Ireland is a wonderful place to visit as a family, thanks to its warm welcome, buzzing cities, and intriguing history. On top of the many sights to see, it’s easy to be swept away by the legendary charm and hospitality of the Irish and their love of “craic”—enjoyment, fun, good company, and great conversation.
Ireland offers an impressive range of activities for families with kids, many with an educational and sometimes challenging element. There’s the somber story of the Titanic, for example, now immortalized in popular culture, and the more recent history of the three decades of “The Troubles”.
On a lighter note, the Emerald Isle is filled with magnificent natural beauty to explore, castles, Viking legends, great shopping, and superb food.
Here are some of the best things to do with kids in Ireland.
Walk on the Giant’s Causeway
Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway is an unforgettable day out from Belfast and a chance to admire the wild, rugged, and highly unusual scenery of the north Antrim coast.
Some 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns form a strangely uniform natural walkway along a promontory, pounded by the unforgiving rollers of the North Atlantic. Hills of vivid green slope down to the water’s edge, adding to the slightly unreal setting.
The rock formations were created by an underwater volcano six million years ago, although local legend has it that they were made by a giant called Finn McCool. The giant was a fearsome warrior who created the causeway as a series of stepping stones so that he could reach the coast of Scotland without getting his feet wet.
You can access the site by footpath, and there are various opportunities for photos posing on or in front of the basalt columns—always something kids will enjoy.
Visit a Legendary Prison
Young people tend to be intrigued by anything sinister or gory, and Spike Island, a haunting former prison set on an island in Cork Harbour, won’t disappoint.
Spike Island has a long and often unhappy history. There was a monastery here in the 7th century, and later, a fortress. The current structure, the star-shaped Fort Mitchel, is 200 years old. Over the centuries, the island has been used for defending the city and served as a prison, too.
This was once the largest prison in the world, with 2,300 inmates, and remains the biggest prison ever to exist in Ireland or Great Britain. Its last incarnation was from 1985 to 2004, when it housed young offenders, among others.
On a tour, you’ll see the grim 1850s Punishment Block, the more modern cells, the children’s prison, and the fascinating “Shivs and Shanks” exhibition, which shows weapons made by the inmates and hidden in their cells.
Kiss the Blarney Stone
Blarney Castle, near Cork, is everything you want from a castle. Built in 1446, it’s now ruined, suitably dramatic in appearance, and steeped in myth.
Visiting the castle is one of the best things to do with kids in Ireland. Scramble around the ruined tower, and look at the views from the top, for which you’ll need a head for heights.
You can’t leave without kissing the Blarney Stone. This activity is all the more exciting as the stone is embedded in the castle wall, below the battlements. Back in the day, to kiss it involved being suspended by the ankles over the wall, but nowadays, you hang onto an iron bar and lean out backwards over the parapet.
Nobody knows the origin of the stone, but to kiss it is said to endow you with the power of eloquence, which may explain why so many politicians and actors have indulged in the activity.
The castle is surrounded by lush gardens, one of the most exciting parts of which is the Poison Garden. Plants here, which include ricin, wolfsbane, and opium, are so dangerous that some are kept in cages. Children must be accompanied at all times and obviously, you don’t touch the plants.
Learn About the Titanic Tragedy
You can’t miss Titanic Belfast, a starkly modern structure shaped like a ship’s bow, shimmering in the sunlight, guarding the slipway of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated liner was designed and launched.
This clever, poignant museum is as much a tribute to the great era of shipbuilding as to the lives that were lost in the tragedy. You’ll learn about the design of the ship and its symbolism to Belfast. There are interactive displays, recreations of cabins, and even a ride that flies you over a virtual “yard”, complete with banging, crashing, sparks of welders and shouts.
The self-guided tour takes you through the ship’s brief life in chronological order, ending with the maiden voyage, the aftermath, and a film about the Titanic’s final resting place, more than two miles down in the North Atlantic. This is an absolutely mesmerizing visit for families; an absolute must when it comes to things to do with kids in Ireland.
Admire an Ancient Manuscript
Trinity College Dublin has to be one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world. Within it, the Long Room in the Old Library is one of the most magnificent libraries, much photographed and absolutely jaw-dropping, its shelves lined with 250,000 priceless first editions and rare books.
The Old Library has been in existence since 1732, but its prize exhibit, the Book of Kells, dates much further back, to 800 AD. This 680-page manuscript of the Gospels, hand-written in ornate Latin text and elaborately illustrated in deep, rich color, is believed to have been created by monks on the remote Scottish island of Iona.
It’s been housed at the Old Library since 1661. Teens will be fascinated by this glimpse into academic life, while both the library and the Book of Kells should capture the imagination of young historians.
Read: One Day in Dublin
Take a Troubles Tour
The modern history of Northern Ireland and “The Troubles”, which lasted from 1968 to 1998, is both tragic and deeply disturbing. Emotions still run high as you’ll find on a Troubles Tour in Belfast.
These are offered by drivers of black taxis and will take you along the Loyalist stronghold of Shankill Road and the Republican Falls Road, to this day separated by barricades. There are chances to see powerful political murals, learn about the martyrs of the time, and sign the Peace Wall that separates the Protestant and Catholic areas. The driver-guides have lived through the Troubles and have fascinating stories to tell.
