After reviewing 12 general travel guidebooks on Ireland from publishers that included Insights Guides, Moon Guides, Fodor’s, Frommers, Lonely Planet, National Geographic, DK Eyewitness, Michelin and Rick Steves our team has come up with our Top 3 General Guidebooks and our #1 pick for specialty guidebooks for 2018.
INVEST IN A GOOD GUIDEBOOK – If you think about how much a guidebook costs- $20-$25, that’s the cost of a nice lunch in Ireland. One guidebook can make such a difference in planning your tour and enriching the experience once you’re at a sight. Do yourself a favor and pick up a guidebook or two before you take your trip. We’ve also got links for Books to read before you go to Ireland and Best recommendations for maps and apps.
#1 Rick Steves Ireland 2018
Rick is still our #1 choice and it’s not surprising that he is the #1 guidebook author in the world. His Ireland guide is the #2 best-selling guide on Ireland listed by Amazon (#1 is Lonely Planet’s 2018 guide – our #2). We like Rick’s Ireland guide because it’s the best book about general Ireland stuff with in-depth information on the sites covered. Because Rick Steves is a historian, his commentary on sites that he does cover is so thorough and rich, which makes the visiting experience so much more meaningful. His commentary on Dingle alone is worth the price of the book. He writes as if he is right there with the visitor, leading and guiding the tour. He also offers excellent commentary on the Burren, Galway and a near 40-page chapter on Irish history, language, and slang. All of Rick’s guidebooks are updated every single year.
We’re also excited that our friends – and favorite guides Dingle – Kevin O’Shea and Claire Glavin of Celtic Nature Walking Tours – are featured in Rick’s Dingle section. Kevin is also featured in episode 5 of our Thin Places Travel Podcast
Another perk of this book is that there is a pull-out map in the back. Several guidebooks have maps included but this book has the country map on one side and then a blow-up of 5 cities including Galway, Dublin, Belfast, Derry and Dingle AND the map can be used while still attached to the book, so it can be kept with the guidebook and not lost.
What we don’t like is that if Rick doesn’t like the site, he doesn’t include it. So you may want to look up a particular site and find that it’s not included. But the quality of what he does include is too good to not have the book. So a second guidebook that more like an encyclopedia (covers almost all of the sites) is needed. Which is why we recommend the next two books from Frommers and Lonely Planet.
Rick Steves Ireland 2018 is worth the $23.99 retail price just for the commentary on Dingle, Galway, Belfast and the Burren, which is no wonder it is rated #1 in Amazon’s travel books on Ireland for general interest. It’s also rated (today 3/25/18) as #479 in ALL books listed on Amazon (estimated to be in the millions). If you follow the consumer, this is the book people are buying.
#2 Lonely Planet’s Ireland Guide
Personally, I love Lonely Planet’s publications and love Fionn Davenport (one of their Ireland writers) even more. This guide is included in our Top 3 not because it’s more comprehensive than any other guide, but because of the uncluttered, organized and casual layout Lonely Planet guides offer. Their books are simple and easy to use. This book also features a Top 21 site list and a First Time in Ireland section, maps, suggested itineraries and a section on The Great Outdoors. In years past, Fionn Davenport offered such a unique, casual style – a great storyteller. Though the editors have tightened up on his entertaining, casual commentary, Fionn’s style still shines through. This is still the first guidebook I reach for when looking up sites in Ireland.
#3 Frommer’s Guide to Ireland 2018
Before this year, we weren’t big fans of Frommer’s. But they’ve outdone themselves with this year’s guide to Ireland. There’s great information about the country, the culture and what to expect as well as a comprehensive listing of most interesting general sites throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland. It’s both comprehensive and diverse with suggested itineraries, maps and a whole section with the “Best of…” lists including Best Castle, Best Natural Wonders, Best Literary sites and Best Museums. This guidebook has serious “personal” appeal. It seems they’ve written it in a “peer perspective” rather than an authoritative perspective. It’s what people want these days .. the personal recommendation of peers. The book also has a compact, tear-out map that has a “town key” so you can easily locate the region of most towns. This would be our #2 recommendation for a comprehensive (all inclusive guide) to Ireland.
#1 Specialty Guide – Sacred Ireland, by Cary Meehan (out of print – but available on Amazon from Used book dealers – pricey but worth it)
It’s not often that we highly recommend an out of print book, but this year a buyer can at least obtain a used copy from book dealers out there. Even though the copies run $60 and above, this is the best resource for thin places and sacred sites of high energy. Last year there were none to be had. If you can snag a readable copy of this for under $100, do it. It reads like a guidebook with the sites grouped in counties and provinces with a map for each county showing the approximate location of the sacred sites. Even the smallest stone circles, standing stones, and holy wells are mentioned. It was in this book that we found The Giant’s Ring in Belfast (not mentioned in any guidebooks I’ve seen), and it’s an amazing site – a large dolmen set into an earth-work ring that now serves as a public park just outside the city center. The majority of the sacred sites and megaliths in this book are not listed in any guidebooks or on maps. It would take someone years to pull together a list like this. Cary Meehan also writes from a mystical perspective so those seeking the thin places will greatly appreciate her commentary and includes directions (I never depend on these, but they’re a good estimation). If you love thin places, this guidebook is a gold mine. Grab a copy while you can.
Ireland Travel 101 by Pat Preston
If you ever wanted to pick the brain of an expert on travel to Ireland, you’ll enjoy this book by Pat Preston. For years she worked for the Irish Tourist Board and later had her own tour operation bringing visitors from America to Ireland. Sadly, Pat has passed away, but she left a worthy legacy in this guidebook. She begins the book with all the tips and information people want to know – how electricity works, how to get around, how to plan your trip, what to take… then she highlights various regions offering her personal recommendations for attractions, accommodations and food based on years of experience. I love the sections “If You Have More Time” as options for attractions and sites that are somewhat off the radar. I could do a whole trip with just those recommendations. A very worthy book to have in any travel library.
