Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city. Established in 914AD by Vikings, it beats Dublin by 74 years. In fact, Vikings first established a settlement near Waterford as early as 853AD. That said, much of Waterford’s history and present day attractions centre on its Viking history.
The city’s name derives from Veðrafjǫrðr, which translates to “Windy Fjord” and is Ireland’s only place name with Norse etymology.
Vikings certainly left their mark on Ireland. Hordes of wild wayfarers from Scandinavia first arrived in Ireland in the 8th century, looting monasteries and making off not just with priceless treasures and religious artefacts, but also with Irish people to be used as slaves.
We spent two days exploring Waterford and surrounding counties, learning all about Ireland’s history, sampling its local cuisine and soaking up the sights. I’ve put together a list of Waterford’s must-see attractions when visiting the area. You can’t see it all in one day, so pick depending on the length of your stay. But definitely check out the top four.
1. Viking Triangle
The heart of Waterford’s cultural and heritage district is known as the Viking Triangle. It got its name from the 1000-year-old Viking walls that once surrounded it. Some parts of these walls still exist today.
The district is characterized by narrow streets, atmospheric public spaces and an array of cultural and historic experiences. Most of Waterford’s top sights and attractions lie inside this core area once contained and controlled by Viking walls.
The most famous building in the triangle is Reginald’s Tower, which houses the Viking Museum. Nearby, there is the Medieval Museum and the Bishop’s Palace Museum, collectively all known as the Waterford Museum of Treasures.
In the spring of 2018, the Viking Triangle district launched Waterford’s first annual Viking festival. A huge success featuring arts and crafts, archery, Viking food, weapon-handling demonstrations and an actual forge making arrowheads.
2. King of the Vikings
Want to know what it was like to be a Viking in the year 917? Check out King of the Vikings, the world’s first viking virtual reality experience, on Baileys New Street next to the remains of an old Franciscan Friary.
King of the Vikings is a dynamic virtual reality experience. A Viking comb-maker will meet and regale you with fantastic stories of life in Viking ‘Veðrafjorðr’ (Waterford). On entering a replica of a Viking house dating back to c1050, you are invited to don a magical helmet (VR Headset) that transports you back 1100 years to witness the ghost of King Reginald sparring with the ghost of an Irish Christian monk.
The innovative VR technology brings the epic adventures of the Vikings to life. Visitors take away different things from the experience. For some, the historical elements of the story are most important. Others delight in the VR visual and aural experience itself.
As the story goes, way back in 917, after 15 years in exile, Vikings Reginald and Sitric assembled men and fleets of ships to invade Ireland. Reginald’s main obstacle was Woodstown, under the leadership of Ottar. Upon reaching Waterford harbour, Reginald built a fort at what is now Waterford. By doing so, he essentially trapped Ottar up-river in Woodstown. It worked. Ottar was subdued and Reginald went on the become King of Waterford and York.
The VR experience is available in English, French and German. The presentation lasts about 30 minutes.
3. Reginald’s Tower
At the eastern end of the city quay, Reginald’s Tower is the oldest civic building in Ireland and the only urban monument in Ireland to keep a Norse or Viking name. It is believed that the name refers to Ragnall Mac Gilla Muire, the last Hiberno-Norse ruler of Waterford.
The current structure was completed in the last half of the 13th century. Reginald’s Tower has Anglo-Norman origins and gained its current design in the conquest of Ireland in the mid–13th century. A wooden tower stood on the same spot as part of a Viking fort since the beginning of the 11th century.
Originally intended as a defensive building, the tower has served many roles including a royal keep, a military warehouse, mint, prison and now a museum.
To view the current exhibits, you must climb the spiral staircase, comprising 56 stone steps. I suggest taking your time and climb to the very top first, then work your way down. Take it slow and watch your step. Though not that many steps, it is slow to climb. The steps, known as stumble steps, were deliberately designed to be of different heights and widths, making them difficult for attackers to climb. Also, the spiral staircase is orientated to the right, which made it impossible for right-handed attackers to properly swing their swords.
Some exhibits on display include gaming pieces and board, a dog collar, a Viking warrior’s sword, a decorative weight, ships nails, silver ingots, Byzantine coins, and a cannon ball lodged in the external wall from Oliver Cromwell’s successful siege in 1650.
Because of a shortage of prison spaces for petty criminals in Waterford, Reginald’s Tower was used as a prison between 1819 and 1850. Today, the iron door used to secure the prison is installed at the entrance to the tower.
On the parade quay by Reginald’s tower is a full-sized, 12-metre long, seaworthy replica of a Viking longboat.
4. Medieval Museum
Ireland’s only museum devoted solely to the medieval period, the Medieval Museum incorporates two Medieval chambers - the 13th century Choristers’ Hall and the 15th century Mayor’s Wine Vault.
The tour starts in the Medieval chambers in the basement level with Choristers’ Hall dating from 1270. Then make you way through the hall to the Mayor’s Wine Vault belonging to James Rice, who was the mayor of Waterford 11 times between 1467 and 1486. He was a great patron of the arts, a wine merchant and friend of John Collyn, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral.
