It’s the final seconds of a pivotal match between the Irish and French national rugby teams, and the mood at Alfie Byrne’s, a craft beer pub in the basement of the five-star Conrad Dublin, has turned tense. Shouts fade to silence as the clock winds down. Suddenly a Hail Mary play is made, a goal scored, and Ireland emerges victorious. The pub erupts in cheers, pints of beer are downed, and cries of “Slainte” fill the room. Soon, people begin to make their way out into an uncharacteristically dry and mild early February night, bursting with pride and ready to eat, drink, and experience all this thriving city has to offer.
Dublin is a capital of contradictions. It’s modern, with new construction rapidly rising in once gritty neighborhoods north of the River Liffey. It’s also ancient, with roots dating back to the 1st-century. A profoundly literary town, it’s given the world James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, and Oscar Wilde. On some nights, however, it’s a drunken and debauched metropolis, stumbling from pub to pub for one last Guinness.
St. Patrick’s Day remains an important holiday in Dublin, considered by some the unofficial start of the tourist season. It’s both a religious observance of the patron saint and an excuse to drink beer and party. “We start the day holy, and that gives us permission to end it whatever way we want,” says Michael Slavin, author of The Book of Tara. He runs a used bookshop an hour outside of Dublin by the Hill of Tara, a Neolithic site said to have been the traditional seat of the High King of Ireland.
Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival, March 15 – 19, features a massive parade that winds its way through the city on March 17. The floats, music, and theatrics draw thousands, and it rivals any American St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But there’s still so much more to Dublin, from its upscale restaurants and bars to the urban whiskey distilleries and luxe shopping destinations that have rejuvenated this legendary city.
Where to Drink
In Dublin, there are countless places to drink–over 700 pubs, by some counts. Traditional pubs, what locals refer to as “old man bars,” are full of dust and charm, but lack pretension, offering an authentic slice of Dublin life. Classics include The Palace Bar in the Temple Bar neighborhood, Brogan’s located just across the street from City Hall, and Mulligan’s by the River Liffey. In the basement below Brogan’s, you’ll find–Underdog, a modern craft beer bar with an impressive tap list. Davy Byrnes is another great old-school choice with a bit of literary history; James Joyce drank here and mentioned it in both Dubliners and Ulysses. If you’re interested in exploring other literary watering holes, check out the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. If it’s coffee or tea you’re after, stop by Bewley’s Grafton Street, a café that once served the likes of Joyce, Beckett, and Sean O’Casey.
High-end bars with forward-thinking mixologists dot the cityscape, serving drinks that extend beyond Irish whiskey to gin, vodka, and poitin (Irish moonshine). The Conrad Dublin, which recently completed a multi-million-Euro renovation, is located in a quiet nook just south of St. Stephen’s Green. The hotel is home to the upscale Lemuel’s, inspired by the Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels. Try the Writer’s Block, which comes premixed in a bottle hidden within a book. Head to The Liberties neighborhood to visit Teeling, the first new whiskey distillery to open here over a century. After a tour, enjoy an elevated drink at the Bang Bang Bar, made with Teeling whiskey of course. There are many other contemporary bars to visit as well, like Vintage Cocktail Club, Zozimus, The Liquor Rooms, and The Chelsea Drugstore, located on George’s Street.
Where to Eat
Irish food is much more than steak pie, beef stew, and black pudding. Today, chefs draw international inspiration, putting their own haute spin on traditional Irish cooking. At the Conrad, The Coburg is a brasserie offering a taste of France in Dublin with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. “While we may not have a defining cuisine, what we have are amazing ingredients,” said Conrad general manager Martin Mangan. “The quantity and freshness is very much farm-forward.” This is evident with dishes like a 35-day dry-aged Irish beef fillet or whole sea bass served with ginger. There is also an elegant champagne table where guests can enjoy Henriot bubbly and sample local oysters and caviar.
The Pig’s Ear, near Trinity College, received a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2009 and has kept it ever since. The food is refined but unfussy, with dishes like salmon with hay-smoked mussels, Irish beef with watercress and truffle, and duck liver with fermented walnut and burnt pear. For dessert, don’t miss the delicious vanilla cheesecake–which comes in a jar wrapped by a paper bag. For a Michelin-starred meal, visit Chapter One in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum. Here, Chef Ross Lewis conjures up fine Irish cooking, with options ranging from a four-course meal to various tasting menus. Dishes like Irish pheasant and venison are paired with a well-curated wine and cocktail list. The two Michelin-starred Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, near St. Stephen’s Green, marries French technique with local game, fish, and vegetables in dishes like Celtic Sea black sole, Wicklow Hills lamb fillet, and Irish beef with foie gras.
Where to Shop
Grafton Street is the best-known area for high-end shopping. The Brown Thomas department store can be found here, with four floors of famous fashion and designer labels. Uniquely Irish stores like Costume Dublin and Atrium in the Powerscourt Townhouse shopping center offer extravagant sartorial experiences from local and European designers. If it’s pricy whiskey you’re after, stop by the Celtic Whiskey Shop to browse one of the largest selections of Irish whiskey in the city, with antique bottles, special cask selections, and rare and collectible offerings.
What to Do
Across the street from the Conrad Dublin and behind the National Concert Hall sits Iveagh Gardens, one of the city’s many green spaces. Designed in 1865, it’s a beautiful, serene spot to stroll and enjoy a picnic lunch among the rose garden. St. Stephen’s Green, meanwhile, offers a sense of stillness near the busy city center and appears several times in Joyce’s Ulysses. The medieval Christ Church Cathedral is a fascinating point of interest with centuries of stories. A visit should include a tour up to the belfry to ring the cathedral’s bells, allowing for a true sense of the complexity of the job of bell ringer.
If you have time, get out to the surrounding countryside. An hour outside of Dublin is Newgrange, in Boyne Valley, County Meath. This World Heritage Site, built around 3200 BC, predates both the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. A feat of Stone Age ingenuity, its underground chamber, buried beneath a mound, was designed to light up on the morning of the winter solstice. On your way back, stop at Fagans Pub in Moynalvey. This sleepy watering hole isn’t on most maps but provides an excellent way to experience real Irish countryside pub culture. Pull up a stool by the coal-fed potbelly stove and enjoy a pint as the bartender greets every local by name.