What to See and Do in Dublin
Dublin is one of my favourite cities in the world. It is the first place I moved to as a wee wanderluster and is truly a gem. With an irresistible mix of history, craic (re: fun), and music, I guarantee you’ll wish you had more time in this spirited city.
If it’s your first time visiting Dublin, I can’t express how excited for and jealous of you I am! Here are a few spots to wet your whistle, mosey around, and fall under the enchantment of the Emerald Isle’s capital city (sorry Cork!).
After any flight it’s an event just to stretch your legs, breathe fresh air, and share more than a hair’s distance between you and other humans. Luckily, Dublin is a quick and cost-effective city bus ride from the airport. If you’re heading into the city centre, the #41, #700, #747, and #16 all take you to O’Connell Street Upper. Once in town, you’ll be greeted with plenty of seaside, park, and city areas to relax.
St Stephen’s Green
Like many sites in Ireland, St. Stephen’s Green has a long and winding past. From humble beginnings near a leper hospital, to feeding grounds for livestock, to transforming into a new neighbourhood park, to restrictive entry gardens, to re-emerging as a public space (thank you Sir Arthur Guinness!), The Green is more than just a pretty place.
Today, St. Stephen’s Green is a vibrant 22-acre park at the top of Grafton Street. Dublin’s offices empty on rare sunny days and the park transforms into prime real estate. Pale parched skin blankets the grassy beach, hungry for their Vitamin D transfusions. Don’t wait for sunny days to visit. Even on a cloudy day, St. Stephen’s Green is a beautiful area to walk around, sit, read, feed the swans, or people watch.
Entertainment & Shopping
Dublin’s Grafton Street is a constant hub of energy. Some days I would walk along it just to people watch. Talented buskers reliably pepper the rose brick street, and the crowds can be equally entertaining to take in.
When I first moved to Dublin there was one young guy with a drum kit made entirely of recycled items – and could he play! There was also the fire-swallowing-hoola-hoop-tumbling Santa Claus, the gravity-defying statues, intricate sand sculptures, and a feast of other interesting sights to entertain and amuse the crowds.
Grafton Street is a narrow walking and shopping street on the south side of the Liffey that connects the bustle of the city centre with the calm of St. Stephen’s Green. It’s where you can melt in the decadence of Butlers Chocolate, stock up your home at Argos, inhale the rich history of Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room, savour the spot where James Joyce once mused in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe, or partake in the magic of Christmas Eve where the likes of Glen Hansard, Bono, Imelda May, and Damien Rice have caroled under twinkling lights. Or you can shop…though you might as well take in the sights while you do!
If you live for live music like I do, it’s imperative you pay a visit to the man at the bar in Whelan’s while in Dublin (you’ll know who I’m talking about when you arrive). This establishment may or may not have been partially responsible for a lively night out prior to an international flight, which was subsequently missed…but let that be a testament to the craic and quality of the acts that command its stages.
On Merrion Row there’s a gem of a local where your ears will burst sunshine and rainbows. It sounds corny, but cross my heart, it’s the truth. O’Donoghue’s holds trad (short for “traditional”) music sessions every night of the week. Every. Night! Where else could you possibly want to be after learning that gold nugget of insider information?
Musicians of all ages gather to play at O’Donoghue’s – local musicians, famous musicians, old musicians, and young musicians. If I move to Dublin again, I will plop myself down there and never leave.
Gravediggers (aka Kavanagh’s)
I’ve only been once, but this pub left an impression. John Kavanagh’s, commonly known as Gravediggers, is a fascinating proper old man’s pub that is built into the Glasnevin cemetery wall. Its unusual name originates from the post-shift pints neighbouring gravediggers would have (not the Irish “shift”, but North American work “shifts”).
Other frequenters of the pub often included family and friends mourning a loved one. According to this BBC article, cemeteries even instituted a bylaw that burials could only happen before noon (now 3pm) in order to prevent people showing up drunk or completely missing funerals.
Spend the day at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, about 5km from Dublin’s City Centre, and then hunker down for the evening for a pint and the chat at John Kavanagh’s. Just don’t stay too long, or you may see its resident ghost.
As with many businesses in Ireland, Gravediggers is no spring chick. Established in 1833, it has been passed down by family through the generations. Most interestingly though, is the strict rule that no music or dancing is permitted. The pub also doesn’t have a phone, radio, or tv. Having the chat, an age-old tradition and well-honed skill of the Irish, and enjoying a pint (or few) is what one does at Gravediggers.
