Belfast City Guide

To be honest with you, until last year I didn’t get Belfast. I probably would have gone as far to say I didn’t like it. I had been a couple of times and it just felt so… nondescript. I think like many people I came here expecting to see history with a big H. Instead, I was faced with another city centre with the same high street shops everywhere, the likes of you see pretty much everywhere in the UK.

But then last December I came back to check out the Christmas Market, the biggest in Ireland, and I received some great recommendations through Instagram and suddenly, it clicked. I started falling in love with Belfast. I think the trick is to definitely leave these expectations behind, yes there’s history but it won’t necessarily jump at you, you’ll need to dig a little. But the key is getting a good grasp of Belfast’s geography.
Belfast is the sum of its quarters, each with its own atmosphere and identity. Something that totally escaped me on my previous visits and therefore I ended up stuck in a loop around the City Hall (which is a beautiful building by the way so do make time for it, pictured above).

My favourite Belfast’s quarter on this trip was the Queen’s Quarter which is located in South Belfast. It is named after Queen’s University and I loved the laid-back, student-y vibe of the area!

Each quarter has its own specificity. In the city centre, you’ll find the Cathedral Quarter which feels like the city’s historical centre. Go West and you’ll reach the Gaeltacht Quarter. Look at the streets signs and shop fronts, they are both in English and Gaelic, and here you might hear Irish being spoken.
The Titanic Quarter, the new kid on the block, has emerged with the recent opening of the Titanic museum.
It’s worth planning your trip in advance so you can experience the best of Belfast’s multifaceted areas.

At the end of this post, you’ll find an interactive map including all the places mentioned here as well as a free downloadable PDF file for this guide.

bittles bar belfast

SEE / DRINK

BITTLES BAR

Bittles Bar is a Belfast attraction in and of itself because of its impressive whisk(e)y collection and selection of beers and ciders. But what drew me in is undoubtedly the incongruous architecture of the building. Reminiscent of New York’s Flat Iron, the red-bricked facade looks certainly most intriguing. This traditional Victorian pub now stands next to the uber modern Victoria Square Shopping Centre, which makes for an interesting contrast.
I climbed to the top of the latter to check out the panoramic view out of the Dome but I found it all a bit underwhelming to be perfectly honest with you.

MUSGRAVE CHANNEL ROAD

Tip from Alex from The Full Shilling blog who kindly messaged me afterwards that the view from the rooftop bar of the Grand Central Hotel is way more impressive. I didn’t get the chance to check it out but I thought I’d pass the info along here!

SEE

COMMERCIAL COURT

Commercial Court is to Belfast what Temple Bar is to Dublin. Lined with traditional pubs and covered in cobbles, this charming alleyway see its fair share of night life and enthusiastic tourists. It certainly catches the eye with its fairy lights and other seasonal decorations. During the festive period, sparkly umbrellas were dangling over us. Come Summer, expect to see colourful pots of flowers adorning the walls. Step in the Duke of York to get a sense of music history as it is here that Snow Patrol played some of their first gigs. With regular live music shows, you might just catch the next big thing on the Northern Irish scene!

SHOP

To be honest with you, when it came to shopping in Belfast I was dead excited about the charity shops. You’ll find this city bountiful if like me you enjoy a bit of treasure hunting. Good areas for thrifting are the city centre, Botanic Avenue, Lisburn Road and Ormeau Road. My personal favourite shops were Oxfam Home on Dublin Road and Action Cancer on Lisburn Road.

EAT

I didn’t do it on purpose but all my food recommendations from my stay in Belfast are vegan. The definite highlight was this fry-up from Maggie Mays, a local greasy spoon chain that pretty much does breakfast all day. It’s the go-to place for hungover students and I can see why. It feels a bit like being at your Mam’s kitchen table. Meals are cheap as chips, filling and delicious, a full menu of topnotch comfort food! I had my first potato farl (or potato bread) and man, where has this slice of heaven been all my life?! I’m obsessed!
If you like Middle Eastern Cuisine, I recommend Falafel Eatery & Coffee House. The falafel had great taste and texture but I would have liked to see a better selection of veggie sides.
I was dying to try 387 Ormeau Road Cafe‘s vegan sausage roll but unfortunately it was so busy that I gave up and went for a Greggs’ one instead. It ended being quite tasty indeed!

SEE

BOTANIC GARDENS

Unsurprisingly, I was extremely excited to visit Belfast’s Botanic Gardens and they for sure didn’t disappoint. The reason is first, well, you know me, I never miss a chance to visit a public garden but secondly it is an important location in The Fall, a series I’m not soon to forget about. The gardens possess a few interesting features such as the Tropical Ravine House which had recently undergone a major renovation. The design is rather unique. Inside a Victorian building is nestled a sunken ravine full of tropical plants such as ferns, cinnamon and banana plants. This subterranean jungle can be admired from the overhanging balcony or you can straight walk through it.
My favourite part of the Botanic Gardens was undoubtedly the Palm House. It is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made of curved iron and glass. And if it looks familiar to you, it is because it was the work of Richard Turner, a Dublin iron founder who then went on to build the glasshouses of Dublin Botanic Gardens as well as Kew Gardens in London. Pretty impressive CV, right? The Palm House has a tropical wing and a cool wing. At the time of my visit, the latter was peppered with colourful tulips which was a jolly sight!
Handily, you’ll also find the Ulster Museum inside the Botanic Gardens walls.

COLLEGE PARK, BOTANIC AVENUE
FREE ADMISSION

st george's market belfast soap mystiques enchantments

SHOP / EAT

ST GEORGE’S MARKET

If you ever in Belfast on a weekend, definitely give St George’s Market a visit. This place is poppin’! There are so many great stalls to browse. Expect local produce, fish and meat, bric a brac, lots of different cuisine to sample, flowers, etc… And if it rains, don’t worry as the market is covered. It’s actually the last Victorian covered market left in Belfast. It’s been opened since 1890. I visited it on a Friday at lunch time. I made a beeline for the hot dog stall as I had heard through the grapevine that they had a vegan offering. And indeed they did! Great brioche bread and sausage but unfortunately lacking in the topping department. I didn’t leave the market empty-handed as I bought a divinely-fragrant soap from Mystique Enchantments and a bag of loose organic peppermint tea from Suki Tea.

12-20 EAST BRIDGE STREET

SEE

QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY

Located in South Belfast, Queen’s University gave its name to the quarter known as Queen’s Quarter. You’ll find it next to the Botanic Gardens. The pièce de résistance of the campus is the eye-catching Lanyon building, a tudor-revival quadrangle-shaped building with a magnificent courtyard in its heart. If I may say, I never seen a lawn so pristine-looking on a campus. If it had been my uni, that lawn would have been trampled in less time that it takes to say ‘free pot noodles’. Anyways, I was dead impressed and I can see why it is often said to be one of the most beautiful universities in the UK. You can book for a guided tour or grab a free map at the Welcome Centre to explore at your own pace.

UNIVERSITY ROAD

SEE / DO

BELFAST CASTLE

Belfast Castle is located in North Belfast, a good 30 min bus journey from the city centre. It is set on the Belfast Hills which you can see on the horizon throughout the city.
Rumour has it that they inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as their outline looks like a sleeping giant.
Built in 1870 in the popular Scottish Baronial style, Belfast Castle catches the eye with its turrets, stepped gables, red features and spiral stone-staircase. Unfortunately it is mostly closed to the public as it now serves as a venue for weddings or other events. Nonetheless, a walk in its landscaped garden is a pleasant experience. The view over the city is spectacular. And the gardens are cat-themed which is rather charming. 9 cats are hidden in the design. Will you be able to find them? Cats are intertwined with the castle in an old legend that professes that the residents would only find luck as long as a white cat lives on the premises.
Belfast castle is also the starting point of Cave Hill hiking trails.

