The Absolute Best Things to Do in Dublin, Ireland

Dublin is a fun and energetic city and is capital of the Republic of Ireland.  It has a rich history starting with its founding by the Norsemen and a dynamic culture with a long tradition of great writers. Situated along the banks of the River Liffey, Dublin is on the east coast facing the Irish Sea.  

I visited the city for several days as part of a broader two-week trip around Ireland and wished that I had allocated more time to the capital.  I found it a very walkable city that lends itself to exploration, from its charming squares with beautiful Georgian architecture to dropping into pubs in or around Grafton Street or the Temple Bar area. Craic is the art of the conversation and convivial times, and the Irish are masters.  Dublin is home to Guinness Stout and Jameson Whisky, and has tours to let you experience their making and taste the result! Or stop into the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub that dates to the 11th century.

Its historical sights are numerous and intriguing, from the eerie emptiness of the Old Kilmainham Gaol (jail) to Dublin Castle to the stark reminders of the Easter Uprising of 1916 on the General Post Office building to the dynamic duo of Dublin churches, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals.

The literary associations are legion around the city.There have beenfour winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature—George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney.  And that’s not to mention other great writers like Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Bram Stoker and C.S. Lewis. 

Be sure to explore the literary history of the city. In 2010, Dublin received the title of UNESCO City of Literature in recognition of its cultural profile and international standing as a city of literary excellence.  It acknowledges the importance of Dublin’s literary heritage and the national and international acclaim of the works of Dublin writers in all genres.  Start with the glorious Book of Kells and the Trinity College library and check out the displays at the Dublin Writers Museum. Take a literary walking tour to learn more about the city’s associations with James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift.  Take in a play at the historic Abbey Theater by an Irish playwright.  

I loved spending time in St Stephens Green and Merrion Square, fronted by Georgian buildings with brightly colored doors and fanlights, each with its own history and artistic associations.  

Among the city’s many museums, some to seek out are the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Archaeological Museum, plus the EPIC Immigration Museum which tells the heartbreaking story of Irish emigration.

The Irish people are warm and engaging and enjoy life through its conversations in its many pubs or through music.  Music is a big part of the Irish character, and it has produced such exports like U2.  Be sure to enjoy some locals at a trad session in one of the local pubs.  Make time to dine in one of the city’s fine eateries, which include three one Michelin star restaurants and two two-star eateries. 

The Dublin skyline reflected in the Liffey river on a bright sunny day. To the right is the famous Harp Bridge.

Dublin’s Best Sights and Experiences

If you plan on visiting several the city’s sights and museums, investigate purchasing the Dublin Pass.  Getting around by foot is easy, so you can navigate to all the top sites yourself.  

But having the services of an engaging guide. As you stroll around the heart of the city can add immeasurable to your enjoyment, as you learn the history and hear the stories behind what you’re seeing.  Try a 2-hour guided group historical walking tour costing $17.44 per person, or if you have specific interests, consider this customizable 3-8 hour private tour with a local Dubliner at your side, starting at $123.81 per person for three hours.  

Irish Historical Sites

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle dates to 1204 and was the seat of British power in Ireland for over seven centuries.  Its lavishly furnished State Apartments can be toured and are used by the president of Ireland to host visiting dignitaries.  Other areas of interest include the Gothic Chapel Royal and the Chester Beatty Library with its collection of Asian and Middle Eastern prints, paintings, and manuscripts.  

The State Apartments, grounds and gardens are open daily and free to explore.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions currently in place, no guided tours are being offered, so the other parts of the complex normally seen on tour are not viewable. 

Old Kilmainham Gaol

Although a former jail may not sound like an interesting destination, in Dublin’s case it is one of the most interesting historical tours the city offers. Old Kilmainham Gaol has held numerous leaders of Ireland’s fight for independence over the years from the 1780s to the 1920s. Most famously the commanders of the 1916 Easter rebellion, Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly were held here before being executed in the prison yard.

