The Historic Heartlands

Kildare to Offaly

5 Days
  • History & Heritage
  • Shopping
  • Sport
  • Arts & Crafts
Must-see

Drive through the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East as you explore the counties of Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Laois and Offaly. Continue your journey through 5,000 years of Irish history as you unearth stories of from our distant past, right up to the modern day. From the famous Rock of Cashel where saints converted kings, to the ancient castles at Birr and Kilkenny, The Historic Heartlands is a land that has been shaped over time, and one with a story just waiting to be told at every turn. Plan your trip with some of our ‘Heartland Highlights’ below.

Day 1

Kildare to Laois

Begin your trip through The Historic Heartlands by exploring the equestrian heartland of Ireland, County Kildare. Home to the Irish National Stud, Kildare is home to some of Ireland’s finest racecourses with The Curragh, Punchestown and Naas all regularly welcoming some of the world’s best horses and jockey’s. Kildare is also synonymous with one of Ireland’s most famous saints, St. Brigid, so make your way to Kildare Town to visit the site of her cathedral, home to one of Ireland’s highest round towers. From Kildare, your next destination will be Laois, with attractions like the Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum providing a great insight into days gone by in this historic heartland.

Castletown House

Begin your day of exploration in Co Kildare by visiting Castletown House, a stunning Palladian-style mansion in the town of Celbridge. Built in the 18th Century, Castletown House is Ireland’s largest Palladian-style house, while the estate has over 100 acres of stunning woodlands and gardens just waiting to be explored. The estate underwent a restoration project in 1994, which transformed it to one of the finest public houses in Ireland, and the perfect place to begin your road trip through Kildare.

Ireland’s Equestrian Hub

From Castletown, head south to Tully and the Irish National Stud. Here you will learn about Ireland’s long love affair with horses by visiting the horse museum, while you can stroll around the stud at your own leisure, watching the next generation of thoroughbreds being put through their paces. The stud is also home to some of the finest gardens in Ireland, with the Japanese Garden in particular, recognised for its beauty across the world.

As well as the Irish National Stud, try to give your time to visit some of Ireland’s most iconic racecourses as you travel through Kildare. If your trip falls during a race meet at Naas, Punchestown or The Curragh, consider taking an extra day to enjoy the unique race day atmosphere at these wonderful courses. The Curragh is the venue for the Irish Derby, while the Punchestown Festival is one of the most popular race meets and takes place in April. The home of Irish National Hunt Racing, Punchestown has over 15 race meetings across the year.

Visit the ancient heritage town of Kildare

Kildare town is one of Ireland’s oldest towns, dating back to 480 AD, and provides visitors with a wealth of things to see and do. Kildare town is synonymous with St. Brigid, with so many popular attractions connected to one of Ireland’s most iconic saints. The restored Norman St. Brigid’s Cathedral lies on the site of her early Christian Church, while St. Brigid’s Flame shines bright in the town as a symbol of hope and peace across the world.

Other iconic historic sites in Kildare town include the Round Tower (the highest in Ireland that can still be climbed), St. Brigid’s Fire Temple, Kildare Castle and White Abbey. Once you’ve taken time to explore the history and heritage of Kildare, make the short trip to the outdoor shopping centre at Kildare Village, one of Ireland’s premier shopping facilities. From Kildare Village, make a quick stop in the town of Newbridge, to visit the Newbridge Silver Museum and Visitor Centre.

Donaghmore Workhouse Museum

From Kildare, head west towards the town of Portlaoise and make your way towards the Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum. The museum offers guided and self-guided tours of an Irish workhouse, taking you on a journey back to the Great Irish Famine in 1845. While the workhouse itself didn’t open until 1853, it gives visitors a great insight into the lives and times of our ancestors as they struggled behind workhouse walls, before, during and after the Great Famine. Not only will you get an insight into their struggles, you will also learn more about the Great Famine, one of the most defining periods in recent Irish history.

Call it a night in Portlaoise and be sure to call into the famous Treacy’s Bar & Restaurant, one of Ireland’s oldest bars.  The thatched bar has all the charm and character you would expect from a bar dating back to 1780, and is still owned by the Treacy family some 230 years later.

Day 2

Laois to Carlow

As you depart Portlaoise, the Poet’s Cottage is worth stopping off to get a glimpse of life in rural Ireland in the 1800s. From here make your way to north to Mountmellick or head south towards Dunamaise and over 800 years of history at the famous Rock of Dunamase.

Explore the beauty of Slieve Bloom

The picturesque Slieve Bloom Mountains lie on the border of Offaly and Laois and are the perfect location to start your day of exploration in Laois. A short drive from Portlaoise, Slieve Bloom is popular with walkers with a variety of walking routes suited to all abilities. Popular walking routes include Lough Boora and Glenbarrow while cycling, angling and horseriding are also popular here.