ANTRIM ROAD
FREE ADMISSION

STAY

I stayed in the Crescent Townhouse Hotel, located in the Queen’s Quarter. It’s a great base for exploring the area and there are so many food options literally on your doorstep. I could see Maggie Mays from my window! The staff was so accommodating and friendly. The room was cosy, the bathroom even had a claw foot bath! All in all, it was great value for money.
It’s worth noting that the hotel is located in a lively area so it can get noisy, especially on the weekends. If that bothers you, you might want to mention in your booking that you’re looking for a quiet room. With that being said, I stayed on a Thursday night, street side, and it was completely fine.

13 LOWER CRESCENT

It took a few tries but it’s safe to say that Belfast has now my heart. And there’s still so many good reasons to make another trip back soon. Heck I haven’t even touched on the fact that it is Game of Thrones country. Coinciding with the end of the series, an exhibition displaying the show’s props opened this year. It is on until September 1 2019.
The Titanic Museum is also a major attraction I would like to visit one day and for a good dose of history I’d like to see the Peace Wall as well as take part in a Black Cab Tour. Until next time, Belfast!

Click the button below to download the PDF version of this guide for free.

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A Quick Guide to an Afternoon in Ghent

ghent belgium

On first impression, Ghent might look like a museum. Its medieval architecture has been incredibly well preserved through the ages. But take a closer look and you’ll see a lively university city with a modern attitude. Indeed the Belgian city is tackling head on concerns related with the climate crisis. They reduced their CO2 emissions by making the centre a car-free zone and encourage its residents to use bikes. You could say that Ghent is a cyclist haven, with the largest designated cyclist area in Europe (400 km of paths).
The city also recognises the detrimental effect the meat industry has on the environment and thus, is a self-proclaimed vegetarian capital. On Thursdays, they promote a meat-free day across work and school cafetarias. And you’d never be hard-pressed to find a vegetarian option as the city counts the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
Ghent as a vibrant and exciting city, is rapidly leaving the shadow cast by sister Bruges, which is only a 25 minute train journey away.
With a short afternoon to get acquainted with this charming place, I came back with this very snappy first-timer’s guide on how to spend a few hours in the Flemish city.

1. EXPLORE ST. BAVO’S CATHEDRAL

On Sint-Baafsplein stands bright and tall Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral. Step inside as it’s very much worth a look (and it’s free). First thing that hit me when I came in was the beautiful vaulted ceiling. On the ground, the rococo pulpit made of gilded wood and marble majestically dominates the space. Above is one impressive organ, with 600 pipes it is the biggest in the Benelux.
The cathedral’s ground floor is also the last resting place of all the bishops who officiated here. That makes a lot of people to fit in!
The cathedral was completed in 1559 but it actually stands on the old grounds of a 12th century church which you can still see the remains in the crypt. Down there, there’s also a collection of objects used during masses over the years such as vestments and liturgical bits and bobs.
But undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the cathedral is ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb‘, a polyptych painted by the Van Eyck Brothers in 1459. Purposed to be the cathedral’s altarpiece, its fate was not as peaceful and it went through a real rollercoaster. As one of the most coveted paintings in the world, it went through 7 thefts and got nearly destroyed in a bombing orchestrated by the Nazis. Today it rests peacefully, albeit with a panel missing (one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in art theft) back where it belongs in this cathedral (you can admire it for a small entrance fee).

2. CLIMB THE BELFRY

Facing St. Bavo’s Cathedral is the Belfry. You can climb (or take a lift) to the top and admire the best views over the city of Ghent. With a height of 91m, it is the tallest belfry in Belgium. The gilded dragon that lives on its roof keeps an eye on the city and its residents. Completed in 1442, it served as a watchtower as well as a bell tower. It is today a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site.

3. CROSS ST. MICHAEL’S BRIDGE

While arguably one of the most photogenic spots in the city, St. Michael’s Bridge certainly offers a unique vantage point for your lens. Indeed it is here, and only here, where you can catch Ghent’s ‘Three Towers’ (St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry and St. Nicholas’ Church) in one shot. It also gives a most idyllic snapshot over the Leie River and the surrounding quays. As you walk along the railing, spot the bronze statue, it is St. Michael, the man himself.

4. LOUNGE ON THE QUAYS

The facing quays, Korenlei and Graslei, are the beating heart of the city. It is a lovely bustling area, a visual reminder that Ghent is also a student city. Here the students and tourists alike come to sit at cafe terraces or simply let their feet dangle off the river banks, watching the boats go by on the Leie. This is one of the oldest sites in Ghent as we can trace it back to the 5th century when it was the heart of Flanders’ wheat trade. The protected row of buildings on Graslei hails back to the Middle Ages. Among them, spot the Spijker, the oldest example of the iconic stepped gable style.

5. SAMPLE A CUBERDON

You’d have a hard time finding this funny-sounding sweet outside Belgium so while in Rome… Indeed it does not export very well as its conservation does not go past a couple of weeks. Some say that the cuberdon was born in Ghent during the 19th century (other argues that it was in Bruges) so you won’t be hard-pressed to spot these little red cones around the city.
Their shell is crusty while their heart goes gooey. Historically made with arabic gum and elderberry juice, nowadays a soapy raspberry flavour is preferred.
And if you want to sink your sweet teeth into history, get your pick’n’mix in Temmerman, the oldest confectionery shop in town. The shop was set up in the 19th century and has been in the same family over 8 generations. They started by selling gingerbread (quite fitting as the building looks like a cute gingerbread house) but their shelves now stock all kinds of traditional confectionary such as our cuberdons (or neuzekes, little noses in Flemish), mokken, knopkes or meulentrekkers.

6. VISIT GRAVENSTEEN CASTLE

Another major landmark in Ghent is Gravensteen, the last remaining medieval castle with a moat in Flanders. It was built at the end of the 12th century and served as a residence for the counts of Flanders. Later it went through several incarnations: a court, a prison, a mint, a cotton factory, … until it fell into disrepair. The people of Ghent wanted to see it destroyed as it had become a symbol of feudal oppression and the inquisition. It was instead restored and transformed into a museum open to the public in 1913.
The castle became then Ghent’s biggest attraction and you can still today visit the museum which houses a collection of medieval weapons and instruments of torture. Needless to say, the tour is not for the faint-hearted!

If you have time to sit down for a cuppa, Uit Steppe en Oase has a beautiful tea garden hidden in a courtyard. Just opposite stands Proof if you’re looking for something with a bit more kick in a seriously cool decor, perfect for people watching.

Should you feel pressed by time and want to have a fun and quick feel of the city, you can go on a horse cart, a tour boat or even rent your own boat to explore the canals at your own leisure. While these means of transport are crazy expensive in Bruges, they have remained affordable in Ghent… so far!

While I didn’t get to explore the Ghent’s restaurant scene, you can believe that I’ll be back to sample some vegetarian goodness. Also on my list, a wander through Patershol and Prinsenhof, two atmospheric quarters beyond the Gravensteen Castle. As you can see, another trip to Ghent needs to happen… and when it only takes a half an hour train journey from Brussels, there’s really no excuse!

