In Ireland’s “Ancient East”, Wexford is a town founded by the Vikings at the start of the 9th century.
It’s just the place to connect with Ireland’s distant past, at the Irish National Heritage Park, an outdoor museum recounting the country’s history up to the 12th-century Norman invasion.
Culture lovers may know Wexford for the opera festival every autumn, while Wexford County is littered with stately homes and the captivating ruins of Norman abbeys.
In this sunny part of Ireland a day at the beach is never out of the question in summer, and one of Ireland’s best is a few minutes outside the town at Curracloe.
Also on the coast are natural reserves for birdwatching, and the second-oldest functioning lighthouse in the world at Hook Head.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wexford:
1. Irish National Heritage Park
On the right bank of the River Slaney, just before it flows into Wexford harbour, is an outdoor museum charting 9,000 years of Irish history.
The park has 14 hectares of natural forest and wet woodland, where a host of monuments and dwellings have been reproduced.
Among them are thatched Viking houses, crannogs (marsh houses), hunter-gatherer huts, stone circles, an early church and a ringfort made with the timber of 400 oak trees.
The walking trail is as close as you’ll get to a journey back to Neolithic Ireland, and there are characters in period costume to add some context.
At the park you can build a house with wattle, shoot a Viking bow and pan for gold, while children can let off steam at two adventure playgrounds.
2. Selskar Abbey
Right in the middle of Wexford is what’s left of an abbey that was established in the 12th century.
Surrounded by a graveyard, the ruins of the Gothic church are in good condition considering the monastery was suppressed more than 450 years ago.
There’s a set of three ogival arches in the chancel window, crested by pinnacles on each side.
At the opposite end is a sturdy square defensive tower, topped with battlements.
Henry II passed Lent at this very place in 1172, as penance for the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.
It is rumoured that the abbey’s location was a Celtic monastery in the early Middle Ages.
3. Main Street
A narrow artery with a north and south section, Main Street is somewhere to shop, dine and go for a pint in Wexford.
Many of the town’s monuments are on or near Main Street, like Selskar Abbey, St Iberius’ Church and the National Opera House.
The route is lined with handsome Victorian houses containing typical Irish and British chain stores like Penneys and Holland & Barrett, in between more interesting one-off pubs, cafes, arts and crafts shops and design boutiques.
On North Main Street you’ll come to one of the highlights, the Bullring Market, open Fridays and Saturdays and selling farm-fresh produce, antiques and local crafts.
4. St Iberius’ Church
Dating to the mid-18th century, St Iberius’ Church is in a mixture of styles, from Neo-Romanesque to Neoclassical.
The building was designed by John Roberts, a prominent Georgian architect who helped shape the city of Waterford an hour west of Wexford.
The interior has an unusually short and broad nave, traced on three sides by an elegant painted wooden gallery.
This faces the sanctuary, which is divided from the rest of the church by two painted Corinthian columns.
That unique plan has given the church superlative acoustics, so see if you can catch one of the regular concerts given by choirs, classical ensembles and soloists.
5. Twin Churches
A lasting signature of the Wexford skyline is the pair of identical Gothic Revival churches, built at the same time in the 1850s.
Ever since the Penal Laws at the end of the 17th century there had been a shortage of space for Catholics to worship.
After the laws were loosened the city pooled together to build these monuments, which was a remarkable feat at a time when Wexford was recovering from the Great Famine.
The Church of the Assumption on Bride Street, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception on the corner of John Street Lower and Rowe Street Upper have the exact same design, with spires just shy of 70 metres tall.
They were designed by Robert Pierce, who studied under Augustus Pugin, designer of London’s Houses of Parliament, and are identical “to prevent jealousy and unpleasant comparisons amongst the town people”.
6. Tintern Abbey
In partially restored ruins, Tintern Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery set up at the turn of the 13th century.
The founder was William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, fulfilling a vow after being caught at sea in a storm.
The abbey’s monks came from the original Tintern Abbey in Wales and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries the property passed into the hands of the Colclough Baronets who lived here right up to the 1960s.
For this reason Tintern Abbey has remained in good condition, and 45-minute guided tours are provided of the nave, chancel, cloisters, chapel and the imposing main tower.
7. Curracloe Beach
If the weather holds up, one of Ireland’s top beaches is barely 10 minutes outside Wexford.
Curracloe Beach is a perennial Blue Flag holder, and is 11 kilometres of silky golden sand bordered by dunes.
The beach is washed by rolling waves, but pitches gently into the sea, so there’s lots of knee-high shallow water for kids to play in.
It’s worth coming to Curracloe Beach outside the summer season, as you can walk the five-kilometre nature trail down to Raven Point at the tip of the peninsula that shields Wexford Harbour from the north.
The path winds through the dunes, grassland and pines of the Raven Nature Reserve.