Lying at the foot of Slieve Bloom is the heritage town of Mountmellick which a popular walking trail just waiting to be explored. The Mountmellick Museum is well worth getting along to as it showcases the popular Mountmellick Work’s while also allowing you to trace your family history back to the 17th Century through the Quaker Records database.

The Ultimate Wedding Gift

Next, head south to the town of Dunamaise and the prominent rocky outcrop of land at The Rock of Dunamase. The castle was once a striking Norman Castle founded by missionaries in the 12th Century and was famously handed over to Norman invader Strongbow as a wedding gift from his father-in-law, the King of Leinster.  Strongbow then passed it on to his son-in-law but in more recent times the castle declined and now the ruins of the castle structure remain. While it’s not what it once was, the view from the top of the hill is impressive, and the significance of the castle in Irish history makes it well worth stopping off at as you travel through Laois. From here, make the 10 minute drive back into Dunamaise and head towards Dunamaise Arts Centre and check out some of the latest exhibitions.

Laois’s Heritage Trail

While The Rock of Dunamase is one of the undoubted highlights of Laois, the county has a number of popular heritage sites, all steeped with hundreds of years of history, and each with their own story to tell.  Aghaboe Abbey in the hamlet of Aghaboe is one such location with the original monastery dating back to the 12th and 13th century (it burned to the ground in 1234).  Other historic attractions to consider visiting as you explore Laois include the stunning grounds of Emo Court and Heywood Gardens, while Timahoe Round Tower, Stradbally Steam Museum and the town of Abbeyleix will help you discover more of Laois’s ancient past.  Next stop, Carlow.

Time to Explore Carlow

From Laois, continue to head south towards Ireland’s second smallest county, Carlow.  From the Blackstair Mountains and River Barrow, to the glorious countryside and picturesque villages, Carlow has plenty to offer as your explore the area in your car or on foot.  The county has deep rural ties and a rich cultural history, perhaps best captured at Brownshill Dolmen, a pre-historic tomb located a short drive from Carlow Town.  The largest of its kind in Europe, the tomb is a tribute to some of Ireland’s first farming communities and dates back some 5,000 years.  From here, make your way into Carlow Town to explore the counties capital and call it a night.

The best way to explore Carlow Town is on foot, so leave the car and enjoy the popular Carlow Town Walk.  The walk takes you face-to-face with many famous sites and monuments in the town including The Liberty Tree, Carlow Castle, Carlow County Museum and St Mary’s Church of Ireland.  Get familiar with stories of the people of Carlow dating back hundreds of years.  Take a stroll along the banks of the River Barrow as you call it a night in the tranquil and scenic surroundings of Carlow Town.

Day 3

Carlow to Kilkenny

Day three of your journey through the Historic Heartlands will take you from Carlow into the Medieval heartland of Kilkenny.  While the Medieval Mile awaits, if you have more time, consider exploring Carlow in more detail with the Carlow Trail of the Saints or the 75km Mount Leinster Route, which will take you through rural Carlow and the towns and villages of Borris, Kildavin, Fenagh and Bagenalstown.

Discover Carlow’s Beautiful Estates and Gardens

Before departing Carlow for Kilkenny, spend the morning marveling at the majestic gardens and estates that attract visitors to Carlow throughout the year.  Head south from Carlow Town towards the town of Tullow and the stunning Altamont Gardens, one of Carlow’s and indeed Ireland’s finest garden estates.  Open all year (except for Christmas Day), Altamont Gardens have over 40 acres of dazzling gardens and wonderful riverside walks to be explored.  A great way to start the day.

From here make your way towards the town of Clonegal on the border of Wexford and make Huntington Castle & Gardens your next destination.  You can enjoy a guided tour of the house (which is still lived in by descendants of the original builders) or stroll through the wonderfully maintained gardens to get an appreciation for a building that has been prominent to Carlow for hundreds of years.  If you’re traveling with kids, the Castle grounds also have a kids playground and petting farm.

From Huntington Castle begin to head west towards Kilkenny, and make one last stop in Carlow and the striking Borris House in Borris.  The ancestral home of the McMorrough Kavanaghs, the ancient High Kings of Leinster, Borris House has been a significant building for Carlow, and indeed this part of South Leinster for some 600 years.  The house and surrounding woodlands and gardens give you a taste of life for the McMorroughs for hundreds of years, with tours taking you on a journey through 600 years.  From here, continue towards Kilkenny, or if you want to explore a little more of Carlow, head north towards Bagenalstown and Carlow Brewing Company, home of O’Hara’s Beers and grab a few samples for later when you’ve the car parked up for the night.

