6 Best Places to Visit in Wicklow, Steeped in History
Co. Wicklow’s attractive landscapes of rolling hills, coastal plains and mountain peaks form the backdrop of some of Ireland’s best historical sites. Often located just an hour south of Dublin, Wicklow’s heritage sites are easily accessible and make for perfect day trips from the Irish capital.
Wicklow’s picturesque, almost magical scenery is home to ancient churches, sprawling mansions and historical arboretum; clues of Wicklow’s rich and ancient history. From the Middle Ages all the way to the 18th century, monks and aristocrats alike were seduced by Wicklow’s beauty. This is their legacy, forming today the best places to visit in Wicklow.
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Essential Tips for Visiting County Wicklow
- Getting Around | Some of the sites are accessible by public transport. Check out Dublin Bus for the bus timetable and Irish Rail for the DART. However, the best way to visit county Wicklow is to rent a car. You can easily do so at Dublin airport.
- Where to Stay | You can decide to stay in Dublin while visiting Wicklow for the day. Read this guide on the best neighborhoods to stay in Dublin for more info. If you plan to hit the road and stay the night in Co. Wicklow, check out the coastal towns of Bray and Wicklow for hotel deals.
- Planning | Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide are the two most comprehensive guides out there to plan your Irish adventure. If you have an interest in historical sites on this side of the country, I recommend taking with you Ireland’s Ancient East | A Guide to Its Historic Treasures.
- Travel Insurance | Don’t forget to buy travel insurance before visiting Ireland. Heymondo has a nifty app to help you get the assistance you need while on the go.
Glendalough Monastic Settlement
At the heart of the Wicklow Mountains lies Glendalough, a picturesque monastic settlement dating from the early Middle Ages. The legend has it that St Kevin founded this holy place. From a noble and wealthy family, Kevin left it all behind him to live as a hermit in the remote and peaceful valley of Glendalough. Here he founded a monastery in the 6th century AD. The site grew as his holiness and miracles attracted numerous followers.
The remains of no fewer than five churches can be found today at the location of what used to be an influential centre of power. One was even a cathedral, and Glendalough had its own diocese before being united to Dublin in the 12th century.
The settlement is dominated by an exceptionally well-preserved, typically Irish round tower reaching for the sky. Round towers first appeared at the time of Viking invasions, built as watchtowers and places of safety by monks. You’ll notice that the only door was placed unusually high above the ground. Once inside the tower with all their treasures, the monks would pull the ladder and pray for the best.
As you wander among the monastic ruins of grey stones, you have to imagine the monks’ individual huts that formed the monastic city surrounding the churches at its centre. Unlike later European confraternities, early Celtic Irish monasteries consisted of individual dwellings. They are now long gone, but the mystical aura of Glendalough remains.
The visit wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the cemetery that lays at the bottom of the tower. Its origin goes back to the foundation of the monastery by St Kevin. While inscriptions on 11th century tombstones have been washed away by time, beautiful examples of 19th century Celtic revival crosses can be admired against the valley’s lush backdrop.
The site of the former monastic city couldn’t indeed be more scenic. It was built at the bottom of a remote and green valley containing two serene lakes. A fitting place for a life of religious contemplation. Boardwalks now lead visitors along the tranquil shore, while more arduous hiking trails lure walkers to the top of the valley with the promise of panoramic views.
You might also be interested in:
– The Best Castles to Visit in Dublin
– Things to Do in Phoenix Park, Dublin | A Guide to Its Historical Treasures
– The Best Things to Do in Waterford, Ireland’s Oldest City
– Tramore, Co. Waterford | An Irish Seaside Town for the Perfect Summer Break
Powerscourt Estate and Gardens
No doubt one of the best places to visit in Wicklow, Powerscourt’s sprawling gardens are the most spectacular you will find in county Wicklow. Dominated by an 18th century mansion built for Richard Wingfield, the first Viscount Powerscourt, the impressive gardens are certainly in keeping with the great sixty-eight room house.
The classic Palladian north front will not betray the gardens’ exuberance at first however. It is only once you have passed through the house and emerged on its south side that the show can finally start.