Ireland from the Mysterious World series, by Ian Middleton
This book is similar to Cary Meehan’s Sacred Ireland in that his lists megaliths and places of mystery. Ian Middleton is a great historian and has laid out the book well. There are also color photographs of the sites which are fabulous. The sites are laid out according to counties so it’s easy to pick add on sites in an area based on what the inventory is. This book offers a good inventory of mystical places. Where Cary Meehan focuses on the mystical nature of a site, Ian Middleton (in this book) focuses on the site’s connection to Ireland’s legendary past.
Rick Steves’ Snapshot – Northern Ireland
Though we love Rick Steves, we’re rating his Snapshot of Northern Ireland as a Guidebook DUD not because it’s content isn’t valuable, but because the title is misleading. Rick’s “snapshot” books are merely sections lifted out of the full guidebook so people who only want a small portion can have just that piece of the book. In this case, there just isn’t enough representing this small country of Northern Ireland, and the content pretty much follows how the Irish Tourist Board markets Northern Ireland – Derry and the Antrim Coast with a little of Belfast for good measure.
There are four of six counties left out of this guidebook. It mirrors exactly what the Irish Tourist board (the Republic of Ireland) markets about Northern Ireland. There is so much more. It might have been better to do a “northern snapshot” and included Donegal and Sligo.
To be fair, the content Rick includes on the history of Northern Ireland and the difference in countries, government and currency is valuable. But one could get that same information in most guidebooks – and on Rick’s blog.
Here are more books to read before you travel to Ireland. This is the second post in a series and picks up from the first batch of book suggestions. These books will help you understand the Irish culture, history and landscape. They are especially helpful in discovering more about Irish mythology and the sacred landscape.
Ireland by Frank Delaney
In the winter of 1951, a storyteller, the last practitioner of an honored, centuries-old tradition, arrives at the home of nine-year-old Ronan O’Mara in the Irish countryside. For three wonderful evenings, the old gentleman enthralls his assembled local audience with narratives of foolish kings, fabled saints, and Ireland’s enduring accomplishments before moving on. But these nights change young Ronan forever, setting him on a years-long pursuit of the elusive, itinerant storyteller and the glorious tales that are no less than the saga of his tenacious and extraordinary isle.
Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
When farmers cutting turf in an Irish peat bog make a grisly discovery — the perfectly preserved head of a young woman with long red hair — Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin must use cutting-edge techniques to preserve ancient evidence. Because the bog’s watery, acidic environment prevents decay, it’s difficult to tell how long the red-haired girl has been buried — two years, two centuries, or even much longer. Who is she? The extraordinary find leads to even more disturbing puzzles.
Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma by Barbara Freitag
Sheela-na-gig iconic figures depicting wild women displaying their genitalia is found throughout Europe, but very prevalent in Ireland. Here Barbara Freitag examines all the literature on the subject since their discovery 160 years ago, highlighting the inconsistencies of the various interpretations in regard to origin, function and name. By considering the Sheela-na-gigs in their medieval social context, she suggests that they were folk deities with particular responsibility for assistance in childbirth.
The Road Taken: A Guide to the Roads and Scenery of Mayo
by Michael Mullen
No one can describe the magic of thin places in County Mayo quite like Castlebar native and author, Michael Mullen. From the Nephin Beg range to Achill and the Céide Fields, this study travels through the gentle and rich landscape of Mayo. Author Michael Mullen shares his wide-ranging knowledge of the county in order to give travelers an understanding of Mayo’s rich history and varied landscapes while he guides them along its roads and through its historical and literary heritage. A driving guide, potted history, and miscellany, this is an invaluable companion for anyone wishing to explore the better and lesser-known attractions of the county and includes a beautiful selection of color photographs.
Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn
King, warrior, and lover Brian Boru was stronger, braver, and wiser than all other men-the greatest king Ireland has ever known. Out of the mists of the country’s most violent age, he merged to lead his people to the peak of their golden era.
Set against the barbaric splendors of the tenth century, this is a story rich in truth and legend-in which friends become deadly enemies, bedrooms turn into battlefields, and dreams of glory are finally fulfilled. Morgan Llywelyn has written one of the greatest novels of Irish history.
In Search of Ancient Ireland, by Carmel McCaffrey
This engaging book traces the history, archaeology, and legends of ancient Ireland from 9000 B.C., when nomadic hunter-gatherers appeared in Ireland at the end of the last Ice Age to 1167 A.D., when a Norman invasion brought the country under control of the English crown for the first time. So much of what people today accept as ancient Irish history—Celtic invaders from Euproe turning Ireland into a Celtic nation; St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland and converting its people to Christianity—is myth and legend with little basis in reality. The truth is more interesting. The Irish, as the authors show, are not even Celtic in an archaeological sense. And there were plenty of bishops in Ireland before a British missionary called Patrick arrived. But In Search of Ancient Ireland is not simply the story of events from long ago.
McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery In Ireland, Pete McCarthy
Despite the many exotic places Pete McCarthy has visited, he finds that nowhere else can match the particular magic of Ireland, his mother’s homeland. In McCarthy’s Bar, his journey begins in Cork and continues along the west coast to Donegal in the north. Traveling through spectacular landscapes, but at all times obeying the rule, “never pass a bar that has your name on it,” he encounters McCarthy’s bars up and down the land, meeting fascinating people before pleading to be let out at four o’clock in the morning. Written by someone who is at once an insider and an outside, McCarthy’s Bar is a wonderfully funny and affectionate portrait of a rapidly changing country.