For a short, printable list of Dublin recommendations, click here: GoGoGordon Guide to Dublin
I am a fan of beer.
When my wife, Shea, and I met, she was not a fan of beer.
In past dating scenarios, this might have been a deal killer for me, but I knew from the start she was special so I didn’t mind. While I’m sure we would be just as happy together now if she never found a beer she liked, I have to admit that when we first travelled to Germany and that smile crept over her face as she took her first sips of German crafted Hefeweizen goodness, I was elated. But, that’s a story for another post.
Fast forward a few years, Shea is now a wheat beer guru, and she is sitting across from me at a nice sports bar in central Austin. She decides not to order anything to drink, and I order a Guinness. While any Guinness drinker will tell you that it’s actually not a filling beer at all, and while most now know the statistic that Guinness has far less calories than you might think, the common stereotype remains that Guinness is a thick, heavy, “milkshake” like beverage. So, imagine my surprise when my wife asks to take a sip.
I brace for the reaction. Sure she likes wheat beer but making the jump straight from wheat to stout so fast is rare. While Guinness is already my favorite beer on Earth, I’m sure she is going to hate it. Her eyes widen, and she looks a little shocked herself as she beams over the gloriously creamy texture and delicious flavor… she loves it! Oh glorious day, my favorite gal loves my favorite beer. Life doesn’t get much better.
Fast forward, again. As we plan our trip to Ireland, already excited about the sheer volume of Guinness we are going to drink – and the wonderful, atmospheric pubs where we’d get to drink them – we come across the information about the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. We realize it’s touristy, and we realize it’ll be crowded and commercial, but we put it down as number one on our list of things to do in Dublin.
It exceeded our expectations.
We visit a lot of breweries. The Guinness Storehouse is like no other brewery. Even if you don’t like “the Black Stuff”, the Storehouse is a worthwhile attraction. It’s seven stories, shaped like a giant pint glass, and full of interactive exhibits, information, restaurants, and, of course, Guinness merchandise and memorabilia. Go!Go!Go!
The adventure begins with “Our Brewing Story”, a beautifully done exhibit on the first floor that educates and explains details about each of the ingredients that go into each Guinness. The line was a little slow moving at first, but we stuck it out and later on in the exhibit you can cut some corners to save time if needed. This part is nice, but it was not a highlight.
The Guinness advertisements are ubiquitous throughout Ireland…still. The popularity of Guinness and it’s global success has not in any way reduced its favor by the locals. Almost every pub in Ireland is loaded with Guinness ads past and present.
I’ll never forget going to Colorado in college and when my friend ordered a Coors Light, they laughed and said they didn’t drink that crap. That was back in 1996. The same cannot be said for Guinness, as locals and tourists alike order it proudly and frequently, and their famous advertisements are literally a part of the architecture. An entire floor of the Guinness Storehouse is dedicated to the best of, the history of, and the absurdity of decades of Guinness ads.
Perhaps the closest analogy I can use to describe the Guinness Storefront is it’s like visiting Willy Wonka’s factory if he made beer instead of candy. It is magical, it is imagination, and it’s fun. No exhibit or floor in the building is a better representation of this than the Guinness tasting experience on the Second Floor.
Instead of a frantically speeding boat, you’re walked through a long tunnel of lights as if entering a club. Instead of reaching a room full of bubbles, you end up in a sparse room full of smoke, with all white walls and a couple of Guinness taps set up. Each pillar of smoke bears the essence of one of the key ingredients in Guinness. Before you drink the Guinness, you smell the Guinness! Then, you’re given instructions on how to optimally taste Guinness, and you’re led into a beautiful room that would work just as well for a cigar club as a beer tasting. All in all, it was a fun experience and I still apply what I learned today when I drink Guinness.
Another fun exhibit at the Storehouse is the class they teach on how to pour a proper pint of Guinness. Yes, there is actually a trick to it. I love the color change in the picture below. As you can see, I passed. My certificate is hanging next to my diploma at my office. Making the lesson even more fun is the live band playing and people dancing.
Finally, to top it off (heh heh), you have to visit the pub at the top of the Storehouse. You get one free Guinness with your entry ticket but even if you’re not a drinker, this pub has the best view in all of Dublin.
Okay, now that we got the Guinness Storehouse out of the way, we can move on to the rest of Dublin. Dublin is a fun city with a few touches of European charm, but with more than a fair share of American familiarity. Dublin is not where you go for fairy tale or romantic Europe, or the storybook Irish experience, but it has wonderful pubs, some world class attractions, and a lively, fun atmosphere that serves as a perfect backdrop for a celebration. We saw countless bachelor and bachelorette parties, plenty of pub tours, and lots of live music and dancing in the streets.
Dublin is also only a 5-6 hour flight from the northeast part of the United States, making it an easy destination to reach. Between the short flight, the compact layout of the city, everything being in English, the comfortable food staples, and the loads of familiar American businesses, Dublin makes for a very easy initiation to Europe for those nervous about going across the pond for the first time.
