Where Dublin is a busy, congested and rowdy capital city, just a short rail ride away in Howth it is like a different world. A peninsula along Ireland’s jagged eastern coast, Howth juts into the Dublin Bay. It seems worlds away from Dublin.
Pretty sailboats dot the marina while larger fishing vessels go in and out of the harbor. Charming homes and businesses in pretty pastel colors line the streets which get steadily steeper as you head towards the peninsula’s interior. But it is the cliff walk along the edge of the sea that stole my heart and, quite simply, took my breath away.
Whether you simply want to sit quietly along the windy coast and watch the seagulls gliding effortlessly over the crashing waves and the odd frolicking seal; or take a hike along Howth’s cliffs, no visitor to Dublin should miss the chance to visit Howth, if only for a single day’s escape.
The History of Howth
Howth (pronounced Ho-th), or Binn Éadair in Irish, is a village in County Dublin that is roughly eight miles northeast from the city of Dublin. Technically, the name of the peninsula is Howth Head.
Norse Vikings are said to have colonized Ireland’s eastern coast. They are believed to have first invaded Howth in 819. A couple of centuries later in 1014, the Norse were pushed into Howth after being defeated elsewhere by the then Irish king Brian Boru.
In 1177, the Normans pushed the Vikings out and won control of the region with Armoricus Tristram being given much of the land. Tristam was given the title of Howth and he built the area’s first castle near the waterfront.
Much later in 1914, the village played an important part in the Easter Rising, a movement of the Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland in favor of independence. Irish writer Erskine Childers smuggled 900 rifles and 29000 rounds of ammunition into the island via the Howth harbor on a yacht called the Asgard. Two years later, the guns gave the Irish Volunteers the power they needed. The Asgard is currently at the National Museum in Dublin. The action of Childers is memorialized with a plaque in the wall of the pier.
It’s interesting to note that in the 1970s, Childers’ son, Hamilton, played an important part in Irish history. In 1973 he became the fourth president of Ireland.
Today, the harbor serves the fishing industry as well as being a popular spot for tourism and recreation of locals. Howth is also the home of the Irish Coastguard.
What to Do in Howth
If you’re looking for outdoor activities, Howth is rich with options. But there are also plenty of sites to take in, too. Howth is home to the National Transport Museum and the Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio. You’ll discover ruins set upon the peninsula that offers a look back in history.
But the highlights are the Howth Cliff Walk, the village’s harbor and waterfront, the Howth Castle and Ireland’s Eye, a nearby uninhabited island.
Howth Cliff Walk
Walkers of all levels and interests will find the cliff walk at Howth impressive. I certainly cannot think of a better way to spend a day. There are four trails of varying difficulty and length on a path that originates at the DART train station. But fair warning: you may want to consider the estimated trail time as an idea and not as a hard fast rule. Anyone making the cliff walk for the first (or second or third…) time will, no doubt, be drawn to the scenic views along the way. You’ll spend countless minutes gawking and the view only gets better as you go.
The trail, which starts on a quiet road through the village, past the bright blue door of the one-time childhood home of poet WB Yeats and countless villas with priceless (or rather pricey) sea views. Take care when approaching the cliff as the road is narrow and only a single lane at certain points. Eventually, the trail leads to the cliff itself. There are no fences, no guardrails, and no supports. It’s up to you to be diligent and careful. If you’re not looking to get too close, no worries. Other trails stay further from the cliff’s edge than others.
A clear-cut and well-worn path leads hikers over boulders, across hills of wild flowers and berries and, if you dare, right along the cliff’s edge. Parts of the trail have grass that is worn away from use while other spots appear more man-made, such as steps that leads up along the cliff walls. Tufts of plants dot the plateaus of the cliff walk.
It’s a long way down to where the rocky bottom meets the Irish Sea. But with the wind whipping around you as you stand at the edge, looking out across the bay or down as the water crashes upon boulders, it’s exhilarating and indescribably beautiful. Hikers that make it all the way around the perimeter of the peninsula will be richly rewarded with a view from afar of the Bailey Lighthouse.
No doubt, the hustle and bustle of Dublin will be far from your mind.
Howth Harbor & Waterfront
The Howth Harbor is just steps from the village’s train station on the northern coast of the peninsula. With two piers, the harbor features a U-shape. On the tip of the eastern pier is the Howth Lighthouse. A bright red guardrail rights the top of the lighthouse and it features a matching bright red door at street-level, too. The lighthouse is from 1817. Today, the lighthouse is no longer occupied but there was a lighthouse keeper until it was electrified in 1955. There’s a protective wall that wraps around the lighthouse, protecting it from the bay.
The western pier is populated with shops and restaurants, including a fish market whose ships sail right into the harbor. At the very tip of the western pier is a plaque that marks the footprints of King George IV. The king visited in 1821, setting foot on Irish soil for the very first time.
