Dublin is brimming with unique things to do outside of the obvious highlights, and by taking the occasional detour off the typical tourist agenda – or simply choosing a different kind of guide or alternative mode of transport – it’s possible to see the city in a whole new way. Whether you want to wakeboard in the docklands, catch a relaxed gig in a hallowed setting or get up close to the local flora and fauna, here are some of the most unusual things you can do in the Irish capital.
Sweny’s has been open on Lincoln Place since 1847, originally as a pharmacy but today as a non-profit literary landmark and a place of worship for fans of one of Dublin’s greatest writers, James Joyce. The interior of the store has been preserved almost exactly as it was when Joyce was alive, although now it is full of books instead of medicines and toiletries – however, it still sells bars of the lemon soap that Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce’s Ulysses, buys here in the novel. Drop in to buy a literary souvenir or to attend the free readings of Ulysses and Joyce’s other works that dedicated volunteers host throughout the week.
Originally established as a royal hunting park in 1662, Dublin’s Phoenix Park still has a resident family of around 500 wild fallow deer, directly descended from the original 17th-century herd. Given that their home is the largest enclosed park in any European capital city, covering more than 700 hectares (1,730 acres), finding the deer can be difficult, but the males tend to congregate on the park’s east side and the does on the west. If it’s mating season (October), you may even see a few bucks locking antlers.
Ireland’s first public library was founded in 1707 by Narcissus Marsh, who was at that time the archbishop of Dublin. Marsh’s Library on St Patrick’s Close has remained virtually unchanged, right down to the location of most of the books, and according to local lore, the archbishop hasn’t moved on either – he’s said to haunt its aisles at night. This book lover’s paradise is worth a visit for the history alone: Dracula author Bram Stoker is said to have frequented it. Guided tours are available at 3pm every day except Tuesday and Sunday, and are included in the €3 admission price.
Until 1974, only males were permitted to swim at the Forty Foot – a promontory at a deepwater inlet in Sandycove that’s believed to be around 250 years old. A group of protesting women then rebelled against this segregation and plunged into the waters; since their act of defiance, Dubliners of all genders have been free to enjoy this spot. The New York Times has named it one of the best places to swim in the world, and hardy regulars dive off it all year round, even on Christmas Day. Many swimmers here believe that the cold waters keep them young – and as of 2017, the official Forty Foot swimming club’s oldest member was 91.
Plenty of companies offer walking tours of Dublin, but few give back to the city like Secret Street Tours. Founded by a Trinity College Dublin graduate, this non-profit employs homeless people as guides. The 90-minute tour of the historic Liberties district – home to landmarks such as St Patrick’s Cathedral – is led by Derek, a man who has lived in that neighbourhood since he was born. As well as directly helping the homeless people of Dublin (the majority of the €15 fee goes to the guides), you’ll get to see a part of it through the eyes of a lifelong resident.
Dublin Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green has a long history. It was built over 150 years ago using money bequeathed by Thomas Wilson, a congregation member who was George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the American War of Independence. Other former members include the Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet, and John Jameson, founder of the eminent distillery. Visitors to this church may be surprised to find that it doesn’t host solely religious services; the church also opens its doors for regular gigs, welcoming musicians to make use of the exceptional acoustics. Hozier, Dermot Kennedy and Markéta Irglová of The Swell Season have all played here in the past.
The Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio can be found inside an early 19th-century Martello tower overlooking the scenic village of Howth. Around 50 of these defensive towers were built throughout Ireland by the British during and after the French Revolutionary Wars. The museum was opened in 2003 by a local man named Pat Herbert, who wished to share his extensive collection of vintage gramophones, radios, old Morse equipment and radio-related paraphernalia with the public. Run by Herbert on a voluntary basis, the museum is open daily from May to October and at weekends for the rest of the year. Adult entry costs €5 and gives visitors the chance to experience two very different eras of history in one building.
