Cycle Touring In Ireland - What You Need To Know

Cycle Touring In Ireland – What You Need To Know

Ireland is one of the planet’s most sought-after bike touring destinations and a place that many people, the world over, dream of visiting, if only once in their lifetime. The steep seaside cliffs, the lush green mountains, and the safe, colorful towns attract millions of tourists from all around the world. But what is Ireland like as a bicycle touring destination? What are the roads and trails like in the country? What are the best places to cycle? What type of accommodations are available to bicycle travelers? How much does it all cost? And what are the best and worst parts about cycle touring in this famously green country?

In this article (and the accompanying video) I answer all those questions and share with you my personal thoughts and impressions after having recently completed my own 21-day bike tour across the island nation of Ireland.

Please note that I am sharing my opinions based on my own personal experience. I am about to tell you both the things I liked and disliked about cycle touring in the Republic of Ireland (and yes, there were some things that I disliked). You have been warned!

Bicycle Touring in Ireland – Video Highlights

If you want to skip ahead to a certain point in the video, use the timestamps below to jump to the subject matter that interests you  most:

  • Introduction – 02:10
  • Basic facts about Ireland – 05:30
  • 5 sights worth seeing in Ireland – 09:15
  • What are the roads and bike paths like in Ireland? – 13:45
  • Hotels, B&B’s and the price of accommodation in Ireland – 17:00
  • What type of camping is available and how much does it cost? – 17:50
  • Money: How much does bike touring in Ireland cost? – 19:55
  • How to get free and discount accommodations for your travels – 21:30
  • The best and worst parts about bike touring in Ireland – 24:00
  • Questions and answers – 25:30

Additional Links & Resources Mentioned in the Video

sunny wicklow mountains ireland bike tour

Remember: Bikes & vehicles drive on the left in Ireland

That’s right. Just like in the UK, South Africa and many other places in the world, traffic drives on the left in Ireland. If you’re visiting Ireland from the United Kingdom or one of the other left-handed countries in the world, this won’t be a problem for you. But if this is your first trip to Ireland, you’re going to need some time to adjust to cycling on the left-hand side of the road.

If you’ve never cycled on the left-hand side of the road before, you should be warned that it is not as easy as it first sounds – especially in a place like Ireland where the roads are small, traffic circles are common, and decisions frequently need to be made in a short amount of time.

Even though I have spent months cycle touring in countries that require you to drive on the left-hand side of the road, I still struggle every time I return to a country where I am forced to cycle on the left. It just isn’t natural for me to be on the left-hand side of the road, and therefore, I have to actively think about what I’m doing – especially when I’m biking in a crowded city environment.

It usually takes me 1-2 weeks before I feel totally comfortable cycling on the left-hand side of the road, and I recommend that if this is your first trip to Ireland or any other country that drives on the left-hand side of the road, that you take it slow at the beginning of your trip. There is definitely an adjustment period at the beginning of your travels that needs to be considered. Go slow, be safe and ease into it as your get more comfortable driving on the left-hand side of the street.

Wicklow Mountains Ireland

What are the roads like in Ireland?

If I had to summarize Ireland’s roads in a just a single word, that world would be: NARROW. The roads in Ireland are so incredibly narrow – sometimes only wide enough for a single vehicle to drive safely through.

I found cycling in Dublin (Ireland’s capital and largest city) to be quite easy compared to many big cities in the world. There are bike paths scattered across the city (some in better shape than others) and traffic is generally quite friendly towards cyclists on the roads. That being said, the bike paths in Dublin could be a whole lot better. Many of the dedicated bike paths are in the street with little to no separation between you and the passing cars, vans and buses. Of those bike lanes that do exist, many of them are in ill repair and it’s quite common for the bike lane to suddenly end, forcing you to ride in the street (or up on the sidewalk, which many of the local cyclists seem to do). If there is a dedicated bike lane, don’t be surprised to find vehicles parked in the lane, forcing your to go around them by moving out of the bike path and into the high-speed traffic.

