Dublin: Insider Travel Guide

Megan Eaves, for CNNUpdated 6th July 2017
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Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — Pubs. That's what you likely know about Dublin, and Dublin's got 'em. There are over 2,000 liquor licenses in the Irish capital, or one for every 600 Dubliners.
James Joyce once said it would make a great puzzle trying to cross the city without passing a pub.
So you know you're gonna have your Fair City's share of Guinness while you're here, but we want to make sure you're doing it in a proper joint. We also want you to see the rest of Dublin, because whether you know it or not, this city is among the oldest and most culturally endowed in the world -- just don't tell Dubliners that.
The museums are free, the literary legacy rich and the city park (Phoenix, 707 hectares) the largest in Europe -- not that your odds of a sunny day to see it are very good.
Just a few rudimentary Dublin rules to follow:
1. If someone buys you a drink, buy them one back.
2. Ditch the windbreaker and pack a brolly (umbrella).
3. Don't rely on Dublin Bus drivers for ... anything.
4. And, for pity's sake, let that Guinness settle first!
With the basics covered, we present the best of Dublin shops, restaurants, attractions and, yes, pubs in which to put these essential rules into practice.


The Westbury
The Westbury has recently undergone wholesale renovations. Which are even better than retail renovations. This traditional hotel enjoys an enviable location just off Dublin's main shopping thoroughfare, Grafton Street. Recent renovations have given new life to The Westbury's classic atmosphere: flourishes of modern decor take on an Asian-meets-Western aesthetic with cool, rich tones.
Each of The Westbury's 205 rooms includes custom-designed furniture, Lissadell bedding, Sealy mattresses and Aromatherapy Associates toiletries, as well as iPod docks and Nespresso machines.
Though the onsite Marble Bar is more modern than its name suggests, the menu has a nice selection of bubbly and Irish whiskeys. The Westbury is one of the few places in Dublin where one can still partake of traditional afternoon tea.
The Merrion
Choice digs of the Obamas during their 2011 visit to Ireland (they booked the entire hotel), the Merrion is all class, kitted out in gleaming white marble and gorgeous restored Georgian details. The hotel's 123 guestrooms are light and airy, fitted to an impeccable standard with period furnishings and Irish fabrics in neutral tones.
Standard rooms and the penthouse are situated in the Garden Wing and boast the usual conveniences, along with luxury touches like Italian marble bathtubs and plush bathrobes.
The onsite Tethra Spa has an infinity pool, steam room and menu of treatments, while a suite of bars and drawing rooms offer luxuriant spaces in which to unwind over tea or a pint of the Black Stuff.
The Dylan
Dublin's hippest boutique hotel and favorite haunt of pop stars and social media gurus, the Dylan is all swank with imaginative, Asian-inspired decor that strays from minimalism with tasteful bursts of rich color and detailing -- think creative headboards, elaborate mirrors and fresh orchids.
A true boutique hotel, the Dylan has only 44 rooms, each of which is kitted out with "seventh heaven" foam beds, Mark Buxton toiletries and iPods pre-loaded with a walking tour of Dublin. Downstairs, you're treated to a chic restaurant with a menu of fresh Irish ingredients, as well as a cocktail bar with lovely terrace.
The Clarence
Owned by Bono and The Edge of U2 fame, this riverside hotel is all class, with its bright oak woods and chocolate leathers.
With 49 rooms -- many of which overlook the River Liffey -- The Clarence qualifies for boutique status, but without all of the bombast that characterizes many designer hotels. Colors are muted and classic, and furnishings are hand-crafted by Irish artisans.
The Clarence is also known for its best of Dublin Octagon Bar and accompanying octagonal glass dome, which is where its rock star owners first fell in love with the hotel and decided to buy it. Well-founded rumors suggest they can often be seen drinking here when in Dublin.
Harding Hotel
Comfy and friendly, the Harding Hotel is situated on Fishamble Lane, where Handel's "Messiah" premiered in 1742. More specifically, it's located directly across from Christchurch Cathedral, which is visible from some rooms, and is within walking distance of all of Dublin's main sights.
The Harding exemplifies the Irish term "cheap and cheerful." Rooms are basic and smallish, but well maintained, with modern furnishings and soft mattresses. Rooms are also outfitted with free Wi-Fi.
The downstairs bar, Darkey Kelly's, is an old school Dublin pub. The Harding's onsite restaurant, Copper Alley Bistro, serves a simple menu of Irish favorites.


