Dublin (or rather Ireland, I should say) is part 1 of a two-week, two-country winter adventure! Who leaves Florida in the darkest dead of winter??? I do!
Day 1 – December 26 – St. Stephen’s Day
I left Christmas Day in order to maximize my time abroad. Therefore, I arrived before sunrise on the 26th, which is known as St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland (or Boxing Day in the UK). In the spirit of St. Stephen’s Day, I walked around St. Stephen’s Green. The sun was so beautiful all day! Glowing and creating pretty angles! As I walked around the pond, a man handed me two handfuls of breadcrumbs for the ducks – okay!
A short taxi drive away is a neighborhood called Sandymount. It is centered around a green with a pub, a church, and a convenience store and is bordered on the right by the Sandymount Strand, a beach by Dublin Bay. At noon on St. Stephen’s Day, locals dressed in mummer’s costumes appear outside the pub for a few favorite Irish songs. Then, they and the rest of the townspeople (plus one American tourist) ‘parade’ to a stage set up outside the church. Other local mummer groups and local singers performed. Sadly, after an hour standing among the locals, my feet were ice. So I asked someone to point me in the direction of the water, a short walk away as it turned out. The beach gives a nice view of the mountains to the south of Dublin; the sun casting a particularly lovely haze over the town the farther away I got. The walk to Poolbeg Lighthouse is not so short but is flat and easy.
This may be TMI, but I asked a random couple for a ride in their car. I’d hoped just to get back to Sandymount, but they took me all the way to downtown Dublin. I was super grateful! By early afternoon, Grafton Street was alive with St. Stephen’s Day shoppers! Not to mention a few street performers:
My hostel (see below, Travel Tips) had a hot cocoa social. There I met two Romanian girls who now live and work in London and two Spaniards who did not speak English. Nevertheless, all 4 took me up on my suggestion that we go out afterward. A hostel worker/resident recommended Bernard Shaw to us, and it was a good tip! This out-of-the-way joint is bigger than it appears. Most people had found their way to an outdoor lounge with trivia night DJ and tables of priests. Yes, priests. No, not real priests, but enthusiastic fans of a ’90s show called Father Ted. They were a craic!
Day 2 – December 27 – Belfast
Since my friend Mayur couldn’t join me until the 28th, I hopped a bus to Belfast! If you’re keeping track, then you realize this means I lied, and I went to more than two countries on my two-week trip!
Belfast is very walkable. As you’ll no doubt read, both Dublin and Belfast are pretty “compact” cities with, I’m going to say it, ‘cute’ buildings. With a bit of preparation, I probably could have fit in most, if not all, of the sights in one day. Without any preparation, I got a tad lost and missed more than one attraction by within mere minutes of their respective closing times. Still, I enjoyed walking around City Hall and passing Albert’s Tower. I noticed posh but affordable National Grande Café due to its pretty mural and façade. Here I ate soup, salad, and a coffee.
Many people recommend the Titanic Museum. I did not do this, so it may or may not be worth the time. But I did walk to River Lagan, up past the Custom House, and back inward to St. Anne’s Cathedral. With all this walking, I discovered sculptures, statues, and the Enteries! The Enteries are the narrow walkways of old city Belfast, now covered in street art and lined by pubs.
Next, I turned south, back past City Hall and on and on until I reached Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens, and the Ulster Museum. Again, the sunlight made for some nice photos. The rose gardens were out of season and the greenhouse (Palm House) closed minutes before I arrived 3:50 pm! But it was all worth it because the Ulster Museum is great! I went straight up to the top floor as there is where their art collection begins. A friendly volunteer tolerated my ignorance about the R.U.A. when she saw how I truly admired their work. The R.U.A. is the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts whose 135th annual exhibition was spectacular. A judge of the level and quantity of talent for me is if I dream of turning whole rooms of art into my living space. A bed among their art, and I’d be set!
