Dublin at Christmas is the place to party! The Guinness is flowing, the drinkers are spilling out of the Temple Bar pub and there’s music on every cobbled street-corner. But we weren’t in Dublin to party. Oh no! Ours was a terribly serious visit to check out Trinity College Dublin and see if it met the approval of our youngest son, a prospective student who’s university bound next year. Still, in between the talks about History, Philosophy and life at Trinity, we managed to have our little bit of fun. Here’s how our weekend in Dublin went;
1. Check in at Generator hostel
Now normally, you’ll find me in my preferred habitat of a boutique hotel, but this was a flying visit, so in the interest of keeping costs under control and in making my 17 year old son feel at home, we checked into the next best thing – a boutique hostel.
Our family room on the third floor of Generator Hostel was everything we needed the stay in comfort en famille. A comfy double and single bed, a modern en suite and a few funky features like the street-scape mural, tree-trunk for a footstool and plentiful powerpoints.
Downstairs in the bar, dimly lit by a Jameson whisky bottle chandelier, the music was throbbing and we were well fed on fish and chips and meaty burgers. I did feel a bit of carb-overload and craving for a fresh salad, but the cheap cocktails and craft beer (Sunburned from 8 Degrees Brewing, since you ask) more than made up for it.
You’ll find Generator Hostel in the Smithfield area, which to use estate-agent-speak felt rather ‘up and coming’ and was just round the corner from the Old Jameson Whisky Distillery. A brisk 20 minute walk along the Liffey and you can be at Temple Bar, Trinity College or Grafton Street in the heart of the action. All in all a great choice for stylish and well-priced accommodation and I’d happily stay there again with my son.
If you go: Generator Hostel, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7. They also have hostels in seven other European destinations. Our family room cost £64 per room per night on a Friday/Saturday stay in December – prices vary depending on the season.
2. Being student for a day at Trinity College Dublin
On Saturday morning, after our Irish cooked breakfast in the hostel, we were off for that brisk walk along the Liffey, which was looking particularly atmospheric in the chill winter air, with the sun lighting up the front of the Four Courts and creating reflections on the water.
Now to the main purpose of us being in Dublin, the Trinity College open day. Trinity is the Irish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge, where you can tread in the footsteps of illustrious former students like Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samual Beckett. We walked through the classical Georgian front as if we owned the place to check out what was on offer for our prospective student.
The morning passed in a succession of talks in the different faculties; History, Philosophy, English. There were intense discussions with admissions staff (my husband) while remaining nonchalant and non-committal (my son). After sitting through four talks in succession I was wilting and had to leave them and hide away in the student cafe for a plate of sweet and sour chicken.
I would have loved to see the Old Library although unconvinced that the Book of Kells ( an ancient illustrated book of the gospels) was worth the hype. At that point we were feeling too tired and too tightwad to shell out the €10 for a quick peep, so left it for the next day.
3. A pint or two of Guinness at the Stag’s Head
By 2pm we had done all the university stuff and met up with our Irish friend Tony, an old mate of my husband, known to us as “wee Tone”. Being an old boy at Trinity College, his first words of greeting as we met him under the campanile were “Lets go for a Guinness at the Stag’s Head”.
Down Dame Street, we squeezed into the pub where wee Tone had whiled away many a happy hour as a student, tucking into his bacon and cabbage in the back room. The main bar was long and narrow, all dark wood pannelling and nicotine stained paintwork, just as an Irish pub should be.
Above the bar, the Stag’s Head that gave the pub its name was wearing a jaunty Christmas hat, as were many of the drinkers. We ordered a Guinness for wee Tone, O’Hara’s for Guy while the prospective student and I were on the coke and bitter lemon. As the boys settled down to discuss old times, I saw my chance for a swift look around the shops and crafty bit of Christmas shopping.
If you go: The Stag’s Head, 1 Dame Court, Dublin 2
4. Shopping on Grafton Street
First stop was the lovely Avoca (pronounced A-vo-ca) on Suffolk Street which I had fallen on love with on my previous visit when we stopped in their visitor centre on the Wild Wicklow Tour. Known for its pretty checked wool throws and scarves, the store was packed with all sorts of goodies for those who aspire to stylish country living.