Chapter One
Michelin-starred Chapter One is perhaps Dublin's most consistently well-rated upmarket restaurant.
Boasting a mile-long list of accolades and visited by the likes of traveling chef Anthony Bourdain, Chapter One offers new takes on Irish ingredients, but make no mistake, this is not "nouveau Irish cooking," rather something else entirely wonderful.
A four-course evening dinner menu may offer intrigues like Japanese pearl tapioca, charred cod with creamed cabbage and razor clam or potato pain perdu with salted milk ice cream. A special kitchen table tasting menu is offered for groups who want an inside peek at the helm, and the wine list is truly vintage -- all come with a hefty, but worthwhile, price tag.
Merrion Row or Rue des Petits-Champs?
Merrion Row or Rue des Petits-Champs?
While Dublin may not be known for its dining scene, restaurants such as Hugo's are carving the city's path to "culinary capital" undaunted.
Firmly rooted in European cuisine, Hugo's head chef Maggie Roche draws on fresh and artisanal Irish ingredients to create combinations for the restaurant's ever-changing menu. Emphasis is placed on hearty Irish meats and plenty of seafood -- the local shellfish and prawns are excellent -- paired with inventively prepared seasonal vegetables.
Hugo's French bistro-like blue exterior, complete with twinkling candles, is almost as charming as the menu. With nearly 60 varieties available by the glass, the wine list leaves few wanting.
The Pig's Ear
Honey-roasted Fermanagh pork belly with Lakeshore mustard mash, braised lentils and apple sauce.
Honey-roasted Fermanagh pork belly with Lakeshore mustard mash, braised lentils and apple sauce.
The Pig's Ear
Overseen by chef Stephen McAllister, known for his cooking shows on national Irish TV, the Pig's Ear is bringing to Dublin a touch of the "death of fine dining" trend so prevalent across the pond in London.
Seasonal Irish ingredients are cooked inventively, but approachably. The restaurant's location in an Georgian building overlooking Trinity College doesn't hurt -- creaky wooden floors, high ceilings and big windows lend to the Pig's Ear's a country-chic vibe.Treats in store include Earl Grey Tea Cured Salmon and Haunch of Wild Wicklow Venison.
Dunne & Crescenzi
This chic Italian spot is a labor of love for Irish-Italian couple Eileen Dunne and Stefano Crescenzi, who opened it after relocating from Rome in 1999. Originally a shop, the business grew steadily into the full-fledged restaurant and wine bar it is now.
While it may be a power-lunch destination for local politicians and media types from the government offices across the street, jeans-clad tourists are equally welcome to sit at the simple brown tables and enjoy Dunne & Crescenzi's best of Dublin cheese plates, bruschetta selection and fresh mozzarella bar.
Epicurean Food Hall
If you didn't know the Epicurean Food Hall existed, you might never find it, despite it being located on a busy section of Lower Liffey Street just over the Ha'penny Bridge.
Taking the idea of "food court" to a different level, the Epicurean Food Hall is tightly packed with different international vendors peddling everything from artisanal Irish sandwiches to Turkish food and quick pastas. Plenty of seating is available in the center of the hall and the small-price-for-heaping-portion philosophy here represents great value for lunch on a budget.
Temple Bar Food Market
A good way on a Saturday to get past your hangover from Friday.
A good way on a Saturday to get past your hangover from Friday.
Temple Bar Cultural Trust
It wasn't so long ago that Dublin was a culinary wasteland. But as times have changed, so has the food landscape of the city, especially the bohemian Temple Bar district, which now hosts a food market each Saturday.
More than a farmers' market, this is a place to come and eat, to grab some seriously fresh Irish cheese, pesto and a loaf of bread baked that morning and sit along the Liffey for a picnic.


