Historically known for its famous writers and drinkers, the Dublin of today still has much of its plucky, boisterous spirit, which you’ll see if you saunter into any of its innumerable neighborhood pubs after 5 pm. But though its pint-raising locals, cobblestone streets, and 18th-century architecture loom large, this is no Ye Olde Throwback of a city. Recent years have seen Dublin morph into a sleek, cultured metropolis, where shops sell Prada as well as hand-knit sweaters, glittering office buildings abut Georgian townhouses, and haute cuisine is as easy to score as a full Irish breakfast.
With its majestic, 16th-century stone buildings, ivy-covered walls, and vaunted history - Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, and Jonathan Swift are among its alumni - it’s no wonder the Trinity College campus is visited by as many tourists as students. Just a ten-minute walk from the city center (its entrance is on Green Street, through a well-marked front gate), the school has lots to see - including a graceful, domed bell tower leading to a central quad teeming with scholarly types hefting their book bags and wheeling their bicycles; and a wide cricket field, where you can watch the action and have a pint at the Pavilion Bar, locally known as “the Pav” (adjacent to the pitch, 353-1-608-1279).
Easily the biggest draw here, however, is the Long Room (just south of the bell tower, 353-1-896-2320). This vast, monumental library, where the echoing vaulted ceilings and mile-high shelves are crammed with tomes, evokes a place where J.R.R. Tolkien - or Albus Dumbledore - might have studied. Its showpiece is the Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript transcribed by Celtic monks around 800 A.D., widely considered to be Ireland’s most priceless national treasure.
4…Get an architectural eyeful
No matter where you go in Dublin, you’re bound to see buildings dating from the city’s most impressive architectural era, the Georgian period. Spanning the years from 1714 to 1830 - and the reigns of four consecutive King Georges, from I to IV - this interval was a time of great prosperity in the city and saw the creation of what are still Dublin’s stateliest structures. The best-preserved Georgian streetscapes, characterized by rows of elegant, symmetrical stone or redbrick townhouses with arched doorways, ornate cornices, decorative pilasters, and sometimes Easter-egg-colored doors, are found today around Merrion and Fitzwilliam Squares, the same neighborhood that houses Dublin’s National Museum, National Gallery, and Irish Parliament buildings.
For a self-guided Georgian architecture stroll, start at the southwest corner of the petite but lovely Fitzwilliam Square where it meets Upper Pembroke Street. Walk the perimeter of the square - it was the last to be built during the Georgian period - before heading north on Fitzwilliam Street. Three blocks up, you’ll hit the southwest corner of the much larger Merrion Square; as you circumnavigate here, keep an eye out for the plaques decorating the front of townhouses where literary lions once lived; William Butler Yeats lived at No. 82; Oscar Wilde lived at No. 1.
3…Explore gardens and green spaces
Though it’s a decidedly urban hub with all the crowds, traffic, and street grit to prove it, Dublin is punctuated by beautiful public parks that remind you that you’re on something called the Emerald Isle. These green sanctuaries are especially spectacular in April and May, when the spring rains bring acres of flowerbeds and blossoming shrubs to vibrant life.
The most easily accessible - and famous - of the city’s parks is St. Stephen’s Green, a 22-acre oasis that sits right at the center of the city. The park follows a classic Victorian layout, with tree-lined walking paths that meander among sprawling velvety lawns (often dotted with sprawling lunch-hour locals), ponds, fountains, and formal beds blooming with tulips, narcissus, and heady-smelling hyacinths. Its most unusual feature, however, is the Garden for the Blind, where especially fragrant plants like cotton lavender and trailing rosemary are accompanied by placards in Braille.
To see more greenery in the vicinity of St. Stephen’s there are two options. The first is to exit the Green at the southeast corner onto Earlsfort Terrace, walk a block south to Hatch Street, and enter the serene, tiny, statuary-edged gem of Iveagh Garden. The second, much more bustling option is to exit the Green at the Fusilier’s Arch onto Grafton Street, and walk north. Here, among the sophisticated boutiques and swanky department stores, you’ll find dozens of flower vendors whose carts are brimming with Technicolor bouquets.
2…Raise a pint
After a long day of sampling the city’s genteel pleasures - architecture, botanicals, halls of higher learning - you may well find yourself in the mood for some more rollicking recreation. Luckily, Dublin more than lives up to its reputation as the “city of pubs.” Your only real concern here will be at which watering hole to start. And really, as long as you avoid places with TV sets or fruity-cocktail menus it’s hard to go wrong.
Several of the most famous, and, yes, touristed bars in the city are actually worth the hype. The Brazen Head, for example (20 Lower Bridge Street, 353-1-677-9549), Dublin’s oldest pub, has been reportedly packing in patrons - including James Joyce, Michael Collins, and, more recently, Van Morrison - since 1198. You’ll have to bump a lot of elbows here to order your pint, but the cramped, memorabilia-clad carriage house feels undeniably authentic. Another well-known must-visit: The Temple Bar (47/48 Temple Bar, 353-1-672-5286) which has an outdoor beer garden, a killer whiskey collection, and most importantly, live traditional Irish music performances several times daily, with no cover charge. And, though it’s available all over the city at seemingly all hours of the day, no stout-lover will want to skip the Guinness Storehouse (St. James Gate, Market Street, 353-1-408-4800), a veritable cathedral dedicated to the brew.
1…Try a more civilized sip (and bite)
Though its zillion pubs can make it seem like a strictly beer-drinking town, Dublin is a wonderful place to sample more chic, polished libations, as well as cuisine. Ground zero for such upmarket fare is the vaunted Merrion Hotel (Upper Merrion Street, 353-1-603-060) - home to the city’s most sumptuous digs, and also its most atmospheric wine bar, its finest tea rooms, and its only two-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Dinner at the Merrion’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud (353-1-676-4192) might set you back a small fortune, and require booking a month in advance, but it’s sure to be memorable - a signature dish here is venison loin poached in mulled wine ($75). A more wallet-friendly choice, however, is to come for lunch, when you can get two courses - perhaps terrine of suckling pig or lobster boudin - for a $50 prix fixe. Equally refined (and, at also around $50, somewhat affordable) is taking afternoon tea in one of the hotel’s ground-floor salons, where an impressive art collection decorates the walls and, on weekends, a harpist serenades while you sip Lapsang and nibble on smoked Irish salmon sandwiches. If you can’t swing that, never fear - you can still stop into the fabulous subterranean brick Cellar Bar, where there are 50 wines available by the glass for around $14.