In the countryside and smaller towns and cities that you find scattered throughout most of Ireland, the roads you’ll find yourself cycling on are quite different. Most roads are narrow (only wide enough for 1 or 2 small cars to squeeze past) with no shoulder whatsoever. Most of the roads in Ireland are sandwiches between rock walls or towering green plants that grow right up to the edge of the street. The lack of shoulders makes it difficult to pull over when a vehicle behind you wants to pass, and makes it exhausting when you want to pull over and take a break, but can’t find even the smallest little area in which to pull over  and rest (which does sometimes happen – especially when going up steep hills).

I like to cycle (sometimes) while listening to music or podcasts with a set of earphones. But this was something I was unable to do while cycle touring in Ireland. Because the traffic was so high, because the roads were so narrow, and because I felt like I was constantly on edge (worried about cars passing me or pulling out in front of me around blind corners, etc.) I never once was able to simple cycle along in the carefree manner that would allow me to cycle with my headphones in. I just didn’t feel safe cycling in that way while I was in Ireland… and I think this says something about what the roads and traffic conditions are like in this country.

It should be noted, however, that there are some roads that are less traveled than others (obviously) and if you can get yourself onto one of these roads, you will be able to experience at least a few minutes of carefree cycling without a frenzy of vehicles coming up behind you or passing from the front. These smaller side roads are the ones you want to seek out when bike touring in Ireland, but they aren’t necessarily easy to find… and in a way, these roads are even more dangerous, only because drivers on these roads don’t expect to encounter another vehicle (or a daydreaming cyclist) as he or she zips speedily around the next bend. You need to be constantly aware of your surroundings, listening for approaching cars, and watching for anything that might be coming your way.

I found cycling in Ireland to be a rather stressful experience – not the type of thing I dream about when I imagine myself cycling across a foreign country. While the scenery was quite spectacular at times (mainly in these few little pockets of the country that I’ll talk about in just a moment), I wasn’t able to enjoy the scenery as much as I would have liked because I was worried so much of the time about the cars, vans and buses that were constantly zipping past me.

Dingle Ireland colorful boats

What are Ireland’s main points of interest?

If you want a comprehensive list of Ireland’s main points of interest, a quick Google search will help you more than I can.

I, however, can tell you about the parts of the country that I visited and enjoyed the most. So, without further adieu, here are the top three places in Ireland that I enjoyed the most and would likely go back to if I were ever in Ireland again.

The tip of the Dingle peninsula

When I started planning my bike tour in Ireland, everyone told me that I should leave Dublin as soon as I possibly could and get myself over to the Dingle peninsula. There’s a part of me that usually ignores these types of recommendations, because as I’ve discovered over the years, there are usually tons of incredible places in between a country’s most famous locations that are also interesting and worth seeing. But in the case of Ireland, I should have listened to those who came before me.

While the entire Dingle peninsula was not as breathtaking as people made it out to be, there were small parts of Dingle that were incredibly superb… and it was these few parts of the peninsula that made my trip to Ireland truly spectacular.

There are two different sections, each of which is very easy to find, at the tip of the Dingle peninsula that are worth spending some time at. I would probably spend 1-2 days just in this small area. The trick with Dingle, and much of Ireland, is to get off the road (which is kind of stressful and not all that spectacular) and go off on foot (either into the mountains above the road or down to the cliffs/seashore). It is here, away from the people and passing cars that Ireland truly becomes quite magical.

Killarney National Park

Another great place to spend some time (at least a full day or more) is in Killarney National Park, just outside the city of Killarney Ireland. Like the Dingle peninsula, I’d recommend you get off your bike as much as you can. There are dozens of scenic hiking trails in the park, but one of my favorite locations was at the Muckross House, where there are some flat, wide walking trails and a small cave nearby that you can climb through from one end to the other.

The very top of the Wicklow Mountains

Finally, the Wicklow Mountains just south of Dublin, Ireland are certainly worth a visit. Even though the Glendalough National Park is one of Ireland’s most popular scenic areas, I found Glendalough to be too crowded with people to be truly enjoyable. Instead, consider riding your bike from Dublin to Glendalough on the R115. It’s a 50 kilometer bike ride that starts out super steep, but then flattens off near the top of the hill. Once you get to the top, the traffic diminishes greatly and the scenery really opens up. Sheep amble through the flat plains in the area and red fox can be seen in plenty (if you are still and patient enough to look for them). Once again, don’t rush through this area. Go slow and take at least two or more days to explore the Wicklow Mountains when passing through on a bicycle. I was there for more than a week and I still didn’t see everything in the area.

