I’ve been to Dublin several times before, and have always found it to be a relaxing, almost effortless, city to visit with its eminently walkable city center bisected by the River Liffey into neighborhoods north and south. But this time, I was exploring the Irish capital with celebrated National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow for a week before heading over to her hometown halfway around the world in San Francisco.
Together we discovered a new energy to the Dublin we have both come to know and love over the years–a new focus on quality and quirk when it comes to eateries and pubs, shops and museums.
Here’s how we spent our first, perfect day in Dublin, and how you can follow our trail:
Since Catherine and I were staying at the Westbury Hotel just off Grafton Street, one of the city’s principal pedestrians-only shopping thoroughfares, it made sense to start our day with breakfast at the classic Dublin cafe Bewley’s. Unlike many tried-and-true spots, the food and coffee are great–and best enjoyed in a seat near the building’s magnificent stained glass windows, installed in 1931.
But instead, we headed to Fumbally where the vibe is modern warehouse meets rustic chic. A comfortable couch sits below a wall of framed prints and next to stacks of books on a hodgepodge of subjects like Klimt, Spain, and tea. The cooks (as one of the owners, Aisling Rogerson, said “There is no head chef, we are all on the same level here.”) churn out a simple and succinct menu of delicious well-sourced dishes from an open kitchen. If you come you’ll want to return, if only for the eggs scrambled slowly with olive oil, cheese, garlic, and tomatoes and served on toasted brioche.
Sated, we ambled over to the Winding Stair Bookshop, a literary treasure trove that remains relevant and worthy of its heritage as a creative hub in the ’70s. Named for a William Butler Yeats poem, the unassuming store overlooks the Liffey and one of its most endearing crossings, the Ha’penny Bridge. Today, a second-floor restaurant–with that same great view–serves up seasonal Irish produce with artisanal flair.
We wandered back through St. Stephen’s Green, an expansive yet intimate park adjacent to Grafton Street, which has been open to the public, and a focal point of Dublin life, since the late 1800s thanks to urging (and financing) from brewery baron Arthur Guinness. This lovely urban oasis of tree-lined pathways and swans swimming in ponds in not to be missed.
Restored by nature, we sought out a hit of culture with a rock-star edge at the Little Museum of Dublin. Housed in a stately townhouse next to St. Stephen’s Green, the diminutive museum tells the story of a more modern Dublin through newspapers blaring headlines about John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dublin months before his assassination and its U2 exhibit chronicling the band’s rise to fame and their inextricable connection to the Irish capital. As hometown-proud Bono said: “I feel part of Ireland. I climb over the wall and I get out of here sometimes because the place would make you tear your hair out. But I always want to come home to Dublin.”
Before heading out, we enjoyed an early bite at the museum’s own Hatch & Sons, where you can get a taste of true Irish cooking with dishes like smoked mackerel and beef and Guinness stew.
Time stands still at Sweny’s Pharmacy, a tiny jumble of apothecary bottles and glassed-in shelving close to bursting with books. And that’s just where you should go at 1 p.m. (on weekdays only) to hear a reading from one of James Joyce’s beloved works. After a more than 150-year run as a working pharmacy, Sweny’s, made famous by receiving a well-placed mention in Ulysses–has been kept open as an all-volunteer second-hand book and trinket shop since 2009. Be sure to open one of the well-worn copies of the avant-garde masterpiece on display here and read protagonist Leopold Bloom’s description of the pharmacy: “Sweny’s in Lincoln Place. Chemists rarely move. Their gold beaconjars too heavy to stir…”
You can’t visit Dublin without doing a bit of shopping. Start at Avoca, an Irish-owned store with locations all around the island that sells throws, rugs, and scarves woven by hand at their mill in County Wicklow, just as it has since 1723. Where Avoca focuses on heritage and tradition, the Irish Design Shop, with its whimsical mix of Irish jewelry, art, and home wares, is the place to find a contemporary piece to love. From there, pop around the corner to the Powerscourt Centre, a shopping complex housed in a grand 18th-century Georgian mansion once owned by one of Dublin’s wealthiest families.
If you’re blessed with nice weather, hop in a cab and head to the National Botanic Gardens, which many locals Catherine and I met recommended as an mostly-locals oasis. (Best of all, entry is free!) I loved “Wild Ireland,” a conservation area overflowing with native Irish plants that demonstrates the surprising diversity of the country’s flora. While you’re in the area, you can’t miss visiting one of Dublin’s most authentic pubs, John Kavanagh (known as Grave Diggers due to its proximity to Glasnevin Cemetery) to sample what I consider the best pint of Guinness in the city. Eugene Kavanagh represents the sixth generation of his family to own and operate the pub.
> After Dark
Though the sun sets late in the summer (at about 10 p.m.!), the convivial feeling of Dublin after dark starts around 6 p.m. Get in on the local action at the Library Bar, a popular meeting place outfitted with plush red drapery, green walls, and dark wood panels and tucked away on the second floor of the Central Hotel.
When hunger strikes, try La Maison for dinner, a lively yet cozy French bistro on tiny, pedestrians-only Castle Market Street. Ask for a seat by the window on the second floor so you can watch the people pass by on the street while you eat (and note the walls lined with art sourced from Paris’s Les Puces flea market as you climb the stairs).
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After dinner, you’ll want to seek out good craic—a night of classically Irish banter, music, and fun. For the best of traditional (shortened in Ireland to “trad”) music, take a taxi to the Cobblestone Pub on the north side of the Liffey in Smithfield, to hear locals pluck away at fiddles and harps any night of the week after 7 p.m.
It just might be impossible to leave Dublin without laughing until your stomach hurts–and meeting a few new friends.
Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.
Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Instagram @catherinekarnow and Facebook.