Croke Park Stadium Tour: Step inside Ireland's sporting cathedral
Pitch perfect in Dublin
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
Croke Park is Ireland's sporting cathedral, but there's a lot more to it than big summer games, writes our Travel Editor.
Set the mood
"There's only one continent that doesn't have a Gaelic games team," says Cian Nolan (above), our stadium tour guide at Croke Park. "And that's Antarctica."
We're in a dressing room deep inside Ireland's largest sporting arena; 82,300-capacity stands soar above us. The smell of fresh cut grass rises from a surface fit for snooker.
Pól on the Etihad skyline tour.
Our tour travels from player tunnels to pitchside pass-bys and the highest reaches of the Cusack Stand, taking in a galaxy of GAA culture, construction stats and legendary characters en route ("it looks like there's a bit of a shemozzle in the paralellagram," as one quote from Micheál Ó hEithir, who commented on 99 All Ireland finals, goes).
Summer hurling and football showdowns are Croke Park's biggest days, but there's a lot more to it than 70 minute spectaculars. This is a year-round attraction.
Jerseys in the dressing room.
Great tours need great guides, and both of mine were excellent - differing in tone and delivery, but engaging their groups, stirring the banter and bringing scripts to life with humour and passion. Croke Park is right up there with the Nou Camp or Old Trafford as a cultural institution, but what sets it apart is its meaning for 32 counties.
"Players run 12km in a game, in just 70 minutes," says Cian. "And then they go to work." The soccer fans in our group are silenced.
Afterwards, grab a bite at the Blackthorn Café.
Roof with a view
View from 17 storeys up.
It's no surprise that the Etihad Skyline Tour, which sees guests walk atop of the Cusack, Hogan and Davin stands on specially-constructed metal platforms, serves up bird's eye views of Dublin.
Seventeen storeys up, the panorama stretches from Dublin Airport to the Wicklow Mountains, with several quirky stories along the way (did you know there's still a field of cows in Drumcondra?).
The highlight is a U-bend that veers out over the pitch itself - visitors are clipped to rails, and can skip the section if they wish - but essentially, the tour is a one-trick pony.
If you've only got time for one activity, I'd tip the Stadium Tour - pay less, learn more, and get a sniff of the views to boot.
A deluxe room at the Croke Park.
The Croke Park hotel, a stone's throw from the stadium, bills itself as 'Dublin's iconic sporting hotel'. That's a stretch, but the Doyle Collection's clued-in service, Sideline Bistro (try the slow-cooked, Tipperary lamb) and an executive floor with turndown service raise the four-star's game.
Overall, I felt breakfast and facilities fell short of Cork's River Lee Hotel, probably the closest comparison within the group, but it's good on city packages - bundling tickets for Dublin Zoo or sightseeing tours in solid value offers, for example.
The GAA Museum at Croke Park.
Croke Park's GAA Museum is chocca with memorabilia (highlights range from Michael Cusack's blackthorn stick to Muhammad Ali's shorts), and an exhibition on Ireland's Olympians runs to March. You can test your football and hurling skills, too.
Allow a good hour for a visit if you're a GAA fan.
Several of the streets around Croke Park (Summerhill Parade and the North Circular in particular) are woefully rundown. There are complicated reasons for that, but outside of match days, it makes for a forbidding walk for families.
Get me there
Touring the dressing rooms at Croke Park.
Croke Park's GAA Museum costs €6.50 for adults, €4.50 for kids, and €17 for families.
Stadium tours cost €13/€8.50/€35. The Etihad Skyline Tour costs €20/€12/€52 (both tours take around 1.5 hours, and include museum admission). Tours run adjusted schedules on match days (check crokepark.ie for details).
The Croke Park hotel's GAA family package bundles B&B, a three-course dinner and a stadium tour for a family of four from €229 (doylecollection.com).