Guinness storehouse scenic view tower

What Irish cities are worth seeing?

Dublin is actually one of my favorite big cities in the world… and I hate big cities. The city is relatively traffic free (when compared to other big cities around the world), easy to navigate, and relatively bicycle friendly. It’s a city that has the potential to become a major cycling hub. There are good restaurants, friendly people, and lots to see and do in the immediate area.

While Ireland’s capital and largest city (Dublin) is certainly worth seeing, Ireland’s second largest city, Cork, is one place that I would most definitely pass on. I found Cork to be congested, over-priced and boring. Cork has a few notable churches (not my thing) and a small city center lined with overpriced shops (also not my thing), but there is very little else to see or do there. Skip this city and spend your time somewhere smaller.

The best cities in Ireland are the small ones. Kinsale, Dingle and Kenmare are places all worth spending some time.

Of all the cities I visited, Dingle was probably my favorite. This small town, situated on a small hill overlooking a tiny harbor is charming, colorful and friendly. Like almost all towns in Ireland, Dingle is expensive (and overpriced), but it is certainly worth a visit. Spend at least a day or two in Dingle. Wander the streets, sit down by the harbor with a cup of coffee or hot tea, and be sure to grab an ice cream at Murphy’s ice cream parlor.

IMG_9643

What accommodation options are available in Ireland?

Hotels are not as common in Ireland as you might think. Only in the larger cities (Dublin, Cork, Shannon, etc.) can hotels usually be found. Outside of these locations, guest houses, hostels and B&Bs are the most common form of nightly lodging available to travelers.

While some of these accommodations can be booked by simply showing up and asking for a room, most require some form of advanced notification, which makes traveling around Ireland with a phone (and Internet access) preferable.

If you do plan to stay in hotels or B&Bs during your stay in Ireland, expect to pay around 70-80 Euros (about $100 USD) or more each night (although there are rooms in private homes for rent for as little as $40 USD if you really do your research).

If you want to try and find cheaper, more private, or more interesting places to stay in Ireland, consider using the website at www.airbnb.com to find affordable places to sleep each night (which is what I did when traveling around Ireland with some friends from Germany during our one week-long road trip together).

If you want to save money and camp, that is an option as well. However, established campgrounds are not always easy to find in Ireland. Campgrounds are pretty rare, and when you can find one, they are usually pretty expensive (somewhere between 7 – 18 Euros per person, per night).

Wild Camping in the Wicklow Mountains

Is wild camping allowed in Ireland?

I’m not exactly sure if wild camping is allowed in Ireland, but I do know that I spent almost two full weeks camping in Ireland without anyone ever knowing that I was there.

The difficult thing about wild camping in Ireland is that there is so much private property (almost all of the country is fenced off), and the areas that are usually ideal for camping in are difficult to access (they are either way up high on the tops of the mountains or down on the beach/cliffs, which are frequently visited by passing tourists).

The safest way to camp in Ireland is to ask a farmer or land owner if it would be okay for you to camp on his or her property for the evening. Asking for a place to camp in this way might not only score you a free place to stay, but also, if you ask a friendly individual, a warm shower and even a meal of some kind.

I never took this approach myself, however. Instead, whenever I wanted to camp for the night, I would climb high up into the hills, find a private (or relatively private) place in which to pitch my tent for the night, and then simply hope that no one came wandering past. In other words, I was stealth camping! In the few instances where people did wander past my tent pitched high on the mountain tops, no one seemed to care. I just waved and smiled while the people passing by simply continued on their way. I doubt there are many police in Ireland that will climb up into the hills just to try to find and remove a camper who is pitched there for the night.

college boys on a bike tour in Ireland

How much does it cost to go bicycle touring in Ireland?

Ireland is one of the most expensive countries I have ever been to… and I’ve been to over 50 different countries all around the world. Before coming to Ireland, I had just completed a 25-day bike tour across Finland (another expensive country), but I found traveling in Ireland to be even more expensive than Finland.

