County Wicklow (Irish: Contae Chill Mhantáin) is a mountainous region of Ireland's East Coast and Midlands, historically part of the province of Leinster. It's just south of Dublin so it combines ease of access with outstanding scenery. It's often called "the Garden of Ireland" - and does have several fine gardens - but it's more like the recreation park of Dublin.
Towns and villages
- 1 Bray has a pleasant sea front and the elegant house and gardens of Kilruddery.
- 2 Enniskerry has Powerscourt gardens and waterfall.
- 3 Roundwood is on the Wicklow Way hiking route.
- 4 Glendalough is Wicklow's must-see, an extensive medieval monastic complex in a scenic valley.
- 5 Wicklow Town is close to two fine botanic gardens.
- 6 Arklow has an interesting maritime museum.
- 7 Avoca is where Avoca linen and knitwear is produced; you can tour the mills.
- 8 Blessington is dominated by the Poulaphouca reservoir lake and by grand Russborough House.
- 9 Baltinglass has a striking ruined abbey, and the Rathcoran passage grave and hill fort.
County Wicklow is dominated by its chain of mountains and by its proximity to Dublin. The mountains are granite, uplifted about 400 million years ago, and polished by glaciation into rounded tops. These have poor soil and drainage and are coated in heath and bog. Lugnaquilla rises to 925 m but most summits are around 600 m, more like hills. There are extensive conifer plantations which are gradually being replaced with mixed native trees. Much of the uplands are within Wicklow Mountains National Park, which preserves them from an encrustation of weekend cottages. The hills and valleys are scenic and are very popular with day-trippers from the city, as are the top sights of Glendalough and Powerscourt.
The coastal towns are all part of Dublin's commuter belt, and Bray is even on the DART suburban railway. Elsewhere is green and pastoral, especially west of the mountains. The southwest of the county is short of accommodation and other amenities so you might consider staying in Tullow or Carlow just over the boundary.
The climate is mild similar to Dublin, but wetter. Wicklow Town on the coast averages 930 mm of rainfall annually, but the mountains get double that.
Wicklow is not part of the Gaeltacht so English is the primary language. You will hear lots of exotic languages however, from the many tourists.
See Dublin for Dublin Airport (DUB IATA) and the ferry port. There are direct buses from the airport to Bray and to Arklow; for other places in Wicklow travel into central Dublin for onward public transport. See also Rosslare for ferries from Wales.
Trains run along the coast from Dublin Connolly station. Bray in the north of the county is within the Dublin transport area, with frequent DART trains via Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey, all for the standard Dublin flat fare. Four or five mainline trains per day continue south to Wicklow Town, Rathdrum and Arklow, then across County Wexford to Rosslare, which has ferries from Fishguard and Pembroke.
All the towns have a direct bus from Dublin city, and Bray and Arklow also have buses direct from the airport. See individual towns' "Get in" section for details, and note that the bus may not run from the central Busáras but from other stops around College Green.
One that may not show on conventional timetables is the privately operated St Kevins Bus, which plies between Dublin, Bray, Roundwood and Glendalough twice daily. It's designed for day trips there, giving you four hours on site, but you can ride it as a point-to-point service, see Glendalough for details.
There's also a shuttle bus between Bray, Enniskerry and Powerscourt; but otherwise there are no cross-country buses beyond the radial routes from the city. So if you don't have your own transport, consider taking a day excursion. Bus Éireann and other operators run trips to all the major sights near the city, including Powerscourt, Glendalough, Avoca and the scenic roads through the mountains.
M11 / N11 connects Dublin, the Wicklow coast towns and Rosslare ferry port; N81 runs down the west of the county from Dublin to Blessington and onward to County Carlow and Wexford. They're good roads and your main task is to avoid rush hour.
In between are the Wicklow mountains, with no public transport. Roads are well-surfaced but twisty and narrow: some scenic routes are described below. They can be congested especially on fine weekends when the city empties out.
- Glendalough is a must-see and needs a full day to explore, a scenic valley with an extensive complex of medieval monastic buildings.
- Gardens: top gardens routinely open to the public are Kilruddery near Bray, Powerscourt at Enniskerry, Mount Usher and Kilmacurragh near Wicklow Town, and Russborough near Blessington, which also has the two Blake gardens. Several more are occasionally open in summer through the Wicklow Gardens Festival.
- Russborough House near Blessington is a grand Palladian mansion with a big-name art collection.
- The Pyramid: did you ever get suckered into an Egyptian excursion that made an interminable stop at a tourist-trap gift shop then hurried your visit to the Pyramids? Some excursions of Glendalough and Powerscourt make a big thing of visiting the Avoca outlet shops, and most of them miss out the Pyramid entirely. It's 2 km north of Arklow, walking distance from the train and bus stations. There isn't a Sphinx, but given the astonishing discoveries they've made in Ireland's bogs, that's perhaps only a matter of time.
- Wicklow Gaol was notorious in the 19th century.
- Rathgall Hill Fort on the southwest county boundary is easiest reached from Tullow, 5 km west in County Carlow.
- The Military Road is a north-south switchback road along the mountain chain, badged R115 for much of its length. It starts at Brookwood in the south suburbs of Dublin: the closest M50 access is junction 12, turn east along Scholarstown Road for a km to pick up R115. It climbs into the hills past Hell Fire Club, where debauchery and demonic manifestations are not what they used to be in the rip-roaring days of 1735-41. The road descends into Glencree, where a lane branches east to Powerscourt, then with Kippure to the west it climbs to the crossroads and pass of Sally Gap, see below. Continuing south it twists and turns along the flank of Mullaghcleevaun to Laragh near Glendalough. R115 ends here but the military road continues as a lane up Glenmalure then skirting the south shoulder of the hills at Aughavannagh. Descending to pastoral lowlands, the lane runs on west to Baltinglass.
