Unique Things to Do in Carlingford, Ireland + Top Tips to Visit
A fortified stronghold at the northern tip of the Pale, Carlingford was the new frontier for 12th century Anglo-Norman invaders. Remains of a fortress, fortified town houses and even a gate house are evidence of the constant threat the new settlers were facing as they fought local Irish clans. Fortunately for us, the risk of being hit by an arrow is very low now in Carlingford.
With its colourful pubs, numerous restaurants and medieval heritage, Carlingford has evolved to become one of the prettiest towns on Ireland’s East coast. Its geographic location on the shore of Carlingford Lough and at the foot of Slieve Foye has also helped turn the little town into a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
You shouldn’t just whizz through the town, however. There are unique things to do in Carlingford that would keep you busy for a few days and more. From guided tours to hillwalking, let me tell you what’s on offer in this charming Irish town, and my tips to plan your visit.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.
Best Resources to Plan Your Visit to Carlingford
- Getting There | Try Skyscanner, a powerful search engine to find the best flight deals to Dublin or Belfast. For bus tickets to Carlingford, book on buseirann.ie if travelling from the Republic, or Translink for your journey from Belfast. I recommend Discover Cars if you opt to rent a car instead.
- Where to Stay | Check booking.com for the best deals on accommodation, or read the latest reviews on TripAdvisor.
- Planning | Lonely Planet Ireland is one of my favourite guides. For an extensive list of things to see in Ireland, I recommend getting The Rough Guide to Ireland.
- 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.
Where is Carlingford
Located on the Cooley Peninsula in Louth, the Republic of Ireland’s north easternmost county, the colourful little town of Carlingford has been lying on the southern shores of Carlingford Lough for centuries. Deriving from the Scandinavian name Kerlingfjörðr meaning “narrow sea-inlet of the hag”, its actual name is in itself evidence of its ancient past going back at least to the 9th century, when the Vikings were raiding the Irish coast, if not further.
Slieve Foye, the highest mountain on the peninsula, towers at nearly 600 metres above the medieval town. At the mountain’s foot, a few houses have taken root on the slope, eager to take advantage of the stunning sea view over the lough. At its summit, low-hanging clouds drift eastward, slowly revealing the pine forest clinging to the mountain’s side.
Carlingford’s geographic location between the sea and mountains has turned the town into a popular outdoor destination. From sea cruise to hillwalking, the town attracts hikers, hillwalkers and nature lovers. Add medieval architectural gems from its past as an Anglo-Norman stronghold, and Carlingford becomes one of the most charming towns on Ireland’s East coast.
How to Get to Carlingford
Carlingford railway station closed in the 1950s, and the former Station House has found a new life as the town’s tourist information centre. Therefore, today the road is your only option to get to Carlingford.
Getting to Carlingford from Dublin
If you decide to travel by bus, be aware that there is no direct bus route from Dublin to Carlingford. First, you have to catch the Expressway bus to Dundalk (route 100X). You can do so on Custom House Quay. The journey time is around 90 minutes. From Dundalk bus station, then take bus 161 heading to Newry for another 45 minutes. The bus will drop you off just outside Carlingford’s Tourist Office.
If you are driving from Dublin, take the motorway M1 and exit at junction 18. You are almost there, you just need to follow the signs to Carlingford. The journey takes around 90 minutes or so altogether.
Getting to Carlingford from Belfast
There is also no direct bus route from Belfast to Carlingford. First, you have to get on Translink bus 238 from the Europa Buscentre in Belfast, heading to Newry. The bus journey is roughly 90 minutes. Once in Newry bus station, take the Bus Eireann bus 161 to Dundalk for another 25 minutes and get off in Carlingford.
If driving, head towards Dublin on the motorway M1 and exit at junction 7 for Newry. Then on the A1, exit for The Quays, a shopping centre outside Newry and follow Glen Hill Street. Turn right on to Drumalane Road and follow the Newry Canal. Keep going on the R173 to Omeath. Carlingford is the next town. The journey time should be between 70 and 90 minutes.
Where to Stay in Carlingford
Carlingford is a small town and options to stay overnight are few, mostly B&B and guest houses with limited availability. If you are planning to spend a few days in Carlingford, it is best to book early. I always check booking.com for the best price.
Hotels in Carlingford
Hotels are a rare thing in Carlingford.
The main hotel in Carlingford is the Four Seasons Hotel, located just a 2-minute walk from the town’s medieval centre. With 58 bedrooms, this is a rather big hotel for a small town. This modern, 4-star accommodation even has a spa, a swimming-pool and a jacuzzi, ideal for sore calves after a day of hillwalking.
Maybe not as luxurious but certainly not without character and charm, the McKevitts Hotel can be found right in the middle of town, surrounded by colourful pubs and shops. This 12-bedroom village hotel also has a restaurant and a bar. Its central location, however, could come at a price: the noise. Carlingford is somehow a destination of choice for stag and hen parties, especially at the weekend.
B&B & Guest Houses in Carlingford
You will find quite a few B&B and guest houses around Carlingford, but with only a few rooms each, it is better to book online as soon as possible.
I stayed at Grove House B&B. The house has seven bedrooms en suite and is located in a residential area, a 10-minute walk from the town centre with magnificent views over Slieve Foye. If you want peace and quiet, it is the place to stay.
I booked a double bedroom with view over the beautifully landscaped garden that surrounds the house. The room was four-star. Beautifully decorated with great attention to detail, comfortable bed and spotless bathroom, it was all you could hope for.
An Irish breakfast was served in the dining room with a view over the mountain. The B&B had a spacious and handy car park for guests. It is run by Wendy, who shines by her friendliness and hosting skills.
- The Oystercatcher Lodge Guest House: In the heart of the village, this guest house is ideally located.
