There really is no better way to orient yourself to a new city than by foot. I’ve found that small walking tours are a great way to get my bearings on the layout and the history of a new city, and Dublin is no exception to this.
The first thing I did when I arrived in the city was track down New Dublin Tours, a company that provides free Dublin walking tours on a daily basis.
Initially the tour might seem a bit overwhelming. It’s popular, and when we arrived there were a lot of people bustling about. I was a little worried at first, not particularly wanting to go on a walk with fifty other people.
Luckily, our congregation was quickly sorted into smaller groups based on language. Each group topped out around ten to fifteen people – a much more manageable number.
Our tour guide was a native Dubliner, though he had spent time living all over the world. Having grown up in the city, he was able to explain to us how the atmosphere had changed over the years. Being an Irishman, he also possessed the uniquely snarky sense of humor that I love about Ireland.
Each walking tour is slightly different, but the majority of them tend to hit the same highlights, giving you an overview of the city’s culture and history. They definitely are walking tours – so make sure you are wearing good shoes and are up to the trek.
Tours that focus on Dublin’s history
As with many walking tours, ours spent a lot of time discussing the history of Dublin, going back as far as the original Viking settlers. We visited the site of an old Viking encampment, and our guide told us the story of how these original inhabitants arrived and set up shop.
The original structures are no more.
The tour also took us to Dublin Castle and Christ’s Church, providing windows into various periods of tumult in Ireland’s history (including the original story of Tom & Jerry, which has very little to do with Irish history). A recurring theme throughout the tour is the inequality among different classes, as well as the tumultuous past between Ireland and the British Empire.
The events that eventually led Ireland to declare independence were a huge factor on our tour, and rightly so. It is still a fairly recent piece of history, and one that contributes greatly to the modern Irish identity.
Dublin: A literary city
It isn’t all conflict. Our tour led us through the campus of Trinity College, one of the oldest universities around, and certainly the most famous in Ireland. This is also the site of the Old Library, which has been featured in a number of films (such as Harry Potter and Star Wars) and houses the famous Book of Kells.
We didn’t go inside on the walking tour, but the tour helped us find it easily later on!
It’s also no secret that Dublin is the home of many famous authors (James Joyce, anyone?). Being a former English teacher, this was probably my favorite aspect of the city. The best moment of the tour (in my mind) involved walking down a narrow, utterly unimpressive alleyway where Jonathan Swift was born.
Oh, Jonathan Swift. I love your satire so.
Yeah, I definitely geeked out a little. When I was a teacher, I used to assign Swift’s satire to my students to see how many would realize he wasn’t being serious about the whole eating babies thing.
Don’t forget the beer
While we didn’t imbibe on the tour, our guide led us through the Temple Bar quarter, an area just south of the River Liffy (this river splits Dublin roughly in half). The entire area retains much of its original medieval structure, with cobblestone streets and small, tightly-packed shops.
This is where many of the most popular pubs and restaurants are, including Temple Bar itself, for which the quarter earned its name. If you check out my Dublin in a day post you’ll see some of my favorite pubs.
Time for the great outdoors
While Dublin is definitely a city, there is still some greenspace. Our tour concluded on the paths of St. Stephen’s
Green, a park that provides a peaceful respite from the general hubbub of the city. As with most things in Dublin, the park is old, dating back to the 1660s and full of history in its own right. Back in the 1700s it was the place to be if you were at all fashionable.
After spending most of the morning hurrying down busy sidewalks and cobblestones, the park was a relief. In addition to walking paths and ponds, there are art installations throughout the area, representing different aspects of Irish history.
With any tour, there must be a balance of storytelling and delivering information. As an additional bonus, a good walking tour will help you find your way around a previously unfamiliar city, locating which attractions you may want to investigate more thoroughly later.
While our tour didn’t go to some of the more farfetched attractions, like Kilmainham Gaol or the Guiness Brewery, we left with a good understanding of the basics of Dublin’s geography.
We were lucky, and our guide did a good job of telling us the facts while also providing intimate historical accounts that brought the past to life. For me, this is the sign of a tour done right.
Rather than share any of these stories here (spoilers!) I encourage you to seek out New Dublin Tours the next time you’re in the city.
The tours are completely free, though you should, of course, tip your guide.