Ireland’s oldest city is at the head of the natural Waterford Harbour in the sunny southeast of the country.
Waterford was founded by the Vikings at the start of the 10th century, and the city is still in touch with its Norse roots at the Viking Triangle, a cultural zone tallying with old city walls.
Waterford also abounds with 18th-century Georgian buildings like the Bishop’s Palace, now a museum with all kinds of bits and pieces from the last three centuries.
This is one of three attractions run by the Museum of Treasures, counting the Viking exhibition inside the famous Reginald’s Tower and the Medieval Museum, housing centuries-old chambers and invaluable religious artefacts.
The name “Waterford” may ring a bell for another reason because of the fine flint glass, Waterford Crystal, crafted in the city since 1783.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Waterford:
1. Viking Triangle
Most of Waterford’s top sights and attractions lie inside this area once controlled by the city’s Viking walls.
Waterford was founded by the Vikings at the beginning of the 10th century, and the name of the city isn’t what is seems: It derives from Veðrafjǫrðr, which translates to “Windy Fjord” and is Ireland’s only place name with Norse etymology.
In just one square mile you’ll find Reginald’s Tower, The Bishop’s Palace and the Medieval Museum, as well as the House of Waterford Crystal and the Theatre Royal.
On parade quay by Reginald’s tower is a full-sized and seaworthy replica of a Viking longboat, 12 metres in length.
On Easter weekend 2018 the district was the location for Waterford’s first annual Viking festival, a big blowout with arts and crafts, archery, Viking food, weapon-handling demonstrations and a real forge making arrowheads.
2. Reginald’s Tower
Waterford’s abiding symbol is also the oldest civic building in Ireland.
Reginald’s Tower has Anglo-Norman origins and gained its current design in the conquest of Ireland in the mid-13th century.
Before then the tower was part of a Viking fort, founded at the beginning of the 11th century.
Although intended as a defensive building, the tower has had all sorts of roles, having been a royal keep, military warehouse, mint and now a museum.
Take a closer look at the stonework and you’ll spot a cannonball from Cromwell’s successful siege in 1650. The Waterford Viking Museum has artefacts recovered from the 2003 Woodstown dig, like swords, ships nails, silver ingots and Byzantine coins.
3. Bishop’s Palace
The Anglo-German architect Richard Castles designed Waterford’s refined bishop’s palace, which was completed in 1741 and was the first of a slew of Georgian monuments.
Castles was also responsible for Leinster House in Dublin, now the seat of the Irish Parliament.
The Bishop’s Palace faced onto Waterford’s city walls, which were lowered here and turned in garden terraces.
The palace’s museum has curiosities from the 1700s to the present day, like the oldest piece of Waterford crystal, the Penrose decanter from 1789. Also here is the last surviving “mourning cross”, one of 12 made to commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte’s death in 1821. The top floor goes into detail on chapters from Waterford’s past, like the War of Independence, the First World War and the old livestock markets in the Ballybricken parish.
4. Medieval Museum
Ireland’s only museum devoted solely to medieval times preserves two Medieval chambers.
One is the Choristers’ Hall from 1270, a residence for the dean of Waterford Cathedral, while underground you can make your way through the Mayor’s Wine Vault from the 15th century.
One of the most spellbinding exhibits is the Cloth of Gold vestments, the only complete set of Medieval vestments in Northern Europe.
Dating to 1460, they are made from silk woven in Florence and then embroidered in Bruges in 1460. The vestments were buried in 1650 to prevent them being destroyed by Puritan iconoclasts during the Cromwellian conquest, and were then rediscovered 123 years later.
The museum also has Henry VIII’s Cap of Maintenance, the one surviving piece of clothing from the king’s wardrobe, presented to the city along with a ceremonial sword in 1536.
5. House of Waterford Crystal
The name “Waterford” is a byword for fine crystal, and on the Mall you can drop by the new factory and visitor centre, which opened in 2010. The original Waterford Crystal was in business from 1783 to 2009, before the parent company Waterford Wedgwood went into receivership.
The Waterford arm of the company was reborn in 2010 after the city intervened, and production started once more.
The best part of a visit is the factory tour when you’ll feel the heat from the furnaces and see how Waterford crystal is blown, cut and polished using centuries of knowhow.
At the end you can treat yourself to something from the store, which has the world’s largest single collection of Waterford Crystal.
6. Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity
The oldest cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, this monument dates to the 1790s and was designed by the local architect John Roberts.
The cathedral is in an imposing Neoclassical style, with Ionic pilasters, a balustrade topped with statues and a tympanum relief depicting Christ flanked by angels.
The interior has ten chandeliers donated by Waterford Crystal, and a pipe organ fitted in 1848 by the English firm William Hill & Son.
In 1977 the interior was renovated following the Second Vatican Council, and the altar was changed so that mass could be given facing the congregation.
7. Mount Congreve
John Roberts also designed this stately home in Kilmeaden just outside Waterford.
It was owned by the Congreves who came from Staffordshire in England and settled here at the end of the 17th century.
Completed in the 1760s, the Georgian house is photogenic from the outside, but the reason to come is for the internationally-renowned botanical gardens in the 30-hectare grounds.
These were planted in the 20th century by Ambrose Congreve who won awards for his creation.
