Taking the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead Port is a rite of passage for many Irish families bringing back memories of childhood summer vacations in Wales. Today, the HSC Jonathan Swift operated by Irish Ferries can cover the Dublin to Holyhead distance of 113 km across the Irish Sea in about two hours. We've lived in Dublin for eight years now and I'm pleased to say that we finally made the journey by ferry from Ireland to the UK. Read on for more about our journey from Dublin to Holyhead Port and onward trip highlighting things to do in North Wales once you get there.
What's It Like to Take the Ferry from Dublin to Holyhead Port?
There are two options when riding the ferry from Dublin to Wales: walk aboard or drive aboard. We don't have a car so decided to walk aboard and then catch the train to explore North Wales upon our arrival.
We boarded the HSC Jonathan Swift through a pedestrian lane alongside the gaping car entrance and walked up a flight of stairs to a deck filled with comfortable chairs. We took the morning ferry service and many of our fellow passengers indulged in a full Irish breakfast along the way.
Bon Voyage Dublin
The HSC Jonathan Swift set sail from Dublin toward Holyhead Port, slowly making its way past the Poolbeg towers and the small historic lighthouse at the end of the historic Great South Wall (Sandymount Strand to the Poolbeg Lighthouse is one of our favorite hikes in Dublin). The Irish Ferries fast ferry service is completely enclosed except for a small exterior deck protected by a high fence at the rear of the ship. Once you reach open sea, the wind generated by the speed of the boat can be quite fierce so bring a jacket if you want to take some photos outside during the crossing of the Irish Sea.
Arriving by Ferry in Holyhead
We arrived in Holyhead after about a 20 minute delay rumored to be caused by slightly choppy seas. We were informed that the HSC Jonathan Swift fast service is typically cancelled if the seas get too rough whereas the large slow ferries carry on regardless. If you are prone to seasickness or just don't like the thought of rough seas like I do, the fast ferry will ensure that you don't end up making the crossing if the seas are especially rough.
Because of our slight delay, we didn't have much time to explore Holyhead before catching our train to Conwy in North Wales. We did step outside to admire the view of Holyhead town and the walking path across the harbour via a modern bridge. If we'd had more time, we might have stayed a few hours in Holyhead (everyplace is worth visiting at least once) but alas, we only had three days for this adventure in North Wales so we needed to crack on.
Connect to the Train To See Points of Interest in North Wales
Upon arriving in Holyhead Port, we boarded buses to the ferry terminal (about 5 minutes away). From here, we flashed our passports to enter Wales and then walked a grand total of about 100 meters to the waiting Arriva UK train service. You may be wondering if it was convenient to take the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead without a car. Because the train station is so close to the port, we were able to get to most North Wales points of interest with very little trouble.
Pass Through The Welsh Town with the Longest Name
We were delighted when our train passed through the town with the longest name in the world: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Apparently, the name translates from Welsh to English as "St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool of St Tysilio of the red cave". We didn't have time to stop and see what Llanfair PG (for short) had to offer but I was still excited to see a world-record holding place.
Stay at Gwynfryn in Conwy
We rode the train for about an hour from Holyhead to Conwy, a historic walled town in North Wales. Many people only visit Conwy for the day or as part of a bus tour but we decided to make Conwy our home base for our weekend in North Wales. Hotels are limited in Conwy so book well ahead. We made a reservation at Gwynfryn, a Welsh Bed and Breakfast with cozy rooms decked out in rich colors (our room had dark purple furnishings and accents).
Explore Conwy Town
Conwy itself was a major highlight of our weekend exploring North Wales. We walked the streets featuring charming stone buildings lined with shops, pubs, and restaurants. Turn off your GPS and just have a wander. You can't get too lost since Conwy has well-preserved Medieval town walls to bound your exploration.
Where to Eat in Conwy
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Conwy and we sampled a number of them during our stay in North Wales.
Conwy Pantry is a good place for a casual cup of tea or a sandwich. Stop in for a quick lunch to maximize the amount of time you have to explore Conwy Town.
L's Coffee and Bookshop
L's Coffee and Bookshop features a cozy courtyard. Grab a seat outside and then place your order inside at the counter. We opted for a coffee and a piece of coffee walnut cake to keep our energy up for the afternoon.
Archway Fish and Chips
You can't go wrong ordering fish and chips in Wales. We stopped at Archway Fish and Chips which has both a takeaway counter and table service seating next door. We doused our fish and chips in malt vinegar for a traditional UK dinner.
If you fancy gourmet cuisine, make a booking at Watson's Bistro in Conwy. We sampled two simple courses made with fresh, healthy ingredients. The chocolate fondant for dessert was the highlight of the meal.
Where to Drink in Conwy
Given that the town is relatively small, there are a surprising number of pubs in Conwy. Since we were staying in town and not driving, we definitely took advantage of Conwy's pub scene.
The Blue Bell
If you fancy a pint of traditional cask ale, head to The Blue Bell. We sampled a pint of Welsh Pride and drank it in the beer garden in back of the bar.
The Albion Ale House
Bank of Conwy
Walk Along Conwy Quay
One fun thing to do in Conwy Town is take a walk along Conwy Quay. Check out the sailboats moored on the River Conwy. You'll spy nets and other fishing gear drying along the shore. This area is great for quiet reflection in the morning or a more bustling atmosphere thanks to a variety of nearby pubs in the evening.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: If you have more time to spend in Wales, discover things to do in Cardiff on a weekend city break.
