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Dublin and Belfast Spotlight

By: John Butler

I notice it first from the air, as my plane banks across the bay preparing to land in Ireland’s capital city. The sprawl of Dublin is striking from high above; a maze of streets bisected by the River Liffey stretching far out to the west. Dublin is still a beautiful, evocative place, but it can no longer be regarded as small. Tremendous development drags the city limits further inland every year, and from my vantage in the sky it’s hard to see much green at all.

It’s a radically different city from the ramshackle hometown I left in 1995. A decade of unprecedented economic growth has recast Dublin as a hub of commerce: a multiethnic European capital teeming with bars, shopping, bold architecture, and a truly world-class cultural calendar of music and theater. The outer suburbs in which I was raised have become hip inner suburbs; the old inner suburbs are now part of the city center. The place I left exists only as a figment of my romantic memory.

Or does it? Less than a two-hour drive north of Dublin along a newly constructed motorway, another capital city is tucked between the foothills of the Mourne mountains and the Irish sea. It’s a compact, atmospheric port town at the mouth of the Lagan river, with a burgeoning arts scene, fantastic food, and a metropolitan area that can be covered easily on foot. You can find historical landmarks and inviting pubs at every turn, and just beyond the city, verdant rolling hills and bucolic villages. In the parlance of fashionistas, Belfast could be the new Dublin.

Yes, Dublin is in the Republic of Ireland and uses the euro, while Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland are part of Great Britain and use the pound, but the cities now share some striking similarities. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, signed by the British and Irish governments in 1998, Belfast is invested with a sense of immense possibility, yet it has the same small-scale charm that put Dublin in the spotlight.

In some ways, the recent story of Ireland is encapsulated in this tale of two cities. Too often, people fly into Shannon or Dublin and point their compass southwest, to the Ring of Kerry and the Blarney Stone. Those landmarks have plenty to recommend them, but you can find hauntingly beautful landscapes, great accommodations, and many of the most welcoming people on this island between the two metropolises. You can enjoy a walking tour that takes in Dublin’s best bets and then browse Belfast, from landmarks of its stormy political past to those of its progressive, prosperous present.

Dublin

Established as a Viking outpost in the second century, overseen by Oliver Cromwell in his time, and evolving into a focal point in the struggle for independence, Dublin has always been the proud urban reflection of a nation of tiny villages, rich folk heritage, and devotion to faith and learning. The recent boom recast Dublin as a fully European city rather than simply an Irish one, yet it remains a walking kind of town, with the best attractions concentrated between the Grand Canal to the south and the Royal Canal to the north. Dubliner Patrick Kavanagh once wrote, “O commemorate me where there is water, canal water, preferably, so stilly greeny at the heart of summer.” The banks of the Grand Canal, where Kavanagh’s memorial bench sits, is a great place to begin orienting yourself to the city.

The city sprawls, but it’s still possible to have a human-scale experience—and the best way to tour is on foot. Dublin’s best accommodations are located just north of the Grand Canal. The Mespil is simple, functional, and well priced, while around the corner, Dylan is a boutique boasting a trendy cocktail bar. Tucked away on a side street, the more modest Number 31 offers elegant, modern rooms in a converted Georgian town house. Before moving on, consider a detour to Locks, a great-value French bistro overlooking the canal (try the braised venison shank with root vegetables, port, and orange).

Look north again to the center of South Dublin, St. Stephen’s Green. The manicured Victorian park was presented to the public by Sir A.E. Guinness (of the well-known brewing family) in 1880. A few blocks northeast of the Green, you’ll find the National Gallery of Ireland, host not only to a terrific collection of Irish art (Jack Yeats, W.B.’s brother, is well represented) but also to gems of European art such as Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ.

Dining options abound in this area. Derry Clarke’s L’Ecrivain, arguably the finest restaurant in town, is five minutes away, serving hearty, imaginitive dishes like suckling pig with carrot-and-star-anise puree, port-and-apple tortellini, leeks, and apple sauce. You’ll find a clubbier atmosphere but food nearly as excellent (try the Thai baked sea bass) at three-story Bang Café. On the north side of the green, the recently restored, historic Shelbourne Hotel is home to the famous—and famously pricey—Horseshoe Bar, where Dublin’s power brokers convene. Have a pint and drink in the free atmosphere.

