Dublin is a city on the dream list of many a traveler.
It has its own European sophistication and connection, and its own Irish charm and welcome — and history. It has been recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature, and it is the subject and setting for plays, poetry, song, and story from its own sons and daughters and from those who’ve never yet walked its streets.
There are as many ways into the life and stories of Dublin as there are people who come to visit and people who live in the Fair City. Before you pull up EasyTerra to rent a car and head out of town though, there’s a lot to do and see here. When friends ask me what they should do on a first visit to Dublin, here are seven ideas I have for them.
Explore Temple Bar during the day: As evening falls and night progresses, you will often find the streets and pavements of Temple Bar filled with people who’ve had quite a bit to drink, young and old who are on their way and coming from alcohol fueled evenings of one sort or another. In the day, you’ll have the chance to appreciate the artisan shops, the museums, and, yes, the pubs — in their less frenetic aspects. There’s a fine place to get your kids exploring art called The Ark, outdoor markets featuring food, books, and designer goods, historical architecture, street performers, all of which contribute to the area’s designation as Dublin’s Cultural Quarter. Come back for that night scene if it appeals, but plan to take in the atmosphere in the day, as well.
Walk along Grafton Street: If you love to shop, Grafton Street is your place, with high end stores and one off designer showcases, as well as a range of tacky tourist goods outlets now and then too. If shopping isn’t your focus you may still enjoy the lively street scene and the bustling atmosphere as well as the frequent street performers and lively cafes. A few steps off Grafton Street, Avoca is a store you may want to visit even if you are not a shopper: the range of home goods, foodstuffs, and clothing (check out the sweaters and scarves) are high quality Irish. For a more workaday Irish version of these things, call in at the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, where there’s a branch of Dunne’s Stores with clothing and homegoods on main levels, a food hall (good source of picnic fare) at the lower level.
Learn the stories each of these four statues has to tell: Dublin is a city of music, writers, history, and legend. You may have seen Molly Malone along Grafton Street (or if transport construction is still in progress you might find her around the corner), Patrick Kavanagh contemplates the Grand Canal south of the city center, the people of the Famine Memorial walk on the quays along the Liffey, and the Children of Lir take flight near Parnell Square north of city center. Take time to seek out these four art works and see what ideas they spark.
Spend time in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology: Even if you’re not usually a museum goer, it’s likely that you’ll be moved by at least a few of the aspects of National Museum of Ireland’s Archaeology division. There’s the gold, for instance, reckoned to be the finest collection of prehistoric gold in Europe; there’s the Kingship and Sacrifice section, which will tell you some of what’s known of what these people worshipped and believed; there are objects that illuminate church and state and day to day life in medieval Ireland; there are stories of Viking Ireland told through objects which came to light in Dublin itself; there are classics of Irish history, art, and faith, including the cross of Cong and the Ardagh Chalice. There’s an interesting gift shop and a fairly priced cafe, and the museum, which is usually closed on Mondays, is free.
Take in a session of traditional music: Music of all sorts is part of the conversation of life in Ireland, and listening to a bit of trad will help you understand what underpins the rhythms of those conversations. In the evenings, most sessions begin between seven and nine or so, and you can follow the sounds drifting out of pubs to hear what you like, or ask for guidance at your lodgings or the tourist office. You’ll also see loads of signs and leaflets for traditional music and dance evenings — often these are far more than a bit touristy, but on the other hand if music isn’t your main focus in life they could provide an enjoyable time, and perhaps a spark to explore Irish music in more depth. If you’re looking for a more of straight up trad session I’d suggest Cobblestone Pub or Hughes, both across the Liffey near Four Courts. If you’re seeking a session that begins earlier in the day, Oliver St. John Gogarty’s usually has those, and at weeekends you may find afternoon sessions at Darkey Kelly’s too.
Listen to the bells of Christ Church, and while you’re at it, spare a glance and a thought for what remains of Viking Dublin: Christ Church, just beyond the western end of Temple Bar, is an active Church of Ireland (Anglican) community which worships on a site where Dubliners have been coming to pray for almost a thousand years, perhaps longer. Most of the building you see these days is from Victorian times, although parts of much older structures are incorporated within it. Whether you enter the church or not (there is a charge for sightseeing; all are welcome to attend services) you’ll hear its bells. Bells have been ringing out from this place from at least the eleventh century. As you walk around Christ Church, look down: embedded in the pavement you will find reminders of the Viking people who once lived on this ground.
Enjoy fish and chips from Leo Burdock: Nearby Christ Church is a quintessential taste of Dublin: fish and chips from Leo Burdock. This location (it’s right across the street from the church, just down behind Lord Edward Pub) is take away only, and there’s often a small queue out into the street. The line moves quickly, though, and staff are cheerful and efficient as they wrap up your fried haddock, smoked cod, or other choices, in generous portion in brown paper.
There are indeed many ways into experiencing Dublin City — try these and see what you find.
A Dublin guide book I like is DK Eyewitness Dublin. Thoughtfully illustrated, well written, and small enough to carry with you, it makes a good companion for planning or exploring.
Dublin is the home and center for many strands of Irish music. To try two of them as soundtrack for planning your journey, take a listen to The Very Best of the Original Dubliners and, for a different and more reflective sort of music, Down the Crooked Road from Dublin native Mary Black.
Photograph of buskers on Grafton Street by Joseph Mischyshyn.
Photograph of sunset on the Liffey by Gareth James.
Photograph of the Ardagh Chalice courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology.
All other photographs by Kerry Dexter.
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