Dublin was the destination for our most recent trip to Ireland. Having previously only spent time in Ireland’s smaller villages and towns, we weren’t really sure what to expect from its busy capital city and attempted to arrive without any expectations.
Not surprisingly, we discovered a city filled with the same sort of warm, generous people we’d met elsewhere in the country (there are, apparently, no strangers in Ireland), and one that takes great pride in its rich history, yet still feels energetically youthful and modern.
What was maybe a bit more surprising was just how expensive Dublin is. We’re talking London-expensive, maybe even more so. You’ll feel the most impact when it comes to finding accommodations, but food and drinks will also drain your wallet faster than you can say, “Pass me another Guinness!”
Luckily, there are several ways to balance out, and occasionally completely avoid, some of the city’s biggest expenses. The easiest (and most fun!) of these is taking advantage of all the free things to do in Dublin, of which there are many. Keep reading for a list of our favorite free Dublin highlights, and be sure to scroll all the way to the end for budget-friendly Dublin travel tips as well!
Best Things to Do in Dublin for Free
Explore Trinity College
The alma mater of a whole host of famous Irish poets, artists, and politicians, Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest university and, depending on who you talk to, its most prestigious. Its architecture resembling that of its English counterparts at Cambridge and Oxford, no visit to Dublin is complete without a stop to see this beautiful university.
While you’ll have to pay to enter the Long Room of the Old Library and see the Book of Kells, taking a walk among the historic buildings of the campus is free, as is entrance into the Science Gallery inside Trinity’s Naughton Institute which features several art and science exhibitions throughout the year.
- Find Trinity College on a map here.
Relax in St Stephen’s Green
Providing a respite from the busy streets of the city, many of Dublin’s most beautiful public parks are located right in the city center. Our favorite was St Stephen’s Green off of Grafton Street. With its tree-lined walking trails and open green spaces overlooking a lake, we found ourselves coming here to relax more than once on our short stay in the city.
Besides being a great place to take a quiet walk, the grass beside the gazebo on the lake makes a perfect spot for a picnic on a pretty day. If you’re lucky, you might even get to witness impromptu skits and shows in the gazebo while you’re there.
- Find St Stephen’s Green on a map here.
Cross Ha’penny Bridge
Why does crossing a bridge make the list of free things to do in Dublin? Because it’s an icon, that’s why. Like Tower Bridge in London (albeit on a much, much smaller scale), crossing Ha’penny Bridge is just something you do. And these days, there’s not even a half-penny charge to do it.
Connecting the north side of the city with the south across the River Liffey, Ha’penny Bridge is the oldest pedestrian bridge in Dublin. Made of cast iron and painted white, it’s actually a very pretty one as well. You’ll find Ha’penny Bridge located near the popular Temple Bar district.
- Find Ha’penny Bridge on a map here.
Join a Free Walking Tour of Dublin
From historical buildings to colorful street art, you’ll likely find no shortage of things throughout the city you wish you knew more about. The very best way to learn the history and hear all the embellished tales (this is Ireland, so you know there are stories) is to join a free walking tour of Dublin. This one lasts around three hours and includes many of the sights on this list.
Sidenote: The gold sphere pictured above is called Sfera con Sfera, or Sphere within a Sphere. Found inside Trinity College, this is actually just one piece of a series by Arnaldo Pomodoro found in many locations around the world. (We saw another at the Vatican Museums in Italy!)
Take a Scenic Walk Along the Canals
The inner city is encircled by two separate canals – the Royal Canal in the north and the Grand Canal in the south. Both canals connect the River Liffey with the River Shannon further west and were once used for transportation and shipping. These days, the canals serve a more leisurely purpose, both featuring scenic walking and cycling trails.
For a quick, 20-minute walk down the Grand Canal not far from Dublin’s main sights, start at Leeson Street Bridge near St Stephen’s Green and head east until you reach the end of the canal at the Grand Canal Dock. We walked this path and it was lovely, especially in the area near Huband Bridge, pictured above.
For a half-hour walk down the Royal Canal that will take you close to the National Botanic Gardens (which are also free to enter), follow the Royal Canal Way from Newcomen Bridge near the docklands to Cross Guns Basin.
Window Shop on Dublin’s Best Shopping Streets
Obviously, if you buy something, then you can no longer count this one as free, but window shopping and admiring all the unique goods for sale in the shops is always free of charge.