The rest of the museum is nice too – permanent art exhibits plus history exhibits – but clearly the R.U.A. was the highlight for me. Like I said, Belfast is walkable but only if you have the right shoes; my feet were barking, so I limped downtown and found an athletic shoe store. My new kicks gave me the energy to keep touring Belfast although it was dark out quite early.
Crumlin Road Gaol was my second near miss, the last tour of the day just ending up when I appeared. I did walk back down through the cathedral district. Going through my photos, you’ll frequently see both construction work and Christmas decorations in the same shot. It’s an aesthetic trade-off. If I had company with me, this would have been a good time of day to join the locals in a pint. Alone, I departed on the once-an-hour return bus to Dublin.
Day 3 – December 28 – Sightseeing with Mayur!
My friend Mayur joined me from London! We found a quick breakfast at a stylish coffee shop in St. George’s Street Arcade called con-sid-ered. Then, we toured Dublin’s cathedral district. Mayur really is an ideal travel companion: extremely agreeable to my decisions on what to-do, what not to-do. I generally shy away from cathedrals with entrance fees; however, when it’s your first stop of the day and/or particularly well-known, a traveler must cough up some dough. 6€ for St. Patrick’s Cathedral isn’t so bad, particularly if you can catch some of the free tour to help decipher the multitude of placards, decorations, etc. They literally hang the flags of old wartime regiments into they disintegrate into thin air with decades of age!
After St. Patrick’s, we satisfied ourselves with exterior photos of Christ Church and Dublin Castle en route to the Guinness Storehouse! I use this ‘!’ now because I enjoyed it despite not being much of a beer drinker, let alone Guinness fan. It must be the set-up and the almost Disney-ride quality to the Guinness tour that makes it appealing. That or the free tastings PLUS two free pints per person! They make the tastings a real sensory experience, and the free pints can be sipped while enjoying the panoramic views of the Gravity bar.
Back at the hostel, we felt the time-saving benefits of planning ahead as we spent hours trying to figure out the best way to see the Irish countryside – tour bus or car? day trip and return to our paid-for room in Dublin or suck it up and pay for other rooms while on the road? At long last, we chose the expensive but flexible option of hiring a car in the morning from the airport rental depot.
To make the most of our evening, we walked to Trinity College which was closed and empty but at least lit up at night.
We returned to the hostel for their free dinner night. We had hoped to meet other people at the hostel, but they have only one table for eating in the kitchen so the event wasn’t as conducive to socializing as we’d hoped. Shrug. Mayur and I went off on our own: swinging by the Molly Malone statue on our way to the Temple Bar district for a drink. I wouldn’t actually recommend Temple Bar itself – too crowded – but we were happy to find a small bar just across the Liffey with a single guitar player/singer and competitive darts on TV. Yes, apparently competitive darts is a thing. The singer performed a number of pop songs including U2 as well as more classic Irish drinking songs.
Day 4 – December 29 – The Irish Countryside
Oh, Mayur, calling the left side of the road: the ‘right’ side. Although a bit tedious, we excitedly hopped the airport bus and went all the way to Hertz for a car hire. We were given a white VW Golf which ran really well on diesel and, you guessed it, the left side of the road!
Mayur took the first stretch behind the wheel, which was the cross-country drive from Dublin all the way to Galway, Ireland. Galway had several touristy streets. We found lunch at King’s Head – food is good and fast in Ireland, but the bill always seems to take a while to arrive… After lunch, we walked around town in a pretty circuitous fashion. Before we knew it, we were running across fields trying to make it to the seaside in time for the sunset. Oh, what a sunset it was too! A sunset of a lifetime – I could simply live in the orange moment!
Back into Galway, we stumbled upon a famous tea shop called Cupán Tae, so naturally we popped in for a pot and a slice of coffee/walnut cake! We also hit a pub (for non-alcoholic drinks) before hitting the road again. After all, when you can’t see much in the dark, you might as well make tracks to the next destination. I drove this time! Speeding along at 100 km/hr while Mayur gave me directions (and frequent reminders like to turn left at the roundabouts!). We spent the night at a tiny but friendly hostel in Doolin, Ireland. Matty and Carmel are the sweetest hosts!