The area west of the Green, on and around Grafton Street, is Dublin’s most chic shopping district, and worth a gander even if only to window-shop. Two-hundred-eighty-year-old Avoca is famous for fine woven goods (Elsa Schiaparelli used its tweeds in her ’30s collections). Today the seven-story flagship sells sweaters, tweed suits, classy housewares, and the Anthology clothing line (similar to Anthropologie in the U.S.). Countless narrow side streets are packed with old-world cafés, second-hand bookshops, and young designers’ boutiques, stretching to Clarendon Street and the Powerscourt Centre. On the second floor of the Centre is the excellent Solomon Gallery, which specializes in contemporary Irish art.

Just to the west, you’ll find the Georges Street Arcade. The restored indoor market offers everything from top-notch tapas in The Market Bar to vintage jewelry and fortune tellers, all in a gorgeous Victorian setting. Around the corner on Fade Street is Declan O’Regan’s L’Gueuleton. This foodie favorite doesn’t accept reservations, so put your name down when it opens at 6pm. It’s worth a wait for perfect French fare like snail-and-Roquefort pithivier (pie) with herb salad. O’Regan also owns nearby Hogan’s, a pub with solid grub that’s open late on weekends. Of course, Dublin is packed with classy, classic pubs, each with amazing heritage and colorful regulars. The warren of streets between Grafton and Georges Streets offers some of the best, including Grogan’s, Peter’s Pub, Neary’s, and the South William (try their bacon-and-cabbage pie).

Alma mater to Swift, Wilde, and Beckett and host to the ancient Book of Kells (on display in the Old Library building), Trinity College, at the bottom of Grafton Street, is a hive of activity during the academic year. Yet in summer it’s serene, students lead campus tours, and you can even rent a dorm room. Or you can just lounge on the lawn in front of the Pavilion, watching toffs play cricket.

A two-minute stroll up Dame Street is the Temple Bar district, named after London’s famous city gate but also in honor of the Temples, an influential 17th-century family. The quarter contains copious old-world bars and shops in its medieval street plan, and has a reputation as a home to bawdy bachelor parties. There’s plenty of culture, too, at the Gallery of Photography and the adjoining Irish Film Institute, a two-screen cinema in a converted Georgian building showing arthouse releases and unearthed classics. Nearby Meeting House Square is a modern architectural gem that’s host to a farmers’ market specializing in organic and homemade foods on Saturdays.

Continuing north, you’ll cross the River Liffey on the historic Ha’penny Bridge or its modern counterpart, the Millennium Bridge. Most Dubliners believe you’re now entering another world. The heart of the Northside is O’Connell Street, where the 394-foot-tall Spire of Dublin, the city’s most daring architectural construction, can be found. The best theaters in Dublin live here, so head to the top of O’Connell Street and check listings for the Gate Theatre or visit Dublin’s most famous stage, the recently renovated Abbey Theatre. Before your show, book a table for the theater special at Chapter One on Parnell Square. Considering the place’s prestige, prices are reasonable, and they invite you back for coffee and brandy after the show. Close by, the James Joyce Centre presents exhibits, lectures, and walking tours related to the author, and every June 16 the Centre hosts Bloomsday, a celebration of Joyce’s life and works, especially his magnum opus, Ulysses.

A mile west along the Liffey is the Guinness Brewery, Dublin’s most popular (and crowded) attraction. Despite the crush, a tour is mandatory, especially for the breathtaking views in the Gravity Bar, perched high above the city. Almost adjacent to the brewery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in the 17th-century Royal Hospital Kilmainham, holds a stunning collection and exhibits new Irish and international artists. Across the river is Phoenix Park, containing the Irish president’s home, a population of deer, a zoo, and a papal memorial. Set aside an hour or two to wander the 1,750-acre grounds. One way to see more of the city is a stroll bayside on Sandymount Strand, a 20-minute walk east of downtown. Consider a final dinner at Domini Kemp’s excellent Itsa4, then adjourn to Ryan’s pub for a well-earned drink.

