Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is a myriad of waterways, nature trails and quaint villages that are waiting to be explored.
I find the word ‘Hidden’ particularly apt, because despite travelling extensively in Ireland, there are many places in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands that I had never visited until recently. Ironically part of the beauty of our Hidden Heartlands is that they are ‘hidden’ – there is a reason the region is called Ireland’s best kept secret.
We enjoyed relaxed water activities and leisurely cycles without the hustle and bustle that usually comes with holidaying in Ireland during the peak summer season.
We cruised the Shannon, cycled and kayaked along the Royal Canal, saw some stunning scenery, ate delicious food and visited some of Ireland’s ancient castles and country houses – and all over three days. That’s the beauty of the Hidden Heartlands, while I recommend taking your time to explore properly, you can visit so many counties in such a short space of time.
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What are Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands?
Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is a region filled with wonderful waterways, nature trails and riverside towns in Ireland’s midlands. 11 counties make up Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands: Cavan, Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, Roscommon Westmeath and parts of East Clare, East Galway, East Limerick, North Cork and North Tipperary, and all are connected by the River Shannon.
Home to Ireland’s longest Greenway and Ireland’s longest river, as well as countless waterways for you to enjoy, you will be spoilt for choice for outdoor activities, as well as historic castles and authentic villages to explore. Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands offer the opportunity to get off the beaten track, enjoy some quiet time and explore places that are often overlooked.
Discover Ireland asked me to visit and write about my favourite things to do in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands for families, and I have listed them for you below, although all of these could be enjoyed by adults too!
1. Cycle the Royal Canal Greenway
The Royal Canal Greenway opened in 2021, and it is now the longest greenway in Ireland. It stretches over 130km along the historic Royal Canal from Maynooth, Kildare to Clondra, Longford. The Royal Canal has 90 bridges, 33 locks and 17 harbours, so you can boat, paddle, walk, or cycle along the route.
We got e-bikes from Ballymahon Greenway Cycles in Longford and cycled from Ballymahon to Keenagh – a scenic 9km cycle over bridges and locks. We met very few cyclists or walkers along the way, despite it being a sunny July morning, so it is ideal walk or cycle for families with younger children too.
The e-bikes certainly made it easy, as did the coffee and pastries at 2 Mugs coffee in Keenagh. We relaxed at picnic tables beside the canal before cycling back to Ballymahon.
We all loved the activity and the great value too. You can of course bring your own bikes and cycle for free, or rent bikes for the day – €25 for adults and €10 for children, e-bikes are €40.
2. Kayak along the Royal Canal Blueway
While many people may choose to cycle or boat along the Royal Canal, we chose both. I love water activities and Alans Yippee Kayaking in Longford was the perfect choice. Alan organises small group paddles at weekends and evenings and guides you along the Canal the entire time of your session.
The difference between paddling in a canal versus the open water – this was a much more relaxing experience! The Canal is so still and the kayaks felt completely stable – they are suitable for children age 10+ to paddle alone. Children under 10 can ride with parents and with Alan alongside at all times, it is the perfect way to introduce young children to kayaking.
Located behind The Rustic Inn in Abbeyshrule, which serves up great pub grub, it is hard to find a better combo. Alans Yippee Kayaking has limited space though, so my advice is to book early. With prices from only €20 per person, it’s not surprising he is having a bumper season.
3. Take time to explore Lough Key Forest Park
Lough Key Forest Park in Roscommon has been on my wish list for years, and we finally got around to visiting. The only problem is we didn’t have nearly enough time – there are a whopping 865 acres to explore!
As the name suggests you can expect plenty of lakeside activities and an abundance of forest trails, but we chose some of the other activities available.
The Rockingham Remembered self-guided tour takes you through underground tunnels to Moylurg viewing tower. It certainly won’t win any awards for design, and don’t let the 160 steps put you off either – the views from the top are absolutely stunning!
The tour continues with a tree-top canopy walk, and you may be fooled to thinking the views will be similar from here, but they are not – make sure you climb the tower for the best views.
For families who liked to be challenged, check out Boda Borg. This Swedish concept has 47 challenges within 15 quests and no instructions – and is the only one of its kind in Ireland. Over two hours you will go from room to room trying to solve the quests or complete the challenges.
Suitable from groups of 3 – 5 people, something you need to consider is that everyone in the team has to complete the challenge. We were hopeless, despite the very helpful staff providing hints, so this is best suited to Escape Room enthusiasts or families who like a good challenge!
You can also hire boats or bikes, Zipline through the trees with Zipit, or enjoy hours of fun in the extensive playground. There are so many things to do in Lough Key Forest Park, I suggest spending at least a full day here, or if time allows you could always book into Lough Key’s Caravan and Camping Park.