- Wildwood Lodge: Situated a 10-minute walk from Carlingford Castle, this guest house has stunning views over the lough.
- Mourneview B&B: On the outskirts of Carlingford, this well-established B&B offers panoramic views in a tranquil, rural setting.
Places to Eat in Carlingford
Often located along Carlingford’s oldest streets, pubs and restaurants are plenty for the choosing.
Quality pub food and a warm atmosphere can be found at the Carlingford Arms, unless your eye gets caught by the bright red facade of the popular PJ’s. This traditional Irish pub serves great burgers (I recommend) and the best pint in town.
If you are looking for a more gastronomic experience, you’ll find lobsters, crabs, oysters and other seafood delicacies on the menu at Fishy Dishy. Or get tempted by some European food at the Kingfisher Bistro. Both restaurants locally source their ingredients.
Top Things to Do in Carlingford
Thanks to its unique heritage and location, Carlingford is an exciting place to visit.
Take a Guided Tour of King John’s Castle
Soon after the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland had started, most of the Ulster region was already in the hands of John de Courcy, a Norman knight, who claimed the land for himself.
Not at all pleased by that, King John of England allowed Hugh de Lacy (whose father, the Lord of Meath, built Trim Castle) to recapture the land for the English crown. Hugh de Lacy then built a castle around 1190 on the shore of Carlingford Lough, high on a rock.
Taking a guided tour of King John’s Castle is a must-do in Carlingford. Although in ruins, the medieval castle stuns by its size. Once small, the Anglo-Norman fortress grew larger and higher in the 13th and 15th century, dominating the skyline with all its mightiness.
The rocky outcrop on which it was built meant the castle didn’t need a moat for protection, its archers flying arrows at the enemies from their better position on higher ground. Towering high above the water, the castle had a commanding position over the lough, controlling its access. Difficult to maintain, Carlingford castle started to lose its grandeur in the 16th century before being abandoned in the 18th century.
Made accessible to the public by guided tour, King John’s Castle is a real treat for history buffs. Now safe and secured, the castle offers uninterrupted views over the lough and the Mourne Mountains on the opposite shores.
Wander the Medieval Street of Carlingford
Following the foundation of the castle, Carlingford expanded, becoming a Norman stronghold at the northern end of the Pale, a stretch of land under direct English rule.
The target of attacks by local Irish clans, the town was fortified and gates controlled its access.
The Tholsel is the last remaining of those gates. Dating from the 15th century, the Tholsel was used as a toll gate to collect taxes on goods entering the town. It was also used as a jail in the 18th century. As you continue down Tholsel Street, a fortified town house from the 15th century appears. Although called the Mint, no evidence of coinage has ever been found at this location.
The Taaffe’s Castle nearby is another building worth looking at. Never a castle but the residence of a wealthy merchant, this 16th century building used to be right on the quay before land was reclaimed.
Don’t miss the Church of the Holy Trinity whose tower dates from the 15th or 16th century and the remains of the Dominican Friary which was founded in the 14th century. The monastery, located outside the town medieval walls, lays now in ruins, but the height of the remaining structure is still very much impressive.
If you want to hear more about Carlingford’s remarkable history, daily guided tours are organised by the Tourist Office.
Go Hiking Around Slieve Foye
Carlingford is a popular destination amongst hikers and hillwalkers. Several loop walks of different difficulty levels take visitors to the slopes of Slieve Foye and reward them with stunning views over the lough and the Mourne Mountains.
Probably the most well-known of these trails is the Slieve Foye Loop. Starting right at the heart of Carlingford on Market Street, the loop walk brings hikers on a 3-hour hike around a forest clinging to the slope of Slieve Foye, criss-crossed by streams cascading towards the sea. Hiding amongst wild flowers and pine trees, squirrels often make an appearance, playing hide-and-seek along the path, maybe hoping to relieve you of some nuts you might have in your pockets.
The path is well sign-posted with blue arrows from start to finish, but be aware that the second half of the loop can be very strenuous at times and a good level of fitness is necessary. For those willing to make the effort (and sweat!), the views are just spectacular.
Hiking boots are highly recommended. Do not forget to check the weather forecast and to bring the necessary equipment such as waterproof jacket, water bottle and even sunscreen.
You can find more information about all the walk loops at the Tourist Office in Carlingford.
Take a Cruise of Carlingford Lough
Another way to take in all the natural beauty of Carlingford Lough, and the mountains surrounding it, is to go on a cruise. The main company, Carlingford Lough Cruises, organises trips departing from their terminal in Greenore, a village just a few minutes drive outside Carlingford.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the necessary arrangement for myself, so I would recommend booking early to avoid disappointment.
Another option is to board the car ferry from Greenore to Greencastle on the northern shore of Carlingford Lough. You can board as a pedestrian and enjoy the 20-minute crossing to Northern Ireland for a few euros, your chance to spot one or two dolphins along the way.
Cycle the Carlingford-Omeath Greenway
Cycling the Greenway between Carlingford and the village of Omeath is another way to discover the beautiful shore of Carlingford Lough.
You can rent a bike in Carlingford from places like Carlingford Greenway Bike Hire or Oy Yer Bike and safely ride the 7 km of the former railway track now converted to a path for pedestrians and cyclists.
I hope this guide has convinced you to visit Carlingford. At the same time a destination for history enthusiasts and a haven for hiking and hillwalking, this town was a real find and has found its place amongst my favourite Irish destinations. Plus, if you are looking to get away from the crowds, mass tourism seems, luckily, to have ignored Carlingford so far.
If a quaint Irish village is your idea of a perfect holiday, I would also recommend looking out at Tramore, a town on the south-eastern coast with a fantastic beach and plenty of pubs and restaurants.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link, I earn a little money at no extra cost to you.