I have a crippling fear of being bored. Thanks to my dad’s work, I moved around a lot as a kid, and I was lucky enough to travel through most of Europe. It was a whirlwind, never-in-one-place kind of childhood and, coupled with a love of books taking place in far-off kingdoms, it’s probably the reason why I get antsy if I haven’t boarded a plane in a couple of months. I can’t think of anything worse than living a life of perpetual boredom, which is why I cram my days full of trying new restaurants, hiking, sharing beers with friends, reading, and – of course – traveling.
I like to travel and I like to do it often. It’s a big, big, world out there and I probably only have another six decades (seven, if I’m lucky) to see all of it, so I’ve developed a habit of impulsively buying plane tickets. Of course, it’s important to remember that travel isn’t always an easy decision for everyone – money, personal obligations, and health restrictions can all limit those #wanderlust dreams. I myself am funding this travel obsession of mine on a nonprofit employee salary, so budget airlines, a steady diet of .89 cent ramen cups, and a wardrobe that hasn’t been updated in two years is quite literally the only way I manage to go anywhere. I am also lucky enough to have a family that knows I prefer travel money to wrapped birthday presents (thanks mom and dad!), but even with their generosity, I take spending money on travel pretty seriously.
So as my big 25th birthday rolled around in February, I started to get the itch – that one that comes after a few months stuck in the same city and seeing the same faces every day on my walk to work. I was about to turn a quarter of a century and as I tried to think of something I’d really like to do for my birthday – maybe dinner out, drinks, a trip to a Smithsonian museum I had already seen 10 times? – I realized the only thing I actually wanted to do was just go somewhere.
Pro tip: if you like to spend your life savings on travel, make friends who manage their finances the same way. After an exchange of a grand total of 5 text messages in mid-January, my pal Patrick agreed to buy a cheap round-trip flight to Dublin with me on the weekend before my birthday just a month later, in mid-February. Thanks Wow Airlines! (Not a paid promotion – I’m just a sucker for Icelandic budget airlines).
One overnight flight later, we left balmy, sunny D.C., cruising over patchwork fields of green, and landed in rainy, chilly Dublin. Opting for an Airbnb rather than a hostel for pretty much the same price (or, as Patrick called it, our boutique), we quickly checked in with our hosts, who were a pleasant, soft-spoken Irish couple with what sounded like riotous toddlers playing in the back room. Although the idea of wasting time napping and not immediately jumping out the front door was a difficult one to roll with, so too was the idea of having to explore my first day in Dublin on less than 4 hours of sleep. I had conveniently developed a hacking cough just one day before leaving on the trip, so I hadn’t slept much on the flight, much to my dismay (and the dismay of the French girl sitting one row ahead of me, who kept up a steady glare in my direction every time I so much as cleared my throat).
We power-napped and then power-walked right to our first pub: The Stag’s Head Pub. Built in 1770 and still looking pretty much the same since it was remodeled in 1895, it was covered in dark wood paneling and full of absurdly short stools encircling low tables, as well as grizzly old men reading the newspaper at the bar. An enormous stag’s head (aptly named) loomed over the large collection of whiskey, but we opted for local lagers and some food instead. Pretty soon, the quiet of the Stag’s Head got to be too much for our jet-lagged exhaustion – we zipped up our raincoats and stepped out into the torrential drizzle.
Dublin is different from the other capitals of Europe. Of course, it has its winding alleyways, scenic canals, gardens, and brightly-painted doors. But many of the streets are gritty, grey, and puddle-strewn. Walk through the touristy, historic center and you’ll be waylaid by crowds of American college students rushing to snag their picture in front of Temple Bar, or a Snapchat with the large man dressed up as a leprechaun. It’s an odd combination of locals, who push through the crowds with the kind of mild disdain and patience that only a European can master, and foreigners on a desperate search for that perfect Irish experience. But you won’t find a charming Irish village or the rolling green hills of the Éire in Dublin. We emerged from the stillness of the Stag’s Head into a slew of traffic, crowds of sorority girls lining up outside of a crowded bar (it was about 1 p.m. in the afternoon), and that ever-present, perplexing rain.
I wish I could tell you that after stepping out into that bright grey sky, we spent all afternoon touring a museum, visiting an old Victorian palace, or sifting through the pews of an ancient Cathedral. But to be perfectly honest, I was tired. Patrick, it seems, is always tired. After about thirty of minutes of walking around the city in the rain and pretending to enjoy it, we did the obvious: we found another pub.
Just to clarify: this was not a drinking trip. I’ve never traveled abroad with the sole intention of getting wasted and hitting up as many clubs as I can until 6 a.m. My favorite parts of traveling usually include exploring some scraggly old castles and trying the most authentic food I can find. But pubs are such an intrinsic part of Irish culture – its very own institution – that it felt wrong not to hit up a few. Although not quite the village meeting place they once were “back in the day,” pubs are still the centerpiece of Irish social life. Case in point: in just 44 square miles of Dublin’s city limits, there are 751 pubs. That’s a lot of beer…and also a lot of options when trying to narrow down which pubs to visit in just a 72-hour trip. We settled on what has now easily become one of my favorite drinking establishments in the world: The Long Hall Pub.
