(Photo: Courtesy The Shelbourne)
The first time I took a whack at Dublin, I was working as an assistant in my first job after college. The second, I was an established travel writer “on holiday” with my then-boyfriend. There are some things that remained the same: the nippy weather, the reliable Guinness pours, the warm, amiable charm of the Irish people. But being able to go and do it “the proper way” this time — staying at a hotel instead of a six-to-a-bed mixed hostel room — gave me a whole new perspective on the city.
Where to Stay
The Shelbourne. It’s hard to get more central than St. Stephens Green, and this hotel wins not only for convenience but for cozy-yet-luxe accommodations. It was built in 1842, but the old-world charm melds nicely with modern conveniences. Paintings by local Irish artists hang in hallways and common areas and the spa is perfect when you need a warm sauna at the end of a cold day.
Dylan Hotel. If it’s a more boutique-y feel you’re after, The Dylan is a laid-back hotel in the Temple Bar neighborhood. It’s a short walk over to Grafton Street, Ireland’s most famous shopping row, but head a few blocks in the opposite direction and you can live like a true Dubliner, popping in and out of tea shops and bookstores. There are many high teas in Dublin, but the chocolate high tea in The Dylan is incomparable.
The Best Eats
Chapter One is a Michelin-starred restaurant in Parnell Square next door to the Irish Writers’ Museum. The best bet is the four-course tasting menu, which is full of elegant takes on traditional Irish fare like salt marsh duck breast, pigeon terrine, and a salad of melted onions flavored with lovage greens. If you order an Irish coffee, they’ll make it – and fire it – tableside.
If you ask ten Dubliners where the best place is to get a pint, you’ll likely get ten different answers. Except for the touristy bars and clubs in Temple Bar that cater to tourists, just about any little pub will be full of nice people and cold drinks. But if you’re in the Temple Bar area and want a place that even a local wouldn’t turn their nose up at, The Palace Bar offers both Guinness and local Irish microbrews as well as whiskey (just don’t ask for a fluffy cocktail).
What To Do
Skip the Book of Kells and the crowds at Trinity College and opt for the Chester Beatty Library instead. Beatty was a businessman, collector, and philanthropist – Ireland’s own J.P. Morgan type. When he died, his vast collection of everything from first-edition books to rare Chinese porcelain was turned into a museum. There’s so much stuff that it has to be regularly rotated through the collection, so multiple visits (guided tours are $2) will each turn up different treasures.
There’s no shortage of churches in Dublin, but St. Michan’s, in the Four Courts area, gets relatively few visitors despite its interesting, multilayered history. Handel composed his famous symphony Messiah on the organ here, but the most famous part of the church is the catacombs underneath it. After years and years of piling coffins on top of each other to save space, some broke, spilling out their contents. Now, four of the skeletons are on display for visitors, including one believed to belong to a fighter who died during the Crusades. It’s good luck to rub his middle finger – if you dare.
Ireland is known for its writers, and the Dublin Writers Museum pays tribute to not only the most boldface names (Yeats, Joyce), but to lesser-known writers who were important in the community or whose works have fallen out of favor. For a real treat, listen to the audio recordings of James Joyce reading some of his work aloud.
Where to Visit
If you want to explore more of the Irish countryside, there are several great daytrips. Newgrange, about 50 miles outside of Dublin in County Meath, is a prehistoric monument that is Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge (it’s older, though, which Irish folk never miss a chance to point out). Unlike Stonehenge, which looks cool in photos but doesn’t have much else to offer visitors, Newgrange is mostly interior – go inside and get a sense of this structure’s fascinating design and the tricks it plays with light.
If you’re up for a longer but even more rewarding side trip, head up to Northern Ireland for a visit to the UNESCO Heritage Site-listed Giant’s Causeway, a series of graphite rocks that naturally form in hexagonal and octagonal shapes. If you drive back, there are plenty of whiskey distilleries you can pop into, or consider a day in Belfast, whose complicated history is making way for a burgeoning art scene.
The second time I went to Dublin was a definite improvement over the first, staying in a lush hotel room instead of a six-to-a-room hostel and taking express trains instead of plodding local buses. But one thing remained constant on both visits: the kind, welcoming charm of the Irish people. I’m already plotting a third visit.
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