This post is for all visitors and inspired by my students. They often tell me they find it hard to get good information on the interesting places to see here. This sounds a bit unlikely at first. With Ireland’s long established tourism, you’d imagine we’re bursting at the seams with reliable, objective lists and maps, of things to do and places to visit, no?
Unfortunately, long-established doesn’t always mean highly- evolved. On closer inspection, much of the promotional literature aimed at visitors is commercial; advertising in effect, usually single-focus too, as it tries to get people into (often paying into) one particular sight.
In an environment like that: he who shouts the loudest wins. That’s a recipe for disaster, and for disappointed visitors. The “Shout-Loudest” principal must also explain why, for many years here recently, the number-one visitor attraction in terms of numbers, has been the Guinness Storehouse. (!)
I’ve nothing in particular against the Storehouse. I could be scathing on the way it funnels its visitors around in herds, like sheep in a pen. I could describe it as a tasteless celebration of alcohol, a sad stag and hen party cliché, and a trap for the unwary, hapless and exploited tourist.
If one was feeling super-critical, one could even lambast the place as a vulgar jamboree of loud, tactless, in-your-face marketing, masquerading as a giant, fake “museum”. vBut we won’t. In fact the Storehouse is a typical 21st century interactive “visitor-experience”. In that context, it’s well-designed, reasonably interesting, and perfectly valid fare for a couple of hours light entertainment.
It’s also in an absolutely fabulous building, (see above) and in fairness it even contains a few good nuggets. Of graphic design for example (via the history of their advertising, which was of an exceptional standard) Or of Industrial History; and indeed of the social history of this city too.
But is it really, really, the number-one interesting place to visit in Dublin? Not even close.
No, there are far better ways to spend your time & cash. Below are my best city sights, especially for lovers of architecture and of history But first, a few disclaimers… Firstly, you’ll probably know of at least some of these places already. But since the aim is to compile a quick, one-stop list for all, please bear with that.
Second, in the same way, any Irish readers, (especially Dublin readers,) who might have accidentally strayed here will find our great institutions, the ones we all grew up with. There’s little or no “hidden Dublin” in this post. You’ll have to look elsewhere in this blog for that.
Third, perhaps obvious, the list is personal. So, as regular readers know, the focus of this blog is reading history through historic buildings and applied arts. So choices and recommendations are informed by that. You won’t find any views on best pubs/pint/steak in-town. :)
One last, last, final, note. Students and overseas visitors are often dismayed that many older historic churches and cathedrals here in Dublin charge admission fees. I can understand that. Nothing so (seemingly) vulgar happens in France or Italy, for example.
However, please bear in mind that old churches in Dublin are mostly Anglican since the Reformation of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. (All churches were Catholic churches prior to the Reformation, obviously) There are today very few Anglican worshippers left, to maintain these churches. Plus they also get no financial help from Government or state. Now does the admission charge make sense? You can console yourself with the thoughtyour ticket money will save historic churches. Also with the thought that, although the churches and cathedrals do charge; our wonderful museums do not. They’re completely free. (Unlike museums in France or Italy, which charge hefty admission fees.) So your outlay will all balance out in the end! (Plus your ticket money will save historic churches.)
Okay, that’s more than enough disclaimers and qualifications. Without further ado, here are Dublin’s most rewarding Sights and Places to Visit…
The Old Parliament on College Green Just outside the Front Gate of Trinity on College Green, this spectacular 18th century Neo-Classical building with its wonderful colonnade, is now a bank but (until the Act of Union in 1801) was the Irish Parliament, complete with House of Commons and House of Lords.
The former chamber is now gone but you can still see the House of Lords (open until around 3.30 or 4pm each day). Visit and look for the enormous, obnoxiously triumphalist Boyne and Derry Tapestries. (You can hardly miss them.) They relate 2 scenes from the late 17th century Williamite war, the war that ended hopes for the Stuart dynasty and which sealed Protestant supremacy in Ireland for the next 120 years. The building as a whole was designed by a succession of superb architects, including Edward Lovittt Pearse, and the incomparable James Gandon. It is also reckoned to be one of the largest buildings anywhere without windows. All the interior illumination comes from the skylights above, well out of sight from street level, leaving the façade free for a procession of blind arches and that massive sweep of colonnades.
Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are, jointly probably the best places to learn about Irish history. The medieval Christ Church was founded first, around 1028. Saint Patrick’s followed, according to interpretation of history and various charters, around 1190-1215. Christ Church cathedral should have been “enough” but, for political reasons too complex to narrate here, St Patrick followed less than one hundred years later and scarcely half a kilometer part. (You can find the long, full, convoluted story, in the Origins of St Patrick’s post, elsewhere in this blog) This change of course gave Dublin two cathedrals, a unique and unprecedented development for any city in the world. Both Cathedrals were heavily restored in the 19th century but both still remain full of ancient historic sights and treasures. To summarize these highlights briefly….
Christ Church has many wonderful details, including a tomb purporting to be that of Strongbow, the Norman baron who conquered Dublin from the Norse-Irish inhabitants and ushered in the Anglo-Norman conquest (and thus 800 hundreds years of British rule in Ireland.) The highlight of Christ Church cathedral however are probably the enormous crypts. Look out there for the life-sized statues of two Stuart Kings, (generally reckoned to be Charles II & James II) and the famous, mummified “the Cat and the Mouse”- two animals, caught, suspended in space by a freak accident a long ago, and now frozen in time.
above: model of Christ Church.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral by contrast, has no crypts (the ground here is too marshy) But it has stood since the 12th century and is a treasure trove of wonderful tombs and memorial sculpture. Look out for Dean Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels; the tomb of the Duke of Schomberg, a Dutch field marshal who fought for William III I in the wars mentioned previously above in the House of Lords. If you come early you can explore the cathedral fully. If you are here later, then hang around for evensong at 5.30 when the choir sings from the lovely old wooden choir stalls most evenings, under the fabulously romantic banners and coats of arms. If you would like to do a history tur of the cathedral, using the artefacts as a way of examining Irish history, you could consider coming on one of my new tours. If you are interested, please see
Saint Audoen’s Church A modest-looking little church but very ancient, and full of lovely low-key details. In fact, Saint Audoen’s is the oldest continuously-operating parish church in Dublin. There was an old Celtic-era church here from the 7th century, then the current, Anglo-Norman foundation from 1190. (Ouen was a bishop and Saint from Normandy. See my post about this place under “the Portlester Memorial” in archives or “top posts”) As I say, this looks a modest place, but it is not to be missed by any fan of medieval history. It has aa ruined chapel, the Portlester memorial and other gorgeous commemorative sculpture. Best of all perhaps, it also boasts a fine, small but informative museum of the medieval city, very modest and un-flashy and low-key, yet still far preferable, in my humble view to the, admittedly- educational but slightly cack-handed “Dublinia” experience, also available nearby.
commemorative sculpture, Saint Audoen’s church. photo credit Con O’Donneghue.
the Portlester memorial, Saint Audoen’s church. photo credit Con O’Donneghue.
If the two cathedrals, and St Audoen’s Church are the best places to learn about Irish and Dublin History from the medieval & renaissance times to the 17th century, then our next few proposed visits are the best to take up the Irish story a bit later, from the 18th century to Irish independence in the early 20th century.
Kilmanham Gaol. Almost every Irish political leader, rebel and patriot, from 1789 through to closure after1922 was imprisoned here, from Woolf Tone; Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell; Charles Stuart Parnell; to Patrick Pearse; James Connelly and Eamonn de Valera. For Irish people that is almost the entire pantheon of hers. Many of them were executed here also. You cannot wander around this shrine to Irish nationhood but must take a tour, but that is no hardship as the tours and guides are excellent, highly informative, with stories tragic and entertaining by turn. Kilmanham is an absolute “must-do”- for anyone with even a scintilla of interest in Irish history. For the architecturally or design minded, on the second half of your tour you can also see one of the world’s best examples of a “Panoptigon”- a built architectural expression on the concept of an all-seeing eye: an ideal building for prison guards!
above: the later, 19th century, part of Kilmanham Gaol, with the distinctive Panoptigon. Photograph by Lisa Hafey (all rights reserved).