From the Medieval chambers, you go up to the second floor. Here, the Tour of Devotion is a collection of religious artifacts and statues. There is a model of what Waterford looked like in 1480. Very easy to see the Viking Triangle laid out.
On to the vestments room. The Cloth of Gold vestments are the only complete set of Medieval vestments in Northern Europe. Created in 1460, garments are made from silk woven in Florence and then embroidered in Bruges. To prevent them from being destroyed by Puritan iconoclasts during the Cromwellian conquest, the vestments were buried in 1650. They were later discovered in 1773 while building Christ Church Cathedral.
Henry VIII’s Cap of Maintenance is also on display. Presented to Waterford in 1536, it is the only surviving piece of clothing from the king’s wardrobe.
A guided tour is available, which takes 45 minutes. You are free to roam the museum after the tour, and if you don’t have enough time to view everything you want, you can come back another day - at no extra charge!
5. Bishop’s Palace
The Bishop’s Palace Museum is a must-see while in Waterford. This 250-year-old Georgian building, designed by architect Richard Castles, was built facing the Viking city wall, which he reduced in height to form part of the palace’s terraced garden. The Museum, originally the residence of the Church of Ireland Bishop of Waterford, contains artifacts dating from 1700 to the 1970s.
The Museum gives visitors a unique insight into the story of Waterford. Among the items on display is the oldest surviving piece of Waterford Crystal, the Penrose decanter, dating back to 1789. You will also find the only surviving Napoleon Bonaparte ‘mourning cross’, which was one of only 12 produced upon his death in 1821.
The building contains a wealth of fascinating artefacts, period furniture, and a collection of rare and important paintings. The ground and first floors are furnished as an elegant 18th century townhouse. The top floor of the building is dedicated to stories specific to Waterford’s past. Learn about the old livestock markets in the Ballybricken parish, Waterford’s Home Rule story, and Waterford’s role in the First World War and the War of Independence.
After your visit to the museum, stroll across the terrace and enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee and a pastry in the Bishop’s Palace café. The café offers an array of delicious cakes, light lunches and excellent coffee.
6. House of Waterford Crystal
Across the street from Bishop’s Palace is the current location of the House of Waterford Crystal. Whenever I mention my visit to Waterford, people always ask as if I visited Waterford Crystal. They may not know much about Waterford, but they certainly know the finest crystal comes from here.
The original Waterford Crystal was in business from 1783 to 2009, before its parent company went into receivership. The city of Waterford intervened, and in 2010, Waterford Crystal reopened in a new location on The Mall.
This new location melts over 750 tons of crystal a year. Guided tours of the factory are available, with the blowing room being a huge attraction. Amidst high heat, noise and bustling activity, you’ll see red-hot molten crystal take shape using two-hundred years of know-how. The craftsmen are meticulous in their work. Each piece must pass six stringent inspections. If a piece is not considered being first quality, it is rejected, smashed and sent back to the furnace for re-melting.
At the end of the tour, treat yourself to something from the store, which has the world’s largest single collection of Waterford Crystal.
And before you leave, visit the Crystal Café located within the House of Waterford Crystal. The menu offers café-style dining baked fresh daily. Treat yourself to a choice of scrumptious salads, soups, wraps, indulgent homemade sweet treats, decadent fresh coffee and hot chocolate.
7. Cathedral Of The Most Holy Trinity
The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Waterford and Lismore on Barronstrand Street. Designed by John Roberts in 1793, it has the distinction of being the oldest cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The square near Barronstrand Street was re-named to “John Roberts Square” in 2000, recognizing his contribution to the architecture of Waterford.
A small chapel previously stood in the same spot, having been constructed there at the height of the Penal Laws on the request of the Roman Catholic community in Waterford.
Since the early 1900s, there have been several improvements. Railings that separated the church from the street were removed. And the Cathedral itself was refurbished in 1977 with a new altar that allowed the Mass to be celebrated facing the people. Waterford Crystal donated ten stunning, crystal chandeliers. New floors were installed in the early 1990s.
Definitely worth a look if you are in the area.
8. Christ Church Cathedral
In the heart of Waterford City, Christ Church Cathedral stands at the site of an 11th-century Viking church, where English knight Strongbow and Irish Princess Aoife married in 1170, making it one of the most important historic sites in all of Ireland.
When Dermot MacMurrough was overthrown as the King of Leinster in 1167, he recruited mercenaries to reclaim his title. The leader of this Norman invasion was a distinguished medieval knight named Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, commonly known as Strongbow. A bronze statue, sculpted by Eithne Ring, of Strongbow and his wife sitting on their thrones is located in front of the Christ Church Cathedral.
Later, in 1210, the Normans took over Waterford and built a Gothic Cathedral on this site, which stood until the community constructed Christ Church in 1773. During the demolition of the previous cathedral, a series of medieval vestments were discovered. These “Cloth of Gold” vestments are now on display in the Medieval Museum in Waterford.