Visitors are immediately taken by the panoramic view opening up in front of them, the Sugar Loaf Mountain dominating the landscape in the distance. From the back of the house, grand Italianate terraces lead the way down to the romantic Triton Lake where, amongst gentle reeds and water lilies, a fountain sprays water high above the pond.
Near the Triton Lake lies a 100-year-old Japanese garden created in 1908 by the 8th Viscount and Viscountess Powerscourt. A winding path leads visitors through exotic plants and shrubs, Japanese bridges built above a trickling stream. A Pagoda brings the final touch to this amazing world of tranquillity.
Walking around this refined and manicured decor, it is hard to believe that Medieval Wicklow was the scene of continuous fights between Irish clans and the English invaders. In the late 14th century, the O’Toole clan captured the royal castle at Powerscourt and spiked 60 English heads on the gates. The O’Tooles were finally dispossessed of their lands in the early 17th century. They were given to the Wingfield family, loyal servants of the Crown.
The Walled Garden is another highlight of this now glorious estate that can’t be missed. Hidden behind remarkable wrought iron gates, a well-kept garden showcases pastel and colour rich flowers and shrubs. Here you will find “Julia’s Memorial”, a Roman inspired memorial built in honour of the 7th Viscountess by her son and surrounded by vivid flower beds.
Finally, do not miss the great view over the gardens and the house from the Pepperpot Tower. Based on the design of an actual pepperpot owned by the 8th Viscount, the tower stands amongst a large variety of trees and is surrounded by cannons dating back to the time of the Spanish Armada.
Killruddery House and Gardens
Located on the outskirts of Bray, Killruddery House is Wicklow’s hidden gem. The elegant 17th century house, rebuilt in Tudor Revival style during the 1820s, is an architectural jewel standing at the heart of magnificent gardens.
Descendant of a Belgian mercenary who helped William the Conqueror invade England in the 11th century, Lord Brabazon was a powerful ally of the King of England. Sent to Ireland as Tax Collector, he was given the land of Killruddery by Henry VIII as the king disbanded the monastery which owned it.
A large house was built on the land in the 17th century by the Lord Brabazon of the time, also known as the Earl of Meath. Remarkably, the house is still today the property of the same family. Lord John Brabazon, 15th Earl of Meath, lives within these historic walls with his wife and children.
The family house is open to visitors for a guided tour of the ground floor. Telling the unique Brabazon family’s story, the guide ushers the curious through the deep-green paper cladded old library and the drawing room with its exquisite gilded mirror from a Welsh castle. The tour stops in the dining room, watched over by a gallery of family portraits under an elegant plastered ceiling. The tour ends under the ostentatious glass dome of the Orangery, built in 1852 after the fashion of the Crystal Palace in London.
Outside, more is to be discovered. While the Victorian walled gardens operate as an organic farm with pigs, ducks and chicken that will charm any children, the house is surrounded by historic gardens straight out of the best fairy tales.
Killruddery has kept its formal 17th century gardens designed by a disciple of renowned Versailles landscape designer André Le Nôtre. Twin Long Ponds reflecting the sky, tall edges in “Goose’s Foot” pattern leading to solitary statues, and a richly coloured, symmetrical Parterre are just some of the features that are waiting to be explored.
Rare trees from the four corners of the world are to be found behind the gates of Kilmacurragh, south of Wicklow Town. The 17th century arboretum is home to wonderful and peculiar trees of all shapes and sizes, gathered in one place by generations of the Acton family, plant hunters and botanical pioneers. Some specimens are even classified today as endangered.
The property was originally given to Thomas Acton, who came to Ireland as part of Oliver Cromwell’s army. Magnificent gardens complimenting a sumptuous house were then built on the ground of the ancient Saint Mochorog’s abbey, whose monastery had been dissolved by Henry VIII.
The arboretum flourished in the 19th century thanks to the work of siblings Thomas and Janet Acton, who travelled the world to study and collect plants. The acidic soil and mild climate in Kilmacurragh created the perfect environment for their tree collection to thrive. Sadly, the property suffered the death of the Actons’s heirs during WWI and was abandoned in the 1920’s. Kilmacurragh House lies now in ruins, fenced off to keep visitors away.