Your tour guide brings these stories to moving and vivid life as you tour the chilling cellblock and end the tour in the prison yard where executions took place. There is also a 30-minute audiovisual presentation that recounts Ireland’s political history over the past 200 years.  

Entrance to the Gaol is by guided tour only. Tickets must be reserved online and are for timed entry. 

General Post Office (GPO)

The General Post Office has a prominent role in Irish history, chosen by the insurgents in the 1916 Easter Rising.  The building itself is impressive with its Neoclassical façade and was built between 1814 and 1818.  

In 1916 Republican forces stormed the building and issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Most of the original building was gutted from the fighting, though the front of the building survived.  You can still see bullet marks on the pillars from that fateful period. 

The GPO was rebuilt and reopened in 1929.  It now houses the GPO Witness History museum, an interactive gallery that recounts the historic and violent events surrounding the uprising and the role the GPO played in it.  Admission is 13.50 euros for adults.  

Abbey Theatre

One of the most famous theaters in the world, the Abbey houses Ireland’s national theater company. Founded in 1904 by W.B. Yeats and his patron, Lady Gregory, it became a center for an Irish literary renaissance, staging the first plays by young playwrights like Sean O’Casey and J.M. Synge.  The original structure burned down in 1951, replaced by a modern auditorium, albeit one with excellent space and acoustics for the theatrical productions it stages.  

Check out the schedule for what’s on during your stay.   Plan ahead and don’t make the mistake I did.  I counted on attending whatever production was available the night I had free in Dublin (apart from those I’d already booked for a dinner and music pub show and a comedy night to sample some of the best Irish humor), only to find the theater dark, closed that particular night! 

Interesting Churches 

Christ Church Cathedral

Construction on the present Christ Church Cathedral (one of two Protestant cathedrals in Dublin along with St. Patrick’s), began in 1172 by Strongbow, a Norman baron who conquered Dublin for the English Crown, and continued for 50 more years. 

By 1875 the cathedral needed major renovations and these changes gave it the look it has today.  Strongbow himself is buried in the cathedral, beneath an impressive effigy statue. 

The vast crypt, with its 12th- and 13th-century vaults, is Dublin’s oldest surviving structure and contains an exhibition on the Treasures of Christ Church.  But the most comically bizarre attractionsare the mummified bodies of a cat and rat shown in a display case, which were trapped in an organ pipe in the 1860s, and who now chase after each other for eternity! 

Christ Church offers self-guided tours that include admission to the crypt and special exhibitions at a cost of 8 euros for adults. 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

The largest cathedral in Dublin, St. Patrick’s was built in honor of Ireland’s patron saint.  Legend has it that St. Patrick baptized many converts at a well here in the 5th century. It is the longest church in the country, something that came in handy when Oliver Cromwell’s troops turned the church’s nave into a stable for their horses in the 17th century.

Don’t miss the heraldic Choir of St. Patrick’s, decorated with colorful medieval banners, and look for the tomb of Jonathan Swift, who was dean of the church from 1713 to 1745, but is most famous for authoring such books as Gulliver’s Travels

Living Stones is the cathedral’s permanent exhibition celebrating St. Patrick’s life.  General admission tickets cost 7.50 euros for adults. 

Wonderful Museums

The National Gallery is located on beautiful Merrion Square.  Its outstanding art collection ranges from masterpieces dating back to the Renaissance to an excellent collection of Irish art. The Gallery was built in 1864 by Francis Fowke, who also designed London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.  

Look for noteworthy canvases by the likes of Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Vermeer, along with 

paintings from the 17th-century French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish schools, a small British collection and works by French impressionists such as Monet and Renoir. Be sure to save time for the Yeats Collection, displaying more than 30 works by Irish Impressionist Jack B. Yeats, Ireland’s most notable 20th-century painter. The museum is free of charge.

Irish Museum of Modern Art

Housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the Irish Museum of Modern Art presents the work of contemporary Irish artists as well as mounting regular international exhibitions. The museum also displays art by such luminaries as Picasso and Miró.

