In December of 2017, my boyfriend and I took the trip of a lifetime. We traveled to Scotland and Ireland with Brendan Vacations.
Brendan offers a variety of different travel styles that cater to your personal needs and preferences. We did not want to travel with a group, and we weren’t interested in a private or self-drive vacation. We did what is referred to as a locally hosted rail trip. This is a unique opportunity allowing you to travel on your own, with the comfort of knowing that you have a knowledgeable local in each city to give you the ins and outs. You travel from city to city by train. Not only is this an authentic way to travel, you are going to see the most incredible sights by rail that one can only dream of. The rolling hills, sheep and cows, as well as the snowy mountainside.
We started our trip in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, Scotland. This was by far my favorite city. We stayed at the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel. This hotel was centrally located, right next to the University of Edinburgh. It was a short walk from Arthur’s Seat, a picturesque trail with panoramic views of the city. There are some adorable Scottish dogs on the trail! We ended our time in Scotland with a guided tour of the Western Highlands. This was a day full of Scottish Castles, lochs, wondering sheep, gorgeous churches, and the green misty countryside.
Other Edinburgh highlights:
Edinburgh Castle - The iconic castle on a hill, in the middle of the city. This historic fortress vaults were used as a prison during the 18th century and early 19th century. This castle has a lot of history, and offers gorgeous views of the city
Royal Mile - Stretch of road connecting Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace, the Queen's residence in Scotland. You can even tour Holyrood Palace
St. Giles Cathedral - Principle place of worship of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh - on the Royal Mile
Scottish Parliament Building - Take a cool tour of the Parliament building, you can even watch the Parliament in action!
Edinburgh Christmas Market (During the holiday time) - An unexpected highlight of the trip, and my first European Christmas market experience
Calton Hill - Climb this hill for great views of the city as well historical monuments
Princes Street - Main shopping street with restaurants galore
Victoria Street Shopping - Another popular street with boutiques and restaurants. It has been said that Harry Potter author J.K Rowling based Diagon Alley on Victoria Street
Must have foods: Sticky Toffee Pudding (the best dessert I’ve ever had), Banoffee (banana coffee) Pie, and Haggis (sheep organs)
Ireland was everything I dreamed it would be. We flew from Edinburgh to Dublin. We stayed a couple of days in each destination. We took the train from Dublin to Cork, and Cork to Killarney. We had a fabulous private driver take us to Co. Clare following Killarney, stopping at the Cliffs of Moher along the way. We ended our trip on a high note. Dromoland Castle was our home for our final night. A total 5 star experience.
Let’s talk about Dublin. They say Dublin is a small city. IMO, it was not very small and we had some difficulty navigating. Get the lay of the land with a Hop on Hop Off bus tour. You will have accessibility to all of the must-see iconic sites. Dublin can be touristy like many major cities, so be wary of where you are shopping and dining. If you are looking for a nice piece of jewelry, I would get it in Cork.
I recommend staying in Dublin for two days. Check out the bus map and plan what you want to do in advance. I had high hopes for the food scene, and I was left disappointed. We stayed at the Davenport Hotel. The bed was very springy and did not make for a good sleep. The continental breakfast was lacking. There are better accommodations in Dublin. We did enjoy the nightlife, and got to experience some authentic Irish talent. The Italian food was also a nice surprise, a break from your traditional meat and potatoes.
See below for all our Dublin highlights.
Guinness Storehouse - A must see. Allot a couple of hours to make your way through the museum. Learn to pour the perfect Guinness pint, and travel to the top for sweeping views of the city
Dublin Castle - This is a castle in the middle of the city, and it is quite spectacular. Do the self guided tour to make the most of your time
Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) - This was on my list, but unfortunately we only got to see the outside. Get your tickets in advance, as this is a popular attraction that sells out quickly
Trinity College/Book of Kells/Old Library - The Old Library is the Harry Potter looking library with thousands of volumes. A must see, and a great photo op! Trinity College is beautiful
The Brazen Head Pub - The oldest pub in Ireland, great live music at night, authentic
Temple Bar Area - Touristy, but essential
Grafton Street - High end shopping
Restaurant Recommendations: Cafe di Napoli - hidden Italian gem, sit downstairs if you go. And yes, we ate Italian in Dublin. The Stags Head - Irish Cuisine
Cork City is best traveled by foot. The city is essentially split by the River Lee. Grab a map and get going. We stayed at the Imperial Hotel. It was fabulous. They decorated so nicely for the holidays. It had a boutique hotel feel. A nice continental breakfast. Clean rooms. Most importantly, it was centrally located.
Gaol (Jail) - We did take a taxi to the Goal as we were tired, and it’s located on a hill. This was a cool experience.
