The romantic mind’s-eye image of Dublin, for most, is indoors. The Book of Kells encased in a glass case, scored by monastic chanting; an interactive display at the Guinness Storehouse or Old Jameson Distillery; a wooden table in a darkened pub, covered with even-darker pints while a gathered crowd “plays the floor” along with a trad session.
But in all the enthusiasm for a warm snug and a chat with the locals, tourists should not overlook the city’s outdoor offerings — even given Dublin’s dicey weather. After you’ve scrambled through the city’s Georgian gardens and gotten up-close-and-personal with the Phoenix Park deer, head north to the Glasnevin neighborhood for a (free!) stroll through a well-presented Victorian collection of local and exotic trees and plants at the National Botanic Gardens. Whatever the season, you’ll find something blooming.
— Cory Hanson (@HansonCory1) May 12, 2016
As you enter the main gate on Botanic Road, check in at the visitors’ centre on your immediate left and ask about their series of lectures and guided walks, most of which are free. You may also buy a souvenir mp3 player preloaded with the garden’s three guided audiotours. (If you don’t need the electronic souvenir, you can download the tours to your own player for free in advance.)
Looking into the gardens, your eyes will be drawn to the Great Palm House, a Victorian-era iron-and-glass hothouse which was a marvel of design in its day. Imagine the wonder the locals must have experienced when they first stepped into the steamy jungle — heated by hot water pipes running along the floor — to see and touch exotic rainforest plants of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
With the central jungle as your main hub, explore the wings of the Palm House, visiting the collection of tropical flowers and the cacti and succulents of the dry desert.
After the central greenhouse, take a look at the park map and explore the body of the gardens. In spring, walk down lanes lined with beds of dazzling daffodils and tulips; in summer and fall, enjoy the fat blooms of hardy annuals and cross the River Tolka — keeping a sharp eye out for the elusive brown trout — to the rose garden in the corner of the park.
A particular favorite for families is the educational food garden along the southwest border of the park. This demonstration plot shows just how productive a small piece of Irish garden land can be, and which backyard crops are best suited for the Irish weather (hint: as you might expect, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage are among the top performers). Working compost and vermiculture (worm composting) systems allow kids to get a worm’s-eye view of the processes that can turn kitchen waste into valuable garden fertilizer. The buzzing you’ll hear comes from the on-site beehive, which keeps the garden’s specimens well-pollenated and the on-site cafe well-honeyed.
These top-notch (and did I mention totally free?) gardens may be a jaunt from the city centre, but if the weather cooperates, a walk through the trees, flowers, and old-school greenhouses at the National Botanic Gardens is one of the best half-days out in Dublin.
Nuts and Bolts
- The Botanic Gardens are open every day of the year except Christmas Day; hours vary depending on the season. Visit their website in advance to check the program of events and opening hours.
- You may wish to connect your visit to the Botanic Gardens with a walk through neighboring Glasnevin Cemetery. This is Dublin’s largest cemetery, and one of the first that officially allowed Catholic burials. Many of modern Ireland’s founders and celebrities are buried here. There is a “secret” entrance into the back gate of the cemetery through a gate near the Botanic Road entrance to the gardens.