Day 5 – December 30 – Cliffs of Moher
Mayur and I were pretty excited to see the cliffs. Okay, I especially was a bit crazy – got up, showered, ate breakfast before anyone else in the hostel save our host. Then, I may or may not have made Mayur literally run up the hill to the Cliffs. (Only to discover that we weren’t quite at the hill yet and now had to go back down, into the car, and find the actual hill by the start of the cliffs. Oops.) Despite this false start, we still got to the Cliffs at a decent time in the morning. We immediately started snapping photos of this breathtaking sight!
I think it took us two hours to walk the narrow, muddy cliff edge, leading to Hag’s Head. Have I mentioned that this skydiving chica is afraid of heights? Well, I am. But every now and then, when Mayur wasn’t looking, I’d inch a bit closer and get a better look at the view.
In addition to the view is the sound of the Cliffs. I realized at one point that you can’t hear the waves crashing against the rock for much of the walk. Not only are you very high above the waves, but also there’s the wind. Sentimental sap that I am, I put in my earbuds and listened to several U2 songs – I still remember all the words from back in high school when I first fell in love with their music.
When we had had our fill of Hag’s Head and turned back, we picked up the pace and took far less photos. Still it’s not a short walk. About halfway back, the people traffic really picked up and sure enough there were now several buses in the parking lot when we returned. I hope you’re convinced now of the need for hiring a car when visiting Ireland.
Mayur’s turn to drive again. We were starved but wanted to cover some ground too, so we settled on the town of Limerick as a stopping point. That was a disappointing place! Quite happy with our decision to grab convenience store food and move on! We booked it to Killarney, but nightfall beat us (darn, winter sun!). We literally squinted at Torc Waterfall during twilight, which mere minutes ago probably resembled an actual waterfall rather than a dull, gray, elusive roar. We even climbed the 235 steps of the neighboring trail in the hopes of getting closer, but no luck. My iPhone flashlight led us back to the car and back to the town of Killarney.
Killarney, for a tourist town, was actually a lot of fun. We ate baked potatoes in Laurel’s pub. Then we checked in at Neptunes Hostel. We caught live music at the Grand. The live music consisted of 2 flutes, 3 fiddles, a guitar, and an accordion playing Irish tunes in the front of a packed bar. We managed to order our Guinness and sit two stools down at a table with two other couples. I assumed they were a family (elderly couple and grown-up kids) but no, they were just travelers like ourselves who had met on the road. I was curious about the woman’s choice of Corona(!) and that got the conversation going. Before we knew it, they were buying us Jameson. Thanks, Shelly and Dave!
Day 6 – December 31 – Ring of Kerry and
Ring in the New Year!
The Ring of Kerry is a popular stretch of road along a peninsula on the southwest corner of Ireland. We were questioning if it was worthwhile – after all wouldn’t the road be congested with tour buses? But a friend back home insisted that the Ring was magical, so how could we pass it by?
My turn to drive, and I think some combination of the time of day, the time of the year, and possibly the counterclockwise route we chose allowed us to avoid the tourist-crowd we feared. There’s a LOT to see on the Ring, and we wanted to see a lot of it while also making decent time. Essentially, we alternated stopping for landmarks and stopping simply for the gorgeous views, but we did also skip the occasional landmark. Plus I’m not sure the ferries to and from Valentia Island were even operating. Here are some photos from those stops along the Ring:
We were most enchanted by the castles. The first one in particular was isolated with no other tourists. Hidden from the road and only visible when we got up close were three cows! I guess they like the grass there best, or maybe they were enchanted by the stone castle as well.
Mayur also really wanted to drive up into the clouds atop the mountains (and we did!). Plus Fort Staigue was fun and worth the intrepid 4 km road to get to it. We ended the Ring back at Killarney National Park. It was high time we return our overdue car hire back to Dublin, so we drove back to Dublin via Mallow (for food and a quick walk by its castle).
