Here is how you can spend two weeks exploring the British Isles!
To say the different geographic regions of the British Isles is confusing is an understatement. The island of Ireland consists of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but only Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and England make up Great Britain, and if you then include Northern Ireland you have visited the entire UK. Throw a few smaller islands in the mix with the UK, like the Isle of Man, and that’s considered the British Islands. But what about the Republic of Ireland? When the Republic of Ireland is grouped with the British Islands they all become known as the British Isles! Easy right? Even worse, this is constantly changing as the political atmosphere evolves in this region.
What to know before you go:
- Best time of year to visit: We took our trip in early May and had the absolute best weather you could ask for in this region. We were told multiple times that this must be the only days of summer we were experiencing for the rest of the year. Although your best bet for beautiful weather in this area would be early June through early August. The trade off here is the closer you get to August, the better weather chances you will have which, by default, come with more crowds.
- The Big Ben in London is currently under construction (and completely covered in scaffolding) for the foreseeable future (updated August 2018).
- How to get there: We flew into London as it was the easiest jumping point from mainland Europe and relatively cheap and easy to get connecting flights to our next couple destinations.
- How to get around: Once in a country, we opted for a rental car to drive from town to town. This gave us the flexibility to stop when we wanted to stop and to leave when we were ready. We do caution that in the English country side the roads can be narrow and not well paved – make sure you have rental car insurance and are comfortable getting used to driving on the other side of the road.
Day 1: England – Arrive in London and explore
First things first, buy your Oyster card! You can buy this at most metro stations and it is a re-loadable metro pass that will make your life easier when navigating the tube to avoid buying a ticket each time you want to use the tube. If you are in London for four days we suggest putting about 40 pounds on the card and reloading, if necessary (as it is very easy). If you’ve never been to London before, a great first introduction is the London Eye. The London Eye is an iconic experience in London where you get into large pods and take a 360 degree spin on a giant Ferris Wheel. For lunch, stop at a good fish and chips pub or venture to China Town for the best dim sum in Europe! The possibilities of things to do in London are endless, see more ways to fill your first day at our city guide to London.
Day 2: England – Day trip to Stonehenge, stopping in the Costwolds
Stonehenge is an easy 2 hour drive from London, and while we have heard mixed reviews about visiting, we decided that we needed to check it out for ourselves. There are not guided tours, but there is an audio guide available for purchase and a museum attached to the visitor center. We probably left with more questions than we came with, so don’t go hoping to solve the mystery of Stonehenge; however, it was a neat experience.
Next stop is the beautiful English country side to explore the towns of the Costwolds region. There are so many different towns to see from Castle Combs, Barnsley, Snowshill, Painswick, Bibury and Bourton on the Water all with the untouched, honey colored stone villages to make you wonder why you have never visited before. See how much time you have and plan your stops accordingly. I would even suggest an overnight stay in one of the lovely estate properties like the Barnsley House in Barnsley or the Swan Hotel in Bibury.
Day 3: England – Half-day trip to Oxford from London
Depending on how much time you have you can combine a stop in Oxford at the end of day 2 as you will pass right by Oxford on the way from the Costwolds back into London, but this makes for a very long day. If you have more time we recommend taking a half day trip to Oxford and properly touring some of the colleges on campus. Also for all of you Harry Potter fans, a few scenes from the movies while Harry is at Hogwarts were filmed at the colleges of Oxford, so maybe that will interest you as well.
Then head back to London to continue exploring and pub discovering.
Day 4: England – Spend the morning exploring Notting Hill and the Borough Market, Fly to Edinburgh, Scotland
London is full of neighborhoods with individual characteristics, but none more colorful and floral than Notting Hill. Home to the famous Portobello Market and uniquely colored million dollar homes, exploring Notting Hill was everything I had hoped for. Get here early in the morning to enjoy less crowds on the streets, at the brunch spots and at the Portobello Market.
After all the shopping, take the tube to the London Bridge stop where you can find the Borough Market, a place where all your food dreams come true. Here you can weave in between stalls of Mexican food, seafood, fish and chips and briskets. The Borough Market is closed on Sunday’s so plan accordingly as you don’t want to miss this.
Not too far from the Borough Market is the famous London bridge. Stop by for a few photo ops – the birds seemed to actually pose for pictures!
