If you ever spend some time in Ireland, chances are that you’ll get recommended a visit to Glendalough a fair few times. It took me the good part of a decade to finally set foot in the old Monastic City so you can imagine how many times I heard the whole Glendalough spiel. Well, now it’s my turn to lay it all on you! Glendalough is one of the most visited attractions in Ireland and for good cause, this natural wonder is positively ravishing. So what are you waiting for? I know I know, I get you, when you don’t drive, it can be a tad tricky (and as I found out even if you do have a car, getting there may come with its own set of hurdles) but fret not, after spending 4 days there, I’m here to help you make the most of your time and organise a hopefully all-round fuss-free trip to Glendalough, car or no car.
1. ABOUT GLENDALOUGH
Glendalough means in gaelic ‘valley of the two lakes’. The two lakes, the Lower Lake and the Upper Lake, were shaped as a result of the thaw following the Ice Age. You can find this awe-inspiring valley in county Wicklow (Dublin’s southern neighbour county). It is part of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, the biggest of the 6 national parks in Ireland.
Glendalough is famous worldwide for its grand Monastic City which you can still see in part today. The monastic settlement finds its origin back to the 6th century when Saint Kevin founded the place after falling in love with the beauty of the quiet valley.
For 600 years, the settlement flourished. You’ll have to imagine the place in its heyday, it comprised of farm buildings, guest houses, an infirmary and dwellings for the monks and the local population. The monks organised manuscript workshops and sold oak timber to the Vikings to build their fleet. It all came to an end after multiple raids carried out by the English and the final nail on the coffin came with Glendalough losing its ecclesiastical status to Dublin’s Diocese. It remained a local church and a place of pilgrimage for a while but soon enough the place fell in ruins. The monuments you see today mostly date from the 10th to the 12th century.
The site of Glendalough can be divided in 3 sections and this is what you will find in each of them:
The Lower Lake
This is where you will find the famous Monastic City. Coming from afar, the first thing you’ll probably see is Glendalough’s very recognisable Round Tower, standing tall at 30m. It is said to date back from the 10th century. The Monastic City has many other interesting features so keep an eye out for the grand archway, which has a unique design, St Kevin’s Church, also called ‘the Kitchen’ due to the shape of its chimney, the Priest’s House and the eerie Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. If like me, you enjoy a graveyard full of Celtic crosses, you won’t be disappointed.
Fan of Irish folklore, legends and stories? Locate St Kevin’s Cross and try to wrap your arms around the cross to make your fingertips touch. There, all your wishes will be granted… or that’s what they say! Also don’t miss the Deer Stone which is said to have magical powers. Indeed, legend has it that if you splash your face with the water collected in its hollow, you might just keep your looks forever.
Next to the Monastic City are the Visitor Centre, the Glendalough Hotel and the first car park. In the Visitor Centre, there’s an exhibition and an audio-visual show (there’s an entrance fee of €5). If you want to book a tour guide of the Monastic City, you’ll have to contact the centre first by phone or fax.
Further down is the Lower Lake which you can cross thanks to a boardwalk or simply walk along its sides on a pathway.
The Upper Lake
A good 20 minute walk through a beautiful oak woodland will take you from the Lower Lake to the Upper Lake. There, you will find the Information Centre where you can enquire about Glendalough’s hiking trails and the local flora and fauna. Guided walks are also available. If you are hiking, this is where all the trails start.
Outside, you will find the second car park with food stalls and restroom facilities.
At the bottom of the lake, there’s a makeshift beach and one of the site’s most fantastic view so don’t miss it!
Take the path on the left of the Lake and start your hike along the Poulanass River and Waterfall. On the right, walk through a rather enchanting pine forest for about an hour and you will get to the Miners Village. Keep an eye for Temple-Na-Skellig (the original site of St Kevin’s settlement) and Saint Kevin’s Cave, both of which can be seen on the opposite lakeshore.
Miners Village and Beyond
This was actually my favourite area in Glendalough. There’s something chillingly atmospheric about this village in ruins at the bottom of the valley. If you could go back in time to the 1850s, you’d see here a bustling mine. Lead, zinc and silver were mined by 2000 workers here and in the neighbour valley. Business lasted for a 100 years until the 1950s when the mines were eventually abandoned.
