In the ‘Old East’ of Ireland, Wexford is a town founded by the Vikings in the early 9th century.
This is exactly the place to connect to the distant past of Ireland, in the Irish National Heritage Park, an external museum that unfolds the country’s history up to the Norman invasion in the 12th century.
Culture lovers may know Wexford for the Opera Festival every fall, while Wexford County is packed with lavish homes and the captivating ruins of Norman monasteries.
In this sunny part of Ireland a day at the beach is never out of the question in the summer, and one of the best in Ireland is a few minutes out of town in Curracloe.
Also on the beach are nature reserves for bird watching, and the second largest lighthouse in the world at Hawk Echo.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wexford:
1. Irish National Heritage Park
On the right bank of the River Sleeney, just before it flows into the port of Wexford, is an external museum depicting 9,000 years of Irish history.
The park has 14 acres of natural forest and wet woodland, where a number of monuments and residences have been restored.
Among them are thatched Viking houses, carnivores (swampy houses), hunter-gatherer huts, stone circles, an early church and a fort made with a tree of 400 oak trees.
The walking route is as close as you can get to the journey back to Neolithic Ireland, and there are figures in period costumes to add some context.
In the park you can build a house with a wattle, shoot a Viking rainbow and a pan for gold, while kids can let off steam in two playgrounds.
2. Celsker Monastery
Right in the middle of Wexford is what is left of a monastery built in the 12th century.
Surrounded by a cemetery, the ruins of the Gothic church are in good condition given the fact that the monastery was suppressed more than 450 years ago.
There is a set of three angular arches in the boat window, covered with peaks on each side.
At the opposite end is a square and sturdy defense tower, and above it are battles.
Henry II passed the fast at this place right in 1172, as an atonement for the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett.
According to rumors, the location of the monastery was a Celtic monastery in the early Middle Ages.
3. Main Street
Main Street, a narrow artery with northern and southern parts, is a place to shop, dine and go out for a pint at Wexford.
Many of the town’s monuments are on or near the main street, such as the Salasker Monastery, St. Ibrius’ Church and the National Opera House.
The route is lined with handsome Victorian homes containing typical Irish and British chain stores like Penneys and Holland & Barrett, between more interesting one-off pubs, cafes, arts and crafts shops and boutiques to design.
On North Main Street you will reach one of the highlights, the Bullring Arena, open on Fridays and Saturdays and selling fresh farm produce, antiques and local crafts.
4. Church of St. Ibrius
The Church of St. Ibrius, dating to the middle of the 18th century, is a combination of styles, from Neo-Romanesque to Neo-Classical.
The building was designed by John Roberts, a prominent Georgian architect who helped design the city of Waterford an hour west of Wexford.
Inside there is an unusually short and wide ship, depicted on three sides by an elegantly painted wooden gallery.
It faces the temple, which is divided from the rest of the church by two painted Corinthian columns.
This unique program has given the church excellent acoustics, so see if you can catch one of the regular concerts given by choirs, classical ensembles and soloists.
5. Twin Churches
A Continuous Signature of the Wexford Skyline is a pair of identical Gothic Revival churches, built in parallel in the 1950s.
Since the penal laws in the late 17th century there has been a shortage of space for Catholics to pray.
After the release of the laws the city banded together to build these monuments, which was an extraordinary achievement at a time when Wexford was recovering from the Great Famine.
The Church of the Assumption on Bride Street, and the Immaculate Conception Church at the corner of Lower John Street and Upper Rowe Street have the exact same design, with spiers only 70 feet high.
They were designed by Robert Pierce, who studied with Augustus Fogin, the designer of the London Houses of Parliament, and are identical “to avoid jealousy and unpleasant comparisons between city dwellers”.
6. Tintern Monastery
Within partially restored ruins, Tintern Abbey is a former Cistercian abbey established in the early 13th century.
The founder was William Marshall, the first Count of Pembroke, to hold a vow after being caught in the sea in a storm.
The monks of the monastery came from the original monastery of Tintern in Wales and after the dismantling of the monasteries the property passed into the hands of the Brunettes of Colclao who lived here right up until the 60s.
For this reason Tintern Monastery remains in good condition, and 45-minute guided tours of the nave, church, cloisters, chapel and impressive main tower are provided.
7. Corkle Beach
If the weather holds up, one of Ireland’s top beaches is barely 10 minutes outside of Wexford.
Curracloe Beach has a perennial blue flag, and is 11 miles of silky golden sand bordering the dunes.
The beach is washed by rolling waves, but falls gently into the sea so there is plenty of shallow water up to the knees for children to play with.
You should reach Curracloe Beach outside of the summer season, as you can walk the five-mile nature trail to Raven Point at the tip of the peninsula that protects the port of Wexford from the north.
The path winds between the dunes, grassland and pines of the Crow Nature Reserve.
