Plan a magical winter break in Dublin

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Nicola BradyNicola Brady is a travel writer based in Dublin. She writes regularly for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Condé Nast Traveller, and has contributed to books on Dublin and Ireland for DK Eyewitness.
A lit up carousel at dusk in Dublin Castle with fairy lights hung above and people all around.

There’s a certain kind of magic about Dublin in winter.

People wrap up in scarves to take a walk by the sea, gather around pots of tea in a cosy café, or meet up for a sneaky hot whiskey in the afternoon. The parks around the city have a sense of wintery charm, particularly on a frosty morning, and the warm lights of pubs and restaurants seem all the more appealing as the evening draws in. When the city is illuminated for Christmas, it feels like something out of a fairytale, with sparkling lights and festive pop ups aplenty. And while the days may be shorter, that doesn’t mean there’s less to do. The city is just as dynamic as it is in the summer, with festivals, gigs and events on all the time. An added bonus? The city’s galleries and museums are at their most peaceful once the summer crowds disperse.

If you want to plan an action-packed break in Dublin this winter, here are some ideas to get you started.

Plan your winter break in Dublin.

Cosy up by the fire

When there’s a chill in the air, nothing beats a languid afternoon spent next to a roaring fire. Luckily, there are a few pubs in Dublin where the fire is always lit, like The Swan on Aungier Street, where people sit around the fireplace with the paper and a pint. On Capel Street, McNeill’s is a narrow, traditional boozer with a tile-lined fireplace surrounded by low stools. There’s a slightly more polished style in Farrier and Draper, a cocktail bar attached to Powerscourt Townhouse. While the aesthetic at the bar itself is more modern, the comfy fireside armchairs in the Georgian rooms are ideal for a wintery afternoon.

Media captionCosy up to the fire with your cocktail at Farrier & Draper.

Catch a gig 

The winter months barely pull the brakes on Dublin’s live music scene. The big-ticket venues like the 3Arena and Vicar Street always have something on, or maybe you prefer a more intimate gig in the likes of Whelan’s, where there are shows almost every night of the week. In January, TradFest Temple Bar brings traditional music to special locations all around the city, from formal concerts held in the National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks to intimate shows in sacred spaces like the Pepper Canister Church. If it’s a trad session you’re after, head to O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row or the Cobblestone in Smithfield, where there’s live music every day. In the festive season, you’ll find all kinds of pop up performances along Grafton Street, not least the famous Christmas Eve busk, where Glen Hansard is joined by musicians like Bono for an epic charitable gig.

Media captionHead into Vicar Street to catch a live show.

See the lights 

Illuminations aren’t just for Christmas – every year there are large scale light installations in various places around Dublin, which make for an atmospheric and enchanting evening stroll. In Malahide Castle, Wonderlights transforms the grounds from November to January, with illuminated creatures set into the woodland and a light display mimicking the Northern Lights and shooting stars. In Dublin Zoo, Wild Lights runs until early January, with giant lantern sculptures and light shows spread between the animal habitats, alongside food huts serving up hot chocolate and snacks.  

Media captionExperience the magic at Dublin Zoo and Malahide Castle.

Grab some comfort food 

Winter is a time for dishes that steam and sizzle and generally make you feel warm from the inside out. On South William Street, The Ramen Bar serves up some of the tastiest ramen in town, with fresh handmade noodles and a variety of broths, from miso butter to traditional tonkotsu pork. While Featherblade is mostly about steak, their burgers are the ultimate comfort food, made with thick slices of house smoked bacon, aged cheddar and black garlic mayo. If you’re looking for a special setting for a festive meal, the floating restaurant La Peniche is just the ticket, set inside a barge glittering with fairy lights on the canal.

For something sweet, head to the ice cream lab Three Twenty, where the winter menu includes warm gooey brownies and a hot chocolate with a giant dome of freshly scorched marshmallow on top. Or head to Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, and sit down in a landmark setting with a pot of coffee and some sticky buns, beneath the Harry Clarke stained-glass windows. It’s a Dublin institution for a reason.

