This compact Gaelic city is no longer the land of ramshackle pubs and baked-potato pushcarts
With a reputation as a hot bed of Irish culture and heritage, home to good tipple and some of the friendliest locals in the world, there is a constant stream of tourists favoring Dublin as their must-see destination on the Emerald Isle. While popular sightseeing locations are considered must-do’s—sure, I could go and visit the Guinness Storehouse and drink a pint of the black stuff on the rooftop bar, or ride around the city on the sightseeing tour bus, complete with luminescent rain poncho—but I know that if I really want to experience the heart of Dublin, I should get off that tourist track; it’s a track more well-beaten than Conor McGregor’s opponent. I need to find the local, unpublicized spots.
Only a short stroll away from the bustling streets of the center of Dublin, I discover the trendy suburb towns of Rathmines and Portobello. Here, the buildings are adorned with graffiti artwork, often underpinned by a political message, and the streets are filled with boutique shops. Both towns are renowned as hotspots for artisan events. I stumble across the popular Bernard Shaw pub hosting its weekly flea market in Portobello, where an array of vintage clothes, handmade jewelry and vinyl records are sold, all at bargain prices. After a fortunate wrong turn, I discover a double-decker bus sat idle in a beer garden. As it turns out, this famous ‘Big Blue Bus’ is a converted restaurant, complete with funky picnic tables. It sells signature stonebaked pizzas and other nibbles for those hungry bargain hunters in what can only be described as the most unique dining setting ever experienced. Welcome to the suburbs.
After venturing a few more miles out of the city center, I have yet to be disappointed. Despite being a capital city, Dublin is far from simply a concrete jungle. On the outskirts of the city lie some of Ireland’s most scenic spots. I join the herd of other locals journeying to the fishing village of Howth to take advantage of a rare but precious sunny day in Dublin. Fortunately, the DART service provides a useful travel route to Howth from the city center. Howth offers a popular cliffwalking trail, which rewards its hikers with panoramic views of Dublin Bay on completion at Howth’s head. An eager eye can even spot the steady stream of ferries en route to England. For a less strenuous activity, a stroll across the pier and Claremont Beach is ideal. Framed by the Mountains of Mourne and overlooking the Dublin eye, the cove-like beach stretches all the way to neighboring town Sutton. In typical seafront fashion, the pier is dominated by a litany of quaint seafood restaurants, laden with fresh oysters and local Irish produce. It is impossible not to notice the eclectic contrasts of visitors; the throng of tourists blatantly thrilled with their first visit to Howth versus the enamored locals who have made it their regular weekend destination. If anything, it’s a testament to the fact that Howth is a place worth returning to over and over again.
While struggling to decide on which attractions in Dublin to try out, it becomes apparent that the old traveler gem of “do what the locals do” could not be more applicable. Dublin is a popular spot for hosting sporting and musical events, which the locals flock to in hordes. Whether it’s Gaelic football, hurling or rugby, many Dubliners spend a free Saturday afternoon at one of Dublin’s sports stadiums to indulge in a spot of healthy sportsmanship. I am one of the fortunate ones who happen to be in Dublin during peak rugby season, and I manage to get my hands on some coveted Six Nations rugby tickets. The recently refurbished Aviva stadium and Brian O’Driscoll’s old stomping ground is the perfect location to watch the clash between the rugby giants of Europe. Given that Dubliners are renowned for their patriotism, this setting is the ideal place to experience the pride of the Irish pouring onto the field. Sitting in the crowd while the Irish supporters belt out a rousing rendition of famine song The Fields of Athenry is an experience that I will certainly not easily forget.
Whiskey In A Jar
However, sport is not the only passion of the Irish. For a country that produced U2, Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, music is considered extremely important to Irish culture. So I make time to visit one of the most famous musical spots in Ireland—Whelan’s, which attracts a constant stream of both Irish and non-Irish acts to perform on its hallowed stage. Previous notable performers have included Arctic Monkeys and Hozier. Set in an authentic Irish bar with a more relaxed attitude than any of its Temple Bar counterparts, Whelan’s hosts four different stages for high quality live music. It’s not difficult to see why its reputation for being an intimate, personal venue with a good selection of beers exceeds it. International superstar Ed Sheeran has even cited it as his favorite place to perform. And on nights with no special events there is no cover charge for entry. What’s not to love?
With all this sightseeing and immersing myself in local culture, it’s impossible not to build up an appetite. But ‘traditional’ Irish cuisine—coddle, steak and Guinness pies and Irish stew—are not what locals tend to eat on a regular basis. I’m anxious to stay away from the stereotypical Irish eateries with a crowd of other tourists. While searching for a subtler Irish fare, a Dublin local recommends a visit to the Fire Restaurant and Bar on Dawson Street. It serves exquisite dishes from locally-sourced produce, in an elegant setting only a stone’s throw away from the Lord Mayor’s residency. Patrons hail it for its artistic décor, complete with opulent water feature out front, and its consistently lively atmosphere. I’m told that the signature dish of Irish Hereford prime rib-eye steak with prawns is a keen favorite with the local patrons, and it certainly does not disappoint. Yet while Fire is a great choice to experience upmarket Irish cuisine, it is not very budget friendly. A single main course promises to set you back between €30-€50. For a dinner location that offers value for money, I find that Jo Burger is the perfect alternative. Do not let the name fool you; it is far more than simply a run-of-the-mill burger joint. A popular spot with Irish students and young professionals, Jo Burger is a casual restaurant decked out with wooden benches, serving extraordinary gourmet burgers with signature twists. The menus are set in children’s storybooks and encyclopedias from the 1990s, and their homemade lemonade is infused with adventurous flavor pairings. Plus, the recommended combination styles are nothing less than innovative; the green Thai curry mayo and coriander burger is not to be missed. These little idiosyncrasies make the experience so distinctive. And the entire meal will set you back less than €20 per person.
Dublin after hours, for many, is the best time of the day. I soon discover that in tourist mentality, nightlife in Dublin is considered almost synonymous with Temple Bar. The famous cobbled streets (that many a high heel have been broken on), home to pints of Guinness and live Irish folk music, are worth having a drink in. I am, however, charged premium tourist prices for the honor. It soon becomes apparent that there is a distinct absence of Irish people here; Temple Bar is a mecca for English stag dos and American exchange students, while the locals generally tend to avoid it. Instead, Dubliners favor less commercialized spots to enjoy a pint. I head to South-William Street on the South side of the city, which is cited as a particular hotspot. It boosts a strip of trendy bars, cocktail joints and clubs that is a favorite with Dublin’s afterwork crowd. A must-visit bar in this area is Pygmalion, set in the beautiful Powerscourt Townhouse Centre and known fondly by its regular patrons simply as ‘Pyg.’ Its two-for-one weekday cocktails certainly pack a punch, and are greatly complemented by the tapas on offer. But after hours, the relaxed atmosphere makes way for the late night crowd; the tables are swiftly removed to make way for a dance area, where famous house DJs are often hosted. The most distinctive hallmark of this bar, however, is its outdoor terrace. As plentiful heaters ensure that the changeable Irish weather is made irrelevant, I find that this area is perfect for mixing with local Dubliners. With the terrace living up to its reputation for being incredibly sociable, I make an entire group of new Irish friends by the end of the night. Failte go mBaile Atha Cliath or welcome to Dublin: the real Dublin.