The elegant hospital building was designed by Sir William Robinson and built between 1684 and 1687 as a retirement home for soldiers.  There is free admission to the museum.  

Built as a town house for the Earl of Charlemont in 1762, the Hugh Lane Gallery is named for a nephew of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats’s aristocratic patron. Lane was an art collector, focusing on both impressionist paintings and 19th-century Irish and Anglo-Irish works. Also housed within the Gallery is the relocated studio of artist Francis Bacon. Admission is free. 

National Museum of Archaeology

Just off Merrion Square is Ireland’s National Museum of Archaeology.  The museum is home to a fascinating collection of Irish artifacts, including the largest collection of Celtic antiquities in the world, one of the highlights being discoveries of gold jewelry. 

There is also a permanent exhibit on the Norsemen called Viking Ireland.  Here you’ll find a full-size Viking skeleton, weaponry, and a replica of a small Viking boat. An exhibition entitled Kinship and Sacrifice centers on several Iron Age “bog bodies” found eerily well preserved from their immersion in Ireland’s peat bogs. Admission is 5 euros for adults.

National Museum of Decorative Arts and History

The National Museum of Decorative Arts and History’s extensive collection of furniture, silver, glass, and other decorative arts, forms another part of Ireland’s National Museum system. The huge Collins Barracks are a great setting for the museum. Built in 1704, they were renovated to house the collection, which opened in 1997.  

Designed by Thomas Burgh who also created the Old Library at Trinity College, this building was once the largest military barracks in the world.  Fittingly there is also a military collection in the museum, which tells of Ireland’s military history from 1550 to the 21st century.  Admission is free.

EPIC Irish Emigration Museum

The Irish Emigration Museum focuses on the epic story of Ireland’s emigrations in the mid 1800s due to such economic factors as the Great Potato Famine.  The museum is set near the docks here many had to leave their home and country behind forever.  Each visitor gets a symbolic passport before embarking on their tour of the 20 galleries. 

The museum does a good job in telling the human stories behind those people who were forced to leave, the struggles they faced, and where they moved to across the world. There is a 16.50 euro admission fee. You can avoid the crowds with a skip-the-line ticket costing $19.18 per person.

Little Museum of Dublin

The endearing Little Museum of Dublin, collected its items from the people of Ireland to help tell their story through their own belongings.  The museum seeks to tell Dublin’s history in the past century through the stories and personal items of the residents themselves.  The collection includes a wide variety of materials, including photographs, advertisements, letters, personal objects, and other collected items that help tell the story of life in Dublin since 1900.  Housed on the first floor of a Georgian building, there’s even an exhibit on the rock band U2. 

Admission is 12 euros for adults.  You can also purchase a skip-the-line ticket for $11.62 per person that includes a guided tour of the museum.  

Fascinating Literary Sights

The Book of Kells at Trinity College

A visit to see the magnificently handwritten and illustrated, 9th century Book of Kells was one of the highlights of my Dublin experience.  Start with the fact that the setting itself is remarkable, on the grounds of Trinity College, built in 1592.  Wander through the cobble stone squares and past the elegant colleges whose graduates include Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.  Make your way to the Old Library, which is a beautiful space to visit, particularly for book lovers like myself.  

Its principal treasure is the Book of Kells, considered to be the most striking manuscript ever produced in the Anglo-Saxon world. There are often crowds on hand to share he experience, but it is worth to wait for a chance to look at the painstaking and beautiful artistic detail lavished by the artists on its pages. 

The Old Library houses the largest collection of books and manuscripts in Ireland.  The Long Room will take your breath away.  This is the narrow main room of the Library, housing about 200,000 of the 3 million volumes in Trinity’s collection, as well as such items as the Trinity College Harp, the oldest medieval harp in Ireland, appearing on the flag of the Irish president and serving as the model for the Guinness logo.