Onwards to the Medieval Heartland of Kilkenny

From Carlow make the short journey towards Kilkenny and head for the city centre and get ready to embark on the walking tour that is the Medieval Mile.  On your way to Kilkenny city centre, stop off at Jerpoint Abbey in Thomastown and catch a glimpse of life in the 12th Century for the ancient Cistercian monks who lived here.  The abbey, which dates back to 1158 is well preserved, with ancient tombs and towers dating back to the 13th – 16th Century, giving you plenty to explore.  From here, make your way towards Kilkenny City Centre.

One of the most popular cities in Ireland, spend the night in Kilkenny and take time to explore its ancient Medieval past.  The name Kilkenny derives from St Canice who founded a monastic settlement in the city in the 6th Century, and while this pre-dates the popular monuments in the city today, the ties to St Canice still exist today through the 13th Century St Canice Cathedral, the second longest in Ireland.  St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower are just one of the many popular attractions just waiting to be explored in Kilkenny.

Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile

Begin your walking tour of Kilkenny at the 12th Century Kilkenny Castle, set in picturesque parklands along the River Nore.  The castle and grounds are free to enter, and if you’re around for the weekend, consider joining the popular park run in the grounds of the castle.  Kilkenny has a long history with Irish arts and crafts, so make the Butler Gallery your next destination to explore some of the exhibitions from local and international artists.  The gallery is free to enter.  Continue your exploration of Irish crafts by visiting the Kilkenny Design Centre and National Craft Gallery, two buildings that form part of the popular Kilkenny Craft Trail.

As you leave the castle grounds, head up High Street where you’ll have the chance to visit the 13th Century St Mary’ Church and Graveyard, along with The Tholsel and Butter Slip.  The Tholsel has served many roles in the city over the years, and today is a popular spot for musicians and street performers.  You’ll likely have worked up a thirst by now, so make a short pit-stop in The Hole in the Wall, one of Ireland’s oldest pubs, the bar is located in Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse and dates back to 1582.  A recent restoration project has helped transform it into one of Kilkenny’s most popular landmarks in recent years.  The oldest bar in Kilkenny however goes to Kyteler’s Inn, which dates back to 1263.  Located on St Kieran’s Street, this is another bar to stop in at.

From High Street, make your way towards Parliament Street and marvel at the beautiful 13th Century Grace’s Castle.  Continue on towards Rothe House and Black Abbey, and from here you’re well placed to discover the story of St Canice at St Canice’s Cathedral & Round Tower and the Bishop’s Palace.  If you have time, be sure to visit the home of Smithwicks and discover the story of how beer was born and walk with the monks of St Francis Abbey at the Smithwicks Experience.  One of the most popular attractions in Kilkenny, give yourself some time to explore the brewery, and finish it with a pint of the good stuff.  Call it a night in Kilkenny before setting off to explore Tipperary and some of the finest castles in Ireland.

Day 4

Kilkenny to Tipperary

Your last day exploring Ireland’s Ancient East will see you departing Kilkenny and heading into Tipperary before quickly crossing into Limerick en route to Offaly, so a busy day of exploration lies ahead.  Castles, abbey’s and ancient monastic sites are dotted across Tipperary, and will make up the core of your journey.  Some of the highlights here will include the towns of Cahir and Cashel, while you’ll also get the chance to head west to Limerick, and the ancient site at Lough Gur.

Onwards to Cahir and Cashel

As you depart Kilkenny, the spectacular Dunmore Caves tell a story dating back millions of years, so if you have time, make a quick detour here before heading on towards Tipperary and the popular town of Cahir.  Home to the stunning Cahir Castle, this is the perfect introduction to the historic ties in Tipperary.  While the Rock of Cashel can often grab the tourist attention when it comes to popular sites in Tipp, Cahir Castle is a must see when exploring this part of Ireland.  Located on a rocky island on River Suir, the castle is steeped in history dating back to the 12th Century.  The present structure dates back to the 13th Century and has been open to the public since the 1970s.

While you’re exploring the town of Cahir, be sure to visit the ‘Swiss Cottage’ which lies in the heart of the Butler Estate.  The thatched cottage dates back to the early 1800s and has a lovely, tranquil walking route along the river.  Other historic sites to explore in Cahir include Cahir Abbey and the old St Mary’s Parish Church.  As you depart Cahir to head north to Cashel, take time to stop off at one of Tipperary’s best kept secrets, the 12th Century Athassel Priory, the largest Medieval priory in Ireland.  If you are planning on spending a few days in Tipperary, take time to explore the nearby Galty Mountains (or The Galtees), where you can enjoy many scenic walks and cycles.  The Glen of Aherlow is a lush valley near The Galtees, and home to many scenic walks and prehistoric and early Christianity sites.

