A vibrant and compact city, Dublin has a pace and energy quite at odds with the relaxing image of Ireland as a whole. Prosperity generated by the Republic's economic boom in the 1990s has brought fundamental changes to the life of its capital, reversing the tide of emigration and creating a dynamic cultural centre. Visitors and Dubliners alike are astonished at the rate of transformation; chic bars and restaurants, new exhibitions and trendy shops all signify a major shift in the city's identity, no longer dominated by the insular conservatism of less than a decade ago.
The city's emergence from provincialism is, however, only part of the picture. With the increase in population, Dublin is bulging at the seams, which, of course, brings its problems - spend just a couple of days here and you'll come upon inner-city deprivation as bad as any in Europe. The spirit of Dublin has its contradictions, too, with youthful enterprise set against a deeply embedded traditionalism: the national divorce referendum in 1995 may have gone in favour of reform, but it was a close-run thing. However, the collision of the old order and the forward-looking younger generations is as an essential part of the appeal of this extrovert and dynamic city, and, despite the differences, the wit and garrulous sociability for which its inhabitants are famous is a constant feature. In the legendary - and plentiful - bars, the buskers of Grafton Street and the tour guides who ply the streets with visitors in tow, there's an unmistakable love of banter. Dublin's considerable literary heritage owes much to this trait, and, on either side of the Liffey you'll find reminders of literary personalities who are as intrinsic to the city's character as the river itself - from the bronze plaques in the pavement following the route of Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce's Ulysses, to the remarkable statue of Oscar Wilde on Merrion Square.
Ireland's tremendous economic growth - an average of nine percent per year between 1994 and 1998 - has given new impetus to just about every facet of the capital's cultural life. Historic treasures are being promoted and displayed in a way previously not possible, from the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery to the new displays of decorative arts at the Collins Barracks, and major periods of social and political history are articulated with flair, both in the plethora of theme-based tours available and the built environment of the city itself. Everywhere in Dublin you'll find evidence of a rich past well worth exploring: exceptional Viking finds excavated at Wood Quay (and now on show in the National Museum); impressive reminders of Anglo-Norman and British imperial power; elegant Georgian streets and squares; and monuments to the violent struggle for independence. The visual arts are enjoying a higher public profile too, with mouthwatering exhibitions in the city's numerous galleries supplemented by the development of a unique design scene, characterized by subtlety and experimentation. Throughout the city there's a palpable sense that Dublin's cultural heritage is coming into its own with striking confidence.
Dublin is, of course, known for its pubs, and, for many, sampling the myriad bars and buzzing nightlife is an integral part of any visit to the city. There's also plenty of music on offer and, while the capital has nothing to match the music cultures of rural Ireland, there's no shortage of traditional, rock and jazz venues. Theatre too has long played a part in the city's cultural life and you can catch plays by O'Casey, Synge and Shaw all year round at the Abbey Theatre, as well as experiencing the vitality of Dublin's continuing dramatic tradition during the Theatre and Fringe Festivals.
For those who want to get out into the surrounding countryside, again there are plenty of options. Dublin is within easy reach of the wild open heights of the Wicklow Mountains, the secluded monastic settlement of Glendalough, a sprinkling of choice stately homes, and some of Europe's most important prehistoric sites, including Knowth and Newgrange....Continua