The Black Door
A recent addition to Dublin's nightlife scene, the Black Door is so exclusive most Dubliners would have a hard time finding it.
The swanky, split-level cocktail cavern-cum-club-cum-piano bar is hidden behind an unmarked (surprise!) black door on Harcourt Street. Inside, pretty young things with far too much money flit about holding glasses of bubbly and vintage scotch, but the staff won't scoff at regular folk (though you might have trouble getting by the doorman if you're wearing ratty jeans).
The party gets going and the volume turns up as the night goes on, and on it goes -- well into the wee hours. If you're looking for a place to sit and converse, this isn't it, but for night-owl mingling and meeting (and possible celeb-spotting), it's a sure bet.
The Black Door: 58 Harcourt St., Dublin 2; +353 1 476 4606
John Kavanagh (aka Gravediggers)
For the few and proud who can find their way to this North Side fixture, it's the best pub in all of Dublin. Operated by the namesake family that established it in 1833, "Gravediggers" sits beside the sweeping Glasnevin Cemetery.
It earned its nickname by purportedly serving lunchtime pints to Glasnevin's gravediggers through a special window onto the graveyard.
John Kavanagh is old and wooden and about the only thing they pour here is Guinness. And it's good.
In recent years, the owner has begun serving top-notch Irish-Italian fare in an adjoining room, which has drawn such foodie celebs as Anthony Bourdain. You have to take a bus and walk up an all-but-invisible alleyway to reach Gravediggers, but there's something unabashedly wonderful about the place that keeps regulars coming back for lifetimes.
To find out what a Dublin pub looked like a couple of hundred years ago, one need look no further than Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street, which has been in continuous operation since 1782.
The wood floors are permanently damp from generations of beer slosh, the pew seating is uncomfortable and the ceilings are lower than men of average height might prefer, but it all adds to Mulligan's ambiance.
It has been said many times that Mulligan's pours the best Guinness in Dublin. If you drink only one pint of the good stuff in Dublin, Mulligan's is the place to do it.
Fallon & Byrne Wine Cellar
This upmarket grocer doubles as one of Dublin's finest wine bars. Follow the (mostly) unmarked stairwell down and find yourself in a cozy, candle-lit wine cellar replete with high, dark wood tables and deep glasses.
Yes, this is a wine shop and you're welcome to purchase and take away, but feel free to browse the wine racks that line the walls, choose a bottle of something interesting, and the staff will open it for you (corkage varies depending on the night but is always reasonable).
There's also a food menu prepared by chefs from the gourmet restaurant on the top floor (worth a stop, as well) that claims to be light bites, but is really substantial enough to make an entire meal of sharers or nibbles.
The Black Sheep
One of the first of its kind in Dublin, the Black Sheep is an ale pub that serves the precious few (and delicious) craft beers made in Ireland.
Styled on a modern British gastropub, the vibe is shabby chic, complete with mismatched tables and chairs, board games and a vaguely homey ambiance -- yet still bright, owing to its multi-windowed corner location.
On tap are several Galway Bay Brewery ales and other heretofore rare-in-Dublin Irish craft beers, which come and go according to what's available. The Black Sheep also offers a menu of gastropub fare, though the focus here remains on the brews.
Bowe's is one of those pubs that no Dubliner can fault and yet few tourists see. Just far enough off the beaten path to be nigh invisible to visitors, yet only two minutes' walk from the Temple Bar area, Bowe's is small and atmospheric, with deep, worn wood throughout and stained glass dividers that suggest a different era.
With little in the way of seating, Bowe's is largely a standing-room affair, but if you can suffer that, these are among the best pints of Guinness and friendliest crowds in the city.
The Long Hall
Beyond old school. More like continuing education.
Another firm favorite among Dubliners, The Long Hall is an old school pub with seriously ornate Victorian flair and the type of classy management that keeps Dublin pub-goers happy.
In addition to perfectly poured Guinness and the usual suspects of international lager, The Long Hall is known for serving potent gin and tonics. Barmen still wear white shirts and black ties, a sign that this is truly a historic establishment.
If there was any question, one peek inside at the filigreed mirrors and carved wooden snugs (enclosed booths) assuages any doubts about the Long Hall's historical antecedents -- and, for that matter, its beauty.
Traditional Music Pubs
Traditional Irish music, or simply "trad" as it's known in Ireland, used to be a way of life; a mode of entertainment in the tiny villages and local boozers within which Ireland's social life has always been centered.
While the popularity of daily trad may have waned in modern decades, there are still numerous pubs around Dublin where traditional Irish music lives on, much as it has for centuries.
The mark of a good trad session is one that is unplugged, with musicians seated around a regular pub table, knocking into one another with their fiddles and accordions and drinking far, far too many pints. Though plenty of mucky, plastic music calling itself trad is to be found in the more obvious tourist pubs, here are a few where the real thing is still treasured:


Grafton Street
Dublin's main shopping area runs right through the city center, south of the River Liffey. Now a pedestrian-only zone during business hours, Grafton Street owes much of its lovely ambiance to the red brick with which it was paved.
Stretching for several "blocks" -- if Dublin had such things -- Grafton Street is the Irish equivalent of a British high street, boasting many international and local stores and the famed Irish department store Brown Thomas, in case you've a hankering for Chanel or Gucci.
Though often incredibly crowded with shoppers, especially on a Saturday, Grafton Street is a one-stop affair for clothes hounds and musos alike. At the south end, the Stephen's Green Shopping Centre is a beautiful wrought iron Victorian shopping arcade home to even more well-known brands.
Brown Thomas
The beacon of haute shopping in Ireland, Brown Thomas is a swanky department store that stocks everything from Marc Jacobs handbags to designer kitchenware. The flagship location on Dublin's Grafton Street is often full to the brim, but the atmosphere never strays to tawdry, and in addition to a Nespresso counter, the top floor boasts a cafe and a restaurant for weary shoppers to nibble (or tipple).
Beyond the global haute couture offerings like Gucci and Prada, Brown Thomas stocks Irish designers like JW Anderson, Orla Kiely and Louise Kennedy, so if you're in the market for something slightly more special to take away from your trip, here's the place to find it.
Named for the rural Irish village of its origin, Avoca claims to be one of the world's oldest surviving manufacturing companies. Irish mammies love Avoca for its undeniably cute selection of things ladies love, from clothing to kitchen and housewares.
The company was formed out of an old Wicklow-based woolen mill, but today has updated its sensibilities to appeal to women of a certain aesthetic; the sort of "ladies who lunch" who can't resist picking up a new hand-woven throw after a wine-soaked midday snack at Avoca's wholesome cafe.
Avoca is a great alternative to the rather tawdry Irish gift shops, especially when seeking take-homes for the gal or gals in your life.
The Gutter Bookshop
As many of the little, independent bookshops have died out in Dublin, so the Gutter has remained a stalwart little light of bookish goodness in Temple Bar.
Although decidedly neater, tidier and cuter than you'd expect a boho bookshop to be, the Gutter is stocked with a hearty selection of books (including, naturally, a wonderful section by Irish authors), as well as staff who've actually read them. The Gutter also offers a regular lineup of activities, including reading groups, book launches and quirky cultural to-dos.
George's Street Arcade
Precious little Victorian-era British architecture has survived (or, indeed, was ever constructed) in Dublin, but the George's Street Arcade is one example.
This long, airy shopping arcade was constructed of iconic red brick and wrought iron and now houses a series of shops in the permanent retail spaces along each side, as well as more temporary stalls down the middle, selling records, vintage clothing and knickknacks.
George's Street is worth a stop as much for its architectural beauty as for the fun of digging through the vendors' goodies, and Simon's Coffee Shop at the west end is a perennial favorite for unemployed locals to hobnob or laze over The Irish Times.


National Gallery
The National Gallery houses a number of works by Rembrandt, Goya and Monet. Ireland is a country known for its literary contributions to the world, but it would be a shame to overlook Ireland's contributions to the artistic world, many of which are housed here in the National Gallery.
The collection's 15,000 Irish and European works date from the 13th to mid-20th centuries and include paintings, prints and national portraits.
Particularly prized is the Yeats Collection, comprising works and other materials related to Irish painter Jack B Yeats, brother of poet and playwright WB Yeats.
Old Jameson Distillery
Most people skip this surprisingly modern museum of whiskey in favor of the museum of a well-known stout, but the Old Jameson Distillery really is a Dublin must. Instead of a do-it-yourself walkabout, this guided tour opens with a (thankfully) short, informative film and is conducted by guides who really know their stuff.
The tour covers the basics of whiskey distilling, but also gives you a foundation in what distinguishes Jameson from other whiskeys and whiskies, and culminates with a free tasting.
Tip: stand near the front of the group and act quickly when the guide asks for volunteers -- you'll be treated to an extended tasting at the end.
Ha'penny Bridge
This white, cast-iron bridge over the River Liffey has become an icon of Dublin, with its ornate design and quaint lampposts. The Ha'penny Bridge is so named for the toll of one halfpenny originally charged to cross it.
When it was built in 1816, the Ha'penny Bridge was the first iron bridge across the Liffey. Before its construction, most pedestrians had to ferry across the river.

Parks and Gardens

National Botanic Gardens
Admittedly, Dublin doesn't have the greatest reputation when it comes to weather, but because of its "all four seasons in one day" phenomenon, you're likely to get at least one patch of blue sky almost every day. And when the sun comes out, Dubliners will be skipping work and donning their once-a-year shorts in these public (read, free) green spaces.

Literary Dublin

Trinity College Library
A must-stop for any first-timer to Dublin, Trinity College is the equivalent of Ireland's Ivy League university, and its Old Library is truly a sight to behold: stacks upon stacks of teetering ancient wooden bookshelves that seem to go on and up for miles.
Admission includes a visit to the Book of Kells, an ornate manuscript of the Gospels, which Celtic monks decorated by hand in the ninth century.
Dublin Writers Museum
Ireland's contributions to the literary world are catalogued in this modest, but appealing, museum.
The Dublin Writers Museum covers three centuries of Irish literature, with exhibitions showcasing the life, works, materials and personal items of some of the country's literary icons, from WB Yeats to Frank McCourt.
Chester Beatty Library
American Chester Beatty moved to Ireland in 1950 after being knighted for his assistance to the Allies during World War II.
Though Dublin seems an unlikely place to find a fantastic collection of Asian arts, the Chester Beatty Library is chock full of gorgeous objects from Asia.
The library's exhibitions build on the personal collection of one Alfred Chester Beatty -- who was born in the United States and was later made an honorary Irish citizen -- and who traveled the world collecting from bazaars and markets.
Literary Pubs
It's said that Toners is the only pub WB Yeats ever frequented. "He was known to sip a sherry and leave."
If the proverbial writer loves to drink, then Irish writers are professional imbibers. Some of Ireland's most acclaimed writers, from James Joyce to Brendan Behan, have celebrated Dublin's pubs by either immortalizing them in prose or downing pints by the dozen within them.
These are a few of the best that remain wonderful pubs even outside their literary connections.