Ireland is famous for her emerald hills, medieval past and grey skies and one of the places that best embodies this beauty is the historical site of Glendalough, possibly my favourite place in the whole island.
Glendalough (pronounced: Glen-da-lock, with a hard ‘c’ sound at the end) is a monastic site dating back to the 7th century a.D. It’s located just about an hour south of Dublin but despite this relative proximity to the capital, it’s a world away from the bustling city centre streets.
The best way to put into words the kind of atmosphere you experience there, it’s probably to look at the meaning of its name: Glendalough in Gaelic means ‘the valley of the two lakes’, and a green valley with two interconnecting mountain lakes and sloping woods is just where this small medieval site is nestled.
A bit of history. The monastic site of Glendalough was founded by St Kevin, an Irish saint who elected it as its hermit retreat. The legend tells us that Kevin lived in this area in communion with nature ‘sleeping on stones and talking to birds’, but that towards the end of his life opened up the site to a selected number of friends and followers. After his death, in 618 a.D., his followers stayed in Glendalough and soon made it into a flourishing monastic community. Glendalough thrived for over 600 years: in its heyday, the settlement included churches, monastic cells but also workshops, hospitality facilities, an infirmary, farm buildings and houses (most of them now lost). Information about the site is available at the visitors centre and guided tours are available. If you decide to explore the site on your own, some handy signs with historical facts help you navigate the ruins.
Visiting Glendalough with children
Glendalough is the very first place I saw in Ireland, after Dublin, and holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first stop of my road trip around the island, well over 15 years ago, and I got there in the late afternoon when the site was empty of tourists. I took a stroll towards the lakes, took in the beautiful woods, marveled at the medieval round tower and when I left I remember having a very clear thought: ‘this place is special. I might never make it back to Ireland a second time, and if there is one thing I want to remember about it, it’s this place.’ Little did I know that Ireland would become home and I would marry someone from the town just beside this great site!
Now I go to Glendalough often and it’s a place I always recommend to all my friends coming to the Emerald isle: adults, young parent with small children, teenagers – no matter what age you are, my first advice to you will always be ‘Go to Glendalough!!’ and I still have to find someone who came back not agreeing with me!
The last time I was there was last Sunday, when we decided to make the most of the winter sun and head there for an afternoon with the kids. The winter sun in Ireland looks wonderful but it’s far from able to produce any heat, so we decided to wrap up!
Glendalough is a very touristy site and over the course of the years has evolved to accommodate a large number of visitors. The site itself is open to the public free of charge, but just beside the main entrance there is a visitors centre with information and materials explaining the history of the site. If it’s your first time here, it is a good idea to enter the centre as it gives good background information about the site and a map of the several paths in it.
Beside the visitors centre, there are the main facilities: they are pretty basic but they do include a small changing area which is handy for families with young children.
As soon as you leave this first area, you find yourself surrounded by the beautiful woods Glendalough is famous for. A large buggy-friendly path crosses the woods and with no more than a five-minute walk, you find yourself at the entrance of the monastic city
The city itself is, I believe, the best part of the site and despite the name ‘city’ is a small site, easy to visit even if pressed for time. It’s highlights are the building know as St Kevin’s kitchen and the beautiful round tower, while its most evocative element are the ancient tombstones dotting the place. Glendalough has worked as a cemetery for a long time and the ancient stones bear names dating back several centuries (part of the cemetery is still in use).
Unlike the path leading here, the city itself is not entirely buggy friendly but if you have kids already of walking age, it’s a fun terrain to explore! My two were over excited by the many steps and found hilarious to be able to play hide and seek among the ruins.
The monastic city is the most famous part of the site and the only one most tourists spend time into, but to really make the most of the site it is definitely worth venturing further down along the path, towards the lakes. On our last trip there we decided not to take this option but it’s definitely something you should do, if you are here in the spring or on a reasonable warm day: the walk around the lakes is really easy and pleasant and if you fancy a bit of a hike you can also venture further up in the woods, where you will find beautiful nature and additional traces of the life of St Kevin. You can find information about the available hikes here.
On this occasion, after the walk to the monastic city and good run around, the cold had the best of us and left us with a strong desire for a hot cup of tea in front of a crackling fire. We found what we were looking for, in the Glendalough Hotel adjacent to the site and while defrosting all I could think of was: I’ll be back in the spring!
- The site is best accessed by car, but a connection to Dublin is also available with the St Kevin’s bus
- Best time to visit: during the week, to avoid crowds
- Entrance to the site is free, but there is a charge of about 1 Euro for the visitors centre
- Accessibility: the site is buggy and wheelchair accessible, with the exception of some parts of the monastic city
- Facilities: available at the entrance, with a basic but handy changing area
- Food and drinks: the Glendalough hotel is close to the entrance and has a lovely restaurant and cafe with bar food (the soup is lovely!)
- For children: no special attractions for children (playground etc) but there’s plenty of space for running around!
Planning a family vacation? Follow my Pinterest board about Ireland for tips and ideas on how to visit Ireland with kids!