Like Christmas as a child I’d been brimming with anticipation of my first visit to Dublin for a full year before finally stepping off the plane to begin my week- long visit to the Irish capital and happily found the real thing once experienced was far better than anything my creative imagination could’ve conjured.
The Aer Lingus flight from Chicago O’Hare – an airport I learned named after Irish-American WWII fighter ace Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare – touched down mid-morning to bright sunshine, a fortunate weather trend which save for one wet weekday continued throughout my stay much to my delight. The national airline of Ireland provided a pleasant flight in a full economy cabin with good food and service and a large enough selection of movies both recent and retro that my paperback remain unopened in the seatback pocket.
Having purchased a Dublin Pass online months prior to arrival I made my way to the Tourist Information Centre to swap my receipt for the actual sightseeing admission card and my jet-lagged mind noted while waiting in a short queue for assistance that the Irish spell centre as Canadians with an ‘re‘ ending instead of the more common American ‘er‘ variety. Card in hand I exited the terminal to catch my Aircoach bus to the first of two hotels I’d reserved for my 6 night stay, the gibson hotel, an upscale hotel in the redeveloped Point Village whose purposely lowercase name hinted at its individuality. The airport is a short distance from the city centre and as my hotel was the first stop on this route stepped off the coach a scant 15 minutes after having stepped on.
It’s one thing to read a city is walkable and another to judge for oneself but found the description apt as Dublin is an immensely easy city centre to explore on foot with all the main sights clustered within a flat core a kilometre wide and deep, most on the south side of the River Liffey. This compact city centre makes for convenient sightseeing as there is little distance between the sights unlike some cities which require much more commuting to visit various attractions.
I began my sightseeing with a visit to the national church of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a gothic masterpiece begun in 1191 and completed a short 60 years later. The cathedral was built in the area where there Ireland’s patron saint brought Christianity to the island in the 5th century AD and its 43 metre (140 foot) spire serves as a Dublin landmark in a city centre almost devoid of skyscrapers. The adjacent park was a 1901 creation of Edward Guinness of the city’s famous brewing dynasty and helps frame the cathedral to allow a moment of majesty as you approach it from the green space.
I arrived just in time to join one of the free guided cathedral tours to hear the history of the cathedral and its most notable patrons, none more so than Gulliver’ s Travels author Jonathan Swift who is buried next to his lifelong companion Stella under a Latin epitaph he wrote himself.
The Lady Chapel built in 1270 behind the high altar was my favorite space in the cathedral for its rib-vault ceiling, intricate stained glass and intimate proportions.
The chapel emerged from an extensive restoration in 2013 and made for a very pleasant, quiet place to soak in its beauty. There is an excellent photo gallery on the chapel’s restoration and 360° view here.
I would recommend trying to time your visit with one of these superb tours as not only are they conducted for a voluntary contribution to the cathedral by a very knowledgeable volunteer guide but allow access to the choir stalls and altar not allowed if visiting on your own. Self guided tours are available on the cathedral’s website in a variety of language including English and may be found here if you aren’t able to join one of the guided tours.
While St. Patrick’s was built beyond the medieval city walls it’s elder Christ Church Cathedral was founded around 1028 by the Sitric, the Norse King of Dublin, within the old Viking heart of the city. I had originally walked the short distance between the two cathedrals later in the afternoon only to find Christchurch closed for a private event, an unusual occurrence I hadn’t encountered before. A return visit early the next morning however rewarded me as the first person into the cathedral and so had it all to myself for a few minutes.
I’d read about the collapse of the south wall of the cathedral in the 16th century and how while the north wall remained upright is leaning outward by almost 18 inches, a distance readily apparent to the casual observer.
Among the more unusual displays found in the cathedral crypt are 17th century stocks used to punish criminals in adjacent Christ Church Place as well as the mummified remains of a cat and rat found inside an organ pipe, the former presumably chasing the latter into the pipe before becoming stuck for good. The crypt is well worth a detour as it is the earliest surviving structure in Dublin dating back to 1172 and is the largest in Britain and Ireland at over 60 metres long covering the entire subterranean area of the cathedral. A coffee or light bite in the crypt café and souvenir shopping in the crypt gift shop are other options while on the lower level.
While a fully covered stone bridge connects the cathedral to the Synod Hall over Winetavern Street it isn’t accessible to visitors so you must cross the thoroughfare to visit the hall which now houses Dublinia, a living history museum of Viking and medieval Dublin with recreations of a Viking house, medieval kitchen and archeological research lab. This attraction while mainly geared to younger travellers with many hands on hands-on displays, medieval games and period costumes they can don for memorable family photos is a fun adult add-on to the cathedral given its proximity to Christ Church.