While it is possible to reach most anywhere in Ireland for a day trip from Dublin, I don’t recommend staying in Dublin and doing all day trips. In fact, my strongest recommendation for Ireland, especially if you’re traveling as a couple, is to rent a car and go out on your own. We started and ended our trip in Dublin, as many do because of the flight options, but we only spent a day and a half there total. However, since we’re the GoGoGordon’s, we fit in a lot!
We landed in Dublin early in the morning after a short flight from Edinburgh. We landed at the airport, rented a car, and headed straight for the Neolithic landmark of Bru Na Boine.
(A quick aside about renting a car in Ireland)
When going to Ireland, know that about half the US drivers get their side mirrors knocked off and the other half scrape up the side of the vehicle. It’s almost comical, as you can identify the tourists by spotting their hanging mirrors throughout the country. As a result, Ireland only rents cars if you sign up for the full insurance package, which was about $35-$50 per day for us at the time. Your only other option is to put a $10,000 deposit on your credit card. Don’t even think about it, just plan on renting a car and plan on getting the full insurance package. It’s worth it!
Back to Bru na Boine, it was only about a 40 minute drive from the Dublin airport, and wasn’t that far out of the way for our planned drive to Galway that afternoon. For us, Bru na Boine was simply incredible. These structures are older than the pyramids in Egypt, older than Stonehenge, and still have plenty of mystery surrounding them. Despite having to wait at the pretty lame and touristy visitor center for our allotted departure time, and despite having to bus over there in a group, we’d definitely recommend Bru na Boine to any traveler that enjoys history, mystery, landmarks and/or architecture.
Sorry for the poor picture quality on the picture of the inside of Bru na Boine, but you aren’t allowed to take pictures so I had to be a little sneaky. When you reach the middle of the structure, it opens up to a small room with enough space to fit your tour group. One of the mind-blowing facts about Bru na Boine is that each year, on the day of the winter solstice, at a specific time (around 7pm I think), the setting sun light beams directly into the center of the room. It’s the only period of time all year that the light shines directly into the entrance, and since the door is a different height from the interior, the sun only shines to the very center of the structure for a few minutes a year. So Indiana Jones, right!? The tour is set-up to recreate the magic – they turn out the lights and have a beam of light come through. It’s cool. The idea that we still don’t know exactly what these structures were used for, along with the fact that they are estimated to be over 5000 years old, combined with the gorgeous Irish countryside where it resides all adds up to a wonderful experience.
We left Bru na Boine and drove 3 hours to Galway. However, since this is the Dublin guide, we’ll fast forward 7 nights and pick things up again when we returned to Dublin for the final 2 nights of our trip. We arrived back at the Dublin airport around 3pm on Friday, with a Sunday morning flight looming in the distance. After returning our rental car and taking the most absurd and memorable cab ride ever into the city, we settled into our hotel: The Gibson.
At the time, the Gibson was rated in the top 10 in Dublin. It’s still in the top 25 the last time I checked, with a 4.5 review average and over 5000 reviews. As the reviews indicate, it’s a nice hotel and we were able to reserve the Penthouse Suite (“The Gibson Suite”) for about the same cost as some of the more basic rooms at the more prestigious and centrally located 5-star hotels. Mainly, we had looked into The Merrion Hotel, The Westbury and the Westin, as well as The Marker Hotel.
We liked the idea of staying a little bit outside of the city, with the idea that it would be easier and faster to make it to the airport for our morning departure. We also knew Dublin is a party town and we thought being outside of the central area would help ensure a quiet nights sleep. It did, however we did get kind of lucky as we didn’t realize that the Gibson is directly next to Dulin’s huge live music venue, the 3Arena. Fortunately for us, there were no shows in town during our two nights.
The hotel is very modern, clean, and the staff at the front desk were nice. Our suite was about 1000 sq ft, with a large living room shown below, a bedroom and sitting area, and an incredible wrap around balcony with panoramic views. Overall, the hotel was nice but I wouldn’t recommend it. The walk into town was a little far and the breakfast wasn’t great. It was very clean, modern, and we did love the balcony, but if we ended up back in Dublin we’d probably give one of the other hotels named above a try.
After we settled into the hotel room, our first mission was to head back out and find the Ulysses Rare Books store. If you appreciate old books or have any kind of a book collection, Dublin is a goldmine. Cathach books and The Winding Stair also get great reviews. On our way to the bookstore, we made a stop for a snack at a place I had read about, called Sweet Sicily. A few years earlier, while visiting Cinque Terre, a wonderfully animated Sicilian restaurant owner gave us a stern lecture about the art of making a “true” cannoli. While we didn’t bother quizzing the ladies behind the counter at Sweet Sicily about their recipe, we were pleased to see that they waited until we ordered our cannoli before piping in the creamy filling. Good sign! We ordered a pistachio and a chocolate, and both were the definition of perfection. I’ve never found a cannoli in the states like this, and I still haven’t.
