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How to spend a weekend in Limerick

The Irish county is finally on the up — with revamped country piles and a thriving food scene, not least the beauty of its emerald-coloured landscapes

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:14 BST
Dry stone walls outside Kilrush, County Clare
Dry stone walls outside Kilrush, County Clare
Photograph by Getty

“Limerick is on the turn,” says Niall Sloane, Dean of St Mary’s. Within the soaring walls of this 12th-century cathedral, the Dean reveals hidden treasures: cannonballs from the 1691 Siege of Limerick and a tiny opening in a wall known as a leper’s squint, once used to pass Communion to sufferers, but he isn’t referring to these prized pieces. He’s talking up his city.

Despite being the third-largest in Ireland, Limerick has found it tricky to shed old stereotypes of crime, grit and Angela’s Ashes. But the forgotten child of Irish cities is changing. Across the road, a mural depicting Sionna, goddess of the River Shannon, brightens up the end of a grey terrace. A short walk away, King John’s Castle is sitting pretty after a multimillion euro reboot, and a new microbrewery is set to open on Nicholas Street.

The city feels cosy; then heaves into life as the home of Munster rugby. It’s small enough to walk around in a couple of hours; big enough for an expanding university and chic hotels like One Pery Square, or the new Bedford Townhouse. After years of gloom, a ‘Limerick 2030’ plan has earmarked wasted spaces like the old Cleeve’s toffee factory for regeneration. A thriving food scene has spilled from the Milk Market into small businesses like Canteen and La Cucina. “My children will be living in a very different Limerick,” says columnist and tour guide Olivia O’Sullivan.

Beyond the city, County Limerick is a beautiful, windswept patchwork of green that borders the Shannon Estuary. Whether you opt to stay in the city or the country, the county’s fascinating history is never far away, from Ireland’s largest stone circle to curious little museums.

Denis O’Connor at Old Irish Ways
Photograph by Pól Ó Conghaile

Old Irish ways

“Is it a labour of love?” I ask Denis O’Connor. He’s showing me around the Old Irish Ways Museum near Bruff in Caherguillamore. “It’s a disease,” he laughs. Over the past decade, this retired farmer has built an entire museum from scratch in his back garden. Exhibits range from a rebuilt ‘bar without beer’ to old phones, railway signals and grocery packaging. It feels strange at first, but the nostalgia soon proves seductive.

Lake of legends

‘Every seven years, so it’s said, Gur demands the heart of a human being.’ So writes Mary Carbery in her 1930s memoir, The Farm by Lough Gur. People have lived around this extraordinary lake, steeped in folklore, for some 6,000 years, and you can’t turn a corner without stumbling on a stone circle, Neolithic settlement, hill fort or a medieval castle. Summer solstice and October storytelling festivals are sweet times to visit.

Food, glorious food

A foodie crossroads since 1852, Limerick’s Milk Market is a hive of hipster and heritage flavours on Saturdays. Follow a visit with a cup of locally roasted Anam coffee at the Green Onion Café, a local lunch box at Canteen or a gastro pub meal overlooking the water at the Curragower. 1826 Adare, serving contemporary Irish food in a chic cottage, is worth a detour too.   

Three to try: Standout stays

Adare Manor, Adare
Is this Ireland’s best five-star hotel? With its Hogwarts-worthy Gallery, Tom Fazio-designed golf course and cocktail bar by London’s David Collins Studio, a huge investment has flung Adare Manor into the stratosphere. All this comes at a cost, though, so off-season stays or afternoon tea are  ways to score luxury for less.

The Bedford Townhouse, Limerick
A city stay in a former clothing factory: Peter and Denise Brazil teamed up with local designer Tullio Orlandi to create this 12-bedroom townhouse with local flourishes ranging from its needle-and-thread logo to moody heritage monochromes and Ponaire coffee. Bang in the city centre, it’s perfect for couples, or a rugby weekend away.

The Mustard Seed, Ballingarry
This country house hotel, which sits atop a hill, gives visitors a warm welcome — there’s a roaring fire and a deep blue dining room where their modern Irish makes use of the produce from the organic kitchen gardens. From sash windows to a clutter of thank-you cards on the mantelpiece, it feels like stepping into another era.

Photograph by Adare Manor

Eyewitness: Swift as the wind

I’m following in Taylor Swift’s footsteps. It’s not normally how I travel, but tweeting for suggestions before a trip to Limerick, I was tipped off to the Knight’s Walk: a short, two-and-a-half-mile trail starting by the gates of Glin Castle. Apparently, Swift and her boyfriend stayed here last Christmas, and took a romantic stroll around this sweet little circuit. And now here I am, passing a fairy garden, a freshly dug badger’s set and a misty forest as I scale the gentle elevation towards a view over the Shannon Estuary and a lush quilt of west coast farmland.

The Swift connection’s just the first of several surprises along the Shannon Estuary Way, an 87-mile route linking Tarbert with Kilrush in County Clare. After a quick slice of sideways rain reminds me that I’m on the blustery Wild Atlantic Way, I hop into the car and follow the N69 towards Foynes. Here, the Flying Boat Museum evokes an unlikely chapter in transatlantic aviation — a brief period during the Second World War when Boeing 314 Clippers landed on the river. “We’re just a village, but we were the centre of the world once,” the guide tells me, sharing stories of passengers including JFK and Humphrey Bogart, who paid up to $10,000 a ticket, flew overnight via Newfoundland and woke up onboard to find their shoes freshly shined.

Moving towards Askeaton, I travel further back in time. “Welcome to the second-oldest town in Ireland,” says Anthony Sheehy, the 77-year-old butcher-turned-tour guide who greets me. He walks me around the 12th-century castle that lords it over the River Deel. Anthony points out the marks of medieval wickerwork in its ceiling vaults,and marvel at the old banqueting hall. Nearby, the superbly preserved cloisters of a ruined Franciscan friary are so moody you could imagine ghostly monks even in the summer sun.

From Limerick, the Estuary Way doglegs west past Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, brushing though County Clare towards Kilrush. I don’t think Taylor Swift made it this far, but hey — that’s all the more reason for her to return.

Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly direct from airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh to Shannon, just a 20-minute drive from Limerick, from £36 one-way.

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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