For many travelers to Europe, particularly first-time visitors from the U.S., Dublin is often overlooked in favor of the bigger cities of London or Paris. But this TravelingMom has been there three times and highly recommends it for its charm. Here are some suggestions for the whole family to enjoy for a few days, while learning about Ireland’s rich culture and history.
To celebrate my father’s 80th birthday last year, the whole family headed to Ireland for a two week holiday in late June. As we are of Irish descent, I really wanted my children to share their first visit to the country of their ancestors with my parents, and my father really wanted to visit one more time, bringing his total to five or “a whole hand” as he likes to say. Traveling on an overnight flight from the US east coast, my then 4 and 8 year olds slept most of the more than six hour flight, but still arrived exhausted at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. Nevertheless, they were excited to show their passports to the customs officer and get a stamp to show they had arrived in the Republic of Ireland, the 26 southern counties (an additional six northern counties are actually part of Great Britain and known as Northern Ireland).
We had pre-booked a rental car for the day to visit Powerscourt, an elegant 18th century country estate in County Wicklow, about 30 minutes outside of Dublin. My husband has experience driving on the left side of the road. For those not familiar driving on the “other” side of the road from an American perspective, I’d recommend a taking a taxi or public transportation into Dublin and there you can get one of the numerous tours to Powerscourt and other nearby destinations. The little ones got a nice “cat nap” on the way to Powerscourt and then absolutely loved getting to run around and roll down the beautifully landscaped lawns.
The gardens are definitely worth the visit and the spectacular landscaping has earned it the #3 spot in National Geographic’s 2014 list of the World’s Top Ten Gardens! The cafeteria-styled lunch on the outdoor patio was delicious as well, with hearty Irish foods like bangers and mash (e.g., sausage and mashed potatoes), Shepherd’s pie (meat and vegetables baked with a potato crust) as well as salmon and lamb dishes.
Strolling Along the Liffey
The short drive to Dublin was uneventful and both children got another much-needed nap, so they were ready to go when we arrived in Ireland’s largest city, with close to 30% of Ireland’s 4.6 million population. After meeting up with my tired parents, we decided on a relaxing afternoon stroll along the Liffey River, which flows through the center of Dublin. My father loved pointing out the charming, ornate Georgian doorways along the river and the children loved walking across the pedestrian Ha’Penny Bridge, which spans the Liffey. Once we got to O’Connell Street, he explained the history of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 which is considered one of the pivotal points on the road towards the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949. It helps to have a history teacher of Irish descent as your tour guide, but I would recommend getting a travel guide for some historical background. Dinner in Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub dating from 1198, not only gives you a feel for the past, but had good Irish fare and, of course Guinness, Ireland’s most famous beer.
Book of Kells
The next day, we headed to Trinity College, considered one of the top 100 universities in the world. The Library of Trinity College houses the largest collection of books in all of Ireland and the United Kingdom, with the most famous being the Book of Kells. Illustrated by monks over 1200 years ago, this medieval manuscript is on permanent display and is simply breath-taking, with gorgeous drawings and designs in rich, vivid colors highlighting the religious text. In particular, the creative use of figures and complex ornaments to highlight the first letter on each page is what makes the Book of Kells so special. My daughter, who studies Irish dance, particularly loved seeing the swirls and designs on the pages which she recognized as the Celtic designs on the dance costumes and Irish jewelry.
We also all enjoyed strolling along Grafton Street, Dublin’s largest pedestrian and shopping street and a great way to entertain little ones, watching all of the musicians, mimes and other street performers every fifty feet. They also loved shopping in the huge Disney Store, which had Disney t-shirts, mugs, and other keepsakes with Irish designs and themes (our first souvenirs)!
By late afternoon, we were ready to wind down, so we headed to the Guinness Storehouse, home of the world-famous Guinness Brewery. It was a huge hit with all three generations! The children loved the interactive displays, where they could run their hands through the barley, smell the hops and feel the water cascading down a glass wall (all key ingredients in the beer making process). The Guinness props and signs that they could climb on and pose for pictures with were even bigger hits!
The final part of the tour included a complimentary pint of Guinness, enjoyed in the modern glass-enclosed rooftop bar. The little ones loved their fruit drinks, loaded with maraschino cherries from the friendly bartender, and we all admired the 360 degree views of Dublin.
To round out our day, we ended with Celtic Nights near O’Connell Street, a highly-rated dinner and Irish dance show. Our pre-booked reservations included a traditional Irish fare with the Irish brown bread that my father remembered so well from his prior visits. The Irish step dancing performance was spectacular – a smaller and more intimate version of the world-famous Riverdance show. The highlight for my daughter was when she was chosen to join the dancers on stage – I’ll always remember her beaming smile!
Before heading out to see the rest of Ireland, there were many more sights we enjoyed during our family visit to Dublin, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral (named after Ireland’s Patron Saint), Dublin Castle (first built in the 13th century and now used for State receptions and Presidential inaugurations), and the Natural History Museum (home of the extinct Irish elk, one of the largest deer ever to live). No matter what you chose to see, enjoy your time in this special city with its friendly people and unique charm!