Fortunately, the Acton’s legacy is today in good hands. The property is now under the care of Glasnevin Botanic Gardens and its treasures are rediscovered. Visitors can wander the arboretum’s winding paths under the shade of formidable trees unseen under our hemisphere. Or they can walk under the broad and mystical canopy of native yew trees placed alongside the former road taken by pilgrims en route to Glendalough.
A tranquil pond surrounded by beds of vivid flowers, exuberant Robinsonian-style wild gardens of exotic plants and even a rare giant sequoia are waiting to be discovered in this secret Wicklow garden. Kilmacurragh also has the largest collection of Himalayan rhododendrons in Europe. In April, they carpet the ground with a thin layer of pink petals worthy of the best fairy tales, turning this lesser known arboretum in one of the best places to visit in Wicklow.
Mount Usher Gardens
North of Wicklow Town lie Mount Usher Gardens, one of the best examples of Robinson-style gardens in Ireland. Created on the site of a former mill in the 1860s, Mount Usher owes its existence to Edward Walpole, a Dublin businessman, and his family after him.
For 115 years, principles of Ireland’s most famous gardener, William Robinson, influenced the layout of this magnificent garden. You’ll find no symmetrically organised and geometrically shaped flower beds in Mount Usher. Instead, trees, shrubs and flowers grow harmoniously, complementing each other and the landscape. Nature is not to be conquered in Mount Usher, but merely imitated.
The garden is now the property of Mrs Madelaine Jay who chose to have it maintained organically, and leased to Avoca Handweavers. With around 5,000 species of plants and trees, the garden’s eight hectares are a playground for botanic enthusiasts. If, like me, you can’t tell a birch from a cedar, do not worry. A map of Mount Usher will guide you through the narrow garden paths, indicating the name of each tree as you stroll along under their canopy.
As the garden follows the River Vartry, visitors are inevitably drawn to the path running alongside the water. Crossing from one bank of the river to the other is made possible by suspension bridges. Do not panic though, these are sturdy enough and will not swing as you walk across the river. Au contraire, they make for a great spot for an interrupted view over the river and the lush vegetation striving in this formidable historic garden.
Found near the historical town of Blessington, Russborough House is one of Ireland’s finest examples of 18th century Palladian manor houses inspired by classical Roman architecture. The house’s cubic shape and perfectly symmetrical dimensions with colonnades extending like a bird’s wings on each side of the main building are a real treat for the eye.
The house, set against the magnificent backdrop of the Wicklow Mountains, was built by Joseph Leeson. In 1741, at the death of his father, a wealthy Dublin brewer and property speculator, Joseph remained the sole heir of a massive fortune. He hired renowned architect Richard Cassels to design his new country house. Meanwhile, he travelled to Italy to acquire an impressive collection of artworks to furnish it.
Made 1st Earl of Milltown in 1763, Leeson then had a house to reflect his new social standing. The lavish Baroque and Rococo interiors contrast with the neat, classical facade. Throughout the house, intricate decorative plasterwork, sleek marble chimneys, exquisite pieces of period furniture and fine paintings are on show under ceilings of impressive heights.
As visitors walk through the seven rooms that constitute the house’s main floor, they uncover the life of the rich and famous of Irish society. From the Dining Room to the Saloon, Russborough House radiates the wealth and confidence of members of the Irish upper class. We catch a glimpse of past private recitals played on antique pianos as we passed through the Music Room. The Library’s dark wooden shelves filled with books evoke the image of quiet winter evenings reading on the old, tired sofa by the fireplace.
The house remained in the Milltown family until 1931. Bought by Captain Denis Daly, it was then sold in 1952 to British millionaires and art collectors Sir Alfred Beit and his wife. The Beits established the Alfred Beit Foundation in 1976 to preserve and open the house to the public.
From medieval churches to 18th century mansions, picturesque county Wicklow has a lot of historical sites to explore. Often located just under an hour from Dublin, they are easy to get to and make for great day trips outside the capital. It would be a real pity to miss them. While you are there, don’t forget to check out the best hidden gems in Dublin and dive into the city’s heritage and culture.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.