Did you enjoy my Ghent guide? You might find my top of the best photo spots in Bruges useful

Two Exhibitions in Brussels You Need to See This Summer

I recently spent a few days in Brussels and was lucky to catch two excellent exhibitions.
They’re both on until the end of August so I thought I’d quickly give you a heads-up here in case one of you plan to spend some time in the Belgian capital this Summer.
Definitely pencil them in your diary!

intimate audrey exhibition brussels galeries de la reine

INTIMATE AUDREY (01/05/19 – 25/08/2019)

As the name of the exhibition suggests, we take a very close look at the life of Audrey Hepburn through an extensive collection of family photographs, correspondance and her clothes that look so tiny and frail on the various mannequins.
All these objects belong now to her son, Sean Ferrer, who put together this special event in honour of what would have been his mother’s 90th birthday. The location, Brussels, is not an accident as it is here that Audrey Hepburn was born.
It was amazing to see the places she grew up in Belgium and then in the Netherlands. As her life progresses, we see her passion for ballet and how it takes her to London where she makes her theatre debut. Then follows the iconic Hollywood moments we all know.
But my favourite part of the exhibition is the one dedicated to her time in Vaud, Switzerland where she bought a beautiful house covered in wisteria. There she opted for a slower-paced life where she spent her time gardening, making jams and entertaining friends and family. I loved the evocatively serene pictures of this season of her life. They were beautifully displayed around a delightfully fragrant apple blossom tree.

Espace Vanderborght – website
Rue de l’Ecuyer, 50
1000 Bruxelles
General €15 / Children & Senior €10
10 am-6 pm, Every day

villa empain bruxellesvilla empain bruxelles
FLAMBOYANT (28/03/19-24/08/19)

This exhibition takes place in the stunning Villa Empain. This Art Deco architectural masterpiece is located on the Brussels’ Embassy strip. You won’t miss it as it almost looks out of place, like it’s been kidnapped from the Miami seafront.
It used to be the HQ of a national TV channel but it has since been renovated to its original splendour.
A long, long time ago, I came here to take part in a kids’ show so it was fun to come back and revisit this iconic building with its 1930s spirit restored. It is now a cultural centre that regularly runs exhibitions. There’s also a rather attractive cafe on the ground floor.
Flamboyant invites us into a whimsical reconstitution of this villa’s heyday. Through 12 fictional rooms we travel through time and imagine the life of a sophisticated art collector. The rooms are moody and full of 1930s knick-knacks. Some impressive art adorn the heavily wallpapered room. In the red boudoir, you’ll find a Matisse and spot the Kandinsky in the swanky bedroom!
If you’re an art deco lover, you cannot miss this exhibition.

Boghossian Foundation – website
Villa Empain
Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, 67
1050 Bruxelles
General €10 / Senior €8 / Children €4
11am-6pm, from Tuesday to Sunday

Bruges’ Best Photo Spots

bruges Belgium brugge

Bruges is the ultimate photographers’ dream. At almost every corner, there’s a chance to uncover a picturesque little scene that will make you want to grab your camera. It is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe and as such its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It is a treasure trove of Renaissance and gothic architecture.
I recently spent an afternoon in the ‘Venice of the North’ and these were the 5 most instagrammable spots I found, but of course there are many more. I’m only really scratching the surface with this post.

bruges belgium

Generally, my favourite thing to photograph was the cobbled streets, not one in particular but I especially loved the ones lined with rows of houses with crow-stepped gables, typical of Dutch and Belgian architecture.
The one pictured above is called Sint-Jakobstraat and it’s quite magical really. First you’re met with an old-looking well, next to it there’s this cute homeware shop ‘Serendipity’, doors and windows are painted in a vibrant blue and just behind the bend, you’ll be met quite unexpectedly with the majestic St James Church. Now onto the 5 best photo spots in Bruges.

bruges markt belgium
1. MARKT

Located in the heart of Bruges, Markt is the city’s main square. It is surrounded by colourful guild houses that have now all been converted to restaurants. There’s also the West Flanders Provincial Court, the Belfry and its courtyard called the Cloth Hall, the statues of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck who fought in the Flemish resistance, frietkotten (chipper stalls) and horse carts.
On Wednesdays, it is market day, a function the square has taken since 958.

bruges belgium
2. THE TOP OF THE BELFRY

This medieval bell tower was once an observation post to spot fires and other dangers but today, you can climb the 366 steps to access the best view of Bruges. At 83m (272 feet) high, the views over the city and around will take your breath away. I especially loved seeing all the colourful houses on Markt from above.
Please note that the staircase is really quite narrow so best keep the climb for off-peak times.

rozenhoedkaai bruges belgium
3. ROZENHOEDKAAI

This cinematic corner where the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet is one of the most photographed spots in Bruges. Rozenhoedkaai, meaning ‘Quay of the Rosary’, refers to a time where the rosary sellers would set up shop here, back in the 15th century. Before this quay was a port for salt traders who would come here to moor their ship and unload their merchandise.
Today, this is the starting point of many boat trips and a view that tourists from all over the world come to capture.

st bonifacius bruges belgium
4. BONIFACIUS BRIDGE

Located in the peaceful Arents courtyard, Bonifacius bridge is one romantic-looking little bridge. It spans over a murmuring canal lined with overhanging half-timbered houses with tudor-like windows. The scene couldn’t be more idyllic. Overlooking the bridge is Church of Our Lady which is the tallest building in Bruges.
Don’t let this bridge’s old-worldly charms fool you, it is actually one of the youngest bridges in the city as it only dates back to the early 20th century.

blinde ezelstraat bruges belgium
5. BLINDE EZEL-STRAAT

Blinde Ezel-straat, or ‘Blind Donkey Alley’, is the narrow street that joins Burg Square to the Fish Market. With your back to the Fish Market, you’ll see the gorgeous baroque archway that connects the City Hall to the Old Courthouse. Those types of bridges always evoke hushed secret meetings to me.
If you wonder where the name of this street comes from, there’s a legend attached to it. The story says that when people from Ghent came to steal Bruges’ dragon, they transported it on a cart pulled by a donkey. To stop their escape, the people from Bruges decided to blind the poor animal and this is where they rescued the dragon.
Another explanation, a bit more sensible this one, could stem from the name of the inn that once was located on this street. Its name, The Blind Donkey you might have guessed it, was a reference to the donkeys that were working at the treadmill of the malt house. It was custom to blindfold them so they don’t get bored.

 

A Day of Romance in Dublin

saint valentine's day dublin chez max dublin castle

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to come up with a walkable day itinerary of sweet little activities in Dublin to do with your boo, tailored for all you lovers out there (with map included at the end of this post). If you picked the Irish capital for a romantic getaway, I’d argue you’ve actually come to the right place. Not only does the city’s architecture lend itself perfectly for a romantic stroll but it’s also a city that inspired countless love stories, passionate (James Joyce and Nora Barnacle), hopeless (W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne), tragic (Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford) or fictional (Guy and Girl in the Oscar-winner film, Once). And lastly, you might be surprised to learn that Dublin is one of the resting places of Valentine, saint patron of lovers. If that’s not a sign you should come to Dublin to celebrate your love, I don’t know what is!

whitefriar church dublin valentine's day

Start the day by a visit to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church on Aungier Street. You might wonder why I’m pointing you in the direction of a place of worship first thing in the morning on your fun-filled day together. Well here’s the surprising bit of trivia for you, good ole Saint Valentine is actually resting here. Well some of him…

FIND OUT HOW THE REMAINS OF SAINT VALENTINE ENDED UP IN THIS DUBLIN CHURCH

On Valentine’s Day, the box holding his remains is displayed on the church’s altar and couples flock here to have their rings blessed. If your love is unrequited, you can also write your wishes in the guestbook, just under Valentine statue’s benevolent gaze.
The church itself is quite an interesting place too, the moody dark byzantine architecture is quite unexpected in the Dublin’s landscape.

If you’re visiting on a Saturday or a Sunday, go to Whitefriar Grill, located just across the street for your first meal of the day. It is a bit of a weekend brunch institution in Dublin.

avoca shop dublin valentine's day

Then let’s do a spot of shopping! In keeping with Valentine’s gifting traditions, your first port of call is Parfumarija. This beautiful boutique, located in the Westbury mall, specialises in niche perfumery. This will make for the perfect opportunity to get close to each other while maybe picking a very special scent that will truly be unique to your partner.