8. Colclough Walled Garden
Neighboring Tintern Monastery, Colclau’s Wall Garden was planted in a green valley by Colclau’s brunettes in the early 1800s.
The compound is one acre in size and is divided into eastern and western sections by an additional wall.
The east is ornamental and made of colorful fringes, formal lawns and diamond-shaped flower beds, while to the west a kitchen garden that grows herbs and vegetables.
A thin river flows along the garden and is crossed by five small bridges.
Continuous restoration work since 2010 restored the garden to its design from 1838.
9. The Irish Agricultural Museum
The 200-year-old farm buildings at Johnstown Castle near Wexford contain a museum on the history of rural life in Ireland.
The Irish Agricultural Museum was established in the 1970s and documents the many changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution to agriculture in Ireland, when horses and manpower overtook the combustion engine.
The museum delves into the grim reality of the Great Famine and has exhibits on a variety of lighter agricultural themes such as kitchen gardens, beet growing, dairies and laundries, all equipped with antique machines like tractors, threshing machines, carts and plows.
You can also look inside the various workshops you will find on a traditional farm, like making baskets, cooper, wheel wrench, harness and volume maker.
10. Wexford Wild Poultry Reserve
On the way to Curracloe beach at the north end of Wexford harbor sit the Wexford Slobs, an egg environment bursting with birds at any time of the year.
The winter months are a special time in the reserve, with more than a third of Greenland’s white goose population in the world staying here.
Other species of geese spending time in the reserve this season include brent, taiga beans and snow geese, along with beeping swans and tundra, visitors from Iceland and Siberia respectively.
The reserve has wooden pedestrian bridges, an observation tower and hideouts, while regular calls are given to the restored Victorian pump house.
11. Blackwater Open Farm
If you are in Wexford County with children in tow, the Blackwater Open Farm guarantees a few hours of rural fun.
Youngsters can meet and pet horses, rabbits, a variety of pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys and die, and learn about raising cattle.
The farm also has a kart, an indoor tractor track, a zip line, an adventure playground and a bouncy castle.
There are also seasonal events, like Easter egg hunts and face painting and scary fun on Halloween.
In summer you can pack a picnic or grab something at the garden cafe.
12. House of Wells and Gardens
Ranked as the best family outing in Ireland by Today FM radio station in 2015, Wells House and Gardens is a country estate that began to welcome visitors in 2012. The house was renovated in Gothic and Tudor design in the 1930s.
The architect was one Daniel Robertson, who also designed the main boulevard, patio gardens, arboretum and “radiant parter” in the area.
Stroll in the gardens and take a guided tour of the house, check out the arts and crafts workshops in the old stables and enjoy afternoon tea with vintage porcelain.
There are also plenty of children to get up to, meet the animals on the farm, experiment with archery, tackle the adventure playground or watch a live falcon.
Special events are organized throughout the spring and summer, whether it’s classic bike and car shows or fun workshops for the little ones.
13. Rescuing seals Ireland
The only rescue center of its kind in the country, Seal Rescue Ireland restores abandoned, sick and injured puppies and releases them back into the wild.
The association is run by volunteers and is open daily from 10:00 to 17:00. Seal Rescue Ireland rehabilitates up to 80 seals a year so you get the chance to see these creatures up close and get to know their diet, natural habitat and behavior.
The visitor center and seal complexes can be seen for free, but donations are increasingly accepted for food, medical care and rescue efforts.
14. Hook head
A little further, but worth every second of the trip, the Hawk Peninsula is located in the far southwest of Wexford County.
The peninsula is reflected to the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of the Suare estuary, Nora and Barrow flow into the ocean.
At its end, on a continent of dark carbon limestone, is the second largest lighthouse operating in the world.
Hawk Lighthouse has helped vessels navigate the fog for more than eight centuries, taking the place of an even earlier, 400th-century beacon.
The four-story tower you see now was built by William Marshall, the second Count of Pembroke, and on its ground floor there are three rooms with arched ribs.
The light was automatic in 1996, and since 2001 the old guard houses have contained a visitor center on this fascinating structure.
15. Our Lady Island Lake
Bring your camera to this salty lake by the sea, a short drive south of Wexford.
Lady’s Island is of course beautiful, but it also has a human history on its north shore.
Here you will discover the ruins of a Norman castle, surrounded by earthworks and dating to the end of the 12th century.
There is a sloping tower, caused by the soft soil, and the ruins of a church.
The area in front of the castle has been a site of pilgrimage associated with the Virgin Mary for more than 1,500 years, and worshipers from across Ireland appear on a “discount” in mid-August.
Our Lady’s Island Lake is also a bird watcher’s dream, a breeding ground for sandwich prey and endangered roses.
Where to stay: Best hotels in Wexford, Ireland
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