You don’t have to be Irish to be spellbound by Ireland’s epic expanse of culture, history, quaint towns and otherworldly landscapes. Though it is a small country, travelers have long been known to explore it at a leisurely pace by car or train over the course of two or three weeks.
But what if you are a family traveling with kids or just don’t have several weeks of vacation time set aside? In County Kildare, less than an hour by train or car from central Dublin, your family can enjoy a thoroughly immersive Ireland getaway. Grand manors and castles? Check. Rolling hills and ambling roads? Check. Cute towns and friendly people? Check. And throw in a romp into the majestic world of equestrianism for good measure.
The Irish National Stud just may be alpha and omega for equestrians and horse enthusiasts. The lush site is home to a who’s who of champion racehorses (Beef Or Salmon, Hardy Eustace, Hurricane Fly, Kicking King and Rite Of Passage) enjoying their retirement on the grounds, as well as mares and their foals and a few exotic miniature horses to boot. The on-site horse-racing museum, meanwhile, features the skeleton of Arkle, a race horse that set the standards 40 years ago as well as memorabilia from his numerous races. Visitors can take in the history of the horse in Ireland in the adjoining Sun Chariot Yard through artifacts, illustrations and texts.
The Japanese Gardens and St. Fiachra’s Garden at the Irish National Stud are lovely places to walk and reflect. However, St. Fiachra’s Garden (named for the patron saint of gardening) is transformed into an equine-enchanted forest on days when Fairy Walks are staged, and young kids step into a storybook, greeted by kindred spirits.
If it starts raining, Newbridge Silver is a fine place to take cover. While it is a lovely place to pick up home décor items and jewelry souvenirs for friends back home, it also boasts an adjoining (and free-of-charge) Museum of Style Icons that brings a surprising but tasteful hit of Hollywood and upper crust European royal fashion to the Irish countryside. Its eclectic displays include iconic outfits worn by Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Barbra Streisand; rare items from the wardrobes of Princess Diana and Princess Grace; and clothing worn by the Beatles and Michael Jackson. There are also props from internationally beloved American television shows such as The Brady Bunch and Dallas.
More gems and artifacts can be found on the 60-acre grounds and great house at Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park. Here, visitors can take a 9,000-year journey back in time through landmark periods of Irish history with exhibitions and multimedia displays, from the arrival of the early Mesolithic settlers to the beginning of Christianity and the eras of rebellion and famine. The recently opened Biodiversity Boardwalk features guided tours and an exploration of the scientific and environmental wonders of the bogs and Irish midlands.
The Steam Museum, located in an evocative Victorian-Gothic house and open May–September, takes visitors into the Industrial Revolution. The collection includes a mix of inventor prototypes, inventor portraits, mechanical art objects, scientific engineering models and actual steam engines that represented the cutting-edge technology of the late 19th century.
Castletown, built in 1722 for William Conolly, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, is the first and largest mansion in Ireland with 550 acres of parkland. In addition to the historic home and gardens, there are plenty of events staged throughout the season (from the start of spring until Oct. 31) include children’s art and craft workshops, free music recitals, parkland tours, evening concerts and family nights in the Courtyard Café.
While there are a variety of inns and hotels dotting the village and countryside, the splurge-worthy K-Club Resort is a standout. The grand and sprawling estate was built in 1832 as the Straffan House, known throughout the world as a site for numerous international championship golf tournaments, from the 2006 Ryder Cup to the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and 13 European Opens.
The property today is outfitted not only with an Arnold Palmer-designed course, but also several drawing rooms graced with museum-caliber art on display in the main building, as well as individually decorated rooms and suites, free bike rentals and an exquisite breakfast buffet with scones, clotted cream and a delicious array of homemade breads and jams. Other delights include high tea service, excellent Irish cheese plates and perfectly fried fish-and-chips.
One of the county’s best-known landmarks within Europe is Kildare Village, an outdoor outlet mall. Before you (or the men of the family) grumble about doing something so “American,” take note this mall features European brands not available in the U.S. market and often at wallet-friendly prices (compared to their full-price affiliates along Dublin’s posh Grafton Street). Dining options include l’Officina, a solid Italian eatery conceived and operated by top Irish restaurateurs Dunne & Crescenzi. And if sensory overload takes over, there’s a real village — Kildare Town — a five-minute walk away.