There are more than 3,000 different types of trees and shrubs.
Among them are 250 kinds of climbers, 300 acer cultivars, 600 camellias and over 2,000 rhododendron bushes.
One of many high points is the walled garden, more than 1.5 hectares in size and containing an enchanting lily pond.
8. King of the Vikings
Marketed as the “first Viking virtual reality adventure in the world”, King of the Vikings opened on Bailey’s New Street in the Viking Triangle in 2017. The location is the ruins of the 13th-century Franciscan Friary, where a thatched Viking house has been built using only the materials and methods of the period.
The experience lasts 30 minutes, during which you’ll meet guides in period costume and don a VR headset and step back to the days when Waterford was settled by Vikings.
The experience has a storyline, provided you’re not too distracted by the stunning visuals.
9. Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens
Ten kilometres south in Tramore is a captivating garden named for the 19th-century author and traveller Lafcadio Hearn.
In 1890, after years on the move, he ended up in Japan, becoming a naturalised Japanese citizen, marrying and having four children.
He gained an international following for his writing about Japan and its folklore at a time when the country had only just opened up to foreigners.
Visited by Princess Takamado of Japan in 2017, the attraction is inspired by Hearn’s writings and journey, and features a Victorian Garden, Greek and American Gardens and an authentic ensemble of Japanese Gardens with bridges, bamboo, streams and ponds.
To appreciate the deep symbolism of the gardens you can book a guided tour in advance.
In summer, follow-up with a visit to the Blue Flag Tramore Strand, five kilometres of golden sand and shingle.
10. Christ Church Cathedral
The cathedral for Waterford’s Church of Ireland congregation is the third church to be raised on this site.
The first was founded in the 1000s and would be the place where Aoife MacMurrough, the famous Gaelic princess, and the English nobleman Richard de Clatre, would marry in the 12th century.
The last rebuild was by John Roberts in the 1770s, during which the Cloth of Gold vestments were discovered.
These are now on display at the Waterford Treasures Medieval Museum.
The regal Christ Church Cathedral has Neoclassical architecture, with decorative stuccowork on the nave ceiling, Corinthian columns on little plinths and a single pillar remaining from its Gothic predecessor.
11. Theatre Royal
On the Mall, the Theatre Royal is a classic Victorian U-shaped theatre built in 1876 when a wing of the Town Hall was remodelled.
The auditorium sits 432 on three tiers and was closed for a two-year refit from 2007 to 2009. There’s a highly decorative proscenium, while the exquisite ceiling chandelier was donated by Waterford Crystal in 1951. You can see three more crystal chandeliers in the elegant Georgian vestibule.
On a typical day you could grab a bite or cup of tea at the Cafe Royal, overlooking the Bishop’s Palace Gardens.
The Theatre Royal books all kinds of acts, from touring rock, blues and jazz bands to Irish folk acts, dance, musicals and comedy.
12. Waterford Greenway
The Waterford to Mallow railway line was laid in 1872 and was lauded as the most scenic in Ireland as soon as it opened.
The final train made the trip along the remaining Waterford to Dungarvan in 1987 after a factory producing magnesite crystal closed down.
Three fallow decades later the 46-kilometre route has been resurfaced with asphalt for cyclists and walkers.
You’ll begin by the banks of the River Suir and cross three historic viaducts with panoramas of the countryside.
There are lush gorges taken over by vegetation, ruined stations (Durrow) and the Ballyvoyle tunnel on the way down to Dungarvan on the coast.
If you need a set of wheels you’ll find hire shops that also rent out e-bikes, and lots of places to stop on the way for a drink or ice cream.
13. Dunmore East
If you catch a sunny day in summer, Dunmore East at the west entrance to Waterford Harbour is an easy 20-minute drive.
This charming old fishing village has a picturesque working harbour and some enticing fish and seafood restaurants.
The coastline is rocky and indented and in both directions you can strike out on green cliff-top walks.
Facing away from the open ocean, the village has six protected coves if you’re in the mood for a brisk swim or something like kayaking, caving or stand-up paddleboarding with the Dunmore Adventure company, based in the harbour.
14. Comeragh Mountains
West of Waterford the Comeragh Mountains are 12 peaks cresting at just shy of 800 metres.
The terrain is smooth, and composed of moors and bogs, so none of the summits are difficult to scale.
The Comeragh Mountains are all part of a plateau, on the fringes of which are eye-popping glacial formations known as corries.
These are cauldrons of vertiginous rock, often with lakes (or loughs) below.
The most spectacular is Coumshingaun Lough, which we’ll talk about underneath, but Coum Iarthair and Crotty’s Lough both deserve a visit.
Coum Tay can be done on an 11-kilometre trail, along which you’ll pass the unforgettable Mahon Falls.
15. Coumshingaun Lough
The single most romantic sight in the Comeragh Mountains is this corrie, which you can walk around on a eight-kilometre trail.
Coumshingaun Lough is an armchair-shaped hollow up to 365 metres deep with a small lake at the bottom, all caused by glaciation.
The trail takes you up on the bowl of cliffs for astonishing views through swirling low clouds down to the water and over the countryside to the east.
The lake turns a metallic shade of blue in the sunlight, but the rest of the time will be a brooding inky black.