The Irish City You Should Visit in 2024

The Irish City You Should Visit in 2024

The Irish City You Should Visit in 2024

Ireland’s bustling capital has been busy transforming the traveller experience, with fresh ideas that put local people and cultural heritage at its heart.

My first memories of Dublin are anchored in its storied docklands: riding a borrowed bike between the “two-up-two-down” redbrick terraced rows in Ringsend, the Dublin suburb where my grandparents lived, and making sandcastles on nearby Sandymount Beach. Every time I go back, sense-of-belonging floodgates fling open at first sight of the low-lying cityscape and the way it seemingly drifts into the calm shallows of its wildlife-teeming, Unesco-listed Biosphere Bay. Strong emotions flow for a place I’m attached to but have never lived in.

Dublin’s ingenious initiatives to balance the needs of people with nature is one of the reasons why it has been named European Smart Tourism Capital 2024 by The European Commission. Another is that the city has created a slew of new experiences that explore “what it means to be Irish” – not only for the millions around the world connected by the Irish diaspora, but also for those who want to jump into local life and feel what being Irish is all about.

Barry Rogers, head of Dublin City Tourism Unit, explains that the capital has worked to transform the traditional tourism experience by “putting locals and people at its heart”. A brilliant example: the new Dublin Discovery Trails app, which transports visitors from the streets of modern-day Dublin back to important events that shaped the city’s history and culture. There are also guided tours and moving stories narrated by residents who lived in the inner city tenements where 100 people were crammed into one townhouse. And then there’s the “Stargate” style portal, which live streams with New York (a city with strong Irish ancestry) and allows users thousands of miles apart to interact.

Dublin defeated 30 competitors across 17 countries to win the coveted title, all assessed across the criteria of sustainability, accessibility, digitalisation, cultural heritage and creativity. Rogers credits the 1,100 residents who gave feedback on a survey to help curate experiences – and says these experiences will mean as much for Dublin’s 592,000 citizens as its 8.6 million annual visitors.

When I tell Irish people that my mum is from Ringsend, their faces light up with a bittersweet historical significance. Ringsend is where Oliver Cromwell landed in 1649 and offloaded troops for his conquest of Ireland. And it’s from here where the millions he drove out fled overseas. In the early 2000s, a seismic social and economic shift occurred when tech giants moved mountains of glassy modernity into the dockland’s historical-industrial cityscape. Yet an earthy community spirit still runs strong through Ringsend’s desirable old-meets-new neighbourhood. In village shops and gastro pubs, I’m warmed by quintessential Dubliner quick-witted chat (craic) – the reason why the city is consistently voted among the friendliest in Europe and the world.

Dublin’s Smart Tourism win was boosted by aspirations to become the world’s first autism-friendly capital by 2026. The Guinness Storehouse is leading the way with its recently launched tour, developed with AsIAm (Ireland’s National Autism Charity) to ensure visitors with sensory processing differences can enjoy the world’s leading tourist attraction. Kits, which include earplugs, sensory maps and a visual guide, can be picked up at reception; and on specific days, noise and light is reduced, announcements are silenced and music is turned off.

I use the new Dublin Discovery Trails App as a fresh lens to explore the familiar docklands. At marked virtual reality points, my smartphone combines the real-world view with new technology that makes past events come to life with amination, audio and 3D graphics. Steam-powered Guinness barges sail the River Liffey, soldiers feast at the Crimean Banquet and fires blaze in a 360-degree view of the Custom House, depicting one of the landmark events in the War of Independence (1919-1921). Along the way, yesteryear characters pop back to the future to tell tales of their lives and times, like unknown dockers daughter Maggie Doyle and Captain Bligh of mutiny fame, who surveyed Dublin Bay in 1801.

More themed routes that dig deeper into events and the people who shaped places around the city are being created, too. For example, Anseo (meaning “here” in Irish Gaelic) is an open-air contemporary art gallery – a first project of its kind in Ireland. It follows a walking trail of 28 commissioned cutting-edge mural artworks dotted around the port town of Dún Laoghaire that celebrate its local characters, maritime culture and wildlife.

A short 2km walk from the docklands spits me out on Sandymount Beach into the middle the world’s only Unesco Biosphere Reserve that includes a capital city – something that makes Dublin truly unique. Every year, nature moves in on the old port structures. This can be seen on the 10km return “South Wall” coastal walk to Poolbeg Lighthouse where there are copious bird colonies on old mooring relics. The walk passes through nature parks and along a seawall that stretches 1km out into the water where you might spot harbour porpoises.

