Exploring Dublin

Dublin city centre is a squat, grey place that lacks the charm of some of Europe’s other capitals but the city is sometimes referred to as the Naples of the North because of the large bay around which it has been built and there’s great scenery to be found within minutes of the city by train or bus. Heading out from the heart of the city, you’ll find beautiful coastal suburbs and it can be quite easy to believe you’re actually in Italy in places like Killiney where trees and cliffs roll dramatically into the Irish Sea.

You’re also never far from the Dublin and Wicklow mountains no matter where you are in the city and you’ll get a good view of both the bay and hills from the Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse which should give you some idea of just how close they are.

Like most of the world’s major cities, a river divides the city in two. The Liffey divides Dublin into the Northside and Southside and there’s a bit of a rivalry between people from each part of the city who can be quite defensive about their side of the river!

While Dublin is a fairly spread out city considering the size of its population, the vast majority of attractions are easily within one hour’s walk of the centre.

The Southside

Historically considered more affluent than the Northside, the Southside is the oldest part of Dublin, dating back to the Viking foundation of the city in 988. The Viking settlement stood roughly in the area around Christ Church Cathedral and Dublin Castle – on the grounds of the castle is a garden where a black water pool was once situated, the Vikings named their town ‘Dubh Linn’ or Black Pool after this pond and the name eventually became Dublin.

You’ll also find Temple Bar, the heart of the city’s cultural quarter, most of the city’s museums, the majority of government buildings including parliament, Dublin Castle, and Trinity College. The beating heart of the city Grafton Street, a short, narrow pedestrianised route lined with shops and often crammed with talented street performers.

There’s also a number of relaxing parks such as St. Stephen’s Green but this can become a little crowded if the weather’s any way nice so a more peaceful option might be the Iveagh Gardens or Merrion Square Park, both of which are only a short walk away.

Top Attractions on the Southside:  

Bank of Ireland – This is the oldest purpose built parliament building in the world and both the Irish House of Commons and House of Lords met here before the parliament was dissolved in 1800. There was also a Court of Requests, where citizens could petition politicians on a range of issues.

Local historian Eamonn Mac Thomais hosts brief guided tours of the House of Lords on Tuesdays at 10:30, 11:30, and 1:45. The House of Lords features tapestries on the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry as well as a 1,233 drop chandelier from Waterford. Even if you’re not in the bank on a Tuesday, ask a security guard and you should be admitted for a short look around the room.

Grafton Street - Only 180 metres long and just six metres wide, Grafton Street has nevertheless become one of Dublin’s busiest thoroughfares and it’s advisable to visit before 11 am if you don’t have a lot of time because otherwise you’ll be caught up in the shoppers or the crowds that form around the many talented street performers.

Grafton Street is the most direct route between Trinity College and St. Stephen’s Green and is open only to pedestrians, though there are many delivery vans along the street most mornings. Here you’ll find Ireland’s premier department store Brown Thomas and a little further up the street spin-off shop BT2 as well as Marks and Spencers and the latest in entertainment at Golden Discs and HMV. Shoppers with a bit of time on their hands might also want to explore the streets nearby where you’ll find many fine independent retailers (the Powerscourt Centre is a real treat), jewellery stores, and some of the best pubs and restaurants in Dublin.

Of particular note on Grafton Street itself is Bewley’s Oriental Cafe which arguably serves the city’s finest breakfast as well as pizzas, pastas, cakes, and coffees the rest of the day. Inside are beautiful stained glass windows by noted 20th Century artist Harry Clarke. The top floor also has a tiny theatre space for lunchtime shows or temporary exhibitions.

The Iveagh Gardens -  Site of the Taste of Dublin festival during the summer, the Iveagh Gardens are still a secluded and relatively unknown park right in the heart of the city and just a stone’s throw from the much busier St. Stephen’s Green.

Designed in an ‘English Landscape’ style by NinianNiven in 1865, the park includes a rustic grotto and waterfall with surrounded by rocks from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. There’s no playground for children but the park has a real secret garden feel they’ll love.

The Book of Kells - The Long Room Old Library and Book of Kells are highlights of any visit to Ireland’s oldest university. The Old Library features the country’s largest collection of books and manuscripts – Trinity gets copies of every English language book published in Ireland and Britain – but the most compelling tome is the Book of Kells, widely regarded as being the most beautiful illustrated manuscript every produced.

Originally produced in the Iona monastery in Scotland, the book made its way to Kells for safekeeping from Viking attacks before eventually coming to Trinity. The book dates from the 9th Century and was rebound in four volumes in the 1950s. Two of these volumes are typically on display at any given time and the most famous page features the ‘XPI’ monogram, a symbol of Christ. If this page isn’t on display, you can see it as part of the Old Library’s exhibition ‘Turning Darkness into Light’ which is dedicated to the book’s creation, art, and conservation.

Given the significance and importance of the book, you might be forgiven for overlooking the key points of the tour including the stunning Long Room which houses 200,000 of Trinity’s three million volumes and a grand series of marble busts. Visit the Long Room and then check out Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and you’ll see where Lucasfilm got their inspiration for the Jedi library.