4. Check out the Bistros in Athlone
When I asked for recommendations on Instagram on where to dine in Athlone, I was blown away by the response. I never knew Athlone was such a ‘foodie’ town, I would have to spend a week in Athlone to try them all!
We had a delicious lunch in the Corner House Bistro – the Warm Duck Salad and Chilli Beef Noodles deserve a special mention, and a tasty meal at the Left Bank Bistro, which has a delightful menu of Mediterranean and Asian inspired dishes with fresh local produce – the turmeric crusted tiger prawns were delicious and there was a large selection of daily specials too.
If you are travelling without kids, I can recommend some pre-dinner drinks in Seans Bar – Ireland’s oldest pub is certainly worth a visit.
5. Discover our past in one of Ireland’s ancient castles
You simply can’t visit Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands without visiting at least one of its many historic castles. Birr Castle in Offaly is home to stunning gardens as well as a Science Centre, and is the perfect option for a family day out.
We visited Athlone Castle, which played a crucial role in the events that have shaped Ireland. Its strategic position on the River Shannon brought soldiers from across Europe to fight there, culminating in the Great Siege of Athlone in 1691.
This interactive self-guided tour is suitable for families too and is one of the top things to do in Athlone. Kids will enjoy the Handling Collection Room – where you are shown a selection of artefacts and asked to guess what they were used for, they can also dress up in costumes too!
6. Cruise the Shannon
One of the top things to do in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is to cruise the Shannon. There are many different options to choose from including luxury river cruises from Carrick on Shannon on Moon River to family cruises on a replica Viking ship from Athlone.
For the ultimate experience, be your own captain and charter your own boat. Explore Ireland’s waterways at your own pace and let the sounds of nature put you to sleep.
This has been on my Irish bucket list for some time and I’m finally getting to try it next month. I can’t wait to discover some more of Ireland’s hidden gems while stopping off in pretty port towns along the way.
7. Have a picnic in Belvedere House
One of the best things about exploring Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands was the surprises we found along the way. Despite being less than an hour from my home, I had never visited Belvedere House, Westmeath, until recently.
This beautiful Georgian country house dates back 1740 and has a dramatic history. The story of its feuding family and their now historical ruins combine to make this such an interesting place to visit, and one of the hidden gems in Ireland.
The house is currently closed for renovations, but the stunning walled garden, forest walks and lakeside picnic spots deserve a visit on their own.
8. Visit Glencar Waterfall
We all love free things to do in Ireland and Glencar Waterfall in Leitrim is up there with the best of them! The 50ft-high waterfall is situated near Glencar Lake and is famous for being the inspiration to William Butler Yeats poem, The Stolen Child.
Glencar Waterfall is particularly impressive after rain, which is something we are lucky to have plenty of in Ireland!
There is a free car park on site and a short wooded walk leads you to the waterfall, where there are viewing platforms to appreciate it properly. There are picnic tables and a children’s playground here too.
We didn’t visit Glencar Waterfall on this occasion but have visited before and think it is one of the best free things to do in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.
9. Walk across Acres Lake
Acres Lake in Leitrim is home to Ireland’s first floating boardwalk. This 600 metre boardwalk is located in the pretty village of Drumshanbo and is the start of a 6.5km walking and cycling trail along the Shannon Blueway.
Make sure to stop at Jinny’s Tea Rooms and either enjoy the views from its outdoor terrace, or grab a takeaway and enjoy a picnic overlooking the lake. We have stopped here on a few occasions but have yet to walk the full trail – it’s another great excuse to go back!
Leitrim Surf have a two hour SUP Safari called ‘Drumshamazon’. This explores Shannon Blueway along the Drumshanbo canal between Lough Allen and Acres Lake. This is a sheltered route and according to their website, ‘the scenery here is Amazonian during the summer months’.
10. Have fun at Hodson Bay
We had the pleasure of staying at the lakeside Hodson Bay Hotel which is just 5km from Athlone. You will find a host of family friendly facilities on site, including a Kids Club, Leisure Centre, and the 200 acre nature trail, Yew Point. It also has the benefit of being located next to Bay Sports – Ireland’s largest inflatable waterpark.
Kids will love the variety of obstacles and slides available, and priced at just €22.50 for an hour including wetsuit and buoyancy aid, it is one of the best value family activities in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.
When it comes to Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands all the clichés come to mind – its unspoilt, packed with hidden gems, and off the beaten track! So for your next staycation, try swapping the coastline for our lake lands, and holiday resorts for authentic villages, take the road less travelled and go explore Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.
This is just a snapshot of the things to do in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, for more information visit DiscoverIreland.ie. This post was sponsored by Discover Ireland, all views, as always are my own.