Ireland’s Most Visited Heritage Sites

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The OPW (Office of Public Works) cares for, maintains, and operates 780 important heritage sites across the Republic of Ireland. The goal of this organization is to preserve and protect structures in its care while providing safe public access and information to visitors.

The OPW Heritage Card, a single-charge card that grants unlimited access to OPW managed historic sites and visitor attractions, including guided tours. Cards are available for individual adults, seniors, and children, as well as a family card that includes 2 adults and 5 children over 12. Children under 12 can access OPW Heritage sites at no cost.

There is no need to purchase an OPW Heritage Card prior to arriving in Ireland, just buy it at the first fee-paying OPW site you visit.

Ireland's Most Visited Heritage Sites in 2023

Each year Ireland's Office of Public Works share the previous year's data about visitor numbers and the most visited OPW sites. Recorded visitors to Ireland's heritage sites in 2023 exceeded 15.3 million, up from 15 million in 2022.

The two most-visited heritage sites are free to visit, and both are located in Dublin.

St. Stephen's Green, a wonderful green space in the heart of the city centre, saw over 4 million visitors in 2023. This isn't surprising as the park is a wonderful place for a walk and the playground is quite nice. It is also a pretty ‘shortcut' as you walk point to point in Dublin.

The Phoenix Park visitor centre recorded nearly 2 million visitors. Again, no surprise as this massive park, less than 5km from Dublin city centre and easy to reach via bus or Luas, is a popular spot for recreation as well as home to Dublin Zoo.

Most Popular Heritage Sites in Ireland (Ticketed Admission)

Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny Castle & Parklands, County Kilkenny – 546,354 visitors

The central point of Kilkenny City, Kilkenny Castle has the feel of a royal palace, making it a very grand place to visit. It's important to note that the parklands are free to visit.
Prebooking is not required.

Dublin Castle, Dublin – 534,014 visitors

Located in the heart of Dublin, Dublin Castle was built in the early 13th century and served as the center of power for the English (and later British) government.
Prebooking is recommended as tour space is limited. Bookings can be made up to 15 days in advance.

Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary – 357,273 visitors

The magnificent Rock of Cashel was originally built as a fortress in the late 4th or 5th century as the seat of the kingship of Munster and the inauguration place of its kings. In the 7th century St. Patrick baptized a King of Munster here and in 1101 the reigning King gave the fortress to the Church. This impressive structure was given into State care as a national monument in 1869.
Prebooking is not required.

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin – 258,154 visitors

Opening in 1796 as the new County Gaol for Dublin, thousands of men, women, and children were held here for everything from minor offences to organized rebellion. The stories you will hear are powerful in both sadness and strength.
Prebooking is necessary as tickets sell out quickly. Booking opens 28 days in advance of your visit at midnight Irish time.

Dún Aonghasa, Inis Mór, Aran Islands, County Galway – 144,153 visitors

Dún Aonghasa is the largest prehistoric stone fort on the Aran Islands. Consisting of 3 massive drystone defense walls further surrounded by a dense band of jagged stones and perched on the cliff edge, Dún Aonghasa is an imposing structure built for defense.
Prebooking is not required. Visitors should note that there is a 1km walk from the visitors centre to the site that includes rough, natural rock. There is no fencing or barriers at the cliff edge.

Clonmacnoise, County Offaly – 122,718 visitors

Located at one of the most important crossroads of ancient Ireland, the monastic village of Clonmacnoise has 3 high crosses, two round towers, and nine churches. This site is easy to visit if you are traveling from Dublin to Galway (or vice versa). This is a wonderful spot to explore, especially if you don't visit Glendalough in County Wicklow (which is free to visit- though the visitors centre does have a fee-, hosting 362,721 visitors in 2023).
Prebooking is not necessary.

Ross Castle, Killarney, County Kerry. Ireland travel tips | Ireland vacation | Irelandfamilyvacations.com

Ross Castle, County Kerry – 116,587 visitors

I am a bit surprised that Ross Castle doesn't show higher visitor numbers as it is located in Killarney National Park and is a top spot for the jaunting cars as well being the boat launch location for the killarney lakes. My guess is that the visitor numbers are only counting the people who actually tour the castle. This 15th century tower house was one of the last strongholds in the region to surrender to Oliver Cromwell in 1652. Guided tours are available March thru October.
Prebooking is not necessary.

