Top 10 things to do in shannon, ireland

Shannon offers some of Ireland's best tourist attractions. Here are the top ten things to see and do in western Ireland.

Shannon International Airport is a favorite stop for many visitors to Ireland, and it's a popular layover for tourists traveling to other parts of Europe. In the heart of mid-west Ireland, the airport and surrounding area are often called "Shannon."

When you arrive at the airport, rent a car to see the best sights around Shannon. Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National car rentals all provide cars at the airport. If you're arriving from the U.S., your American driver's license is good in Ireland, but you'll need insurance coverage to rent a car. Before leaving home, check with your auto insurance company to see if rental cars are included. Also, many credit cards automatically insure cars that are rented on that account.

When you start driving in Ireland, remember to drive on the left side of the road. This can be a little confusing at first, but most drivers get used to it quickly. With Ireland's many narrow, winding roads that are shared with livestock, you'll generally drive slowly outside of the cities. However, you'll be glad to have an excuse to pause and enjoy the magnificent views of the Emerald Isle.

Here are the top ten things to enjoy in the Shannon area:

1. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park - Bunratty Castle is one of Ireland's most popular attractions. Built in 1425 and restored in the 1950s, this castle is the most complete medieval fortress in the country. Looking at the castle's magnificent tapestries and authentic medieval furnishings, you'll feel a strong sense of Ireland's majestic past.

Step back in time as you leave the castle and tour the 26-acre Folk Park on the castle grounds. Over 30 buildings--representing homes and businesses--show you everyday life in 19th century Ireland. Costumed staff re-enact the past at this "living history" site, and they demonstrate skills and traditional arts throughout the day. You could easily spend several days at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.

Before you leave Shannon, be sure to enjoy one of the world-famous medieval banquets at Bunratty Castle. And, for a less formal meal, stop at Mac's Pub in the Folk Park. After the park closes for the day, Mac's Pub is open to the public.

Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is located just off the N18 highway between Limerick and Ennis. Parking is free, and the site maps are available in many languages. Bunratty Castle and Folk Park are open every day except at Christmas and Good Friday, but call ahead to confirm hours and reserve seating at the medieval banquet.

2. The Burren, Co. Clare - The Burren is the massive, stark limestone landscape in western Ireland. This area is a photographer's dream, with over 700 varieties of flowering plants, and many of them continue to bloom even in mid-winter. Families still farm on this "fertile rock" and, when you see their picturesque homes and cottages, you may wonder if this is Ireland's Brigadoon.

You'll also see evidence of Ireland's history dating back over 5000 years. Remnants of prehistoric tombs, monasteries and ring forts dot the landscape, as well as field walls and ancient roads. There's a beauty and a sense of timelessness in this dramatic landscape.

When you visit the Burren, it may be tempting to pick flowers or build your own miniature dolmens with the loose rocks. Don't do this; the landscape is more fragile than it appears. The hiker's rule of "Take only pictures, leave only footprints" is important when you're in this area. In fact, it is illegal to remove even small rocks from the Burren.

In addition to hotels, the Burren area offers many other lodgings including farmhouses, historic homes, and bed and breakfast establishments. It's an ideal spot for a few days' visit.

The Burren is about 20 miles northwest of the Shannon Airport. Be sure to take a map with you; most of your driving will be on the N18 highway, but as you head west from Adrahan--one of the shortest routes--you'll be on country roads.

3. Aillwee Cave, Co. Clare - While you're at the Burren, visit one of the most beautiful caves in the world. About 15,000 years ago, water from the prehistoric ice age began to melt. It carved a breathtakingly beautiful tunnel into the limestone beneath the Burren. In the Irish language, Aillwee means "yellow cliff," named for the shades of gold and yellow in this cave.

Bring your camera for the extraordinary effects of light and shadow as you explore this ancient site that reaches deep into a mountain. This isn't "just another cave" but a unique display of unexpected beauty carved by water over thousands of years.

Aillwee Cave is about three miles south of Ballyvaughan in the Burren. The Aillwee Cave guided tour will take about 45 minutes. Wear a light jacket, windbreaker, or sweater; the caves are generally about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Cliffs of Moher and O'Brien's Tower, Co. Clare - The Cliffs of Moher are western Ireland's top visitor attraction, and well worth the 40 mile drive from Shannon Airport.

The Cliffs are one of Ireland's foremost bird-breeding sites. Be sure to bring your camera and your binoculars. With as many as 30,000 pairs of birds--including the Irish mainland's largest colony of Puffins--every day is a delight for birdwatchers.

However, it's easy to overlook the more than 20 varieties of nesting birds; the Cliffs also offer one of the most magnificent views in all of Ireland. You'll see an amazing panorama including the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, and Connemara's mountains. Be sure to stop at the Visitor Centre to learn more about the many attractions at the Cliffs.

For the best view, climb O'Brien's Tower, which was built in 1835 by the descendants of Brian Boru and the O'Briens of Bunratty Castle. Pause to notice the flagstones in this area, which sometimes bear natural imprints of fossilized eels from thousands of years ago. They are an unusual sight, and a reminder that Ireland is truly ancient.

The Cliffs and O'Brien's Tower are situated in North-West Clare between the villages of Liscannor and Doolin. Take the N18 highway north from Shannon Airport, and turn northwest onto the N85 at Ennis. At Ennistymon (also spelled Ennistimon), turn left on the N68 and follow the signs to the Cliffs of Moher. If you pass Lahinch, you've gone too far.

