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How to explore the lakes of Killarney and the Gap of Dunloe without a car
Discover unique ways to travel around Killarney.
Kate DemolderKate Demolder is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. Her work features in multiple publications and she is the 2022 recipient of the Arts Journalism & Criticism Journalist of The Year Award at the Irish Journalism Awards.
As a first-time visitor, getting to grips with Killarney can be daunting. Nestled in a valley surrounded by the grand MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and sitting on the edge of nearly 30,000 acres of parkland, the town offers a seemingly infinite number of paths for exploration. But as one quarter of Killarney National Park is covered by its lakes, a boat tour allows you to experience more of Killarney’s woodlands, mountain passes, waterfalls and historical sites in one day than you could from behind the wheel of a car.

Book the right tour (or two) for you, then get out on the water for a car-free day trip through the lakes of Killarney and to the Gap of Dunloe.

Check out @tadhg_obrien's travels around the lakes of Killarney, the Gap of Dunloe and other breathtaking spots in Killarney.

Morning on Lough Leane

After grabbing a quick coffee or a proper breakfast from the likes of Curious Cat Café and Café Du Parc in Killarney town, you’ll head west into Killarney National Park, the sprawling natural wonderland around which the town is helmed. You can make the half-hour walk to the shores of Lough Leane (Léin) on your own two feet, or hop on a jaunting car, the local horse-and-buggies that have been clip-clopping around the town since the Tangney family set up shop in 1865. You may spot springing local red deer along the way.

A red deer in Killarney National Park in County Kerry.

Photo credit: @tadhg_obrien

Keep an eye out for the local wildlife.

Your journey onto the lakes of Killarney begins at the 15th century Ross Castle, which has entertaining 45-minute guided tours of the keep that once belonged to the O’Donoghue clan. Once you’re done, you can embark on your lake tour here – and take comfort that the boat trip will work in all weathers, thanks to heated and covered vessels. 

Multiple companies provide a service through Lough Leane several times daily. If you’re looking for a quick tour that will have you back in Killarney town for the afternoon, book in for an hour-long journey with the ‘Lily of Killarney’ Lake Cruise or ‘Pride of the Lake’ Killarney Lake Tour. But if you want a full-day experience that brings you as far as the stunning Gap of Dunloe, you’ll want to book into a five-hour combination tour with Gap of Dunloe Tours, Wild Kerry Day Tours or Killarney Jaunting Cars. These tours pair the boat trip out onto Killarney’s lakes with a stretch of cycling, hiking or jaunting car, so you can choose whichever suits your schedule and fitness level.

Aerial view of Ross Castle in County Kerry.
Explore the grounds of Ross Castle.

As soon as you set sail from Ross Castle and start to take in the beauty of the lake, your guide will go into detail about every inch of your surroundings, from Bricín Bridge (a 400-year-old wishing bridge, dedicated to women looking to find love) to O’Sullivan’s Cascade and the monastic ruins of Innisfallen Island. During spring and summer, your view will be peppered with swan nesting sites, sprouting purple heather and limestone outcrops, and a series of five-star hotels and golf courses on the horizon. As you spot baby ducks, diving cormorants and purple rhododendrons, you’ll also learn what makes the region so naturally astounding, from the Arbutus trees, which are originally from Portugal but suit Killarney waters because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream; to the protected white-tailed eagles, introduced from Norway by the Parks Service in 2012.

As you glide towards the Purple Mountain group, your guide will share facts about the mystical MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, such as its height (1,039m), the meaning of its name (after the Irish MacGillycuddy clan) and how many peaks (eleven) make up the area stretching 19 kilometres, from the Gap of Dunloe in the east to Glencar in the west.

People onboard the ‘Pride of the Lake’ Killarney Lake Tour in County Kerry.

Photo credit: @killarneylaketours

Explore the lakes of Killarney National Park.

If you’ve booked the one-hour tour, you’ll here be escorted off the boat and directed to the fresh tea and homemade biscuits of the on-site Ross Castle Garden Café, where you can have lunch and plan your next adventure through Killarney National Park by foot or bike. If you’ve booked in for a full-day trip, you’ll stay aboard and continue onward and south-westward to the Gap of Dunloe.