Today, only a few structures are left standing as well as an old piece of machinery. I’m not going to lie when you get here, you feel like you reached the entrance to the Mordor. The hill slopes are covered with discarded stones which feels like they’re about to tumble in a rockslide any minute. Stop for a bit and observe the unfazed, feral goats jump from one rock to another without a sweat. They’re amazing little creatures!
Further up the path, you can ascend along the river which flows into the Upper Lake. At the top, you will be met with the rolling views of the Glenealo Valley where a herd of sika deer generally gently graze. Turn around and here is the spectacular panorama over the Upper Lake.
Now with the Upper Lake in your back, you can either go straight ahead and explore the Glenealo Valley or take a left, cross the makeshift bridge over the river and hike uphill to get to the boardwalk. This will lead you to the Spinc, one of the most sought after scenic view of the region.
2. GETTING THERE
By Public Transport
This is where things get a bit tricky and probably why it took me so long to visit Glendalough. There’s only one private bus company that serves the route between Dublin and Glendalough. Moreover, St Kevin’s Bus provides only two round trips a day (every day). The first one leaves Dublin at 11.30am which gets to Glendalough at 12.50pm and the last bus back to Dublin leaves Glendalough at 4.30pm (check the Summer and Winter timetables here). It is great if you plan to stroll on flat ground around the two Lakes, enjoy the hotel’s terrace, maybe squeeze in a small hike. But it will leave you on a tight schedule if you attempt one of the more challenging hikes (the longest hike on the map is 4 hours). But I personally wouldn’t recommend it as it’s best to allow some extra time in case something unexpected happens during the hike. I’m afraid your best option is to find a nearby accommodation for the night if you intend on fully exploring Glendalough.
One thing to keep in mind if you travel with St Kevin’s bus company is it can get extremely busy during the weekends, holidays and high tourist season. I took the bus from Dublin on a Tuesday in late August and it was so packed people had to stand for a few stops until the company called on an extra bus. I’d advise you to get to the bus stop early so you can get in the front of the queue to get a seat. A return ticket from Dublin is €20 which can be purchased on board (click here for a full list of fares).
Now another option would be to take the train to Rathdrum from Dublin. The trip takes a little more than an hour. From there, the company Wicklow Way Bus can pick you up and drive you directly to Glendalough. Be sure to book with them in advance by phone or email and let them know how many people will be there (you don’t need to be a group) and what time you plan to be at Rathdrum Station. The great thing is that they are available 7 days a week!
Lastly, you can go on a day tour with a private company. I can’t personally comment because I’ve never tried any but recently Wild Wicklow Tours, a family-run business that tours Glendalough and other places in county Wicklow, has been voted the best travel experience in Ireland and 10th in the world by Tripadvisor. It sounds like a safe choice to me!
The journey by car from Dublin to Glendalough, travelling on the N11, will take you a little more than an hour (it’s well posted, so just follow the signs). That is if you avoid the weekends, bank holidays and school holidays. In high season, Glendalough can get horridly congested and queues to the parking lots can get out of hand. So better plan a trip midweek or in low season if you don’t want to waste precious time on the road instead of enjoying the fresh mountain air.
Glendalough has two parking lots available. The first one in the Lower Valley, next to the Visitor Centre, comes with an entrance fee of €4 on weekends, bank holidays, Holy Week, Easter Week and during the months of June, July and August. It is free otherwise and open 24/7. The second one, next to the Upper Lake, will cost €4 at all times. It opens from 8am to varying times in the evening depending on the season so do check the signs before leaving the car park.
If you want to avoid parking in Glendalough, you can do so in the closest village, Laragh. There’s a parking lot on the main road to Glendalough that will cost you €5 and is open on the weekends and bank holidays.
Little insider tip for you, if you manage to park near the Glendalough Woollen Mills in Laragh, there is a pleasant forest walk starting behind the mills. It’ll take you straight to Glendalough in about 15-20 minutes.
For more information on parking your car in Glendalough, click here.
3. BEST TIME TO VISIT
Glendalough is open all year round, 24/7 but as I mentioned before it can get busy during the weekends, bank holidays and school holidays. Not only the car parks will be congested at these times but you will find the Monastic City and generally the grounds surrounding the two lakes quite crowded at these times. However, you’ll probably find some peace and quiet on your hikes. In summary, a day in the middle of the week and in the low season would be ideal!
Ireland can be touch and go when it comes to the weather… to put it mildly. From my own experience, the most pleasant months are May, June and September, which is great news for you as they’re not quite in the high season bracket.
