Be pre­pared when vis­it­ing the Emer­ald Isle

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves

Ire­land is more than an “Emer­ald Isle.” It’s an isle filled with cul­tural and his­toric won­ders ... and lately with lots of tourists, too. And at many of its top sights, reser­va­tions are now ei­ther re­quired or highly rec­om­mended.

In Dublin, it’s more im­por­tant than ever to buy ad­vance tick­ets for the most pop­u­lar sights. These in­clude Kil­main­ham Gaol, a mu­seum housed in a former prison for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers (vis­its are by guided tour only), and the Guinness Store­house, birth­place of Ire­land’s fa­mous stout beer. If you don’t book in ad­vance, you’ll waste time wait­ing in long ticket lines and may not even get in.

It’s also smart to buy timed-en­try tick­ets in ad­vance for the Book of Kells, the 1,200-year-old il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script of the four gospels, dis­played at the Trin­ity Col­lege li­brary. With­out a reser­va­tion, vis­i­tors can try the side en­try (through the Arts Build­ing on Nas­sau Street), where it’s of­ten easy to book tick­ets — even same day, if avail­able — from ticket ma­chines in the lobby hall­way.

A new mu­seum in Dublin, 14 Henrietta Street, is also one of the city’s best sight­see­ing stops. The former town­house of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing look at the hard­ships of Dublin ten­e­ment life. Once an af­flu­ent Ge­or­gian man­sion, it was sub­di­vided and con­verted in the 19th cen­tury into a cramped mul­ti­fam­ily space hous­ing more than 100 peo­ple. On a 75-minute tour, guides share sto­ries of former res­i­dents and de­scribe the 150-year de­cline of this aris­to­cratic town­house into a ten­e­ment.

A new, mod­ern vis­i­tors cen­ter has opened at Bru na Boinne, the site of two 5,000-year-old pas­sage tombs 45 min­utes north of Dublin. Ex­hibits de­tail the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies at the site, while high-tech in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays trans­port vis­i­tors to pre­his­toric times. From the cen­ter, shut­tles make it easy to reach the tombs — New­grange and Knowth — which can be ac­cessed only via guided tour. Tours are ex­pected to fill up well in ad­vance, but be­gin­ning

March 1 you can re­serve a spot on­line ahead of time.

Pop­u­lar stops around Ire­land are com­ing up with cre­ative ways to grap­ple with crowds. The Cliffs of Mo­her — the ma­jes­tic sheer cliffs on Ire­land’s west coast — now clev­erly of­fer on­line tick­ets for half price (4 eu­ros) be­fore 11 am and after 4 p.m. Smart trav­el­ers are wise to visit at these times not just be­cause it’s a lit­tle cheaper, but be­cause lighter crowds make for a more tran­quil ex­pe­ri­ence at the cliffs. Tick­ets in­clude park­ing and ad­mis­sion to the vis­i­tors’ cen­ter and its ex­hibit, which fo­cuses on the cliffs’ nat­u­ral and ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory.

South of Dublin, in County Wick­low, Avon­dale House — the former res­i­dence of Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal leader Charles Par­nell — has closed for a long-term ren­o­va­tion. A re­open­ing date has not yet been an­nounced. In the south­ern port town of Kin­sale, Des­mond Cas­tle is closed to vis­i­tors for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod of time.

Res­i­dents of North­ern Ire­land are wrestling with the ef­fects of an im­pend­ing Brexit. But tourists aren’t likely to ex­pe­ri­ence any sig­nif­i­cant im­pacts: In 2020, I ex­pect a visit to North­ern Ire­land to be just as easy as ever, and prob­a­bly even more in­ter­est­ing.

Plan­ning is needed to visit a few pop­u­lar sights near the town of Portrush, on the north­ern coast. To walk across Car­rick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, dra­mat­i­cally sus­pended above the Antrim Coast, it’s smart to buy timed-en­try tick­ets ahead of your visit (now avail­able on­line). To tour the Old Bush­mills whiskey dis­tillery, trav­el­ers should show up early, as groups are limited to 18 peo­ple and spots are only avail­able on a first-come, first­served ba­sis.

In North­ern Ire­land’s cap­i­tal of Belfast, the “Glider” buses, the city’s new form of hy­brid-pow­ered rapid tran­sit, have proved pop­u­lar after a lit­tle more than a year of be­ing fully up and run­ning.

These 105-per­son buses, con­nect­ing east and west Belfast on one line and the city cen­ter and Ti­tanic Quar­ter on an­other, are par­tic­u­larly handy for trav­el­ers.

Al­though the se­ries has ended, “Game of Thrones” lives on in North­ern Ire­land, where much of the show was filmed. In the town of Banbridge, 30 min­utes from Belfast, a “Game of Thrones” stu­dio tour — fea­tur­ing ac­tual sets, cos­tumes, and props from the show — is slated to open later this year at Linen Mill Stu­dios, one of the show’s main pro­duc­tion sites. Belfast it­self cel­e­brates its con­nec­tion to the show with six free­stand­ing stained-glass win­dows sprin­kled around town. Each win­dow rep­re­sents a main house or fam­ily in the show (one for each episode of the fi­nal sea­son).

Ire­land is fa­mously wel­com­ing. But for the well-pre­pared trav­eler (who vis­its equipped with good in­for­ma­tion and the nec­es­sary reser­va­tions), that wel­come will feel even warmer. May your guide­book be well used and the wind al­ways at your back.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on public tele­vi­sion and public ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

For cheaper en­try and a more peace­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, visit the Cliffs of Mo­her early or late in the day.

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

If book­ing same-day tick­ets to Dublin’s Book of Kells, you’ll find few crowds at the side-en­trance ticket kiosks.

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