Dublin has no shortage of attractions, but canny visitors want to enjoy experiences that go beyond the tourist traps. So, how about a James Joyce reading, a swim in the Irish Sea or a visit to a vintage radio museum in a Martello tower? Here, Culture Trip picks the top things to see and do in Ireland’s capital that will surprise even the most frequent visitor.
Dublin is brimming with unique things to do outside the obvious highlights, and by taking the occasional detour off the typical tourist agenda – or simply choosing a different kind of guide or an 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.
Attend a reading of ‘Ulysses’ at Dublin’s Joycean pharmacy
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 most celebrated writers, James Joyce. The interior of the store has been preserved almost exactly as it was when Joyce was alive, although now it’s 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 (1922), 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.
Initially established as a royal hunting park in 1662, Dublin’s Phoenix Park still has a resident family of around 600 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 700ha (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. During 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 the archbishop of Dublin at that time. 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 reportedly haunts its aisles at night. This book lover’s paradise is worth a visit for the history alone: Dracula (1897) author Bram Stoker was a visitor. Guided tours are available and included in the €5 (£4.50) 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 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.
Courtesy of ViatorJon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Plenty of companies offer walking tours of Dublin, but few give back to the city like Secret Street Tours do. 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/£13.60 fee goes to the guides), you’ll get to see a part of it through the eyes of a lifelong resident.
The Dublin Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green has a long history. It was built more than 150 years ago using money bequeathed by Thomas Wilson, a congregation member whose father 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; it 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.
Explore a vintage radio museum inside a Martello tower
Ye Olde 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. Run by volunteers, 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. Adult entry costs €5 (£4.50) 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, Murphys 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). Murphys 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 a kit, will set you back €60 (£54.30).
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. Despite currently having 6m members worldwide, the group is still an enigma to outsiders, as it’s 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 (£4.50) per person.
The Great Famine of the 1840s saw around 1m Irish people die from starvation and illness, while more than 1m were forced to emigrate. Many of these people 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. You can take a 50-minute guided tour of the Jeanie Johnston (adult tickets cost €11/£9.95), 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 back to 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 was reportedly played by Handel, composer of the Messiah oratorio. However, the real treasures are beneath the building, in 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’s 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 under-rated park and reservoir near 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. Every day, Kayaking.ie offers three-hour guided tours around Dalkey Island and the surrounding area, departing from the slipway at Bullock Harbour in the suburb of Dalkey (accessible by DART train). The company also offers evening tours, allowing you to see unrivalled views of the bay at sunset. All tours are suitable for beginners, and equipment is provided.
Pop over the Wicklow border to learn how to save the planet
While the Cool Planet Experience is in County Wicklow, it’s close enough to the capital to be reachable by Dublin Bus, and it’s so unique that it’s worth the journey. Established in January 2018, it was shortlisted for the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award and is among 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 to reduce their own carbon footprint.