After becoming famous for the all-natural, handmade ice cream it sells from a shop in Dingle, County Kerry, Murphy’s Ice Cream opened a much-awaited Dublin store on Wicklow Street in 2010. Its award-winning ice cream is made with milk from Kerry cows – a rare breed native to Ireland, descended from ancient Celtic cattle – and features unusual, distinctly Irish flavours such as aran donn (caramelised brown bread) and salann (Dingle sea salt). Murphy’s even makes flavoured sorbets using distilled Irish rainwater.
The redeveloped waterfront at Grand Canal Dock – sometimes referred to as Silicon Docks thanks to its concentration of US tech companies’ offices such as Google and Facebook – is the site of Wakedock, Ireland’s first cable wakeboard park. While navigating the state-of-the-art course, which is suitable for both beginners and advanced wakeboarders, you’ll be surrounded by some of Dublin’s finest examples of modern architecture such as the angular Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, designed by world-renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. A 30-minute beginner’s session, including tuition and kit, will set you back €60.
Having originated as a network of small local organisations of Medieval British stonemasons, Freemasonry developed into a global fraternity during the 18th and 19th centuries. In spite of currently having 6 million members worldwide, the group is still an enigma to outsiders, based around secret handshakes and guarded meetings. A visit to its Irish headquarters on Molesworth Street – the second most senior Grand Lodge of Freemasons in the world and the oldest in continuous existence – will appeal to anyone with a curious streak. Public tours are available every weekday during the summer months for €5 per person.
The Great Famine of the 1840s saw around a million Irish people die from starvation and illness, while more than a million more were forced to emigrate. Many of these departed from Dublin’s Custom House Quay, where an authentic replica of a famine ship is currently docked, acting as a museum and reminder of a devastating moment in Irish history. Visitors can take a 50-minute guided tour of the Jeanie Johnston (adult tickets cost €10.50), which made 16 journeys between Ireland and North America during and after the famine, carrying over 2,500 people. Below deck, life-size mannequins depict actual passengers who braved the arduous journey to the New World.
The current St Michan’s Church in Smithfield dates from the 17th century, but it stands on the site of a Viking chapel built in 1095. Inside, you’ll find a pipe organ from the 1720s that is long rumoured to have once been played by Handel, composer of the Messiah oratorio. However, the real treasures are beneath the building in the form of the limestone crypts, where the mummified bodies of influential Dublin residents from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries have been preserved. The mummies themselves are no longer on display after an unfortunate incident of vandalism, but the church still runs highly recommended tours of the crypts.
The park at King’s Inns – Ireland’s oldest legal institution and law school – is a pleasant spot for a picnic on a fine day. It’s also the home of Dublin’s Hungry Tree, a sturdy London plane tree that’s thought to date from the 1930s. It is so named because it has managed to devour much of a cast-iron bench that sits beneath it, absorbing the entire backrest into its trunk. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the Blessington Street Basin – this underrated park and reservoir near to King’s Inns is a place that even many Dubliners don’t know about.
Both of Ireland’s two native seal species – common seals and grey seals – are plentiful in Dublin Bay, and the best way to see them up close is by kayak. Kayaking.ie offers guided tours daily, departing from the slipway at Bullock Harbour in the suburb of Dalkey (accessible by DART train), and taking in a three-hour trip around Dalkey Island and the surrounding area. The company also offers an evening tour on Thursdays and Fridays, giving an opportunity to see unrivalled views of Dublin Bay at sunset. All tours are suitable for beginners and equipment is provided.
The Cool Planet Experience is actually in County Wicklow, but it’s close enough to the capital to be reachable by Dublin Bus, and it’s so unique that it’s worth the journey. Opened in January 2018, it’s already been shortlisted for the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award, and is one of the first museums of its kind in the world. Dedicated solely to the issue of climate change, it uses gaming to educate, providing an immersive, interactive experience in which visitors can see what their city might look like in 2050, and find ways of reducing their own carbon footprint.