48 hours in: Dublin
With top-class hotels and restaurants and a warm and welcoming nightlife, there are plenty of reasons to visit the city for a weekend, says Susan Griffith
Why go now?
Although the St Patrick’s celebrations are over for another year, any weekend in the next few weeks will prove rewarding for a visit, with carpets of vivid tulips and hyacinths blooming profusely in St Stephen's Green. Then there’s the hotels and nightlife to enjoy as well!
Thanks to the vastly improved road network in recent years, the city can be reached from Belfast in under two hours. The Enterprise train also has a regular daily service between the two cities, as does the Ulsterbus Goldline service (translink.co.uk).
Get your bearings
The River Liffey bisects the city horizontally. Orient yourself by the named foot and road bridges, the most central of which is busy O'Connell Bridge. The heart of the city is demarcated by Trinity College, St Stephen's Green, Christ Church Cathedral and Parnell Square, with Temple Bar at the centre. The Dublin Tourism Centre on Suffolk Street (tel: 00353 1437 0969; visitdublin.com) opens 9am-5.30pm daily except Sundays (10.30am-3pm). The bus information office at 59 Upper O'Connell Street (tel: 00353 1873 4222; dublinbus.ie) provides a guide to key routes.
The Westbury Hotel (tel: 00 353 1 679 1122; doylecollection.com) offers stylish rooms and a location that could not be more central. Doubles without breakfast start at €152. The Townhouse bed and breakfast on the north side at 47/48 Lower Gardiner Street (tel: 00 353 1 878 8808; townhouseofdublin.com) occupies two restored Georgian houses, one of which belonged to Lafcadio Hearn, the 19th-century writer on Japan, which explains the Japanese garden. Doubles from €47, with breakfast.
Among the many hostels, Kinlay House (tel: 00353 1679 6644; kinlaydublin.ie) near Christ Church has dorm beds from €15 with decent breakfasts.
In this most literary of cities, make libraries your theme. Sequestered behind St Patrick's Cathedral, Marsh’s Library (marshlibrary.ie) has been a public library since 1701 (the first in Ireland) though today's scholars are no longer locked into three cages at the back to prevent theft. A riveting exhibition on medicine includes illustrated books on the Black Death, early anatomy, gynaecology and quackery. This under-visited gem is open weekdays 9.30am-1pm and 2-5pm, Saturdays 10am-1pm, closed Tuesdays; €2.50.
The Chester Beatty Library displays illuminated manuscripts from Asia and the Middle East, and astonishing early papyrus fragments of the Bible. Open 10am-5pm from Tues-Sat, 1-5pm Sun; free. Also free is an exhibition on the life of W B Yeats at the National Library of Ireland at 2 Kildare Street (nli.ie); open daily, hours vary.
Lunch on the run
George's Street Market is great for lunch and people-watching. Groups of teenage girls concoct frozen yoghurt desserts at innovative Yogism. Elegant ladies with slim ankles sip espressos. Order a €5 lamb burger at the Honest to Goodness Café Bakery or slide into a communal bench at the Urban Picnic for an Asian or Mediterranean-influenced dish.
In the George's Street Arcade eclectic stalls sell records, retro clothes, modish jewellery and second-hand books of Irish poetry (georgesstreetarcade.ie). The market opens at 9am daily (noon on Sundays) and closes at 6.30pm (8pm Thursdays). A short walk away, Lucy’s Lounge, a thrift shop at 11 Upper Fownes Street, rotates a wacky stock of fashion and accessories.
The whimsical out-of-the-way The Cake Café (62 Pleasants Place; tel: 00 353 1 478 9394; thecakecafe.ie) serves prosecco and elderflower cocktails and fino sherry with olives for €6-€7 in tiny premises and a leafy arcaded courtyard; open till 5.30pm on Saturdays, 8pm Tuesday to Friday.
Apart from such frivolities, Dublin is a one-aperitif town — though locals would never besmirch the good name of Guinness with that fancy description. The traditional Dublin pub, with polished mahogany and cut-glass mirrors is a thing of beauty. Go to buzzing Neary's behind the Gaiety Theatre for the banter, to Mulligan’s for an unreconstructed old-world atmosphere, to the Long Hall for its diversity of regulars or to the Brazen Head, a stronghold of Irish nationalism judging from the portraits.
Dining with the locals
The Celtic Tiger era has left Dublin with a selection of impressive dining options such as the Camden Kitchen (tel: 00353 1476 0125; camdenkitchen.ie) just around the corner from The Cake Café, and Hugo's at 6 Merrion Row (tel: 00353 1676 5955; hugos.ie) with contemporary dishes such as grilled artichoke salad and tamarind-glazed salmon.
At La Cave Wine Bar (28 South Anne Street; tel: 00353 1679 4409; lacavewinebar.com), the subterranean location, “bordello red” decor and Latin music manages to create an intimate yet casual atmosphere. If you are prepared to leave by 8pm, two courses cost €17.
Sunday morning: take a view
As the morning sky brightens over the River Liffey, stroll downstream on the north side towards the newly renovated Docklands. Just before the Sean O’Casey Bridge is a disquieting reminder in bronze of the Great Famine of 1845-1852. With their backs turned on Ireland, five straggling figures and an emaciated dog look towards the sea, with emigration their only hope. The modern view is of the stunning Samuel Beckett Bridge and the port beyond.
A walk in the park
Just 10 minutes' walk from the River Liffey is the fine Georgian Merrion Square where well-to-do families lived (and where a soup kitchen was set up during the Famine). Famous residents included the Wildes (Oscar's father was a prominent surgeon) and WB Yeats at number 82. In the centre is a railed-in pleasure ground, adorned with gas lamps of Old Dublin, a tent-shaped war memorial and sculptures. The most arresting is of Oscar Wilde draped languidly over a boulder in the corner nearest his childhood home.
Out to brunch
Presiding over Grafton Street, Bewley’s Oriental Café (bewleys.com) is one of Dublin's charming clichés, a monument to respectability, purveyor of fine coffee and a €9.60 full Irish breakfast at any time after 9am on Sundays (8am on other days).
Take a hike
At a time when cemeteries were exclusively Protestant, the nationalist hero Daniel O'Connell established non-denominational Glasnevin Cemetery in 1832. It has monumental sculptures, mature sequoia, yew and oak, and the remains of more than a million souls. The tombs of the famous cluster round the entrance on Finglas Road (accessible by bus 40 or 140), from the grandiose 50m round tower above a sunken crypt for ‘The Liberator’ O'Connell, to the modest headstone of Ireland's early president, Eamon de Valera.
The daily 2.30pm tour (€6) provides a fascinating insight into the who's who of Irish history. Wandering to the more neglected corners reveals epitaphs that record the poignant loss of children in large impoverished Irish families.
Icing on the cake
Jump on a Dart commuter train to Dun Laoghaire and inside half an hour you can be striding out on the mile-long East Pier, enjoying marvellous views across Dublin Bay and watching shags dive for fish.
Walking south along the shore about the same distance brings you to quaint Sandycove and the Martello Tower made famous in the first chapter of Ulysses. Back in the city, find your way to the unfashionable Smithfield area to hear informal Irish music at the Cobblestone pub at 77 North King Street (tel: 00353 1872 1799).