Brú na Bóinne (including Newgrange and Knowth), County Meath – 114,934 visitors

I have no doubt that the only reason Brú na Bóinne is number 8 on this list is because visitor numbers to the tombs are limited. This UNESCO World Heritage site consists of 3 prehistoric passage tombs – Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth – built circa 3200BC and contain the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe.
Access to the visitors centre is available to anyone with no booking required.
Access to the tombs of Newgrange and Knowth is by guided tour only and prebooking is essential.
Booking opens 30 days in advance of your visit at midnight Irish time.

Trim Castle, County Meath – 113,591 visitors

Trim is the largest Norman castle in Ireland, taking 30 years to build. Built in a cruciform shape with 20 sides and surrounded by a ditch, curtain wall, and water filled moat, it was all nearly impenetrable. The grounds of Trim Castle and the charming river walk are free to visit. Visits in the castle are by guided tour only.
Prebooking is not available; tours do fill and are first come first served. Tour times may change daily.

Charles_Fort_Kinsale_Ireland

Charles Fort, County Cork – 96,253 visitors

This star-shaped military fortress guarding the mouth of Kinsale Harbour was constructed in the late 17the century. And while it withstood a 13 day siege during the Williamite Wars the design and location of the fort ultimately proved to be flawed.
Prebooking is not necessary.

My Favorite Heritage Sites in Ireland

My favorite heritage sites in Ireland didn't make the ‘Top 10' list, but that doesn't mean they aren't spectacular, only a bit off the beaten path.

Cahir Castle, County Tipperary – 85,014

Ireland's second-largest Norman castle is just 30 minutes south of the Rock of Cashel but receives only 20% of the visitor numbers. This is my favorite castle in Ireland due to the small number of visitors and the fact that you can explore nearly every part of the castle and grounds. The lovely island behind the castle is a perfect spot for a picnic and a short woodland stroll takes you to another OPW site, the Swiss Cottage (which only received 30,126 visitors in 2023).
Prebooking is not necessary.

Barbican_Gate_Rock_of_Dunamase_County_Laois_Ireland_Jody_Halsted_IrelandFamilyVacations.com

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 48,832

If you are traveling between Limerick and Dublin or Dublin and Kilkenny, this is my #1 spot to visit. The ruins of a massive fortress sprawling atop a rocky limestone outcrop. If you're the type to believe in ‘thin places' you'll want to come here as the power of the location can be felt as you catch sight of the ruins. The high situation and views of the surrounding countryside made this a strategic spot for a stronghold, though it appears the castle was abandoned in the 1330s.
This is a free, open site with no visitor centre.

Queen Maeve's tomb atop Knocknarea beyond Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. Ireland travel tips | Ireland vacation | IrelandFamilyVacations.com

Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, County Sligo – 35,338 visitors

While the tombs at Carrowmore in Sligo may not have the recognition of Newgrange this location is host to one of the most densely populated complexes of tombs in Ireland, as well as some of the oldest, dating back to 3700BC (older than Newgrange). Within the OPW site are at least 30 passage tombs in various states of survival, with at least 25 more known to be destroyed since 1800. Tomb 51, the largest on site, has been excavated, revealing a roofed central chamber and megalithic art.
Prebooking is not necessary.

kells_priory_kilkenny_Ireland

Kells Priory, County Kilkenny – 31,450

Locally known as the ‘Seven Castles', the Augustinian Priory at Kells encloses nearly 3 acres. With its seven tower houses spaced along the walls it has the appearance of an enclosed village. The priory has an intriguing past that includes being burned 3 times and, in 1324, it played host to the first known witch trial in Europe. Take your time exploring this site, including a lovely walk by the river to the old mill.
This is an open site, free to visit with no visitor centre.

Round tower and cathedral ruins on Scattery Island, County Clare, Ireland

Scattery Island, County Clare – 4,713

Located in the Shannon Estuary, Scattery Island can only be reached by boat, a very calm 30-minute cruise from Kilrush Marina. The monastic site dates to the 5th century and features multiple churches, a cathedral, and a round tower – with its door at ground level. The island is also home to a Napoleonic artillery battery and a working lighthouse built in 1872. Very few people take the time to add Scattery Island to their Ireland itinerary, but it's location is a perfect fit if you are traveling the Wild Atlantic Way between the Cliffs of Moher and Killarney.
Though it is free to visit the site – and you can even get a guided tour! – you do need to make a reservation for the ferry with Scattery Island Tours.

Traveling in Ireland podcast episode 208

Jody Halsted
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