Tap into the storied past of the Emerald Isle by exploring the best castles in Ireland on your next visit. This way you could follow in the steps of generations of Irish clans, warriors, and nobility.
On an Irish castle tour, you could learn about the ruins and fortresses shrouded in myths and legends. Walk along lush gardens or take in scenic views from the top of stony towers.
There are more than 30,000 castles and ruins left in Ireland today, most dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. Visiting a few (or many) of them will allow you to learn about Irish history right from the source. Your only challenge may be to narrow down your must-see list.
To help you, read this guide to find out the top castles to visit in Ireland. From mysterious cliff-side ruins to the best-preserved fortresses in the country, discover where to stop on your Irish tour.
- Dublin Castle
- Malahide Castle
- Trim Castle
- Ashford Castle
- Dunguaire Castle
- Dun Aengus
- Bunratty Castle
- King John's Castle
- Ross Castle
- Blarney Castle
- Cahir Castle
- Rock of Cashel
- Kilkenny Castle
- Belfast Castle
- Dunluce Castle
1. Dublin Castle, County Dublin
Best for: Learning about Irish democracy
Whether you’re in town on a weekend trip or just starting your Ireland self-drive tour, you should spend some time roaming around Dublin. Ireland’s capital is a buzzing, colourful and welcoming place with much to see, including Dublin Castle.
This central building sits just south of the River Liffey, a strategic location for a fortress back in the day. Throughout the ages, it was the location of Celtic and Viking forts before becoming England’s seat of administration for nearly 700 years.
It was handed over to the Irish government once the country became independent. Today it still houses much of the government, but it’s also a popular highlight of the capital city, including the nearby Chapel Royal.
You can roam the grounds for free, but to visit book your tickets in advance. For other historic buildings in the city, stroll through the campus of Trinity College Dublin or visit the famous St Patrick’s Cathedral.
2. Malahide Castle, County Dublin
Best for: Visiting the National Portrait Gallery of Ireland
Located just north of Dublin, you could also visit Malahide Castle on a short city break to the capital. This 800-year-old fashionable residence was home to the Talbot family for generations.
Here you’ll be able to admire the various architectural styles of this fortress, which has been extended and adapted through time. One of the key features includes the Norman tower house that makes up the oldest part of Malahide Castle.
Inside, don’t miss the Oak Room, fully wood-panelled and dating back to the 1600s, and the Great Hall, built in 1495. The Great Hall is said to be the only one of its kind in Ireland that has preserved its medieval features. It also contains a large painting of the Battle of the Boyne, an important clash in Irish history.
Malahide Castle also houses an extensive collection of Irish portrait paintings. These make up the National Portrait Gallery, which is an integral part of the National Gallery of Ireland.
3. Trim Castle, County Meath
Best for: Stepping into Anglo-Norman history
Head inland from Malahide and Dublin to visit the charming town of Trim. Here you’ll find the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. Legends say it was here that St Patrick first founded a monastery in the 5th century.
Trim Castle was built in the 12th century, but its original wooden structure is all but gone. Today you can explore a large stone fortress from the 13th century that covers more than 3 acres of land. Walk along the fortified walls and discover the impressive central keep.
You may recognise the castle as it was used as a filming location for the movie Braveheart, about Scottish hero William Wallace.
- Check out Ireland self-drive tours
4. Ashford Castle, County Galway
Best for: Enjoying a luxury getaway
Treat yourself to a stay at a luxury hotel or simply stop by to see it and dine at the impressive Ashford Castle. Located just north of Galway City, this castle boasts 800 years of history as well as being the former home of the Guinness family.
Over the years and centuries, it hosted many notable figures, including kings and presidents. After extensive restoration, Ashford has held on to its status as one of the top hotels in Europe.
5. Dunguaire Castle, County Galway
Best for: Experiencing a true castle banquet
Just south of Galway, you could visit Dunguaire Castle. This beautifully restored fortress sits on a little outcrop along the shores of the Galway Bay.
Dunguaire was first built in the 1500s, but in the first part of the 20th century it was bought and repaired by Oliver St John Gogarty.
Gogarty was a famous literary figure in Ireland and so the castle became a central location and meeting point for the Irish literary revivalists. Writers such as W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and J.M. Synge visited Dunguaire during that time.
The extensive repairs were completed later in the 1950s before the castle became a heritage site. Today, during your visit you can learn about the inhabitants’ lifestyle from the 16th century on and about the castle’s literary ties. You could even enjoy entertainment and traditional food at a castle banquet.
6. Dun Aengus, Aran Islands
Best for: Witnessing a unique prehistoric fort
Dun Aengus (or “Dún Aonghasa”) is not quite like the other castles on this list. Not simply because of its prehistoric background, but because it’s the only one not located on the mainland. To visit this magnificent and windswept fort, you’ll have to sail to the western Aran Islands.