From there, you can go to Avoca, the iconic Irish homeware shop on Suffolk Street. Every item there is pretty much a dream but their classic wool throws are a must-buy. Those cold February nights when you ‘Netflix and Chill‘ on the sofa will never be the same again.

national gallery of ireland valentine's day dublin

For a bit of balance, let’s make our next stop cultural. In the National Gallery of Ireland, you can see one of the most emotionally-charged encounters painted on canvas. Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs. Incidentally, it is also Ireland’s favourite painting. You can view it all day on Valentine’s Day. Click here for other viewing times (it is free).

The museum has a cute and bright cafe that serves good simple food if your bellies are grumbling at this point.

saint stephen's green dublin valentine's day

Afterwards you can head to Grafton Street. This pedestrian street is great for a bit of arm-in-arm window-shopping. February can be brutal in Ireland so stop by Bewley’s Cafe for a hot chocolate to warm-up.
Coming at the end of the street, you’ll spot the recognisable Fusiliers Arch that marks the entrance of St Stephen’s Green.
This for me is the most romantic place in Dublin city centre. More precisely the little stone bridge in the middle of the park. It gives a beautiful vista on the lake and its resident swans, the Victorian gazebo and the trees. You’ll see this is a popular spot, many people stop for selfies so give in to this little cheesy tradition and ask a stranger to take a picture of you two just there.

sophie's bar dean hotel valentine's day dublin

From there, you can walk to Harcourt Street where the Dean Hotel is located. On the top floor is the uber swanky Sophie’s, a bar and restaurant with 360° panoramic views over the fair city. This place is the perfect spot for romantic dates as it has cushy booths and rooftop views. Perfect place to snuggle up with a cocktail (or a mocktail) in hand. If you were to be tired and done for the day, the restaurant also serves attractive food and you can book a room in the beautifully designed Dean Hotel downstairs.

love lane temple bar valentine's day dublin

For those who are still full of beans and ready to hit the town, walk (15 min) or bus back to the city centre. Off Dame Street, there’s a secret courtyard which you can access from the passage under Brogan’s pub. There you’ll find the Love Lane, a charming art installation designed by artist Anna Doran. Inspect it while you’re waiting for your dinner reservation. On the pink wall, tiles are inscribed with love messages, lyrics and poems such as ‘you’re a smasher, 2 eggs and a rasher‘.

Once you’re done, head back out to Dame Street and right in front of you is the Dublin Castle entrance where stands a French bistro called Chez Max (pictured at the top of this post). There’s a reason why romance rhymes with France. This cosy little place serves an informal French fare with no airs but a lot of charm.

peter's pub dublin valentine's day

Finally what would be a trip to Ireland without a visit to the pub? And the perfect way to find romance in an Irish pub is to get comfy in a snug. Some period pubs still feature this private booth which historically was used for patrons who wanted to stay discrete such a policemen, priests, women and you guessed it, lovers. You’ll generally find them in Victorian pubs but check out @DublinSnugs‘s reviews on Instagram to pick one you like the look of.

Rainy Day Alternative
But what if it rains? That’s a valid concern, this is Dublin after all but do not fret, I have a relatively dry afternoon plan for you. Hop on the Vintage Tea Tours Bus at the CHQ. From the comfort of a double decker, you’ll tour the city and its attractions while enjoying afternoon tea. After the tour, head to the Stella, the most glamorous cinema in the city. You’ll love the comfort of their plush red sofas. You can order drinks and snacks from the comfort of your seats and they also have a fancy diner should you be peckish afterwards. Note that Slatterys, the pub two doors down, has a nice snug!

A Miraculous Sunny Day?
On the off chance that the sun shows its face, make the most of it and either head to Phoenix Park to hire a tandem to see the deer. Or even better, hike up Killiney Hill (coincidentally a film location for Once). The goosebump-inducing views over the Dublin Bay is as a romantic setting as they go (And if you were about to pop the question, I don’t think you’d find a better spot. Wink wink nudge nudge)

14 Henrietta Street | Dublin

14 Henrietta Street Museum

There’s a new museum in town and it’s a good one. It is also an important one in the context of Dublin’s current homelessness crisis. 14 Henrietta Street tells the story of housing in Dublin from the 1750s to the 1970s. In the span of these 200 years, number 14 saw its residents drastically change from when it was a wealthy family’s townhouse to a tenement dwelling accommodating up to a 100 people.
Now you can step in 14 Henrietta Street and listen to its walls talking.

The museum is located on Henrietta Street, the first Georgian street in Dublin. It’s an atmospheric cul-de-sac which you can find in the North inner city. The houses are uncharacteristically tall, the road is still covered in cobblestones and at the end, you’ll find King’s Inns, the oldest school of law in Ireland.
It’s one of my favourite streets in Dublin, it has a striking old-world charm and for that reason it features in many films and tv shows.

14 Henrietta Street Museum

The street was built by architect Luke Gardiner in the 1720s. The houses here were to welcome Dublin’s high society.
In 1748, 14 Henrietta Street was ready and Lord Viscount Molesworth moved in with his family. It’s in these Georgian times that the museum tour starts.
As soon as our group opens the front door we are met with the reconstructed grand staircase. It’s easy looking at it to imagine how this family would receive and entertain their guests here. At the top of the stairs, we admire the place’s original features as well as the view on the street from the first floor’s window. It’s almost hard to believe it’s late Summer, the towering houses on the opposite side of the street cast such a cold shadow in the room.
We walk in the music room which original purpose is given away by the delicate instruments carved in the ceiling’s plasterwork. As we go through the period rooms, we learn of the Molesworth’s fate.
Following the 1800 Act of Union which joined Ireland to the United Kingdom, Dublin’s aristocracy left the city en masse for London. This plunged the city in a deep economic crisis. Landlords had now on their hands these big beautiful townhouses that no one could afford and they decided to cut them in flats.
Thus was born the era of Dublin’s tenement housing.

14 Henrietta Street Museum

This radical change of pace of the house hits us in the face as we open the blue bedroom’s back door to the service stairs. Here starts the tenement part of the museum. The walls are crumbling, it’s cold, dark and dingy. Our tour guide Tracey tells us that some visitors who used to live here can still smell the disinfectant that covered the walls. It’s undetectable to me but the walls indeed still bear the bleach-laced paints of Raddle Red and Reckitt’s Blue.
In 1877, Thomas Vance bought number 14 and divided it in 17 flats with only 2 toilets available. By 1911, 100 people were living in these dwellings. The poorest families were squeezed in into single rooms. You’d typically find these lower-rent rooms in the basement and this is where the tour continues after we carefully go down the rickety stairs.
The room is dark but for a sliver of light coming from the street above. The furnishing is minimalistic: a metal bed, some enamel wash-bowls, a couple of chairs, clothes hanging and holes in the wall that pass as a hearth.
The scene is directly inspired by the work of social photographer John Cooke. Back in 1913, he documented the state of Dublin’s slums. His pictures served as a base for the Dublin Housing Inquiry upon which actions were to be taken to improve the living conditions of the poor. Unfortunately, World War I broke out and the issue was swept under the carpet.
On the walls of the basement flat, we are shown John Cooke’s photographs depicting these living conditions and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching. It’s hard to believe that once a family of 13 had slept right here.

The tour continues upstairs, in a room where vintage toys and prams are gathered in a corner. As black and white pictures of children playing on Henrietta street are projected on the wall, we listen to Peter Brannigan, a former resident. He tells us what it was like growing up here in the 1940s.
Nursery Rhymes appear on the door and some visitors start singing along, bringing in the room the ghosts of their own memories of a distant Dublin.