GETTING TO DUBLIN
Direct flights from Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, and more on Aer Lingus, Delta, Continental, and others. Expect a seven-hour flight from New York; 11 hours from Los Angeles; prices range from $600 to $1,200. Transfer to the city on the Aircoach ($20 roundtrip). Avoid taking a cab as fares can run to $160. In the city, take the bus, the LUAS tram, or the DART trains ($3 single fare).

WHERE TO STAY IN DUBLIN

The Shelbourne Hotel (smart splurge)
27 St. Stephen’s Green; 353/1-663-4500; rooms from $380; theshelbourne.ie

Dylan
Baggot St.; 353/1-660-3000; rooms from $325; dylan.ie

The Mespil Hotel
Mespil Rd.; 353/1-488-4600; rooms from $155; mespilhotel.ie

Number 31 (value)
31 Leeson Close; 353/1-676-5011; rooms from $140; number31.ie

Trinity College Rooms
353/1-896-1177 ext. 2612; rooms from $100; tcd.ie

WHERE TO EAT IN DUBLIN

Locks

1 Windsor Terrace; 353/1-454-3391; entrées from $30; locksrestaurant.ie

L’Ecrivain
109a Lower Baggot St.; 353/1-661-1919; entrées from $65; lecrivain.com

Bang Café
11 Merrion Row; 353/1-676-0898; entrées from $20; bangrestaurant.com

Itsa4
6a Sandymount Green; 353/1-219-4676; entrées from $27; itsabagel.com/itsa4

The Market Bar
Fade St.; 353/1-613-9094; plates from $12; marketbar.ie

L’Gueuleton
1 Fade St.; 353/1-675-3708; entrées from $22

Chapter One
18-19 Parnell Sq.; 353/1-873-2266; entrées from $45; chapteronerestaurant.com

WHERE TO PARTY IN DUBLIN

The Horseshoe Bar
The Shelbourne Hotel, 27 St. Stephen’s Green; 353/1-663-4500; theshelbourne.ie

Hogan’s
35 S. Great Georges St.; 353/1-677-5904

Grogan’s
15 S. William St.; 353/1-677-9320

Peter’s Pub
1 Johnson Pl.; 353/1-677-8588

Neary’s
1 Chatham St.; 353/1-677-7371

South William
52 S. William St.; 353/1-672-5946; southwilliam.ie

The Gravity Bar
St. James’s Gate; 353/1-408-4800; guinness-storehouse    .com

Ryan’s
Sandymount Green; 353/1-269-1612

WHERE TO EXPLORE IN DUBLIN

Trinity College Walking Tours

Tours meet at front gate entrance from April to October daily starting at 10:15am; tcd.ie/info/visitors

Irish Film Institute
6 Eustace St.; 353/1-679-5744; irishfilm.ie

The Gate Theatre
Cavendish Row, Parnell Sq.; 353/1-874-4045; tickets from $36; gate-theatre.ie

The Abbey Theatre
26 Lower Abbey St.; 01/878-7222 ; tickets from $30; abbeytheatre.ie

James Joyce Centre
35 N. Great Georges St.; 353/1-878-8547; admission $7; jamesjoyce.ie

Guinness Brewery
St. James’s Gate; 353/1-408-4800; tours $20; guinness-storehouse.com

Irish Museum of Modern Art
Military Rd.; 353/1-612-9900; free; modernart.ie

National Gallery of Ireland
Merrion Sq. West; 353/1-661-5133; free; nationalgallery.ie

WHERE TO SHOP IN DUBLIN

Avoca
11-13 Suffolk St.; 353/1-677-4215; avoca.ie

The Solomon Gallery
Powerscourt Centre; 353/1-679-4237; solomongallery.com

Gallery of Photography
Meeting House Sq.; 353/1-671-4654; galleryofphotography.ie

Belfast

It is the birthplace of football legend George Best and the Titanic (at the Harland and Wolff shipyards), but Belfast is most famous for “the Troubles,” the conflict between two distinct communities: the Nationalists (principally Catholic) and the Unionists (principally Protestant). In some areas, you can still see murals depicting heroes from each side, the most famous of which is a memorial to hunger striker Bobby Sands. Between Nationalist and Unionist neighborhoods runs a peace line, a 20-foot-high wall separating the Falls Road from the Shankill Road. Apart from serving security purposes, the wall is fast becoming a tourist attraction for the dramatic manner in which it separates Protestant and Catholic backyards. Since the Good Friday Agreement, such differences have faded and tensions have eased as huge construction projects give concrete cause for optimism.