Kilmanham Hospital- IMMA: Formerly a military hospital – modeled on Les Invalides of Paris- for retired and injured Irish soldiers, this complex of buildings boasts a large central quadrangle and spectacular Baroque chapel. It is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA for short. Obviously this trip is a natural morning/afternoon combination with Kilmaham Gaol nearby. If you are seeking lunch in the interval, the food in the IMMA café is probably better than anywhere else locally. There are both permanent and temporary/rotating exhibitions of 20th century and contemporary art on display. Don’t forget to visit the lovely formal gardens, sunken between its old stone walls, and laid out in the manner of the 17th century Enlightenment garden, all lined with neat box hedges. It is a delight.
Glasnevin Cemetery (picture below) Once again, a terrific place to learn history. Unusually, this is also one of the few places that I’d wholeheartedly recommend taking the guided tour; they are generally excellent in quality and you’ll hear stories on every aspect of the cemetery from grave robbers and cholera epidemics, to rebels and revolutions. Many of the great Irish leaders mentioned above are interred here. Daniel O’Connell’s monument is the most spectacular of all. (See my post on him, and it, in “archives” if you wish). Again, you really should avail of the tour on offer, there are literally dozens of wonderful stories to hear.
St Michan’s Church: Small and unspectacular to look at but stuffed with secrets. An old organ that may have been used by Handle himself, the coffin of a notorious “Bad Earl”, the remains of the doomed and betrayed 1798 United Irishmen revolutionaries John and Edward Sheares. Oh, and mummies. Yes, mummies, like in Egypt. Mummified bodies, miraculously preserved here in the crypts. What more could you possibly want?
The National Museum: (archeology.) Kildare St. D2. Many great things to see: including treasures of Irelands Bronze Age; precious Gold relics; a head with three faces, or the Gigantic dug out canoe! But make sure you don’t miss the sinister, but incredible “bog bodies” the dead, corpses of murdered or ritually killed men, possibly local chieftains or kings, all preserved in the low level acid of Irish bogs.
The National Gallery (Art) Merion Square and current entrance on Clare St. both D2. Unfortunately 8o% of the gallery is undergoing restoration at present and so most of it is closed up for building work. But even in the few rooms still open you can view wonderful paintings by Vermeer, Picasso, Caravaggio, and other masters. My own personal favorite are the two companion paintings of a man and woman, respectively writing and reading a letter, by the 17th century Dutch virtuoso Gabriel Metsu.
Incidentally, it is a source of endless sadness to me that the average amount of time spent in front of a painting in major museums (including the Uffizi and the Louvre) is now between 6 and 8 seconds. Additionally, many visitors seek the security of reading the little information notices beside the pictures, instead of attempting to “read” the paintings themselves. So, I decided to do something about it. I now run about 3 or 4 workshops a month, generally 2 on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, and a further 2 on Thursday evenings, (6-8pm) which provide an introduction on How to Read a Painting. We look at symbols, both religious and classical, including the identifying “attributes” of saints, and the use of everything from light to landscape to gesture, in the construction of meaning in historic paintings. If you are interested, please see How to Read a Painting in the National Gallery, Dublin for more information and for schedules. And if you are in a group, remember you can often book your own tour with me.
above: painting by Vermeer, National Gallery of Ireland.
Natural History Museum. Merion Square. (Animals, Birds and other natural specimens, pictured below) This -famously- is something of a museum “that should be in a museum”, in other words, largely untouched by modern nonsense and thus delightfully old-fashioned Victorian in both style and spirit. See my post on The Natural History Museum Dublin, Dead Zoo for more information and pictures to give a taste of this melancholy but magical place
Or, if you want something special, see instead my little tale of how one of the quieter highlights of the Natural History Museum Dublin, the wonderful Barrington Bird Collection, was researched & assembled by the 19th century Irish Naturalist, JM Barrington.
