Think of Ireland and what do you imagine? Rolling green hills? Grazing sheep? Thatch-roof cottages and castle ruins? Well you won't find those in Dublin. Instead, you'll find 21st-century Ireland, a place that's turned the karmic tables on 800 years of subservience to Britain by becoming one of the most dynamic countries in Europe, a magnet for international business, high technology, and immigrants from around the world.
Divided into north and south by the River Liffey, Ireland's capital offers noble public buildings, superb museums and art galleries, magnificent St. Patrick's Cathedral, lovely Trinity College, a mix of Georgian architecture and new development, some of the world's finest pubs, and tempting restaurants and shopping. Once barely passable as a European capital, Dublin got on the fast track during Ireland's Celtic Tiger period of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the country went from being one of Europe's poorest to one of its wealthiest. Prosperity brought money, young people, and flair flowing into the capital, transforming it from dirty old Dublin into a hip young place with excellent international cuisine, five-star hotels, and posh nightclubs. In the middle of all this modernizing, however, the city retains its charm and history. In fact, the booming economy allowed Dublin to pour money into restoring its buildings and historical treasures, from grand Georgian homes and picturesque parks to imposing medieval churches.
Dublin is a port of call on most cruises in the British Isles, including many offered by Azamara, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Oceania, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea, and British line P&O.
Arriving & Getting Around
Large ships dock at Alexandra Quay, about 1.5 miles (2.4km) from the city center. Your cruise line may offer shuttle service into town. Smaller ships may come right up the River Liffey into the city center. Taxis are available at the pier (fixed rates apply, with a 2-mile journey costing about $12.50). Once in the city, you can walk to most of the major sites, though your transportation alternatives include public buses and minibuses.
Sightseeing on Your Own
Once you've made your way to the city center, you need to know two numbers to get around: 1 and 2, as in Dublin 1 and Dublin 2. The area of Dublin 1 encompasses most of the central city north of the River Liffey, including O'Connell Street and Abbey Street, the former the city's main street, the latter a major shopping thoroughfare. Dublin 2 encompasses most of the center south of the Liffey, including Trinity College, Temple Bar (a trendy former warehouse district), Grafton Street (for high-end shopping), lovely St. Stephen's Green park, and the National Museum and National Gallery.
Let's start in Dublin 2. Not far from the main O'Connell Bridge over the Liffey sits the main entrance to Trinity College, College Street (www.tcd.ie). The oldest university in Ireland, Trinity was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I and today occupies a beautiful, enclosed 40-acre campus in the heart of the city. Visitors passing through the immense front gate enter a cobblestone quadrangle dominated by an 1853 campanile tower and surrounded by buildings dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Take a deep breath: This is what university life should look like. If you'd like a tour, hang out by the front gate: Students offer walking tours from mid-April until early October, starting every 40 minutes beginning at 10:15am.
Aside from its pretty campus, Trinity's big attraction is the famous Book of Kells (www.tcd.ie/info/trinity/bookofkells), an 8th-century version of the four Gospels with elaborate scripting and illumination. It's displayed along with another early Christian manuscripts at Trinity's Old Library. Note that you can't see the whole book: It's displayed inside a wooden cabinet shielded by bulletproof glass, and one page per day is turned for public viewing. Admission is €8.
Across from Trinity's front gate, the imposing building directly across the street is the 1729 Parliament Building, which housed the Irish Parliament until 1801, when it was dissolved and merged with the British Parliament in London. The Parliament of the Irish Republic now meets at Leinster House on Merrion Square, around to the south side of Trinity, where you'll also find several of the country's most important museums and galleries. The National Museum, Kildare and Merrion streets (www.museum.ie), reflects Ireland's heritage from 2000 B.C. to the present and is the repository for many of the country's greatest historical finds, including the famed Tara Brooch and Ardagh Chalice, plus artifacts reflecting Ireland's Viking period. Admission is free. Closed Mondays.