Yet it’s worth learning about the past while rumbling into the future, and while Belfast can easily be covered on foot, there’s no better way to orient yourself to all aspects of the city than a Black Taxi Tour. A car picks you up at your hotel, and the driver offers up a wealth of local history, culture, and trivia over the course  of a three-hour citywide tour. The tone is casual, but the drivers are well-schooled, each holding a Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association “Blue Badge” certification. Thus informed, you are ready to experience the city’s sights.

If the weather is fine, rent a bike at McConvey Cycles at the Ormeau Bridge. It’s only $30 for a full day, and peddling through back streets gives you an intimate look at the city. A five-minute cycle or a 20-minute walk up Ormeau Road and west on Ormeau Avenue is The Gallery at Ormeau Baths, a 10,000-square-foot converted bathhouse exhibiting contemporary Northern Irish art. If you continue up Ormeau Avenue and pass the BBC Television Centre, you’ll hit the sprawling grounds of Belfast City Hall on Donegall Square, the dead center of town. Among many monuments circling the hall is the statue of Thane, a female figure gazing at sea nymphs as they lift a drowned sailor from the sea. The sculpture debuted in 1920 to commemorate those lost on the Titanic and faces the shipyards where the liner was built.

This area is a shopping hub of Belfast, with snazzy outposts of Molton Brown and Karen Millen, as well as local gems like women’s boutique Yoke and high-end men’s casual store The Bureau beside each other on Wellington Street. The Steensons jewelry store on Bedford Street is also worth a visit for its stunning one-of-a-kind pieces by goldsmiths Bill and Christina Steenson, as well as other artists.

A five-minute walk along the River Lagan leads to St. George’s Market, the oldest covered market in Ireland, serving local specialty foods every Friday and Saturday. Take some time here to wander and have a coffee. Nearby, the eponymous James Street South restaurant is run by Niall McKenna, formerly of Paul Rankin’s Roscoff; try the $25 lunch menu, especially the locally sourced Lough Neagh duck.

A short cycle or walk north from the market is the Cathedral Quarter, roughly bound to the east by Dunbar Link and the west by Royal Avenue. St. Anne’s Cathedral stands in the center, and with a large number of cultural enterprises and galleries, the area is an unspoiled (for now) incarnation of Dublin’s Temple Bar. Belfast Exposed is a contemporary photo gallery with a vast selection of books documenting the changing visual aesthetics of Belfast, from political murals to contemporary architecture. Check listings for the Black Box Arts Venue, just off Donegall Street. The music venue offers shows ranging from rock and jazz to classical, country, and Celtic.

On trendy, beautifully cobbled Hill Street, Nick’s Warehouse is known for its extensive wine list and terrific food. Forty dollars buys you a three-course dinner, but book early (the last seating is at 9:30pm). Down the lane on Commercial Court is the Duke of York, a long, narrow bar where Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, tended bar in the 1960s. Find a quiet spot and sample the extensive whiskey menu—the place starts filling up around 10pm and is packed until closing.

There are a host of quality bars in this quarter. The John Hewitt on Donegall Street is renowned for a mixed crowd and choice live music, as is The Northern Whig. Those more inclined to look forward than back should consider staying in one of the stylish, modern hotels nearby. The Malmaison is a great option—a midrange chain with the sensibilities and service of a boutique. Nearby, the Ten Square Hotel is a smaller property with understated Asian decor. The Merchant Hotel is also excellent, with its opulent lobby and the beautifully appointed Ollie’s Club bar. At $400 a night for a deluxe room, it’s a smart splurge.

History buffs may consider staying on the other side of City Hall. The Europa hotel was the base for correspondents during the Troubles and has withstood nearly 40 bomb blasts throughout the years. Although the rooms may lack frills, it’s reasonably priced and you know it’s not going to fall down. While you’re in the area, take in the nearby Belfast Grand Opera House, a gorgeous Victorian-era theater presenting plays, ballet, music, and more. Across the way is what many consider the world’s finest drinking establishment, The Crown Bar. Composed of a series of small wooden booths facing a long red granite bar, this elegant Victorian palace serves Guinness and oysters (from $12); on chilly days, a bowl of vegetable soup and a hot port will set you back a mere $11.