Included in the Dublinia admission is the option to climb 96 stairs to an observation deck atop the 17th century St. Michael’s Tower which rewards climbers a view of Christ Church and central Dublin and the nearby St. Patrick’s.
A short walk from Christ Church Cathedral directly outside Dublin Castle is Dublin City Hall, one of the best examples among many around Dublin of mid 18th century Georgian architecture. Upon entering the former Royal Exchange this visitor wasn’t sure whether to look down at the intricate floor mosaic or up at the stunning domed roof of the rotunda.
A 360° view of this amazing space complete with neo Roman statue of Irish hero Daniel O’Connell may be found here. City Hall also houses an interesting exhibit called The Story Of The Capital tracing the Dublin’s origins from Norman to present day.
The imposing and sprawling Dublin Castle is immediately behind City Hall and walking through its gates brings you into the Upper Yard of Great Courtyard with the Bedford Tower commanding the enclosed Georgian square. Between 1204 and it’s handover to Michael Collins in 1922 the castle was the seat of English power in Ireland but little remains of the original fortifications except for the Norman Tower which dates to 1226 as most buildings date to the later Georgian mid-18th century period.
Access to the castle grounds is free as is entrance to Chapel Royal, the Garda Museum, as well as the world renown Chester Beatty Library named for Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a mining magnate who while born in the United States became a naturalized Irish citizen, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and left his world-class collection of Oriental art and religious books to the Irish state upon his death in 1968. The world class library attracts some 250,000 visitors per year to see it’s treasures so line-ups can be lengthy in high season though luckily none were to be found when I arrive on a lower season mid-afternoon weekday in early October.
The origins of the name Dublin come from Dubh (black) and linn (pool) and local lore says the pool is on the site where the castle gardens are now located.
After switching hotels to the moderate Maldon Hotel Smithfield for my last 3 nights I walked across the large square to sample the liquid history at the Old Jameson’s Distillery, Dublin. My guidebook had listed the opening time as 10 AM and thought that worked rather well with my day’s sightseeing plans but found when the doors to the distillery tour opened promptly on time that the first tour wasn’t until 11 AM. I returned after putting in an hour and took the first hour long tour of the day remembering to raise my hand when the personable guide asked for volunteers interested in taking a comparison taste test so as to enjoy a few more drops of Jameson’s triple distilled Irish whiskey compared along side American and Scottish whiskeys & bourbons.
The Old Jameson Distillery made its famous whiskey between 1810 and 1971, reopening in 1997 as a visitor centre that welcomes over 300,000 thirsty guests annually. The entrance to the exhibit from Smithfield Square is down a narrow little pedestrian corridor called Duck Lane and it served as a reminder that this complex was once densely packed with supporting trades such as Cooperage for barrel-making, smithy, carpenters, engineers, and coppersmith workshops though the area has been redeveloped into a smart retail complex shops, offices and an upscale café or restaurant or two.
I left Jameson’s with a warm glow setting off for the short walk to the day’s second participatory tour, the Guinness Storehouse just across the Liffey in St. James’s Gate though part of the way wondered whether I should’ve perhaps scheduled the two tours on different days so as not to compress too many local liquids into one outing. The walk on a warm Autumn afternoon however did me some good and arrived at the Storehouse after a few minor detours. Unlike the Old Jameson’s Distillery which serves only as a visitor centre as no actual whiskey is produced on-site, the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s gate is a very active 48 acre network of brewing that churns out its most famous product with the Storehouse in one small corner welcoming eager visitors. The Storehouse is a century old former fermentation plant converted to its current purpose in 1997 and takes visitors on a self-guided seven floor journey through the various stages starting with crafting Guinness from the four basic ingredients (water, barley, hops and yeast) to shipping methods over the centuries to memorable advertising campaigns culminating on the top floor with a chance to sample a pint of Guinness in the famous Gravity Bar which is a round observation deck with a stunning view over Dublin.
As the tour is self-guided you can take as long or as little time as you prefer and with a stop for a lunch that was light in calories if not Euros I spent just under two hours soaking up all the sight had to offer and quite enjoyed the experience. I’m not sure whether were I to find myself returning to Dublin whether I’d visit again but it’s something I’d recommend doing at least once. Heck even Queen Elizabeth II has visited the Storehouse once as is shown noted here on the list of top Dublin tourist attractions. More than one million visitors drink in the Guinness Storehouse visit making it the city’s top tourist attraction.
There is regular Dublin Bus service and tourist hop-on, hop-off bus routes but the Storehouse is close enough to the city centre that despite many guidebooks describing it being in an outlying area walking is also quite possible, weather permitting of course.
Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) and nearby Kilmainham Royal Hospital are also within a short stroll of the Guinness Storehouse and so arrived at the Gaol to sign up for one of the guided tours which is the only way to tour the penitentiary which operated between 1796 and 1924 when its last prisoner Eamon de Valera, the future president of Ireland, was released. Since tickets for the tours are given first come, first served there is no guarantee of a speedy entry but the proximity of the Kilmainham Royal Hospital offers some ability to fill-in some time if necessary. The hour long tour explains the origins of the prison and massive overcrowding during the Great Famine of 1845 it focuses much on the events and executions of the 15 men including 7 key leaders of the Easter Rising against British rule in 1916, a move which turned public opinion against the British and lead to it eventually signing the Ango-Irish Treaty in late 1921 creating the Irish Free State within the British Commonwealth and later to a fully independent Irish Republic in 1937. Small crosses in the prison yard mark the spot where the men were shot after a short walk from their stark cells.
After decades of disrepair following its closure volunteers took to rebuilding the complex in the 1960’s leading to its reopening in 1971. The horseshoe-shaped multi-level Victorian East Wing of the jail was closed when I visited. As sombre an attraction as Kilmainham Gaol is it’s importance as both political and penal prison makes it well worth a detour but note that as of my visit only cash was accepted for the entry fee.
Grey skies replaced blue and rain pelted down almost all of one day but fortunately for me it was the day I’d chosen to spend mostly indoors visiting Trinity College and the Book Of Kells before the nearby National Museums.
Students of Trinity College conduct 30 minute guided tours of the exterior parts of the historic university for EUR12 which includes admission to the Book of Kells which itself is EUR10 so quite the bargain. Note that recognizing your student guide with a small gratuity is permitted. Tours are first come, first served and can tickets can be bought with cash just inside the Front Gate entrance to the college (more details about seasonal tour times here ). My cheeky inquiry whether Canadians were eligible for a tour discount was met with an equally cheeky reply from the student who unbeknownst to me would later conduct my tour that neither Canadians nor comedians were eligible for a discount.
The Book Of Kells is a 9th-century gospel manuscript that is viewed in a protected low vault in the exhibition explaining its creation, history and manufacture and it’s worth pausing to take in the vivid colours and ornate decoration of the book before moving onwards and upwards to the larger majesty of the Old Library’s famous Long Room, so named for it’s 65 metre length and fully two floors of shelves crammed with more than 200, 000 books.
With over half a million visitors a year lines can be long to enter the Old Library to see the Book Of Kells so if in Dublin in high Summer season try and arrive first thing in the morning or just before closing to avoid the longest lines.
Trinity College lies in the very heart of Dublin so working in nearby sights such as the National Gallery or National Library is easily done. The highly rated National Gallery, National Library and National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology are clustered together within a few hundred metres of Trinity’s Front Gate and allow free admission to their stored treasures.
The National Library and National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology are almost identical Victorian buildings built in 1890 to form a square in front of Leinster House, the ancestral home of the dukes of Leinster until it was sold to the Royal Dublin Society in 1815.
Across the courtyard at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology artifacts from around Ireland from prehistoric to the Middle Ages are on display including 8th century silver chalices such as the Derrynaflan Chalice only rediscovered in 1980 on a former monastic site in Derrynaflan, County Tipperary. These chalices sparkle in the display cases of the Gallery One of the permanent Treasury exhibit but there are eight others to explore including Roman, Viking and Medieval Irish artifacts as well as a some from ancient Egypt.
Dublin’s rich history is displayed so well at these major museums but around the corner is the smaller and more intimate museum of 20th century Dublin life called The Little Museum of Dublin. This three floor museum housed in an 18th century Georgian townhouse overlooking St. Stephen’s Green offers regular tours which begin in the casual Front Room and tells the story of local history with loaned or donated artifacts ending in the top floor tribute to the band U2 that this fan found fascinating.
The leafy lure of St. Stephen’s Green proved too hard to resist so enjoyed some late afternoon sunshine on a park bench watching families and pets play in this large public park which along with nearby Merrion Square are well worth visiting for the well preserved townhouses that surround each, many of which have colourful doors adding a touch of individuality in a row of uniformity.
Daytime exploring gives way into evening relaxation and found I looked forward to spending nights crowded with locals and travellers alike into a small pub enjoying a bit of conversation and Celtic music. Most of the larger pubs in and around Temple Bar have live bands that play a wide range of music some of which is Irish but it’s worth leaving the beaten path to try less visited spots such as the Cobblestone Pub which as coincidence would have it was across the street from my second hotel on Smithfield Square, the Maldon Hotel Smithfield. Arrive early to find a seat and soak up a few Guinness as well as the hours of traditional Irish music.
As with all good things my visit to Dublin came to an end but I left happy knowing I’d thoroughly enjoyed my stay, learned lots about Ireland and its capital and met some really interesting, engaging and genuine people who call it home and that I’m able to say is no blarney.