An adult ticket is €18.  A fast track access ticket can be purchased for the Book of Kells that also includes an exterior tour of Dublin Castle for $56.96 per person.  

Dublin Writers Museum

Book lovers and particularly those who enjoy reading famous Irish authors will find plenty of interesting things to peruse on the walls and in the display cabinets of the Dublin Writers Museum.  

This collection is devoted to preserving the city’s rich literary tradition up to 1970.  Of course, this means that Irish authors from the past 50 years are not considered, but the rich historical collection is impressive, nonetheless. The building itself is interesting, comprising two 18th-century houses.  Note the impressive stucco work decorating the upstairs gallery.  

The upstairs gallery contains busts and portraits of the literary greats, but the more popular exhibits are downstairs, including Samuel Beckett’s phone (with a button for excluding incoming calls), and a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Admission is 7.50 euros for adults.  

Unique Architecture

Custom House

The Custom House is the city’s most spectacular Georgian building. Extending 375 feet along the north banks of the River Liffey. It is the work of James Gandon, an English architect who arrived in Ireland in 1781, when the building’s construction commenced and was not finished until 10 years later.  

Just east of the Custom House is one of the city’s most striking pieces of public sculpture, a set of life-size bronze figures created in 1997 by Rowan Gillespie and known as Famine. These haunted, gaunt figures were created to highlight the terrible toll of the Great Hunger of 1845-51.

The Spire

The Spire, or the Monument of Light, is one of the newest additions to the city’s skyline. Ian Ritchie’s spectacular 395-foot-high, stainless steel monument was erected in 2003. It is seven times taller than the nearby General Post Office.  Approximately 10 feet in diameter at its base, the monument tapers to only 1 foot at its top, which gently sways when the wind blows. 

Ha’penny Bridge

The city’s most famous and photogenic bridge is the Ha’penny Bridge, built in 1816. One of the world’s oldest cast-iron bridges, the pedestrians who used it were once charged a half penny toll to cross, a fee that was collected up until 1919.  The bridge was built to replace the passenger ferries that used to shuttle people between the two banks of the river.  

Relaxing Parks and Squares

St. Stephen’s Green

St. Stephen’s Green, is a 27-acre delight with lawns, flower gardens, a Victorian bandstand, and a lake with lots of waterfowl, connected by paths inviting a stroll amidst the lovely surroundings.  

This is a great spot to take a break from city sightseeing. There are also many statues such as the memorial to W. B. Yeats and another to Joyce by sculptor Henry Moore.

Merrion Square

Peaceful Merrion Square, built between 1762 and 1764, is just a few blocks east of St. Stephen’s Green.  It is bordered on three sides by some of Dublin’s best-preserved Georgian town houses.  These are especially photogenic, as many of them are artistic treasures with brightly painted front doors crowned overhead by intricate fanlights. 

Don’t miss the colorful statue of Oscar Wilde inside the park.  Wilde who grew up across the street at No 1; he is dressed in his customary smoking jacket and rests casually on a rock. From here you can purchase a Dublin Rogues Walking Tour for $11.62 per person to learn more about the unique personalities associated with Merrion Square.  

Phoenix Park

Europe’s largest public park, Phoenix Park stretches 3 miles along the Liffey’s north bank.  There is an amazing variety of things to see and do here, including a visit to Europe’s oldest zoo, stopping off at the Parks’ Visitor Center in Ashtown Castle to learn more about the park’s history, or having a glimpse at the home of the Irish President.  

But being outdoors is what makes Phoenix Park special.   There are green lawns, woods, lakes, and playing fields. There is also a larger herd of fallow deer that you might spot on your excursions.  Sundays are a great day to check out sporting events such as cricket, polo, football (soccer), baseball and more. 

Gas lamps line both sides of Chesterfield Avenue, the main road that divides the park and an 1896 Victorian Tea Room near the Avenue still serving park visitors. You can rent bikes at the main gate to get around the spacious park and enjoy the diverse scenery.  You can visit at any time of day, but visits are best made during daylight hours.  