National Library: Kildare St. D2. Its almost worth doing some research so you can apply for a readers ticket, so you can sit in the huge reading room, with the smell of old wood and leather books.
The National Museum: at Collins barracks. (D7- northwest city centre, on the Luas Line) This is an annex of the old national Museum on Kildare St. but at Collins Barracks all the emphasis is on applied art and design like clocks, silver, costume, textiles, furniture and so on. It’s well worth a visit to experience the building alone, with its huge marching ground, this was once the biggest purpose built army barrack in the world.
But the exhibits and exhibitions at Collins Barracks are also great. There is more than one museum here in fact. So if you really look around, you’ll find there’s something for everyone. See just below…
The Military Museum. at Collins barracks. The story of Ireland’s soldiers, at home and abroad.
The Asgard: at Collins Barracks. A famous ship in Irelands history, used by a famous novelist to smuggle in guns for the nationalist movement and 1916 Easter Rising. Also just a beautiful ship with a fascinating history, the room has many good and informative displays.
Back in the city centre….
Trinity College- an oasis of colligate calm right in the heart of Dublin’s busy city centre, studded with fabulous architecture. There are fine old Universities or beautiful old colleges all on one campus in small towns,; and there are Universities, with beautiful old colleges dispersed around lovely towns and cities (like Oxford and Cambridge) but as a friend of mine noticed once, Trinity is unique: an old university, all on one campus and yet right in the middle of a capital city. This gives it a very special character indeed.
The University was built on an old Priory, (dissolved by Henry VII) founded in 1594, in the last years of the Reformation-era of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I. She founded it as an instrument of Anglo-Irish policy, with the express aim of preventing Irish students seeking education in Catholic Spain or France, and thus, of saving their souls for the Reformation and their loyalties for the English crown. The bitter polarization of the following (17th) century ensured this did not happen; instead Trinity effectively became the University for the Anglo-Irish protestant settler class. Even when I was a child, 55-70 years after independence, it was still perceived as a “Protestant University”! – a perception now of distant memory only. Although the University dates from 1594, most of the wonderful architecture you will see comes from the 18th century onwards. Notably….
Front Square with its fine flanking Buildings (the Chapel and Exam Hall) both by William Chambers (the architect of Buckingham Palace and Summerset House in London, as well as Dublin’s own Charlemont House and Casino at Marino.
The Dining Halls date from the same period. Don’t tell them I sent you, but be bold: try to try to sneak in here, to see this large, very grand, wood-lined, Harry Potter style dining room, hung with portraits of former Provosts (University Chancellors) and a few kings as well, notably George III and George IV. (Sure what could be more “Georgian” than that?)
The Long Room/Old Library. Originally built in the 18th century by Thomas Burgh, who had already made a very splendid building, but then substantially remodeled in the mid-19th century by other designers, two geniuses called Deane & Woodward. Their enormous, barrel- vaulted wooden ceiling has to be seen to be believed: one of the most beautiful rooms in Europe, perhaps the world- a fantasy space, stuffed full of ancient leather bound books. In the immortal words of one contemporary, viewing the alterations of the two great architects,- “what once had merely been superb, now became sublime.”
The Museum Building My other, personal, favourite in Trinity College, this home of the college’s small museum collection, (which were once far more substantial.) This building also houses parts of the Geography, Geology and Engineering departments. (My father was once an undergraduate here) But the real treasure is the building itself, again by Deane and Woodward, and often thought to be their masterpiece. This is a stunning example of Victorian Venetian-style Gothic-Revival architecture, with additional flavours of Moorish, Byzantine and other Eastern influences. Look out for the ceramic tiles surrounding the glass skylights; the extraordinary Wagnerian staircase in Green Connemara marble; and the two fossilized Giant Irish Elk flanking and guarding the doorway. If you visit with young people, you should get them to “hunt-out” the carved birds and animals on the stone exterior too.