Next on Grafton street I braved the crowds under the sparkly Christmas lights and dived into the swanky Brown Thomas to buy some cosmetics as Christmas presents for my nieces. The place I really wanted to see was the Powerscourt Centre, with independent designer shops within an elegant Georgian Townhouse and a cafe in the covered central courtyard.
Up on the top floor I got the best view of the twinkly Christmas light displays and then did the round of the designer shops with plenty of choice for that elegant evening gown or society wedding outfit that I so rarely seem to need these days, although I also discovered a vintage shop which was more my style.
5. Dinner at Fallon and Byrne
I timed it just right to return to The Stag’s Head after an hour and a half of shopping, to find the boys had just drained their glasses. We turned out onto the street, looking for a place to eat and settled on the downstairs wine cellar of Fallon and Byrne.
The wine bar is in the basement below the gastronomic food hall with dim lights and old movie posters, an antique gramophone sitting on the bar. The back wall behind our table was floor-to-ceiling with wine bottles and there were several groups of girlies enjoying a post-christmas-shopping glass or two.
Guy pounced on the Chateau Mussar – I met the winemakers when I was in Lebanon and always look out for it. I ordered an Alsace Gewurtztraminer, inspired by the wine tasting we did on our Rhine river cruise, but only realised they’d brought me the Sancerre by mistake after I’d drunk half the glass. Oops! call myself a foodie?
It was all French brasserie style with pine tables and bentwood chairs, all that was missing were the candles stuck into wine bottles dripping wax which were replaced by fairy lights in a bottle instead. Wee Tone and our prospective student ordered the confit of duck with cabbage, bacon and lentils which was the best choice of main I think, but my cod in a tomato cassoulet with chick peas and chorizo came a close second.
If you go: Fallon and Byrne, 11 Exchequer Street, Dublin 2
Wee Tone had a 2 hour drive to get home so we parted ways and walked back through the cobbled streets of Temple Bar area with every pub spilling drinkers out onto the pavement – feeling very festive.
6. Brunch at Bewley’s Oriental Cafe
A bit of a lie in on Sunday morning and then it was time to check out of Generator Hostel, leaving our bags in the secure lockers for the day. We followed a recommendation from wee Tone and walked back to Grafton Street to try the brunch at Bewley’s Oriental Cafe.
Our path took us past the well known and well endowed Molly-Malone statue outside the tourist information centre on Suffolk Street, a favourite Dublin photo opportunity and of course we took our photos there too.
Bewley’s was looking very festive with Christmas tree in the centre of the room and we requested one of the red velour benches which luckily was free and enclosed us in a kind of booth. This Dublin institution was full of local families treating their children to brunch and had an old fashioned air with with chinoisserie painted walls and stained glass, very much an art nouveau, Libertys-of-London feel about it.
We ate our Irish breakfast among the poinsettias, sparkling chandeliers and full length oil paintings feeling rather pleased that we’d bagged our red velour and tapestry bench, an excellent spot for people-watching on all sides of the cafe. By the time we left a long queue was forming but we were heading down Grafton Street for our next apointment at 11 o’clock.
If you go: Bewley’s Oriental Cafe, 78 Grafton Street, Dublin 2
7. The tour through the history of Dublin at the Little Museum of Dublin
Every hour, on the hour there’s a free guided tour of The Little Museum of Dublin which we found at the end of Grafton Street, facing St Stephen’s Park. Taking the tour was definitely worthwhile, since our guide, John the archaeologist, really brought to life the collection of pictures and memorabilia in this Georgian townhouse, packed with the history of Dublin.
Our tour focused on the two first floor rooms where each section was arranged to tell stories from a particular decade of the last century. The tales and annecdotes took us from the visit of Queen Victoria to Dublin (where her party were reported in a misprint to have pissed over Patrick’s bridge), through the Easter Rising of 1916 where the rebels had holed up in the Jacobs factory and lived off biscuits (plain and fancy). We heard how during the rebellion the shooting on St Stephen’s Green would stop each afternoon to allow the groundsman to feed his ducks and how one of the leaders, Éamon de Valera escaped execution because of his American birth.