Ireland’s oldest pub first opened its doors in 1198. Over the centuries, Brazen Head has been an inn, political headquarters for revolutionary planners, a home for writers, and of course, a cozy spot to enjoy spirits of all flavours. Brazen Head is walking distance from Christ Church Cathedral, the Jameson Distillery, and the Guinness Storehouse. It also has a rocking menu I can’t wait to try out!
Cassidy’s on Westmoreland Street is a great spot if you’re jonesing for a pint and a pizza. It’s also where you can go to release your inner child. You can draw on the walls or lamps or tables or anything else with a surface! In fact, the bartenders are all too happy to lend you a sharpie for your creative endeavours. I added my autograph a few years back, though I’m guessing it’s long covered over by now.
A visit to Dublin isn’t complete without a toastie (grilled cheese) and a pint from Grogan’s. I’ve enjoyed several such delights while having the chat with complete strangers (a favourite pasttime) and hanging out or reuniting with old friends. Go here. Eat a toastie. Smile.
I love small things – smart cars, flip phones, stickers, mini markers, cozy reading nooks, the list goes on. Dawson Lounge, Dublin’s smallest pub, does not disappoint. However, do not come here if you have claustrophobia. With reports of capacity between 24 & 40 people, bartender included, it is one of the quirkiest and most fantastic pub experiences I’ve had. Check it out – just don’t bring all of your friends at once!
Museums & Historical Tours
The Long Room @ Trinity College
If you’re any sort of bibliophile, history buff, romantic, or simply love the smell of old books, this is the place for you. Typically the crowds line up to see Trinity College Dublin’s Book of Kells (also fascinating, I suppose), however I prefer the perfect symmetry, dust, and ink of the historic Long Room.
I visited Trinity College for the first time when I was 14 with my family. Our flight had gotten in that morning and my parents were doing their best to keep their gaggle of kids awake despite the jet lag. Let’s just say my first memories of such a well-known landmark were foggy at best. There’s a picture to remind me of that day, but the rest is lost in a child’s tired brain.
When I moved to Ireland in my 20s, I returned to the campus with a few friends. I knew the Book of Kells was a 9th century compilation of the 4 Gospels, which was cool enough, but when I walked into the Long Room I fell in love. Instantly I was whisked away by the aroma of ancient ink and the ghosts of scholars past weaving amongst the stacks. I decided then and there I was going to become a TCD student one day just so I can sit in that room longer than a hot tourist minute.
For an experience equal bits quirky and informative, there’s a den open to those bold enough to encounter fairies. Tucked into the north side of the Liffey at the corner of Jervis Street and Abbey Street Upper, lies the mythical territory of magical creatures, masked by the human world outside.
The Irish are known for many things, not least of which is their masterful storytelling and animated folklore. I realized just how little I knew about such a huge part of my ancestral heritage when I visited The Leprechaun Museum. Don’t tell anyone, but I enjoyed the child-directed decor as much as the 8-year olds who shrieked and ran around the interactive rooms. It really doesn’t matter if you’re 62 or 7. If you have an imagination, a sense of humour, and a childlike curiosity, I’d highly suggest escaping into the world on the other side of the Leprechaun Museum’s door.
Let me say this: as a 14-year old, the Kilmainham Gaol tour was one of my favourite on our European odyssey. I had no idea about the Easter Rising, and yet it completely captured my attention. Looking back, I think this can be attributed to the phenomenal guide we had. They weren’t just rattling off facts and dates for the group to ingest. One of the strongest realizations I’ve come to living and travelling abroad, is how aware some cultures and communities are of their surroundings, be it past or present. The Irish were the first I encountered who revealed the depth of their pride and historical familiarity. Each time I return home to Canada I’m inspired to become more informed thanks to the Irish guides, friends, colleagues, and driving instructors (that story’s for another time!) I met.
The Kilmainham Gaol is so loaded with historical significance that I won’t do it justice here (another reason why you need to see it for yourself). When the jail was originally built it was used to keep beggars, debtors, prostitutes and drunks. Despite being considered a modern facility, inmates were held under harsh conditions. During the Famine years, cells were overpopulated with up to 5 people to a cell. Women and children caught for stealing food or begging were common unlucky inhabitants.
