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Dublin, a global icon and a favourite destination for the Irish

Isabel Conway enjoys a walk through Ireland’s capital, which deserves its fame as one of the world’s must-see cities

One of the world’s great small cities, Dublin is also a capital with more than its fair share of stories, from true tales of epic historical events to myth and more.

A favourite yarn I’ve heard is about the carved writing on reindeer skin describing how an early distiller heated a bubbly mixture of grain and water to collect a fiery liquid through a worm and reed pipe that made him ‘lightheaded’ in need of a lie-down.

No trace (nor proof) is left of this ancient recipe for ‘Uisce Beatha’ supposedly discovered at a Viking settlement alongside the River Liffey, a stone’s throw away from Dublin’s famous distilleries of old. Credulity is stretched a little when we hear this early distiller’s translated name of “Pah-Dee”. But the taxi driver driving me around on a first visit back up to ‘the Big Smoke’ since the COVID pandemic lockdowns of 2021 laughs heartily “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

Nevertheless, many a true and often tragic story unfolds on the streets of the capital, such as that told from the meticulously reconstructed Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship in Dublin’s Docklands that ferried 2,500 people to America to escape famine stricken Ireland. On the quayside you’ll see statues depicting families who waited at this very spot, desperate for a place on one of the emigration ships. It is an all more poignant sight watching Europe’s refugee crisis since the Ukraine invasion.

If you haven’t visited Dublin in a while you’re in for a big surprise along the once run down docks that have been undergoing immense regeneration. The area is starting to resemble a mini London Docklands, mapped out for living, dining and entertaining.

The boardwalk takes you past award winning EPIC museum on Custom House Quay (CHQ), the high tech treasure listed in the top ten things to do in Dublin by Trip Advisor. Visitors step back through 1,500 years of Irish history, culture and people. EPIC houses a state of the art genealogy centre and has one gallery devoted entirely to music, where you learn about the history of Irish dancing, trying out some steps. Visitors don’t just learn about the past. They engage with it in EPIC’s high-tech galleries. Further along the quays , past the cafes and restaurants in adjoining CHQ seasonal two- hour river kayaking trips add welcome new focus on water tourism, a feature in other European cities. Another popular draw of recent years the Viking Splash Tour’s amphibious vehicle charges through town carrying soaked viking helmet wearing passengers enjoying a taste of road and river.

From lively Temple Bar and the ever mushrooming array of restaurants with food from around the globe in a maze of lanes and streets bounded by South Great Georges and Grafton streets to traditional watering holes, hip cocktail bars and gastro pubs Dublin bursts with evening time choice. The city’s literary roots are found everywhere too. The Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) housed in stately Georgian mansions at 86 St Stephens Green pays homage to our storytellers, among the world’s greatest. An enthralling ongoing exhibition is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Ulysses and the life and times in Dublin of James Joyce. Visitors are immersed in the sounds of Irish story telling across the centuries, welcome to explore the secret green space of the historic Iveagh Gardens, through a back gate, stopping at the same tree where Joyce’s university graduation photograph was taken.

Dublin’s fair city may be ancient but it has always been young at heart. Short romantic couples’ getaway weekends and friends shopping breaks are always popular. But don’t rule out a visit because you’ve kids in tow. Start in the old city medieval heartland at Dublinia, Christ church. This child friendly attraction is complete with sound effects, costumed actors, smells and stories of a time when Vikings were kings of Dublin. Viking women’s entrepreneurial acumen is explored whilst kids can try on medieval costumes, be locked in fake stocks and enjoy a fun sense of the city’s history. Otherwise known as the’ Dead Zoo’ The Natural History Museum harbours the 40,000 year furry leg of a mammoth and a giant whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling together with a myriad of stuffed animals and lots more exhibits.

Beyond museums, Dublin Zoo in the Phoenix Park is a must visit for adults and children. The zoo like many other visitor attractions suffered a considerable loss of revenue during the COVID crisis so it behoves us to offer support now and enjoy added on and new features and amenities. Recent arrivals include a herd of Dholes, also known as the Asiatic wild dog, an endangered species new to the zoo who arrived lately from Berlin. Over 600 species of wild animals, reptiles and exotic birds inhabit Dublin Zoo whose highlights include a large enclosure housing lowland gorillas and the Pacific Coast where sea lions swim to their hearts content.

It doesn’t have to be an All- Ireland occasion to get a kick out of Croke Park. As part of Failte Ireland Dublin’s Surprising Stories scheme the GAA museum under the Cusack Stand has undergone a major makeover. New artefacts on display reflect untold stories of Gaelic games and their unique place in Irish society and culture. Croke Park stadium tours and the GAA Hall of Fame it’s all here plus an Interactive Games Zone and the skyline tour for those with a good head for heights.

For a whiff of sea fresh air and a reasonably priced tour catch the commuter Dart train at one of several city centre stations. Heading south you travel past Dun Laoghaire Harbour, Dalkey Island and Killiney Bay, snaking around the coast through tunnels with wonderful views of Dublin Bay as far as the seaside towns of Bray and Greystones. Going north the Dart stops at Howth whose working harbour lands the freshest of fish and seafood to lovely restaurants that line the pier. The Cliff Walk up to the Howth Head is strenuous but well worth the effort for the superb views of Dublin Bay and Lambay Island beyond.

‘Dublin Can be Heaven with coffee at eleven and a stroll in Stephens Green’ the famous song goes and there’s no better start to your exploration, enjoying the brightly planted flower beds, winding pathways, lake and resident ducks who waddle to beg a crust from a hastily eaten sandwich. While you’re here there’s one more unmissable museum that showcases our capitol’s mix of heritage and hedonism, eccentricity and personality. The Little Museum of Dublin on the northern side of the park combines history,culture, fashion and humour, telling the story of Dublin from its roots as a Viking village to proud capital.

A 1976 note among the superstar band U2 exhibits reads: “Drummer seeks musicians to form band”.

A fragment off Nelson’s Pillar which was blown up by the IRA on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 rising is on display here, along with the original proclamation of Independence and an autographed Italia ’90 Ireland shirt from those joyous days when Jack Charlton led us to the World Cup quarter final where we narrowly lost out to hosts Italy.

“Dublin came of age in the 20th century but she never quite became an adult” reads a plaque that sums up our endearing many sided capital.