Food in Ireland was, at times, as much as two times the price I was paying in Finland for the exact same thing. Lodging was expensive and entrance fees were high (there were churches in Ireland asking you to pay 6 Euros just to go inside!).

Expect to pay $90+ USD per night for lodging in a hotel or B&B, $15+ USD for camping and about $15+ USD for each meal that you eat. Guided bike tours in Ireland range in price from as little a$100 USD for a single-day tour, to as much as $3,000+ USD for a multi-day bicycle touring adventure.

Glendalough Cycle Routes

My overall thoughts on cycle touring in Ireland

If you’re one of those people who has always dreamed of traveling to Ireland and exploring the country by bike, then I would certainly encourage you to do it. The scenery is wonderful, the towns and villages are charming, the people are (generally) quite friendly, the food and drinks are delicious, it’s an easy place to navigate, and it’s one of the safest places in the world to travel.

There are, however, a number of negative things about bike touring in Ireland: The weather is poor (cold, wet, windy and raining much of the time), it’s one of the most expensive places on the planet, the roads can be both stressful and dangerous for cycling, camping can be difficult due to the lack of resources and available open land, and outside of the main tourist areas, the countryside isn’t all that interesting (just a lot of sheep and rolling hills).

In the video above, I mentioned that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best, I would give Ireland a 5… and even though I realize this is a very low rating for a country that so many people dream about visiting, I have to stand by what I said.

I didn’t enjoy cycling in Ireland very much. The narrow roads, crowded city streets and overpriced everything made me feel stressed and claustrophobic for much of the time that I was there. If I had experienced better weather or cycled on different road, maybe I would have liked Ireland more. But there were some good moments while I was in the country. I liked almost all of the people I came into contact with, the scenery in a few select spots of the country was absolutely phenomenal, and as a traveler (not just a cyclist), I generally enjoyed my time in the Ireland of Republic.

Even though Ireland is somewhere near the bottom in the rankings of all the places I’ve ever gone bicycle touring in the world, I  would certainly go back to Ireland if I were given the opportunity. If I were to go back, however, I would probably do things differently. If I were to go back to Ireland again, I’d probably fly into Dublin, rent a car and drive to the Dingle peninsula, rent this place (or a place like it) for an entire week or more, and then use that place as my home base while I drove, cycled and hiked around the neighboring areas – getting away from the people and crowded places as best I could during the day, and then returning to the smaller towns and villages each night to eat a warm meal and socialize in the good, old Irish fashion.

Bicycle touring uphill past a waterfall in Ireland

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3 thoughts on “Cycle Touring In Ireland – What You Need To Know

