Drogheda, by the Boyne Estuary in East Ireland, is a town with captivating history in its backyard.
The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is a complex of three massive passage tombs dating back as far as 5,200 years and loaded with enigmatic stone carvings.
The tombs at Newgrange and Knowth can be visited on a guided tour, while you can enter Dowth under your own steam.
The banks of the Boyne is where an epoch-making battle was fought in 1690 during the Williamite War, and there’s an exhibition about the Battle of the Boyne and its repercussions at the handsome Oldbridge House to the west of the town.
Drogheda has a top-notch art gallery that opened in a former Franciscan church in 2006, as well as a formidable barbican and a hill-top fort, now home to a museum about the town.
Let’s explore the 15 Best Things to Do in Drogheda (Ireland):
Brú na Bóinne’s star monument is also the oldest on the site.
Newgrange dates from 3200 BC, before the Egyptian Pyramids were built.
This circular mound has a diameter of 80 metres and is ringed by 97 kerbstones, the most decorative of which is the astonishing Entrance Stone, etched with spirals.
Above the portal there’s a purpose-built gap, that is filled with sunlight on the Winter Solstice.
Unlike most of the other cairns at Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange is just a single tomb at the end of a 19-metre passage.
Standing in the cruciform chamber you can see how the prehistoric builders layered the slabs on top of each other until the chamber could be sealed with a capstone.
More than five millennia later, Newgrange is still completely waterproof.
During the excavations in the 1960s and 70s the cremated remains of five people were recovered from the basin stones in the chamber.
At Knowth there’s a large mound, 95 metre across at its widest point, encircled by 18 smaller satellite mounds.
The entrances to the tombs at Knowth have marvellous stone settings made with granite and quartz.
That main mound has an eastern and western tomb and is traced by 127 kerbstones, many of which have mysterious spirals and lozenges.
More than 200 pieces of Megalithic art have been found at Knowth, contributing a third of the total in all of Western Europe.
The eastern passage of the main mound is incredible, at 40 metres in length and reaching a height of six metres.
At the end is a cruciform chamber with three recesses and hollow basin stones, where cremated human remains would likely have been kept.
The final monument to visit at Brú na Bóinne is this passage tomb as old as 4,500 years, and the second oldest on the site after Newgrange.
Dowth isn’t as famous as its neighbours, and you can access the site directly from the road instead of joining tours via the visitor centre like at Newgrange and Knowth.
There are two burial chambers to access, and although the passageways are shorter here, the chambers are sizeable, and have some of the largest stones of any of the tombs at Brú na Bóinne.
The Dowth North chamber has four enormous stones almost three metres in height.
The decoration is less ornate at Dowth, but there are still 15 carved kerbstones visible, including a special example on the last stone on the right hands side of the passage to Dowth North.
Dowth South meanwhile is aligned with the setting sun on the Winter Solstice in December.
4. Highlanes Gallery
After the Franciscans departed Drogheda in 2000 following a 760-year stay in the town they donated their church to the municipality.
The northeast of Ireland had been in need of a cultural space, and the church and part of its friary were remodelled into an airy, open-plan gallery that opened in 2006. Highlanes presents Drogheda’s Municipal Art Collection, known for the strong presence of 20th-century woman artists like Nano Reid, Evie Hone and Bea Orpen.
When this article was written in spring 2018 there was a collaborative painting, sculpture, print and film exhibition; Landmarks and Lifeforms by Frieda Meaney and Danny Osborne.
Highlanes also puts on workshops for kids during the school holidays.
5. Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre
A momentous event in Irish and British history was played out less than ten minutes west of Drogheda’s town centre in 1690. The Battle of the Boyne was fought across the Boyne River between the forces loyal to the deposed Catholic King James II and the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange.
In terms of numbers (more than 60,000 men deployed), it was the largest battle ever fought on Irish soil.
Williamite forces won the day, signalling the beginning of the end of the Williamite War in Ireland, and James’ campaign to regain the British crown.
The visitor centre is in Oldbridge House, a grand 18th-century property on the battleground, and tells you everything you need to know about the battle and the two warring monarchs.
Outside, the Townley Hall Woods Trail will deliver you to King William’s Glen where there’s a viewing platform surveying the battlefield.
6. St Peter’s Church
Originating at the end of the 18th century, St Peter’s Church is recognised by its resplendent French Gothic facade, which took shape a century later in 1884. This was constructed from local limestone and has a soaring bell tower and a high gable above a stunning rose window.
The church has over 40 stained glass windows, and an array of beautiful carvings, on the facade, along the aisles and on the marble high altar.
But most compelling of all is the shrine of St Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic Archbishop of Drogheda and Jesuit, hanged, drawn and quartered during the Popish Plot in 1681. He was the last Catholic to be martyred in England and his remains were brought back to Drogheda after his death.
In an elaborate reliquary you’ll see his mummified head and shoulder blade, and the preserved door to his cell at Newgate prison where he awaited his execution.
7. St Laurence Gate
Controlling the eastern entrance to the town, St Laurence Gate is the most striking reminder of the walls that once enveloped Drogheda.
St Laurence Gate wasn’t in fact an entrance to the town in its own right, as it was a barbican, an outwork defending a gate that has long since disappeared.
The structure is from the 13th century and has two four-storey towers joined at the uppermost part by a bridge.