If you have the time, this is a great day trip to add to your itinerary to soak up the island way of life. You’ll be able to learn about the Gaelic traditions that are alive and well in these parts.
Dun Aengus is located on the largest of the islands, Inishmore. What is left of this prehistoric fort sits along the southern edge of the island, by sheer sea cliffs that overlook the powerful Atlantic Ocean.
When you arrive, you can stop at the visitor centre. From here, you’ll have a 1-kilometre (0.6-miles) walk on an uphill and rocky path before reaching Dun Aengus.
The fort is made up of 3 layers of defence walls as well as “chevaux-de-frise”, bands of jagged stones that act similarly to barbed wire.
Excavations have revealed that the fort is more than 3,000 years old and it was probably refortified around 700-800 AD. There has also been evidence found of prehistoric metalworking, artefacts, dwellings, and burial sites.
Another claim to fame? Dun Aengus has been recognised as one of the finest examples of pre-historic forts in Europe, making it worth the detour.
- Visit Ireland in June, July or August to see it at the height of summer
- Or visit Ireland in April, May, September or October to enjoy the quieter shoulder season
7. Bunratty Castle, County Clare
Best for: Walking through the most complete castle in Ireland
On a trip around Ireland, you have to pop by Bunratty Castle. It is recognised as the most complete and authentic castle left in the country today.
Dating back to the 15th century, the fortress was built by Irish nobility. But the site was occupied long before then. History has it that this location has been occupied for at least 1,000 years, starting as a Viking trading post in the year 970. You’ll also see traces of the Norman occupation and conquest here.
It’s the 1960s that saw the restoration of the castle to its former glory. When you visit, you’ll get a great window into Ireland’s past through the ages.
8. King John's Castle, County Limerick
Best for: Diving into Viking and Norman history
Set at the heart of Limerick, on the aptly named King’s Island, you’ll find King John’s Castle. Overlooking the River Shannon, the imposing castle is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks.
Dating back to 1210, you’ll uncover centuries of history during your visit. In fact, the Vikings first came to the area in the early 9th century. It was a few years later that Viking leader Thormodu Helgason established a base where the castle stands today.
There are also pre-Norman features that were found on-site. Early defence systems, ramparts and ditches date from this time in history.
And why is it called King John’s Castle? Many simply call it Limerick Castle, but it was officially named after King John, Lord of Ireland. He was the brother of Richard the Lionheart, a famous king tied to such legends as Robin Hood. King John used this location for defensive purposes and had the castle built.
During your visit, you’ll find interactive exhibitions and medieval games in the courtyard. All of this with the purpose to transport you in time to learn about the castle’s history.
9. Ross Castle, County Kerry
Best for: Exploring the heart of the Killarney National Park
Ross Castle is an excellent spot to visit while you’re in Killarney or travelling along the famous Ring of Kerry. This is another 15th-century fortress with an incredibly picturesque setting along the shores of Lough Leane.
The castle is made up of a tower fortress with round turrets sitting inside a defensive wall.
During your visit you could learn about the myths surrounding it. For years, legends were told that the castle would only be conquered by strange ships coming from the lake. At the time these were only stories because this was unimaginable.
But in 1652, Cromwell’s English forces did attack from the lake, having dragged boats all the way here to fire artillery from the water. The castle fell during this battle. You’ll get to walk through that history and admire scenic views of the lake during your visit.
- Visit Ireland to tour the Ring of Kerry
10. Blarney Castle, County Cork
Best for: Receiving the gift of eloquence (or learning about Irish folklore)
Blarney is one of the most famous castles in Ireland, thanks to the myth surrounding the Blarney Stone. It is located on the outskirts of the city of Cork. Whether you’re in town for a visit or passing by on a road trip, you simply cannot miss Blarney Castle.
The medieval stronghold that you can see today is from the 1400s, but there are still traces left of the original buildings dating back to before the 1200s. With the woodlands surrounding the castle, you’re in for a scenic visit. Why not stroll through the grounds and try finding the standing stones?
But the true highlight of Blarney is the Stone of Eloquence. Walk to the top of the tower to see it, or kiss it! Legend has it that if you kiss the stone, you will receive the “gift of gab” and never be stumbling for words.
11. Cahir Castle, County Tipperary
Best for: Seeing one of the best-preserved castles in Ireland
Come visit Cahir Castle to take in an impressive fortress dating back to the 13th century. When you’re in the town of Cahir, you won’t miss the castle as it stands proudly on a rocky island by the River Suir. In fact, it’s only a stone’s throw from the main street.
The fortification that stands today is still one of the country’s largest and best-preserved castles. That means you’ll get a true look at how strongholds were built back in the day.
