Dublin Travel Guide

Overview

Dublin, Ireland, is the small, charming, eminently walkable city that visitors expect, and the corner pub offers a warm welcome. Wry perceptions are uttered with a winsome Irish lilt in Dublin. And, as visitors stroll along the city's handsome Georgian squares, they'll realize the necessity of an umbrella.

But today's Dublin also includes high-tech companies, many of them located in the lovely Georgian houses that line the city's streets. High-rises and cosmopolitan restaurants and hotels continue to spring up next door to traditional taverns and friendly guesthouses, and a beehive of construction work aimed at improving the city's infrastructure buzzes around them.

Dublin is a city in transition, from medieval capital to exciting commercial center—a hip, electric city, astonishing even visitors who make it their business to stay on Europe's cutting edge. Dublin's unpretentious charm is still there, but chic urbanity has moved in beside it. Now known for its vibrant nightlife, Dublin has become a favorite city-break destination for young European visitors. Visitors could spend a week in Dublin and still not cover all the attractions.

Geography

Dublin is situated on the east coast of Ireland. Its famed river, the Liffey, cuts through the center of the city and empties into Dublin Bay, dividing the city into north and south. On the north side are 18th-century architectural masterpieces—the Custom House and the Four Courts—and also the historic thoroughfare of O'Connell Street. At the northern end of O'Connell Street are Parnell Square and the Gate Theatre. The Abbey Theatre is east of O'Connell Street. South of the Liffey are Trinity College, the trendy (but old) streets of Temple Bar, the fine Georgian buildings of St. Stephen's Green, Grafton Street's upscale stores and restaurants, and most hotels.

Postal codes help serve as indicators of general location within Dublin, and most addresses incorporate them. With very few exceptions, odd-numbered postal codes are used to designate areas north of the Liffey. Even-numbered ones are south of the river. As examples, addresses in Dublin 1 are just north of the river; those in Dublin 2 are immediately south. County Dublin represents the Dublin metropolitan area north and south of the city. Addresses in County Dublin include the name of the village (Dalkey, for example), followed by the abbreviation "Co. Dublin."

History

Dublin's history is one marked by a tragic influx of conquerors. When the pagan Celts arrived from the European continent sometime around 600 BC, some of them settled on the banks of the Liffey and named the area Baile Atha Cliath (meaning the "ford of hurdles"—the name is still visible on buses and license plates).

In the fifth century, Christianity began to sweep across the island, led by the conversion efforts of St. Patrick. Religious scholarship flourished in Ireland until the ninth century, when Viking invaders wreaked havoc on the Emerald Isle and firmly established the city of Dublin. In 1014, the Vikings were defeated by the Irish king Brian Boru in the Battle of Clontarf, but it wasn't long after that the British took an interest in their western neighbor.

In the late 12th century, England's King Henry II sent his well-disciplined army of Anglo-Normans to Ireland, claiming sovereignty over Dublin and the surrounding area. After triumph in the English civil war in the mid-1600s, the Protestant Oliver Cromwell also took control of Dublin, precipitating a power struggle between Catholics and Protestants that has continued to the present day.

As the seat of English rule in Ireland, the town prospered. An 18th-century economic boom fostered a Georgian architectural expansion still evident in the city. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, the Act of Union between England and Ireland abolished the Irish parliament, and many of the city's aristocrats left for England. This mass exodus was accentuated by the Great Famine of the 1840s and '50s, when 2 million Irish people either died of starvation or moved abroad as a result of a far-reaching potato blight and staple-crop failure. Emigration continued over the next century, dramatically reducing the population and inflaming a movement for Irish independence (or Home Rule) from Britain.

During Easter of 1916, a band of Irish rebels led by James Connolly and Patrick Pearse took over Dublin's General Post Office and proclaimed an Irish republic in what became known as the Easter Rising. The British subsequently executed most of the rebel leaders, enraging many Dubliners who had been less enthusiastic about independence. On 6 December 1921, the Irish Free State was finally established. A bitter civil war immediately followed, leaving Dublin in ruin. The conflict ended in a partition of Ireland: The 26 southern counties gained their independence, but six counties known as Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K.

Dubliners rebuilt their city, and after seven turbulent and impoverished decades, they experienced an economic upturn in the 1990s. Many former emigrants returned to their native land. With them came immigrants from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, giving Ireland its first experience of being a multicultural society. An abundance of new restaurants, pubs and hotels cropped up, reflecting the increasingly cosmopolitan tastes and spending power of the local populace. The city's expansion and resurgence is still going strong: The government projects that by 2020 the population of Ireland will have grown from 4.1 million to 5.3 million, and immigrants will account for 19% of the nation's population.

But the capital has struggled with its growth. A hyperinflated property market has left many burdened by huge mortgages. During the prosperous early 2000s, Dubliners developed expensive lifestyles, which are now financed through credit-card spending—giving the Irish one of the highest levels of personal debt in Europe. A recent movement encourages people to shop around and to refuse to pay for overpriced goods, but the Irish nevertheless travel frequently, especially to southern Europe and the U.S., in search of bargains. Fiscal conservation is under way as the country is struggling with a currency crisis and Ireland attempts to stabilize its economy.

Sightseeing

The River Liffey is the center of activity in Dublin today, just as it was in medieval times. Though not particularly picturesque or impressive, the river's banks are a good place to begin exploring the city. South of the Liffey you'll find much of the tourist infrastructure and the new developments spurred by the city's rapid economic growth. Hotels, restaurants, trendy cafes, shops and attractions abound. North of the Liffey, the flavor of the old city is easier to find in less-gentrified neighborhoods. There, stately Georgian buildings coexist with humble 19th-century workers' cottages. To get an understanding of where Dublin has been and where it's going, spend some time on each side of the Liffey.

One of the most vibrant areas of the city is the rejuvenated docklands district to the east, where numerous cultural events take place and Dublin celebrates its maritime origins. Near Temple Bar, the striking James Joyce Bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and built in 2003, spans the river.

Although some of Dublin's once-posh neighborhoods have become run-down and seedy, much of their elegance remains. No expense was spared initially in Dublin's construction and embellishment. As you walk around, notice the brightly colored doors on many of the town houses. The best examples of Georgian architecture are at Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square on the south side of Dublin and at Mountjoy Square on the north side.

Chief among Dublin's churches are St. Patrick's Cathedral (whose most famous dean was satirist Jonathan Swift) and Christ Church Cathedral (originally constructed in 1038 but rebuilt many times since). The finest examples of ancient fortifications in the city are Dublin Castle and Malahide Castle (8 mi/13 km north of the city center). The latter is noted for its lovely antiques and outstanding gardens.

Ireland's oldest university is Trinity College, founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. Its refined academic atmosphere remains: Step through the Regent's House passageway and you'll be transported from the busy downtown streets to a serene quadrangle surrounded by vintage buildings. On display at the Old Library is the college's most famous treasure: the must-see Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript that dates from around AD 800.

Dublin is also a city of wonderful museums. Take time to see the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) and the National Museum of Ireland. We also enjoyed Dublinia—a re-creation of Dublin as it was when Vikings founded the city more than 1,000 years ago.

Visit the lovely villages of Dalkey, once the site of seven ancient churches, and Sandycove, south of the city center, both accessible by public transportation. The Heritage Center in Dalkey Castle will provide all the information needed. Also check out the picturesque seaside village of Howth, north of the city center, and the medieval Howth Castle on the grounds of the Deer Park Hotel. Behind the hotel is a beautiful walk through the rhododendron gardens that will take you up to a rocky ledge with spectacular views of Dublin Bay.

Literary Dublin deserves its own tour, with a first stop at the Dublin Writers Museum. Merrion Square boasts the homes of a number of noted writers, including Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats. Just outside the city, in the hamlet of Sandycove, is the James Joyce Museum (not to be confused with the James Joyce Centre, in Dublin 1), whose Martello tower is one of the most sacred spots for lovers of literature (the tower is the setting for the opening of Joyce's Ulysses). Of course, almost all of Dublin was the setting for Ulysses, and there are numerous maps and tours tracing the meanderings of Leopold Bloom (Dublin celebrates Bloomsday—the day on which all the action in Ulysses takes place during the year 1904—on 16 June). Literary pub tours also abound.

Nightlife

Dublin's nightclub and music scene is so active and strong that it's hard to keep up with it. All pubs must be licensed, and the number of licenses is limited. During the 1990s, publicans enlarged existing premises. Thus was born the "superpub"—vast, hangar-sized buildings that you can almost get lost in. Some have several floors, numerous nooks and crannies, and different moods in different areas. Cafe en Seine on Dawson Street and Dakota on South William Street are two of the most popular. You can choose to drink in one of these, mostly favored by younger folk, or in a traditional community pub.

Most of the hot spots, whether superpubs, traditional pubs, clubs or concert venues, tend to be in and around the city center, a great place for having craic (the colloquial phrase for a good time—pronounced crack).

In recent years, Temple Bar has become home to a flourishing arts scene and vibrant nightlife. There are lots of trendy restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs, and a large number of pubs, some with traditional Irish music (though the music sessions get a little glitzy in Temple Bar—some showcase Irish step dancers in addition to the musicians). The sidewalks are filled with younger residents of Dublin, as well as with lots of visitors from the U.S. and Europe. However, the area does have something of a wild reputation, and the raucous activity of young drinkers and clubbers on the streets—particularly on weekends—may not be everyone's cup of grog.

Clubs, which are special theme nights held at nightclubs, are geared toward those who take their dance music seriously. Independent organizers go into a nightclub, taking top Irish, British and other European DJs. In the quest for newness, club nights change venues and themes constantly. If you are a committed clubgoer, your best bet is to check local listings when you arrive to see where the action is. (Up-to-date club listings and information are also available at http://www.dublinks.com and http://www.dublinuncovered.com.) Expect to pay a cover of 15 euros-30 euros.

Smoking is now prohibited in all bars and nightclubs. However, because of the indomitable spirit of the Irish people, they view it as a great pretext for sparking up a conversation with strangers outside. Many pubs now display the sign "If you want to smoke, go outside and meet new friends."

Most nightclubs stay open until 3 am. Keep in mind that there's a shortage of taxis in the city center on weekend nights when the pubs and bars close: Be prepared to wait for more than an hour at a taxi stand.

Dining

In Dublin, you'll find plenty of traditional Irish food: potato cakes, colcannon (potatoes mashed with cabbage or kale), salmon, Irish stew (mutton, onions and potatoes), prawns (fresh from Dublin Bay), oysters and breads. But don't stick just to the traditional fare. In addition to a respectable selection of international eateries, you'll find restaurants that specialize in a distinctive school of New Irish cuisine. It uses rich, indigenous Irish foodstuffs prepared with influences from the European continent and the Mediterranean.

Eating out in Dublin is pricey, although an increasing number of places offer set lunch and dinner menus, Early Bird specials and pretheater menus that are a good value. Pubs also offer affordable sandwiches and light meals. Check with the tourist board for a list of such restaurants.

Dining times are generally 7:30-10 am for breakfast, 12:30-3 pm for lunch and 6-10 pm for dinner.

One cautionary note: Although Ireland was considered smoker-friendly in the past, legislation banning smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and pubs, is now in effect.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a basic dinner entree for one, not including drinks, but including tax and tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-40 euros; and $$$$ = more than 40 euros.

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