- Dublin has incredible museums that are completely free, 7 days a week. The National Gallery has works by Vermeer, Monet, Picasso and Ireland’s Richard Gorman; The National Museum has 3,000-year-old bodies found in Irish bogs, striking Celtic jewelry collections and it is also where you can visit Michael Collins’ barracks. Dublin Writers Museum has a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Samuel Beckett’s phone among other intriguing items. The Chester Beatty Library is consistently rated as one of Europe’s best museums with its sacred texts and illuminated manuscripts from the world’s great religions and systems of belief. And you can see all of it without spending a dime.
- Walking from museum to museum, it won’t take you long to notice Dublin’s vibrantly colored front doors, which stand as stunning examples of the city’s Georgian legacy. Georgian architecture was used during the 18th and 19th centuries by Ireland’s ruling Protestant class and as a result, carries with it quite a political weight due to Ireland’s complex history of English oppression. The city is home to hundreds of three-story Georgian townhouses, which are typically terraced, with a distinctive arched window frame above the heavy, paneled and brightly colored front door. Inside they have high ornate ceilings, elaborate, marble chimneys and lavishly adorned walls.
- This architecture can be easily seen around St. Stephen’s Green, and Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares. No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street offers a glimpse into what life was like for the middle and upper classes in Georgian Dublin. From 1794 Olivia Beatty, the widow of a prominent wine merchant lived there and it is fully decorated today as it would have been during that time. They offer guided tours four times a day but you can visit anytime between 10am – 5pm if you are interested in just having a look at what Georgian Dublin was like.
- The last of the great Georgian public buildings erected in Dublin was the General Post Office (GPO), which coincidentally was also the headquarters of the Easter Uprising in 1916, eventually leading to twenty-six counties’ independence from Britain. Except for the outer walls, the building was destroyed by fire during the rebellion and rebuilt in 1929. Today, you can still see the British Army’s bullet holes on the front of the building. The GPO remains a symbol of Irish nationalism and has an incredible museum that illustrates ‘The Uprising’ and how Ireland got its independence back.
- Directly in front of the GPO, you’ll notice a huge silver spire named, ‘The Spire of Light’. What originally stood there was the city’s most prominent monument called, ‘Nelson’s Pillar’. It had been there since 1809 and nationalists couldn’t stand having a monument saluting a British hero as the center point of their city. There were a few failed bombing attempts throughout the years until a man by the name of Liam Sutcliffe, was ‘successful’. Sutcliffe planted a bomb on March 7, 1966 with a timer to go off in the middle of the night (morning of March 8) so no one would get hurt. It all went as planned and the only hiccup was that a taxicab got a dent in it. The government officially denounced the attack, though it is said that the President at the time, Eamon De Valera, called the Irish newspaper owned by his family, to suggest the light-hearted headline: “British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air”. The government quickly decided to demolish what was left of the pillar in a massive controlled explosion followed by a deafening roar from celebrating crowds. Nelson’s surviving head can be visited at the Dublin Civic Museum.
Thirty-seven years later Nelson’s pillar was finally replaced with The Spire of Light by way of architectural competition in which, London architect, Ian Ritchie won. Subsequently, most Dubliners like it only slightly more than Nelson’s Pillar and have nicknamed it, ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto’. In Dublin, public art often collides with cheeky street humor and ‘The Spire’ is definitely no exception.
- Just on the other side of the Liffey from The Spire is one of Ireland’s academic treasures, Trinity College. Trinity College was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I and modeled after England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities. It is one of the seven ancient universities of Britain and Ireland and it is Ireland’s most prestigious and oldest surviving university. It is consistently ranked as one of the top universities in Europe and is notably strong in the fields of law, humanities and literature. Apart from its strong academics, Trinity College is also known for being home to the Book of Kells, which arrived at the college in 1661 after the Cromwellian raids on religious institutions. The Book of Kells is the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, which is written in Latin and contains the four gospels of the New Testament. It is considered a masterpiece of western calligraphy and is one of the finest examples of insular art.
