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Dublin's big-city sights and Irish charm

By Rick Steves, Tribune Content Agency on

As the capital of the country that gets my vote for the friendliest in the European Union, Dublin is a sightseer's delight: It's safe, thriving and extremely accessible. Dubliners are energetic and helpful, and visitors enjoy a big-town cultural scene wrapped up in a small-town smile.

Part of the reason Ireland is one of my favorite destinations is that when visiting the Emerald Isle, I enjoy the sensation that I'm understanding a foreign language. This is the land of great craic (conversation), where people have that charming and uniquely Irish "gift of gab." They love to talk, and you're glad they do.

On a trip there last summer, I opted to take Uber from the airport. My driver Paul calls to confirm the pick-up spot, and says in a heavy Irish accent, "I'll meet you at the turd lane." I ask, "The what?" He says, more clearly, "The TURD lane." Before I ask him to repeat himself a turd time, I get it.

As we drive, I ask him about the economy. He says, "Grand" -- pointing out the crane-filled skyline. Dublin seems to be one huge construction site. But Paul then explains how it hasn't always been this way. During his childhood with six siblings, he says, "it was 'first up, best dressed.'" He joked that "People were so poor back then, for shoes your mum would paint your feet black and tie on a ribbon."

Ireland's charming rough edge is being smoothed out by its new affluence. I notice the Irish don't say the f-word so much. And the air's cleaner too -- even the pubs are smoke-free.

With Ireland's invigorated economy comes a heightened focus on tourism. On my recent visit I discovered intriguing new sights and experiences, had a great time at some iconic spots and each night enjoyed fun and affordable entertainment.

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Grafton Street is the place to feel the new energy of Dublin. Once filled with noisy traffic, today this is a pedestrianized people zone lined with caf├ęs, pubs and shopping temptations. Grafton Street leads to St. Stephen's Green, which used to host public whippings and hangings but has been transformed into a lush city park. On a sunny afternoon it's an inviting lunchtime escape.

The National Museum shows off Ireland's history, with treasures from the Stone Age to modern times. Its archaeology branch is itself a national treasure, displaying 4,000-year-old gold jewelry, 2,000-year-old bog mummies, 1,000-year-old Viking swords and the collection's superstar -- the exquisitely wrought Tara Brooch. A visit here gives valuable context to the sights you see as you tour the rest of the city and the country.

To see the fabled Book of Kells, arguably the most important and beautiful piece of European medieval art, head to Trinity College. This 1,200-year-old version of the four gospels is filled with illuminated manuscripts. With colorful pigments, braided letters and borders and animals crouching between sentences, it's a jungle of intricate designs and a reminder that Ireland was a bright spot during Europe's Dark Ages.

A new sight in town is Epic: The Irish Emigration Museum. I had never fully appreciated the Irish diaspora until my visit to this high-tech exhibit, which explains the forces that propelled so many Irish around the globe, including to the United States. With all the anxiety surrounding immigration in the USA today, it's thought-provoking to learn how many Americans were just as wigged out about Irish immigrants 160 years ago.


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