The decision to travel as a family during the holiday season — especially if it’s someplace new — is a tough one. From weather worries to seemingly constant reminders about record-breaking travel, it’s oh so easy to come up with a multitude of excuses simply to stay put. But you’d be missing out, especially if you’ve ever thought about taking the kids to Ireland for the holidays.
Often passed over for its European neighbors in wintertime, Ireland is a fantastic family destination all year round, but it shines especially bright during the holiday season.
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Ireland’s capital always bustles with activity, but turn down Grafton Street in December and enjoy the added excitement the holidays bring. Twinkling lights float in the sky, storefront windows boast smile-inducing displays and buskers sing tunes. Even U2’s Bono seems to have made it a tradition to make a Christmas Eve appearance on Grafton Street.
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Long after the animals have gone to sleep, locals and visitors alike flock to the Dublin Zoo for Wild Lights. The glowing nighttime extravaganza features giant, illuminated silk lanterns in the shapes of animals like blue whales, seahorses, polar bears and penguins. It runs November through early January and can sell out, so it’s best to plan ahead.
During the month of December, more than a dozen iconic sites in Dublin are illuminated with animated colorful projections for Winter Lights Dublin. Projections glow from sunset until 2a, and include locations the likes of City Hall, Trinity College and the Mansion House on Dawson Street.
For more than 20 years, the historic Dublin Mansion has also been home to a live nativity. The Irish Farmers’ Association positions the animals outside near the front entrance. Open from early December until Christmas Eve day, entrance is free but donations collected are given to a local charity.
Afternoon teas abound in Dublin, but The Merrion’s Festive Afternoon Tea knows how to get young and old into the holiday mood. Finger sandwiches are even more fun when enjoyed fireside in the property’s Georgian Drawing Rooms. Plates of snowmen made from macaroons are almost too pretty to eat. Festive Afternoon Tea is held daily throughout December; select dates include Christmas caroling performances.
The Merrion is decorated from head to toe for the holidays, with an assortment of Christmas trees displayed throughout the property, but the two-story tree by the staircase in reception makes it hard to walk by without taking a moment to stop and admire the sparkling view. To ensure the tree stays fresh for the entire holiday season, it’s replaced mid-December.
Dublin isn’t the only city that shines at the holidays. Twinkling lights lead through Galway’s compact, easily walkable city center to Eyre Square, home to the Continental Christmas Market. Take your time getting there and enjoy the kid-friendly buskers who sing and dance in the streets along the way. (Ed Sheeran used to busk on Shop Street in Galway.) Along with numerous stalls selling food and gift items, the market features a Ferris wheel, carousel, live music, puppet shows and caroling. Festivities run from mid-November until a few days before Christmas.
Similar to Winter Lights Dublin, Light Up Galway brightens the city with light installations and projections on iconic buildings.
Ashford Castle Hotel & Country Estate, dating back to 1228, is located less than an hour’s drive from Galway, and it’s hard to imagine a place more magical at the holidays. Santa himself spends Christmas Day at the Irish castle, delivering presents to all guests. Christmas movies play in the onsite cinema. Afternoon tea service includes a selection of seasonal teas, and treats prepared by the property’s award-winning pastry chef look as amazing as they taste.
A number of guest rooms in Ashford Castle are large enough to have a Christmas tree; interested families simply need to inquire when booking. But the fireplace and the 25-foot tree that greets guests when they first step into the castle make for a lovely spot to relax on Christmas morning. There’s a good chance resident Irish wolfhounds Cronan and Garvan might be snoozing by the tree as well.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann except where noted.