Replete with natural beauty, the Barrow Navigation boasts an undeniable allure. But beyond its outdoor charms, you’ll find a part of the island packed with amazing things to do from intriguing castle tours to whiskey big-hitters…
The understated beauty of the landscape, the quiet charm of the towns and villages, and the sleepy flow of the river – the relaxed pastoral charm of the River Barrow belies a destination that is fizzing with incredible things to do. Hidden within the green folds of the landscape here is a history that will captivate the imagination, gardens that are among the most picturesque in Europe and mysterious ancient sites that speak of past civilisations. This is a part of the island that wears its treasures close to its chest, but seek them out and you'll be well rewarded. From a soul-stirring Famine ship experience to delightful little craft whiskey distilleries, along the Barrow and beyond, you'll find secrets, stories and a stunning amount of history. Start things off with a walking tour of Carlow town, taking in the Delta Sensory Gardens, Visual art gallery and the county museum before pushing south along the river to explore sumptuous castles, glorious gardens and great visitor attractions
Borris House - borrishouse.ie
With its exuberant interiors, Tudor-Gothic style exterior and vast estate, with views that stretch over extensive park, farm and woodland, Borris House is an undeniable beauty. Delve a little into the history of what is the ancestral home of the McMorrough Kavanaghs, former kings of Leinster, and you'll find an intriguing cast of characters whose paintings line the walls of the drawing room, along with a history that dates back to 1731. A popular wedding destination in summer, the house is open for tours at specific times, and is well worth exploring in the company of a guide, who can give you insights into everything from the castle's architecture to its lace industry, founded by Lady Harriet Kavanagh during the Great Famine.
Huntington Castle - huntingtoncastle.com
A fascinating slice of eccentricity in one of the most beautiful pockets of County Carlow, Huntington Castle is one of a kind. Still lived in by the original descendants, the castle tour here gives an fascinating insight into one of the most unique family homes in all of Ireland. From the lavishly decorated rooms to the mind-blowing temple, and the Egyptian goddess ISIS that occupies the basement, Huntington will most definitely leave you with a smile on your face. After your tour, stroll the gardens before relaxing in the tea rooms. And if you like it so much you don't want to leave, you don't have to! Huntington also offers B&B accommodation so you too, can call the castle home, if even for a night or two.
Altamont Gardens - heritageireland.ie
Pick an early morning before the crowds arrive and Altamont feels like the ultimate sylvan paradise, with fluffy-tailed rabbits, a rainbow of flowers and gorgeous walks by glassy lakes, rivers and streams. Formal and informal gardens mix together seamlessly, resulting in a natural space that is utterly enchanting. Whether you visit in snowdrop-sprinkled early spring or during the russet-coloured drapery of autumn, Altamont will charm you with its beauty. Walk through the oak woods down the granite steps to the River Slaney where you might spot an otter, before winding your way up to the Temple of the Four Winds, created by the last owner of the gardens, Corona North.
Brownshill Dolmen - carlowtourism.com
Sitting unassumingly just off the R726 road, the Brownshill Dolmen feels like a piece of the past catapulted to the present. Standing in front of it, it's impossible not to be awed by its sheer size and weight – after all, this is thought to be the biggest dolmen in Ireland with a capstone that weighs over 100 tonnes. Its date of construction reaches back between 4,900 and 5,500 years ago, and it's believed that religious rites were performed here back in prehistoric times. Stand, admire and trigger your imagination.
Duckett's Grove - carlowgardentrail.com
Nestled down country lanes and rising out of the pale, tawny-coloured fields of what was once a 12,000-acre estate, Duckett's Grove is an imposing sight in County Carlow. This vast, ruined 19thcentury house with its tower and turrets and a murder of crows circling above, feels almost eerie, so it's no surprise to find that it's filled with tales of curses and banshees. Visit during the day, though, and what you'll find is an amazing shell of a building (it was destroyed by a fire in the 1930s) that feels like a broken fairytale. Take a walk around the restored walled gardens and pleasure grounds, before popping into the lovely tea rooms that serve cakes, snacks and lunches.
Delta Sensory Gardens - deltasensorygardens.com
Rated the top thing to do in Carlow town by users of TripAdvisor, Delta Sensory Gardens offers a lush retreat from the buzz of the town. It's a delightful place to spend a morning, wandering amongst the 16 interconnecting gardens and being transfixed by the water features, including the incredible Kugal – one tonne of pink marble that rests on a cushion of water. Whimsical, quirky and inspiring, you'll find everything from a giant chess board, to a thistle fountain to a roof garden that offers great views over the 2.5-acre site. Best of all, the gardens are fully accessible for people of all abilities.
Carlow County Museum - carlowmuseum.ie
Set within Carlow town's vibrant Cultural Quarter and housed in the former Presentation Convent, the Carlow County Museum is a small and interesting museum that most definitely holds your interest. With four galleries, there's a good amount to explore from unusual artefacts to mind-blowing fossils, including a 340-million-year-old squid. Particularly impressive is the 19th century hand-carved pulpit from Carlow Cathedral, which soars to over 100ft tall and is made entirely of oak. Keep an eye out, too, for the original gallows' trapdoor from Carlow Gaol, used in the 19th century for public executions.
Carlow Brewing Company - carlowbrewing.com
Carlow takes its craft beer seriously, and this is in no small part thanks to the Carlow Brewing Company, a leading light on the craft brewing scene since the mid-90s. Fancy getting the inside track on Ireland's brewing history, the brewing process and O'Hara's craft beers? Book yourself in for one of the weekly tours (by prior appointment only), which take place every Friday at 2pm.
Royal Oak Distillery - royaloakdistillery.com
Set on a refined 18th century estate filled with green fields, quiet waters and the elegant Holloden House (1755), the Royal Oak Distillery is one of the largest operational whiskey distilleries in Ireland. Want to know more about whiskey? This is a great place to start as the tour here offers a chance to see how three styles of Irish whiskey – pot still, malt and grain – are created. Best of all, there's a tasting afterwards, too.
The VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art - visualcarlow.ie
In the heart of Carlow town, VISUAL presents a contemporary architectural counterpoint for both Carlow College's 19thcentury building and Carlow Cathedral, which sits opposite to it. Gleaming with stark simplicity, it's an arresting sight, which only becomes more impressive when you step inside and discover the vast white space used for housing large-scale contemporary art exhibitions. VISUAL is also home to a 300+ seater theatre, as well as the bright and airy Lemmons restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner.
Carlow Castle - carlowtourism.com
Woven into the fabric of Carlow town, Carlow Castle stands close to the banks of the River Barrow, just off Bridge Street. Believed to have been built by William de Marshal in the early 13th century, it stands testament to the importance of Carlow as a one-time military fortress and was repeatedly attacked in the 17th century. While now sadly a ruin, the castle boasts an interesting history and was nearly turned into an asylum in the 19th century by a local physician, who ended up blasting through the interior and destroying the eastern section of the building.
Dunbrody Famine Ship and Irish Emigrant Experience - dunbrody.com
Standing below deck on the Famine Ship don't be surprised if the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This impressive ship may be a reconstruction of an 1840s' emigrant vessel, but the darkness, the cold, the claustrophobia and the creaking floorboards feel entirely real. Excellent for kids, the experience brings history to life with costumed performers and informative guides, while in the visitor centre a detailed exhibition traces the history of Irish emigration. Moving, revealing and memorable, it's well worth a visit.