Among the texts held here is a copy of the Proclamation of Independence of the Irish Republic from 1916 while the most famous bust is that of Jonathan Swift by French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac. You’ll also find a carving of the Royal Arms of Queen Elizabeth I, the last surviving ornament from the original college buildings. The Book of Kells isn’t the only religious manuscript here, the Long Room also houses the Book of Armagh from the 9th Century which includes St. Patrick’s Confession and the 7th Century Book of Durrow from Offaly. There’s also a very fine example of an early Irish harp. There may be queue to get into the Long Room so arrive early.

Trinity College - Beyond the Long Room, Trinity campus is itself well worth exploring. The University of Dublin is Ireland’s oldest and most famous, being founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 in order to ‘civilise’ the city. Trinity was intended to be the mother-college for a network of institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge and while that plan never took off, the college is a definite must for any visit to the city.

The college was founded on the site of the Priory of All Hallows, seized by Elizabeth’s father Henry when he closed the monasteries of Ireland and Britain during the English Reformation and since its establishment, Trinity has seen many famous alumni pass through its doors such as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett.

For centuries, Trinity could only be attended by Protestants – Catholics went to the Dublin Catholic University, now University College Dublin – and it was not until the 1970s that Catholics could freely enrol without fear of excommunication, at one time Trinity offered free education to Catholics who converted to Protestantism.

Many of the buildings were constructed in the 18th or 19th Centuries but there are more modern buildings too such as the state of the art laboratories and Arts and Humanities building which houses the open-to-the-public Douglas Hyde Gallery. The gallery hosts contemporary art exhibitions while there’s also a bookshop. The campus has a number of cafes which are often cheaper than other eateries in the city.

Located on Pearse Street, the Science Gallery is Trinity’s kid friendly museum where science is brought to life thanks to experiments and exhibits which change every few months. There’s a cafe and shop here while the Science Gallery Makeshop in nearby Lincoln Place features regular workshops on just about anything you can make with your hands.

Other Southside Highlights

Discover Ireland Centre – One of the few official tourist offices in Dublin is located in what was once St. Andrew’s Church which dates back to the middle ages. Here you’ll be able to pick up information on just about everything to do with Dublin including museums, attractions, festivals, and more. Tickets for many locations can be bought here and you can pick the Dublin Pass – which offers reduced price access and pass entry to 30 locations around the city. This is one of the locations where Paddywagon’s tours from Dublin start.

Royal Irish Academy - Home to the largest resource of Irish language manuscripts in the world, the Academy is an 18th Century institution which can boast the 11th Century Book of Dun Cow and the works of 18th Century poet Thomas Moore among its collection in the impressive library rooms.

Dublin Mason’s Hall - For all of the stories of the Mason’s being a particularly secretive bunch, the Dublin branch – one of the world’s three Grand Lodges – is pretty open with tours offered during the summer and during select events like Open House Night. Of particular note are the main meeting room (you might even get to sit on the Grand Master’s chair) and Egyptian themed shrine.

George’s Street Arcade - Europe’s oldest shopping centre dating to the 19th Century, this covered market features stalls selling souvenirs, books, clothes, vintage records, antiques, and some good yet cheap cafes as well.

Long Hall Pub - Not to be confused with Trinity’s Long Room, the Long Hall is a decorated mahogany bar with some of the most ornate features of any pub in the country and it’s a perfect place for a cup of tea or pint of Guinness. Western movie fans might prefer a trip to Toner’s, seen in A Fistful of Dynamite, and said to have the best pint of the black stuff in Dublin.

Sandymount Strand - A large, sandy beach just a short walk from the Sydney Parade DART station, Sandymount Strand is five kilometres long and the tide is usually far out from land here meaning you’ll have plenty of space to explore. The beach can be as much as 1.5 kilometres wide at times though swimming isn’t advised. Getting here by DART, you’ll also pass Lansdowne Road and the Aviva Stadium – home of Ireland’s national soccer and rugby teams, if you’re in town for a match it’s well worth seeing if tickets are available.

Chester Beatty Library – Arguably Dublin’s best museum, you can explore the collection of ancient manuscripts from around the world as well as Oriental artwork, costumes, and pottery. It’s all free too!

Top Attractions in Georgian Dublin

The Irish capital is often associated with its 18th Century homes and squares and certainly, brightly coloured and highly decorated Georgian doors are synonymous with the city. There are numerous parks here, some still private, as well as most of the city’s major museums including Natural History, Archaeology and History, the National Gallery, and National Library.

There’s also the elegant Government Buildings – where the taoiseach (prime minister) and tanaiste (deputy prime minister) have their offices, tours are available on Saturday. Further south you’ll find the affluent suburb of Ballsbridge and the Royal Dublin Society which hosts exhibits and trade shows throughout the year.

Merrion Square - Located across from the old entrance to the National Gallery is Merrion Square Park, dating from 1762 and surrounded on three sides by some of the best examples of Georgian houses in Dublin. The park has a delightful flower garden and unusual painted statue of Oscar Wilde. Many events are held here throughout the year with special activities around St. Patrick’s Day and the World Street Performance Championship.