Grafton Street is Dublin’s main shopping street featuring mostly popular chain stores with a few independent shops thrown in the mix. We much preferred perusing the boutique shops on South William Street and Drury Street, and especially George’s Street Arcade off of Drury Street, however. This area is known as the Creative Quarter and you’ll no doubt find at least a dozen different things you’d like to carry home in your suitcase.
For luxury window shopping, head to Powercourt Centre – a Georgian mansion turned elegant shopping mall.
Check out the Temple Bar District
The Temple Bar district, located on the south bank of the River Liffey, was once an area Dublin’s elite called home, but by the 18th century it had developed into something more akin to Amsterdam’s Red Light district. The area continued to go downhill until the 1990’s when the city began a regeneration project to turn Temple Bar into a cultural quarter.
Today, many different cultural centers are based here, from photography galleries to film institutes, but the thing that draws most tourists to this area of the city is its lively atmosphere and the wide range of pubs offering nightly live music.
Temple Bar is touristy and often overcrowded, yet nonetheless still worth visiting if only for a little people-watching. If you’re into photography, Temple Bar’s cobbled streets and colorful buildings are fun subjects to photograph, but you’ll want to visit early in the morning before the pubs and shops open to capture them before the crowds descend. (Even if photography isn’t your reason for visiting, I suggest checking out this area during the day as it’s well-known for getting a little rowdy at night.)
- Find Temple Bar on a map here.
Walk Along the River Liffey from O’Connell Bridge to Samuel Beckett Bridge
The River Liffey flows straight through the city and you’ll no doubt cross over it several times during your visit. But instead of just crossing over and giving it a wave as you head on to your next destination, consider taking a walk down its banks. Some of the city’s most interesting architecture can be seen by following the path of the Liffey.
We walked several portions of the river, but our favorite route was from O’Connell Bridge to Samuel Beckett Bridge. One-way, the walk takes only 20-minutes and you’ll get to see all sorts of beautiful buildings like the neoclassical Custom House and the futuristic Dublin Convention Center, not to mention the Samuel Beckett Bridge itself which looks like a giant harp stretching across the water.
Take Advantage of the Free Museums in Dublin
If only all cities offered as many free museums and art galleries to its residents and visitors as Dublin does – you could spend your whole holiday exploring them and still not see them all! From modern art and photography to ancient artifacts and history, unless you hate visiting museums, you’ll be able to find one that interests you.
Our favorite was the Natural History Museum, lovingly nicknamed the Dead Zoo. (I swear it’s not as creepy as the nickname makes it sound – ha!) Housed in a historic Victorian building, the Natural History Museum opened in the mid-19th century and hasn’t changed a whole lot since. Its vintage displays and contents have become something of a novelty.
If retro displays of insects and ancient taxidermy aren’t your thing, the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Dublin City Gallery, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art are a few of the more popular free museums you might want to check out. (FYI: We also discovered Dublin is home to the National Leprechaun Museum. It’s not free, but with a name like that they could charge whatever they wanted and I’d still check it out!)
Stroll Through the Gardens in Merrion Square
Another of our favorite public parks in Dublin, Merrion Square is a tranquil Georgian garden square located not too far from St Stephen’s Green. Bordered on three sides by elegant Georgian mansions, walking through Merrion Square feels like taking a walk back in time. At lunchtime, you’ll find many people stretched out in the park, basking in the sunlight and eating their lunch picnic-style.
Walking paths wind through the square’s immaculate gardens where you’ll find a variety of interesting sculptures and installations amidst all the blooming flowers and greenery. The best one is a statue of Oscar Wilde resting on a rock, found in the northwest corner of the square.
- Find Merrion Square on a map here.
Discover Dublin’s Doors
One thing you’re bound to notice as you wander around is the city’s considerable collection of colorful doors. Elegant reds, bumblebee yellows, pastel pinks, electric blues and everything in between – they make front doors in every other country look boring in comparison.
The tradition of painting doors in bold colors dates back to Georgian times when all new homes being built had strict guidelines they had to adhere to, resulting in many neighborhoods taking on a somewhat uniform appearance. To combat the lack of originality in the architecture, homeowners began painting their doors and installing imaginative doorknockers to show off their personality.
These special touches remain today and can be seen via guided walking tours like this one, or if you want to explore on your own for free, some of Dublin’s best doors can be found in Merrion Square, Fitzwilliam Square, Upper and Lower Leeson Street, and Lower Baggot Street.
