden roller coaster with an inversion—you'll find something for every member of your crew.
As a tourist to Ireland, the biggest perk just might be that you'll be with other Irish families, so you'll get a chance to chat with parents while kids are on the little rides.
We recommend staying at Carton House. It's only about 30 minutes from Tayto Park but a world away. Get your amusement park fix and then go relax at a 4-Star property with a pool. After all, you're on vaycay!
Don't miss: The Tayto Factory tour is a highlight for curious kids who love to see how things are made.
More info: taytopark.ie
8. Live Out a Fairy Tale at an Irish Castle
Built in 1180 by the first-ever Knights Templar, Kilkea Castle is steeped is a fortress of delights. The current owners—a Boston born couple who are deeply connected with their Irish roots—have lovingly restored the castle into a luxury hotel that feels both lavish and homey all at once. If you've always wanted to stay in a fairy-tale castle, you will not be disappointed. The only truly "modernized" elements are the kind you want, like luxury bathrooms and cozy (not cold) rooms. We recommend requesting a stay in the castle itself, which has 11 guest rooms, or stay in one of the 30 historic carriage rooms.
You'll also find on the 180-acre estate more modern cottages, many of which are self-catering. World-class food and a state-of-the-art spa are on site along with a renowned golf course. True to Irish custom, no matter how posh you'll still feel like you belong. Your kids will love roaming the gardens or exploring nearby adventures like falconry or archery.
Writers note: This article previously stated that Eddie Doherty was the last commercial handweaver of Donegal Tweed; the writer apologizes for the error. There are other handweavers in the area (who produce incredible work and are worth a visit including Studio Donegal which has been operating since 1979.)