- 1 Sally Gap is the mountain pass at the crossroads of R759 and R115, but the term has come to mean the entire scenic road east-west through the mountains. From the east R759 starts near Roundwood and passes the corrie lake of Lough Tay, the usual start point for climbing Luggala. The "Gap" is the crest of the ridge at 503 m / 1650 ft, with Kippure looming to the north and Gravale and Duff Hill to the south. Descending west on R759 you pass watery bog and boggy water as the ditches and runnels coalesce into the headwaters of the Liffey. Kippure Bridge is worth a photo; Kippure Lodge is used for events but doesn't have hotel facilities. Lower down the land becomes pastoral; the road heads northwest to meet N81 north of Blessington, while the river curls southwest to flow into Poulaphouca reservoir lake.
- 2 Wicklow Gap further south is likewise the top of a pass at 475 m / 1558 ft, but loosely applies to the scenic road R756. Westbound this starts from Laragh and passes the monastic complex at Glendalough, then climbs Glendasan. There are two car parks near the crest from where you can climb Turlough Hill and Camaderry to the south, or just stroll round the little corrie lake at their foot, or climb Tonelagee to the north. The road then descends into the valley of King's River, with St Kevin's Way hiking trail parallel. Stay on R756 to reach Hollywood or turn north on R758 by the lake shore to reach Blessington.
- Golf: the countryside is studded with golf courses with great scenery, all the towns have one or two nearby. Powerscourt at Enniskerry is the big name but there are at least two dozen more where you can lose your ball in a gorse thicket for a tenth of what you'd pay for the privilege at Powerscourt.
- Beaches: the best stretch is Brittas Bay south of Arklow.
- St Kevin's Way is a 26-30 km hiking trail across the mountains from around Blessington up King's River valley to cross the mountains at Wicklow Gap then descend the Glendasan valley to Glendalough. The route is seldom far from R756.
- The Wicklow Way is a 131 km hiking trail across the Wicklow Mountains. It's traditionally walked north to south over 5-7 days, from Marlay Park in Dublin through County Wicklow to Clonegal in County Carlow, but you can do sections any way you please. There are slithery bits but much of it is firm track through forest plantations.
- Climbing: the U-shaped mountain valleys have rock-climbs for all levels of ability. The upper valley of Glendalough is a popular site.
- Hill-walking: popular peaks include:
- - Mullaghcleevaun at 849 m (2785 ft) is climbed from the southeast, from Oasis car park on R115 above Laragh. It can be combined with Duff Hill (720 m), Gravale (718 m) and Carrigvore (682 m) before descending into Sally Gap.
- - Tonelagee at 817 metres (2680 ft) can be climbed from the west, straight up the shoulder from R756, but the more scenic usual route is from Glenmacnass waterfall car park on R115 above Laragh.
- - Luggala at 595 m (1952 ft) is climbed from the car park on R759, the road from Roundwood towards Sally Gap.
- - Djouce at 725 m (2379 ft) has the advantage of a boardwalk approach along the Wicklow Way, either from Enniskerry to the north or more usually from the south above Roundwood: use either Ballinastoe Wood or JB Malone car parks off R759.
- - Lugnaquilla at 925 m (3035 ft) is the highest peak in the county. Climb it from Fenton's pub in Glen of Imaal via Camarahill (13 km, 4 hr, but this route crosses an army training range and you must check firing times in advance); or from Baravore in Glenmalure (15 km, 5 hr); or less often from Aghavannagh Bridge up the Ow valley and the "South Prison" (16 km, 6 hr if you successfully make your escape).
- - Sunday afternoon strolls are Kippure above Enniskerry, Bray Head, Great Sugar Loaf south of Bray, and Devil's Glen northeast of Wicklow Town.
- Gaelic games: the County GAA play Gaelic football and hurling at the County Grounds in Aughrim. There are some 35 club teams across the county.
- Excellent spots to eat are Brass Fox, Tinakilly and Chester Beatty Inn all in Wicklow Town, Roundwood Inn in Roundwood, Strawberry Tree in Aughrim, Johnnie Fox's on the Enniskerry / County Dublin boundary, Hungry Monk in Greystones and The Meetings in the valley above Avoca near Arklow.
- Top pubs are Harbour Bar and Porterhouse in Bray, Johnnie Fox's above Enniskerry, and Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town.
- And then there's the water. Wicklow's teeming rain is captured in reservoirs at Roundwood (commended by Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses) and at Blessington, and piped to Dublin.
- Top-rated hotels are Strand Hotel in Bray, Tinakilly and Hunter's Hotel in Wicklow Town, and Tulfarris Hotel at Blessington (which also has yurts, otherwise uncommon in Wicklow). Powerscourt has the big reputation, but in 2020 several reviewers were disappointed.
- See Wicklow Mountains National Park website for rules on wild camping.
- County Dublin for the city of course, but don't neglect seaside towns such as Dún Laoghaire or Howth, or the castle at Malahide.
- County Wexford: Wexford itself is an interesting old harbour, and the county is better stocked with castles and beaches than Wicklow.
- County Kildare is all about golf and horse-racing, but they also have the Japanese Gardens and a palatial mansion house.