14 Henrietta Street Museum

Next door, we learn of the end of tenement living. Low-income families were moved to new flat blocks and suburban cottage houses. This process started in the 1930s and went on until the 1970s. Of course, it was a blessing for these families. It meant safer living conditions, more room and also new hobbies for the wives like gardening or cooking. But there was a price to pay, it was lonely. They felt like they lost their community they had been relying on every day. The cost of life was higher too as the suburb shops tended to be pricier.

14 Henrietta Street Museum

The tour ends in a colourful explosion of knick-knacks in the last room. This is the recreation of Mrs Lily Dowling’s flat which would have looked like a typical tenement flat in the 1960s. It’s a lovely surprise in contrast of the previous rooms that were looking a bit bare.
The room is partitioned in three: there’s a tiny galley kitchen, a living room with a bed, a piano, there’s even a telly, and finally a small bedroom. The floor linoleum and wallpaper are striking replicas of scraps that were found during the building’s renovation.
Some visitors are enchanted to see the kitchen stocked with staples from another era. Tracey passes a carbolic soap that we gather around to sniff. It has an unpleasant smell of petroleum to my non-Dubliner nose but it seems to delight the woman next to me. ‘You can still buy them on Thomas Street!’, she exclaims. Her nostalgia is contagious and I feel myself warming up to the weird pink soap smell.

14 Henrietta Street Museum14 Henrietta Street Museum

14 Henrietta Street lifts the veil off an unpleasant part of Dublin’s history but don’t be put off by the idea as I think you’ll find yourself uplifted by the tour. Yes, you’ll feel anger towards landlords whose greed seem to know no limits and the feeling is certainly amplified in the current housing climate. But what stays with you is the strong community spirit the people of Dublin demonstrate by the bucket load in the presence of adversity.

14 Henrietta Street Museum

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

14 Henrietta Street, Townhouse and Tenement Museum – website
14 Henrietta Street
Inns Quay

Dublin 1

Opening Hours
10am – 4pm, tours are on the hour with the last tour at 4pm (Wednesday – Saturday)
12pm-4pm (Sunday)
Closed on Monday and Tuesday
Booking your ticket online is advised. 

Admission
General €9 / Concessions €6 / Family €20

Bus
1, 4, 9, 11, 13, 16, 38, 38A, 40, 46A, 83, 122, 140

Luas
Dominick Street Stop or Broadstone Stop (Green Line)

Howth Castle | Dublin

Howth Castle

Up until recently, I had never heard of Howth Castle, despite going to Howth Village more times than I can remember. Judging from the reactions I had from some Dubliners, I was definitely not the only one oblivious to its presence. This 700 year old castle is literally hiding in plain sight on the peninsula of Howth.
You see, when you exit Howth Dart Station, you instinctively take a left, in the direction of the harbour. Next time go against your instinct and take a right until you reach the estate’s impressive stone gate entrance. It would be a shame to miss this estate, scene of a pirate legend and of one of the most famous monologues in Irish Literature.

Howth Castle

From the time you pass under the entrance gate, it’s a good 10 minute uphill walk until you see the castle. It’s an impressive sight.  Notice the layers of history in all the parts that were successively added to the structure through the ages.
There has been a Howth Castle since 1180 on the edge of Howth village but nothing is left from that original timber building. The oldest parts you can see today date back from the mid-15th century.

What’s fascinating is that the same family has been living here since 1180 thus making Howth Castle one of the oldest residential castles in Ireland, if not Europe. The Lawrence Family has been carrying all sorts of stories and traditions over 35 generations. One in particular involves a lady pirate, Grace O’Malley. Back in 1576, she wished to visit the castle but when she knocked on the doors, she found them shut tight. The Lawrence Family was too busy having dinner to receive her. Strongly offended, she orchestrated the kidnapping of the family’s young heir in retaliation. After much discussion, Grace and the Lawrence came to an agreement. She was to bring the boy safe home on the condition that the castle doors must always be open and that an extra seat must be set at the table for any unexpected guests. It is said that the family still honours their promise even to this day. Do you reckon I could show up tonight for a bite?

Howth Castle

If you’re interested to know more about the castle and the Lawrence family, you can take part to a tour between the months of April and September, on Sundays.
To be found also inside the castle is the National Transport Museum of Ireland as well as the cosiest cafe I ever did see. It is located in the courtyard. As soon as I stepped inside the Castle Cafe, I felt like I had been transported to someone’s private garden, albeit with a grandiose castle background. Little white cast iron tables and chairs are scattered on the lawn and there’s also seating available in the adorable conservatory. I heard they make scones everyday fresh out of their aga. It sounds absolutely heavenly, I’m dying to try them out with some yummy jam. They also serve afternoon tea in this idyllic setting.

Howth CastleHowth Castle

Outside the castle, you still have plenty to explore in the 250 acre gardens so hold on to your boots. First you’ll stumble upon the Deer Park Golf. At the time of my visit (early June), it was completely covered with buttercups which was ever so cheerful. I immediately had the urge to cross the field and walk towards the sea until I reached the park’s edge. Through the trees, I was surprised to see spreading in front of me Howth harbour and its tiny seafood restaurants. It’s a crazy thought, Howth Castle demesne had been here all along, only hidden by a handful of trees. I could see below the streets I had trodden, oblivious to the amazing treasure that was lying so close.
This sudden change of perspective made me feel a bit dizzy. What else have I not noticed around me? I had missed a bloody castle, after all!

Howth CastleHowth Castle

After spying on the village like a creepy puppet master for a while, I set off in the direction of the golf club’s bar. Near the parking lot, I watched a lone golfer practising his swing. Surely, he must have felt like the luckiest golfer alive facing the epic view over the peninsula’s entrance.

Behind the building is the start to the Rhododendron Walk. It goes through a forest of, you guessed it, rhododendrons. It looks so out of place, almost jungle-like, you would not necessarily expect to find a setting like this in Ireland.  The forest paths are covered with the trees’ exposed twisting roots, I felt like I had just been transported in the film Legend. I don’t think it would have totally surprise me to catch a glimpse of a unicorn in between the foliage.
Note that the rhododendron trees bloom from May to June so make sure to plan your visit around that time to experience the place to its full potential.

Howth Castle
At the start of the walk, you can go straight and climb steep steps that will lead you to the top of the Rhododendron hill. It might take a little effort but believe me the pay-off is worth every steps. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that there you will find one of the most stunning views in Dublin. In my opinion, it ranks as high as the view from Killiney Hill. It sweeps over Howth Castle, Howth Harbour and the Ireland’s Eye. You can even see the Poolbeg Chimneys on the left!

Click here to read my post on Killiney Hill

Howth CastleHowth Castle

Now if you’d rather not climb any steps, you can take the path on your right to explore the forest grounds. There you’ll find an impressive dolmen, the 2nd heaviest in Ireland. It’s nicknamed Aideen’s Grave after a young widow who died of a broken heart following her husband’s death at the battle of Gabhra (AD 184). Unfortunately as romantic as this legend sounds, it can’t be true as the stone was dated at least 300 years older than the historic battle.

Howth CastleHowth Castle

Another fictitious love story was set among these trees. Indeed, it is here that Leopold Bloom proposed to Molly in James Joyce’s Ulysses. This is the scene of the most recognisable monologue in the book. Amongst these striking trees, she said yes she will yes. Who wouldn’t really?

See also: Drimnagh Castle, if you’re looking to visit another castle in Dublin

Howth Castle

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Howth Castle – website 
Howth Demesne
co. Dublin

Opening Hours
Tours of the castle are available on Sunday afternoon from April to September, you can book your ticket here.