Shandon Sweets - We walked back to the central hub of the city following the Gaol, and we passed Shandon Sweets on the way. This is a father and son operated Candy Store. It was a very cool experience, unlike any other candy store I’ve ever been to
Butter museum and St. Anne's Church - Again, these are all within close proximity of the Gaol and Shandon Sweets. The Butter Museum is just that, a small museum paying homage to the butter industry in Ireland. St. Anne’s Church is a popular destination. Climb to the very top for great views of the city, and ring the church bells. You can play quite a few songs
English Market - Think Philly’s Reading Terminal Market, on a much smaller scale. This was a great option for lunch. There are two small restaurants upstairs. We opted for the sit down. It was farm fresh food
Liam Lynch Jeweller & Engraver - I had searched high and low for a reasonable jeweler in every city. I stumbled upon Liam Lynch’s store located in the English Market. He is genuinely a nice guy, with reasonable and honest prices. I got the claddagh of my dreams, and I am glad I waited. It is a unique piece of jewelry, and the very last one he had from years ago. A true hidden gem
Blarney Castle - We traveled like the locals and took public transportation to the castle. The bus station was located within walking distance of our hotel, and it was a rather short ride. And no, we did not kiss the Blarney Stone. They didn’t sanitize it!! YUCK. There is a lot of stuff to do on the grounds as well. You are not just limited to the castle. Grab a bite in the cafe, climb the wishing steps, or check out the gardens
Elizabeth Fort - Originally built as a defensive fortification outside the city walls
Restaurant Recommendations: Arthur Mayne's Pharmacy (actually an old pharmacy, bar food, great wine selection), Market Lane
Killarney is a quaint little town. We stayed at the Killarney Royal Hotel. This was another boutique hotel and I absolutely loved it. The bedding was very ritzy and comfortable. We were within walking distance from the train station / the heart of town. The highlight of my stay was definitely the continental breakfast. The food wasn't the best in Ireland, but this breakfast was memorable. Especially the fresh fruit and honeycomb.
Killarney is well-known for their National Park. If you have limited time in Killarney, I recommend staying within the National Park, and taking a taxi to the town. Another great option is the Muckross Park Hotel.
Killarney National Park - Try to spot the Red Stags... I was enamored at these things!! They are red deer that stand up to 6 feet tall. We actually got so close to one by accident when we were walking into the park. Nearly sh*t myself
Ross Castle -This is closed during the winter months, but it’s a pretty sight nonetheless
Muckross House/Muckross Gardens - Built in the 1800’s, a Victorian Mansion
St. Mary's Cathedral - Attend a mass or admire the architecture
*Look for the live music at night in the pubs lining the streets of Killarney!
DAY TRIP: We ended our time in Killarney with an escorted group day trip through the Ring of Kerry.
The Ring of Kerry is a spectacle. It is part of the Wild Atlantic Way. We saw wild goats, sheep, waterfalls, the most gorgeous beaches. I had an authentic piping hot Irish Coffee in a pub. It was Ireland straight out of a brochure
Restaurant Recommendations: The Laurels Pub (great Irish lunch), Italian Cuisine (multi course dinner)
We had a private driver for this leg of the trip. We drove through various small towns but I was so tired at this point that I fell asleep and missed half the drive. Still kicking myself, LOL. We drove through the town of Shannon. We then stopped at the Cliffs of Moher, followed by our last destination.. Dromoland Castle.
Co. Clare highlights:
Cliffs of Moher - The cliffs do not even compare to pictures. You can admire the Cliffs from 3 primary viewpoints, all with breathtaking views. Walk over to O’Brien’s Tower for another great photo op. We got SO lucky the day we went to the Cliffs. It was crystal clear outside and it was the first day we had blue sunny skies. It eventually rained though, but I felt blessed to have had such beautiful weather
Dromoland Castle - I cannot believe we stayed in this hotel. It was a 5 star property, 100% luxury. The only word I can use to describe the property, is magnificent. We had an amazing massage (hands down the best massage I’ve ever had). This was an opportunity to wind down after a very busy 11 days of non-stop on the go traveling. Our room was so big and luxurious. If you have an opportunity to stay in a castle, do it!! The food was spectacular. They have a myriad of activities, from tennis, to fishing, to clay shooting, archery, falconry, horseback riding, etc
We packed our bags early the next day, and set off for Shannon airport.
This was truly a vacation that I will never forget. I wouldn’t hesitate to travel with Brendan Vacations again. We traveled like locals, feeling confident in each and every city that we visited. Overall, our accommodations were magazine worthy, taking the train was a treat, and we now have memories to last a lifetime. Northern Ireland is calling my name!
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.