At Merrion Square West and Clare Street, the National Gallery of Ireland (www.nationalgallery.ie) houses Ireland's national art collection, as well as a collection of European art spanning the 14th to the 20th centuries and representing every major European school of painting. The highlight of the Irish collection is the room dedicated to the works of Jack B. Yeats, brother of the poet W. B. Yeats. Admission is free, though a €3 donation is suggested.
Just south of the museums, St. Stephen's Green is Dublin's loveliest park and the epicenter of its finest hotels, restaurants, and shops. The neighborhood is filled with impressive Georgian architecture, and boasts excellent shopping along Grafton Street, a pedestrians-only thoroughfare full of boutiques, department stores, and specialty shops, plus street performers and sidewalk artists.
If the Book of Kells got you in a bibliophilic mood, take a walk from the Trinity gates down Dame Street and Palace Street to Dublin Castle, in whose gardens you'll find the Chester Beatty Library (www.cbl.ie). Sir Alfred Chester Beatty was a wealthy American of Irish heritage who in 1956 bequeathed his extensive collection of rare manuscripts to Ireland. The library includes early illuminated gospels and other religious books, beautiful copies of the Koran, and endless icons from Western, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern cultures. Admission is free. Dublin Castle (www.dublincastle.ie) itself isn't what you usually think of when you think "castle." Built in the 13th century and long the center of British rule on the island, it's imposing if mostly utilitarian, and now largely houses municipal office space. You can take a guided tour of the more interesting parts for €4.50.
Nearby, St. Patrick's Cathedral, 21-50 St. Patrick's Close, Patrick Street (www.stpatrickscathedral.ie), is the largest church in Ireland and one of the best-loved churches in the world. Built first in 1190 (the rebuilt in the 14th century after a fire), it's mainly early English in style, with a square medieval tower that houses the largest ringing bells in Ireland. St. Patrick's is closely associated with Gulliver's Travels author Jonathan Swift, who was dean here from 1713 to 1745 and is buried here beside his longtime partner, Stella.
For a last stop in Dublin 2, there's the black stuff. The Guinness Storehouse, St. James's Gate, off Thomas Street (www.guinness-storehouse.com), part of the massive Guinness Brewery complex, offers several floors of exhibit space that explain the brewing process behind the Irish national beer, along with its 250-year history and the fantastic and absolutely true advertising slogans ("Guinness for Strength," "Guinness Is Good for You") that helped make it the phenomenon it is today. The last stop on your tour is the glass-enclosed Gravity Bar, where you can sample a glass of the famous brew while taking in a 360-degree view of the city from some 200 feet. (60m) up. Admission is a steep €14.
If you still have time, retrace your steps toward Trinity but duck off northward around Temple Lane. There, down near the banks of the Liffey, is the Temple Bar neighborhood, Dublin's party hub, packed with bars, discos, pubs, theaters, shops, art galleries, and recording studios. You can walk across the Liffey from here via the eminently photographable Ha'penny Bridge, a cast-iron pedestrian span erected in 1816.
The Dublin 1 part of the city is centered on O'Connell Street, the epicenter of the stormy political struggle with England that eventually led to Ireland's independence, in 1921. Once a fashionable area, then not, it's rebounded over the past decade-plus and now boasts high-profile hotels, many shops, some good restaurants, and Dublin's largest concentration of theaters. At Henry Street, the General Post Office (www.anpost.ie) is the veritable symbol of Irish freedom. Built between 1815 and 1818, it was the main stronghold of the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Uprising. On Easter Sunday 1916, Patrick Pearse stood on its steps and read a proclamation declaring a free Irish Republic, after which he and his supporters barricaded themselves inside. A siege by the British ensued that ultimately involved much of the city's north side, and before it was over, the building had suffered damage that took years to repair. Today, you can put your fingers into the bullet holes that still riddle its columns, lingering reminders of the Irish struggle. Across the street, the 394-foot stainless-steel spike known as the Spire of Dublin (www.spireofdublin.com) stands at the spot previously occupied by a giant pillar and statue of Britain's Lord Nelson. The pillar was blown up by the IRA on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, in 1966, and the Spire was erected in January 2003 as part of the O'Connell Street renaissance, though no one can really say what it symbolizes.