Admission
The demesne is free to roam while the entrance fee to the castle starts at €50

Dart
Howth Station

The 10 Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

The 10 Prettiest Pubs in Dublin
Whether you come to Dublin for the pubs or not, you’re going to see a lot of them. They’re the most important feature of the cityscape’s fabric. Chances are you’ll want to photograph a few, so I thought I’d compile here a list of the pubs I think would look really cute on your Instagram feed. For me, Irish pubs are at their handsomest in Summer when they’re covered in flowers. Mind you, they do look rather cosy too when all their halls are decked for the festive season.
This is a very shallow list, we’ll only judge these pubs by their exterior looks here although some of the pubs below are really worth a visit too!
Keep scrolling to read my top 10 most instagrammable pubs in Dublin (there’s a map at the end of this post to help you on your ‘photo pub crawl’). Happy snapping!

The 10 Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

1. TEMPLE BAR PUB

This is the pub everyone wants to see when they come to Dublin. In the heart of Temple Bar, the Temple Bar Pub attracts the eye with its shiny red facade. What I love about this one is that the owners don’t go half way with the decoration. You can bet that come Summer it’ll be covered from top to bottom with geraniums. And at Christmas, it’ll twinkle with a thousand fairy lights.

47-48, Temple Bar
Dublin 2

2. M.J. O’NEILL’S

O’Neill’s is one beast of a pub that spreads on the corner of Suffolk Street and Church Lane. It dominates the street with its four floors of red brick and Tudor-style windows. I never tire of its jolly green facade, especially when it’s covered with flowers in the warmer months. The facade features lots of interesting details among which a rather attractive three-dial clock.

2 Suffolk Street
Dublin 2

The 10 Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

3. THE BANK BAR

Another imposing building is the Bank Bar on College Green. It’s huge, it even has a turret! Its grandiose allure comes from the fact that it used to be a bank, as you may have guessed it. Of course the inside matches the glorious outside. What I love the most about this pub is the warm tone of the sandstone covering its exterior. It changes with the lighting of the seasons. It is unique in the Dublin’s cityscape and it absolutely pops out.

20 College Green
Dublin 2

The 10 Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

4. THE LONG HALL

This pub is a shining landmark on George’s Street. You definitely can’t miss it with its enchanting red and white canopies. It almost looks like an ice-cream parlour of a bygone era. It’s not all about the look as you’ll know if you step inside, The Long Hall is one of the most spectacular examples of a preserved Victorian pub in Dublin. Well worth a pit stop!

51 South Great George’s Street
Dublin 2

5. THE STAG’S HEAD

It seems I have a thing for clocks adorning pubs. This one is painted in a vibrant Tiffany Blue. On it, you can read the name of the pub’s original owner, Mr. Tyson, back in the 1890’s. Like the Long Hall, the Stag’s Head is another beautiful Victorian slice of life frozen in time. You’ll find it on the corner of Dame Lane and Dame Court which is one of the liveliest areas on weekend nights. On days of celebration or football match, the whole court is covered in bunting which makes the Stag’s Head look even more special.

1 Dame Court
Dublin 2
Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

6. THE OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY

If you’re looking for an understated or subtle pub facade then you probably want to look away now. Located in Temple Bar’s oldest buildings, the Oliver St. John Gogarty is a sight for sore eyes. Half green, half yellow, its front counts more flags than an Embassy quarter. The pub takes its name from the Irish poet which you can see several incarnations of around the building in the shape of portraits and statues.

18-21 Anglesea Street
Dublin 2

The Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

7. BRUXELLES

Bruxelles is that red brick castle-like building just off Grafton Street. Its gothic style gives it a gloomy, melancholic air but don’t be deceived by its looks, Bruxelles has known many wild nights. Just outside is a statue of Phyl Lynott who used to come and perform here.

8 Harry Street
Dublin 2

8. THE QUAYS

On Temple Bar Square, the tiled corner of The Quays is rather eye-catching. I think it’s the Seventies colour combination of green, mustard and brown that does it for me. Besides, it’s not that often that you see a tiled pub front in Dublin. Pretty unique, I think!

10-12 Temple Bar
Dublin 2
The Prettiest Pubs in Dublin

9. THE PALACE BAR

At the edge of Temple Bar is located the picture-perfect Palace Bar. Its narrow front sports beautiful wood-panelling and inside, you’ll step in another Victorian bubble where the decor has not been changed since the pub’s beginning in 1823.
But the detail that steals my heart is the elegant copper lamp post outside. It looks so old-timey, you’d almost expect it to be gas-powered.

21 Fleet Street
Dublin 2

10. THE BANKERS

The Bankers is an odd-shaped red pub at the entrance of Dame Lane. You could say it’s the ‘Flat Iron’ of Dublin pubs! It looks so jovial and keen like a ship’s bow at the ready for new adventures on the sea. I always like to have a nosey through the small window panes when I walk past it. Especially on cold nights, as the glowing inside often reminds me of a scene you’d find on an Irish Christmas card.

Trinity Street
Dublin 2

So which one you’ll want to photograph first? Do tag me on Instagram @theartofexploring, I would love to see your pictures! Let me know in the comments, do you agree with this list? Is there a pub that you would add here?

Your Ultimate Guide to Glendalough | co. Wicklow

Glendalough
If you ever spend some time in Ireland, chances are that you’ll get recommended a visit to Glendalough a fair few times. It took me the good part of a decade to finally set foot in the old Monastic City so you can imagine how many times I heard the whole Glendalough spiel. Well, now it’s my turn to lay it all on you! Glendalough is one of the most visited attractions in Ireland and for good cause, this natural wonder is positively ravishing. So what are you waiting for? I know I know, I get you, when you don’t drive, it can be a tad tricky (and as I found out even if you do have a car, getting there may come with its own set of hurdles) but fret not, after spending 4 days there, I’m here to help you make the most of your time and organise a hopefully all-round fuss-free trip to Glendalough, car or no car.

1. ABOUT GLENDALOUGH

Glendalough means in gaelic ‘valley of the two lakes’. The two lakes, the Lower Lake and the Upper Lake, were shaped as a result of the thaw following the Ice Age. You can find this awe-inspiring valley in county Wicklow (Dublin’s southern neighbour county). It is part of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, the biggest of the 6 national parks in Ireland.
Glendalough is famous worldwide for its grand Monastic City which you can still see in part today. The monastic settlement finds its origin back to the 6th century when Saint Kevin founded the place after falling in love with the beauty of the quiet valley.
For 600 years, the settlement flourished. You’ll have to imagine the place in its heyday, it comprised of farm buildings, guest houses, an infirmary and dwellings for the monks and the local population. The monks organised manuscript workshops and sold oak timber to the Vikings to build their fleet. It all came to an end after multiple raids carried out by the English and the final nail on the coffin came with Glendalough losing its ecclesiastical status to Dublin’s Diocese. It remained a local church and a place of pilgrimage for a while but soon enough the place fell in ruins. The monuments you see today mostly date from the 10th to the 12th century.

The site of Glendalough can be divided in 3 sections and this is what you will find in each of them:

The Lower Lake

This is where you will find the famous Monastic City. Coming from afar, the first thing you’ll probably see is Glendalough’s very recognisable Round Tower, standing tall at 30m. It is said to date back from the 10th century. The Monastic City has many other interesting features so keep an eye out for the grand archway, which has a unique design, St Kevin’s Church, also called ‘the Kitchen’ due to the shape of its chimney, the Priest’s House and the eerie Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. If like me, you enjoy a graveyard full of Celtic crosses, you won’t be disappointed.
Fan of Irish folklore, legends and stories? Locate St Kevin’s Cross and try to wrap your arms around the cross to make your fingertips touch. There, all your wishes will be granted… or that’s what they say! Also don’t miss the Deer Stone which is said to have magical powers. Indeed, legend has it that if you splash your face with the water collected in its hollow, you might just keep your looks forever.
Next to the Monastic City are the Visitor Centre, the Glendalough Hotel and the first car park. In the Visitor Centre, there’s an exhibition and an audio-visual show (there’s an entrance fee of €5). If you want to book a tour guide of the Monastic City, you’ll have to contact the centre first by phone or fax.
Further down is the Lower Lake which you can cross thanks to a boardwalk or simply walk along its sides on a pathway.