By Day 4 you have probably walked enough for the entire week, but only have seen a small fraction of London. Its impossible to see and do everything in 4 days, but that’s a great excuse to plan a trip back during a different season. Take a night flight from London to Edinburg.
Day 5: Scotland – Hike overlooking Loch Lomond, Scotch Whisky and a drive through the Scottish Highlands
Wake up as early as possible as this is a full day packed with everything Scottish. In the morning take to the road for an early morning hike overlooking Loch Lomond. There are many different hikes possible in the area with different time commitments and intensities to fit your preference. We did some research prior to the trip and chose to hike the Ben A’an trail as it offered beautiful views of the loch and wasn’t too intensive. Parking was easy, as it was right at the base, just Google Ben A’an Car Park and it should direct you where you need to go.
Right before you ascend to the top of Ben A’an (pictured above) there is a small path to the right where you can stop for an arguably better view than the peak. You can judge for yourself!
On our way from Edinburgh to Loch Lomond, we passed the cute town of Deanston and a sign pointing down the road to a whiskey distillery. After the morning hike, we thought it was appropriate timing to pay Deanston Distillery a quick visit in hopes of hopping on a whiskey tour. They squeezed us in last minute and we had a wonderful time learning about the whiskey process at this cotton mill turned distillery, dating back to 1785.
After the tour you will taste some Scottish (Scotch) whisky, after which you are now prepared to explore the Scottish Highlands. The Scottish Highlands is a vast region of breath-taking landscapes dotted with quaint towns. Set out towards the city of Glencoe on highway A82 for some of the most stunning views of the Highland landscape. We ended up pulling over multiple times to admire the surroundings.
Like I said, the Highlands are so vast that we never made it all the way to Inverness, the town situated on the infamous Loch Ness. At Fort Williams, we took highway A89 and cut over on highway A9 through Caringorms National Park on our way back to Edinburg for the night. There are endless amounts of things to explore here. Keep your eye open for signs along the road. We saw one for a waterfall and pulled over immediately, took a 5 minute walk through the woods to find beautiful falls.
Day 6: Scotland – Explore Edinburgh and hike to King Arthurs Seat for sunset
This will be your second day in Scotland and it is now time to formally explore Edinburgh. Our favorite thing to do in the city was to just wander around the streets, stop into a few shops that caught our attention and admire the architecture.
Where to Eat:
Here you can find the absolute best view of the Edinburgh Castle. The main dishes are a little pricey, but overall the atmosphere is comfortable and the wait staff is very friendly. Make reservations for dinner early enough so that you can climb up to King Arthur’s Seat for sunset. I can say the one sunset we saw in Edinburgh was truly amazing!
What to Do:
Wander the Medieval streets
Two of the most famous streets in Edinburgh are Princes Street and the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile stretches from the Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (near Holyrood Park where you can hike to King Arthur’s Seat). It is suggested that you walk the Royal Mile from the Edinburgh Castle down as it is quite steep the other direction. Princes Street is home to the many cashmere shops and other goodies to take back home. We like to purchase Christmas ornaments and this is where we found a Scottish Santa to add to our collection! Victoria Street is where you can find more unique shops in brightly colored building facades. There is also second level to Victoria street called Victoria Terrace, where you can stop for some drinks, snacks, and people watching. At the bottom of Victoria Street the street turns into W Bow and merges with two other streets to make one of the most picturesque views of Edinburgh architecture, in my opinion.
Spend some time at a proper pub
We suggest a stop into the Jolly Judge, an under ground pub with the cheapest drinks we found in Edinburgh (which can actually be quite pricey). This place had a local vibe and beautifully painted wood beam ceilings! The wait staff were also very helpful in guiding my husband through choices of Scotch whisky to try from the region, which he found very enjoyable as well as affordable.
The Edinburgh Castle is a very popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh, but at roughly 17 pounds for tickets purchased in advance, we decided to skip the tour of the Castle and buy a bottle of wine at dinner instead and enjoy the view from afar! Making adult choices are tough. If you plan to visit the Edinburgh Castle, be there early (9 or 9:15AM) as the first ticket is sold at 9:30AM. Once instead visit the Scottish crown jewels first as this is the main attraction and will get very crowded later in the day!