Marvel at the Rock of Cashel

As you arrive in the town of Cashel, there’s only one place you need to make sure you get along to, and that’s the famous Rock of Cashel.  Cashel is awash with historic buildings, and a fitting place to experience on your last day through 5,000 years of Irish history.  One of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art anywhere in Europe, the Rock of Cashel is a hugely impressive collection of buildings, rising majestically into the Cashel skyline.

Also known as Cashel of the Kings and St. Patrick’s Rock, the Rock of Cashel is said to be the site at which St Patrick converted Aenghus the King of Munster back in the 5th Century.  Once the seat of the High Kings of Munster, the current structure dates back to the 12th and 13th Century with buildings including a round tower, High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th Century Gothic Cathedral, 15th Century Castle, along with a restored Hall.

With amazing panoramic views of Tipperary, there’s something magical about visiting the Rock of Cashel.  If you’re visiting late in the evening, try to stay to the sun sets, and a photo opportunity like no other.  Before leaving Cashel, take time to visit some of the towns other popular attractions including Dominic’s Abbey, Cashel Folk Village, Hore Abbey, Famine Wall and Cashel Palace.

Explore Tipperary’s Many Castles

From Cashel, head north towards Offaly, passing through the towns of Thurles and Nenagh.  If you have time, make the short detour to Limerick and visit Lough Gur and experience 6,000 years of Irish living and heritage at the Lough Gur Heritage Centre.  The highlight of the area is the famous Stone Circle, the largest stone circle in Ireland.  From Cashel, make your way towards Offaly, passing through Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea on the way.

Be sure to visit Holycross Abbey on your way to Thurles, and you’ll also have ample opportunities to visit some more of Tipperary’s famous castles, with Grallagh Castle, Ballynahow Castle, Farney Castle, Nenagh Castle, Lackeen Castle and Roscrea Castle all within driving distance of county Offaly.  Call it a night in Nenagh or Thurles and give yourself more time to enjoy the wonders of Tipperary.  If time is on your side, consider driving the Lough Derg Loop.

Day 5

Nenagh to Tullamore

After a busy day exploring Tipperary, enjoy this route through central Ireland as you get familiar with County Offaly.  Here you’ll come face to face with the Great Telescope, once the oldest working telescope in the world, and you’ll also get the opportunity to sample one of Ireland’s finest whiskeys at the home of Tullamore Dew.

Set Foot In The World’s Most Haunted Castle

As you enter Offaly, begin by visiting the town of Moneygall, the ancestral home of former US President, Barack Obama.  From here, make the short trip to The Leap and Leap Castle.  Leap Castle has had quite a chequered past and is said to be the worlds most haunted castle, so if stories of spirits and bloodshed from yesteryear are not your thing, then best avoid setting foot in Leap.  Leap Castle was built in the 1500s, with many of the harrowing stories involving the infamous O’Carroll clan.  Tales of ‘The Red Lady’, and two young girls (Emily and Charlotte), along with the haunted ‘Bloody Chapel’ create an eery vibe at Leap Castle throughout the year, with night visits a particularly spooky experience.

All Things Science at Birr

From Leap Castle continue to head north towards Birr Castle, home of the Great Telescope, and a location of significant scientific importance in Ireland.  Explore the castle and stunning surrounding gardens before taking time to marvel at the impressive structure that is ‘The Great Telescope’.  The Great Telescope was built in the 1840s by the 3rd Earl of Rosse and at its time was the largest telescope in the world.  Built by the people of Birr, the telescope attracted visitors from all over the world for over 70 years, and today has been restored to become a popular tourist attraction to both Birr and indeed Offaly.  Continue your journey of Irish astronomical and scientific discovery at the Science Centre, located at the entrance to the castle grounds.

A Site Fit For Ancient High Kings and Scholars

From Birr, continue to head north to the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site dating back to the 6th Century.  While it’s mainly ruins that remain today, Clonmacnoise holds significance importance to Ireland’s ancient past as it was a major centre for religion and craftsmanship, visited by scholars across Europe over 1,000 years ago.  It is also the burial place for many high Kings of Connacht.  From Clonmacnoise, make your way towards Tullamore where you will call it a night.  On your way, stop off at Boora Bog Discovery Park if time allows, and get up close and personal with the birds and wildlife in the park, and set off to explore the area in greater detail on one of the walking or cycling routes.

Finish With A Tipple In Tullamore

Last destination of what will have been a busy day see’s you call it a night in the town of Tullamore.  For the whiskey lovers among you, a tour of the famous Tullamore Dew Distillery is a must, while Kilbeggan Distillery is a short 15 minute trip away in Co Westmeath, should you want to find out more about some of Ireland’s finest whiskey distillers.  If time allows, take in the sights of Slieve Bloom or else call it a night and relax in one of Tullamore’s many watering holes. leaving your Slieve Bloom adventures to the following day (if you still have energy).