Isabel Conway enjoys a royal tour of Ireland’s oldest city in her inside guide to Waterford
“From a Viking town, to a city with a royal charter, to the place where the first Irish tricolour was flown, to the home of a new university and acclaimed as the best place to live in Ireland, Waterford is a city of promise and hope for the future”.
So said the former Prince of Wales in March 2022 when King Charles and the Queen Consort, then Duchess of Cornwall took a trip back in time through the heart of Ireland’s oldest city.
Charmed by the historic port at the confluence of three rivers in southeast Ireland they wandered through this former Viking settlement, then second in importance only to Dublin and later the principal gateway of the Anglo-Norman invasion.
From the Vikings to the Victorians, a thousand years of history is discovered in a thousand steps, following in royal footsteps since 1171 through Waterford’s Viking Triangle which encompasses five museums.
The country is basking in an unusual heatwave as we meet warring Vikings, view medieval wonders, and admire elegant Georgian architecture, from churches to fine public buildings.
Waterford’s official foundation as a permanent settlement dates back to 914 but historians say there is evidence of Viking encampments as early as 860.
Despite its age and history, the best of what to see in walkable Waterford is all conveniently tucked into a snug downtown area above the waterfront, whose key visitor attractions are just steps from each other.
The city landscape is dominated by walls and fortifications from the Anglo-Norman period and architecture of the 18th century when the city grew rapidly as a port and its notable elegant buildings reflected the boom of Waterford Crystal, the famous glassworks.
Nowadays the crystal is manufactured abroad but the House of Waterford Crystal visitor centre close to the Viking Triangle showcases the famous glass showing how Waterford Crystal pieces are made, watching master glass craftsmen creating special-order prestige pieces.
The oldest surviving piece of Waterford crystal in the world (1789) is on display at Bishop’s Palace, an authentic Georgian grand residence. Since the Viking period in Ireland, silver has been a prized metal and a means of exchange. The Irish Silver Museum celebrates the great craft and skill of the silversmiths and showcases the social, economic, and political history of Ireland through silver – from lavish ceremonies around tea and coffee drinking to commemorative events and silver produced to cement the union of powerful families.
Another new museum which took shape during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Irish Museum of Time is in the heart of the Viking Triangle. Housed in a former neo-Gothic style Methodist Church built in the 1880s, the museum lies beside the ruins of the medieval Franciscan Friary church. Sixty old and decrepit people, unable to earn a living, were given beds here. Like the Franciscans who had occupied the site for three centuries, the lives of the residents were dominated by the bell. One of the provisions of Henry VIII’s charter was that the residents had to rise from their beds each night to pray for the repose of the king’s soul, a tradition which continued well beyond his death.
Rare and beautiful old clocks and timepieces, from around the globe are displayed in a swirl of dials, chimes, and beautiful craftsmanship. Most of the collection of over six hundred interesting and unusual exhibits were donated by two avid Irish horologists, whose homes were heaving with the ticking treasures they had collected over a lifetime.
Nearby is the Medieval Museum on the Mall where visitors descend by spiral staircase into the 1270 Choristers’ Hall, which extends into the wine vaults. Waterford had extensive trade with. Bordeaux, which was ruled by the English. There’s a sumptuous gold brooch of 1210, a charter roll stating Waterford’s precedence over a rival nearby port (which they destroyed just to be on the safe side), and the ceremonial sword presented by Edward IV and the King of the Vikings, a virtual reality adventure that tells the story of Viking Waterford, featuring epic voyages and battles.
When the French Huguenots settled in Waterford City in the 1690s, they brought the ‘blaa ‘ with them, the odd-sounding foodstuff most strongly associated with Ireland’s oldest city. According to legend, they baked a bread product made from leftover pieces of dough, then liberally dusted it with white flour before baking.
The blaa caught on in the early 1800s, because it was cheap to produce, so it could be sold for very little money. Soon, the blaa became a part of everyday life, and they still are today. Around 12,000 blaas are baked in Waterford daily, with most sold by the end of lunch! Because they are usually baked overnight and quickly lose freshness, people usually eat blaas at breakfast time. They are most commonly eaten with just a little butter, but the breakfast blaa (egg, bacon rasher and sausage) is also popular.
I ate my blaa, toasted with grill bacon and poached eggs topped by Hollandaise Sauce for breakfast in the Granville Hotel where we spent the night in the heart of Waterford. The Granville, a boutique old-fashioned comfortable family-run property overlooks Waterford’s waterfront and marina, steps from the shopping district and historic heart of town.
Birthplace of the Irish and American patriot, Thomas Francis Meagher, governor of Montana and a Young Irelander revolutionary he first unveiled the Irish tricolour in Waterford in 1848. The Granville became the historic headquarters to the most important staging point for Bianconi’s mail coaches in 1832. Bianconi revolutionised public transport, creating an integrated transport system in Ireland. The hotel changed hands several times and today restored to its former gracious grandeur it encompasses old-world charm and informal hospitality.
Waterford has lots of great eating-out spots from gourmet cafes to high-end eateries. We discovered great pre-theatre early bird value at Everetts, 22 High Street, where I ate the best duck dish of my life – duck cooked three ways, including confit, breast, and a croquette. The softly lit restaurant housed in an old stone-built warehouse is also renowned for organic locally sourced beef.
Waterford has heritage centres and miles of sandy beaches, the renowned Waterford Greenway for biking and hiking is on its doorstep and for the golfer, there are no fewer than ten good courses within a 15-minute drive of the 4-star Granville Hotel.
Tell me more about this inside guide to Waterford
Waterford is a two-hour drive from both Cork and Dublin airports and less than an hour from Rosslare Ferry port for regular UK crossings.
Live music bars
Try Jordan’s on 123 Parade Quay , Henry Downes on 10 Thomas Street, a Waterford institution and Katty Barry’s, traditional Irish bar that often has live music.
Waterford Museum Pass
Waterford’s collection of museums has a ‘Freedom of Waterford’ ticket which offers visitors a guided walking tour and access to six attractions in the city. Visitors can follow in royal footsteps and enjoy a guided walking tour experience with one of the expert guides at Waterford Treasures. ‘Freedom of Waterford’ tickets are €15 and available from Waterford Treasures, The Mall, Waterford and available to pre-book online.