Ireland has always been one of the many places on the (endless) list of countries I needed to see someday. I wanted to go for the countryside and landscapes, for the green endless lawns and steep impressive cliffs. But besides seeing a glimpse of Ireland’s amazing landscape, I found something a little unexpected: An abundance of culture!
Although I knew a few things about Ireland’s history and legends before, I had never perceived Ireland’s capital as a big cultural hub.
I don’t mean to do Dublin any injustice, but what I heard about the city before going centered a lot around whiskey and Guinness. Honestly, I had people telling me that there is not too much you can do in Dublin. They couldn’t have been more wrong! Dublin is so much more than just Temple Bar!
As I began strolling through the streets of Dublin, it suddenly hit me how much culture Dublin really has: How ignorant of me to forget how many of the brilliant writers and poets I read while doing my English literature major were actually Irish. There is so much art, architecture, and history to be found in the streets of Dublin, that I really wish I’d given myself even more time there. I completely underestimated how much Dublin has to offer — and I want to give Dublin a shout-out for being a destination with massive potential for a culture-inspired weekend getaway!
And the best part of many of Dublin’s cultural highlights? They are free! Here are my favorite cultural findings and free geeky things to do in Dublin:
1. Be enchanted at Iveagh Gardens
Dublin’s parks are all gorgeous, but finding Iveagh Gardens was one of my highlights of my time in Dublin: The fountain sculptures are beautiful and the park itself was so idyllic on a sunny day in early fall. Whereas Saint Stephen’s Green Park is one of the standard sights, Iveagh Gardens seemed more like a recreational place for the locals. I only spotted a handful of people — a reading retiree on a bench, a couple, a young guy playing with his dog.
The gardens were designed in the 19th century as a combination of a perfectly structured French park and the wilderness of an English park — that’s why you can find yourself walking along a path framed with sculptures while being surrounded by what looks like a little urban jungle. My favorite part was the grotto which gave the park a bit of a fairy tale feeling.
2. Study Irish history at the Dublin Castle exhibition
The Castle is one of the not-to-miss attractions in Dublin, but I opted to skip it to save a little cash. But it turned out that you can actually see quite a bit of the architecture from the outside — and there also is a free exhibition!
There’s a mini-museum close the pedestrian entrance that could have been missed easily, but the word museum caught my attention quickly. This tiny exhibition was a wonderful introduction to Irish history and had some very informative boards and models about the castle.
3. Stroll through the university grounds of Trinity College
Whereas most tourists come to Trinity College for the Book of Kells and Old Library (which are, obviously, totally worth seeing!), I loved walking through the grounds of Trinity College itself.
Sadly, the universities I studied at had most their buildings built in the 1960ies (read: pure concrete). So I never experienced what it feels like to walk through ancient halls of knowledge or to climb squeaky stairs where you always wonder who else might have touched that old wooden handrail. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but when I first arrived at my college I was disappointed that nothing felt really old and mysterious — and I really wanted my universities to look like the Ivy League colleges in the movies.
Opposed to my own way-too-modern university experience, Trinity College is one of those old universities which still fell like they’ve been storing wisdom for centuries. It was founded in the late 16th century and knowing that Samuel Beckett, Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker studied there gave me chills when I entered the big stony gate.
But it’s not only the air of history there that I loved, but also the presence of Irish student life: Young people with books in their hands, bikes everywhere, and bulletin boards announcing sign-up periods and choir concerts.
4. Find literature in the streets of Dublin
Literally stumbling upon literature in the streets of Ireland’s capital was something I least expected. But as I strolled through the city I found so many literary hints reminding me of great authors and stories that I fell in love with Dublin even more.
On Grafton Street, I found reference to James Joyce’s famous Ulysses on the ground. In Georgian Dublin, I walked past Oscar Wilde’s childhood home. And near the Dublin Castle I realized I was actually standing in front of Bram Stoker’s former office. I bet I would have found even more literature hidden in the streets of Dublin if I had kept randomly strolling through the city for another few days. Just open your eyes, and you’ll find literary references everywhere in Dublin!
5. Search wisdom in the National Library of Ireland
I love books, I love libraries, I love reading rooms — and the National Library provides all this in the most gorgeous environment. The Reading Room with its light-flooded dome is an architectural dream come true and a wonderful location for old books, and those stereotypical green reading lights.
I really wish I had a reading room like this somewhere close to me so I could read, study, and write there — or just be happy staring at the ceiling!
6. Experience traditional Irish Music and Dance
Admittedly, this experience is not entirely free, but if you’re having dinner or drinks at a pub in Dublin you can almost be sure to be entertained with free Irish music and dance sooner or later. Every time I went out for a pub dinner as well as every time I walked past a pub at night, I heard live music.
I know little about Irish music (and I shamefully have to admit that it always makes me think of Leonardo Dicaprio), but I can promise you three things about it: It’s impossible to sit still while listening to Irish music — even if you’re still chewing. Your Bulmers will taste three times better with live music on the side. Nothing will make you love the Irish people more than seeing them making music and dancing.
7. Visit the National Gallery of Ireland
Of course, I can’t visit a city without going into a museum at some point. It just goes against my understanding of exploring a new city. This time, I chose to see Dublin’s National Gallery and was absolutely surprised, because it was the most uncomplicated way I ever visited a museum: It’s free and you don’t have to get a ticket. You don’t have to lock your bags and jackets away, and can walk right in. And you’re allowed to photograph almost everything, so none of the guards is killing you with their looks just because you happen to carry a camera.
Besides these advantages, the Irish National Gallery itself is a great museum from my art historical perception. There only a few pieces, but they are key works from all centuries of European art organized chronologically. There was one painting by everyone of the famous artists — Lorrain, Caravaggio, Poussin, Pieter Breughel, Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, etc. — as well as some great medieval pieces.
A Dutch genre painting by Gabriel Metsu — These 17th century artworks are all about the letters (delivered by a maid in this case). The letter’s content is usually predicted by a painting inside the painting: A clam sea painting would have meant good news, but the storm depicted here implies very unpleasant news from the woman’s lover.
Next to these “classics” I also adored the wing dedicated to Irish artists only. Unfortunately, I’m really not familiar with Irish art, but I loved looking at the artworks and learning a little more about the Irish cultural heritage.
All in all, I highly recommend the National Gallery of Ireland for a brief, but wonderfully intense art and culture fix while in Dublin!