Afternoon along the Gap of Dunloe

Visiting the Gap of Dunloe, a magnificent 11km-long natural ravine between the Purple Mountain and MacGillycuddy's Reeks ranges, is a choose-your-own-adventure journey. The boldest can choose to walk through the gap on foot, with boat tours that will bring you south from Ross Castle past Old Weir Bridge and to Lord Brandon’s Cottage at the very edge of Upper Lake (this is also where you may stop to have your lunch on a full-day tour). If you prefer cycling to hiking, you can rent a bike from Killarney Rent A Bike to cycle-on, cycle-off the boat, allowing you the freedom to stop off where you please.

But if you’d rather not work up any sort of sweat, you can stick to the jaunting car tours that meet you where the boat lets off and take you through the Gap. Note that this whole tour can also be taken in reverse, travelling by coach to Kate Kearney’s Cottage on the northern end of the Gap, then moving southward and back east through the lakes, finishing at Ross Castle. Either way, you won’t need to double back on yourself, and you can become totally immersed in the magnificent, unencumbered landscape.

The Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry.
Meander through the breathtaking Gap of Dunloe.

The Gap dates back some two million years, when slow-moving ice carved a narrow pass between the mountains. (The name ‘Gap of Dunloe’ comes from the Irish dun Lóich (“Lóich’s fort”), named after an ancient chieftain.) It looks like a Hollywood set designer’s idea of Ireland — in anything but the worst weather it’s breathtakingly beautiful, as the narrow roads cut past five lakes and over stone bridges that look designed for horses (which they were). 

Once you’ve passed through the Gap, you’ll return back to Killarney town by bike, coach or jaunting car, depending on your tour, in awe and in need of a good meal.

Where to eat in Killarney

With a casual, neighbourhood bistro vibe, Kayne’s is open for lunch and dinner – you can get lighter bites during the day, like pil pil prawns and Dingle goat’s cheese bruschetta and heartier plates in the evening, like Kerry lamb and parmesan-crusted chicken. For something hearty, Bricín Craft Shop & Restaurant specialises in boxty and fish pies worth travelling for (with some excellent vegetarian options, too). It’s also extremely cosy, which is perfect after a plight of rain. 

The family-run Treyvaud's restaurant runs on an ethos of the best quality local produce, cooked simply. Think pan-seared lamb chops, warm soda bread and local mussels steamed with garlic and white wine. Bear in mind they’re open every day from noon except for Mondays, when they open at 5pm. Also, booking ahead is best –– word of their fish cakes, excellent service and gluten-friendly menu has spread.

Four dishes of food on a table in Treyvaud's restaurant in County Kerry.

Photo credit: @eat_crave_love

Book a table at Treyvaud's.
Hit the hay sustainably

Rest up from all of your car-free escapades and take your pick from the range of sustainable accommodations scattered across the country. 

More to discover
The great outdoorsGet out into nature car-free in Killarney National Park

Killarney has been in the business of welcoming visitors for over 250 years, so it knows a thing or two about taking care of its guests. Not only is it the gateway to the Ring of Kerry, but the town and its immediate surroundings are all part of Killarney National Park, the first of its kind in Ireland and one of the most beautiful corners of the country. And the best bit is you don’t need a car to explore any of it. Indeed, half the fun is doing it on foot, by bike or – if you really want to do it the traditional way – by jaunting car.

Coastal escapesFollow the Ring of Kerry car-free

Spend even half an hour on the Ring of Kerry and you’ll quickly understand why this is one of Ireland’s most celebrated drives. Wild, beautiful and packed with jaw-dropping scenery, the 179km route around the Iveragh Peninsula also has plenty of historical sites and picturesque villages dotted between rocky coastlines and pretty beaches. A great way to explore it is by guided coach tour, where the guide comes with deep insider knowledge, local understanding and a day’s worth of entertaining anecdotes – while you relax in the comfort of a cushioned seat. Plus there’s a lot to be said for leaving it up to someone who knows the roads — as well as where the roaming sheep are likely to cross at a moment’s notice.

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