If you’re feeling adventurous and you don’t speak with an English accent, it’s worth stopping at The Felons Club on the Falls Road. Membership at the club is reserved for Republicans who have served time for political crimes, but anyone can elbow up to the bar for a drink. Nearby, you’ll find a resting place for fallen IRA soldiers at Milltown Cemetery.

For a change of scenery, head south to the Queen’s University campus, filled with gorgeous Tudor-style buildings and home to the Naughton Gallery, a great repository of Irish and English paintings. Apart from the university itself, the Botanic Gardens are close by. The Palm House is one of the world’s earliest surviving examples of curvilinear glass and cast iron, and the arboretum and tropical garden are well worth a look. The nearby Malone Guesthouse is a great lower-cost option in a leafy, redbrick suburb, and one of the advantages to staying in a B&B like this one is the promise of a daily dose of the legendary Ulster fry, the heart-stopping combination of potato farl (a fried, potato-based flatbread), soda bread, sausage, bacon, and eggs.

Queen’s Quarter also has some great lunch options. Cayenne, a mod, minimalist eatery run by Northern Ireland’s best known chef, Paul Rankin, serves up dishes like crispy pork belly with “lime ’n’ chili lentils,” tobacco shallots, and sweet-potato fondant. On trendy Lisburn Road (home to many local designers’ boutiques) is Shu, offering a similarly contemporary take on classic Irish fare, like Clandeboye wood pigeon with roast carrots, parsnips, and chestnuts, and a roast-garlic mash. There’s also a host of student bars, the most compelling (and busiest) of which is The Fly on Lower Crescent.

Like Berlin and Dubrovnik before it, Belfast finds itself emerging from a turbulent historical period to offer all the comforts of modern travel. What it has over many other European cities—in addition to food, wine, and shopping—is a story to tell, and Belfast’s warm, friendly people are more than willing to share it with you.

GETTING TO BELFAST
Fly directly from New York to Belfast International on Continental Airlines, or fly with one stop from European hubs including Dublin, London, and Amsterdam. Factor in a seven-hour flight time from New York. Prices range from $700 to $1,300. Transfer from Belfast airport to the city center on bus 300 ($20). Call Translink at 44/28-9066-6630 for fare and schedule. Taxi fare to the city is around $50. Belfast taxis are cheaper and better operated than their Dublin counterparts, so it’s not a bad idea to use them to get around. Metro bus service offers unlimited one-day travel for $5.

WHERE TO STAY IN BELFAST

Ten Square Luxury Hotel (smart splurge)
10 Donegall Sq. South; 44/28-9024-1001; rooms from $340; tensquare.co.uk

The Europa Hotel
Great Victoria St.; 44/28-9027-1066; rooms from $290; hastingshotels.com

The Malmaison
34-38 Victoria St.; 44/28-9022-0200; rooms from $227; malmaison-belfast.com

The Merchant Hotel (value)
35-39 Waring St.; 44/28-9023-4888; rooms from $195; themerchanthotel.com

Malone Guesthouse
79 Malone Rd.; 44/28-9066-9565; rooms from $90; maloneguesthousebelfast.co.uk

WHERE TO EAT IN BELFAST

Cayenne
7 Ascot House, Shaftesbury Sq.; 44/28-9033-1532; entrées from $33; rankingroup.co.uk/cayenne.php

Shu
253 Lisburn Rd.; 44/28-9038-1655; entrées from $20; shu.killercontent.net

Nick’s Warehouse
35-39 Hill St.; 44/28-9043-9690; entrées from $18; nickswarehouse.co.uk

St. George’s Market
Lower May St.; 44/28-9032-0202; belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket

James Street South
21 James St. South; 44/28-9043-4310; entrées from $28; jamesstreetsouth.co.uk

The Northern Whig
2-10 Bridge St.; 44/28-9050-9888; plates from $4; thenorthernwhig.com

