Small but mighty, the Island of Ireland ranges from bustling city centers to rugged, ancient stone castles standing guard over endless craggy coastlines, connected by lush, Emerald green landscapes in-between. At its heart is the capital city of Dublin, thick with college kids and visitors from every country, laden with history and mystery, and smelling of beer.
Dublin, Ireland: Bustling Capital City
HOP ON AND OFF
I highly recommend starting your first day in Dublin with the hop on / hop off bus to get the lay of the land and mark the places you want to go back to. Try the 48 hour DoDublin Tour which also includes transportation at least one way from the airport to most city centric stops. https://dodublin.ie/city-sightseeing-tours
HAVE A PINT!
One famed (and rightly so) Dublin hot spot worth your time is the Guinness Storehouse. If you like beer, and even if you don’t, go! It was one of the highlights of my visit to Dublin. The museum is so well-done, explaining both the history of the company and the journey from grain to beer, and the glass enclosed Gravity rooftop bar is the perfect drinking spot for your complimentary pint after the tour. You can buy tickets ahead at https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/
GET THEE TO THE MEDIEVAL CHURCHES AND CASTLES
Another fantastic stop in Dublin was Christ Church Cathedral. It is a stunning example of ancient architecture standing the test of time, still beautiful despite being established in 1030! I took the tower tour for an additional cost, which allowed me access to the roof (and a stunning view of the city from there) as well as giving participants the opportunity to ring the bells with the hand-held pulls – a super unique experience! Also, be sure to visit the crypts! https://christchurchcathedral.ie/
Dublin does have its very own castle, and I highly recommend a quiet minute spent in their gardens (especially if weather and season permit) but I didn’t have the chance to tour the castle itself. I opted instead to spend more time in churches and so went on to the Medieval St. Patrick’s Cathedral, https://www.stpatrickscathedral.ie/ proclaiming to have the tallest church tower in Ireland.
THE BOOK OF KELLS
No visit to Dublin is complete without seeing the renowned 9th century Book of Kells, securely housed in the utterly gorgeous Long Room at the Library within Trinity College. I suggest buying timed entry tickets from their website directly for the fastest access https://www.tcd.ie/visitors/book-of-kells/ The grounds and facilities of Trinity College are worth their own half day if you have the time to go beyond the book!
The Temple Bar district was everything you’ve heard it to be – rowdy and crowded, with endless choices for beer and music and more American English voices raised in raucous cheer than any other language. I preferred to walk through during the day than the evening, as any time after 5 the crowds were obnoxiously close-pressed and the establishments overflowing. There were a few places with live music that were worth wandering into (I suggest the Merchant’s Arch https://www.merchantsarch.ie/), but less of them featured traditional music and more were acoustic singing of familiar tunes. Unless you’re really looking to get into the thick of things, maybe find yourself a quiet pub of locals where the Guinness is just as good!
Dublin food was hit or miss for me, so I suggest doing research ahead and really reading reviews. Being a big city, there were certainly a ton of options, everything from bar pub food to fine dining. I was lured in to a lunch spot with the word “carvery” in the title, only to be disappointed to find out that it was a buffet and not a very good one. I later found out that carvery more or less means buffet, and the buffets are generally geared towards tourists. Bummer! Two of the best meals I had were at the international restaurant called Mr Fox http://www.mrfox.ie/ and a takeaway sandwich from a street side caffé called Il Fornaio (there were 4 in the city, but the one on the College Green was fantastic and centrally located) https://www.ilfornaiocafe.ie/
I found the coffee in Ireland to largely be disappointing. My international travels really drive home the point that, for some things, you just have to adjust or find an alternative. I am a coffee snob – it’s true. I ask to taste drip coffee from new places before I buy it. But it’s because I know what I like and I don’t want to waste time drinking “bad” coffee. I never quite hit the sweet spot in Ireland, though in a pinch I know two things 1) I can order a cappuccino and disguise not great coffee with lots of milk and foam or 2) I really can find a Starbucks pretty much in any big city and get results that are mostly consistent across the world (I have had Starbucks in Bali, China, and Western Europe and while the grind and strength does change, the beans tend to trend in the same profile). As much as I wanted to try and love new and local brews, it just didn’t work for me in Ireland. I had the same experience in England on this trip https://www.jacquelynnbuck.com/things-to-do-in-london/ , but strangely the coffee was right on at the Air BnB in Scotland https://www.jacquelynnbuck.com/isle-of-skye/ . The best international coffee I’ve ever had? Italy. Not shocking.
DAY TRIPPING and DRIVING ON THE “WRONG” SIDE OF THE ROAD
While in Dublin, I braved left hand stick shift from the right sided driver’s seat while careening on the left side of the road. It was harrowing and exciting and energy sapping, but sooo much fun! Wheeeeee! As such, I managed 2 day trips – one driving with 2 stops, and one via a short train ride, all absolutely fantastic.
Howth – Irish Seaside Village
The quaint seaside fishing village of Howth, accessible from Dublin by a quick DART light rail ride, featured a ruined Abbey, a few fun pubs, and a beautiful harbor and lighthouse that, at sunset, lit up like a candle in all the best ways against the stormy Irish sky. One of the tastiest meals I had in Ireland was had in Howth at, wait for it, Octopussys. This tapas style seafood restaurant was phenomenal. http://octopussys.ie/ If you have more time (which I did not) and can time it right, you can take a fast ferry to the island called Ireland’s Eye with its 8th Century church and defensive Tower.
Cashel – Medieval Ruins
An hour and a half by car south of Dublin, Cashel drew me because of the Hore Abbey, the medieval Rock of Cashel, the original Cross of St. Patrick, and the Romanesque Cormack’s Chapel (all mostly on the same grounds). I spent more than 3 hours amidst these ruins, and was able to buy tickets at the site to include a special timed entry for Cormack’s Chapel, but they were selling out quickly. If you want to participate in some of the more extensive tours I suggest purchasing in advance. The Hore Abbey was not a ticketed structure and was a short trek down the hill from the Rock. I found this site to be incredibly haunting and quite photogenic especially given the moody day. https://www.cashel.ie/
Kilkenney – Charming Historic Irish town with a Medieval Mile
From Cashel, it wasn’t much farther to Kilkenney – colorful, charming, historic – I would go back there and stay. With only half a day, I hit the ground running for a tour of Kilkenney Castle (Medieval in origin but now an 1800s a country home) and then moved along the Medieval mile, stopping at the Black Abbey, a dark, deserted, oppressively silent church steeped in history, and then taking a moment to wander the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. Canice http://www.stcanicescathedral.ie/ though I was too late to tour their famed tower. https://visitkilkenny.ie/
Based on experience, I suggest 2 days in Dublin and then traveling farther afield, from east to west and south to north. Ireland really is everything you’ve heard it to be. Go visit, and when you do, may the luck of the Irish be with you.