Climb King Arthur’s Seat
King Arthurs’s Seat is the unofficial name for the peak right outside of the city, given the name as it is thought that this could have been a possible location of Camelot. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do the hike in time before sunset, however we saw that sunset from the city and it would have been fabulous. If you plan to do the hike at sunset, leave yourself enough daylight to get down before dark as the pathways at times are steep and there are many rocks (it takes between 45 to 60 minutes each way). The ascent starts about 15 minutes outside of the center of town. Once at the base of the park there are many different routes up to the top. Honestly no one has explained the different paths better than the Earth Trekkers here.
Day 7: Scotland – Drive to St. Andrews
In the morning take the Coastal Route from Edinburg to St. Andrews, by following A90 out of Edinburgh to A921. Drive along A921 for some of the most beautiful views of the coast. Definitely pick a town to stop in for a short rest. We stumbled upon Kinghorn looking for some coffee and it ended up being one of my most favorite stops. Continuing along A921, after you pass Kirkcaldy you will have a choice to take either A915 or A955 in the direction of St. Andrews. The A955 will continue to take you along the coast, while the A915 is slightly inland but will end up merging with A915 after about 20 minutes.
Continue along A915 until you reach St. Andrews. There is plenty of street metered parking right as you enter the city. We parked and grabbed a quick seafood lunch at a local seafood restaurant. Then for a view of the famous St. Andrews golf course and the coast continue to drive a few more minutes and you will find a large parking lot immediately between the coast and the golf course.
Day 8: Ireland – Fly to Dublin, Ireland and explore
Welcome to a new country! You should fly into Dublin because it is the biggest airport so you will find cheaper and more flight options from here. Dublin is the most well known city in Ireland and unofficially known for its colorful doors!
What to Do:
Irish pub hopping
There are many pubs in town. By far the most popular (and crowded) is The Temple Bar in the area Temple Bar. Beers are expensive here so make this a one beer stop. Some other bars to check out in Dublin include: The Brazen Head, The Stag’s Head, Searsons of Baggot Street, The Palace Bar, Against the Grain, Toners, Hairy lemon, The Bleeding Horse, and The Long Hall.
The Guinness Storehouse
100% tourist activity, but once you accept that the tour is actually quite interactive and enjoyable. Come visit the brewery where Guinness has been brewing beer since the 18th century. Once you have learned all about the process, don’t forget to head up to the top floor for the classic Guinness served in the 360 degree sky bar! Tickets are actually cheaper in the morning (we did a 10:30AM tour) but once you make it up to the skybar it is roughly noon so we thought the timing was perfect! Plus its always 5 o’clock somewhere!
Trinity College Library and The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells is a 9th century, ornately decorated book containing the four gospels of the life of Jesus Christ. This book can be found in at the Trinity College Library, which is a beautiful sight to see on its own.
Where to Eat:
Searsons of Baggot Street, 44 Baggot Street Upper – Pub and Restaurant
You may recognize this from the Irish pub list. This recommendation is both a pub and a restaurant that not only has quality whisky but also great food. There is a beer garden out back which is a beautiful place to relax and if you are in town on a Sunday, don’t miss out on their Jazz night on Sundays from 5:30 to 8:30pm.
Boxty House, 20-21 Temple Bar Dublin 2 D
Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake and at Boxty House they are serving up this delicious potato pancake with every dish. We started off with the boxty tasting slate to really get into the mood. This tasting slate includes boxty dumplings with honey & chili, toasted boxty loaf topped with goat cheese and a red onion salsa and boxty fries with garlic dip. You better believe after all that we split one of the boxty main dishes filled with beer and a creamy mushroom sauce.
Day 9: Ireland – Drive to Galway, stop at Cliffs of Moher and Doolin
From Dublin, take to the road towards Galway. Pack some snacks for the car as there will be a lot of stops today before you reach Galway around early dinner time. First stop is the Cliffs of Moher, roughly 3 hours away from Dublin. The best advice we can give here is to avoid parking and starting your walk from the visitor center. Tons of tours buses stop here, drop people off, and crowds just congregate for 30 minutes in one spot before getting back on the bus. We drove by on our way out and I couldn’t believe how much different of an experience we had compared to what I saw there. It also costs 8 EUR to enter from this point per person. DON’T PAY THAT!!