Take a hike  

If you want to blow away the cobwebs, head out for a walk along the Dublin Coastal Trail. There are miles of seaside strolls to explore, from the Victorian shoreline of Dún Laoghaire to the long sandy beach in Skerries. The best walks are those that end with a treat, so take a walk along Dollymount Strand and finish up with a cheese toastie from Happy Out, or walk the length of the South Wall and warm your hands with a cuppa from Mr Hobbs Coffee. If you’d rather explore the mountains, the woodland trails out in Carrickgollogan lead to panoramic views of Dublin Bay – watching the wintery morning mists rise over the city is nothing short of magical.  

Media captionCatch the sunrise on your next hike.

Dive into a book 

In November, the Dublin Book Festival takes over the city, with events held in over 60 venues, from the National Library of Ireland to the Botanic Gardens. Featuring author talks, live interviews and guided walks, the six-day festival celebrates the writers and publishers of Ireland, with some of the country’s best loved authors taking to the stage. At the festival’s Winter Garden, you can bring your new book and read for a while on a beanbag. If you want to do the same outside the festival, the café in Books Upstairs is just the place. Pick up a new book in the shop, then head into the Victorian café to sit with a cup of Wall & Keogh tea and an almond croissant.

Media captionListen to some of Ireland's best writers at the Dublin Book Festival.

Unwind in a spa 

If you’re in the mood for a spot of pampering, there are several spas in the city centre where you can treat yourself to a massage or work up a sweat in the sauna. The Spa at the Shelbourne is next to the hotel, with seven candlelit treatment rooms and an indoor swimming pool downstairs. But the real star of the show is the relaxation room, with silk-lined walls and plush chaise longues overlooking Stephen’s Green, so you can snuggle underneath a blanket and watch the world go by. Around the corner in the Spa at the Merrion Hotel, the thermal suite is one of the best in town, with a steam room and sauna overlooking the Grecian themed infinity pool.

Media captionHit the relaxation room at the Spa at the Shelbourne Hotel.

Get festive  

From mid-November onwards, the festive season is in full swing in Dublin. The Christmas lights twinkle over Grafton Street, the shopfronts of Henry Street are decorated with elaborate festive displays and a different Christmas market pops up every weekend. The biggest takes place in the cobbled courtyard of Dublin Castle, with Alpine market stalls stocked with ornaments and trinkets, a vintage carousel and live music from the Dublin Gospel Choir. There are other craft fairs held elsewhere throughout the city, including Gifted at the RDS and the Flea in the Digital Hub on Thomas Street. The Guinness Storehouse is also transformed into a festive wonderland – see the twinkling lights hanging above St James's Gate.

Media captionHave a laugh with friends at the Guinness Storehouse.

Visit a gallery

January is the only time of the year you can see the National Gallery’s fine collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner. In 1900, the gallery was given the 31 watercolours by collector Henry Vaughan on the condition that they only be displayed in January, when the light is at its weakest and the delicate pigment is protected. Even though lighting technology has moved on, the gallery has respected Vaughan’s wishes and keeps the paintings in a locked, dark space the rest of the year.

Media captionTake in a seasonal exhibition at the National Gallery.

Take in a show 

After the Dublin Theatre Festival wraps up in October, the schedules remain busy with visiting shows and homegrown productions. As well as the main theatres like the Abbey, Gaiety and The Gate, you can find productions in Smock Alley and in Temple Bar’s collection of theatres, the Project Arts Centre and The New Theatre. The comedy clubs are in full swing too, with nightly performances in The International Bar and stand up in the Comedy Crunch in the Stag’s Head.

Media captionStop by a show at the Gaiety Theatre.

Explore Dublin this winter 

See what else is on this Winter in Dublin.