Keep an Eye Out for the Smallest House in Great Britain in Conwy
Along Conwy Quay, keep an eye out for the Smallest House in Great Britain. Measuring just 10 ft by 6 feet, the home was built in the 16th century and was most recently inhabited by a fisherman who was over 6 feet tall and was not able to fully stand up in his own home. Today, the Smallest House in Great Britain is a popular tourist attraction. We visited in the evening after the house had closed for the day so we just had a look from the outside. I've included myself in the photo for scale. That house made me feel like a giant.
Storm Conwy Castle
By far the most popular thing to see and do in Conwy is to visit Conwy Castle (entrance fee 9.50 GBP at the time of writing). Conwy Castle is a UNESCO Heritage Site and is a well-preserved Medieval fortress built by Edward I in the late 13th century. Have a wander around the castle ruins imagining what it might have been like to have been inside while under attack by invading marauders. You can climb many of the towers for sweeping views over Conwy town, the River Conwy, and the Irish Sea beyond.
Walk the Historic Conwy Town Wall
The Conwy defensive wall is mostly still intact. Wait until golden hour in the evening (after many of the tour buses have left) and then mount the Conwy Town Wall for a picturesque walk. I could just imagine that wall protecting the refined Medieval civilization inside from the wilds of North Wales.
Take the Bus from Conwy to Bodnant Gardens
Conwy is a great home base for exploring other North Wales points of interest. The X19 bus will whisk you from Llandudno Junction train station to Bodnant Gardens in about 15 minutes. Llandudno Junction station is about a 20-30 minute walk from Conwy town (exact time depends on how sidetracked you get taking pictures along the way. Bodnant Gardens is a brilliant place to spend a few hours on a sunny summer morning. Explore the well-manicured gardens around the mansion house with historic attached green house. Check out gardens blooming with riotous flowers before heading off into the forest for a short hike.
Take the Bus to Llandudno, North Wales' Resort Town
Take the X19 bus again but this time return to the North Wales seaside resort town of Llandudno. Admire the pastel Victorian-era architecture on a walk along the beach. Popular with Welsh and English vacationers, expect to see crowds if you visit on a summer weekend like we did.
Walk to the end of Llandudno Pier
Play Carnival Games on Llandudno Pier
Those shiny buildings at the end of Llandudno Pier feature all sorts of carnival games. We decided to drop 5 GBP throwing balls in fish bowls for prize tickets. It turns out I'm pretty good at this game. I managed to nab enough tickets to cash in for a small bag of gummy candy. It was probably the most expensive bag of gummy candy I've ever bought but I had the most fun earning it and that's what matters.
Ride the North Wales Great Orme Tramway
The ride on the Great Orme Tramway cost 8.10 GBP at the time of writing. We rode the 2-stage cable car to the top while appreciating sweeping views over North Wales along the way.
Hike in Great Orme Country Park
There are some great (and not too difficult) hiking trails in Great Orme Country Park (where the Great Orme Tramway lets off). We hiked through a meadow and then up and around the hill overlooking the sea.
Look for Conwy Castle in the Distance
If you squint into the distance, you may even catch a glimpse of Conwy Castle in the distance if you follow the flow of the River Conwy.
Give Way to Sheep on the Trails in North Wales
Be prepared to share the trail. As we were hiking, we enountered flocks of curious sheep.
Do a Bit of Birdwatching in North Wales
We also found that Great Orme Country Park is an idea spot for birdwatching in North Wales. We spotted various species flitting about including the ever-popular and often-elusive stonechat. We saw both male and female stonechats on our North Wales hike.
Visit Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
We first learned about Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Amazing Race. Contestants raced to North Wales, boarded a canal boat and then had to recite a Welsh poem correctly in the time it took for the canal boat to cross the aqueduct. If the contestants failed to do the task in time, they had to repeat it before moving on.
Getting to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Admittedly, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is much easier to get to if you have a car. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is about a 1 hour and 15 minute ride from Conwy. It's actually faster to get to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from Chester in England just across the border from North Wales. Since we were traveling in North Wales using public transportation to get around, we ended up hiring an air-conditioned car and driver from Chester Taxi Services to take us to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The trip from Chester to Pontcysyllte and back cost 90 GBP for a half day trip at the time of writing.
Take a Canal Boat Across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Jones the Boats runs 45 minute canal boat trips across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct five times a day in the summer for 7.50 GBP at the time of writing. There are limited outdoor seats on the canal boats so the skipper generally encourages folks to take turns sitting outside. The trip across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct can be quite vertigo inducing so bear that in mind when choosing your seat. Look over the edge of the aqueduct to the valley and River Dee below if you dare.
Walk Across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
It's also possible to walk across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Definitely take the opportunity to do the walk to get some nice photos without having to worry about vying for an outdoor seat. You can actually walk a fair distance down the canal footpath. We turned back at a small lock about a 10 minute walk from the edge of the aqueduct.
Hike to the Bottom of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
We found that we could only really appreciate the magnificence of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by viewing it from below. Take the small trail down along the side of the aqueduct to the river. The nearby visitors centre can provide a map and guidance to find the trail. It takes about 10 minutes to hike down to the side of the river and another 10 minutes to get to a break in the trees and a vantage point where you can see the aqueduct. Of course, factor in a little extra time for the climb back up to the top of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. As you can imagine, the trail is quite steep.
Return Options from North Wales to Dublin
As you can see, there is plenty to do in North Wales if you take the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead Port on the HSC Jonathan Swift and then spend the weekend exploring. We took the train to Chester UK and then flew home from Liverpool to conclude our 3 day adventure in North Wales. You could also reverse your journey and take the ferry back from Holyhead Port to Dublin if you prefer.