One of the best things about travelling is getting away from the main touristy sights, and finding hidden gems wherever you go. I couldn’t have picked a better place, because Dublin, Ireland and Europe are certainly full of them, so here are my top places that you should go if you’re trying to see something that probably doesn’t have its own Instagram hashtag.
Unlike the big cities of London, Paris or Rome, Dublin feels a lot like everywhere is off the beaten track. The entire city feels cosy with its Georgian Architecture, rich history, pubs and interesting laneways to get lost in. One of my favourite things to do was finding a quiet corner in St Stephen’s Green to sit for lunch, or hiring a bike a riding around Phoenix Park on the edge of the city centre which is the home of the President of Ireland, American Ambassador and a herd of wild deer.
The four corners of Ireland are full of magical sights from the Giant’s Causeway in the North to the Cliffs of Moher and Connemara in the West and mountains of Dublin in the east. But there is one special place that I feel in love with, and that was The South. I was lucky to have a good friend Rachel who drove us on a long weekend road trip down to Counties Cork and Kerry. It was such an incredible time, the jazz festival was on in Cork so every street and pub was alive with swinging music and a visit to Blarney castle was necessary with its beautiful gardens, and of course to kiss the Blarney Stone. But the real magic was in Killarney National Park with its lakes and waterfalls and the ring of Kerry where we climbed a 1200 year old stone fort, passed ruined castles and saw the most spectacular sunset over the Atlantic. The Ring of Kerry is rated as one of the most scenic drives in the world and it was truly an unforgettable place, with barely another soul in sight. It’s so remote that it is even designated as part of An Gaeltachta, the areas in rural Ireland where Irish is still spoken by some as their primary language.
Rumour has it on a good day you can look east across the Irish Sea from Dublin and see Wales. If you keep gazing east you have all of Europe at your beck and call and with the beauty that is Ryanair a weekend to Europe can be cheaper than a cup of coffee (flights to Paris, Brussels or Cologne were sometimes literally 5 euro). But that’s so cliché, so when we were looking at where to travel instead of studying during study leave my good friend Ben sought out the little Baltic nation of Estonia. This is a magical place where 70% of the population believes that trees have spirits, and is home to one of the best preserved medieval town centres in the capital Tallinn. We went in winter so there was pristine snow everywhere and the most beautiful Christmas Market in the world set up in the town square. Other favourite places to explore were the Maritime Museum where you could climb inside a submarine and man an anti-aircraft gun, the KGB prison cells from the era of Soviet occupation, and a 14th century restaurant with delicacies such as boar, elk and bear. But if you want to get even more off the beaten track than that then I highly recommend a day trip to the Lahemaa National Park where we walked on boardwalks across untouched frozen bogs and through snow covered forests, and explored an abandoned Soviet submarine base and stately manors. And if you’re looking for a good night out, sign up for Kongo’s Epic bar crawl for an unforgettable night of fun, we even ended up getting free entry to a concert of the famous Estonia hip-hop group PTLN.
So again I have to shout out to Ben for coming up with the craziest ideas of places to go for a weekend away, because while most people look east to the Continent, there are few who dare turn their backs to head off the edge of Europe to the west. And so I found myself in Reykjavik, Iceland. And what a whirlwind adventure it was. Reykjavik was filled with colourful houses, quirky shops, museums and the iconic Hallsgrimkirkja church. The whole country has less people than Wellington, and 80% of them live in Reykjavik so the rest of the country was entirely deserted with breath-taking and spectacular scenery. We hired a car and went far beyond the tour bus routes to huge waterfalls, glaciers and black sand beaches, and camped in the car under the stars gazing at the Northern Lights. It was the road trip of a lifetime, and if you ever find yourself in Iceland the top spots are the Reynisfjara Beach (aim for sunset it was spectacular), the Svartifoss and Gullfoss waterfalls and Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It was an unforgettable experience and probably the highlight of my entire exchange! So there you go, a few places that I thought were pretty cool and you should check out if you ever find yourself in that part of the world!