GlendaloughGlendalough

The Upper Lake

A good 20 minute walk through a beautiful oak woodland will take you from the Lower Lake to the Upper Lake. There, you will find the Information Centre where you can enquire about Glendalough’s hiking trails and the local flora and fauna. Guided walks are also available. If you are hiking, this is where all the trails start.
Outside, you will find the second car park with food stalls and restroom facilities.
At the bottom of the lake, there’s a makeshift beach and one of the site’s most fantastic view so don’t miss it!
Take the path on the left of the Lake and start your hike along the Poulanass River and Waterfall. On the right, walk through a rather enchanting pine forest for about an hour and you will get to the Miners Village. Keep an eye for Temple-Na-Skellig (the original site of St Kevin’s settlement) and Saint Kevin’s Cave, both of which can be seen on the opposite lakeshore.

Miners Village and Beyond

This was actually my favourite area in Glendalough. There’s something chillingly atmospheric about this village in ruins at the bottom of the valley. If you could go back in time to the 1850s, you’d see here a bustling mine. Lead, zinc and silver were mined by 2000 workers here and in the neighbour valley. Business lasted for a 100 years until the 1950s when the mines were eventually abandoned.
Today, only a few structures are left standing as well as an old piece of machinery. I’m not going to lie when you get here, you feel like you reached the entrance to the Mordor. The hill slopes are covered with discarded stones which feels like they’re about to tumble in a rockslide any minute. Stop for a bit and observe the unfazed, feral goats jump from one rock to another without a sweat. They’re amazing little creatures!
Further up the path, you can ascend along the river which flows into the Upper Lake. At the top, you will be met with the rolling views of the Glenealo Valley where a herd of sika deer generally gently graze. Turn around and here is the spectacular panorama over the Upper Lake.
Now with the Upper Lake in your back, you can either go straight ahead and explore the Glenealo Valley or take a left, cross the makeshift bridge over the river and hike uphill to get to the boardwalk. This will lead you to the Spinc, one of the most sought after scenic view of the region.

GlendaloughGlendaloughGlendalough

2. GETTING THERE

By Public Transport

This is where things get a bit tricky and probably why it took me so long to visit Glendalough. There’s only one private bus company that serves the route between Dublin and Glendalough. Moreover, St Kevin’s Bus provides only two round trips a day (every day). The first one leaves Dublin at 11.30am which gets to Glendalough at 12.50pm and the last bus back to Dublin leaves Glendalough at 4.30pm (check the Summer and Winter timetables here). It is great if you plan to stroll on flat ground around the two Lakes, enjoy the hotel’s terrace, maybe squeeze in a small hike. But it will leave you on a tight schedule if you attempt one of the more challenging hikes (the longest hike on the map is 4 hours). But I personally wouldn’t recommend it as it’s best to allow some extra time in case something unexpected happens during the hike. I’m afraid your best option is to find a nearby accommodation for the night if you intend on fully exploring Glendalough.
One thing to keep in mind if you travel with St Kevin’s bus company is it can get extremely busy during the weekends, holidays and high tourist season. I took the bus from Dublin on a Tuesday in late August and it was so packed people had to stand for a few stops until the company called on an extra bus. I’d advise you to get to the bus stop early so you can get in the front of the queue to get a seat. A return ticket from Dublin is €20 which can be purchased on board (click here for a full list of fares).

Now another option would be to take the train to Rathdrum from Dublin. The trip takes a little more than an hour. From there, the company Wicklow Way Bus can pick you up and drive you directly to Glendalough. Be sure to book with them in advance by phone or email and let them know how many people will be there (you don’t need to be a group) and what time you plan to be at Rathdrum Station. The great thing is that they are available 7 days a week!

Lastly, you can go on a day tour with a private company. I can’t personally comment because I’ve never tried any but recently Wild Wicklow Tours, a family-run business that tours Glendalough and other places in county Wicklow, has been voted the best travel experience in Ireland and 10th in the world by Tripadvisor. It sounds like a safe choice to me!

By Car

The journey by car from Dublin to Glendalough, travelling on the N11, will take you a little more than an hour (it’s well posted, so just follow the signs). That is if you avoid the weekends, bank holidays and school holidays. In high season, Glendalough can get horridly congested and queues to the parking lots can get out of hand. So better plan a trip midweek or in low season if you don’t want to waste precious time on the road instead of enjoying the fresh mountain air.
Glendalough has two parking lots available. The first one in the Lower Valley, next to the Visitor Centre, comes with an entrance fee of €4 on weekends, bank holidays, Holy Week, Easter Week and during the months of June, July and August. It is free otherwise and open 24/7. The second one, next to the Upper Lake, will cost €4 at all times. It opens from 8am to varying times in the evening depending on the season so do check the signs before leaving the car park.
If you want to avoid parking in Glendalough, you can do so in the closest village, Laragh. There’s a parking lot on the main road to Glendalough that will cost you €5 and is open on the weekends and bank holidays.
Little insider tip for you, if you manage to park near the Glendalough Woollen Mills in Laragh, there is a pleasant forest walk starting behind the mills. It’ll take you straight to Glendalough in about 15-20 minutes.
For more information on parking your car in Glendalough, click here.
GlendaloughGlendalough

3. BEST TIME TO VISIT

Glendalough is open all year round, 24/7 but as I mentioned before it can get busy during the weekends, bank holidays and school holidays. Not only the car parks will be congested at these times but you will find the Monastic City and generally the grounds surrounding the two lakes quite crowded at these times. However, you’ll probably find some peace and quiet on your hikes. In summary, a day in the middle of the week and in the low season would be ideal!

Ireland can be touch and go when it comes to the weather… to put it mildly. From my own experience, the most pleasant months are May, June and September, which is great news for you as they’re not quite in the high season bracket.
In terms of seasons, there’s beauty to be found in each and every one of them. Glendalough is bursting with interesting fauna and flora which come and go at different times of the year. The Summers are green and lush, the gorse and heather splash the valley with joyful yellow and purple flowers. Springs come with the bluebells in the oak woodland and the Autumns turn the trees rust and gold. I am not sure I would actually recommend Winters although I’m sure it’s equally beautiful especially as the Wicklow Mountains are often the first area to get hit with snow. But Ireland is pretty much one giant storm from November to March so please bear in mind the weather conditions can be quite drastic. Moreover, if you intend to hike, some of the pathway are boardwalks so it can get quite slippery up there with snow or rain conditions.

4. ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD

You’ll have guessed it by now, if you don’t own or rent a car, your best bet to explore the hiking trails of Glendalough at your leisure is to find an accommodation nearby.
You have several options. On the site of Glendalough, you’ll find a hotel, a hostel and a couple of B&Bs. The closest town is Laragh which is a good 20 minute walk away. There you’ll find a few bed and breakfasts, hotels and airbnbs. But don’t stray too far away if you’re strictly on foot as you’ll need some energy left to hike in Glendalough.
When I visited, I went for a place on Trooper Hill, which is 1.5 hour walk away. It wasn’t the easiest on my legs, especially as you can imagine, my accommodation was located on a steep hill so coming home was rather arduous.
Worth a mention, Laragh Village has a bike hire shop with some fancy e-bikes that will make your exploring a lot easier. It is located next to the hotel Lynhams of Laragh.

