When the Dublin and Kingstown Railway arrived in Bray in 1854 this coastal town just 20 kilometres from Ireland’s capital became a seaside resort for Dubliners.
Early on, Bray was planned as “Ireland’s Brighton” and the Victorian promenade and genteel front row of houses are holdovers from those early years of tourism.
Intruding on this scene is the enormous outline of Bray Head, one of the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.
That rolling granite range to the east is heaven for ramblers, and while you’re out in the countryside you’ll learn just why County Wicklow is called the “Garden of Ireland”. You can de-stress at country houses and walled gardens , or unleash your swing at one of the five highly-rated golf courses right outside town.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bray:
1. Bray Head
An eastern spur of the Wicklow Mountains, Bray Head is a 241-metre hill watching over the south side of the town.
You can begin a calorie-burning ascent from Bray’s Victorian promenade, scrambling to the summit for widescreen vistas of Bray, the Dublin Bay and inland mountains.
Also up here is a stone cross erected in the Catholic Holy Year of 1950. This monument is the final station of the cross during a pilgrimage every Good Friday.
If you carry on south from the summit you’ll get on to the Bray Head Cliff Walk, where the path clings to the slate bluffs on the way to the resort of Greystones.
2. Bray Promenade
When the sun is out it doesn’t get prettier than the long Victorian promenade lining the beach at Bray.
This begins in the north at Martello Terrace, which has its own story to tell as a young James Joyce lived at no.
1 between 1887 and 1891. To the south is Bray Head, which brings a bit of spectacle to the row of painted Victorian houses behind the foreshore.
The band of grass known as Seafront Park is made for family picnics, or you can investigate the pubs, restaurants and ice cream shops across the road.
Bray’s pebble and sand beach has been re-landscaped in the last few years to prevent coastal erosion, and usually has calm surf if you’re up for a paddle.
3. Wicklow Mountains National Park
Ireland’s largest continuous upland area begins just west of Bray.
The Wicklow Mountains are a granite range, with smooth, rolling peaks rising to a maximum 925 metres.
These mountains are coated with heath, blanket bog and grassland, while in the sheltered valleys you’ll trek through mossy hardwood forest.
On your way you could see deer in the wild, and merlins and peregrine falcons are commonly spotted overhead.
Prehistoric glaciation carved out amphitheatre-like corries (cirques), and at Lough Bray, half an hour west of the town, you can visit two wonderful examples both containing lakes.
You can park up close to the south lough to walk along a ridge with a spectacular vantage point of the lakes and their green countryside.
4. Powerscourt Gardens & House
A resplendent Palladian country house, Powerscourt was ordered by the Anglo-Irish peer Richard Wingfield at the start of the 1730s.
The architect was the German Richard Kassels, who had a busy career in Georgian Ireland.
A far cry from its current splendour, the house was gutted by fire in 1974 and lay empty until renovations in the mid-90s.
The gardens meanwhile were planted in the 19th century after Mervyn Wingfield completed a tour of Europe’s great palaces, like Versailles and Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.
There’s a world of things to discover in these 20 hectares, like Italian gardens dotted with statues, Tower Valley with a Medieval folly, Japanese gardens, walled gardens, Triton Lake and the Wingfield and Slazenger families’ pets cemetery.
5. Powerscourt Waterfall
The highest waterfall in Ireland is on land belonging to the Powerscourt estate.
The Powerscourt Waterfall climbs to 121-metres, ranking it at 687 in the world.
It sits on the eastern slopes of the Wicklow Mountains, five kilometres west of Powerscourt House.
In the 19th century the grounds on the way to the falls were planted with sequoias, beeches, oaks and pines, which have since matured into giants.
The parkland is also grazed by a herd of sika deer that was introduced in 1858. There’s a children’s playground and picnic area near the base of the falls where you can appreciate this spectacular sight at your leisure.
6. Killruddery House & Gardens
The estate on the southern cusp of the town has been owned by the same family, the Brabazons (Earls and Countesses of Meath), since 1534. As we see it now, the house was remodelled in an Elizabethan Revival style in the 1820s, while some portions of the gardens have been unchanged since the 17th century.
The parterre was laid out in 1682 by a Monsieur Bonet, a student of the great French landscape architect André Le Nôtre.
The showpiece at Killruddery is the orangery, dating to 1852 and with a design borrowed from the Crystal Palace in London.
Like Powerscourt the volume of things to see and programmes is almost dizzying, from tours of the palatial house in July, August and September to bushcraft workshops, outdoor concerts, beekeeping to indulging in home-baked cakes at the tea rooms.
7. National Garden Exhibition Centre
Another day out for green fingers is the National Garden Exhibition Centre, under 15 minutes south of Bray.
Here you can fall in love 20 individual gardens, planted in an array of styles by the best designers in the business.
The gardens are a delight to amble through, and the water features, design concepts, sculptures and planting arrangements offer lots of inspiration for amateurs.