  1. Declan O'Connell says:

    Hi Darren – thank you for visiting our little Republic and for your review. As a cyclist with a love of the great outdoors and as someone who has cycled on mainland Europe, I appreciate the great reports you generate and the cycling knowledge you share.
    Just a few observations on your conclusions / opinions. As you fairly state these are your opinions based on your experience. I’m sorry about the weather but because of our location in the North Atlantic we do get more rain than say France or Spain but overall our climate is temperate and very benign. I can cycle 360 days of the year here in Ireland [I go to the pub for the other 5 and go mad altogether in a Leap Year…] As I write this we have not had rain for about 3 weeks and this summer past has been glorious. As was the summer of 2013 [we’ll draw a veil of meteorological secrecy over the years preceding 2013…]
    Your observations on cycling in traffic are partly correct. There is an over reliance on cars here as a primary means of transport but with careful planning and perhaps checking local knowledge, it is possible to plan cycle routes across the country which are really very quiet. This summer I celebrated my 60th birthday with a cycle, on my Brompton, from County Cork to Derry in Northern Ireland [about 300 miles]. I use a mixture of bus, rail and around 165 miles in the saddle and the only roads I encountered heavy traffic on were the ones I opted to use for making up time but also knowing that there would be quite heavy traffic on them. You can traverse the country on supremely quiet country roads if you plan ahead or just ask! I think that it is probably not advisable to cycle with headphones at any time.. particularly when it is quiet and you can experience nature’s rich audio feed!
    A final observation – How can you dismiss a City that Lonely Planet placed in its Top 10 Cities to Visit [ see https://www.rte.ie/news/2009/1103/123731-lonelyplanet/ ]. You say “there is very little else to see or do there…”
    Cork is a cultural gem with a history stretching back to 500AD. You will find live music every night, theatre and opera 12 months of the year, a thriving arts community and so much more. This week the city is hosting A Short Story Festival with writers of the calibre of Richard Ford reading and presenting. We host a world famous Jazz Festival and a Film Festival which is almost 60 years on the go. Did you visit the 17th Century Elizabeth Fort in the heart of the city of stroll the English Market or see the best of Irish and European visual art in the Crawford Gallery or get in a live session of traditional or bluegrass or blues in the iconic Corner House Pub on Coburg Street or eat in one of the best vegetarian restaurants anywhere [ see https://www.themobilefoodguide.com/restaurants/cork/cafe-paradiso ] or climb to the top of St Ann’s Shandon to ring the bells and get a magnificent view of the city which sits on the twin channels of the River Lee and just above the second best natural harbour in the world? You can stroll through the grounds of University College Cork with its magnificent Quadrangle [1845] or visit the (free) Glucksman Gallery in the grounds – and all just a 5 minute walk from the City Centre. There is, I think, Darren, so much you did not see or attempt to see.
    The town of Dingle is very pleasant and the Dingle Peninsula is quite beautiful with an incredibly rich archaeological, literary and linguistic past. But let’s be honest – the town has evolved into a rather sophisticated tourist trap. Then again you were a tourist so I suppose that’s OK. Cork City welcomes tourists of course but perhaps with a bit more subtlety and understated panache.
    As you might tell Darren, we Corkonians are a defensive lot but we do welcome strangers and visitors with open arms. I realise, particularly as someone who has travelled by bike, that our responses to a place or a town are personal and unique. However I really believe that you are very far off the mark with your experience of Cork City. As part of the context of travelling in Ireland it should be noted that we are only now emerging [and many would say we are not even at that stage] from a very deep 7 year long recession. We have lost a huge percentage of our young population to emigration but we have remained strong in spirit. Unfortunately some services are overpriced and poor value, but it is possible to find good value and wonderful service right across the country.
    Thanks again Darren for your visit and your thoughtful and detailed review.
    Safe Cycling,
    Declan

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      Thanks for your comments Declan. I did do many of those things in Cork actually. I didn’t enjoy any of it, however… but that’s just me (Maybe I’ve traveled too much and I’m just jaded?). I don’t like saying negative things about the places I’ve been to, but some places I just don’t like and, sadly, Cork was one of those places. I appreciate your comments though. Hopefully others will read what you have to say and ignore my own opinions 😉

  2. John says:

    Nice article Darren,
    I would like to add a few thoughts as I live in Ireland and I do cycle a lot. Firstly you are dead right about the roads, Narrow and dangerous!. However its worth mentioning that there are several categories of roads in Ireland any cyclist visiting should be aware of;
    Firstly there are the M roads,( motorways ) and obviously illegal to cycle on. Next size up are the N roads ( National ). These are busy enough and well paved, they can also be as you say narrow and dangerous to cycle on. many stretches can be good for road bikes, but I avoid them.
    The final categories are R ( regional ) and L ( local ) roads. These can be a mixed bag, some can be Narrow and dangerous, but many are hardly maintained and are terrible for cars on but can be great for cycling as they get very little traffic. You are always guaranteed to eventually come across an old ruin or rugged vista and have it all to yourself on one of these.
    As romantic as flying in to Dublin and cycling one large circuit sounds, I wouldn’t advise it and how you you said you would do it again is totally spot on. If you do I hope you get the weather for it.
    One more place that cyclists should be aware of are the development of green ways, these are old train routes that had the tracks torn up and are being developed for tourism. There is one in Mayo called the great western greenway, it is 42km, the views are amazing and best of all no cars!. Also you can rent bikes.
    ONe final opinion is that Cork is my favourite city in the world with lots to see and do, but I know I have been to cities I really hated ( like New Orleans) that people love. So each to their own.

    Happy cycling

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