5. Limerick city, Co. Limerick - To get a real sense of everyday life in Ireland, spend a day in the city of Limerick. Although there are several tourist attractions in this small, comfortable city, you may have the most fun exploring the many stores and shops. Limerick is one of Ireland's most relaxed and friendly cities, and the prices are often far below comparable stores in more metropolitan areas. Crafts and jewellery are especially good buys in this area, and most store workers are happy to chat with you about Ireland and the Limerick area.

Although Limerick is a popular site for sporting events, you're less likely to find swarms of tourists as you visit sites such as King John's Castle and Lough Gur. Wear your most comfortable walking shoes and work up an appetite; Limerick's cafes and restaurants serve hearty meals with a welcoming smile.

6. Angela's Ashes Walking Tour of Limerick, Limerick city - Fans of Frank McCourt's best-selling novel, Angela's Ashes, will enjoy the walking tour that includes over 20 sites from the book. Much of Limerick looks the same as it did during McCourt's childhood; Windmill Street, Leamy's school, and the Carnegie School have changed very little. The tour leaves most weekday afternoons from the Tourist Office in Arthur's Quay (pronounced "key"); call ahead to confirm the time and to reserve a ticket.

5. King John's Castle and St. Mary's Cathedral, Limerick city - Take a short walk from the shops of Limerick city, across Thomond Bridge. There, King John's Castle awaits you. This five-sided castle dates to the 1200s, and it was built on top of Norman and Viking ruins. The views of from the top of the drum towers will take your breath away, and not just from the climb; the city of Limerick is very picturesque and the rural landscape surrounding the city is lush and vividly green. Be sure to bring your camera.

Inside the castle, you can enjoy a 22-minute audiovisual presentation that will explain the history of this area. Then, explore the many nooks and crannies in--and underneath--this huge structure.

Nearby, St. Mary's Cathedral is another highlight of Limerick. Slightly older than King John's Castle, the cathedral was started in the late 1100s, and its original floor plan was in the shape of a cross. The cathedral grew steadily, and it is the oldest building in constant use in Limerick's history. Pause to look at the marks in the stones around the west doorway to the church. In ancient times, the heroes who defended Limerick sharpened their swords there.

6. Lough Gur, Co. Limerick - Drive, take a short bus ride, or join a tour to see Lough Gur just south of Limerick city. The lough (said "lock") is famous for its standing stones and fairy legends. Once every seven years--or perhaps every Midsummer Night--Gerald FitzGerald, the second or third Earl of Desmond (born in the 14th century) appears on his white horse and rides around the Lough. This fabled earl's American descendants include the late American president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Lough Gur has a Visitor Centre, and this site is most famous for Ireland's largest stone circle, just east of the Limerick road.

7. Kilmallock, Co. Limerick - Continue south from Lough Gur to the charming and historical town of Kilmallock. This is the "real" Ireland, with the remains of an ancient city wall, fabled church ruins, and a peaceful beauty that makes the Emerald Isle unique. Visit the Famine Monument that commemorates the 19th century tragedy, and stroll through the quiet countryside. If you stay for dinner at one of this small town's restaurants or pubs, you're certain to meet many local residents and get a sense of what it's really like to live in Ireland. You'll be reluctant to leave its charm.

8. The Hunt Museum, Limerick city - Return to Limerick city for a few hours in one of Ireland's greatest art museums. Limerick's 18th century Custom House on Rutland Street contains fabulous examples of art and antiquities from Ireland's past, but also many world treasures. Look for DaVinci's famous horse sculpture; Mary, Queen of Scot's cross, and one of the Greek coins--the "30 pieces of silver"--paid to Judas for betraying Jesus Christ.

9. Aran Islands - If you're in Shannon for a few days, catch a ferry to the Aran Islands, just a few miles off the coast. Cruises leave for the islands from several ports, but Doolin's Liscannor Pier is one of the closest to Shannon Airport. Depart for the three Aran Islands early in the morning, and enjoy a spectacular view of the Cliffs of Moher as you set to sea. At each island, you'll have time to tour, stroll around, or simply enjoy the magic of Aran from a comfortable seat on the beach. You'll return to the mainland after dinner, with a hearty appetite and lasting memories.

Doolin is just north of the Cliffs of Moher, following the coast road. It's smart to take a map when you leave the main Irish highways, and allow extra travel time in case sheep or other livestock are also using the road.

10. Craggaunowen, The Living Past, Co. Clare - Craggaunowen is affiliated with some of Ireland's best visitor attractions, including Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. However, Craggaunowen is recreating aspects of Ireland's history from prehistoric, Iron Age, and early Christian times. The ring fort and the Brendan Boat are among the many fascinating representations of Ireland's past. For unique views of history and a fascinating education about the Celts, spend some time at Craggaunowen.

Craggaunowen is near the village of Quin, just off the N18 highway. Watch for signs for Shannon Heritage and Craggaunowen; they'll lead you to this slightly isolated but impressive historical site.

No matter how much time you have in Shannon--whether just a few hours or a few days--you're likely to want to return to this area again and again. Many people know Shannon only for its international airport, but this area is home to some of Ireland's best attractions and most memorable landscapes.

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