Who better to guide you round a city than a local family? James Helm and his three sons give you the insiders’ tour of Dublin
Like most European capitals, Dublin has its well-worn tourist trails. The pubs and lanes of Temple Bar, the shops and buskers along
Grafton Street and the spaces of St Stephen’s Green figure in most itineraries. To get a real feel for the old city, however, and a glimpse of its past and present, slipping away to the less familiar places and sights can deliver real rewards.
Dublin has so much to offer: the sea and great walks beside it, the Wicklow Hills to the south, parks, world-famous pubs with their warm welcomes and music, plus a cluster of great theatres, galleries and museums. It’s not a city where you spend your time ticking off landmarks; Dublin is at its best when you look a bit harder.
We’ve lived in Sandymount in Dublin for nearly 10 years and go back often, hence our bias towards the city’s southside. My sons Joseph, 17, Patrick, 15 and Charlie, 12 all offer their views here. We love the old city’s youthful, vibrant buzz. Lots can be seen on foot, and the DART rail service zips up and down the coast to lovely towns. We hope you enjoy it.
What to see and do in Dublin
James recommends: Taking a cultural walk
More a stroll of central Dublin than a long hike, this loop around parks, galleries and museums could fill most of a day. Start early at the Book of Kells at Trinity College and look at the ancient pages of the ninth-century manuscript. Saunter down Nassau Street, and spend time at the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square West. It’s free, has great exhibitions and lots of activities for children, plus a fine café.
Move on to Merrion Square’s lovely gardens, past the statue of Oscar Wilde, one of Ireland’s literary giants. Nearby is a tree-lined children’s playground, and you can then head to
the Natural History Museum, better known here as The Dead Zoo due to its stuffed creatures. If you’re in need of refreshment, the lively cafes of Baggot Street are close by.
Joseph recommends: Phoenix Park & Dublin Zoo
A vast and varied walled park just a short hop from the centre of Dublin, Phoenix Park is perfect for families. It’s twice the size of New York’s Central Park, and you could easily spend a day here. In summer, take a picnic and chill out on the grass, kick a football around, hire Segways or spot deer. The children’s playground is also excellent.
On the east side of the park lies its most exciting asset: Dublin Zoo, Ireland’s most popular family attraction. An absolute favourite of our family, the zoo is home to all the star names – lions, elephants, rhinos, tigers, and even the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. A visit provides education as well as thrills and has left many a young (and old) visitor feeling inspired.
Charlie recommends: Sporting passions
We lived near to the Aviva Stadium, home to Ireland’s national football and rugby teams, and got to see some games there. It’s south of the river and an easy walk from Grafton Street and offers good, organised tours. Both venues host music concerts in summer. Leinster, one of Europe’s best rugby teams, also plays its home games in south Dublin.
To my surprise, Gaelic football and hurling are actually the most popular sports in Ireland. Between spring and August, the county championships unfold, holding Ireland in their grip and culminating at Croke Park on Dublin’s northside. Grab a ticket if you can to see the locals, and the leading Gaelic football side of recent years, Dublin, for a real Irish experience of colour and county rivalry.
James recommends: Friendly pubs
Unlike in the UK, children are always welcome in an Irish pub. The Guinness is important, but so too are the food and craic. Take your pick from so many gems, and then relax. The bars on Merrion Row and Baggot Street might be a bit too touristy for locals, but they still ooze character, buzz with conversation and the live music sessions are fun. Our favourite pub is Mulligans of Sandymount and it’s a great place to drink, eat and chat. The place gets packed with locals when big sports events are on.
Other gems include the snug bar in Doheny & Nesbitt, full of politicos and journalists; Davy Byrnes on Duke Street, just off Grafton Street, with its crab sandwiches and literary references; and Kehoe’s close by, with its bygone feel.
How to go exploring outside the city
Joseph recommends: Pier walks
We have two favourite pier walks. The first is the dramatic stroll along bumpy old stones out to the red Poolbeg Lighthouse, built in 1768. As you walk out into the Irish Sea, the vast ferries using Dublin’s busy harbour slip in and out on your left side. On the right, there is the sweep of Dublin Bay and views of the rolling Wicklow Hills behind.