Visitors and locals alike walk the windy piers for stunning sea views and a peek at nearby Ireland’s Eye. The harbor area is dotted with trawlers, sailboats, and yachts of all sizes and styles. The Howth Yacht Club also calls the harbor home.
While Tristam built a castle of wood in Howth, it is long since gone. Today, Howth Castle stands on the interior of the island. The spot has been in use since 1235 but the current castle has portions dating to 1425. Most of today’s appearance you can attribute to a 1738 renovation as well as another in 1911.
The Howth Castle once belonged to the holder of the title of the Earl of Howth. The last man to hold that title died in 1909. His nephew, Julian Gaisford, inherited the majestic castle. It has been in the hands of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family for more than eight centuries. Today it is their private residence.
Castle-lovers can visit during the summer months for guided tours on weekends. And you will be in good company. Other visitors to Howth Castle have included Queen Victoria and Bing Crosby — although not at the same time, obviously. On display within the walls of the castle are original furniture and pieces, some dating to 18th century Ireland.
As you stand in the harbor, perhaps by the lighthouse, straight ahead there is a small island that does not look so far away. It almost looks close enough that you could throw a stone and hit it. That spot is Ireland’s Eye, an uninhabited island less than a mile from the Irish isle. It’s roughly 53 acres in size.
The most recognizable sight on the island, when viewed from afar, is the Martello tower ruins. The tower was built in 1803 with the intent to protect the region if Napoleon were to come for a visit, so to speak. There is also the ruins of St. Nessans Church, a 6th-century church. But it’s so tempting to explore.
These days, it is the birds that call Ireland’s Eye home. During breeding season, the island is most alive with a variety of wildlife. Birdwatchers or adventurous outdoor types can visit the island via a ferry that operates from Howth. It takes only fifteen minutes to reach the island. There are colonies of guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, gulls, gannets, cormorants and more. If you’re extremely lucky, you may even see a puffin.
And like all good, old spots that are difficult to reach, Ireland’s Eye has its own mystery surrounding it. In 1852, William Burke Kirwan and his wife, Sarah Maria Louisa, visited the island for a day trip. But only one of them left the island alive. William was convicted of his wife’s murder but there are differing theories regarding what really happened.
Where to Stay in Howth
Just imagine waking up steps from the sea and the cliff. Simply roll out of bed and have a cup of tea or coffee before indulging in an adventure at the seaside. Sounds simply wonderful, doesn’t it?
If you want to turn your Howth visit into more than a mere day trip from Dublin, you do have a few options. There are no proper hotels in Howth. However, you will find some bed and breakfasts, where you will no doubt experience a taste of the real Howth. There are also a number of options on Airbnb.
If your heart is set on a hotel, there are some nearby options. You do not have to venture all the way back into the city of Dublin.
Where to Eat in Howth
After all the exploring in Howth, whether it be castles or cliffs, you will work up an appetite. And the seaside town does not disappoint with a variety of options. Local chip shop chains Leo Burdock (my favorite) and Beshoff Bros both offer quick and tasty options. You can even grab a bite to go and picnic along the waterfront if the weather is nice. (Just know that you will probably attract the attention of the seagulls and other local birds.)
There are also several options on the jetty at the harbor as well as restaurants and pubs more inland towards the village’s historic center. Howth also has a charming tea room, Marie Louise Tea Rooms, right along the road, parallel to the waterfront.
Regardless of where you dine, it’s likely going to be fresh, especially where seafood is concerned!
Getting to Howth
Howth is easily accessible using public transportation. Using Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) rail, it’s less than a half hour’s ride from downtown Dublin. Although there are three Howth stops (Bayside, Sutton, and Howth), the stop most central to the town is the last stop (Howth) on the line.
The Dublin Bus serves the area using the 31/a line. I found the bus route to not be as direct or time efficient as using DART.
If you really want to arrive in style, you can sail into Howth via a ferry from Dublin Bay Cruises.
There is also a limited amount of parking available at the harbor as well as approaching the cliff walk.
If you’re looking to experience Howth as part of a group tour, several of the tourist buses that operate out of Dublin offer half-day and day-long tours of Howth and nearby Malahide. You’ll notice the colorful tour buses going up and down the main street in Howth as you explore the area.
Tips for Visiting Howth
- Visitors to Howth will find it relatively easy to get around the town. A car is not really necessary. Tourists can reach most everything of interest by foot. Maps are on display at the train station, harbor and other spots around the village. There’s also an information kiosk where they can point you in the right direction.
- There are public restrooms right at the harbor just along the cliff walk loop trail. While not luxurious by any stretch, they serve their purpose.
- Trash cans are essentially non-existent along the cliff walk loop. Plan to take out what you take in. It’s a rule worth repeating.
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