The tour continued on through the First World War, which is euphamistically known in Ireland as The Emergency (don’t mention the war) and on to more recent times when local girl and silver screen actress Maureen O’Hara was every Dubliner’s sweetheart and John Lennon ate at the exclusive Jammet’s French Restaurant and wrote in the visitor’s book that the other three Beatles “were saving up to come here”.
I could go on to tell you how Nelson’s Pillar was blown up in 1966 by the IRA, the job being finished off by the Irish Army in a “controlled” explosion which took out every window in the street. It’s now replaced by a tall knitting needle named The Spire which we passed later on O’Connell Street.
8. The Dubliners at the James Joyce Centre
Our appetite for Dublin stories whetted, our prospective student was keen to discover more about James Joyce so we headed up O’Connell Street on the north side of the Liffey, past the knitting needle Spire to the James Joyce Centre in another Georgian townhouse on North Great George’s Street.
We started on the 2nd floor with a video about James Joyce and various writers and scholars discussing aspects of his life and work, including a lot about the library scene of Ulysses set in the Dublin Library. Throughout his married life Joyce moved around, living in different apartments and places in Europe which perhaps explains the lack of memorabilia that you might have expected in a museum about his life, although there was a small bedroom area set up to show his domestic life and the kind of busy family rooms where he wrote his books.
On the first floor were two large rooms with an exhibition of black and white photos of post-war Dublin by Lee Miller, a photojournalist better known for her war photography, which were commissioned by Vogue magazine in 1946. On the ground floor was a timeline of Joyce’s life and another room with a video playing the film of Ulysses. In the yard at the back we enjoyed the murals showing stories from Joyce’s books which reminded me of the Dylan Thomas murals I’d seen in Swansea.
I had not read any James Joyce before I visited Dublin and left the centre feeling I didn’t really know much more about the man himself. We’d have liked to try the James Joyce Dubliners walking tour, which starts at the museum every Saturday at 11am and more frequently in summer. Perhaps I’ll be asking Father Christmas for a copy of the Dubliners to fill in the gaps.
If you go: The James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street, Dublin 1
9. Lunch at The Winding Stair
By 2 o’clock I felt we’d probably done enough culture for one morning and we walked back down O’Connell Street and along the river for lunch at The Winding Stair, a restaurant that I had seen recommended as serving excellent Irish food. On the ground floor was a book shop of the same name but we climbed the winding stair after which the restaurant is named to the first floor and settled into a table in the small upstairs room.
I had the sole, nicely browned in butter with tiny pink Dublin bay prawns, balanced on a pile of mashed potatoes with cabbage and doussed in a lovely caper and butter sauce. Despite the casual wooden table and bentwood chairs, this felt like a proper restaurant with stiff white napkins and an excellent choice of wine by the glass, written on the board on the wall.
The boys had the fish chowder, a soup that was heavy with mussels and fish and for desert we shared a large slice of spicy pear tart with brown bread ice cream. After lunch we had a browse around the bookshop downstairs, which had once taken up four floors, but in these days of online media had shrunk to only the ground floor.
It still managed to pack in plenty of interesting books, a couple of tables in the window and a red leather wing chair at the back where you could sit and read from the shelves of second hand books. They even served herbal teas and wine with some slices of flapjack. For those that don’t want the proper lunch, next door was the eating house called The Woollen Mills that served cakes, coffee and light snacks and also looked lovely, run by the same people as the Winding Stair.
If you go: The Winding Stair, 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1 and next door The Woollen Mills. Our seafood chowder was €9.95, Sole with shrimps, capers and butter sauce was €23.95 and pear and ginger tart with ice cream €6.95.