When it comes to food, I was told by my host that the Glendalough Hotel has a very nice restaurant and bar. On the parking lot next to the Upper Lake, you’ll find food stalls that sell coffee, ice-cream and the usual chipper fare. I had a veggie burger and chips and you’ll hear absolutely no complaint from me. I thought it was actually a decent portion for the price but then I live in Dublin so most of the time I find everything cheap elsewhere. If you’re looking for a healthier option, you’ll probably have to pack some  food with you. Laragh Village has a few eateries and the cafe/deli The Glendalough Green has a tasty selection of foods that would be great in a picnic. I’d definitely suggest you take plenty of water and snacks (or even a picnic) with you if you intend on hiking. The longest hike is 4 hour long which can be done between meals but you never know!

5. WHAT TO PACK AND WEAR

It’s true what they say about the Irish weather, it is wildly unpredictable. Don’t be surprised if blazing sunshine is immediately followed by thunder and sleet. So the key to dressing here is definitely layers. You’ll want to check the weather cast before leaving and pack a weather-appropriate jacket, good footwear (if it rains or snows, make sure they come with gripping soles as the boardwalks at the top can be slippery). Make sure the clothes you wear are comfortable and breathable (go for natural textiles but avoid jeans as they take too long to dry if you get soaked). If the sun’s out, take your sunglasses and a hat.

In your bag, you’ll need:
– your phone, fully-charged (save the mountain emergency number, 999 or 112)
– rainproof jacket
– flask of water
– snacks (or picnic depending on the length of your hike)
– a map of the trails (you can pick it up for 50 cents at the Information Office, the Visitor Centre or you can download it for free on your phone via this link)
– sunscreen if it’s sunny
– if you plan on going off-track in the neighbouring valleys, take a compass
For more information on hiking responsibly in the Irish mountains, click here.

GlendaloughGlendalough

6. HIKING TRAILS

There are 9 waymarked trails on site. They range from ‘easy’ to more arduous ‘hill walks’. The shortest walk (1km) takes 30 minute to complete while the longest (11km) can be completed in about 4 hours.
All of the trails start at the National Park Information Centre near Upper Lake. If you’re looking for a guided walk, they can be arranged in the centre. Displays of the trail map can be found next to Visitor Centre and the Information Centre (inside, you can buy a map for 50 cents -or download it here for free).
The easiest trails wrap around the two lakes while the most challenging ones will lead you to the Poulanass Waterfall, the Spinc and further in the neighbouring valleys (Lugduff, Glendasan and Glenealo Valley). Some of them link with county Wicklow’s big hiking trails like St Kevin’s Way or the Wicklow Way.

 

I hope this posts answers all your question and you feel ready to explore the Glendalough Valley. If you’re on Instagram, do tag me @theartofexploring, I would love to see your pictures! Let me know in the comments if you think I missed something and I’ll get back to you.

Russborough House & Parklands | co. Wicklow

Russborough House
One golden afternoon in the late Autumn, I took the 65 bus to county Wicklow. I got off at the end of the line, in a town called Blessington. It wasn’t my first time here, actually. I had stayed here for a couple of days in the Avon Ri Lakeshore Resort a few years back. It is a group of self-catered townhouses on the shore of the Blessington Lakes. I have fond memories of the place and I would totally recommend it if you’re looking for a base to explore Wicklow or if you simply want an escape from the city. The lakes are the perfect setting for invigorating country walks.
Coincidentally, the Avon Ri is also the start of the Greenway Walk, where I was headed that morning. This is the trail that leads directly to Russborough House. This Irish Stately House had been on my list of places to see for a really long time. I had read that it was one of Ireland’s most beautiful houses and I was dying to see it for myself.
Greenway Walk
The Blessington Greenway trail is a pleasant one hour and half walk (one way) on flat, well-maintained paths. They follow first the shores of the lakes then they go through wild woodlands. Half-way through, I felt my shrivelled urban lungs expand and fill themselves with the crisp cold Autumn air of the morning. Dry leaves were crunching under my feet and the pine trees wrapped me with their musky silence.
At the end of the trail, a stoned arch marks the entrance to the Russborough demesne. It opens to a long avenue bordered with trees which leads directly to the 18th century house. Its 210 metre-long facade (the longest frontage in Ireland) embraces a phenomenal view of valleys, mountains, lakes and, of course, sheep.
I sat down on a bench to take it all in (and to recover from the previous long walk).
Revived by my surroundings, I then headed to the ticket office and booked a tour inside the house. The tour was to start in an hour which left me a bit of time to explore the house’s grounds.
Russborough House
The courtyard is home to many artisan and craft stalls: a blacksmith, a candle-maker, a woodturner and a ceramicist. There, you will find also Ireland’s Bird of Prey Centre and if you’re lucky you might catch a show of falconry. It was a bit late in the year so I wasn’t. I didn’t feel too lucky either when I found out that the walled gardens were closed that day.
Nonetheless, I continued my exploration, walked by the maze and stumbled upon one of the previous owners’ grave, the 4th Earl of Milltown and the Countess. I also found a fairy trail and admired Lady’s Island where a little red Japanese bridge spans over a delightful brook.
But time was a-ticking and I headed back to the gift shop where the tour was to start. A friendly lady with a mellifluous germanic accent took our small group in the first room of the house. The dining room.
Russborough House
There, the long mahogany table had been laid out with silver candle holders, gilded porcelain plates and tiny crystal glasses for the sherry. Our tour guide set the scene and depicted the lives of those who once called Russborough home. It all started with Jospeh Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown who asked Richard Cassels to design and build the house in 1741. Richard Cassels was one of the most prolific architects in Ireland of the time. He was a master of the Palladian style of which Russborough is a fine example.
The estate stayed in the Leeson family until 1914. It passed in the hands of a couple more owners then was finally acquired by Lord and Lady Beit. They were looking for a place to house their vast art collection.
The couple resided here until their final days (Lord Alfred Beit: 1994, Lady Beit: 2005) but they opened part of the house to the public, in the late seventies.
The life of the Beits at Russborough was eventful, to say the least. They’ve gone through: 4 robberies (one of them was even labelled ‘the biggest art robbery in history’ at the time), 1 forced occupation by the old IRA, 1 fire and 1 ghost. But not everything was gloom and doom, the couple actually had mostly a happy life here. They were renowned socialites and received many illustrious guests. Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Jackie Kennedy, Fred Astaire and Coco Chanel to name a few.
Having noticed some books on the Mitford Sisters in the gift shop (I used to be obsessed with them!), I asked the tour lady if there was any connections with Russborough, could they have been guests here too?
To my absolute delight, she informed me that the sisters were actually cousins of Lady Clementine Beit!
Russborough House
Russborough House
Russborough House
While learning about the life of the Beits, we had moved from one room to another. We passed the boudoir, the entrance hall, the reception room and my favourite, the library. As it happens, the favourite of the lady of the house too! Lady Clementine was a “mad bibliophile and adored being surrounded by books“. I couldn’t have thought of a better place for that as the walls were covered in books and the sofa near the chimney looked ever so inviting.
One thing that really impressed me throughout the whole visit was the ceiling and the wall plasterwork. The flamboyantly rococo stucco work was a speciality of the Lafranchini Brothers and if you see some in a Palladian house in Ireland, chances are they worked on them.
Russborough House
Russborough House
Russborough House
We climbed the equally ornate staircase to access the second floor. There the rooms are more plain, the showstopper here is undoubtedly the mesmerising view from the bedroom. My eyes got lost on the horizon and I couldn’t help thinking about the person waking up to this, every morning. They must have felt the luckiest human in the world!

Looking for more Wicklow gardens to visit? Head to my Wicklow section 

Russborough House

RUSSBOROUGH HOUSE PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Russborough House & Parklands – website
Blessington
co. Wicklow
Ireland

Opening Hours
see website

Admission
General €12 / Concession €9 / Child €6 / Under 5 Free

Bus
65

BLESSINGTON GREENWAY WALK PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The trail starts at the Avon Ri Lakeshore Resort and ends at Russborough House. Distance one way is 6.5 km which takes about 1.5 hour to complete. The trail’s grade is easy.