The second walk is along the harbour wall at Dun Laoghaire. Join the many families who are happily promenading at weekends, with lovely views on either side as you pass the bandstand. There are good places to eat and drink at the start of the walk, and on Sundays there are great food stalls in the nearby People’s Park. Teddy’s and the newer Scrumdiddly’s ice-cream places nearby are legendary.
Patrick recommends: Hop on the DART
This green, suburban train moves commuters in and out of Dublin, but is also a great (and cheap) way for visitors to explore beyond the city. Catch the DART service south down the coast to busy Dun Laoghaire (see pier walk, left), with panoramic views of Dublin Bay on your left. Stop further on at pretty Sandycove, a sheltered little beach, as the name suggests. The famed Forty Foot is here, where brave locals have been taking a dip for centuries.
Beyond sits Dalkey, a lovely village that hosts the excellent Dalkey Book Festival. You can climb Killiney Hill for wonderful views south, of sea and hills. There’s abseiling and rock climbing here for the adventurous. Finnegan’s of Dalkey is a great pub with hearty food on Sorrento Road.
Joseph recommends: The Wicklow Hills
A short trip into the Wicklow Hills reveals the beautiful old house and grounds of Powerscourt. While the house is lovely, the sweeping gardens were always the attraction for us kids. We love the tranquil Japanese garden and the grassy expanses. After a morning of running around the well-kept paths or playing hide and seek, the Avoca Terrace Café offers dramatic views of the grounds and a delicious lunch.
The house lies in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, the outline of which is visible from the whole Dublin Bay area. It’s easily scalable with the family in an hour or so if you follow the Sugar Loaf Trail from Kilmacanogue. This winds its way through charming countryside and lush greenways before rewarding you with sweeping views.
Where to eat in Dublin
Patrick recommends: Brownes
Sandymount Green is a special place at the heart of this old Dublin village by the sea. Statues of Nobel-prize-winning poets Seamus Heaney, who lived nearby, and WB Yeats, another former literary resident, look on as children play. There are lots of places to eat around the village, and we were always regulars at Brownes. Try the bacon and maple syrup pancakes with your coffee for breakfast, or the bœuf bourguignon in the evenings, when the place buzzes with locals enjoying the versatile, brasserie food. Pete’s is opposite, across the Green, with its wood-fired pizza oven, and Mulligan’s pub also offers excellent food. BuJo of Sandymount, overlooking the Green, serves popular, locally-sourced burgers and gets packed with a young crowd of locals.
Joseph recommends: Captain Americas
Captain Americas at 44 Grafton Street, is a firm favourite of ours. A mere mention of it generates immense excitement amongst younger members of the family. Adorned inside with sporting and film memorabilia, the place serves bona-fide American classics, including the finest ‘coke float’ (an almost excessively indulgent milkshake made of ice-cream and Coca-Cola) in all of Dublin.
James recommends: Junior’s
This little place is tucked away just a short hop, or drop kick, away from the Aviva Stadium at 2 Bath Avenue, so it’s perfect for before or after a match if you can get a table. The area is now thriving with a young, professional crowd thanks to the big, global tech headquarters, including Google, based in Dublin’s docklands close by. There aren’t many tables at Junior’s, so it’s a good idea to book, but you can also sit under a canopy outside. They offer a really good, tasty menu: the pint o’prawns as a starter was great on our last visit, as were the sea bream and lamb rump as mains.
There’s a real cluster of good places to eat and drink in this little neighbourhood: Slattery’s pub next door, Paulie’s Pizzas, The Old Spot, and The Chophouse are all recommended.
Where to stay in Dublin
Stay in Dublin city centre: indulgent
Shelbourne Hotel is a smart old legend that gazes out on to St Stephen’s Green from its fine spot close to Grafton Street.
Stay in Sandymount: affordable
Family run with an easy, relaxed atmosphere, Sandymount Hotel is minutes from Sandymount. Head left outside its front door and you can in Dublin in no time too.
Stay in Ballsbridge: good value
Moderately priced and large, Clayton Hotel in Ballsbridge is family- friendly and handy for the city and the coast.
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