Full but basking in Sicilian happiness, we walked over to the popular Grafton Street, and it reinforced one of my travel rules. Every large city in Europe has a “main” shopping street, and more often than not they disappoint. They tend to be crowded, commercial, and full of stuff I can buy at home without having to pay VAT or deal with the painful exchange rate. In short, don’t go out of your way to walk down Grafton Street.
The pubs in Dublin, on the other hand, are a tourist attraction worth visiting. While it’s hard to pick a favorite, if you only have time for one, I’d recommend going to The Brazen Head. It’s the oldest pub in Ireland, dating back to 1178, and while it’s obviously been renovated, it still has a ton of fairy tale charm. We had lunch there, and the food was just okay, but we couldn’t stop looking around in amazement at all the details of this incredible pub.
Another one of our favorite pubs was The Stags Head. While the Brazen Head is about a 15 minute walk from the central part of the main Temple Bar District, The Stags Head is right in the heart of the action. We loved the amazing woodwork and stained glass, and the stag (buck) theme gave it the feel of a fictional pub created for a Renaissance era epic.
We also visited The Long Hall pub, which has a lovely Victorian feel, and The Lord Edward, which is a no-frills local pub. We sat at the bar at the Lord Edward and somehow ended up in the middle of a conversation about “American football” versus “soccer”, that morphed into an old-timer at the bar telling us the tales of the greatest soccer player that ever lived…obviously he was Irish and played back in the 40s. It was awesome. His passion was contagious. While I can’t guarantee you’ll have a memorable encounter with a local, if you want a local hangout without a sniff of tourist commercialism, make your way to the Lord Edward.
A block or so away from the Long Hall pub is The Hairy Lemon. It was the one pub we visited that wasn’t on our list, but when you walk past an establishment with that name, you go in! Even though I didn’t find it when I did my pre-trip research, this pub was off the charts when it came to that coveted Irish pub atmosphere. Be sure to check out upstairs and down, and soak in the slanted floors, wood beams, and nooks and crannies throughout.
I should also note that the area around the Hairy Lemon and The Long Bar, specifically the area around Fade St and R114, as well as Exchequer St, was our favorite street to walk around. The red brick buildings had a regal feel and also felt a little like Boston…I think…I’ve only been to Boston once. Regardless, it was a nice area.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Dublin if you didn’t make a stop at Temple Bar. We went by reluctantly, as we expected an Irish version of the Hard Rock Café, but we were pleasantly surprised. Sure, it was crowded at 3:30pm on a Sunday, and it was mostly tourists and bachelor parties, but they had live music and a number of other rooms where you could somewhat escape the crowd. While I was expecting a Carlos and Charlie’s feel, much of the bar had impressive woodwork, traditional décor, stained glass, and other local-pub-feeling architecture. It short, it’s not just popular or well located, it’s a legitimately gorgeous Irish pub. There was even a solarium. For us, Temple Bar wasn’t our favorite, but it exceeded expectations and it is definitely worth a stop.
Across from Temple Bar is The Quays Irish Restaurant. If you want to have dinner and a beer, this is the place as the food gets great reviews. Add in live music and a great ambiance, and you see why the Quays is deserving of being on every list of top pubs to visit in Dublin.
We almost chose to have dinner at the Quays, but opted for another highly rated spot: O’Flaherty’s at The Old Storehouse. One of the experiences on our Irish bucket list was to have a traditional dinner at an Irish pub with live Irish folk music. While I’m sure Quays, as well as others, are wonderful, we highly recommend O’Flaherty’s. We had a blast! The food was great, the atmosphere was lively but not raucous, and it was a memorable evening.
Okay, believe it or not, we did do other things in Dublin besides drink Guinness in pubs. The morning of our last day we had reservations to see the lavishly decorated and historical Book of Kells. You have to book your tickets online, otherwise you’ll wait in line for a while. There is a nice pre-exhibit full of background and information that leads you into the room where the famous book is set under glass for public viewing. It gets crowded, but it’s not too bad as they limit the number of people allowed in over a certain period of time (why you need to buy your tickets online). The book is pretty cool and we enjoyed reading about some of the controversy around it’s background. However, the best part of the exhibit is after you view the Book, you head up a flight of stairs and enter…the library.
The other bonus of visiting the Book of Kells is that it is located in the heart of the Trinity College campus. The campus is full of beautiful Georgian buildings and open fields. You should definitely take a stroll or hang out at College Park and people watch.
All in all, we had fun in Dublin, and it’s a great gateway city to spend a few days before venturing out to see the magic of Ireland. Overall, if you’re limited on days, I’d recommend Killarney and Cork over Dublin by a mile, but if your flights take you through Dublin, grab a few pints and enjoy the party.
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