Imagine Dublin and visions of Guinness, Leopold Bloom, U2, and hearty breakfast plates piled high with Irish bacon and farm-fresh eggs might spring to mind. Think what you will, but Ireland’s largest city — and its capital for more than a thousand years — is currently enjoying its newfound status as one of the hottest and most livable cities in not just Europe, but the world.
On Ireland’s central east coast along the banks of the Liffey River, where so many literary greats beyond James Joyce were born — including Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, to name a few — these days Dublin is showing off trendy coffee houses, foodie-friendly restaurant stops, and smart boutiques filled with Burberry-clad shoppers combing the racks and shelves. However, there’s still much to see from days gone by in this historic city.
The city center is bisected by the River Liffey, a good orientation point for visitors. The Royal Canal forms a skirt through the northern half, and the Grand Canal does the same through the southern half, which is where most of the interesting sights are found. Within the southern half, aim for the triangle roughly bordered by O’Connell Bridge, St. Stephen’s Green and Christ Church Cathedral, where you’ll find Trinity College, Grafton Street (for shopping), Temple Bar (for hot nightlife) and Dublin Castle.
The upscale neighborhoods and the majority of hotels, restaurants, shops and sights are south of the river. The main shopping thoroughfare is Grafton Street, but you’ll find the more exclusive shops along the side streets. Dublin’s most beautiful squares — St. Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square — are within 10 minutes’ walking distance of Grafton Street. Temple Bar lies along the Liffey near Ha’penny Bridge. North of the river is working-class Dublin, but you’ll also find Dublin’s most important theaters there — the Gate and the Abbey — as well as a pocket of fine Georgian townhouses on and around North Great George’s Street.
There are many reasons to visit the ivy-draped Trinity College, but the big draw is the priceless Book of Kells — a lavishly illustrated Christian manuscript of the four gospels. Doggedly Protestant until 1793, when Catholics were theoretically allowed in (although the Catholic Church banned its faithful from entering until 1970), the college went coed in 1904.
Elite alums include Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. A self-guiding walking tour is terrific here, but there is a 30-minute guided tour led by students, available at select times of year, which includes entry to the Book of Kells in the Old Library.
A cool way to get an in-depth overview of the city in no time flat is a tour with one of the history graduates who run Historical Insights walking tours. Stops include Trinity College, Old Parliament House, Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral, among others. You’ll be filled in on everything from Dublin’s origins and political struggles with Britain to the state of Ireland today. The same group also offers special tours focusing on women in Irish history, Dublin’s statues and monuments, and the sexual history of Ireland.
Built in 1204 by King John, Dublin Castle was the seat of British rule in Ireland for 700 years. It was the official residence of the viceroy who implemented the will of the British royalty when, in 1922, the Brits handed power over to Michael Collins and the Irish. Guided tours, which include a walk through the many rooms and lavish apartments as well as a look at the foundations of the Norman tower (the best remaining chunk of the 13th-century town wall), are worth the time.
Built by the Guinness family, the 22-acre St. Stephen’s Green is Ireland’s oldest park. It was enclosed in 1664 and gradually became surrounded by the fine Georgian buildings you see today. Join the locals any sunny afternoon on this grassy oasis.
Theater buffs must stop at the Abbey Theatre. Founded by Yeats, it opened in 1904. All these years, it has enjoyed fame for its impeccable staging of Irish classics. A fire in 1951 destroyed the original theater, but 15 years later the Abbey was rebuilt in the same spot. Though some might say the newer Abbey doesn’t have the passion of the old theater, efforts are being made to “preserve” some of its history. One way they do this is with a wonderful collection of portraits hanging on the walls of the lobby — some saved from the 1951 fire.
The Abbey may be more famous, but the Gate Theatre is often considered the best, at least for contemporary drama. The Gate dates back to 1928.
Christ Church Cathedral is a majestic mix of Norman, Gothic and even Victorian neo-Gothic styles. Its unusually large crypt is Dublin’s oldest building; among a number of monuments and treasures, it’s also home to”Tom and Jerry” — a mummified cat and rat that were trapped in the organ in the 1860’s.
One of the city’s oldest areas, the once run-down neighborhood of Temple Bar, with its zigzag maze of cobblestone streets, is hotter than New York’s SoHo and the Left Bank of Paris. Though it’s a must any day of the week, you’ll see it at its best on weekends when hordes of eager revelers pub-crawl till all hours. Check out Fishamble Street, one of Dublin’s oldest thoroughfares.
The impressive 19th-century National Gallery is the city’s main art museum, with works from artists including Rembrandt, Monet, Gainsborough and Picasso — as well as a wonderful Caravaggio that was rediscovered in Dublin. One of the most interesting galleries houses the paintings of Ireland’s own Jack Yeats.