Up until the 16th century, it was even believed to be undefeatable due to its strong and effective design. But it fell to the Earl of Essex and then again during the Irish Confederate Wars.
That said, much of the original structure remains, which is what you can visit today. Don’t miss the exhibition and shows that will give you a glimpse at the history of Cahir Castle.
It even highlights the different films in which you might have seen Cahir featured, including Excalibur with Liam Neeson and The Tudors television series.
- Learn about history and clans with Irish heritage tours
12. Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Best for: Learning about historical and religious legends
Located a mere 20-minute drive from Cahir Castle, you could also visit the mysterious Rock of Cashel on your tour of Ireland. This is another medieval site that is steeped in legends and myths.
In fact, the Rock of Cashel is said to have always been an important royal and religious site. It is also known as St Patrick’s Rock and the Cashel of the Kings. Stories from back in the day say that it was here that St Patrick himself converted the King of Munster in the 5th century.
During your visit, you’ll soon see why it was such an important and iconic location. Sitting above a limestone hill, the spectacular group of buildings stands out in the skyline of the town. Walk through the Rock of Cashel and you can admire 12th- and 13th-century buildings, including a round tower, chapel, cathedral and castle.
13. Kilkenny Castle, County Kilkenny
Best for: Admiring Victorian architecture and style
The city of Kilkenny is a must-see during your Irish adventure. It’s also an easy stopover on your way back to Dublin from the west coast.
While you’re in town you won’t want to miss the impressive Kilkenny Castle. It boasts one of the longest histories of occupation of any castle and building in all of Ireland. Built during the Norman conquest of the Emerald Isle, you’ll soon see it’s been adapted through the ages.
Today, the interiors are largely Victorian, with lavish portrait galleries, libraries, drawing rooms, bedrooms, and stately dining rooms amongst many more.
And that’s not all, step outside to take in the incredible estate. There are more than 51 acres of parkland that were opened to the public when the government took over the maintenance. The castle also has a formal garden reminiscent of any grand estate, with paths, statues and water features.
Castles in Northern Ireland
Finally, here are a few bonus castles you could also visit if you’re crossing into Northern Ireland. Doing a grand tour of the entire Emerald Island is a great way to get a full experience of Irish culture and history.
- Experience Northern Ireland's Causeway Coastal Route
14. Belfast Castle, County Antrim
Best for: Taking in views of Belfast and its surroundings
While visiting Northern Ireland’s capital, you could go explore the country park where Belfast Castle is located. The imposing castle is one of the most famous landmarks of Belfast as it sits on a hill overlooking the city.
The first castle in Belfast was built in the 12th century, but this one dates back to the 1860s. Today it’s mostly used as an event and wedding venue, but you could lunch or dine at one of the restaurants on-site.
Or visit the Cave Hill Country Park, surrounding the castle, and the Cave Hill Visitor Centre. Here you’ll find enchanting woodlands and gardens full of wildlife. The Belfast Zoo is also located nearby.
15. Dunluce Castle, County Antrim
Best for: Marvelling at Ireland’s northern coast
Last but certainly not least is Dunluce Castle, nestled along the coast near the famous Giant’s Causeway. Thanks to its convenient location, it’s an easy add-on to any day trip you may have to Northern Ireland’s biggest attraction.
Picture atmospheric ruins, sheer sea cliffs, and waves crashing onto the rocks. You’ll get all of this and more when you visit Dunluce Castle. Once an ancient fortress at the heart of clan warfare, you could uncover the mysterious history that ties Scotland and Ireland here.
Dunluce was indeed first built by the MacQuillan family of Scotland in the 1500s. It was soon thereafter seized by the MacDonnell clan before becoming the seat of the earls of Antrim in the 17th century.
- Dive into more Celtic history and castles on a combined Scotland and Ireland trip
Planning your Irish castle tour
Wherever your adventure takes you, you’re sure to have plenty of castles to explore in Ireland. To travel at your own pace and have the flexibility to stop when you want and where you want, we recommend a self-drive tour of Ireland.
When you book with Nordic Visitor, you’ll benefit from the knowledge of Ireland experts. You can contact us if you already have some ideas in mind, or you can browse our Ireland tours. Here you'll find a selection of itineraries that can be tailored to your personal taste and preferences.
Your dedicated travel consultant will book your rental car and all your quality accommodation along the way. Interested in guided tours or day excursions? We can arrange it for you too.
Another bonus of booking with Nordic Visitor is that you’ll receive a Guide to Ireland’s Premier Heritage Attractions and a discount pass. This includes 2-for-1 deals and discounts off admission to Irish castles.
Start planning your Irish castle tour by getting in touch with our Ireland experts.