Worldwide: 48 hours in ... Dublin
There's more to Ireland's capital than literary day-trippers and Guinness-necking stag nights, And late autumn is an ideal time to go, says Harriet O'Brien
Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer and award-winning author. Her first book Forgotten Land, a rediscovery of Burma was published just before she joined The Independent, her second Queen Emma and Vikings, a few years after she left. She was on staff at The Independent during the 1990s and subsequently worked in Canada and then as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more. She mainly covers the UK, Europe and Asia, where she grew up.
Saturday 21 November 1998
Because air fares to Ireland's capital are almost ridiculously cheap (see below). Because late autumn is pretty much out of season, it's a good time to visit a city which tends otherwise to be beseiged with hordes of literary trippers. And because of the peace settlement north of the border, you can catch the real optimism of many Dubliners, who feel that a re-united Ireland is now a distinct, if still distant, possibility.
I paid pounds 68, including taxes, for a return trip from Stansted to Dublin on Ryanair (0541 569569). The absolute lowest fare on Ryanair, from a range of UK airports, is pounds 49.99 return if you travel midweek on certain flights. If you book by credit card with Ryanair Direct (0541 569569), a pounds 3 fee is charged.
Other airlines with scheduled services from Britain include Aer Lingus (0181-899 4747), British Airways (0345 222111) and British Midland (0345 554554). Perhaps the greatest bargain of all, if you want a largely unrestricted ticket, is on Virgin Trains and Stena Line, via Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire. Travellers from London pay just pounds 39 return, with under-16s going for half-price. Call 0345 222333 for details.
Get your bearings
To say that the river divides the city would be an understatement. The best of Dublin's buildings (grand Georgian squares, gracious streets punctuated by big, bold front doors) are south of the Liffey. Traditionally, north of the Liffey is poor Dublin (many local people maintain that there are still those who have never strayed south over any of the city's 14 bridges). And despite redevelopment efforts, this part of town still has a run-down feel. Which is probably why many of the more reasonable B&Bs are located here.
Dublin's most vibrant cultural scene is south of the Liffey. Temple Bar, just off the river, has fairly recently been established as a trendy arts area, full of galleries, cafes and pubs. There are so many pubs, in fact, that local people have renamed it "the Temple of Bars". But the district looks set to calm down a little, with the banning of the notoriously rowdy British stag parties which had been taking place at weekends.
The main tourist office (open Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm, tel 01850 23 0330) is also south of the Liffey, pleasantly housed in the converted church of St Andrews on Suffolk Street. There's another useful tourist office at the airport (open daily 8am-9.30pm). For those arriving by plane, your best bet is to buy a map (cost: 50p) here and take an express bus (IR pounds 3) to O'Connell Street in the centre of town.
A weekend in Dublin is not a bargain proposition: Ireland has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and hotel prices reflect this. Top of the range here, in terms of luxury and romantic appeal, is the elegant Shelbourne (00 353 1 676 6471) overlooking the leafy gardens of St Stephen's Green: rates for a weekend break are IR pounds 174 for a double room for two nights, including breakfast. For a cheaper alternative, go north of the Liffey. Charleville Lodge is a large and well-kept guest house at 268-272 North Circular Road, Dublin 7 (00 353 1 838 6633, fax 00 353 1 838 5834). Double rooms here are IR pounds 65 including breakfast. Or try the comfortable and very reasonable Townhouse (00 353 1 878 8808) at 47-48 Gardiner St Lower, where weekend prices start at IR pounds 35 per person per night.
Take a ride
Even if you normally avoid guided tours, try joining at least one in Dublin. You'll not only get a good insight into the city, but you'll also be left marvelling at the Irish ability to spin a great story. A hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city costs IR pounds 7 (and includes discount tickets to many of Dublin's museums). Tours leave from O'Connell, loop round Trinity College and St Stephen's Green and head north to Phoenix Park and back along the Liffey.
Take a hike
Take your pick of walking tours: currently one of the best is described as an "entertaining seminar on the street" and is conducted by graduates of Trinity College. It leaves from the front gate of the college at noon on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and costs IR pounds 6. This isn't a hike so much as an amble south of the city - but be prepared, too, for an energetic mental jog through Ireland's history, putting the state of the peace process into context.
Lunch on the run
Fast food turns wholesome at the Queen of Tarts, 4 Cork Hill, Dublin 2 (00 353 1 676 7499). On offer are savouries such as tarts of roast chicken, red pepper and coriander, and that Irish specialisty, potato cakes (here served with herbs and cheese).
Allow time to absorb the glories of Ireland's greatest treasure: the Book of Kells, housed in the Old Library at Trinity College (open daily, admission IR pounds 3.50). The fantastically decorated manuscript dates from around AD800 and contains the New Testament's four gospels, beautifully inscribed in Latin. Also on display are the Book of Armagh and the Book of Durrow.
... or make it a pub crawl. Such entertainment has become something of an institution in Dublin, with a number of specially devised tours for visitors. Musical pub crawls (sponsored by Guinness) leave from Oliver St John Gogarty's pub on the corner of Fleet Street and Anglesea Street in the Temple Bar area at 7.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays: price IR pounds 6. But you could just follow the strains of fiddles and spoons for yourself.
For a more idiosyncratic tour, why not join an organised literary pub crawl (sponsored by Jameson whiskey)? Don't expect an erudite analysis of, say, Finnegans Wake: this is a lively evening session, hosted by actors who perform extracts from the likes of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Gather at Dukes pub on Duke Street for tours (costing IR pounds 6) which take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 7.30pm and on Sundays from noon and from 7.30pm.
After all that drinking, make for The Mermaid Caffe at 70 Dame Street, Dublin 2 (00 353 1 670 8236). It's hardly the cheapest place in town - with starters such as smoked salmon with anchovies and walnut risotto (IR pounds 6.75), and main courses like seafood casserole (IR pounds 16.95) - but you'll dine in style, in sleek, candle-lit surroundings.
Dublin's two cathedrals serve just 3 per cent of the city's population: these are both Anglican institutions. It remains an astonishing fact that there are no Catholic cathdrals here, reflecting the degree to which the country was held in the grip of Protestant repression. Christ Church cathedral is probably the more interesting of the two, founded in the 11th century on the site of Dublin's first, Viking, settlement and much rebuilt since - most notably in the 19th century. However, you can get a sense of the age of the building in the extensive, and appropriately spooky, crypt. Near the cathedral, medieval Dublin is brought to life (of sorts) in the Dublinia exhibition (open Monday to Saturday 11am-4pm and Sun 10am-4.30pm, adults IR pounds 3.95, children IR pounds 2.90)
You can't beat Bewley's Oriental Cafe in Grafton Street for exotic appeal. More than simply a coffee bar, this is something of a Dublin must-see - and its decor has been newly, and colourfully, restored. The Atrium cafe here serves all-day breakfast.
A walk in the park
Do as the Dubliners do: take a stroll around St Stephen's Green, with its bandstand, duck pond and little streams, which is surrounded by fine, Georgian buildings.
The icing on the cake
Actually, not so much icing as bread - moist Irish soda bread: pick up a loaf at Bewley's Oriental Cafe.
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