The library at Trinity College also houses around seven million printed volumes and significant quantities of manuscripts, including a rare copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and an iconic 15th century wooden harp, which is the mascot for the emblem of Ireland (and Guinness).
- Dublin is one of four UNESCO Cities of Literature in the world, including Edinburgh, Melbourne and Iowa City. It is a city where songwriting, playwriting, prose and poetry are valued and celebrated. The Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to four writers associated with Dublin, including Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats. Other Dublin writers who are internationally renowned include: Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, Eugene O’Brien, Eavan Boland, Cardinal Newman, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, and Maeve Binchy, to name but a few.
- Because there are so many writers from Dublin, almost every street and pub has been featured in a story, novel, or song. The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl is a fun way to experience some of these places by taking you directly to the places the authors have written about. The guides are actors offering literary history during the tour, which lasts roughly two hours. Online tickets are always the safest bet that you’ll get a spot on the tour and they cost €14 per adult.
- Dublin also has literary festivals where the city’s writers converge to give readings and interviews. Try the Mountains to the Sea Festival (March), the Dublin Writers Festival (June), the International Literature Festival (May), and the Dublin Book Festival (November).
- Dublin Castle was originally built in 1204 on a site previously settled by the Vikings. After the Norman invasion of Ireland, King John of England commanded that a castle be built with strong walls and good ditches for the defense of the city, the administration of justice and the protection of the King’s treasures. Over the years it has served as a military fortress, a prison, treasury, courts of law and it was the seat of the English and then British Administration in Ireland for 700 years. They offer tours daily with experienced guides that take you from the excavation site of Viking and medieval Dublin to the former State Apartments.
- If historic jails are your thing, you can put Kilmainham Gaol (jail) on your Dublin to-do list. It opened in 1796 and was involved in some of the most heroic and tragic events in Ireland’s history. It is most widely known for the many Irish revolutionaries and leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising that were imprisoned and executed there on orders of the UK government. Thousands of ordinary men, women and children were also held there for crimes ranging from stealing food to murder. This is also where many of the convicts in Ireland waited to be transported to Australia. They offer guided tours but it is best to book online in advance to guarantee a spot. After learning about all that imprisonment, you might need a cold beer to lift your spirits, so….
- You already know this but I am going to tell you anyway; you can’t come to Dublin without visiting the Guinness Brewery. You just can’t. Even if you don’t drink beer, the Guinness story is an interesting one and the brewery is housed in an old fermentation plant in downtown Dublin. It is a dramatic story that begins over 250 years ago and the tour takes you through it, starting on the bottom floor of the world’s largest pint glass and it ends seven stories up at the Gravity Bar with panoramic views of Dublin and a complimentary pint. My Southern Baptist grandparents even took a tour and drank a pint with me at the top! It is a lot of fun and definitely worth your time!
- Ok, after that beer it is time for a little fresh air. The good news is that you’ve got a lot of options. From the brewery you can easily walk to Dublin’s famous shopping street, Grafton Street. Did you ever see the movie, ‘Once’? The picture on the cover was taken on Grafton Street and parts of the movie were also filmed there. It is a pedestrian only street busting at the seams with vitality. The architecture is mostly Victorian in style, dating from the late 19th/early 20th century, thought the origins of the street date back to the early 17th century. And if you’ve got a thing for shoes, Grafton (and Wicklow) Street is where to go! I would start on the southern end of the street next to Trinity College and work your way towards St. Stephen’s Green.
- St. Stephen’s Green is a little oasis in the middle of the city. This Victorian park is spread out over 22 acres and includes ornamental lakes and beautiful flowers. It was actually Sir A.E. Guinness who initiated the plan to open up the park to the people of Dublin after it served as a private community for the wealthier residents of Dublin for more than a century. Today it is a popular lunchtime spot for locals and children who go to visit their favorite ducks.
- The other famous swath of green in Dublin is called Phoenix Park and it just happens to be one of the largest urban parks in Europe. Originally formed as a royal hunting park in the 1660s, a large herd of fallow deer still remain to this day. It is open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and with its many walking and cycling trails, it is a great spot for a plethora of outdoor activities.
