The best way to explore Dublin is by sea

How to swim, sail and kitesurf Ireland’s Dublin Bay

People kayak on the River Liffey toward the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin. (Brian Lawless/PA Images/Getty Images)

While Dublin may be most known for its history, literary heritage and pub scene, not all visitors know about its beaches, islands, cliff walks, piers and lighthouses.

You’ll find beaches of all types in County Dublin, from long stretches of sand backed by dunes to rocky coves under cliffs. Within 20 to 30 minutes of the city center, you can walk piers, explore islands and tour cliff tops. Along the way, you’ll share the coast with seagulls, swimmers, seals and sailboats.

Plus, Dublin Bay is a UNESCO biosphere full of natural habitats and diverse wildlife; you’ll find brent geese in the winter, spot colonies of seals and often see dolphins and porpoises in the bay.

A local's guide to Dublin

Whether you take a sunset cruise, rent a paddleboard or even brave the chilly waters with a swim, there are lots of ways to explore the coastal city.

Cruise Dublin Bay

A good way to get your bearings of the Dublin Bay is to hop on the St Bridget for a cruise of the bay with Dublin Bay Cruises. If you start from the city center, you’ll pass along the River Liffey and Dublin Port and see highlights including the Poolbeg Lighthouse before entering Dublin Bay.

The St Bridget takes up to 90 people, so it’s more like a ferry than an intimate cruise. There is seating inside, but you’ll want to be on deck for the best views, so dress warmly.

Some tours go north to Howth, passing the Baily Lighthouse and under the beautiful cliffs of the Howth Peninsula before arriving in Howth village, known for its fishing fleets and restaurants. Or take a tour south to Dún Laoghaire, which will bring you to the harbor town with two long piers, yacht clubs and scenic coastal walks. You can also cruise across the bay between Dún Laoghaire and Howth.

After your cruise, do the Howth Cliff Walk and then duck into a local seafood spot for fish and chips. Baily Bites at Kish Fish on Howth’s West Pier serves up delicious smoked hake or calamari with chunky chips. In Dún Laoghaire, walk the East Pier and stop at Fish Shack for takeaway seafood chowder or fish tacos.

See the bay by sailboat

If you like the idea of seeing Dublin Bay on a more rustic vessel, the Brian Boru — named after an Irish king — is an old-style tall ship with sails and masts that runs cruises around the bay. Trips start in Dún Laoghaire Harbor and, weather permitting, some of the cruise will be under sail power.

The three-hour tour often runs at sunset and usually passes Dalkey Island (depending on conditions) where you can spot seabirds and seals. On board the boat, you can help with ropes and sails and if you’re brave enough, you can climb onto the net under the bowsprit.

You can also experience the bay by taking a sailing lesson or charter a yacht if you have sailing experience. The Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School in Dún Laoghaire runs sailing and powerboat courses for all levels. Sailing starts with two-day beginner courses on either dinghies or 26-foot keelboats. Experienced skippers can rent sailing boats or power boats, or beginners can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards by the hour to explore within the sheltered walls of Dún Laoghaire Harbor.

Explore an island

There are a number of islands along the Dublin coastline. In Howth in north Dublin, Ireland’s Eye Ferries take visitors on one-hour boat trips around the nature reserve of Ireland’s Eye, where you can learn more about the history of the island dating back to Viking times. Under the island’s cliffs, you can listen to the screeches of thousands of nesting gannets and guillemots, and spot cormorants, seals and, if you’re lucky, puffins in certain seasons.

“The UNESCO biosphere runs from Dalkey Island to Ireland’s Eye,” says Shane O’Doherty of Ireland’s Eye Ferries. “When you come to Dublin, you have the coastal lifestyle, coastal history and the biodiversity. We have a natural wonderland and with the cliffs and beaches, we have a great variety of habitats.”

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Dalkey Island on the south side of Dublin Bay is uninhabited, except for colonies of breeding seabirds, plus some rabbits and goats. Ken the Ferryman, operated by a native of Dalkey, runs a small motorboat over and back to the island, about a third of a mile from Coliemore Harbor. The trip takes less than 10 minutes, and you can walk or have a picnic on the island and admire views across to the city and Howth, or south to Killiney Bay.

Take a kitesurfing lesson

Bull Island is a sand island and nature reserve just north of the city center. You can walk the island’s three-mile-long beach at Dollymount, explore the dunes and see birds such as seagulls, wildfowl, kestrels and cormorants. But for a dose of adrenaline, try a kitesurfing lesson with Pure Magic.

“The advantage of Dublin Bay is that it is so close to city center, it is very accessible,” says Catherine Etienne of Pure Magic. “Bull Island is very in the nature and the wildlife. It’s a long beach with nothing on it, no buildings, so it makes you disconnect straight away.”

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Rent a kayak or paddleboard

To get closer to the water, there are lots of options for kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. Starting in the city center, take a trip on the River Liffey with City Kayaking. The trips start out at Custom House Quay. You can paddle under the famous Ha’penny bridge and under the arches of O’Connell Bridge, which dates back to 1880.

Guided tours run for about two hours and are on sit-on-top kayaks, which are ideal for beginners. The acoustics under the arches of bridges like O’Connell Bridge are so good that City Kayaking also runs music tours, with live musicians playing under the bridge arches.

On Dublin Bay, you can kayak from Bulloch Harbor to Dalkey Island, stopping to meet the seals on the way. Guided trips take about three hours, including time to walk on the island and learn about its nature and history.

For paddleboarding lessons or rentals, check out Big Style, which operates from a sheltered inner harbor in Dún Laoghaire Harbor, where you can explore the main harbor and piers.

Pure Magic also teaches paddleboarding in Sandycove, a swimming cove south of the city, and in Howth, where you can often paddleboard aside the seals.

“Howth has lots to see for tourists; you can spend the day there,” Etienne says. “In Sandycove, the scenery is very nice; it is beside the Forty Foot [promontory], with lots of swimmers, and you can go to Sandycove Store and Yard for a drink afterwards.”

Get in the chilly water

Dublin has beaches all along its coast, and some of the nicest are north of the city, such as the long golden strands and shallow waters in Portmarnock. To the south is the pebbly Killiney Beach, with views of Killiney Bay.

For a true immersion in Dublin Bay, where the water can be bracing even on a warm summer day, try going down a ladder at one of the popular swimming spots, such as the Forty Foot, which was made famous by James Joyce in the opening chapter of “Ulysses.” Regular sea swimmers gather there daily — all year round.

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Farther south in Dalkey, the Vico is a cliff spot with beautiful views of Killiney Bay and Bray Head. Matt Damon was spotted swimming there in 2020 during the pandemic lockdown, and Harry Styles was spotted swimming in June before his Dublin concert. In Howth, check out Balscadden Bay Beach, a small cove almost hidden under the cliffs at Howth Head at the start of the Howth Cliff Walk.

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