Back in Dublin and back at our original hostel, we didn’t really have specific New Year’s Eve plans. But then neither did the rest of the hostel! So we mingled with the others – a few French hostel workers, a lone French girl, and a group of Frenchmen – dancing and “practicing” English in the lobby/lounge.
Mayur and I hit the streets closer to midnight, on this the one rainy night of my trip to Ireland. Everyone seemed to be headed somewhere: was anyone actually inside a club or inside a party? Along the River Liffey and across from the Custom House, a crowd had gathered for the lightshow. With mere minutes to go, a worker announced that there would be no lightshow. But with nowhere to go and no time left besides, we all counted down the New Year’s right there on the spot anyway. Happy 2017!
Day 7 – January 1 – Last Day in Dublin
What could be left to do or see in Dublin? With so little time left in Ireland, we snagged a taxi (I know, breaking the cardinal rule of hostel-staying backpackers to walk everywhere and travel on the cheap) and bought tickets to Kilmainham Gaol. Hoping I’m not the only American who was ignorant to the city’s 1916-2016 centennial celebration. But the gaol, or jail, is at the heart of the Easter Rebellion story with many 1916 revolutionaries housed and executed inside its walls. The tour was full of sad stories, but hey, if you’ve got a morbid side or just enjoy history, it’s a worthwhile stop.
Lucky for me, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) is in a palace across the street. We warmed up with hot cocoa in the museum basement before exploring the exhibits.
We also walked through War Memorial Park and Phoenix Park. Nice but I’m thinking that like Parque de El Retiro in Madrid, I wasn’t seeing it in its peak season of floral beauty.
Lastly, we taxied to Glasnevin Cemetery. Do we know how to party or what? No, seriously though, in addition to the beautiful photo below, I made Mayur play the Tour Guide Imposter game again. Anyone else do this? Aloud and in a dreadful accent, “And to your right is the grave of Henry Reed. Henry Reed distinguished himself in the great Staring Contest of 1882. That is before his wife Sherry had one too many sherries and revealed that Henry had a glass eye.”
We ended the night and this leg of the trip with a failed attempt to find the American football game on TV in the pubs, settling for a few pints and cheap chips to-go.
Planning – I’m all for spontaneity when traveling, but let’s face it: you can waste a lot of time and money if you don’t at least do a little homework. For instance, traveling around the holidays means museums are going to be closed certain days, while unique festivals may be going on instead.
‘Hiring’ a car – This especially can be confusing. Automatics are more expensive. They try to get you to buy insurance when you’re own insurance make actually cover you. It’s tricky to fill up on gas prior to returning the car (we didn’t figure this out). That said, hiring a car was still the way to go for my friend and me. If I was driving alone, I couldn’t have paid attention to GPS, roadsigns, and the scenery. For those traveling alone, day trips with tour groups may work out, but you will miss out of seeing the Cliffs of Moher before the crowds arrive.
Hostels – It’s true when they say that the Irish are friendlier than other European countries. (Okay, I’m generalizing but compared to Germany and several other places I’ve been, it’s appears to be the case.) My hostel, Times Hostel at Camden Place, let me check in early, and breakfast, towels, and even an electric converter cost me nothing on top of my seven-night stay. The location is pretty good, just a block from St. Stephen’s Green, and being the off-season and literally just reopening after a few renovations, my four-bed dorm plus bath never filled.
- Rainbow Hostel in Doolin, Ireland is run by a sweet couple named Matty and Carmel. You can get a taste of the very small town life in the pub down the road. Plus it’s just a short drive to the Cliffs of Moher in the morning, so you can beat the tour buses.
- Neptunes Hostel in Killarney worked out well. Killarney has a real night life and is a good starting point on your Ring of Kerry drive.
Packing – Berlin, stop #2 in my trip, is far colder than Ireland. Definitely needed more layers in Germany! My umbrella came in use at both stops. I only packed a carry-on (it is possible!) and did laundry halfway through; however, I’ll admit that I failed to find the right shoes beforehand and ended up buying a pair by day 2 of my trip.