Skip the tourist traps and discover how to experience Dublin like a local.
Type “Dublin’s top tourist attractions” into your browser and you’ll be presented with a tantalizing list of world-class museums, historic buildings, and beauty spots that showcase this vibrant city, founded by Danish Vikings in AD 841. And while each recommended place will deliver a memorable and impressive experience, these tourist sites only really scratch the surface when revealing what is so special about Ireland’s capital city.
By all means, explore the city’s lauded architectural riches: the Georgian squares with their handsome townhouses and ornate doorways; Dublin Castle, built on the site of a Viking fortress; the impressive cathedrals of Christ Church and St. Patrick’s; and venerable Trinity College with The Book of Kells, the world’s oldest book, in its magnificent library. Each of these landmarks has played an important role in the evolution of Dublin, and guarantees a colorful and engaging introduction to the city’s complex history.
But there are other treasures in the city worth adding to your list. The beautiful MoLI, Museum of Literature Ireland, is Ireland’s newest museum, housed in a historic Georgian house just minutes from Grafton Street. The building is magical, with state-of-the-art exhibitions that celebrate Ireland’s rich literary heritage, from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Oscar Wilde to our finest contemporary writers.
Once you’ve had your fill of culture, slip out back to the gorgeous gardens. There’s a courtyard café serving exciting Irish food and you can curl up on a bench in the tranquil Readers Garden and lose yourself in a good book. Best of all, MoLI’s gardens connect with the Iveagh Gardens, a magical park also known as Dublin’s Secret Garden. Wander through the wrought iron gate and you’ll soon see why.
Sure, the colorful buildings and cobbled streets are charming, but it’s not a neighborhood that locals frequent. Saying that, you will find the wonderful Seafood Café down a cobbled lane, serving the best of Ireland’s seafood. From native oysters to crab claws, moules frites and fish chowder, this casual, cool space is a firm Dublin favorite.
Afternoon tea is something of an institution in Dublin. The historic Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green is hugely popular, as is the elegant Merrion Hotel, close to the National Gallery. A collection of four interconnecting Georgian townhouses, this magnificent five-star hotel has hosted presidents, royalty, and rock royalty. On a chilly day, it’s a treat to sink into a sofa by the fire and tuck into exquisite pastries and savories, surrounded by the hotel’s fabulous collection of Irish art. Served in silver pots and on fine bone china, it’s a decadent ritual after a day’s sightseeing.
If you fancy something more contemporary, The Wilder Townhouse is a supercool new bolthole with serious design credentials. Named after Oscar Wilde, the gorgeous Victorian facade wraps around an interior of vibrant jewel colors, polished parquet floors, and original fireplaces. It’s delightfully stylish and very good value.
For dinner in town, try to book a table at red-hot Variety Jones, a casual spot that earned a Michelin star within its first year. Here, on Thomas Street, chef Keelan Higgs cooks over an open hearth, serving imaginative smoky dishes like venison loin with sprout tops. Equally cool is Allta, a brilliant new restaurant near Grafton Street, that everyone’s queuing up to dine in. Both are cool and relaxed spots, where chefs like to dine on their nights off.
Ireland may not have the beach culture to rival warmer climes, but Dubliners love the water and flock to the coast daily for enjoyment. Hugging Dublin Bay, the compact city is blessed with miles of seafront, for walking, jogging, or simply breathing in the fresh ocean air. Start your day with a stroll on Sandymount Strand or head to beautiful Bull Island, where Dollymount Strand stretches as far as the eye can see. After a head-clearing walk by the dunes, grab a coffee at Happy Out, where you’ll find dog walkers, kite surfers, and veteran sea swimmers all hanging out.
Dublin is well served by the DART, a super train service that wraps around the C-shaped bay, connecting Howth and Malahide in north Dublin to Bray and Greystones in the south. Running frequently, the DART offers a fabulous window on the world, weaving along the coast for much of its journey. A day trip to Howth, a pretty northside fishing village with outstanding cliff walks and cool harbor restaurants, is well worth a punt, but the southbound route is the prettiest of the two. Take it all the way to Bray, where you’ll find an old-style promenade and an exhilarating 10 km path that follows the cliffs from Bray to Greystones. The views from up here are breathtaking, with Howth visible on a clear day and seals frequently spotted out on the shore.
If you fancy a slice of the coast without straying so far, the colorful seaside town of Dún Laoghaire (pronounced dun-leary), is just seven miles south of the city. Here, handsome Victorian and Georgian terraces stand shoulder to shoulder, looking out over a magnificent seafront that was once, proudly, the world’s largest artificial harbor. Two long granite piers stretch into the sea, enfolding dozens of colorful fishing boats in their safe embrace. It is these piers that draw hundreds of Dubliners daily –walking Dún Laoghaire pier and finishing up with an ice cream from Teddy’s is almost a rite of passage.
Glance south from the piers and you’ll spy a squat, stone Martello tower, standing sentinel over Scotsman’s Bay. One of 50 defensive forts built here during the Napoleonic Wars, it’s known as the James Joyce Tower, and was the location for the opening chapter of Ulysses. Opposite the tower is Sandycove Beach, a tiny sheltered pocket of golden sand beloved by families in summer.
Around the corner, though, is Ireland’s most famous swimming spot, the 40 Foot. Once a male-only domain, the “gentlemen’s bathing place” is now frequented by all and a favorite spot for year-round swimming. Courageous regulars brave the waters here in all seasons, when, even in summer the temperatures are cold. If you really want to experience Dublin like a local, you may want to consider taking your swimsuit and jumping in!