10. Our weekend ends at Trinity College for the Book of Kells and the Old Library
Fortified by our lunch we decided to make a final pass by Trinity College at around 4pm to visit The Old Library and the Book of Kells, feeling that we wouldn’t have quite seen Dublin properly without paying a visit. Unfortunately no photos were allowed in the exhibition area of the Book of Kells but there were plenty of colourful displays about this medieval decorated manuscript of the four Gospels. As it was close to closing time we had to hurry through and the two books on display in a glass cabinet that were the Book of Kells were something of an anticlimax.
I did enjoy walking through the Old Library, a long, tall room with two tiers of antiquated oak bookcases and a lofty barrelled ceiling. The library at Trinity College Dublin is a copyright library, entitled to a copy of every book in print, although the books in the Old Library were all leatherbound tomes. Along the sides of the library were 18th century marble busts of of writers and literary figures, adding to the feeling of ancient learning in this venerable centre of education.
But we couldn’t linger too long as it was closing, so we were hurried out through the gift shop and back into the quad of Trinity College Dublin where we had started the weekend. It remains to be seen whether our prospective student will apply to Trinity but even if he doesn’t we got a fantastic flavour of the history and literature of Dublin. For my next trip I’m looking forward more of that great Irish food, fashion and design – I feel a girl’s shopping trip coming on!
If you go: The Book of Kells and The Old Library of Trinity College Dublin, Adults €10, Family ticket €20
More things to see in Ireland
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“In Dublin you’ll always find a pub next to a bookmaker’s,” Denis told us as the coach swung around the roundabout, ” You place your bet, watch the horses on the telly then pop next door to get your winnings”. We’d barely left the hotel on our Wild Wicklow coach tour, driving past Georgian terraces and brightly coloured front doors, when the stories started to flow. Denis O’Reilly, our guide for the day, was like a good natured leprechaun, full of michievous energy and with a tale to tell about everything that we passed. One of the other bloggers beside me exclaimed “I don’t know what sort of coffee he had this morning, but I want some of that!” The flow of chatter and stories was so continuous that it took me an hour to realise that Denis was driving the coach as well as giving us an annecdote or joke about everything that we passed. Who says men can’t multi-task?
I was off on the Wild Wicklow tour, the day after the TBEX travel bloggers’ conference I attended in Dublin. Although I’d barely scratched the surface of Dublin, I selected this tour because it seemed to offer a taste of Ireland in one day; wild scenery in the Wicklow mountains, a stop at the Avoca handweavers known for their colourful checked throws, a bit of history at the Glendalough monastery and a good lunch in a traditional Irish pub thrown in.
As we pulled up at Sandycove, a seaside spot on the outskirts of Dublin, Denis managed to convince us that the group of Germans on the tour were keen for a bit of skinny dipping. We got off the coach to stretch our legs and admire the views across the bay where a red and white buoy marked the mouth of the Liffey to guide the ships into the port of Dublin. Tucked on the far side of the rocky point was the 40 Foot swimming club, a popular place to come and swim all year round, even on Christmas day. According to Denis “you go in a man and come out a woman”, or as James Joyce, who swam here, described it in Ulysses, “the scrotumtightening sea”. We wandered around, mingling with the wrinkly swimmers, who were all sticking to the rules with togs on. They dressed and undressed, juggling towels and clothes in the fresh air, sharing cups of steaming tea poured from thermos flasks. We could see swimming hats bobbing in the water, or perhaps they could be the seals that Denis assured us swam in these waters. You never get a cold or fall ill if you swim here all year round.
“Don’t take me too seriously”, said Denis as we got back on the coach, “it’s only that I had a group of 25 Danish students and before I knew it the lads were in for a swim, bollock naked. We were all ready to go except for the girls who were last back on the coach and they’d been skinny dipping too!”. To this day all the swimmers at the 40 Foot, most of whom seemed to be in their 60s, ask Denis, “When are you bringing back the Danes?”
Our next stop was at Avoca handweavers in Kilmacanogue where we couldn’t resist cuddling the bark of the huge tree in the car park which felt spongy and soft to touch. The centre consisted of a large and tempting shop showcasing Avoca throws and other Irish crafts, a cafe full of delicious food, and a plant nursery and garden. The property was the home of John Jameson, of Jameson whiskey fame who came to Ireland from Scotland (but we won’t hold that against him) and collected all the exotic trees which are planted in the garden.