Showing off treasures from the Stone Age to modern times, the archaeological branch of the National Museum of Ireland is wonderful. Wait till you see the world-class collection of medieval ecclesiastical objects and jewelry, the Ardagh Chalice, and the amber 18th-century Tara Brooch. Other branches of the National Museum focus on decorative arts and history, country life, and natural history.
Enjoy a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels”) was dean in the 18th century. Ireland’s largest church, this 13th-century cathedral was founded near a well where St. Patrick is said to have been baptized in 450 A.D.
You won’t regret a stop at the Dublin Writers Museum to see wonderful memorabilia of Ireland’s best storytellers, including W.B. Yeats and Jonathan Swift, spanning more than 300 years. The collection includes early editions of works like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Practically everything you ever wanted to know about Ireland’s famous brew can be found at the Guinness Storehouse. Arthur Guinness began brewing on this site, now an honest-to-goodness museum, in 1759. Top off your visit with a stop at the store. For more potent potable fun, check out the Old Jameson Distillery, which dates back to 1780.
A visit to the Irish Jewish Museum will give you an opportunity to peek into Jewish life in the early to mid 20th century. You’ll climb the stairs to the former Walworth Road Synagogue in the Portobello neighborhood — more than 150 men and women came to worship here before it fell into decline with the large movement of Jews out into the Dublin suburbs. The museum has a substantial collection of memorabilia that dates back 150 years.
If you loved “Riverdance,” you’ll want to check out the Irish Traditional Music Archive, a multimedia archive and resource center for the traditional song, music and dance of Ireland. First established in 1987, it now holds the world’s largest collection of books, recordings, photographs and videos on the subject.
About an hour’s drive from Dublin, Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old megalithic tomb mound set in County Meath. For history buffs, Newgrange, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not to be missed. Each year on the day of winter solstice, the sun shines directly into an opening to one of the tomb’s underground passages and brilliantly illuminates the chamber for about 17 minutes. Visitors can enter the tomb on any day of the year and experience a re-creation of this magical event with artificial lights. Various shuttles and tours are available from Dublin to Newgrange; Boyne Valley Tours is one popular tour operator. You can also find options on Viator, such as this trip to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara.
Ireland may not be famous for its cuisine, but the restaurant scene in Dublin goes far beyond the ever-present potato. If you’re looking for traditional favorites like shepherd’s pie or Irish stew, try a pub or microbrewery — otherwise, you’re more likely to find sophisticated international cuisine in Dublin’s upscale restaurants. Smoking is no longer permitted in any of Dublin’s bars or eateries.
For the friendly service, hearty food and lively atmosphere of a traditional Irish pub, head to the Parnell Bar. The menu boasts plenty of comfort food and Irish favorites: burgers, Irish stew, traditional bacon and cabbage, beef and Guinness casserole. Portions are generous.
Steps from St. Stephen’s Green, One Pico offers Continental cuisine at its best. Innovative dishes might include rare breed pork with seared scallops, sea bream with barley and white onion risotto, or Wicklow venison with red cabbage puree. Reservations are essential.
Sure, wine’s the name of the game at Peploe’s Wine Bistro, what with hundreds of bottle listings — but the cuisine is certainly no slouch; look for dishes like the monkfish pie or the roast loin of venison with smoked bacon. Peploe’s offers a special pre-concert dinner for diners planning to spend an evening out.
You might not go to Ireland expecting amazing Asian cuisine, but you’ll find it at Langkawi. This Malaysian restaurant earns raves for offerings such as chicken rendang (a dish involving roasted coconut, lemongrass, lime leaves and other spices) and mee goreng, a “hawker-style” fried noodle dish with chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts and chiles.
Considered by many to be Dublin’s best French restaurant, Pearl Brasserie relies on locally sourced ingredients to create dishes like roast loin of venison and Irish beef fillet cooked to perfection. There’s a dedicated menu for vegetarians.
Shopping in Dublin
Favorite goods to buy in Dublin include fine Irish linens, Waterford crystal and hand-knitted woolen garments. Grafton Street is the city’s preeminent shopping district, home to a number of boutiques and the Brown Thomas (or BT) department store, but don’t miss a trip down the nearby side streets off of Grafton — including Duke and Dawson.
The Temple Bar area offers a number of fun weekend markets, including a food market that takes place every Saturday and a book market that runs Saturdays and Sundays in Temple Bar Square.
For great clothing finds, check out the Designer Mart at Cow’s Lane; every Saturday, local designers offer one-of-a-kind wares in the Temple Bar area.
If you’re hit by a bout of Irish rain, head indoors to one of Dublin’s malls or “arcades” — like the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre or the George’s Street Arcade.
Get your souvenir shopping done at House of Ireland, on the corner of Nassau and Dawson Streets, offering a wide selection of Waterford crystal, Aran knitwear, Celtic jewelry, Irish linens and more.