WHERE TO PARTY IN BELFAST

The Crown Bar
46 Great Victoria St.; 44/28-9027-9901; crownbar.com

The Felons Club
537 Andersontown Rd.; 44/28-9061-9875

The John Hewitt
51 Donegall St.; 44/28-9023-3768; thejohnhewitt.com

Duke of York
7-11 Commercial Ct.; 44/28-9024-1062

The Fly
5-6 Lower Crescent; 44/28-9050-9750; theflybar.com

WHAT TO EXPLORE IN BELFAST

Belfast Tours’ Black Taxi 
44/28-9064-2264; $50 (plus tip); belfasttours.com

The Botanic Gardens
Botanic Ave.; 44/28-9031-4762; belfastcity.gov.uk/parksandopenspaces

McConvey Cycles
183 Ormeau Rd.; 44/28-9033-0322; bikes from $30 a day; mcconveycycles.com

Belfast Exposed
23 Donegall St.; 44/28-9023-0965; free; belfastexposed.org

Black Box Arts Venue
18-22 Hill St.; check listings; 44/28-9024-4400; blackboxbelfast.com

WHERE TO SHOP IN BELFAST

Ormeau Baths Gallery
18a Ormeau Ave.; 44/28-9032-1402; ormeaubaths.co.uk

The Steensons
Bedford St.; 44/28-9024-8269; thesteensons.com

Yoke
5 Wellington St.; 44/28-9023-6900; yokeclothing.casobi.com

The Bureau
44 and 46-50 Howard St.; 44/28-9023-6100; thebureaubelfast.com

Day Trips

DUBLIN
Any discussion of musical life in the fair city of Dublin used to revolve around one letter and one number—U2. However, with the recent surprise international success of the film Once, Dublin’s singer-songwriters have graciously been pushed to the fore. The film’s star, Glen Hansard, is the front man of a band called The Frames. Try to catch one of their frequent shows while in Dublin, but if you can’t see them, there are others. In fact, Dublin is the home of the anguished guitar man. David Kitt, Paddy Casey, Fionn Regan, David Hopkins, and Damien Rice play regularly at venues like Whelan’s and the Button Factory.

In the world of theater, the plays of Dubliner Conor McPherson are now a staple on Broadway, and many of them have premiered at the Gate Theatre, while Dubliner Anne Enwright won the Man Booker prize for literature in 2007 with The Gathering. Previous winners John Banville and Roddy Doyle are residents here, and while Doyle is considered by many to be the voice of Dublin, young writer Kevin Barry’s collection of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, is a fresh and dark view of contemporary life on this island.

BELFAST
Just as Dublin has U2, this place has its own musical giant in the form of Van Morrison. But these days, the Belfast music scene has a more global presence. David Holmes is the man at the vanguard—he scored the soundtracks for the Ocean’s Eleven film franchise as well as Out of Sight and Analyze That. His own records (which often sound like soundtracks to imaginary movies) include Let’s Get Killed and a stellar compilation of rare vintage soul titled Come Get It I Got It.

The success of this Belfast boy is not surprising when you consider that the Belfast club scene is one of the most vibrant in Europe. Ollie’s Club at the Merchant Hotel, the Potthouse directly across the street, and Milk—which bring in world-class DJs like Carl Cox, Deep Dish, and Derrick May—are all worth checking out. But the live music scene is equally exciting. Classic punk bands like the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers come from Belfast, as do modern-day rockers like Ash, Snow Patrol, Duke Special, and Neil Hannon.

If this all sounds a little sweaty and undignified, consider the roll call of Northern Irish writers and you’ll find plenty of holiday reading matter. The standard bearer of Northern writing is of course Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney (born near Derry), but the new kid on the block is
Nick Laird, the author of Utterly Monkey and the partner of star English novelist Zadie Smith.

Brian Friel, Flann O’Brien, and Seamus Deane are native sons, as are painter Paul Henry and photographer Paul Seawright. Two contemporary recommendations that will provide great company during your trip to Belfast are radio broadcaster John Kelly, whose eclectic show is broadcast on Lyric FM (rte.ie/lyricfm), and Slugger O’Toole (sluggerotoole.com), a website that parses Northern Irish news and politics.