We sat on the terrace tucking into the huge scones then ignored the railing around the weeping Monteray cypus tree and went inside the dark cavern under the branches. I could easily have spent an hour or two, not to mention a few euros, drooling over all the beautiful things in the shop, but I didn’t want to trouble the Ryanair police and needed to stay under my 10kg baggage limit.
Before long, we were driving over the Wicklow mountains, which were not so much high peaks as rolling moorland (50 shades of green according to Denis) with dots of fluffy white bog cotton and the heather staining the hillside purple. Beside the road, the rainwater ran down the hillside in streams that were coloured brown from the peat (no, it’s not Guinness). Denis pointed out how the moorland and bog was uneven in places, where families for centuries had come to cut turf, which was the main source of fuel in days gone by. The turf was cut into rich brown bricks and laid out to dry in the sun and wind to fuel the winter fires. Every so often they find treasure left by the fleeing monks and 2000 year old bodies perfectly preserved under the turf. The Irish definition of heaven in October is to sit in a country pub with the smell of turf on the fire, a pint of Guinness and a packet of cheese and onion crisps. I was quite sold on the idea of the pub and turf fire but not so much on the bog snorkelling that some people also try in these parts – yes really they hold competitions!
Denis pointed out the patch of woodland where one of the battles was filmed in Braveheart (Mel Gibson in a skirt). Apparently the tax breaks for filming in Ireland are more generous than those in Scotland, so a lot of films are made here. The film was watched in Ireland more times per capita than any other country, since half the locals took part as extras in the battle scenes and had to see the film at least 3 times to make sure they could spot themselves. According to Denis you’d go to the cinema with your friends – but couldn’t hear anything except people saying “Did’ya see me? Did’ya see me?” Next we stopped to photograph the bridge where PS I Love You was filmed (it’s a chick flick) and the house by Lough Tay where all the pop stars stay. The lake was fringed with a bit of extra sand where they’d been filming Vikings and was also the setting for Excalibur where the sword is flung into the lake.
While we all stood on the hillside admiring the lake, and wondering whether Bono or Enya might be staying at the Guinness family home, Denis popped out a bottle of Jameson whiskey and we all had a warming nip and a toast – Sláinte! To continued peace in Ireland – see the video here
As we drove on to Laragh, Denis treated us to tales of his childhood when his parents would leave him and his brothers to make Irish coffees for their guests. If any went wrong and the cream got mixed with the coffee then of course Denis and his brothers would have to hide their mistake by drinking them. Here’s the recipe for a true Irish coffee;
How to make an Irish Coffee
Take out your best Waterford crystal goblets and put a teaspoon in the glass then heat the glass by pouring the boiling water over it, the spoon is there to prevent the glass from cracking. Pour freshly made coffee in to halfway up the glass then add 3 teaspoons of brown sugar and stir like crazy until the sugar melts. Add a good dollop of Irish Whiskey and a bit more for luck, then take your fresh cream from the fridge – not whipped cream but thick pouring cream as you would eat with strawberries. Rest the teaspoon against the inside of the glass then pour the cream slowly over the back of the spoon so that it sits on top of the coffee. When you drink it you have to get a creamy moustache.
At Laragh, we stopped at the Lynham’s Hotel, where a good roast lunch was being served washed down by a pint of Guinness if you were inclined to have a doze on the coach in the afternoon. The bare brick walls were covered with old pictures and prints and a young girl was playing on the Irish harp. It seems that no self-respecting traditional pub would be without a musician or two to entertain the guests.
After our late lunch we were off to nearby Glendalough, the ruins of a monastic settlement, built on the gently rising ground where the glacier had deposited its moraine at the end of the valley millions of years ago. The settlement was founded in the 6th century by St Kevin who lived as a hermit a bit further up the valley beside the lake in an inaccessible spot that could only be reached by boat. The tall tower set among the gravestones might easily have featured in Rapunzel, but was used as a bell tower to call the monks to prayer as well as a look-out for pilgrims or less welcome visitors who might be planning to attack. We wandered up the valley through the woodland and passed the first lake, up to the second lake which filled most of the valley. It was a lovely setting and in the car park I treated myself to a Teddy’s 99 ice cream before we were back on the coach for the drive back to Dublin, listening to some haunting Irish pipe music from Pat Connery who we had passed at the stone archway as we came in. You can see my short video of the singing here.