Founded 10 years before the U.S. of A. had even declared its independence, the Long Hall Pub is looking pretty good for its age. It’s a classic, Victorian pub, with lush, red carpets, low-hanging chandeliers, and ridiculously short tables and stools that were definitely made for hobbit-sized humans. They only served beer and whiskey, and it was perfect.
Patrick and I stumbled in soaking wet from the rain and perched ourselves on some stools in a corner. We spent the next couple of hours chatting and occasionally falling into a comfortable silence, watching locals and poorly-dressed tourists bump into one another under dark wooden arches, decorated with golden filigree. I usually feel an antsy sort of need to constantly move when traveling. Sitting still can sometimes feel like I’m missing out on something. But in that dark, warm pub, and the lilt of Irish accents rising and falling around us, I felt absolutely no desire to leave.
After a while, we bundled up and headed back into the rain, settling on some mediocre Italian food for dinner (because what else would you eat in Ireland, I guess?) and then tracked down a punk-themed pub that Patrick had been determined to visit. Its ceilings were low, the bathrooms vaguely terrifying, and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. We watched three extremely intoxicated locals try to have a very serious discussion at the bar (involving a lot of hand gestures) before slipping out onto the quiet streets and back to our Airbnb.
The next morning we woke up bright and early to go…drink more beer. Actually, we went to the Guinness Storehouse factory, which was the one really touristy thing I had insisted on doing.
The factory was surprisingly large, and we got to learn how Guinness was made, the history of the drink (and its surrounding cult of Guinness-lovers), and even did a taste-test. The taste-test portion was easily my favorite – they had separate rooms set up with varying levels of light to either dull or shock your senses while trying the Guinness, which was trippy (especially when still jet-lagged). This was the freshest Guinness, they reminded us, that you’ll ever have, as it was being poured right there, from the factory. I’ll say that I tasted a difference, but honestly, any freshly-poured Guinness at 11 a.m. would have tasted good to me at that point. We also received official training on how to do a true Guinness pour, which was way more intricate than I’ve ever seen a bartender pour for me here in the U.S. I am officially a certified Guinness pourer though, with a printed certificate, so you could say I had a true academic experience while abroad.
The final stage of the tour ended at the top of the Guinness Storehouse in the Gravity Bar, which offers a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin with ceiling-to-floor windows. You could see all the way to the mountains while sipping your freshly-poured brew and it was beautiful, but also, as always, grey and raining.
After a morning of drinking beer (this was not a drinking trip, this was not a drinking
trip, this was not a drinking trip), we went to fulfill Patrick’s one true dream of the weekend: a real chippy. Having lived in England as a kid, and having spent most summers in Scotland thanks to being half-Scottish, Patrick’s love of fish & chips is on par with my obsession with real mozzarella.
We got our little cardboard boxes filled with greasy, battered fish and thick-cut potatoes, all coated in a dusting of salt, and camped out on the lawn of Dublin Castle. Patrick inhaled his food in about five minutes, but I struggled through mine. As a self-proclaimed lover of food, I have one, major flaw: I don’t like fish. I’m trying to learn to like it. Apparently, as a toddler, I used to suck down clams faster than any adults at the table, but I’m convinced that watching The Little Mermaid so often as a child traumatized me, and now the idea of fish still makes me a little queasy. I’m game to try anything though (I ate fermented shark meat in Iceland, so nothing can really phase me) and so I picked my way through about half of the fish before handing it over to Patrick and filling up on chips. It started to rain, as it usually does in Ireland, so we headed to Kilmainham Gaol, an infamous Dublin prison and one of the most important monuments of Irish independence, as it held a majority of the leaders of Irish rebellions dating back to 1798…all the way up to the famous Easter Uprising of 1916. The museum was great, and the jail itself appropriately ominous. There’s a constant undercurrent of rebellion in Irish culture, which I love, and it was very apparent in that jail.
From there we went to uh…another pub. But this one, at least, had cultural context. I had done quite a bit of research on trad sessions (traditional Irish music played in a pub) and had settled on Devitt’s Pub as one of the best places to hear some old-school jigs. I was embarrassingly excited when we arrived almost an hour early. I had also only eaten half of a fried fish and some chips all day, and the pub’s kitchen was closed, so in a desperate attempt to quell the hunger, I started drinking ciders with great gusto. This may or may not have had an effect on how charming I thought the pub was.
But in all honesty, Devitt’s was incredibly charming. It was basic: wood walls, floors, chairs, and tables; but the lights were dim, it was warm, and the people were friendly. We camped out at the bar, where the bartender Tom quickly found out we were American and began calling us “Trump’s bitches.” This was my first experience being an American abroad after the 2016 election! How exciting! I assured Tom that I hadn’t voted for the “orange fella” but he continued to call us “Trump’s bitches” until some Canadians rolled up and revealed that – in an odd twist of fate – they were actually big fans of Trump. It was a strange, parallel universe. Tom proceeded to make fun of the Canadians instead, who were – for some reason – planting trees in England for a living, employed by a random company I had never heard of. As the musicians began to set up for the trad session, Tom told us stories about working in pubs, the meaning of all of his tattoos (none of them particularly good), and where we should have gone for the best fish & chips in Dublin county.