Described as one of the finest 18th century ecclesiastical building in Ireland, this Cathedral was designed by architect John Roberts, who also designed the Cathedral Of The Most Holy Trinity. Some of its highlights include a stucco plaster ceiling, an elaborate stained glass window, and a pillar taken from the remains of the previous medieval cathedral.
Besides being a place of worship, Christ Church Cathedral today also serves a music venue with a wonderful acoustic and unique atmosphere in the heart of Waterford City. The Cathedral is open to the public year round.
9. Theatre Royal
The Theatre Royal is Ireland’s oldest continually operating theatre. Opened in 1785, the first performance on the opening evening was Shakespeare’s popular five-act comedy As You Like It. The Ball Room, which we today call The Large Room, was completed later in 1788. The building was upgraded to the present auditorium in 1876.
The Theatre Royal is located on The Mall in the heart of Waterford City. Parking is available in Bolton Street Car Park, behind Waterford Crystal.
You can relax and enjoy a pre-show drink at the Stage Door Bar. A wide selection of wines, spirits, soft drinks, draught Heinken, bottled beers, tea and coffee is available after 7PM on performance nights. You can also pre-order interval drinks before the performance starts.
The Theatre Royal, or “The People’s Theatre” as its locally known, seats 432 on three tiers. There is always something playing. Entertainment runs the gamut of theatre, musicals, comedy, musical acts, movies and dance.
10. The Clock Tower
Originally known as the Fountain Clock, the clock tower is in the Victorian-Gothic Revival style and built when Waterford was Ireland’s leading industrial port, trading to 400 international ports around the world.
Completed in 1861, the tower was built by public subscription at a cost of £200. Waterford Corporation donated the clock, and it was installed in 1864. There is a fountain integrated in the tower where water used to flow into horse-troughs.
A door on the north side of the tower provides access to the clocks interior and workings. Though not accessible to visitors, the mechanisms of the clock and the fountain are still of technical and engineering interest.
It is a nice feature on the quay and worth a look at if passing by.
11. Grannagh Castle
Situated across the street from the bed & breakfast we were staying at, are the ruins of the majestic Grannagh Castle.
Tradition says that the Castle was built during the 14th century. It is a typical Norman style castle, with a courtyard enclosed by battlemented curtain walls and towers in each corner. Three corner towers are joined by a curtain wall. A large square keep in the north-west corner was added in the 15th century.
Tales describe a tunnel designed to keep the fortifications supplied with food and water during a siege, going from the castle under the river Suir over to the opposite shore. Many believe prisoners were held in the tunnel and condemned men were hung there.
Piers Duagh, the 8th Earl of Ormonde, lived here in 1485 and was married to the famous Margaret Fitzgerald, traditionally known as the “Countess of Granny”. Supposedly, she imprisoned her enemies in the tunnels and let them perish there.
Feared and respected, many believed the Countess of Granny was a witch. One story describes the time when her greatest enemy, who was another witch, came up the river in a boat. When Margaret saw the other one coming, she put her head out of the window and caused a great storm to rise. The other witch, upon seeing her, caused a pair of horns to grow out of Margaret’s head so she could not draw back into the castle. The witch in the boat made Margaret release all her prisoners. Now, whenever there is a storm, weird noises can be heard from the castle. Many believe it is Margaret calling for mercy.
12. The Reg
Eating is always a favourite thing to do. And there are plenty of world-class restaurants, bars and pubs in Waterford to enjoy. I particularly enjoy dining one night at The Reg in the heart of the Viking Triangle.
The Reg is Waterford’s premier late-night venue, including a restaurant, roof terrace, bar, and nightclub. In fact, there are 5 separate bars, each with its own unique character. You can choose from over 80 whiskeys, 20 stylish gins, and 30 types of craft beer.
Steeped in history, The Reg is built around the 900-year-old medieval city wall. Two Sallyports are located in the bar. A sallyport is a controlled entrance or exit to a building. The Vikings used them to sally forth into the St. John’s River.
We arrived at The Reg in the early evening. The place was packed, but they were able to find us a table. If you go here, you must try the Deconstructed Vanilla Cheesecake. It is amazing - biscuit crumbs, berry compote and cheesecake artfully presented on a plate.
Where to Stay in Waterford
While in Waterford, we stayed at the Grannagh Castle House B&B, a five-minute drive from town. Most of the rooms have views of the historic Grannagh Castle ruins and the River Suir, which is across the road. Our host, Kathleen, was friendly and accommodating. The large, clean room we stayed in featured an ensuite bath. Coffee and tea are available any time of day in the dining lounge. There is a large choice for breakfast, and Kathleen makes a delicious, full Irish if you are up for it. Highly recommend this place.
Other places to say in Waterford:
Granville Hotel - where 18th-century glamour meets contemporary Irish hospitality. Individually styled guestrooms with hand-selected antiques and plush linens.
Waterford Castle - set on a private island this historic location offers luxurious rooms, an excellent restaurant and an on-site golf course.