Into the Green Heart of Ireland with Eurail

The wicked aphorisms of Oscar Wilde, good craic in Dublin pubs, the wild beauty of the West Coast, and a complicated political history whose tragedies and triumphs have inspired countless films, books and songs. For two adjoining countries whose combined population clocks in at less than 7 million, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have long been cultural heavyweights. Their impacts on the world prove disproportionate to their numbers.

Why take the train on this storied island? Many first-time visitors from abroad assume that a package bus trip is the default option. After all, when it comes to renting a car, driving on the “wrong side of the road” can instill massive anxiety even in the most seasoned driver. (When leaving the Cork airport, signs admonish tourists to drive on the left, rather than the right.) Yet rail travel remains an underrated pleasure here. Locals often take buses to avoid expensive single train tickets. With a cost-saving Eurail Pass – good for travel in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the rail option often trumps bus services with faster connections, more comfort and cinematic off-road scenery. Visit Ireland with Eurail.

Ireland with Eurail | Explore Ireland's castles

Ireland with Eurail | Explore Ireland’s castles

Getting to the island

By plane

Among the British Isles, England is easily reached from the continent by taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel (Channel Tunnel). Those heading to Ireland must rely on air or ferry options. Budget airline Ryanair connects Dublin, Cork, and Shannon with many gateway cities, and a surprisingly number of smaller towns, throughout continental Europe.

From the U.S., major airlines such as Aer Lingus and Delta Airlines offer nonstop flights to Dublin from San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, and several other major cities.

By boat

Despite the thrifty allure of budget air travel, there’s no question about my favorite way to arrive in the Emerald Isle: by boat. Make sure to check out possible Eurail Pass Holder discounts on Irish ferry travel here. Foot passenger discounts on Irish Ferries, for instance, are a generous 30%.

To/from England and Wales

At the end of a whirlwind two-week adventure through Republic of Ireland that included a coastal hike on the famed Ring of Kerry, my travel trio boarded the 3.5 hour StenaLine ferry crossing from Cork to Fishguard, Wales. By dinnertime, we were eating steaming pasties and drinking Double Dragon Ale in a creaky old pub where we bedded down for the night. The next day, a British National Rail train brought us to London.

From Dublin, SailRail crosses to Holyhead, Wales in 3 hours starting from 39 euros. There are easy train connections to the rest of the UK. StenaLine ferries also connect England with Northern Ireland, with an 8 hour crossing from Liverpool to Belfast.

To/from France

Two French ports that connect to Ireland can be easily reached from Paris by SNCF trains. From Roscoff on the Brittany coast, bunk down in cozy cabins on the posh Oscar Wilde ferry and arrive at Rosslare in the morning. Eurail Pass Holders get a 30% discount – find out more. Expect a fully decked-out ship. As you cross the Celtic Sea, sip cocktails during a cabaret show named in homage to the rebellious Irish playwright. The Oscar Wilde also connects Rosslare from Cherbourg on the Normandy Coast of France. Check for schedules and route details. From Rosslare, use your Eurail Pass to reach Dublin’s Connolly Station by train in about 3 hours.

Alternatively, Brittany Ferries takes the seas from Cork to Roscoff on weekends between March and November. Sail from Roscoff in the evening, enjoy langoustines and a glass of Pinot Blanc on the fetching ship Pont-Aven, and arrive in Cork just after breakfast. Brittany Ferries is not discounted with the Eurail Pass.

Major train routes in Ireland with Eurail

Within the Republic of Ireland

Travelers intent on hiking the lush countryside and venturing into cozy village pubs in search of a céilí  (traditional Gaelic folk music and dancing) may need to supplement their rail pass with other forms of transport. But it’s possible to use rail to cover the longer trips between many of the country’s major destinations. This includes the must-see trio of Dublin, Cork, and Galway. Explore the charming Dingle Peninsula, where the Irish language is widely spoken and traditional music and dance thrives. To do so, take the train to Tralee or Killarney and transfer by bus to Dingle and surrounding villages.

From Dublin to Northern Ireland

There’s a high-speed train running frequently between Dublin Connolly Station and Belfast in just over 2.5 hours. Travelers based in Dublin can easily take an overnight excursion to this revitalized Northern Ireland capital. In Belfast, don’t miss an evening stroll through the vibrant pubs of the Cathedral Quarter. Here the haunting sounds of fiddle, bagpipe, banjo and guitar spill into the streets. The neighborhood’s transformation from dilapidated slum to thriving mecca for traditional Irish music speaks to the city’s newly energized, forward-thinking spirit.

Scenic itineraries

Dublin to Galway

You’ve toured Dublin’s Trinity College, marveled at the Book of Kells, and quaffed a pint or three of Guinness in Temple Bar. Now it’s time to head to the mythic West Coast. Keep in mind that it’s only when making this journey by train that you’ll cross the historic iron railway bridge over the River Shannon. After twisting along the coast of gorgeous Galway Bay, you’ll wind up in what many consider the loveliest and “most Irish” of the island’s cities, Galway. The train station in centrally-located Eyre Square is an easy walk to excellent dining and lodging options for all budgets.

Ireland with Eurail | Dublin’s famed Trinity College

Ireland with Eurail | Dublin’s famed Trinity College

Cork to Cobh

Head to boisterous Cork, Ireland’s second largest city, for a proper Irish pub crawl. Don’t miss Sin é, Irish for “That’s it”. You can also take a day trip to the rugged peninsulas and sailing coves of gorgeous West Cork, home to atmospheric old estates such as Bantry House. One of Cork’s many best-kept secrets remains its proximity – only 24 minutes by train – to Cobh. This was the final, ill-fated departure point of the Titanic’s 1912 sea voyage. From Cork’s Kent Station, feel free to stop off at Fota Wildlife Park before Cobh’s postcard-perfect skyline comes into view. Snap a photo of the dramatic cathedral spire towering above multicolored terraced houses, all nestled snugly against the sailboat-dotted harbor.

Ireland with Eurail | Cliffs of Moher

Ireland with Eurail | Cliffs of Moher

From Belfast: Londonderry to Coleraine

Among the most beautiful train journeys in the world, this route winds up Northern Ireland’s rugged Causeway Coast to Londonderry. It’s a 6th century walled city that makes a good overnight base from which to explore the wild Atlantic seascape.

Near Coleraine, brave the cliff-top rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede or tour the Bushmill’s Distillery and medieval Dunluce Castle. From Coleraine, Ulsterbus offers easy return bus services to the mythic Giant’s Causeway or Cúil Rathain, Irish for “nook in the ferns”. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors come to marvel at the ancient ruins of castles and churches set against a striking landscape of cliffs, beaches and more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.

Ireland with Eurail | Cobh houses

Ireland with Eurail | Cobh houses, Ireland

Good to know: Iarnrod Eireann, otherwise known as Irish Railways, runs the trains in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, it’s Northern Ireland Railways.

Find out more about Ireland by train.