Instead plan on walking the cliffs from the southern most point, Hags Head. This offers the best and most dramatic views of the Cliffs of Moher and besides paying a family run parking spot to park on their property – it is completely free. One of the best parts was that we ran into few other people during our walk, so we could really enjoy the scenery and hear the waves and birds without the chaos we saw at the visitor center. So how do you find the parking spot? From the Visitor Center, drive south on R478 to St Bridget’s Well, and then follow signs to the Cliffs of Moher parking. If you continue up the road, there is a family that runs a car park from their yard. It is called the Cliffs of Moher Linscannor Walk on google maps.
From the parking lot, you can follow to road to the walking trail. You will come up on a stone structure called the Telegraph Station and a pathway beforehand that leads down towards the edge of the cliff on your left. Don’t pass this up as this path leads you to the first view of the cliffs from Hags Head! We walked for a total of two hours towards the visitor center, including photo breaks, and never made it there. We turned around after about 2 hours and it took another 1 to walk back to the car. If you don’t have a car and are staying nearby, there is also a shuttle service connecting Doolin, Hags Head, and the Visitor Center.
If you like clam chowder, make Doolin a stop after you have spent some time at the Cliffs. McDermott’s pub and restaurant has the best clam chowder we have ever had and Doolin is a cute little village too!
Another 2 hours by car and you will finally arrive in Galway. Galway is such a youthful and vibrant city in Ireland. There are tons of people out walking the streets and we ran into many different groups performing on the streets with big crowds watching and participating! There is nothing specific to do in Galway, just let it be easy and enjoy the surrounding. We only spent a night here, but you can easily spend another day in Galway to rest up from all the driving and exploring.
Day 10: Ireland – Drive the Dingle Peninsula, Stay in Dingle or Killarney
There are a few notable drives in Ireland, but the two that are most widely talked about are the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. After some research we decided on the shorter Dingle Peninsula because of the cute town of Dingle, Conors Pass and the Dunquin harbor. As you first cross onto the peninsula from Galway, right past Castlegregory, there is small piece of land that continues northward. Out of curiosity we decided to venture off of the main route and see what we could find. We found cows along the side of the road, beautiful beaches with mountainous backdrops and relatively few people. We sat right outside of Spillane’s restaurant and bar for this view.
From Ballycurrane drive towards the Dunquin Harbor, passing through Conors Pass and the town of Dingle for now. After you pass Dingle you will start along the Slea Head drive. This is a 45 mile loop from the town of Dingle along the southwestern coast of the Dingle Peninsula. This was by far our favorite drive of the whole trip and should not be missed when driving the Dingle Peninsula.
After the Dunquin Harbor there are a few road side stops near the town of Coumeenoole where you can pull over and see the Blasket Islands, the western most point of Europe. The weather changed quickly on us at this stop and I could barely stand outside the car with all the wind. Definitely be prepare for quick weather changes on this drive!
Now you have made the 45 mile Slea Head drive loop and are tired from gripping the steering wheel, you arrive back into Dingle for some time to explore the cute and colorful town. Stay here for the night or the nearby town of Killarney.
Day 11: Ireland – Drive to Cork, see Blarney Castle
From the Dingle Peninsula drive to Cork. Although not overly thrilled with Cork itself, you can stay in the nearby Blarney which is a great start to visiting the Blarney Castle. We spent a lot of time exploring the gardens around the Blarney Castle before going up to kiss the stone. This was a mistake as the line grew to be about an hour or so long while we were exploring the gardens, as it weaved all the way through the castle (thus you couldn’t really tell from the outside it was going to take that long). But, definitely leave yourself about an hour after you visit the stone to walk the gardens around the castle, they are simply beautiful!
Day 12: Ireland – Explore Cork, Cobh and Kinsale
Cork was our least favorite stop, but it is a great big city to use as a home base to explore smaller towns line Blarney, Cobh and Kinsale. The latter two are coastal towns that we wish to explore further someday, both only about 30 minutes away from Cork. If you have the time, make these a stop on your itinerary.
Day 13: Ireland – Fly out of Dublin
Two weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything we wanted. However, it does give you a good sense of the culture of each region you visit and a sense of where you would like to explore more of in the future. Personally on my list for the future is Northern Scotland (the Isle of Skye is so dreamy looking) and Northern Ireland!