While outside of City Centre and Dublin’s Urban Park Scramble, Phoenix Park might be my favorite in the city—especially given my preference for secluded, woodsy walks.
This massive park—Europe’s largest enclosed public green space at 1,750 acres—occupies a small-city-sized space on Dublin’s west side, just north of the River Liffey. I’ve kicked around and explored most of the park—maybe not every acre, but most of the local and historical favorites—and these are my favorites.
The Climb to the Visitor Centre
The most convenient entrance to the park is on Parkgate Street in the southeast corner—walkable from City Centre and close to public transport. Just inside the gate, you can rent a bike if you want to knock out the whole park in an afternoon; alternatively, you can pound the pavement on the wide trails along the main park road and up the long hill to the central roundabout.
On your way up, you’ll pass the Wellington Monument—the big obelisk you may have already seen from City Centre or from the Guinness Storehouse Gravity Bar. This somewhat controversial tribute honors the local Trim-born Duke of Wellington who famously held off Napoleon at Waterloo—and who was also publicly anti-Catholic and anti-Irish.
You’ll also hear the lions roar and elephants trumpet at the Dublin Zoo, one of Europe’s oldest and birthplace of the original MGM lion.At the central roundabout—the one with the Phoenix monument on a pillar—you can head left to visit the American Ambassador’s Residence (given primo status next door to the Irish President’s house, see below) or right to the park visitor centre at Ashtown Castle. At the top-notch visitor centre, check out the exhibits (with lots of stuffed animal specimens for the kids if you skip a visit to the zoo) and pick up a free park map. The adjoining tower house is usually closed, but may be open for a tour on the day of your visit—ask at the desk if there are any free walks or tours anywhere in the park. If not, look at the hedge maze around it; this outlines the original floor plan of a much larger castle of which this tower house was once a part.
On the Climb, you passed Ireland’s proudest statehouse, Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of the President of Ireland. On Saturdays, free guided tours of the house can be booked at the visitor centre on a first come, first served basis. The hour-long tour is a nice overview of the history of the park and the Irish presidency, but if you only have time for one fancy manor turned into a swanky government home, head to the western edge of the park to Farmleigh.The home and gardens of Farmleigh once belonged to the wealthy Guinness family. When the brewing dynasty moved to even ritzier estates in England, they offered Farmleigh to the Irish government for free—and were turned down. Years later, when the Irish government was drowning in Celtic Tiger cash, they reached out to acquire the house they had been offered for free, and found that the price had gone up. In 1999, the Irish State bought the house and grounds for 29 million euros. It was, in the words of a Phoenix Park tour guide, “a very Irish deal indeed!”
Today, the house runs tours nearly every day through the year. For security reasons, the Farmleigh tour can cover more of the house than can that of the Áras, and the house has a few more entertaining quirks of interest to the casual visitor. While you wait for the free house tour, explore the well-maintained gardens and trails around the estate grounds.
Furry Glen and the Southern Border
After the indoor opulence of Farmleigh, why not get into the woods a bit? Head to the southwest corner of the park to Furry Glen and take the paved trails off the main road into the trees. Around the lake, you’ll find some of the wildest spaces in Dublin City.Stay on the road along the hilly southern border of the park for a nice workout and beautiful views of the Kilmainham neighborhood across the river and City Centre in the distance. Look into the center of the park as you go to the Papal Cross, built for a visit from Pope JP II. In 1979 he preached to a crowd of over one million in the fields surrounding the cross. This area might now be dotted with the herd of semi-wild deer that roam freely in the park. These are the descendants of the original seventeenth-century herd imported by the wealthy Duke of Ormond, who originally set aside this land as a royal hunting preserve.
Farther along, near a small house above the road, you can get a look at a small, stone-age grave—known as a dolmen—that is older than the famous Newgrange passage tomb in Co. Meath. This little table-like structure is hard to find, check the coordinates here for a better look at its location.
Finally, if you stay along the southern border, you’ll pass the old Magazine Fort. This abandoned munitions storage facility once stored gunpowder and bullets for the occupying British army. After independence, the Irish State moved in with their own weapons, and used it until it was abandoned in 1988. Today, it’s little more than an empty husk, and unsafe to enter.
A Post-Park Drink
Sometime during your Phoenix Park exploration, you may crave a Dublin-style respite, and my favorite spot for such a break is the Hole in the Wall pub along the northeast border. Dating back to the earliest days of the park in the seventeenth century, this traditional local is listed on my top pub lists. The traditional atmosphere and great drink selection make this a perfect place for a reasonably-priced pint after your walk or cycle through the park.
Read more about Phoenix Park and the rest of Dublin in my free eBook, The Frugal Guide: Dublin, available in multiple formats from most eBook distributors.