If there was ever the perfect year to visit the Emerald Isle, 2013 might be it. This is the year of The Gathering, and Ireland has issued a worldwide invitation for anyone who has Irish roots -- or whoever thinks they do -- to come discover them first hand.
The country-wide event will mean tons of added value to any Irish vacation, thanks to a bevy of festivals, concerts and events (many of them free) that have been scheduled throughout the year. Once you're there, these unique experiences will make any 2013 trip to Ireland a real memory-maker.
Eat the Beer, Don't Just Drink It
Headed to Dublin? Then you'll probably find your way to the Guinness Storehouse, an eye-opening visitor center where history and suds collide; enjoying a pint at the top-floor Gravity Bar, with its 360-degree views, is a must. But here, you don't just sip Guinness, you also eat it. Pull up a seat at the Brewer's Dining Hall, where you'll be amazed by how Guinness beer works perfectly as an ingredient in dishes like Beef & Guinness Stew, Irish Smoked Salmon on Guinness Bread and Guinness Chocolate Mousse. (By the way, get your visitor tickets online and save 10 percent.)
Go Fine Dining, Take a Break from the Pub
One neat surprise for this traveler was just how delicious Irish food can be. Pub fare, of which there's plenty, is tasty and affordable, and it's always served with enthusiasm. But fine dining in downtown Dublin is worth the splurge (yes, it can be pricey). Restaurant Patrick Gilbaud, a classic venue since 1981 and a favorite stop for native son Bono, features impeccable service, a jaw-dropping European wine list and artistic renditions of dishes like squab pigeon, pan-roasted duck foie gras and shoulder of milk-fed lamb. Amazing.
See the Graffiti, Skip the Museum
It turns out that Irish culture is alive and well on the streets. Newly formed Urban Productions features Dublin's first graffiti and street-art walking tour. Your guides are art and photography students who showcase fascinating, urban-inspired works from frescoes to sticker murals. This is not a celebration of taggers, but rather a glimpse at a fast-budding contemporary art movement.
Come for the Beer, Stay for the Read
Actor Colm Quilligan founded the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which brings literary history to life. Actors portraying Irish authors like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett take guests from pub to pub (The Duke has been a favorite haven for writers for decades) while performing snippets of poems and plays. These evening tours usually include a stop at iconic Trinity College.
Fly into Belfast, Drive to Dublin
Getting around Ireland is easy; everything is just a few hours' drive away. Sure, Dublin Airport has the most flight options. But also consider Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is now emerging as a solid tourist destination after many years of dubious distinction. United Airlines flies here from Newark and low-cost carriers like easyJet allow you to springboard to cities throughout Europe.
Flying into Belfast puts you in the heart of several new Titanic-inspired attractions; the world's most famous invincible vessel was built here and the new Titanic Belfast center offers an amazing hands-on learning experience while the Ulster Folk Museum features hundreds of artifacts, including many recovered directly from the seabed. From here, you can also access many of the spectacular golf courses that make this country world famous; Ardglass, with dramatic fairways that stretch to the water's edge, is not to be missed. And Dublin is just about two hours away.
Visit This Library, Sport Some Gloves
Armagh is one of Ireland's oldest and tiniest towns; this is where St. Patrick founded his first church in 445 A.D. But the Public Library here is fascinating. A reference hub for the book-curious and students from around the world, it houses the original edition of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels."
Published in 1726 and featuring hand-written corrections by the author in the margins, it was originally titled "Travels Into Several Remotes Nations of the World." Handling it requires white gloves, literally, because the fingers' natural oils can pose a danger to this fragile legendary tome.
See the Lake, Skip the Beach
Lough Derg is one of Ireland's largest lakes, nestled on the River Shannon in Western Ireland and bordered by Counties Clare, Tipperary and Galway. The natural landscape is spectacular and, thanks to Luxury Yachting Ireland, a lot more accessible. This new company, founded by avid boater Mark O'Dwyer, features Ireland's first and only skippered luxury motor yacht and takes small groups on one- or three-day adventures that tap some true hidden Irish gems.
Examples are Bushy Island, home to Ireland's only pair of white-tailed eagles, Garrykennedy, a village with no church or shops but two pubs and nine residents, and Coolbawn Quay, an upscale resort spa resembling a traditional Irish village. Experiences can also include high-end culinary tastings and adrenaline-pumping sports.
Check into a B&B, Skip the Castle
Ireland is home to hundreds of castles, many of which offer posh 5-star stays. But any of the country's thousands of certified bed-and-breakfasts are an affordable alternative. Accommodations are quaint, the countryside settings are beautiful and the first-hand insight from your owner-hosts can be priceless. Many packages from companies like Sceptre Tours include stays at your choice of B&Bs, including rental car and usually combined with a night or two at a luxury castle as well.
Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo. For the best bargains on trips to Ireland, check out Travelzoo.com.