Your Trip to Ireland Likely Starts and Ends in Dublin, So Make it Worthwhile
Most Ireland trips begin and end in Dublin, if for no other reason than it is where Ireland’s main airport is. Dublin also happens to be the capital of the Republic of Ireland and its largest city, so it is worth spending a few days here.
But, honestly, as awesome as Ireland is, and as much as I recommend that you tour Ireland, the fact is that Dublin is far from the best part of it. I have found that Dublin is probably only worth a few days of your precious vacation time. There are a limited number of things to do or see here. It is not especially photogenic, and you rarely see great pictures taken in Dublin. If you arrive for one of my tours more than two days prior to the start, my advice would be to head south to the Wicklow Mountains or up north to the coast of County Antrim. Still, Dublin is a very nice place to spend a few days.
For now, let’s assume you will be in Dublin for a day or two and that’s it. What should you do? If it is your first time to Dublin, there are two things I recommend you do: the Book of Kells and the Guinness Storehouse, so let’s talk about them first.
Before we do, let me mention one thing you might want to try if you just want a quick overview of Dublin. That is a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. You’ll see them everywhere in Dublin. I have never actually taken one in Dublin, but I have in other cities, and found them to be a nice introduction.
The Book of Kells
Ireland’s largest tourist attraction is called the Book of Kells. It is located in a special exhibit in Trinity College, and it is a very intricate and elaborate bible. Does that sound like something you want to wait in line to see? Probably not, but it is better than you think. Your path to the book has many exhibits about aspects of Irish history and people, and the book itself. You work your way through the exhibits and end up at the Book of Kells, which is kept under a display case turned to a designated page so you can see just how detailed and elaborate it is.
For me – and for most photographers – the best part of the Book of Kells isn’t the book at all. It is what comes next. After you leave the area where the book is kept, you exit into a room called the Long Hall, which is in the Old Library. It is an amazingly photogenic location, and I suggest you spend the bulk of your time here. The picture in the header of this page was taken there.
I actually recommend you build your entire visit around this room. I would get tickets for the Book of Kells at 8:30 am, which is when it opens. You can get your tickets here. Once you are in, I would zip right through the exhibits to get to the Old Library. Then I would photograph it while there are few people there. If you are really interested in the actual Book of Kells, come back later.
Trinity College, which is where the Book of Kells is kept, is also an interesting place to check out. It is right in the center of Dublin as well. Spend some time after your visit to the Book of Kells checking out Trinity College.
The Guinness Storehouse
The other major exhibit I recommend you see is the Guinness Storehouse. They don’t actually brew beer here, but it is an old facility owned by Guinness that they have converted into a museum of all things Guinness. Before you say “but I’m just not that interested in beer” let me recommend this place to everyone. The history and culture or Ireland, for better or for worse, is very tied with alcohol, beer, and pubs. Guinness has done a very good job of making itself be viewed as a key part of Irish culture. Most Irish gift stores have an entire Guinness section. Think about the Irish decorations you’ve seen at home and odds are they are Guinness-themed.
In any event, this museum is actually quite interesting. It consists of several levels and each level has a theme. It might have something to do with brewing or it might be on some aspect of Irish history. Again, it is all tied together. When you get to the top, you get schooled up on tapping a Guinness (it is different than pouring other beers) and then you get to drink the one you poured. They have a bar on the very top level with great views of Ireland.
I recommend you do this one late in the day, if for no other reason than you probably won’t want to be sipping Guinness at 9 am. I usually come here late in the day in the hopes of getting a sunset picture from the bar at the top, but that has never worked out for me. There’s always next time though.
Some Important Walking Areas
Dublin isn’t like Paris where you spend your time going from blockbuster sight to blockbuster site (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, etc.). Rather, it is more a city with a feel that you can enjoy. There is no better way to do that than to walk around. Thankfully, central Dublin is quite compact and most things you are going to want to see are in easy walking distance. So here are a few areas in central Dublin where you should spend some time walking around:
The first of the area in and around Grafton Street. This is the street with Trinity College at the north end and St. Stephen’s green at the south end. The street is entirely blocked off to traffic, and is pedestrian only. The street isn’t very long, but there are also side streets with interesting shops and pubs. It is tourist central, which is both good and bad.
Again, this area is very central. You will likely be staying very close to here. I mentioned that Trinity College and St. Stephen’s Green are at either end. Temple Bar is a stone’s throw away. It is very convenient to lots of things.