I find evidence of smart, sustainable practices all along the city’s 30km bay. One of the latest (and cutest) is on a walk around Dublin’s wild and woolly Howth Head neighbourhood – just a 25-minute train ride away. The unrivalled panorama from the top is “one of the world’s best views”, according to the late English author HG Wells. On the way, I see some lucky hikers stopped in their sea-cliff tracks at the sight of horns and beards that would make Gandalf green with envy. Ireland’s (only) indigenous and rare Old Irish Goat, which almost disappeared due to hybridisation, is making a comeback and saving the scorched peninsula, thanks to a DNA breeding programme.

“They’re grazing firebreaks,” explains herder Melissa Jeuken, who manages 125 Old Irish Goats with a group of eager local volunteers called The Goat Squad. In recent years, the destructive duo of climate change and the invasive gorse plant has intensified wildfires, decimating heathlands and threatening Howth fishing village along with lowland homes. Old Irish Goats, which have kicked around since Neolithic times, have hardy stomachs and “a taste” for the rampant, highly flammable gorse that is decimating the conservation headland. “They’re well suited to it,” Jeuken says. “Browsing on poor quality forage is what they’ve evolved to do.”

The scenic DART train stops at coastal towns all along the bay, which is part of the longer Dublin Coastal Trail. Each has its own vibe. The bay’s southern suburb, Dalkey, is dubbed Ireland’s “Amalfi” for its riviera vibe, and “Hollywood Hills” for its celebrity pull. Although – and I suspect locals Enya and Bono would probably agree – seals regularly seen sprawled out on sea rocks tend to be the star attractions.

Classic city attractions have also upped their game in recent years. Ireland’s largest sporting arena, Croke Park, has a winning cityscape view 17 storeys high from its wheelchair-accessible walkway. Here visitors can get to grips with why the country’s Gaelic Games are so culturally important to Irish people on a guided Skyline Tour around the roof perimeter of Dublin’s national stadium.

Historically, hurling stood as a cultural salute to the country’s long quest for independence – Niall Quinn

Dubliner and Irish soccer international Niall Quinn – who played Gaelic sport in his youth – recommends visitors get in on the friendly rivalry by watching the spectacle of hurling. The game, which dates back thousands of years and features strongly in Irish mythology, can pull crowds of 80,000. “Historically, hurling stood as a cultural salute to the country’s long quest for independence,” Quinn explains. “A century from that milestone, the game has developed into one of the fastest most exciting [field] sports in the world. All-Ireland final day is our Super Bowl, and, for many, it tops St Patrick’s Day as our most important day of the year.”

To dig even deeper into what it means to be Irish, I head to the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum on Custom House Quay, a site specifically noted by the Smart Tourism judges. EPIC has “rewritten the museum rulebook”, according to CEO Aileesh Carew. I see no dusty artefacts behind glass here. Instead, the world’s first fully digital (and multi-award winning) museum explains why 70 million people around the world have heritage links to a small country with a population of just five million. “The Irish diaspora is vast… and woven into the history and culture of nearly every country,” Carew says.

The museum celebrates more than 300 emigration and descendant stories of Irishness (none are people who live in Ireland) and their profound impact on the world through a collection of immersive installations, interactive games and larger-than-life multimedia shows. Meet Billy the Kid in a life-size lineup of Ireland’s most notorious. Hear the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula whispering in your ear. Chuckle to the quick wit of Oscar Wilde or the infectious charm of beloved TV sitcom priest Father Ted. Exhibits illustrate “that Ireland is as much Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen as it is bodhrans and tin whistles”, as the museum notes on its website.

As one visitor puts it: “If you’re not Irish, you’ll wish you were.” And if you’re not sure, it’s a question that expert genealogists at the museum’s Family History Centre might help you answer.

EPIC is doing much more than rewriting the museum rulebook. It offers a powerful reaffirmation of identity, a celebration of roots and a connection to a shared legacy that spans continents. “Your story is here too,” one of the curators tells me. EPIC sees the grandparents who lived under oppression, their migrant daughter who left a post-colonial struggling economy to seek work in England, and the grandkid who kept returning.

Dublin in 2024 is placing an arm around my sense of belonging and making me feel at home.

Written by Tracey Croke

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