But then the music started and oh boy, I was in love. The group set up just a few feet away, all circled around a long table. In between songs, they all chatted among themselves, taking swigs of their beers and waving hello to friends they recognized in the crowd. Pretty soon, the bar was packed and we couldn’t even move off our barstools. The music was jaunty and fun and alive, but there were the slow songs too – the haunting ones about the boys who never came home from war, and love long gone. I could have stayed there forever.
And stayed there forever we did! Or, at the very least, until the band packed up and the bar shut down at 2 a.m. At this point I was absolutely starving and maybe a wee bit drunk, so I began demanding if Tom knew of any good late-night food spots. The guitarist of the trad session group overheard and took pity on me, promising that he could lead us to “hands down, the best chicken wings in the world.” When in Ireland…
So we followed this unnamed guitarist down a few dark, shady alleyways and then out onto a wide street packed with boisterous crowds of drunk university students. He led us to a kebab shop but emphasized again: get the chicken wings. We ordered one set of wings and some chips. And lemme tell ya, he was right: these were, by far, the absolute best chicken wings in the entire world. There is no photo or video evidence of these wings. We ate the first round so quickly that there wasn’t time to document it. Grease from the fryer ran down our hands and faces in the most attractive way. We immediately put in two more orders of wings, and ate those in record time while talking to an American study abroad student who had had far too many whiskeys. We convinced him that we were Canadian and that he was absolutely mistaken, we were not one of his countrymen, before heading out the door, back to our Airbnb once again. The only bad part of Airbnbs is this: coming home after a night at the pub and having to take special care not to wake up Esther, Ed, and their adorable little toddlers. Luckily, we got in nice and quietly.
The next day was our last day in Dublin so, of course, it was the only day that it really rained. Poured, actually. We trekked across the city in our squelching shoes to see Trinity College, the Book of Kells, and – of course – the Trinity College Library, which was absolutely stunning. Gimme a library, especially an old, dusty library, and I’m a happy English major.
We explored both sides of the River Liffey, trudging through the rain to see a statue of my least favorite author, James Joyce, as well as the many twisting, cobblestoned alleys of Dublin. For some reason, we decided to have Chinese food for lunch, and actually stumbled upon some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. The place was called M&L Chinese Restaurant, and it’s known for serving up incredibly authentic Cantonese-style cuisine. The inside was basic: sparse, white walls, faded blue tablecloths, and fluorescent lighting. It was nearly empty when we first walked in, and accompanied by an eerie sort of silence. The “Are we going to get food poisoning from this place?” kind of silence. But by the time we left, the place was packed and the food was amazing. All I can say is: get the dumplings.
We spent the rest of the day watching the Ireland vs. Italy rugby match and then returned to my now favorite bar, the Long Hall Pub, for a few more hours of ciders and people-watching. Later, we tried to squeeze into O’Donoghue’s Pub for their trad music session but ultimately failed – there was barely room to breathe in there, let alone see the musicians playing. I was a little disappointed about that one, since O’Donoghue’s is especially known for its traditional music and is where The Dubliners got their start in the 1960’s.
Since this was technically my “birthday trip,” we splurged on yet another Italian dinner – this one pretty fancy – at a restaurant called The Unicorn, which was incredible (real mozzarella di bufala!). We were also easily the youngest and most underdressed people there, but we held our own, and I got to practice my Italian with the waiters. We ended the night in the outside courtyard of O’Donoghue’s Pub, sharing our last pints of Guinness before an early 5 a.m. wakeup call to the airport the next morning (the airplane ride would include getting more hot dogs at the Iceland airport, and accidentally spending a whole $10 on a cup of ramen and a Pepsi thanks to WowAir’s severely over-priced food menu).
The entire weekend was a less aggressive traveling style than I was used to. My friends and family back home made fun of me, asking if all I had done was drink my way through Dublin, like every other study abroad student I saw doing on the streets outside of Temple Bar. And despite my protests that we saw and did other things (which we did), I have to admit that my favorite part of this random, whirlwind, 25th birthday weekend to Dublin were undoubtedly those hours spent in bustling, cozy pubs. I didn’t mind, for once, that I got to simply experience a city, rather than filling my trip with a jam-packed to-do list of every tourist location on the map.
Maybe sometimes travel is just this: long hours huddled on rickety bar stools, a beer now warm for being held too long, and an elderly man crooning generations-old war songs in the corner. Just you and a friend in a dimly-lit room in a completely different part of the world, talking late into the night about family, irrational fears, your first crush and your current one, the state of the union, your favorite ice cream flavors, and everything and nothing, all at once. Sometimes it’s those conversations – not the big, national monuments – that are, in fact, everything and nothing. But mostly, everything.