Also to see in Trinity, two modern classics. Paul Korelec’s Berkley Library. Not everyone likes Brutalism (architecture) including a few people who are hazy about what it means, but this is superb example of the idiom.
The Samuel Beckett theatre is a modern building, in the style of an old Tudor or Jacobean playhouse of Shakespeare’s time. Named for Trinity Graduate (and one-time unenthusiastic lecturer here), Nobel-laureate Samuel Beckett; author of Endgame and Waiting for Godot.
above: revelers & performers at Dublin Castle, last Hallo’ween.
Dublin Castle. The paying-in bits of the castle- called “the State Rooms “or “State Apartments”- are a bit of waste of time I think. (And of money obviously) The best parts of Dublin castle are all free, including the small but beautiful Chapel Royal, (the private chapel of the King when he was in Ireland) the wonderful Chester Beatty Library which is a collection of eastern & oriental art and manuscripts and, just outside the Chester Beatty, the small park or circular lawn that gives Dublin its name, former site of the old Dubh Linn, once a black lake that lay here. This lawn is great to laze around on, our occasional sunny days. (whenever they arrive!)
Other great Dublin sights, “in brief”.
Georgian Dublin: a selection.
Gandon’s Four Courts, on north side of the quays. Not generally open to the public, for obvious reasons, but the exterior view of dome and façade alone are worth an outside visit.
Gandon’s King’s Inns. can be approached from Henrietta Street, or for the full spectacle of his stunning façade, from Constitution Hill. The park here is also great on sunny days. Look out for an old park bench, devoured by a tree!
Also, when you are at the Kings Inn’s if you like 19th century architecture, you should walk acorss the road to view the amazing façade of the old derelict Broadstone railway station.
Gandon’s Customs House (see my archives, under the title “Power, Beauty and Intrigue)
The Casio at Marino by another genius of the age (and Gandon’s mentor) William Chambers. This “miniature” pleasure palace, built for James Caufield, earl of Charlemont, is a miracle of delightful deception and one of the finest neo-Classical buildings in Europe. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
Interior of the Casino at Marino. photo credit Con O’Donneghue.
The GPO. Otherwise known as the General Post office, although no Dubliner would ever call it that. (Any more than we’d put black current in our Guinness, t’is sacrilege) You can hardly miss the huge columns on O’Connell’s Street, of this fine building with a much storied history, the main site of the Easter 1916 Rising and a shrine for Irish nationalists.
Dublin’s Streets and Squares. Merion and Fitzwilliam Square on the Southside, Parnell and Mountjoy Square on the North side.
Victoriana: a selection: -
The Museum Building in Trinity. (See main section on Trinity College, in this post)
The Fruit and Vegetable markets. Don’t miss the lovely 19th century exterior decorative artwork: (below) terracotta reliefs, portraying the produce on sale inside.
The University Church. Barely visible behind its tiny, red-brick entrance on Saint Stephens Green (South) this under-appreciated masterpiece, and a wonderful 19th century fusion of Byzantine, Lombard, Venetian and other elements, stunningly combined.
Iveagh Gardens. Less used than St Stephen’s Green: more peaceful and magical. Battered old stone statues, a small maze, sundials and peaceful seclusion all await you.
Blessington Bassin: this little hidden away canal basin water reservoir is like a small lake, with ducks and geese swimming by. It’s one of the few peaceful places in the North east quadrant of the North(east) city centre. (The northwest city of course has Phoenix Park)
One more, other great way to explore and really understand the city: – Read, find or download, “the History of Ireland in One hundred Objects”. The title is self-explanatory, This is a list of Irelands best, and most historically revealing artifacts, and where to find them. This was a newspaper series, is now a book. But you can also find and pick up the same list as an illustrated map in some museums. For those with smart-phones, it’s even available as a free Ap too. More than half the objects on the list are right here, in Dublin. So find the map, or download the free Ap, and get cracking!
You can use the other posts in this blog as a supplementary source of information, or if you want additional, further suggestions of places or artifacts, or rad the articles for historical, background context.
Good luck, and enjoy it all. Explore and enjoy Dublin!