There is arguably no place more central to Ireland's capital than the River Liffey, snaking its way through the city and dividing Dublin into north and south sides before emptying into the Irish Sea at the city's edge.
It is along the Liffey riverbanks that many of Dublin's most iconic sites can be found: the majestic Custom House, the quaintly preserved pedestrian Ha'penny Bridge, the Guinness Brewery. In paintings, postcards and memories, the riverbanks form the perfect microcosm of Dublin and its lifeblood, thriving with traffic, pedestrians and the buzz of the capital.
Many visitors to Dublin use the Liffey as a landmark to point them in the direction of major tourist sites. But that limits their riverbank wandering to the city center, from famed O'Connell Street down to the cobblestoned warren of the Temple Bar tourist quarter and nearby museums.
Those who venture farther, however, following the river to Dublin Port, will find a new, modern Dublin along the shore, replete with dining and entertainment options in a sleek, trendy setting. Mixed in among these neighborhoods on the north and south sides, they can also find elements of the old Dublin tucked away, along with memorials and reminders of the city and country's rich history.
Following the Liffey on the north side away from the city center, visitors will come upon the International Financial Services Centre with tenants like KPMG and JPMorgan Chase. Adjacent to these financial powerhouses, however, is a beautifully restored building called chq — the latest incarnation of a former tobacco store with vaults underneath.
Bright and airy, with a glass exterior, the building now houses a handful of eateries, high-end shops and the occasional art installation. The area next to the building, known as the Docklands, hosts annual events including a Fringe Festival in late summer, an Oktoberfest celebration in autumn and a Christmas market in December. Each of these events brings droves of people into the Docklands, and most feature food, artisan kiosks and various performances with an electric, festive ambiance.
Just across from this space, however, is a somber sight on the north banks of the Liffey: A famine memorial with life-size sculptures of starving men and women, and even a skeletal dog, making their way toward Dublin Port to leave Ireland's shores during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Just a few steps away, closer to the port, a replica of the ship Jeanie Johnston is anchored in tribute to the 2 million who emigrated.
A stroll farther along the Liffey leads to another anchored ship, the MV Cill Airne, which is the Irish spelling of Kerry town Killarney. Turned into a bar and restaurant, it's a beautiful place to have a drink on a sunny summer's day, surveying the Liffey's long riverbanks while enjoying a pint of Guinness on the deck. During more (frequent) rainy weather, diners can also enjoy a gourmet meal with river views on the enclosed main deck in Quay 16 restaurant.
The rest of the north side of the Docklands features swanky new apartments and a soon-to-open conference center with a tilted glass-enclosed front. Some taxi drivers already jokingly refer to the building as "The Pint" — a play on the former name of a nearby concert venue once known as The Point. This entertainment hall, located at the edge of the quays before the port, was redeveloped and renamed the O2. It opened in December 2008 and is the largest indoor concert hall in Ireland, with 9,500 seats.
Crossing to the other side of the river — possibly using either the pedestrian Sean O'Casey Bridge or the just-opened Samuel Beckett Bridge, both named for Dublin-born writers — leads to an even trendier part of the city. Grand Canal Dock is a chic collection of bright lights, fashionable apartments and stylish restaurants. U2's former recording studio, Windmill Lane, is here, covered in graffiti left by hard-core fans on pilgrimages to the band's home city and haunts. A few blocks away, Facebook just opened its international headquarters in a Grand Canal Dock building, and Google's European headquarters stands a 10-minute walk away from the river — signaling the area's arrival as a 21st-century center of commerce and technology.
Most importantly, the neighborhood is home to the Daniel Libeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre, an asymmetric architectural masterpiece. It is scheduled to open by St. Patrick's Day this year and will host concerts, musical theater performances and other shows.
Just a block from this cutting-edge theater, however, is an old-school pub that is a throwback to the Dockland's former identity as, well, docklands. Both sides of the river were known as rough areas until the 1980s — the haunts of hardened sailors and dockhands. The Ferryman pub, formerly a watering hole for the local workingmen, is now more often packed with suited lawyers and other corporate types who stop in for pints after work. It's painted red on the outside and jam-packed with typical Irish pub decorations (framed photos, dusty bottles on shelves, everything you'd expect to find in an old-time Dublin "local"). But like so many other places in this recently gentrified area, it's a great mix of old and new.