Tours usually end at Crumlin Road Gaol, a fearsome prison which housed men, women and children, Republicans, and Loyalists during the Troubles, and closed in 1996. Audio, video, holograms and visits to various cells and areas of the famous prison tell its grim story.
While the Troubles is not a light topic for teens to absorb, it’s an important story of a divided community in the modern world and the importance of peace, resolution, and cooperation.
Graze Your Way Around English Market
Located in the center of Cork and operating as a market since 1788, the covered English Market is a great place to visit as a family, not just for the visual spectacle but for the snacking and shopping opportunities.
Organic fruit and vegetables, locally made bread, Irish cheeses, and imports including olives, spices, and French lavender-scented soaps add up to a highly enjoyable browsing experience.
There are local specialties for the more adventurous palate: crubeens, or pigs’ feet, and Tripe & Drisheen, a Cork favorite consisting of slow-cooked tripe with onions paired with a sausage of beef and sheep’s blood.
Less adventurous fare includes soda bread; hearty Irish stew; smoked salmon; boxty, a kind of potato pancake; and barmbrack, a spiced tea loaf, the fruit soaked in whiskey. More contemporary options include curry to go, gourmet gluten-free bread, and vegan chocolate. There’s a vintage clothing section, too.
Experience the Vikings in Virtual Reality
Immerse yourself in the culture and history of the Vikings on a day in Waterford’s Viking Triangle. This area of Waterford, the oldest part of the city, was surrounded by walls 1,000 years ago.
Within a compact area, you’ll find the Medieval Museum, the Bishop’s Palace, the 13th-century Reginald’s Tower, where the Viking Museum is housed (look out for the replica Viking longship outside), and the House of Waterford Crystal, as well as the new King of the Vikings attraction.
While this may sound like a whole lot of museums for teens, the whole area is enchanting, with cobbled alleyways and quirky shops and cafés to explore. At Waterford Crystal, there’s a fascinating glass-blowing display where you can watch the metamorphosis of almost liquid, red-hot glass into intricate crystalware.
What will really sell this day out, though, is the King of the Vikings, a relatively new attraction and certainly one of the most memorable things to do with kids in Ireland. This virtual reality tour takes place in a reconstructed Viking house in the ruins of a 13th-century friary, close to Reginald’s Tower.
Don a VR headset and step back in time to 917 AD when Reginald, King of the Vikings, steered his fleet into Waterford Harbour, constructed a fort, battled various enemies, and eventually laid the foundations of the city.
Sample Scones and See Working Sheepdogs
From Dublin, head south across the rolling green countryside of County Wicklow, a backdrop of misty mountains on the horizon. Just over an hour’s drive away, set among kitchen gardens, is the enchanting Ballyknocken House, Farm, and Cookery School, home of Irish celebrity chef and food writer Catherine Fulvio. Here, you’ll be treated to a demonstration of scone making, followed by a traditional Irish afternoon tea of warm scones with jam and a strong cup of tea.
There’s more to come; after tea, head outside for an impressive demonstration of sheep herding by a local farmer and his two dogs. The communication between farmer and dogs is almost telepathic, and the demonstration could almost be a bovine ballet.
Follow Cobh’s Heritage Trail
Ireland is known for being inextricably linked with the Titanic. Not only was the ill-fated ship built in Belfast, but the pretty port of Cobh, at the time called Queenstown, is where the last 123 passengers boarded in April 2012 as the liner embarked on its maiden voyage, bound for New York.
The Titanic Experience is situated in the original 19th-century ticket office of White Star Line, Titanic’s owner. It’s a somewhat disturbing visit, as you’re given a named boarding card when you arrive and you only find out at the end if you survived.
However, it’s cleverly done, telling the story of Titanic through holograms, film, and interactive exhibits, with enthusiastic guides. It’s also suitable for kids of all ages, who don’t seem to mind if their “person” made it.
On a more hopeful note, stop and consider the significance of the sculpture of young Annie Moore, just a teenager when she left Cobh with her brothers in 1891 on the SS Nevada. Annie made history as the first immigrant to pass through the Ellis Island facility in New York on January 1, 1892. A similar statue stands on Ellis Island to mark the strong connection between Ireland and the US.
Go Crazy for Chocolate
Founded in Dublin by the enterprising Marion Butler in 1932, Butlers Chocolates is to this day Ireland’s largest family-owned chocolatier, with chocolate cafés all over the world. The original is on Wicklow Street in the heart of Dublin if your kids still can’t get enough chocolate after touring the factory, just outside the city.
On one of these insider tours, you’ll learn about the history and origins of chocolate and explore an interactive chocolate museum, the mouthwatering aroma of chocolate ever present.
There’s a demonstration by a professional chocolatier of how intricate individual chocolates are made, and then it’s your turn. Test your artistic talent by decorating your own chocolate figure using liquid chocolate and flakes. And then eat it, of course.
Would you like to experience Ireland’s warm welcome and vivid history for yourself? Browse our luxury cruises to Ireland and plan your next trip to the Emerald Isle.