As Ireland’s largest city, Dublin teems with the life of an energetic people who speak with one of the world’s most engaging accents and guarantees plenty of opportunities to keep you entertained. You can party your way through Temple Bar, shop with the throngs along pedestrian Grafton and Henry streets, and cheer on the home team at a boisterous rugby match. But you can also find a quieter side when you stand next to the relics of St. Valentine in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, relax in the virtually undiscovered Iveagh Gardens, or enjoy a spot of tea in the largest crypt in the British Isles in the city’s oldest building, Christ Church Cathedral. These are my top five things to see and do in Dublin.
#1 Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral
One of the most beautiful churches in Ireland, with parts dating back to 1220, St. Patrick’s was elevated to cathedral status in 1224 and today serves the Anglican community. But its origins reach back even farther, to 450, when St. Patrick baptized people into Christianity on this very site. Dedicated to the nation’s patron saint, Ireland’s largest cathedral (with one of its largest organs) is steeped in history. As I roamed around the exquisite interior, I was conscious of the fact that I was walking in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift, who was dean of the church for three decades in the 1700s, and of many who have visited and worshipped here, including Queen Victoria, William of Orange, and Oliver Cromwell. The Gothic cathedral evolved and expanded over seven centuries, and today you’ll be dazzled by the vibrant mosaic floor of various designs, the colorful banners of numerous regiments and orders, a spiral staircase with marble columns, deep transepts with glorious stained glass, medieval tiles and fonts, finely carved choir stalls, soaring columns, the refined Lady Chapel, and countless pointed arches, designed to draw the eye upward toward God. This cathedral will inspire you, no matter what your faith or belief system is.
#2 Relive History at Dublinia
Connected by a stone bridge to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin’s most interesting museum occupies the medieval Synod Hall in the oldest part of Dublin. Opened in 1993, Dublinia focuses on the Viking and medieval history of the city. As I walked through recreated streets as they would have appeared from 1170 to 1540, I tried on some chainmail, learned how to write my name in the Viking runic alphabet, and listened to Viking poetry and sagas. I also experienced a medieval fair, visited a medieval merchant’s kitchen, and learned about the remedies for pox and plague. This very active museum will engage all of your senses as it provides a solid — and fun — education on what Dublin was like centuries ago.
#3 Spend a School Day at Trinity College
Founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, Trinity College ranks among the top 100 universities in the world for modern languages, history, and politics and international studies. But you won’t be here for the classes. Rather, admire the beautiful old buildings like Regent House, Rubrics, and the Chapel, and the 100-foot-tall Campanile, and then stop in the not-so-beautiful Arts Building to watch Dublin Experience, an audiovisual presentation of the city’s history — a great introduction to this lively capital. The real draw of the college, however, is the Long Room and the Book of Kells. The Long Room, in the Old Library, is reputed to be the longest in Ireland, at 213 feet. Completed in 1732, this gorgeous room would inspire anyone to become an academic, what with its high barrel ceiling and two levels that support 200,000 of the college’s oldest books. In a separate darkened room, the library’s most famous book, The Book of Kells, lies protected under glass. The large-format illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels, in Latin, dates back to about 800. Every day, a page is turned for visitors to be wowed by the amazingly detailed and beautiful illustrations, the artfulness of every drop cap, and the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript. The artistry and calligraphy of the Columban monks who created this nonpareil book remains unrivaled even today.
#4 Raise a Glass at a Local Pub
Pubs are as integral to the country’s identity as shamrocks or Celtic harps. At these friendly watering holes, whether you’re here for a full meal or just a pint of Guinness, you’re bound to meet some garrulous locals, and don’t be surprised to see them tow in their underage children to continue a centuries-old tradition of socializing with friends and relatives, and perhaps a stranger or two. Live music covers the gamut of Irish heritage, from the most spirited compositions to a mournful sound that could make you sob into your suds, and menus can range from pub grub to some expertly prepared salmon. Of course, they come in all shapes and sizes, from old and cozy pubs browned by centuries of cigarette smoke, such as M.J. O’Neills or O’Donoghues, to polished pubs in buildings that used to be influential Victorian banks and still retain their lush interiors, like the Grand Central Café Bar or the grandiose The Bank on College Green.
#5 Step Into a Book at the Dublin Writers Museum
Very few cities in the world can rival Dublin’s reputation as a literary hatchery. Opened in 1991 as a tribute to and educational center about Irish authors, the Dublin Writers Museum reminds you of how many classic works of literature were penned by the city’s natives. Located in a 1780 townhouse once owned by one of the Jamesons (of whiskey fame), the museum displays books, letters, portraits, postcards, and various artifacts from the lives of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats, among others, including Joyce’s piano and a first edition of Dracula. Audio recordings of passages from their works bring their bold, romantic, razor-sharp words to life. The building itself is a treat, too, with an impressive salon with lush plasterwork, ornamented columns, and a gilded frieze. You’ll immediately want to catch up on your reading, and the museum’s bookshop makes it easy to stock up for your flight home.