COUNTY MEATH
No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the countryside. But when you consider that the Ring of Kerry, the country’s most famous pastoral spot, is a four-hour drive from Dublin, the case for the rolling hills and ancient ruins of County Meath becomes quite compelling. Bellinter House (Navan; 353/46-903-0900; rooms from $380; bellinterhouse.com) is a beautifully restored Georgian manor home on the banks of the River Boyne, a mere 45 minutes from the Dublin airport—yet a world away. It could be the setting for a 19th-century novel: marble fireplaces, manicured lawns and horse trails, private fishing with a ghillie (attendant) for hire. Plus, a celebrated chef prepares the best in contemporary Irish food at Eden, the in-house restaurant. The mounds, stone structures, and tombs at the Hill of Tara are a 15-minute drive from Bellinter, and some of its monuments predate not only the Celts, but also the Egyptian pyramids.

COUNTY ANTRIM
The windswept countryside around Belfast is well worth a day trip or an overnight stay. Golfers flock to Royal County Down golf course (royalcounty down.org). A round is best paired with a stay at nearby Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, a sprawling Victorian hotel fresh off a $30 million overhaul (Downs Rd., Newcastle, County Down; 44/28-4372-1066; rooms from $350; hastingshotels.com). For a day trip, head north to County Antrim, home to Ulster’s most famed sites. Coastal Giants Causeway is a curious formation of hexagonal volcanic rocks created more than 60 million years ago. The World Heritage Site is the nexus of the Celtic fable of Finn McCool (Visitor Center: 44 Causeway Rd., Bushmills, County Antrim; 44/28-2073-1855; giantscause waycentre.com). Just down the road, Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Take their excellent guided tour to see how it’s made (2 Distillery Road, Bushmills; 44/28-2073-3218; tours from $10; bushmills.com).

Smart Splurges

Do the Dylan
With a stunning restaurant, a quiet, leafy location that’s still close to everything, and every luxury bell and whistle imaginable, the Dylan is the best hotel in Dublin and well worth the expense. And who can’t benefit from a pillow menu? Rooms from $325; dylan.ie

Digest the Dégustation Menu at L’Ecrivain
Slalom through chef Derry Clarke’s 10 beautiful courses, like turbot with lobster-claw tempura and basil-and-saffron aioli, and experience the best, freshest Irish produce on offer in Dublin. Reserve a table at least three weeks in advance. $175; lecrivain.com

Book a Bentley
If you’re staying at the Merchant in Belfast and dread the trip from the airport to the hotel, have the hotel pick you up in its very own chauffeur-driven Bentley Arnage and make the ride in style. $160; themerchanthotel.com

Tee up at Royal County Down Golf Club
Hire a senior caddie, whose stern gaze alone will ensure hitherto untapped levels of concentration. You may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, as Belfast locals say. $360; royalcountydown.org

Detoxify at Bellinter House
Soak in a deluxe seaweed bath, experience a dry brushing ritual to exfoliate the skin, then finish with a seaweed-oil massage in this spa’s sublime three-hour treatment, under an hour from Dublin, in County Meath. $450; bellinterhouse.com

Cultural Scenes

DUBLIN
Any discussion of musical life in the fair city of Dublin used to revolve around one letter and one number—U2. However, with the recent surprise international success of the film Once, Dublin’s singer-songwriters have graciously been pushed to the fore. The film’s star, Glen Hansard, is the front man of a band called The Frames. Try to catch one of their frequent shows while in Dublin, but if you can’t see them, there are others. In fact, Dublin is the home of the anguished guitar man. David Kitt, Paddy Casey, Fionn Regan, David Hopkins, and Damien Rice play regularly at venues like Whelan’s and the Button Factory.

In the world of theater, the plays of Dubliner Conor McPherson are now a staple on Broadway, and many of them have premiered at the Gate Theatre, while Dubliner Anne Enwright won the Man Booker prize for literature in 2007 with The Gathering. Previous winners John Banville and Roddy Doyle are residents here, and while Doyle is considered by many to be the voice of Dublin, young writer Kevin Barry’s collection of short stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, is a fresh and dark view of contemporary life on this island.

BELFAST
Just as Dublin has U2, this place has its own musical giant in the form of Van Morrison. But these days, the Belfast music scene has a more global presence. David Holmes is the man at the vanguard—he scored the soundtracks for the Ocean’s Eleven film franchise as well as Out of Sight and Analyze That. His own records (which often sound like soundtracks to imaginary movies) include Let’s Get Killed and a stellar compilation of rare vintage soul titled Come Get It I Got It.