In terms of seasons, there’s beauty to be found in each and every one of them. Glendalough is bursting with interesting fauna and flora which come and go at different times of the year. The Summers are green and lush, the gorse and heather splash the valley with joyful yellow and purple flowers. Springs come with the bluebells in the oak woodland and the Autumns turn the trees rust and gold. I am not sure I would actually recommend Winters although I’m sure it’s equally beautiful especially as the Wicklow Mountains are often the first area to get hit with snow. But Ireland is pretty much one giant storm from November to March so please bear in mind the weather conditions can be quite drastic. Moreover, if you intend to hike, some of the pathway are boardwalks so it can get quite slippery up there with snow or rain conditions.
4. ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
You’ll have guessed it by now, if you don’t own or rent a car, your best bet to explore the hiking trails of Glendalough at your leisure is to find an accommodation nearby.
You have several options. On the site of Glendalough, you’ll find a hotel, a hostel and a couple of B&Bs. The closest town is Laragh which is a good 20 minute walk away. There you’ll find a few bed and breakfasts, hotels and airbnbs. But don’t stray too far away if you’re strictly on foot as you’ll need some energy left to hike in Glendalough.
When I visited, I went for a place on Trooper Hill, which is 1.5 hour walk away. It wasn’t the easiest on my legs, especially as you can imagine, my accommodation was located on a steep hill so coming home was rather arduous.
Worth a mention, Laragh Village has a bike hire shop with some fancy e-bikes that will make your exploring a lot easier. It is located next to the hotel Lynhams of Laragh.
When it comes to food, I was told by my host that the Glendalough Hotel has a very nice restaurant and bar. On the parking lot next to the Upper Lake, you’ll find food stalls that sell coffee, ice-cream and the usual chipper fare. I had a veggie burger and chips and you’ll hear absolutely no complaint from me. I thought it was actually a decent portion for the price but then I live in Dublin so most of the time I find everything cheap elsewhere. If you’re looking for a healthier option, you’ll probably have to pack some food with you. Laragh Village has a few eateries and the cafe/deli The Glendalough Green has a tasty selection of foods that would be great in a picnic. I’d definitely suggest you take plenty of water and snacks (or even a picnic) with you if you intend on hiking. The longest hike is 4 hour long which can be done between meals but you never know!
5. WHAT TO PACK AND WEAR
It’s true what they say about the Irish weather, it is wildly unpredictable. Don’t be surprised if blazing sunshine is immediately followed by thunder and sleet. So the key to dressing here is definitely layers. You’ll want to check the weather cast before leaving and pack a weather-appropriate jacket, good footwear (if it rains or snows, make sure they come with gripping soles as the boardwalks at the top can be slippery). Make sure the clothes you wear are comfortable and breathable (go for natural textiles but avoid jeans as they take too long to dry if you get soaked). If the sun’s out, take your sunglasses and a hat.
In your bag, you’ll need:
– your phone, fully-charged (save the mountain emergency number, 999 or 112)
– rainproof jacket
– flask of water
– snacks (or picnic depending on the length of your hike)
– a map of the trails (you can pick it up for 50 cents at the Information Office, the Visitor Centre or you can download it for free on your phone via this link)
– sunscreen if it’s sunny
– if you plan on going off-track in the neighbouring valleys, take a compass
For more information on hiking responsibly in the Irish mountains, click here.
6. HIKING TRAILS
There are 9 waymarked trails on site. They range from ‘easy’ to more arduous ‘hill walks’. The shortest walk (1km) takes 30 minute to complete while the longest (11km) can be completed in about 4 hours.
All of the trails start at the National Park Information Centre near Upper Lake. If you’re looking for a guided walk, they can be arranged in the centre. Displays of the trail map can be found next to Visitor Centre and the Information Centre (inside, you can buy a map for 50 cents -or download it here for free).
The easiest trails wrap around the two lakes while the most challenging ones will lead you to the Poulanass Waterfall, the Spinc and further in the neighbouring valleys (Lugduff, Glendasan and Glenealo Valley). Some of them link with county Wicklow’s big hiking trails like St Kevin’s Way or the Wicklow Way.
I hope this posts answers all your question and you feel ready to explore the Glendalough Valley. If you’re on Instagram, do tag me @theartofexploring, I would love to see your pictures! Let me know in the comments if you think I missed something and I’ll get back to you.