All of the plants are labelled, and detailed information about the species is provided on request.
If this is all a little slow for younger members of the clan there’s a playground at the centre, and you can pause at the special deck with a supreme view of the gardens.
There’s also a garden centre (garden shop) on hand if you live in the region and the exhibition has given you any ideas.
8. Mermaid Arts Centre
A cultural hub for Bray and County Wicklow, the Mermaid Arts Centre opened in 2002 and combines a 250-seat auditorium with art studios, a gallery and a cafe.
The main hall puts on live music, theatre performances, comedy shows, dance and movie screenings.
That gallery on the second floor is free to enter and hosts exhibitions that are updated every few weeks, so there’s always something new going on.
But the annual highlight is the acclaimed Bray Jazz Festival, taking place on the May bank holiday weekend.
Now in its 19th year, the festival has welcomed performers like Maceo Parker, Stefon Harris and Eliane Elias.
Heading the bill for the 2018 edition were Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas and Joey Baron.
9. Festina Lente Gardens
The largest working Victorian walled garden in Ireland is a stone’s throw from Bray.
Festina Lente Gardens have been painstakingly restored to their 19th-century appearance, within walls that are even older, going back to 1780. There are three areas to ramble in: A working kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs, a pool garden, which has its own terrapin sanctuary, and, best of all, an ornamental formal garden where there’s a meticulously tended rose terrace, statues fountains and geometric flowerbeds.
Also in the ornamental garden is a sensory trail, plotted by the award-winning garden designer Oliver Shurmann.
10. Great Sugar Loaf
East of the Wicklow Mountains is a separate and geologically distinct hill that sticks out in the landscape for miles.
Looking at conical shape you can understand how the Great Sugar Loaf is often mistaken for a volcano, when in fact it’s made up of Cambrian quartzite and is an ancient sedimentary deposit on the seabed that has resisted erosion.
For centuries this 500-metre hill was a wayfinder for pilgrims and scholars travelling to and from the Glendalough monastery high in the Wicklow mountains.
The slopes may look daunting but walkers of all abilities can scale this peak, even if you may find yourself on all fours on the final stretch.
From the top you can look out to sea, west to the Wicklow Mountains and north to Dublin’s sprawl.
11. Dalkey Castle
In the heritage town of the same name on the way to Dublin is a compact Norman Castle from 1390. The monument has been restored several times over the last 600 years and today is a light-hearted visitor attraction.
Dalkey Castle has a team of actors in costume, like a barber/surgeon who’ll tell you what sort of grisly operations he performs, a cook baking “hedgehog pie” and an archer with a longbow you can try.
There’s a museum about the site’s storied history and a writer’s gallery paying homage to the likes of Joyce, Maeve Binchy and Samuel Beckett.
You can also head up to the battlements for an all-encompassing panorama of the town, Irish Sea and the Wicklow Mountains.
12. Killiney Hill
South of Dalkey is a 153-metre granite hill right on the coast and descending sharply to the sea.
The slopes of Killiney Hill have thick pine and oak woodland, while the summit of the hill is bare, but for a bed of heather.
The obelisk up here dates to 1742 and was built as a famine relief project following a crop failure during a cold spell towards the end of the Little Ice Age.
Look south and you can see the signature profile of the Great Sugar Loaf miles to the south.
The sandy White Rock Beach at the bottom of the hill is great for bathing in summer, completely shielded from the brisk northwesterly winds.
Anyone who can swing a club should play a round of golf in the Garden of Ireland’s dreamy countryside.
Fortunately, Bray is almost totally surrounded by golf courses, and within a ten-minute radius of the town there are five clubs.
Going clockwise from the south these are Bray Golf Club, Powerscourt Golf Club, Dun Laoghaire Golf Club, Old Conna Golf Club and the coastal Woodbrook Golf Club.
All five welcome visitors and are well-reviewed.
Green fees for 18 holes range from an affordable €30 at Bray Golf Club to €65 at Powerscourt and Dun Laoghaire.
Naturally those prices fluctuate by day and season.
If you have to pick one, Powerscourt has energising vistas of the Great Sugar Loaf and was voted the Best Parkland Course in Ireland by Golfer’s Guide to Ireland in 2014.
14. Ardmore Studios
The only “four-wall” film studio in the Republic of Ireland is right here in Bray.
Ardmore Studios opened in 1958, and has been involved in productions like Braveheart (1995), My Left Foot (1989), The Tudors (2007-2010), Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) King Arthur (2004) and Reign of Fire (2002).Most recently the studio has staged the Ireland’s version of the TV show Dancing with the Stars, filmed at the beginning of the year.
The studio isn’t a visitor attraction per se, but if you’re an ardent movie fanatic you could phone ahead to arrange a tour of the facility and get some inside fact about the great directors and actors who have passed through these gates.