Enjoy Traditional Irish Music in the Pubs
And finally, it’s not a proper trip to Ireland if you haven’t spent an evening listening to traditional Irish music in a pub. You won’t have to search far to find one either, because if there’s one thing Dublin has more of than colorful doors, it’s pubs. And many of them offer free live music every night of the week.
Our favorite spot offering nightly Irish folk music was O’Donoghue’s Pub. Recommended by our local hosts, O’Donoghue’s felt like a truly authentic Irish pub, not the touristy version you’ll find in Temple Bar. While the shows are free in most pubs, you will need to purchase something to eat or drink to be able to listen, and don’t forget to tip the band at the end of the night!
Dublin Travel Tips
Getting to Dublin
Usually, getting to a destination costs more than anything else in our budget, but not this time thanks to Dublin being the homebase for Ryanair, one of Europe’s major budget airlines.
If you’re willing to fly budget, airfare from London often costs as little as $30 USD one way with Ryanair. Flights from other cities in Europe are frequent and nearly as inexpensive. We’ve found booking directly with the airline to be cheapest, and if you watch, they’ll often have flash sales where tickets go for as little as $20 USD one way.
If you’re coming from Northern Ireland as we were, it’s equally as cheap to travel to Dublin and you won’t even have to worry about flights. Just hop on the Translink train in Belfast and you’ll be here in under three hours for around $20 USD per person.
How to Get Around in Dublin
The Dublin airport is about six miles from the city center. The cheapest way to transfer from the airport to the city is to take the Dublin Bus for €3.30. (Number 41 goes to the city center, but you should check the website to see if others will get you closer to your hotel.)
Since we were cutting it close on our return to London, we didn’t have time to take the public bus to the airport, so we took the Express Aircoach from Ballsbridge for €8.50 instead. Definitely not the cheapest, but it’s a good option if you’ve got limited time.
Dublin is a pretty compact city, so unless you’re traveling outside of the center, you’ll be able to walk everywhere. We did so much walking in fact that we beat our previous record of daily steps with a whopping 31,000 steps our first day in Dublin.
If you’d rather not walk that much or can’t, public buses are a cheap and convenient way to get around. You can find a list of timetables via the link above. If you plan to use the buses frequently, purchasing a Leap Card will likely end up saving you money.
Where to Stay in Dublin on a Budget
Be prepared to blow the majority of your holiday budget on your accommodations in Dublin if you want to stay in the city center. A place to sleep in this city does not come cheap. In fact, it’s the first place we’ve been where we couldn’t even find a good deal via Airbnb. (They’re pretty equivalent to hotel prices, which is nuts.)
We ended up calling in a favor and stayed with friends to save a little cash, but assuming you don’t have Irish friends who will let you crash in their extra bedroom, consider staying just outside the city center. The Leeson Bridge Guesthouse is located just south of St Stephen’s Green and is where we were looking at booking a room initially. Their guesthouse gets great reviews and their rates are more reasonable than most other hotels in the area at €100 per night for a double room.
Alternatively, if you’re visiting in the summer, booking a room in the dorms at Trinity College would be a fun and relatively inexpensive way to stay in the center of the city.
How to Eat for Cheap
Usually, I recommend staying in hotels that offer a free breakfast, but with hotels in Dublin charging such high fees per night, a much cheaper way to get a hearty breakfast is to order a fry up, aka a full Irish breakfast, in a cafe. It’s not exactly healthy, but for under €10 you’ll receive a plate with enough food on it to last you to dinner.
If you do end up needing lunch, a cheaper option than eating in a cafe or restaurant is to grab take-away sandwiches and salads from somewhere like Cafe Sol (this was our favorite chain in Dublin) and eat in one of the public parks. You’ll see a lot of people doing this during the warmer months and it’s a great way to enjoy an inexpensive meal in a beautiful setting.
Cheap dinner options, at least the sit-down kind with decent food, are few and far between, so hopefully you saved enough at breakfast and lunch to feel comfortable splurging a little at the end of the day. One of our favorite mid-priced dinner spots in the city center was Matt the Thresher. If you enjoy seafood, we highly recommend eating in their stylish restaurant and bar. For absolutely outstanding food a little outside the city center, Roly’s Bistro is also not to be missed.
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