Just across the River Liffey, which is near the north end of Grafton, is another good area to stroll around, which is O’Connell Street. This is a very busy and popular street in central Dublin. There are some statues and a huge spire (the Spire of Dublin, over 300 feet tall) to check out. The side streets to the west have interesting stores as well.
There is also one hugely important building from Irish history on O’Connell Street, which is the General Post Office, or GPO. This is where the leaders of the 1916 revolt holed up during their failed attempt at obtaining independence for Ireland (but, of course, this event lead to actual independence a few years later). There is also a museum in the building.
While you are in central Dublin, you might as well visit Dublin Castle. You’ve probably seen more impressive castles, but Dublin Castle has been very important in the history of Ireland.
It was built in the 13th century on the site of a Viking settlement, and was used as the headquarters of the British in Ireland until 1922. It is still used as a government complex today. It is in the heart of central Dublin so it is an easy visit.
Christ Church Cathedral
And while you are in the area, you should visit Christ Church Cathedral. This is an impressive cathedral very close to Dublin Castle. It dates back to the 11th century, although it has been altered and expanded over the years. It has flying buttresses and famous bells. Definitely worth a visit.
Your Order of Operations
Let’s assume that you are arriving in Dublin in the morning and you will have that day plus another day in Dublin before heading out on other travels around Ireland. That’s what I anticipate most people on my tours doing, and if you are touring Ireland on your own I think that makes sense for you as well. In that case, how should you approach Dublin?
You are likely to arrive at Dublin airport early in the morning. That’s when most flights from the US and Canada arrive. Even after going through customs, getting your luggage, and getting into central Dublin, it might only be 9 or 10 in the morning. That is usually too early to check into your hotel room.
At the same time, you are likely to be tired from the overnight flight, so I am reluctant to push you into a big day of touring.
What I suggest you do is first go to your hotel and drop off your bags. You might actually get lucky and the hotel will have your room ready. But if not, they will hold your luggage for you until your room is ready. From there, I would just walk from your hotel to O’Connell Street. Check out the GPO and other sights while you are there. It is a very low-key activity, and a nice introduction to Dublin.
After that, continue to the west on one of the side streets, which offer interesting places as well. Go down to the river via Liffey Street, which will put you at the river right at the Ha’Penny Bridge. This is probably the most famous bridge and the most photogenic. You can cross there as well.
At this point, it may be that you have killed enough time to go back to your hotel and check in. If that is the case, I’d do that.
If not, you can continue your exploration and head to Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral. From the Ha’Penny Bridge, it is less than ½ a mile to Christ Church Cathedral. Take a tour and when you are done scoot on over to Dublin Castle. At this point, your rooms will doubtlessly be ready and you can head to the hotel and check in. Check out Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral later in the day if you are up for it.
I doubt you will be up for much that first evening, given the jet lag and lack of sleep. Just eat a nice dinner and head to bed so you can be well rested for the next day.
The next morning, go to Trinity College right away. The first tickets for the Book of Kells are at 8:30 am, and, as mentioned, I suggest you shoot for that. Remember that you’ll have to buy those tickets in advance, and I suggest you do so well in advance to make sure they are available. Head over to Trinity College, see the Book of Kells and the Old Library. Then stroll around Trinity College a bit.
When you are done and you leave Trinity College, you will find yourself at the head of Grafton Street, so it is a good time to check it out. Check out St. Stephen’s Green and have lunch at one of the many restaurants and pubs in the area. After that, just wander around some of the streets in the area and you’ll likely find many cool places.
Later in the afternoon, I’d take a cab to the Guinness Storehouse. Spend a few hours there going through the displays. Tap your own Guinness and enjoy it in the bar on the top level. You might even have another. When you are done, the gift shop has surprisingly reasonable prices, so check it out.
Head back toward your hotel and prepare for dinner. There are many great restaurants and pubs in the area. After dinner, walk into Temple Bar and check out the pubs. My favorite in the area is probably the Stag’s Head, but there are several. Even if you aren’t much of a drinker, they are worth checking out. As I mentioned, it is all tied to Irish culture.
Now Get Ready for the Best Parts of Ireland
So that’s your first few days in Dublin. You’ll have seen the main sites and gotten over your jet lag. If you get in earlier, you can take in additional sites. However, if you get in more than a few days early, my advice is to get out and check out the Wicklow Mountains or head up to County Antrim in the north. In any case, you should be ready to head out and see the best parts of Ireland.