Numerous political prisoners of varying notoriety were held, hung, and deported from Kilmainham, including Henry Joy McCracken of the United Irishmen (1798), the Young Irelanders (1848), the Fenians (1867), Charles Stewart Parnell (1881-1882), the Invincibles (1882), and perhaps most famously, the men and women of the Easter Rising (1916) which saw 14 men executed by a firing squad. I stood where Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly and the other Irish men were executed and remember feeling an anxious discomfort standing where they last breathed. The atmosphere was nothing short of chilling.
Everyone associates Ireland with Guinness, and I get it, but in my humble opinion, the Jameson’s Distillery is underrated. Maybe it’s because I don’t like beer, but both the tour and the tastings at Jameson’s were top notch. It’s been a few years since I passed their taste test and became an Official Jameson’s Distillery Taste Tester…but perhaps that means I should go again. Regardless, if you like whisky or history, or a mélange, Jameson’s Distillery is a solid spot to wet your whistle and learn about what has made it a national treasure.
To get to the Jameson’s Distillery in Dublin on Bow Street, you can join the Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour or it’s a short 20 minute walk from the City Centre. Guided tours start at €19 and are definitely worth it, especially if you have one as funny as ours was. At the Bow Street distillery you can also learn how to blend your own whisky, become an expert whisky-cocktail maker and, of course, try a few samples along the way.
Rugby Matches @ Aviva Stadium
Rugby was the sport I dodged like the plague when it was introduced in high school. A friend who played competitively loved the physicality of the sport. She once boasted about making contact with another player who broke their collar bone as a result. Noooo thank you, I thought! I had enough contact on the basketball court and wouldn’t be seeking any more of it on a field.
That being said, it’s a fantastic game to watch! I caught my first full proper rugby match in Dublin, and the crowd was as entertaining as the game. Even if you don’t play or know anything about the sport, go for the craic and the atmosphere. Sports enthusiasts in Ireland are passionate about their teams and their club’s history. Go get caught up in the energy of the stadium, the streets, and the pub!
Gaelic Football is the paella of sports. Don’t know what paella is? You’re missing out. Fly to Spain immediately. Don’t know what GAA is? You’re missing out. Get a ticket to Croke Park (or other live venue) immediately.
Gaelic Football, also known as “Gaelic” or “Football”, is unlike any other sport I’ve watched before. It was so intriguing that I wanted to learn how to play after catching my first match. I was subsequently super bummed to find out that the boys at my Canadian high school were taught, and the girls were not!
Football, to me, as a mix of soccer, volleyball, basketball, rugby, and North American football. It’s an outdoor 2-team sport played on a grass pitch, with 15 players per side. Points are scored by kicking or punching the ball over the other team’s goalposts for 3 points, or between 2 upright posts and over its crossbar for 1 point. Australians will likely be familiar with Irish Football as the rules are similar and the following just as fierce.
If boisterous and enthusiastic crowds are your jam, make sure you get tickets close enough to “Hill 16” for double the entertainment. I was lucky enough to get last minute tickets “on the Hill” a few years back, and I didn’t know what to pay more attention to – the game or the crowd!
Hurling @ Croke Park
Hurling is the only Irish sport I still have not attended a match for, but I’m fascinated by it. Like Gaelic Football, it is played on a rectangular field with goal posts for scoring points, and opposing teams made up of 15 players each. Players use a curved stick (hurley, or “camán in Irish) to strike the small white ball (“sliotar”) on the ground, bounce it in the air, or whack it across the field to a fellow player or to score a point. The female version of hurling is called camogie.
While I don’t know as much about hurling and camogie, I am 1 million percent positive the the Irish are absolute beasts when it comes to sports. They play in the most insane weather (and I say this as a Canadian where we play organized hockey indoors), with wooden bats and zooming balls, and physical contact like no other. Their mental game is outrageous.
Conclusion (but definitely not The End)
Dublin, like many places, has so much more to offer than I can cover in one blog post without it turning into an epic novel. This post is a “quick” scratch of the surface, with a few gems tossed in, to get out and explore Dublin for a first-timer. Besides, I like to say you always want to have something to come back to, and there’s a lot not on this list that would tickle your fancy and have you wanting to return.
I’d love to hear all about your escapades at the suggestions above or anywhere else you enjoyed while in Dublin! Leave your comments below so other future travellers can enjoy them too. Cheers! Sláinte!