With over 50 acres of stunning gardens, lakes and woodland, Heywood Gardens near Ballinakill is a fascinating place to get out exploring. The romantic park was created by Frederick Trench in the late 1700s inspired by a tour of Europe, and the formal gardens followed in the 1900s by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Seek out the lime tree-lined walkway, the formal terrace with views of the surrounding countryside, the sunken garden with an elliptical pool at the centre, and the poetry of Alexander Pope inscribed in the loggia on the top level. Hang out by the lake and you might even spot moorhens and kingfishers.
Discover one of Ireland’s most elegant examples of existing 12th century stonework at Timahoe Round Tower, just outside Portlaoise, with its Romanesque doorway and carved heads decorating the entrance. Cross the footbridge over the Bauteogue River to admire the Tower’s 30m height and enjoy a family picnic in the surrounding parklands.
You might recognise the Rock of Dunamase from the film, Leap Year, but the crumbling, Celtic fortress, not far from Portlaoise is even more impressive in real life. Roam the ruins and imagine its former grandiosity, before it was destroyed in the Cromwellian invasion in 1650. It stands atop a steep rock, so head to the highest point and soak in the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Smell the hops as you wander through the 230 year old stone courtyard on the family farm at Ballykilcavan Brewery in Stradbally. Head inside to discover the inner workings of a small craft brewery where all the barley and water used to make the beer is sourced on the farm and you can ring the 200 year old bell that summoned the farm labourers into work every morning. The guided tasting of their core beers at the end is always a hit.
Hop on a narrowboat from Barrowline Cruisers on the Grand Canal which flows through County Laois to explore the waterways and unspoilt beauty of the Barrow Valley. You don’t need to be a seasoned captain to give it a go. Relax and enjoy the passing countryside along the canal or sail towards the Barrow for more lively waters and unbroken views.
All cruisers come equipped with a full kitchen set up, bed linen, toilets, showers and central heating, as well as navigation charts. Game anglers will find trout and salmon fishing (permits are available at local angling clubs and tackle shops), while course fishers will enjoy bream, tench, rudd and pike fishing throughout the season.
There’s a long and colourful history to be uncovered at Emo Court House near Portarlington, if you can pull yourself inside from its beautiful gardens. Designed by noted architect James Gandon, the neo-classical mansion has been restored to its former glory, and guided tours are available hourly. While you wait, explore the formal gardens originally laid out in the 18th century. Spot the rare red squirrels, wander the glades of azaleas, and don’t skip The Grapery – an arboretum – as the views of Slieve Bloom from its pathways are unmissable.
Take a walk in the stunning Slieve Bloom mountains and discover a vast variety of landscapes; from blanket bogs and forestry paths, to wooded valleys and mountain streams. Enjoy some of the best walks in Laois, there are 16 looped trails to choose from with something to suit all ages and levels.
The Glenbarrow Eco walk will teach you about the environment as you enjoy the ten stop trek, while the Glenbarrow Waterfall walk takes you along the riverbank to a spectacular three-tiered waterfall and natural woodland that’s ablaze with bluebells in spring.
Take a trip to the moon house grotto where a waterfall cascades into a lily pond, and try to spot the many interesting and unusual plants along the way, at Gash Gardens. Created in 1986, the now mature gardens feature colourful herbaceous borders, a large rock garden with rare alpines and even a secret passage leading to a riverside walk.
St. Canice famously founded Aghaboe Abbey in 576. Rich in history, today you can enjoy the tranquillity of the ruins, which the local community have generously come together to restore. Don’t miss the beautifully carved three-light window in the east wall, opposite where the public would have entered in the Middle Ages.
Step back in time at the evocative Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum, built during the 1850s to hear the story of the families who lived and died within its walls in famine times. Discover the harrowing history of Irish workhouses in the authentically restored, original dormitories, kitchen and waiting hall.
Experience an unforgettable night under the stars and enjoy a boutique-style camping adventure at the foot of Cullenagh Mountain. Take in the idyllic countryside views that surround the site and roast marshmallows over the campfire. Rest your head for the night in one of the quirky wooden lodges or luxuriously furnished bell tents at the family-owned Glamping Under the Stars campsite.
Truly a memorable experience for all ages, it’s one of the best things to do in Portlaoise and provides a perfect base for discovering all that County Laois has to offer.