- Dublin has so many great parks, but I would argue that the absolute best one is Croke Park. But unless you are a Gaelic sportsman, you’ll just be a spectator here. Croke Park is the stadium ‘headquarters’ for Gaelic sports and it has the prodigious capacity of 82,000. The stadium itself is mammoth and the atmosphere there is just as big! Gaelic sports are Ireland’s pride and passion and have the same emphatic fan base as European soccer and American football. The main two Gaelic sports are called hurling and Gaelic football and they are both played on a field twice the size of a typical soccer field. The season runs from February to September but tours of the stadium run year round. It is an awesome way to spend an afternoon in Dublin because I can tell ya’ – it won’t get more Irish than this!
- Dublin’s north/south train is called the DART, which consists of one line from Howth and Malahide in northern Dublin all the way to Greystones in County Wicklow. It primarily runs along the coastline of Dublin Bay, which makes for an absolutely stunning ride. It’s a lucky thing that it takes such a scenic path because it moves slower than Christmas, so at least you have plenty of time to take some Instagram-worthy money shots! There are a lot of great stops along the Dart line but two in particular that I would put on your ‘must see list’; Dun Laoghaire and Dalkey.
- Dun Laoghaire is a port town where all of the ferry boats from England dock. You can stroll along its mile-long pier and watch as the fishing boats and yachts sail quietly in and out of the harbor. If you pay attention to where the fishing boats dock when they come into the harbor, you can walk over and see all the seals in the water waiting to catch some escaping fish. They will actually let you buy fish they’ve brought in for a euro or two so you can feed the seals yourself.
- Right on the edge of Dun Laoghaire, which you can see from the pier, is the infamous James Joyce Tower, where he spent six nights in 1904 and from which the opening scenes of Ulysses take place. The tower is now a museum (about James Joyce) and like all Dublin museums, admission is free. It is also right here that the infamous 40-Foot is located where Dubliners ‘flush their organs’ by jumping into the bloody cold Irish Sea.
- Three stops away from Dun Laoghaire is the beautiful seaside town of Dalkey. It’s not a wonder that it is the Beverly Hills of Dublin with its jaw-dropping landscapes and picturesque castles perched on the hillsides. The main street, befittingly called Castle Street, has some great restaurants and local spots, such as Finnegan’s Pub, but the best thing in Dalkey to do is to stop into Select Stores and have Oliver whip you up an incredible smoothie before setting off on foot up to Vico Road. You’ll pass Bono, The Edge and Enya’s house along the way! It is hard to compare scenery in Ireland but the view from the top of Vico Road is definitely at the top of the list.
- Ok, now that you’ve gotten out of Dublin’s city center, I’d say to just keep on going. This might seem like a strange tip, but there are so many day trips around Dublin that are worth making. You can arrive to all of the following destinations I’ve suggested by bus, but if you are feeling brave I’d advise renting a car (or ‘hiring’ a car as the Irish say). It’s much more fun than taking a bus and gives you so much more freedom. But when I say “brave”, what I really mean is BRAVE because (a) you’ll most likely be driving on a side of the car that is all wrong, and (b) Irish roads are like nothing you’ve ever in your life seen before.
For starters, their roads were laid out in medieval times and were not designed for vehicles. Still today they are barely wide enough for one car but somehow you’ve got to make room for two cars, one going each direction. You might think there would be a small shoulder on the side of the road to pull off on to allow an oncoming car room to pass, but no. Irish roads don’t have shoulders. They have hedgerows. Hedgerows that are so thick they’re comparable to a brick wall. So should you decide to rent a car, you’ll want to point out to the car rental guy at the beginning that all those scratches down the right side of the car were already there, so the new ones you’ll add to them won’t be noticed. And you should go ahead and sign up for that extra insurance option…
- Ok, so where to first? Glendalough. It is an enchanted valley south of Dublin in County Wicklow, which makes for an easy day trip. It is also home to one of the most important early medieval monastic settlements in the world, founded in the 6th century. It was one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations until the Normans destroyed the monastery and the diocese became united with Dublin. The extensive ruins that remain include several churches, a cemetery and a 30-meter high round tower. They have an incredible visitor center that offers audiovisual shows and guided tours of the site.
