Insider Tips

Things to Do in Dublin

By Fionn Davenport

6th July 2018

A friend has come to visit from the States. They’re clearly excited to be in Dublin, and even more so because their guide (me) has written guidebooks about the city for over 20 years. No pressure on me, then, to deliver the ultimate guide to the very best Dublin has to offer.

Writing about your hometown is oddly challenging. Like most Dubliners, if left to my own devices, I take the city for granted, happy in the knowledge that Dublin is full of amazing things to see and do but I’ll get to them another time.

I don’t remember the last time I wandered in to see the Book of Kells for no reason other than just to see it; I’ve never just gone to the Guinness Storehouse unless I was updating the newest edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Dublin, which I’ve been doing every couple of years since the late 1990s.

Black gate and buildings at Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse

My insight into Dublin comes from having to adopt a visitor’s perspective and curiosity, to which I add a lifetime’s worth of local knowledge.

I leave my friend to explore the Old Library and Book of Kells on his own before showing him the easiest way to get to the Guinness Storehouse. I will introduce him to the Yeats Room at the National Gallery, and take him next door to the Natural History Museum – the ‘Dead Zoo’ – and watch him marvel at an exhibition hall that hasn’t changed much since it was opened by Dr Livingstone in 1857, before he disappeared into the African jungle for his famous encounter with Henry Stanley. And I’ll relive many a school visit to the National Museum of Ireland, where we would gawp at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice. If only the Kingship & Sacrifice exhibit had been around when I was a kid – nothing quite grabs the attention of a 10-year-old like the mummified body of an early Celt.

Display of gold at National Museum of Ireland

The National Museum of Ireland

I’m even more enthusiastic about some of the city’s lesser-known attractions. The Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle, for instance. Featuring two floors’ worth of sacred books and cultural artefacts, it easily ranks as one of Europe’s most beautiful museums. Or Marsh’s Library, just behind St Patrick’s Cathedral (itself another big-ticket item; worth going in for the tombs alone). Open since 1707, it’s the oldest public library in Ireland. Inside are 25,000 books, maps and manuscripts – some dating back to the early 1400s when books weren’t called books but were known as incunabula.

Book stacks in Marsh's Library

Marsh's Library

Even in the heart of the city centre there are a few spots that not many Dubliners are even aware exist. Like the City Assembly House on South William Street, a beautiful Georgian building that was the first purpose-built exhibition hall in the British Isles. It’s now home to the Irish Georgian Society and once again hosts art exhibitions.

I want my friend to get a good sense of Dublin history, so I take him to the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green. It’s an impressive collection – all the more so given that the bulk of it was donated by Dubliners themselves. I widen the scope somewhat with a visit to Kilmainham Gaol – an absolute must for anyone looking to get a grip on Irish history over the last 200 years – before stepping through Francis Johnston’s impressive Georgian gate that guards the rear entrance to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, housed in the beautiful Royal Hospital building and surrounded by formal gardens that are just a gorgeous spot to amble about in.

Kilmainham Gaol exterior with trees and pedestrians

Kilmainham Gaol

But my favourite bit of greenery round these parts are the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, which run along the Liffey and feature the Edwin Lutyens-designed memorial to the fallen of WWI.

After being teased by the green-leafed delights of Islandbridge, it’s time to get out of the city. My friend is surprised to discover that Dublin has 13 miles of coastline and that in 2015 the whole of the bay was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on account of its flourishing diversity and natural habitats.

The War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge

War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge

The weather is good, so I have plenty of suggestions. We could head north to the pretty fishing village of Howth, brimming with seafood restaurants whose produce comes from the boats docked right in front of them and home to one of the best weekend markets in all of Dublin. There’s a lovely looped walk on bulbous Howth Head that takes about two hours and covers 6.5km – and the reward includes some of the best views of the city from the Summit (where there’s also one of my favourite suburban bars).

Howth Lighthouse on a sunny day

Lighthouse, Howth

Or we could head to Malahide, home to the magnificent castle that was home to the Talbot family for 800 years. They’ve gone, but the castle remains, including a beautiful 16th-century oak room packed with family portraits. In the heart of the village, Gibney’s is a classic pub, its beer garden a lovely spot to while away a couple of evening hours.

There are a couple of beautiful beaches in the northern villages – Claremont Beach, just off the West Pier in Howth, is a local favourite and the broad strand in Malahide is an imperious bit of beach – but my favourite beaches are all south of the city centre. Sandymount Strand – easily reached via DART from town – is the nearest, a blue-flag stretch of sand that is also home to one of the architectural symbols of Dublin, the Poolbeg Chimneys. Just north of here is another of my favourite spots in Dublin, the red Poolbeg Lighthouse, at the end of the South Wall that marks the southern entrance to Dublin Port; if we time it correctly, we can walk the 800m wall just as the sun is beginning to set, making for a superb view of Dublin looking back towards the city.

People paddle-boarding near Poolbeg Lighthouse

Paddle-boarding near the Poolbeg lighthouse

There are more blue-flag beaches at Seapoint and Killiney. If we’re feeling active, there’s BigStyle Kitesurfing at the end of Sandymount Strand, or, on the north side by Clontarf, kite-surfing and paddle-boarding on Dollymount Strand with Pure Magic.

But my friend has read Dubliners and wants some Joyceana on his Dublin pilgrimage, so I take him to the Martello Tower in Sandycove, which doesn’t figure in Dubliners I tell him (disappointed look on his face) but is where the opening scene of Ulysses takes place (smile returns) and is now a museum dedicated to the writer.

And, just like Buck Mulligan at the end of the first chapter of Ulysses, my friend and I set off for the Forty Foot, the seawater bathing pool at the foot of the tower that gets its name from the Fortieth Foot regiment stationed there until 1904 but is better known for the fortifying swimming experience you get from plunging into its chilly depths. We can swim naked according to the fashion, I tell him, but we choose to keep our shorts on.

Small boats docked at Dalkey Harbour

Dalkey Harbour

We warm our bones in nearby Dalkey with a bit of food and a drink at the Magpie Inn. There’s music on too, and we spend an evening tapping our toes to old rock favourites and plotting tomorrow’s adventure.  

Fionn Davenport

Fionn Davenport | Travel Writer

A Lonely Planet author, award-winning travel journalist and radio presenter, Fionn Davenport is one of Ireland's best-known voices in travel writing.