Exploring Ireland's Dingle Peninsula

Travel writer Rick Steves heads to Ireland's westernmost tip to wander the green hills and discover new experiences.

In Ireland, you drive on the left. For that reason, I take my time in a car there, especially when doing a do-si-do up and over scenic mountain roads. I slowly weave down the dramatic Conor Pass, spilling out into the rugged Dingle Peninsula. My Irish dreams have long been set in this lush spot. I last wrote about Dingle five years ago and recently went back for a long-overdue visit. I'm excited to be enveloped again by 40 shades of Irish spring green.

Dingle perches on the westernmost tip of Ireland—and Europe, for that matter. Residents are fond of saying, "The next parish over is Boston." The peninsula offers just the right mix of far-and-away beauty, isolated walks and bike rides, and ancient archaeological wonders—all within convenient reach of its little main town, also called Dingle. The only downside seems to be the 100 inches of rain that falls each year.

Then Dunquin Pier on Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
Visit the Dunquin Pier on the peninsula for this view. (©Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock)

Fishing once dominated Dingle, and the town's only visitors were students of old Irish ways. But tourists and moviemakers are well onto Dingle now (more than one Hollywood feature has been filmed here). What had been a trickle of fans grew to a flood, as word spread of Dingle's musical, historical, gastronomical and scenic charms.

Dingle feels so traditionally Irish because it's part of a Gaeltacht, a region where the government subsidizes the survival of the Irish language and culture. While English is everywhere, the signs, chitchat and songs come in Gaelic. Even the local preschool boasts that it's "All Gaelic."

Nowadays no more than a dozen fishing boats sail from Dingle town. But tractors still leave tracks down the main drag, and a faint whiff of peat fills the streets. The town is just large enough to have all the necessary tourist services, not to mention a steady nighttime beat of Irish traditional music. Locals claim that Dingle, with 52 pubs for its 1,300 residents, has more watering holes per capita than any town in Ireland.

Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
The small town of Dingle will surprise visitors with the Gaelic language. (©littleny/Shutterstock)

Foxy John's is one of several Dingle pubs with a dual identity. By day it's a handy hardware store but after hours, it's a pub. It's great for "craic"—that's pub lingo for conversation. If you sit at a table, you'll be left alone. Stand or sit at the bar, though, and you'll be engulfed in conversation with new friends. And if you need a hammer or some hedge clippers, the bartender is there to help.

The peninsula is just the right size for a day-long driving or cycling tour (it's about 30 miles around—and a much harder pedal than drive). Circling these roads is like a trip through an open-air museum. The landscape is littered with monuments left behind by Bronze Age settlers, Dark Age monks, English landlords and Hollywood directors.

Talk with the chatty Irish you'll encounter along the roadside. I once met an elfish, black-clad old man in the little town of Ventry. When I asked if he was born here, he breathed deeply and said, "No, 'twas about six miles down the road." I asked if he'd lived there all his life. He said, "Not yet." When I told him where I was from, a faraway smile filled his eyes as he looked out to sea and sighed, "Aye, the shores of Americay."

The wet sod of Dingle is soaked with medieval history. In the dimmest depths of the Dark Ages, peace-loving, bookwormish monks fled the chaos of the Continent and its barbarian raids. They sailed to this drizzly fringe of the known world and lived their monastic lives in lonely stone igloos or "beehive huts," which you'll see dotting the landscape.

Parts of the peninsula are bleak and godforsaken. Study the highest fields, untouched since the planting of 1845, when the potatoes never matured and rotted in the ground. You can still see the vertical ridges of the potato beds—a reminder of that year's Great Potato Famine, which eventually, through starvation or emigration, cut Ireland's population by one-quarter.

Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
Slea Head is the closest part of Europe to America. (©Jan Miko/Shutterstock)

Rounding Slea Head, the point in Europe closest to America, the jagged coastline offers smashing views of deadly black-rock cliffs and the distant Blasket Islands. The crashing surf races in like white horses.

The tip of the peninsula is marked by a crucifix. It faces the sea, but about half the time, it's actually confronting an impenetrable cloud, whipping sheets of rain. I imagine that Dingle cows have thicker eyelids, evolved over the centuries to survive sideways rain.

Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
The Gallarus Oratory (©Barnes Ian/Shutterstock)

The Gallarus Oratory, a 1,300-year-old stone church, is famously watertight—unless the rain is hosing in sideways. I've been splattered inside. I've driven over Conor Pass with the visibility at zero, ragamuffin sheep nonchalantly appearing like ghosts in the milky cloud. I've huddled, awaiting a chance to step out, in farmhouses abandoned in the Great Famine. Yes, the weather is a force on the Dingle Peninsula, but when the sun does come out, everything rejoices.

If You Visit

Where to stay: The Greenmount House bed and breakfast has superb rooms and commands a fine view of the bay and mountains. Eileen Collins Kirrary Bed and Breakfast, which takes up a quiet corner in the town center, is run by the same Collins family that does archaeological tours of the peninsula (email: collinskirrary@eircom.net).

Greenmount House has superb B-and-B rooms and commands a fine view of the bay and mountains. For a kid-friendly space, try Tower View Bed and Breakfast, a mini-farm with comfortable rooms a 15-minute drive from Dingle. In the quiet village of Ballyferriter, Hotel Ostan Ceann Sibeal offers spacious rooms, many with countryside views.

Where to eat: John Benny Moriarty's serves up traditional Irish pub grub and live music. Out of the Blue Seafood-Only Restaurant is the locals' choice for just plain great fresh fish. West of Dingle on the Slea Head loop road, The Stonehouse is an appealing lunch or dinner option, with sea views.

Things to do: Dingle is a great walking town—nothing is more than 15 minutes away. There are plenty of bike-rental shops for those ambitious enough to cycle the peninsula.