Dublin calling: Exciting times for a visit

If you haven’t been to the capital lately, it’s an exciting time to visit, writes Pól Ó Conghaile.

SO I’M standing on the Rosie Hackett Bridge. Looking downstream, I see the tipped glass atrium of a convention centre. Cyclists whizz past on city bikes. A 120-foot spire soars over the rooftops; trams streak through gaps in the buildings, and a river cruise boat grumbles past, taking sightseers on a tour of the quays, bridges and waterside buildings.

A decade ago, I couldn’t have written any of that paragraph.

It takes the fresh perspective from this new bridge to show me just how much has changed. Slowly but surely, Dublin is stepping into the 21st century. Sometimes those steps are reluctant. Sometimes they strut like Imelda May.

Either way, they’ve made it a beautiful time to visit.

A river runs through it

Rosie Hackett was a trade unionist who played roles in the 1913 Lockout and 1916 Rising, and the wags are already at work in her memory. Dubliners’ favourite new activity? Why a mosey across the Rosie, of course.

The new opening prompted me to take a walk along the Liffey. There’s a whole website devoted to Dublin’s bridges ( www.bridgesofdublin.ie ), but the quays are just as fascinating. Wandering west, I pass colourful businesses like The Bakehouse ( www.the-bakehouse.ie ) and Bison Bar ( www.bisonbar.ie ) interspersed among classics like The Clarence ( www.theclarence.ie ) and the old Dublin Woollen Mills ( www.thewoollenmills.com ). The latter is being transformed for a re-opening this summer.

“I feel like we are custodians of something very special,” Elaine Murphy, the restaurateur developing the building, tells me. “It’s a piece of history (James Joyce worked here for goodness sake...how unbelievable is that?!)”

Watch this space!

Where to eat

Dublin Woollen Mills is just one of the ideas bubbling in the city.

Every time I check my email there seems to be another opening... a second wave of bars, cafes and restaurants following trailblazers like Joe Macken (Bear, Crackbird, Jo’Burger), John Farrell (777, Super Miss Sue), and Declan O’Regan (l’Gueuleton, Kelly’s Hotel, the No Name Bar), adding depth and diversity to the scene.

On Drury Street, for instance, I pass an old rag trade building with patches of bare brick and street art sprayed all over the facade. Stepping inside, it opens up into a neat little cocktail bar and bistro with Arcade Fire on the stereo, cured meats hanging on the walls behind a hammered tin bar, and a restaurant upstairs.

The Drury Buildings ( www.drurybuildings.com ) is the kind of place that’s a dime-a-dozen in New York or Berlin, but until recently conspicuously rare in Dublin. I order a salad from the lunch menu (€12.50), a white bowl filled with new season asparagus, frothy scoops of Toonsbridge ricotta and fleshy speck with leaves. It’s a yummy, summery dish... nothing earth-shattering, but it sure hits the spot.

More of this — and other midrange marvels like Coppinger Row ( www.coppingerrow.com ) and The Whitefriar Grill ( www.whitefriargrill.ie ) — are exactly what Dublin needs if it’s to kick on and join the Premier League of European foodie cities. A few more years of consolidation… and let’s be havin’ ya, Copenhagen!

The big hits

It’s always worth checking out at least one big museum or gallery in a city. Soaking up a world-famous painting or ogling a landmark piece of history always makes me feel like I’ve really travelled, like I’m out seeing the world.

Right now, the National Gallery ( www.nationalgallery.ie ) is showing ‘Masterpieces from the Collection’ in the Beit Wing, including some gems by Jack B Yeats. A new body of work by Irish artist Isobel Nolan is at IMMA ( www.imma.ie ) until September 21, and the original Asgard — famed for running guns into Howth in 1914 — can be seen at the National Museum at Collins Barracks ( www.museum.ie ).

Summer is also a great time to catch a show or festival in the capital, with this season’s line-up including Longitude featuring Massive Attack, Disclosure, Haim, First Aid Kit and others in Marlay Park ( www.longitude.ie ; July 18-20) and some bloke called Garth Brooks pitching up in Croke Park ( www.crokepark.ie ; July 25-29).

The survivor’s guide to Temple Bar

The Huffington Post slammed Temple Bar recently, advising readers to avoid one of the world’s “most disappointing destinations” at all costs.

Cue lots of head-shaking, colourful descriptions of stag parties and pavement pizzas, and valiant attempts by the Temple Bar Company ( www.dublinstemplebar.com ) to defend a characterful quarter that attracts 60,000 visitors a day.

But here’s the thing. There is no black and white to Temple Bar. Walking down Crown Alley, of course I’m going to run a gauntlet of Starbucks, stag parties, bamboozled tourists and the strains of ‘Alive-alive-oh-OH’ washing out of the Old Storehouse like a beer-soaked soundtrack to Leprechaun Land. Of course Meeting House Square turns into World War Z after midnight.

But there’s more to it than Crown Alley and Meeting House Square.

At the corner of Crow Street, Siopaella ( www.siopaella.com ) offers new “and gently used” clothes and accessories without the eye-watering prices. Cow’s Lane hosts a designer market every Saturday ( www.templebar.ie ). The Vintage Cocktail Club ( www.vintagecocktailclub.com ) is one of the worst-kept secrets in town, and Essex Street hosts one of its best bookshops ( www.gutterbookshop.com ).

The trick lies in dipping ninja-like between them…

Where to stay

Dublin has some beautiful townhouses, and a bit of trawling throws up several boutique options that could get you inside the Georgian fabric of the city without paying the heritage premium (I’m looking at you, Merrion Hotel!).

Number 31 ( www.number31.ie ; rooms from €240) is the pick of the crop, incorporating both a Georgian townhouse and mews. Breakfast is quality, the sunken lounge is a stunner, and former guests include Henry Kissinger and Ted Kennedy!

If €240 a night sounds pricey, then take a peek at the 48-room Pembroke Townhouse ( www.pembroketownhouse.ie ; B&B from €46pp). The rooms are standard three-star, but several little touches lift them up a notch — takeaway menus (you can order in) and a larder stocked with tea and cookies among them. Another townhouse I’m looking forward to trying is Two Rooms in Dublin ( www.tworoomsindublin.com ; rooms from €100). The Mountjoy Square location and its owners’ modesty (“We are two blokes and a dog named Fred”) keep it off-radar, but the impeccable decor and three-course breakfast have visitors raving.

Going to press, an astonishing 189 of 195 TripAdvisor reviews ranked the B&B as “excellent” (don’t worry, the remaining six are “very good”…).

The two rooms of the title are a “bright upstairs double” and a “garden double with open fire”. Think Victorian and Regency furniture, silk robes, sunken baths, cast-iron beds, goose-down duvets and fresh flowers. Nice.

Anything to add

The more Dublin changes, the more it stays the same.

That’s another thing I love about it — this new, post-recession, rock n’ roll attitude is not infusing some blank canvas but the same, dirty old town. Look above that snazzy new shop front and you’ll see the arse-end of some Georgian building.

Step from the Rosie Hackett Bridge and you hit the dinge-fest of Eden Quay. Every hot new bistro is offset by the clattery familiarity of Bewley’s or the Café Kylemore.

Dublin has always found its mojo in the mash-up of big ideas and small-minded bubble-bursting; of imagination and cynicism; of hard work and humour. Love it or hate it, the city is resolutely alive, and riper than ever for a visit.

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