Raise a toast to St Patrick in Ireland's vibrant capital, which straddles the river Liffey and boasts cutting-edge architecture along its banks. Aoife O'Riordain prescribes the perfect break

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

To join the seasonal festivities in Ireland's vibrant capital. This week, Dublin plays host to the St Patrick's Festival ( stpatricksfestival.ie ), a six-day celebration of all things Irish culminating in the St Patrick's Day parade, which sets off from Parnell Square (1) at noon on 17 March.

Touch down

Dublin is well connected to the UK. As well as ferries to Dublin and the nearby port of Dun Laoghaire, airlines include Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) Aer Lingus (0871 718 5000; aerlingus.com ), Aer Arann (0870 876 7676; aerarann.com ), CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com ), Air Southwest (0870 241 8202; airsouthwest.com ), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) and BMI (0844 848 0808; flybmi.co.uk ).

Dublin airport is 12km north of the centre. An easy way into town is on the 24-hour Aircoach shuttle (00 353 1 844 7118; aircoach.ie ), which runs every 10 minutes at peak times and stops throughout the city; €7 one-way. Dublin Bus (00 353 1 873 4222; dublinbus.ie ) also operates the 747 Airlink to the Central Bus Station (2); €6 one-way €6. A taxi will cost about €22.

Get your bearings

Sliced in two by the river Liffey, which flows through the heart of the city, the city centre is roughly bordered by the Royal Canal to the north and Grand Canal to the south. The centre's main north-south axis is O'Connell Street, whose southern end passes over the Liffey by way of O'Connell Bridge (3). Beyond that, you will find the pleasant tree-lined squares of Ireland's premier university, Trinity College (4), a large portion of what remains of Georgian Dublin and various other landmarks all within easy walking distance of each other.

The Dublin Tourism Centre (5) is set in the former Church of St Andrew on Suffolk Street (00 353 1 605 7700; visitdublin.com ). It opens 9am-5.30pm Monday to Saturday, Sundays 10.30am-3pm.

Check in

Overlooking the Dail – Ireland's parliament building – the Merrion Hotel (6), at 21-24 Upper Merrion Street (00 353 1 603 0600; merrionhotel.com ) is spread across four beautifully restored Georgian town houses. Inside it's all graceful proportions, crackling fires and impressive stuccowork, topped off by a gallery-worthy art collection. Doubles start at an ambitious €475 without breakfast, but special offers are often available online starting at €199.

Brooks Hotel (7) at 59-62 Drury Street (00 353 1 670 4000; brookshotel.ie ) is in the city centre, a short walk from Grafton Street. Doubles start at €135 without breakfast.

The nearby Avalon House (8) at 55 Aungier Street (00 353 1 475 0001; avalon-house.ie ) is one of the city's most popular hostels and a good option for tighter budgets with doubles starting at €27, room only.

Day one

Take a walk

... beside the river Liffey. Cross the striking Santiago Calatrava-designed Samuel Beckett Bridge (9), inspired by an Irish harp and opened three months ago. On the north bank of the river, turn left until you reach the elegant Custom House (10) – completed in 1791 and acknowledged as the finest work by its architect, James Gandon. Look behind it for a view of the modernist lines of the Central Bus Station (2); built in the 1950s, it is loved by architectural aficionados and loathed by plenty of others.

Continue west along the river, cross the busy O'Connell Street with its shiny landmark, the 120ft-high Millennium Spire (11). Stroll along Batchelors Walk and then divert on to the wooden Liffey Boardwalk suspended over the riverbank. To your left is the 19th-century Ha'Penny Bridge (12), so called because that was the toll charged to cross its cast-iron expanse. Walk upstream and look across the water at Christ Church Cathedral (13) and the spot where the Vikings first settled in the 9th century. On your right you will soon arrive at the Corinthian column-lined facade of the copper-domed 18th-century Four Courts (14). Finish your ramble at another Calatrava-designed bridge (15), named in honour of James Joyce, who immortalised the Liffey in Ulysses as Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Take a view

The best views of the city can be appreciated from the top floor of the Guinness Storehouse (16) at St James's Gate (00 353 1 408 4800; guinness-storehouse.com ) from its Gravity Bar. You will need to take a tour to gain entry, where you can learn the history and secrets of one of the world's most famous tipples, a glass of which is included in the entry price of €13.50 per adult. Open daily 9.30am-5pm.

Lunch on the run

Grab a chair at one of the makeshift tables of the St Martin Shellfish stall at Temple Bar's Saturday Food market in Meeting House Square (17). Order half-a-dozen fresh oysters plucked from the Atlantic, accompanied by a dash of lemon juice and slices of thickly buttered Irish soda bread, all washed down with a glass of white wine, for a total of €9.50.