8. Colclough Walled Garden
Neighbouring Tintern Abbey, the Colclough Walled Garden was planted in a green vale by the Colclough Baronets in the early-1800s.
The compound is one hectare in size and divided into east and west sections by another wall.
The east is ornamental and made up of colourful borders, formal lawns and diamond-shaped flowerbeds, while the west is a kitchen garden growing herbs and vegetables.
A slender river flows through the length of the garden and is crossed by five little bridges.
Ongoing restoration work since 2010 has returned the garden to its 1838 design.
9. Irish Agricultural Museum
The 200-year-old farm buildings at Johnstown Castle near Wexford contain a museum about the history of rural life in Ireland.
The Irish Agricultural Museum was established in the 1970s and chronicles the many changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to farming in Ireland, when horses and manpower were overtaken by the combustion engine.
The museum delves into the grim reality of the Great Famine and has displays on a variety of lighter agricultural themes like kitchen gardens, beet farming, dairies and laundries, all equipped with antique machinery like tractors, threshing machines, carts and ploughs.
You can also look inside the different workshops that you’d find at a traditional farm, like a basket-maker, cooper, wheelwright, harness-maker and blacksmith.
10. Wexford Wildfowl Reserve
On the way to Curracloe Beach at the north edge of Wexford Harbour sit the Wexford Slobs, a wetland environment bursting with birdlife at all times of year.
The winter months are a special time at the reserve, when more than a third of the world’s population of Greenland white-fronted geese stay here.
Other goose species that spend time at the reserve in this season include Brent, taiga bean and snow geese, along with whooper and tundra swans, visiting from Iceland and Siberia respectively.
The reserve has wooden footbridges, a viewing tower and hides, while regular talks are given at the restored Victorian pump house.
11. Blackwater Open Farm
If you’re in County Wexford with kids in tow, the Blackwater Open Farm promises a few hours of rural fun.
Youngsters can meet and pet horses, rabbits, a variety of pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys and llamas, and learn about rearing cattle.
The farm also has go-karts, an indoor tractor track, a zip-line, adventure playground and bouncy castle.
There are also seasonal events, like an Easter egg hunt and face-painting and spooky fun at Halloween.
In summer you could pack a picnic or pick up something at the garden cafe.
12. Wells House and Gardens
Rated as Ireland’s Best Family Day Out by radio station Today FM in 2015, Wells House and Gardens is a country estate that started welcoming visitors in 2012. The house was remodelled with a Gothic and Tudor Revival design in the 1830s.
The architect was one Daniel Robertson, who also plotted the Main Avenue, Terrace Gardens, Arboretum and “Radiating Parterre” in the grounds.
You can stroll around the gardens and take a guided tour of the house, check out the arts and crafts workshops in the old stables and take afternoon tea using vintage china.
There’s also loads for kids to get up to, meeting the animals at the estate’s farm, trying out archery, tackling the adventure playground or watching live falconry.
Special events are organised throughout the spring and summer, whether it’s classic bike and car shows or fun workshops for little ones.
13. Seal Rescue Ireland
The only rescue centre of its kind in the country, Seal Rescue Ireland rehabilitates abandoned, sick and injured seal pups and releases them back into the wild.
The non-profit organisation 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’ll get the chance to see these creatures up close and get to know their diet, natural habitat and behaviour.
The visitor centre and seal enclosures can be seen for free, but donations are accepted and go towards food, medical care and rescue efforts.
14. Hook Head
A little further, but worth every second of the trip, the Hook Peninsula is in the far southwest of County Wexford.
The peninsula projects into the Atlantic on the east side of an estuary where the rivers Suir, Nore and Barrow flow into the ocean.
At the tip, on a dark carboniferous limestone headland is the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the world.
The Hook Lighthouse has helped vessels navigate the fog for more than eight centuries, and took the place of an even earlier beacon as old as the 400s.
The four-storey tower you see now was built by William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke and has three rib-vaulted chambers on its ground floor.
The light was automated in 1996, and since 2001 the old keeper’s houses have contained a visitor centre about this fascinating structure.
15. Our Lady’s Island Lake
Bring your camera to this brackish lake by the sea a short drive south of Wexford.
Lady’s Island Lake is naturally beautiful of course, but also has human history on its north shore.
Here you’ll discover the ruins of a Norman Castle, encircled by earthworks and dating to the end of the 12th century.
There’s a leaning tower, caused by the soft ground, and the ruins of a church.
The area in front of the castle has been a pilgrimage site related to the Virgin Mary for more than 1,500 years, and worshippers from across Ireland show up on the Assumption in mid-August.
Our Lady’s Island Lake is also a birdwatcher’s dream, as a breeding ground for the Sandwich tern and endangered roseate tern.