Dublin’s Food, Drink and Music

Guinness Storehouse

Dublin’s most popular attraction in Dublin is this homage to all things Guinness.  An old fermentation plant in the St. James Gate Brewery has been converted into the seven-story Guinness Storehouse Museum.  The museum tells the story of the company’s beloved Stout, including company’s history, how the beer is made and how it became the brand it is today.  The top floor Gravity Bar is highlight, with great views over the city, and where you can sample the end product!  

The tour takes about 90 minutes and tickets cost 18 euro per adult.  You can buy your entrance ticket for a self-guided tour in advance at a cost of $30.22 per person.

Old Jameson Distillery

On the opposite side of the River Liffey, you can continue your tastings experience with a visit to the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin’s old horse market area, Smithfield. Jameson’s whisky is on offer at the end of tours.

Founded in 1791, this distillery has produced one of Ireland’s most famous whiskeys for nearly 200 years.  In 1966, production moved to an ultramodern distillery in County Cork.  After major renovation, the original distillery has been turned into a state-of-the-art museum and whiskey experience. Tours can focus on either an exploration of the history of the old distillery or be more hands on such as learning how to blend your own whiskey, or develop your cocktail-making skills. Tours include a complimentary tasting; 25 euros for adult admission/tour. Or buy your guided tour ticket in advance for $29.58 per person.

Temple Bar

Temple Bar is a colorful, cobbled street area of the city that runs parallel to the river. This 10-block stretch is a very popular nighttime destination, packed with restaurants, cafes, galleries and traditional pubs with music and crowds of people enjoying the scene.  people and music spilling out.  Be sure to check out the old stone buildings and the Temple Bar pub itself while exploring the area, which has the highest density of bars in Dublin!

Discover a Trad Session

Music is an integral part of the Irish culture.  Be sure to ask for where you can find a group of local musicians sitting in at a local pub for a wonderful evening of music known as a trad session.  I traveled just north of the city to Howth on my trip and had a pub meal while listening to the wonderfully enthusiastic musicians entertain the crowd and themselves with some delightful music.  This was one of my best nights in Ireland, so don’t miss out on the local music scene!

Go on a Literary Pub Crawl 

What better way to mix learning more about Dublin’s rich literary heritage while experiencing friendly ambience of traditional pubs than on this two-hour literary pub crawl?  Delve into Dublin’s literary past and pub culture with entertaining and informative actors during this tour.  Wander Dublin’s streets to visit sites and pubs that inspired some of Ireland’s most famous authors; there is even a fun literary quiz at the end of your tour! The cost of the tour is $18.04 per person.  

Shopping and Strolling 

Grafton Street

Though only a half dozen short blocks in total, Grafton Street is the heart of Dublin’s traditional shopping district.  The area is full of shoppers and tourists, along with street performers vying for their attention.  This is a pedestrian street that connects Trinity College to St. Stephen’s Green. You might also consider a stop at the famous Bewley’s café for a tea. Grafton Street has Dublin’s most renowned department store, Brown Thomas. A walk here past flower sellers and colorful shops and restaurants is an enjoyable pastime whether you are looking to buy or just strolling along and people watching.  

A visit to Dublin will certainly give you a deeper understanding Irish history, from its rich Celtic and Norse roots through the political troubles that divided the nation.  But the lingering memories of this vibrant city will likely revolve around recollections of meeting locals and some delightful craic at a local pub, listening to a scintillating trad session of local musicians, or watching a performance of an Irish playwright at the Abbey Theater.  

Let Dublin soak in by stretching your toes in St. Stephens Green, relax like Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, wander through Phoenix Park, stop in at Bewley’s Tavern on Grafton Street for tea or crane your neck to spy the top of the Spire on O’Connell Street.  

No matter whether you have Irish roots or not, you’ll have a newfound affinity for this charming city along the River Liffey and its gregarious residents!

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