Pubs for the Drinkers Among Ye...
And then there are the bars. Pubs are one of the great joys of Ireland, and Dublin has more than its share of classics. My personal favorite is The Stag's Head, 1 Dame Court, off Dame Street (www.thestagshead.ie), a near-hidden gem with a gorgeous late-Victorian decor. To find it, walk down the left side of Dame Street from Trinity College until you see a mosaic of a stag in the sidewalk, then go up the little alley to your left. Doheny and Nesbitt, at 5 Lower Baggot St., may well be the prettiest traditional pub in town, a Victorian spot with two fine old snugs -- small rooms behind the main bar area where, in days past, women could have a drink out of sight of men. The Long Hall, 51 S. Great George's St., is its main competition in the "pretty pub" category, with an interior of filigree-edged mirrors, polished dark woods, and snugs. The Brazen Head, 20 Lower Bridge St. (www.brazenhead.com), claims to be the city's oldest pub, dating (they say) to 1198. Nestled on the south bank of the Liffey, it is at the end of a cobblestone courtyard and was once the meeting place of rebels Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone.
... and an Option for Ye Teetotalers Too
A stop at Bewley's Cafe, 78/79 Grafton St. (www.bewleyscafe.com), has been a quintessential Dublin experience since the three-story landmark opened in 1840. Done up in traditional decor, it specializes in coffees, teas, home-baked scones, pastries, and sticky buns, and also serves full breakfasts and lunches.
The Best Shore Excursions
If you want to book an organized tour rather than sightseeing on your own, the following are some of the more interesting offered by the cruise lines. Several get you outside the city, too, to see some of those rolling green fields, grazing sheep, and ruined castles that are so lacking in urban Dublin.
Dublin Walking Tour (3 hours; $75): From the ship, you'll drive to Trinity College, where you begin the walking tour, seeing St. Anne's Church, the Royal Irish Academy (devoted to the study of Irish history and antiquities, Mansion House (home to Dublin's Lord Mayor), a group of fine public buildings along Kildare Street, Leinster House (home of Ireland's Parliament), and Merrion Square, home to the National Gallery, the Natural History Museum, and Oscar Wilde's childhood home. The tour ends with a stop at a pub in the city center.
Glendalough Monastic Ruins & Dublin Sightseeing (9 hours; $125): In the Wicklow Hills, south of Dublin, are the ruins of the 6th-century monastery founded by St. Kevin. The site includes the remains of several churches, a roofless cathedral, and a well-preserved round tower dating from the 10th century. An audio-visual presentation documents the various features of Glendalough and the history of monasticism in Ireland. The tour also includes a narrated drive around Dublin's major sights, including St. Stephen's Green, O'Connell Street, Merrion Square, and Trinity College.
Coastal Drive & Malahide Castle (3.75 hours; $75): Drive along the coast to Malahide, about 13km (8 miles) north of Dublin, to visit one of Ireland's oldest castles, home to the Anglo-Irish Talbot family from 1185 to 1973. Fully restored, the interior offers a fine collections of Irish period furniture dating from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and one-of-a-kind historic portraits on loan from the National Gallery. After touring the house, you can explore the large estate, including gardens with 5,000 varieties of plants and flowers. The tour includes a stop at a pub for an Irish coffee, a mix of whiskey, strong black coffee, double cream, and a tablespoon of sugar.
Powerscourt Estate and Gardens (4.5 hours; $75): Travel to Enniskerry, one of Ireland's prettiest villages, and the gardens of Powerscourt Estate. The 34,000 acres of this majestic property extend along both shores of the River Dargle. The house at Powerscourt includes an exhibition of the history of the estate and shops selling quality Irish goods such as crystal and linen. The tour includes shopping time.
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