Thanks to Denis we had a great day out and a true taste of the Irish Blarney. I’m not so sure which of your stories was true, but after the Wild Wicklow tour, I’m ready to believe anything told me by an Irishman!
The Wild Wicklow Tour - book through the website or through your hotel, costs €28 per adult, €25 for child/student/seniors.
You may also enjoy my article: The best of TBEX, The best of Dublin
What other bloggers made of the Wild Wicklow tour;
Wicklow, the garden of Ireland: Finding the Gypsy in me
Day Trip from Dublin – The Wild Wicklow Tour is a must: Solo Travel Girl
The best pubs and restaurants in Dublin
As we reached Dublin, Denis gave us his personal recommendations for some great Irish Dublin pubs for a pint of Guinness and perhaps some traditional Irish music. If you’re looking for a good craic you might try;
Toner’s at 139 Lower Baggott St, O’Donahuhes at 15 Merrion Row where you’ll find traditional music every night, The Long Hall at 51 South St George’s St, Dohenny and Nesbitt at 5 Lower Baggott St, The Merchant at 12 Lower Bridge St, Stag’s Head at 1 Dame Court, The Brazen Head at 20 Lower Bridge St
For restaurants in Dublin, Denis suggests that you try;
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If you are thinking of spending St Patrick’s Day in Ireland you will not be disappointed. There are festivals and parades galore across the Emerald Isle and there is a great sense of Irish pride. Even if you are not from Ireland , on St Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish!!
St Patrick is commonly recognised as the Patron Saint of Ireland and in helping to introduce Ireland to Christianity. Ever wondered what the Shamrock symbolises? Well, according to legend St Patrick used the Shamrock because of its three leaf formation to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish people.
St Patrick died on the 17th March and so parades and festivals take place in cities, towns and villages throughout Ireland on this date to commemorate his life. Although St Patrick’s Day is a religious feast day, in later times it has become a day to celebrate and commemorate Irish culture. Therefore, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout the world and reflects the talents and achievement of Irish people everywhere. It is probably the most widely celebrated saint’s day in the world!
Dublin holds a three day St Patrick’s Festival from the 16th – 19th March and is enjoyed by over 1.2 million people. It ranks amongst the greatest celebration in the world, is massively creative, professional and most importantly fun for all the family! Cork’s St Patrick’s Day festival also runs for 3 days, Sunday 18th – Monday 19th March with fantastic floats, street entertainment and live music and free family entertainment from 10am – 6pm daily. Galway City is holding their 109th parade and will feature marching bands, floats, pipe bands and dancing groups. The city will be full of life and a riot of colour and sound. No matter where you decide to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in Ireland you are guaranteed a fun-filled memorable day.
It is important that you plan your accommodation well in advance as people travel from all over the world to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in Ireland . You don’t want to be disappointed when your preferred accommodation is booked out. Family-run B & Bs are great places to stay in as they are in great locations across Ireland and your hosts will provide you with up to date information on what is happening and where. It is also a great way of immersing yourself in the local celebrations and carnival atmosphere. Remember to leave your inhibitions at home as you will be expected to wear funny hats, don the green and maybe even sup a pint of green Guinness! It really is an experience not to be missed and is truly fun for all the family.
If you need some more information on accommodation or Ireland in general, then visit the B&B Ireland Website and Blog. They are also running a 3 night B&B competition, so you will be in with a chance to enjoy all the celebrations knowing your B&B accommodation is sorted! Their Facebook page is a great source of information, you can read visitors holiday experiences and tips on places to visit and things to do and see.
Photo credits: St Patrick’s day in Dublin by LenDog64 other photos by B&B Ireland
More things to enjoy in Ireland
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey