Dublin: A tourist in my own town
Published 15/08/2014 | 00:00
When was the last time you saw the big sights in your hometown? Travel writer Pól Ó Conghaile spends a day with the tourists in (re)discovering Dublin.
We'll see it someday. Sooner or later. Sure, what's the rush? Won't it always be there?
When we travel overseas, we make a point of visiting famous museums, galleries and tourist attractions. But back home, it's amazing how blind we can become to the big hits in our backyard. The very fact that they're on our doorstep prompts us to put them on the long finger.
I've been living in and around Dublin for years, and I love the city. I tend to take the local approach, however - walking fast, sticking to new openings and old favourites, walking past the iconic attractions as if they're not there. I use Trinity College as a shortcut, and it's been years since I've visited the Book of Kells.
Sure, I'd get back to see it someday. Sooner or later. What's the rush? Won't it always be there?
But here's the thing: it might not. And more likely, I may not. That's why I jumped at the chance to play tourist in my own town.
Here's how I got on...
10am: Discover Ireland Centre, Suffolk Street
Approaching St Andrew's Church off Dame Street, I'm surprised to run into the big brass bosoms of Molly Malone. The 'tart with the heart' was recently moved from her patch at the bottom of Grafton Street to accommodate the Luas works and now greets tourists today outside Dublin's main tourist information centre. An entrepreneurial uileann piper is sat down at her feet. "He's got a good spot," a tourist remarks.
Inside the church, I join a queue about 10 people deep to pick up a map and a Dublin Pass (www.dublinpass.ie). At €39 for the day, it gives me free entry to 32 attractions around the city. I won't get to a fraction of those, but it should still save me money - plus, it offers some handy queue-skipping privileges.
11.30am: Old Library, Trinity College
The Book of Kells (www.tcd.ie/library) is one of Ireland's top five ticketed tourist attractions, with queues to match. Over 588,000 visitors lined up to see the ninth-century manuscript last year, paying €10 a pop to see an exhibition, the Long Room and the book itself.
Sadly, I discover it is not one of the 32 attractions on my Dublin Pass.
Waiting beside me are Mathilde and Solene, two young tourists visiting from Paris. I ask them why they want to see the Book of Kells, and they whip out a small guidebook.
"Because it is famous!"
After about 20 minutes, the line trickles past the ticket desks and into the exhibition itself. Panels illustrate the amazing craftsmanship required to transform rough strips of vellum (calfskin) into a glittering religious manuscript, and the book itself is propped open in a glass case. Despite this screen-dominated age, it is spellbinding.
€10 seems expensive, but there's depth to the exhibition, and the Long Room sees 200,000 tomes stacked beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling like something out of Hogwarts. Other treasures include a copy of the 1916 Proclamation.
I exit through the gift shop, opting not to buy a tea towel emblazoned with an Irish soda bread recipe (€6.50), a TCD hoodie (€29.95) or a small bronze replica of Molly Malone (€84.99).
1pm: O'Neill's Pub
"If you want to experience an authentic pub, submerge yourself in O'Neill's," gushes the website of this 300-year-old hostelry (www.oneillsbar.com). "Dublin pub culture at its finest."
Inside, I join a line of American tourists queuing up for a carvery lunch. A pint and a large bowl of beef and Guinness stew costs me €17.05, and I take it on a tray to a corner seat.
The stew is not very tasty, with several tough bits of beef sitting alongside a selection of cabbage, mash and carrots. It's not what I'd usually order and, in fairness, O'Neill's also offers a wide selection of seafood, soups, salads, sambos and craft beers.
The Guinness is another story.
It's a lovely and creamy pint, going hand-in-glove with the labyrinthine interior and its snugs, dark wood and stained glass. You could easily settle in for the afternoon.
2.30pm: Dublin Bus Tour
I join the open-topped Dublin Bus Tour outside Trinity College, taking it around St Stephen's Green, Dublin Castle, Christchurch and St Patrick's Cathedral before hopping off at the Guinness Storehouse. The driver has an admirable Dublin twang, but it feels like he's rapping from a tired script - and there's little bonhomie on board.
Granted, some of the observations - such as an explanation of the fact that smaller, upper-storey windows on Georgian houses were designed to minimise window tax and create the illusion of height - are well-judged. But more often than not, they come off like clipped one-liners.
When we pass the Dawson Lounge, described as the smallest pub in Dublin, the driver adds a flourish. "It only holds 14 people," he says. "So you can get as drunk as you like and never fall over." Groan.
3.30pm: Guinness Storehouse
"Where are you from?" asks the attendant.
"Ireland," I tell her.
"Doing all the touristy things today?"
I'm glad I invested in a Dublin Pass, as the entry fee for the Guinness Storehouse (www.guinness-storehouse.com) is €18. That's steep, but it does include a free pint, and having been on several big brewery tours, I can vouch that the experience is world-class.
Inside, several floors of exhibitions circle a gigantic, pint-shaped atrium - at the foot of which is a copy of Arthur's original lease, signed for 9,000 years at the sum of £45 a year. I love the advertising displays (there have been some amazingly iconic ads over the years), and you can also learn how to pull "the perfect pint" at the Guinness Academy.
What's the Guinness Academy? It's a room in which bartenders show groups of 12 how to tilt the glass, pull a pint, leave it settle for 119.5 seconds (no, really) and top it off with a luxuriant head.
I crown my visit with a trip to the Gravity Bar, absorbing its 360-degree views of Dublin. It's jam-packed, and I get chatting to Tom and Jennifer, a Canadian couple approaching the end of their holiday in Ireland.
"It's a good tour, right up with others around the world," Jennifer says, cradling a pint against her chest. "But it's not exactly intimate."
She and Tom give me a tip - take the Dart along the coastline, they suggest, where I can take in some gorgeous sea views, along with pretty coastal villages like Dalkey and Howth.
"Hardly any tourists do it," Tom says. "That would be my tip."
I exit through the gift shop, opting not to buy Guinness luxury fudge (€3.50), a glass tankard with metal badge (€13) or a baseball cap with built-in bottle opener (€15).
I take the Dart home, grateful to my tourist friends for their insider tip.
Hiddens Gems in Dublin
As well as the obvious touristy hits, Dublin is stuffed with off-radar attractions worth a visit in and of themselves.
Try Sweny's Chemist (www.sweny.ie), above, which features in James Joyce's Ulysses, and whose gorgeous interiors were saved from destruction by a team of volunteers who read from Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake each day.
The Little Museum of Dublin (www.littlemuseum.ie) is a quirky alternative to the showcase museums at Collins Barracks and Kildare Street, and visitors to Dublin Castle might be surprised to find a Revenue Museum (www.revenue.ie) tucked away behind the chapel.
As well as Georgian set-pieces like Merrion Square and St Stephen's Green, consider venturing a little further afield to funkier strips like South William Street (in the heart of Dublin's 'Creative Quarter') or the cheerfully shambolic Capel Street... which always seems next in line for gentrification, but never quite makes it. Brother Hubbard (www.brotherhubbard.ie) or Oxmantown (www.oxmantowndublin.ie) are good stops for food and drink if you're in the area.
Finally, when it comes to weighing up tour options, an alternative to the traditional open-topped bus tours is the Le Cool Dublin Experience (lecoolwalkdublin.tumblr.com). It focuses on the here and now - pop-ups, exhibitions, new openings and the like - rather than history.