Like near neighbour London, Dublin was never planned as a major city. It grew as the result of the gradual merging of an assortment of smaller villages that surrounded the historic city centre nucleus.
And akin to the arrondissements of Paris, modern urban Dublin, split virtually in half by the River Liffey, still possesses a collection of highly explorable villages in the city each with their own individual history and character.
Dublin now stretches over some 44 square miles, its north and south-eastern corners hugging the edge of the Irish Sea. But the big advantage over Paris and London is that out in quieter, coastal Dublin the savvy visitor can capture another and pretty unique kind of ‘village in the city ‘experience.
The string of pretty coastal town’s villages and fishing harbours stretching from Malahide in the north to Bray in the south, a matter of just 25 miles, offer an altogether calmer and more sedate alternative to complement the bustling city streets. These places are perfect for afternoon or day excursions or a relaxing worthwhile tour on their own.
If you travel the coast from north to south – all quickly reachable from the city centre via Dublin’s Dart light railway system (not to mention bike, bus or taxi) – you’ll see beautiful sandy beaches in the north, inviting you to wile away a few hours. These gradually give way to ragged cliffs and gorgeous sheltered coves in the south, enticing you towards sea-side seafood treats, long walks, a boat trip, stylish shopping, museums or even a swim.
Malahide is a very beautiful heritage village with old-world elegance and plenty to occupy its visitors, including Europe’s largest model railway, an exceptional kiddie’s playground and miles of sandy beaches.
Cobbled side streets give the village an intimate and welcoming feel. There’s a host of chic boutiques, bookshops, and antique shops you could lose yourself in for hours. Or you could make a visit to stately 900 year-old Malahide Castle set amid 250 acres of parkland and gardens. A broad range of pubs and restaurants can take you well into the night.
If the weather is good, the Malahide to Portmarnock walk will also beckon. It’ll take you along the magnificent coastline of the northern shores of Dublin Bay where the blue flag Velvet Strand, popular with wind surfers and kite surfers, vies for the title of Dublin’s best beach.
Just six miles down that coastline lies picturesque Howth (rhymes with both), something of a foodie haven and set amid magnificent coastal scenery and a lovely fishing village vibe.
Howth is best discovered on foot and its waterfront and piers are a good starting point on your exploration. There are numerous walks, and a narrow cliff walk provides a breathtaking sea-side adventure, offering splendid views of the water and Dublin city. This one wanders from the town centre through heather-covered hills and stone ruins, all bordered by tremendous cliffs and open sea.
There’s a boat that departs from Howth harbour that goes out to an island off the coast called Ireland’s Eye, good for rock climbing and exploring the ruins of a Martello tower (a small defensive fort) and an eighth-century church.
On returning from your activity there is an abundance of eateries to choose from – no surprise that on the coastline seafood is a speciality in the charming restaurants, but the choice of cafes, delis, bars, grills and coffee shops will make sure you can fit your budget.
Look out for the King Sitric harbour-side fish restaurant. It has an international reputation for fresh seafood and the dining area on the first floor has panoramic sea views.
From Howth you can see across the bay to the deliciously unpronounceable Dún Laoghaire (‘Dun Leary’), the major sea link from Ireland to Britain and France.
A mélange of the old and new, Dún Laoghaire started as a fashionable Victorian seaside resort that Dubliners would visit for a day trip by train. It boasts a gorgeous waterfront promenade still popular with walkers today. Close your eyes and all you hear is the jangle of the yachts moored in the harbour. Breathe, and you inhale a fresh, salty breeze.
Try pottering around the weekly organic market on Fridays or the craft and food market on Sundays, or dip in to the plentiful water-based activities that play a huge role locally. Fishing is popular for instance, and boats and rods may be rented at the harbour.
On a sunny day, Dún Laoghaire is difficult to beat. With its cawing seagulls and tasty ice cream, it’s a superb base for a holiday in Dublin.
A little further down the coast, and still only a few miles from the city centre, Sandycove is the spot to connect with one of Ireland’s greatest literary figures, James Joyce.
Joyce lived for a time in the Martello tower in Sandycove, which is situated close to an unusual swimming area called the Forty Foot, a deep sea-water inlet hidden amid the rugged rock-strewn coast.
The opening scene of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is set in the tower and it is one of the most important Joycean sites of Dublin, with tangible links to his life and work. It now hosts a small Joycean museum featuring some of the writer’s personal possessions, photographs, letters, and first and rare editions of the book. Dublin begins it annual 16 June Bloomsday celebrations in Sandycove.
Killiney is another fabulous Dublin coastal village. The houses have a bright Mediterranean wash to them, whilst semi-tropical plants thrive in the more sheltered coves.
Situated in an area likened to Italy’s Bay of Naples, it is easy to see why Killiney and nearby Dalkey are home to many of Ireland’s rich and famous, among them U2’s Bono and the Edge, racing driver Eddie Irvine, film director Neil Jordan and singers Lisa Stansfield, Enya and Van Morrison.
Bray, the southernmost Dublin coastal village, is still only 30 minutes from the city centre.
A long-established holiday resort, it has numerous hotels and guesthouses, shops, restaurants and evening entertainment and mile-long promenade complete with resident swan colony. The town also plays host to a number of high-profile festival events, including the Bray Jazz Festival on the May bank holiday.
Bray is rich with local arts and crafts stores and its Mermaid Arts Centre offers a wide variety of entertainment including innovative dance, theatre, cutting edge music and art-house cinema throughout the year.
But while in Bray you simply must pay a visit to the Harbour Bar, ranked as the ‘Best bar in the world’ by Lonely Planet Guide. Keep your eyes peeled; this bar is something of a celebrity haunt. Liam Neeson, Sinead O’Conner and Bono have all been spotted in it.