If you inspect the portal below you can still see the slot where the portcullis would have been lowered in times of siege.
One explanation for the size of St Laurence Gate is that it was also an observation tower for early warnings of waterborne attacks along the Boyne Estuary.
8. Magdalene Tower
In a prominent position in the north of Drogheda is the last remaining fragment of a Dominican Friary dating from the 13th century.
The tower, complete with an ogival arch, window traceries and merlons, is from 14th century.
It would have been standing when the Ulster Chiefs submitted to the rule of English King Richard II at the end of the 1300s.
Not long after the friary’s abbot Father Abbot would broker peace between the warring two halves of Drogheda on each side of the Boyne.
The tower still bears the scars of an assault by Cromwell’s forces during the Siege of Drogheda in September 1649.
9. Drogheda Museum Millmount
Ever since Norman times, Millmount, the fort atop the mound on the south bank of the Boyne, has played a crucial role in the defence of Drogheda.
That continued through Cromwell’s Invasion of Ireland in the 17th century right up to the Civil War in 1922 when the present Martello tower was shelled.
The entire fort compound has become the Millmount Cultural Quarter, with a cafe, food market, craft studios, art galleries and the town museum.
Battle up the slope for the best vantage point of Drogheda and the Boyne, and to browse the exhibition, which has a timeline of the town and country’s history, Medieval guild and trade banners and a preserved kitchen, dairy and laundry from the 1700s.
10. Monasterboice Monastic Site
You can go back to the earliest years of Irish Christianity at this monastic settlement set up in the late-5th century.
The Monasterboice Monastic Site is a National Monument of Ireland, and what you’ll find now are the vestiges of two 14th-century churches and an older circular tower.
This 28-metre Celtic construction dates from 968 and had a defensive role for the settlement.
But most significant of all are the three Irish High Crosses, carved with bible imagery around the 9th or 10th century.
The finest of these is Muiredach’s High Cross, standing 5.5 metres tall and carved with intricate panels showing Adam and Eve, the Last Judgement, Adoration of the Magi, David and Goliath and more.
11. Mellifont Abbey
Hardly ten minutes from Drogheda, Melifont Abbey was Ireland’s first Cistercian monastery, established in 1142 by the Archbishop of Armagh , Saint Malachy.
After the abbey was dissolved during the Reformation it became a fortified house, serving as William of Orange’s base during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The remnants today are a National Monument of Ireland, and are remarkable thanks to the surviving lavabo.
Enclosed by a set of 13th-century arches, this is where the monks would wash their hands.
The visitor centre next to the ruins has a riveting exhibition on stonemasonry in the Middle Ages, preserving examples from the abbey.
12. Beaulieu House and Gardens
Another convenient day out, this fine estate is just downriver from Drogheda beside the Boyne.
Beaulieu House is one of Ireland’s earliest unfortified houses, constructed at the beginning of the 18th century, and with exaggerated eaves and Mannerist pediments and pilasters framing its doorways.
The estate itself goes back to the end of the 12th century, and in all this time has been in the hands of just two families: The Plunketts and then the Tichbornes since the Confederate War in the mid-17th century.
The house is decorated with portraits and period furniture and is open for tours on afternoons from June to October.
In the grounds is a 1.5-hectare walled garden, arranged in a formal style and with perennials that come alive in mid-summer.
13. Hill of Slane
North of the namesake village, the Hill of Slane is 15 kilometres west of Drogheda and is a place where Irish mythology and medieval history fuse together.
This was supposedly where St Patrick lit a Paschal fire in 433 to defy the Pagan King Laoire’s pagan festival fire on the Hill of Tara, visible 16 kilometres away.
This was supposed to be the only fire lit in the region, but instead of punishing Patrick, Laoire was impressed by his bravery and allowed him to continue his Christian mission in Ireland.
What is known is that the Hill of Slane has been highly venerated since well before Christianity arrived, and on the western end of the hilltop there’s a man-made mound, which may have pagan origins.
This was chosen by St Patrick’s follower St Erc as the site of a monastery, and the current ruins on the same site are from a Franciscan abbey founded in 1512.
14. Slane Castle
The other great monument to seek out in Slane is this 18th-century estate in 600 hectares on the left bank of the River Boyne.
Centred on a Romantic house, the estate belongs to the nobleman Henry Mountcharles, 8th Marquess Conyngham, and was founded back in 1785 by his ancestors William Burton and Henry Burton Conyngham.
The estate opens its doors from the start of May to the end of August, and you can go on a historical tour of the house or take part in a whiskey tasting session in the company of a distiller.
Slane Castle’s grounds are in a natural bowl, perfect for outdoor concerts.
The roll-call of performers to have played at this venue since 1981 is impressive, and includes Bob Dylan, Madonna, Neil Young, David Bowie, U2 and Bruce Springsteen.
15. Listoke Distillery & Gin School
True gin aficionados will appreciate this supercharged tour of the Listoke distillery, billed as “Ireland’s first and only interactive gin experience”. Once you arrive at the premises you’ll be invited to a gin and tonic, before taking a tour of the distillery and finding out about the history of the brand.
But the fun starts just after, when you’ll go to “Gin School”, gaining inside knowledge about the blends of home-grown botanicals that go into Listoke gin.
Once you’ve decided which accents you prefer you can distil your own customised 700 mm bottle of Listoke Gin that you to take home.