It took me a while to fall for Dublin. Unlike London, the capital of the Republic of Ireland doesn’t command your attention with serried ranks of grand colonial buildings. It’s not Paris, where impossibly romantic neighbourhoods bowl you over with their playing-hard-to-get charms. It’s not even New York or Tokyo, where the relentless bustle and bright lights dazzle and impress. No, after my first visit to Dublin I was, shall we say, underwhelmed.
The trick to Dublin, I discovered, is time. Sure, you can rush into town and tick off Trinity College and the Book of Kells. You can even hurry along to the Guinness Storehouse and learn – an hour, and €14 later – how to pour the perfect pint. But to truly get a feel for the city you’ll need to invest a little time. This isn’t a city that trumpets its own charms, or shouts its history from the rooftops. If you want a glimpse of its soul you need to poke around the quiet corners and listen closely to the locals. Pull up a stool in the pub when the curling’s on the telly, and get far away from the tourist thoroughfares of Grafton Street and Temple Bar.
If you need an extra incentive to stick around, follow my lead and do something truly idiotic. Like leaving your driver’s licence in Cape Town when you have a hire car booked. It’ll ensure that instead of hopping behind the wheel and heading straight for the crenulated coastline of the Dingle Peninsula, you’ll be forced to spend an extra four days in the city.
Which will, trust me here, be a blessing in disguise.
For while most travellers zip in and out of Dublin on their way to the Cliffs of Moher and the picture-postcard scenery of western Ireland, the city has plenty to offer. You just need to know where to look.
There are few better places to start looking than the banks of the River Liffey, which bisects the city. Rivers are a wonderful way to discover the soul, and history of a city, and the Liffey is no different. Begin your wandering down on its eastern reaches, where a haunting monument reminds visitors and locals alike of the event that shaped modern-day Ireland like none other.
The hollow-eyed statues of the Famine Memorial by Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie are a powerful reminder of the devastating famine that gripped Ireland in the early-1800s, sending a million to their graves and a million more to a new life across the seas. Tied up alongside the Memorial is a sea-going replica of the triple-masted schooner Jeannie Johnston, which sailed many voyages across the Atlantic delivering thousands to a new life in America and Canada.
That was the 1840s though, and times have changed. Today there’s a quiet energy on the streets of Dublin, from the gleaming penthouse apartments overlooking the Liffey to a slew of on-trend eateries in and around the city centre. But that’s for the evening.
In the bright sunshine of an Irish summer, admire the harp-strings of the Samuel Beckett Bridge and keep walking west along the Liffey, towards the broad boulevard of O'Connell Street. Here the 121-metre ‘Spire of Dublin’ is all but unavoidable. It’s about as grandiose as Dublin gets, and is situated just a few steps from the historic General Post Office. This was the site of the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that eventually lead to Irish independence six years later. There’s a museum and a tour, but far and away the best bit – according to my six-year-old son, at least – is the Lego reconstruction of the uprising. It’s indoors, there’s no entrance fee, and you can buy postcards and stamps at the old-school post office counters alongside.
The streets behind the GPO are home to some fine shopping, but with the Euro the way it is you’re better off leaving your wallet in your pocket.
A short walk on brings me to perhaps the most famous bridge in Dublin, the quaint Ha'Penny Bridge. Named for the fare once charged to cross the iron walkway, today it’s filled with tourists placing lovelocks or snapping selfies. But not so fast; you’re about to miss out on a fine place for lunch.
The Woollen Mills Eating House is spread across a heritage building on the north bank of the river, dishing up authentic Irish fare using proudly local produce. Aside from the crispy whitebait my favourite dish was the pickled spaghetti seaweed with a half-dozen local oysters. Take your pick between Sligo native or Dungarvan Hartys. Watching your budget? Opt for the bowl of Ha’penny Bridge Coddle, a hearty Irish soup served with soda bread.
Dublin is certainly no slouch when it comes to 21st-century dining. The city abounds with adventurous chefs championing Irish produce and inspiration. Aside from The Woollen Mills, I also loved Fade Street Social, an upscale offering from celeb-chef Dylan McGrath.
But as in most cities, some of the best food is to be found on the streets. Close to Ha’penny Bridge you’ll find the charming Temple Bar Food market, held Saturday mornings in Meeting House Square. There are more fresh oysters, these fished from the waters of Co. Sligo, along with fresh cheeses from across Ireland, artisan breads, cured meats and superb coffee.
Temple Bar is almost unavoidable, but don’t spend too long here. The touts and buskers and tourists grow tiresome quickly. If you fancy a little window-shopping, rather wander towards Drury Street, home to a delightful collection of independent stores. Industry & Co. boasts a stylish selection of interior décor and Irish design, while right across the street the Victorian arches of the George’s Street Arcade hide yet more small boutiques and cosy cafés. If the weather turns, this is a fine place to hide out.
From this side of town you’re in striking distance of the ‘must-see’ sights. Trinity College is worth a wander, both for the Book of Kells and the impressive Long Room in the Old Library. Built in the early-1700s, it’s home to 200 000 of the oldest books in the Library collection. Also look out for the 600-year-old Irish harp, the oldest in Ireland.
Along with St. Stephen’s Green and St. Patrick’s Cathedral they are checkboxes on the to-do list of every visitor to Dublin. I ticked them off on my first visit, yet left without a feel for the city. So see the sights, get them out of the way, and then let the real Dublin come to the fore. Ride the trams into the suburbs and order a Guinness in a local pub. If you fancy a break from the pavements, leave the picnickers to the pigeons of St. Stephen’s Green and seek out Phoenix Park.
Stretching across 700 hectares, it is one of the largest enclosed parks in Europe and offers up everything from formal gardens to rustic woodland. The US Ambassador has a residence here, as do the elephants of Dublin Zoo. On my last visit this remarkable green lung was just a few minutes walk from my Airbnb in Stoneybatter, one of the oldest ‘villages’ in the city of modern-day Dublin. I’d jog through here on chilly mornings, chatting with the locals as I got myself happily lost amid the woodlands.
Just as, one drizzly afternoon, I asked the barman at L. Mulligan. Grocer – actually a pub – to explain the nuances of curling. It involved men and wooden bats and an unhealthy amount of running, as I recall. Getting the hang of this quintessential piece of Irish culture may take some time, but then the same could be said for Dublin itself. Don’t expect to arrive and be immediately bowled over. Take some time, go slowly and you’ll soon discover the real charms of the city.
If you have time…
Catch a ferry to Dún Laoghaire. An easy ferry ride across Dublin Bay, this charming seaside suburb is famous for its massive granite piers, as well as the Martello tower in nearby Sandycove. It was immortalised by James Joyce in the opening chapter of his epic novel Ulysees.
Hop the train to Howth. A stylish seaside town famed for its excellent seafood restaurants. Boat trips, bird watching and hiking trails are available if you need to work up an appetite.
See Co. Wicklow. Little more than an hour south of Dublin you’ll find yourself amid the gorgeous Wicklow Mountains National Park. Don’t miss the scenic Glendalough Valley, home to the ancient monastic settlement of St. Kevin.