Whether you’re visiting Lough Derg and Killaloe/Ballina for one, two or three days, we’ve got some great ideas on what to do, see and enjoy!
The pretty town of Killaloe is a treasure chest of great cafés, so deciding where to get a caffeine shot can be a tough call. But the laid-back boho vibes of Ponte Vecchio, just across from St Flannan's Oratory, are hard to resist. Grab a book, sink into a squishy sofa and take it easy over a smooth coffee and soft, fluffy scones. It's just a short walk from here to the Brian Boru Heritage Centre on the edge of the town's 18th century arched bridge. Pop inside and pick up a map for the Historic Town Walk, which weaves around the town's sites of interest, from tiny oratories to places connected to Brian Boru.
You might be hungry after all that walking, so make your next stop Wood and Bell, a gorgeous little café set on the hilly Main Street. The menu may be small – with a concise selection of soup, sandwiches and stews – but much of the produce comes from the café's own walled garden overlooking the lough, and everything is super-fresh.
After lunch, it's time to get out on the water. The Spirit of Killaloe offers daily one-hour tours of the River Shannon and Lough Derg, and is ideal for soaking up the scenery, history and heritage of the area. Feeling adventurous? After the tour, head out to one of the lough's only sandy beaches at Ballycuggaran for a spot of open swimming (bring a wetsuit). If you don't fancy a dip, you can feed the ducks and swans, or take a stroll along the shore. Back in town, head across the arched bridge to the Tuscany Bistro over in Ballina – it serves great Italian cuisine with a large dose of Irish hospitality. Finish the day by enjoying a nightcap in the traditional pub Goosers, with its flagstone floor, wood panelling and whitewashed stone walls.
Heading northeast out of Killaloe/Ballina, it's not long before you're surrounded by the astonishing scenery of Lough Derg. Pause for a while at the viewing point at Portroe, and enjoy the landscape of blues and greens that unfolds before you. From Portroe, the next stop is Nenagh, Tipperary's second largest town and a place famous for its 13th century castle. It's definitely worth taking a tour of the castle – it has the finest keep on the island of Ireland. Climb the 101 steps and you'll soon reach the top where bursts of fresh air and panoramic views make the effort all worthwhile.
Back on the road, a landscape of undulating green fields dotted with cows and sheep will keep you company until you get to the tiny village of Terryglass. Drop into the Derg Inn for lunch – it's a relaxed local favourite and does a good line in soups, stews, sandwiches and daily specials. Just next door sits the ruins of a 6th century monastery, while if you wander down the road towards the harbour, you'll come across the curious Headache Well. Set in a very pretty spot down by a gentle river, the well is said to cure sore heads and migraines – maybe its secret lies in the fact that it's simply a beautiful place to just sit and relax.
Next up is Portumna – you could spend a whole weekend in this lively town and not run out of things to do, but for an afternoon's visit, you'll have to make some choices. One place not to miss out on is The Irish Workhouse Centre, where enthusiastic local guides will open your eyes to the horrors of what was described as "the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland". It would be a real shame, too, to come to Portumna and not see the town's incredible 17th century castle. The exterior has been painstakingly restored by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and boasts Jacobean-style architecture, towers and exquisite gardens. A short stroll from the castle, Portumna Abbey is a medieval Cistercian friary that is in surprisingly good condition and sits close to the scenic marina. Part of the friary was used for Church of Ireland services during the 17th century, and points of interest include beautiful windows, medieval graveslabs and a delicate, partly reconstructed cloister.
Portumna Forest is prime territory for nature-lovers thanks to its wonderful walking trails, bouncy wild deer and views of the lough. You can opt for the short Woodland Trail if you like, but it's worth spending the time enjoying the Rinmaher or Bonaveen walking trails, both around 10km. Stick around Portumna for dinner – you can go upscale at La Bouche or keep things simple with pizza at The Beehive – before heading back to Killaloe/Ballina.
If you're a keen paddle boarder, then a guided tour with Soul SUP along the glassy canal at Killaloe and into the waters of Lough Derg is a must. No experience? Don't panic, you can take a SUP lesson here to get your skills up to scratch along the canal, before heading out onto the open water. It's a beautiful way to spend a morning, gliding past gentle reeds and into the heart of nature. Once you're done, stroll up to the super-cute Wooden Spoon café on Bridge Street and fill up with an indulgent lunch.
Then it's time to get on the road and explore the northwest side of the lough, with the small village of Tuamgraney your first stop. The village, which is neatly set around a smart green, boasts the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland – 10th century St Cronan's. Brian Boru is said to have worshipped here, and its features include cyclopean masonry, a stunning stained-glass window and an ancient doorway. Drop into McKernan Woollen Mills afterwards to browse the warm, woollen creations, before heading to Wilde Irish Chocolates. Over 80 types of chocolates are made at this tiny artisan factory, and visitors are welcome to drop in, taste some chocolates and see where the magic happens.
Next up is the 18th century village of Mountshannon, with its lovely harbour and views of Bushy Island, where a pair of the lough's rare white-tailed eagles reside. The pier at the harbour in Mountshannon is also the place to take a trip out to the 6th century monastic island of Inis Cealtra or Holy Island. The island was a popular place with pilgrims up to the 19th century, and has a fascinating story, including Viking raids during the 9th and 10th centuries and a church built by Brian Boru himself. You can relax and ponder the experience afterwards with a laid-back dinner of tapas, salad or pizza at The Snug in the village.