The success of this Belfast boy is not surprising when you consider that the Belfast club scene is one of the most vibrant in Europe. Ollie’s Club at the Merchant Hotel, the Potthouse directly across the street, and Milk—which bring in world-class DJs like Carl Cox, Deep Dish, and Derrick May—are all worth checking out. But the live music scene is equally exciting. Classic punk bands like the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers come from Belfast, as do modern-day rockers like Ash, Snow Patrol, Duke Special, and Neil Hannon.

If this all sounds a little sweaty and undignified, consider the roll call of Northern Irish writers and you’ll find plenty of holiday reading matter. The standard bearer of Northern writing is of course Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney (born near Derry), but the new kid on the block is
Nick Laird, the author of Utterly Monkey and the partner of star English novelist Zadie Smith.

Brian Friel, Flann O’Brien, and Seamus Deane are native sons, as are painter Paul Henry and photographer Paul Seawright. Two contemporary recommendations that will provide great company during your trip to Belfast are radio broadcaster John Kelly, whose eclectic show is broadcast on Lyric FM (rte.ie/lyricfm), and Slugger O’Toole (sluggerotoole.com), a website that parses Northern Irish news and politics.

COUNTY MEATH
No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the countryside. But when you consider that the Ring of Kerry, the country’s most famous pastoral spot, is a four-hour drive from Dublin, the case for the rolling hills and ancient ruins of County Meath becomes quite compelling. Bellinter House (Navan; 353/46-903-0900; rooms from $380; bellinterhouse.com) is a beautifully restored Georgian manor home on the banks of the River Boyne, a mere 45 minutes from the Dublin airport—yet a world away. It could be the setting for a 19th-century novel: marble fireplaces, manicured lawns and horse trails, private fishing with a ghillie (attendant) for hire. Plus, a celebrated chef prepares the best in contemporary Irish food at Eden, the in-house restaurant. The mounds, stone structures, and tombs at the Hill of Tara are a 15-minute drive from Bellinter, and some of its monuments predate not only the Celts, but also the Egyptian pyramids.

COUNTY ANTRIM
The windswept countryside around Belfast is well worth a day trip or an overnight stay. Golfers flock to Royal County Down golf course (royalcounty down.org). A round is best paired with a stay at nearby Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, a sprawling Victorian hotel fresh off a $30 million overhaul (Downs Rd., Newcastle, County Down; 44/28-4372-1066; rooms from $350; hastingshotels.com). For a day trip, head north to County Antrim, home to Ulster’s most famed sites. Coastal Giants Causeway is a curious formation of hexagonal volcanic rocks created more than 60 million years ago. The World Heritage Site is the nexus of the Celtic fable of Finn McCool (Visitor Center: 44 Causeway Rd., Bushmills, County Antrim; 44/28-2073-1855; giantscause waycentre.com). Just down the road, Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Take their excellent guided tour to see how it’s made (2 Distillery Road, Bushmills; 44/28-2073-3218; tours from $10; bushmills.com).

Local Slant

Gene Kerrigan explores Dublin’s every corner in masterfully written crime novels like The Midnight Choir. We asked him for a short list of favorite old and new spots.
 
“If you use the Millennium pedestrian bridge to cross the Liffey from the Temple Bar area, you’ll find what’s known as the Italian Quarter. Mick Wallace is a builder who made a lot of money from the boom. Apart from football, Wallace is crazy about all things Italian. His Italian Quarter is hardly more than a laneway, with an Italian food shop at one end and his Enoteca Della Langhe wine bar at the other. My favorite place there is Bar Italia, where the food is great, the service is casual in the best sense of the word, and the prices are reasonable. For an older place, the seafront along Clontarf is great for walking—on one side are pleasant houses, on the other side is the sea. A great place to relax.”

When to Go

Springtime. Despite the fact that for the last few years summers in Ireland have been extremely wet, they have also been by far the busiest seasons from a tourist perspective. Go in spring when it is warm, dry, cheaper, and far less crowded.

Currency and Tipping

Dublin accepts the euro, while Belfast uses the British pound (though many large places will accept the euro and calculate accordingly). Tip around 10 percent in restaurants. It is not customary to tip in bars unless served by waitstaff. If you tip a bartender, you may get a quizzical look.

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