Glendalough’s scenery is so breathtaking that that is where they filmed Braveheart and there are walks through the area where it was filmed. The grounds are covered in an illuminated green moss and the forests are thick with conifers and deciduous oaks. It was actually oak timber from Glendalough that was used to build the second-longest Viking longship ever recorded. Simply put, the area is just stunning and if you are a hiker, it also serves as an ideal base for hikes through the valley and around the glacial lakes.
Though Glendalough has amazing wildlife and nature, you don’t have to worry about bringing your bear spray or snakebite kit because Ireland has neither bears nor snakes. A somewhat bizarre but total positive is the lack of dangerous animals there altogether. There is nothing that stings, poisons or attacks, apart from nettles. As the legend goes, St. Patrick ran all the snakes out of Ireland, so yet another reason to dye a river green and get sloppy drunk in his honor.
- After leaving the monastery, I would spend the second half of my day driving through the Wicklow Mountains, which are part of a national park and are completely surreal. There is one scenic drive in particular that is my favorite: from the Monastery, drive a few minutes to Laragh and take the Military Road (R115) across the mountains through Glencree, the Liffey Head Bog (source of Dublin’s river Liffey), the Sally Gap, and over to the Glenmacnass waterfall.
- Alternatively you could also take the R759 from near Roundwood to near Blessington and cross the Military Road at the Sally Gap. You’ll have views over Lough Tay and the privately owned Guiness Estate. But to be honest, you can take a right or left from any point in the Wicklow Mountains and your mind will be blown.
- A perfect way to finish out your day is by stopping at Johnnie Fox’s on your way home. It was established in 1798 and is one of Ireland’s oldest and most famous traditional Irish pubs. The furniture hasn’t changed much since 1798 and dining or drinking there is as if you are hanging out in the living room of a 19th century rural Irish home. The food is outstanding and the ‘craic’ is even better. No need to worry, Johnnie Fox’s is not a little drug depot in the mountains. Craic is a Gaelic word that basically means ‘fun’ and the Irish certainly know a thing or two about that.
- Another really cool spot in that neck of the woods is Powerscourt Estate. There is a manor house that sits on 47 acres of formal gardens, complete with secret hollows and magical walks. The Gardens have been continually designed from 1731 onwards and National Geographic has recently voted them the No. 3 garden in the world. About 6 kms away from the estate is Powerscourt Waterfall, which is an ideal location for picnics and nature walks. Both Powerscourt Estate and Powerscourt Waterfall are great for children due to the vast amount of space both offer.
- On the other side of Dublin, in the Boyne Valley, is one of Ireland’s most treasured gems; the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Newgrange. Built about 3,200 B.C., making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, Newgrange is a passage tomb and ancient temple that is of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance. It is a large mound covering over one acre and retained at the base by 97 kerbstones, which are decorated with megalithic art. It has a 62-foot long inner passage that leads to a cruciform chamber and is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. At sunrise from December 19th -23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates a mystifying orifice in the roof at the entrance of the passageway and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending all the way to the other end. On December 21st, as the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated for 17 minutes. It is believed that the purpose of the Stone Age farmers who built Newgrange was to mark the beginning of the New Year and to serve as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death. It is a mystical place and extremely deserving of your time.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that you can’t leave Ireland without having some of their mouth watering Irish ‘Brown Bread’. The Irish know how to bake a mean loaf of bread. But let’s be clear, you don’t go to Ireland for the food, you go for the craic. I could talk all day about Irish dairy and Irish brown bread, but the food conversation stops there. With that said, when Irish brown bread and Irish butter meet, time sort of stops for a moment.
- Having lived in Dublin for three years, the before mentioned attractions would be my focus when visiting the city. With that said, there is a great new app called, ‘Dublin Discovery Trails app’ which takes you on two-hour themed walks and helps you independently explore the city. This is another great way to check Dublin out.
But no matter where you go or what you see, the ‘craic’ will be legendary and you’ll have the time of your life!