the charms of Dublin

Sure, There's The Celebrated Pub Scene, But This Lively Irish Capital Offers A Lot More Than Guinness.

November 27, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN REPORTER

Dublin, Ireland - - Painted on the streets of Dublin are warnings for pedestrians who aren't used to people driving on the left side: "Look left," they say, or "Look right," with an arrow pointing the way to look in case you don't get it. It's a small sign of how multicultural and visitor-oriented Ireland's capital city has become.

This is not the first thing tourists think about. Dublin is, after all, a city known for its 1,000 pubs, not its upscale restaurants or its museums.

Visitors who aren't interested in drinking a few pints of Guinness stout, the city's most famous product, or touring the Guinness Storehouse or the Old Jameson Distillery may write the city off, eager to get to the historical sites and spectacular countryside to the west. If you're one of those, consider this a nondrinker's guide to Dublin.

My husband and I aren't exactly nondrinkers. We like a glass of wine or a beer - but not enough to spend our limited time touring a brewery or drinking the night away in a pub. There are other ways to meet the residents. The Irish are among the friendliest people in the world, and you can strike up a conversation just as readily waiting in line, sitting on a bus or having a sandwich in a cafe.

We arrived in Dublin thinking it would be little more than a layover until we were sufficiently recovered from our flight to drive to the Dingle peninsula. We weren't very interested in a city with so many pubs, although we knew there were other attractions. We hadn't, in other words, done our homework, but it didn't take long for us to realize our mistake.

For those drawn by the emerald promise of Ireland, Dublin at first may seem a little run-down and dingy - especially if you're staying on the north side of the River Liffey, the city's major geographical dividing line. This was reinforced for us by an October sun that didn't come out until the very end of our two-day stay. The first day was chilly and gray, the second warmer and drizzly. (The rest of the week was sunny and in the 50s and 60s. Everyone told us you can't predict the Irish weather, and they were right.)

We were also struck by how crowded Dublin was, how terrible the traffic was, and how many smokers we saw in the streets and outside buildings. Smoking was banned inside public places just this year.

Energetic place

All this hardly matters. The city has enormous energy, probably because there are so many young people. Dublin, after all, boasts three universities, most notably the University of Dublin's Trinity College. And since Ireland's economic upturn in the 1990s, people haven't been leaving to find work elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that immigrants have come to the city from places as diverse as Nigeria and New Zealand.

Dublin's population is now more than a million, in a country that has about 4 million inhabitants. It's an exciting, cosmopolitan city.

Still, like the country itself, Dublin isn't too cosmopolitan. When my husband asked a taxi driver if the road west was a superhighway, he laughed out loud. "Superhighway! This is Ireland, man."

In the off-season, you can be footloose and fancy-free elsewhere in Ireland, but you must still reserve rooms in the capital. We stayed at the Townhouse of Dublin, a guesthouse within easy walking distance of the city center and many attractions.

Originally, it was two townhouses, the residences of two obscure 19th-century playwrights. Each room is named after one of their works. You might stay in a room labeled Forbidden Fruit, for instance, which is puzzling until you find out it's the name of a play written by Dion Boucicault.

The Townhouse's lobby looks exactly the way you want a Dublin hotel to look: quaint and Victorian. The rooms, though small, are comfortable and contemporary, with firm beds and en suite private baths. In the morning, a buffet breakfast is served - a major production, although the food isn't as good as you'll get in some of the private homes that are B&Bs.

Taking the bus

Plenty of other hotels and B&Bs are convenient to the city center. Don't plan to rent a car until you're ready to leave town. You won't need it, and getting used to driving on the left in the crowded, narrow streets could be a hair-raising experience. There seems to be constant construction as well. Mass transit works just fine.

The best way to get oriented is to take one of the double-decker city tour buses. Walk to Trinity College if there isn't a stop closer to where you're staying. Fares may seem steep at first: 12.50 euros for adults - about $15 when we were there - and 6 euros for kids. But the tickets are good for 24 hours, and you can hop on and off at various attractions.

The drivers act as tour guides; even if you're sitting on the upper deck - the preferred seating if the weather is decent - you can hear their lilting brogue clearly.

The buses come every 10 or 15 minutes until 5 p.m., and every half-hour thereafter until 6:30 p.m. Stops are marked, and you can buy your ticket when you get on.

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