After a lifetime spent trying to get to know Dublin, I’ve finally learned that the place is unknowable. That’s a good thing. The Irish capital is a small city, but its essence is as slippery as the Hiberno-English you’ll hear lilting from its pubs, cafes and street corners. Taking its name from ‘Dubh Linn’ — the ‘Black Pool’ around which Vikings once moored their ships — the city has since added medieval, Georgian, Victorian and 20th century layers. Most visitors shuffle between Temple Bar, Trinity College and the Guinness Storehouse, but savvy travellers know the best way to get under its skin is to zero in on the spaces in between. When you slow down, and mix the big hits with the small moments, Dublin City will come to you.
Not much is left of Dublin’s ancient city walls. Two remnant chunks are on Lamb Alley near Cornmarket and on Cook Street, below the 12th-century St Audeon’s Church. These mark Dublin’s old western edges, where the medieval city ended, and the Liberties began. So-called because they were free of the city laws, The Liberties have always been an outsider. In centuries past, this confusing, seductive warren of a neighbourhood brimmed with distilleries, tanneries, markets and linen shops, mixing industry and squalor. All has changed today, but it still feels independent and a little bit mischievous. It’s a place where tourists strolling between city centre and Guinness Storehouse rub shoulders with students from the National College of Art and Design, with hipsters traipsing between collectives, media and tech hub peeps, and salt-of the-earth traders selling fruit, kitchen roll or boxes of crisps from prams.
You can’t sum The Liberties up in a sentence. One moment, you catch the whiff of artisan coffee from Legit Coffee Co., or hubbub from a gig at Vicar Street (comedian Dara O’Briain and musicians Steve Earle and Beach House are just three of the acts lined up this year). The next, you stumble across a grotto to our Lady of Lourdes, or a statue of the Sacred Heart amidst a patchwork of old artisan dwellings. And it’s just a hop and a skip from the surprising graffiti gallery at Tivoli Street Car Park to the glittering (and rarely visited) mosaics inside John’s Lane Church. Contemporary and Catholic Ireland collide with a slow, tantalising crunch.
The Liberties runs deep. You can still sense the ghosts of medieval and mercantile times. But it’s also an area on the cusp of change — a 200-bed Marriott Aloft hotel will open this year, and the new Teeling Whiskey Distillery is re-energising Newmarket. Development is needed in areas of dereliction, but here’s hoping its soul stays intact.
The Creative Quarter
Welcome to the Creative Quarter. Yes, it’s an uncreative title. But the neighbourhood strikes a sweet counterpoint to the generic international brands of Grafton Street nearby. An amble here will uncover a clutch of the city’s best design shops, boutiques and restaurants, attracting an infectious mix of locals, tourists and Dubliners.
This quarter was home to Dublin’s specialist designers, most notably in its old garment district. It’s also home to George’s Arcade, Ireland’s first purpose-built shopping centre. This is a Victorian arcade spilling over with everything from wood-fired pizza to rare vinyl and Bollywood clothes.
Cool little businesses crop up everywhere. I love the coffee at Clement & Pekoe. Tropical Popical is a kitschy-cool nail bar beloved of Saoirse Ronan, while A Store is Born is a vintage clothes garage that opens only on Saturdays (the owner works at London’s Portobello Market during the week).
By night, a switch flips. Bars ping into life, and the tables outside Grogan’s pub are primed for people watching; it feels like anything could happen. Somehow fending off the Starbucks, McDonald’s, H&Ms and Zaras at its edges, this addictive little ’hood is what my ideal city would look like with tasty ingredients that are more than the sum of its parts. Just like that sandwich.
Dining at Powerscourt. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile
The North Inner City
That’s what I’d love to change. Sure, the north inner city — from a visitors’ point of view, stretching roughly from George’s Dock to Smithfield — has its patches of dereliction. But it’s also got grit. It has heritage hits, like the GPO or National Museum of Ireland: Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks, and hidden gems. Look up the Harry Clarke stained glass windows in Madigan’s pub, or tuck into the hand-dived scallops or rabbit croquettes at The Legal Eagle gastropub, and you’ll see what I mean.
Across the water, the Northside is talked about like a shadow — a negative image of the more salubrious south. That’s nonsense. It’s not showy but a short stroll could tell you more than all the books in Trinity College. Watch the street traders on cobbled Moore Street, or the big-suited barristers bustling about the Four Courts. Browse the big department stores of Henry Street. Bounce between the microbreweries, coffee shops and wine bars in the financial district around George’s Dock.
Whenever Ireland is celebrating — St Patrick’s Day, for example — O’Connell Street comes to the fore. But in truth, it’s a disappointing boulevard. Push deeper, and you’ll find Georgian set pieces like Henrietta Street and North Great George’s Street, both diamonds in the rough, teetering on the brink of collapse. The strip that best encapsulates the neighbourhood, Capel Street, is Dublin’s black sheep. You’ll find everything here from iconic LGBTQ hub Pantibar to sushi, hardware stores and one of the city’s last surviving pawnbrokers.
So do yourself a favour. Step across the river. Sip whiskey at Jameson Distillery Bow Street. Get your cup of Joe at Vice Coffee Inc. on Abbey Street, your cocktails at The Morrison Hotel, and hit Brother Hubbard for an Irish breakfast with a surprising Middle-Eastern twist. Bit by bit, those northern lights will seduce you.
When in Dublin
Take the DART suburban rail line south to the seaside towns of Dun Laoghaire or Dalkey, or north to the cliff walk and sizzling fish restaurants in Howth.
The angel’s share
In the mid-1800s, Dublin was one of the world’s largest whiskey distillers. Craft spirits are on the rise again — thanks to new openings such as Teeling, the Pearse Lyons Distillery and the Dublin Liberties Whiskey Distillery.
Freedom of the City
Pop into IMMA for contemporary art, Trinity College’s Science Gallery for cutting-edge exhibitions, or the Hugh Lane Gallery, where the highlight is Francis Bacon’s painstakingly reassembled studio. All are free.
Hit the Dublin Flea (Newmarket, last Sunday of the month), or the Designer Mart at Cow’s Lane (Saturdays, 10-5pm), for eclectic goodies and artisan coffee. Blackrock Market is the place for bric-a-brac and foodie surprises.
Secret Dublin: An Unusual Guide, by Pól Ó Conghaile. RRP: £13.99
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)