Window shopping

Grafton Street, Dublin's premier shopping thoroughfare, is falling victim to rising rents with many of its shops threatened by closure. Nevertheless, its pre-eminent department store is Brown Thomas (18) 88-95 Grafton Street (00 353 1 605 6666; brownthomas.com ) showcasing top international brands.

The former Georgian townhouse of Lord Powerscourt is home to the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre (19) at 59 South William Street (00 353 1 679 4144; powerscourtcentre.com ), with an array of boutiques, a gallery and an antiques centre. For more local colour, wander among the fruit and vegetable stalls of Moore Street (20), a slice of old Dublin that has miraculously survived.

Cultural afternoon

Delve into the many different eras of Ireland's diverse heritage from the Megalithic period through the Vikings and beyond, with a visit to the National Museum of Ireland (21) on Kildare Street (00 353 1 677 7444; museum.ie ). It opens 10am to 5pm daily except Monday (Sundays from 2pm), admission free.

The much-loved and hugely atmospheric Natural History Museum (22) on Merrion Square (00 353 1 677 7444; museum.ie ), reopens at the end of next month after a lengthy renovation project. Its extensive collection of over 10,000 exhibits includes the skeleton of a giant deer and Irish mammals like a family of badgers, but for many the building itself, dating from 1857, is also an attraction. It will open daily 10am to 5pm, except Monday (Sunday from 2pm). Admission free.

Fans of the Irish-born artist Francis Bacon should pay a visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery (23) at Charlemont House, Parnell Square (00 353 1 222 5550; hughlane.ie ). Here, you can visit Bacon's painstakingly reconstructed South Kensington studio and get a glimpse into the chaotic surroundings he worked in. Its basic hours are 10am-5pm daily except Monday (Tuesday to Thursday to 6pm, Sunday from 11am), admission free.

An aperitif

Doheny & Nesbitt (24) at 5 Lower Baggot Street (00 353 1 676 2945) attracts a good contingent of locals and visitors alike, thanks to its welcoming atmosphere and charmingly old-fashioned interior.

Dinner with the locals

Dublin has seen a welcome and overdue increase in more realistically priced restaurants. Coppinger Row (25) at 1 Coppinger Row (00 353 1 672 9884; coppingerrow.com ) is an inviting space. Its menu serves the likes of deep-fried whitebait and roast pheasant with borlotti beans and bacon. Around €40 per person with wine.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Given the time of year, it seems only fitting to pay homage to the patron saint of Ireland himself with a visit to St Patrick's Cathedral (26) (00 353 1 453 9472; stpatrickscathedral.ie ). Dating from 1220, it is the largest church ever built in Ireland. It stands next to the well where St Patrick reputedly baptised converts on his visit to Dublin. Inside is the grave of a former Dean and the author of Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift. It is now the National Cathedral for the Church of Ireland. A sung Eucharist is held on Sundays at 11.15am. At other times admission is €5.50; open 9am-5.30pm daily.

Out to brunch

Queen of Tarts (27), Unit 3/4 Cows Lane, Dame Street (00 353 1 633 4861; queenoftarts.ie ) bakes a delectable array of goodies, and offers delicious breakfasts and brunch at the weekend. Eggs Florentine, Irish oatmeal and buttermilk pancakes are on the menu on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm, and until 2pm on Sundays.

A walk in the park

As the traditional "Dublin Saunter" lyrics go; "Dublin can be heaven, With coffee at eleven, And a stroll in Stephen's Green". The first and largest of the city's five Georgian squares, St Stephen's Green (28) was laid out in 1663. Its current incarnation – with its pretty mosaic of duck-filled ponds, fountains, bosky corners and colourful flowerbeds – are thanks to the benevolence of Sir Arthur Guinness, founder of the brewing empire, who paid for its landscaping in 1880. It's worth taking in the outside edges of the square, too. It is lined with some of the city's grandest Georgian mansions such as Iveagh House at numbers 80 and 81, Newman House at number 85 and the Royal College of Surgeons.

Take a ride

With its natty blue livery the dublinbikes ( dublinbikes.ie ) scheme, launched last September, has been so successful that more are in the pipeline. For now, there are 450 bikes spread between 40 stations in the city centre. To use it, first you need to invest in a hree-day ticket costing €2. The first half an hour of every rental is free, with two hours costing €1.50.

The icing on the cake

Dublin's dockland district has been transformed over the last few years thanks to an ambitious rejuvenation project. The latest gleaming addition is the Daniel Libeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre (29) in Grand Canal Basin (00 353 1 677 7999; grandcanaltheatre.ie ). It opens on Thursday with a sold-out performance of Swan Lake by some of the stars of the Bolshoi Ballet.