The Merrion’s ornate interior
It was barely past midday and the pubs were full to bursting in Dublin’s lively Temple Bar district. Traditional Irish music and the sweet smell of hops filled the air as revellers spilled out on to the cobblestone streets with pints of Guinness in hand.
My husband Tom and I were visiting for the first time and here in the city’s oldest quarter we were getting a taste of the famous “craic”. The buzzing drinking culture is part of what makes Ireland’s capital so famous, but it’s not the only attraction and you’ll want to avoid a hangover to enjoy them all.
Dublin is surprisingly compact, so you can tick off most of the main sights on foot. We headed to Christ Church Cathedral, founded in 1030 and rebuilt in its current incarnation from 1172. The striking Gothic naves and 12th-century crypt are the real draws and there is currently a wonderful exhibition of 16th-century costumes from BBC series The Tudors, part of which was filmed here.
After refuelling at The Winding Stair restaurant, where we enjoyed views over the River Liffey and delicious Irish fare of potted Dingle Bay crab and Donegal redfish, we headed to Dublin Castle. It is well worth paying the admission price (from £5.50) for a look around the 13th-century fortress. The highlight for us was the opulent Throne Room, decked out in gold.
Our afternoon was rounded off with a trip to see the Book of Kells – a richly illustrated copy of the four gospels, dating from 800AD and billed as Dublin’s greatest cultural treasure – at Trinity College. The admission price also included entry into the 300-year-old library containing 200,000 books stacked in gleaming oak shelves right up to the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Just wandering Dublin’s streets is a history lesson in itself, with its beautiful Georgian buildings and pretty garden squares, and we tuned into a free podcast audio guide (go to dublin.com) to ensure we didn’t miss a thing.
Our hotel, The Merrion, close to the city’s National Gallery and National Museum, was at the heart of Georgian Dublin in four meticulously restored Grade I-listed townhouses.
Built in the 1760s, they were intended for wealthy Irish merchants and nobility – and we certainly felt like a lord and lady for the weekend as we took “Art Tea” in the period drawing room.
The glitzy chandeliers, grand fireplaces and paintings – Ireland’s largest private collection of 19th- and 20th-century art – made it feel like we had stepped back in time.
The 123 guest rooms and 19 suites are traditionally decorated with wood panelling, Regency-style furniture and plush fabrics in muted, warm tones.
On Sunday morning, we enjoyed a full Irish breakfast before visiting the hotel’s beautifully mosaic-tiled Tethra Spa. Later, we took a stroll around the nearby Merrion Square, one of Dublin’s finest parks, before enjoying a glass of champagne by the fireside.
It was the perfect end to the weekend and a fitting toast to this vibrant and historic city.
Stays at The Merrion (merrionhotel.com) cost from £299 per room, per night, based on two sharing with a full Irish breakfast. Flights to Dublin with British Airways (0344 493 0787, ba.com) start at £73 return. Heathrow Express tickets from London Paddington to Heathrow Terminal 4 can be booked on trainline.com or the Trainline mobile app.
The rooftop pool at Thermae Bath Spa
Standing high above the majestic Assembly Rooms, it’s easy to imagine the hot fires, lively music and glamorous women in Bath’s most popular Georgian hangout. It was the most fashionable resort of 18th-century England, which is easy to understand when you see the beautiful honey-coloured stone buildings and grand green gardens.
It even proved an inspiration for literary queen Jane Austen, who is celebrated with her very own museum, The Jane Austen Centre. You can walk the streets with an audio guide, retrace her footsteps on Gravel Walk and even stay at her old home, number four Sydney Place. My boyfriend and I arrived in Bath with little knowledge of its vibrant history, but it’s safe to say we’ll win the next Austen-themed pub quiz.
We enjoyed two nights in an elegant Georgian suite at the Grove Lodge Bath hotel, where treats included home-made biscuits, champagne and the most scrumptious full English breakfast served on silver trays. If I could, I’d have a lengthy stay here just to try every delicious dish on the breakfast menu. Our hosts were experts on the area, offering must-see attractions and great eateries to try for every day of the week.
Our first stop was an enlightening guided walking tour. Beginning at the ancient Roman Baths, we were taken on a historic journey from the Iron Age to the present day, enjoying the sights of Bath Abbey, The Circus and the Royal Crescent – where if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of local resident John Cleese.
The Roman Baths are truly a sight to savour. Descending below street level, we were transported back in time to see one of the greatest spas of the ancient world. Built more than a thousand years ago, the Great Bath and Sacred Spring still flow with natural hot water from the thermal springs. We took a sip of the spa water, containing 43 minerals. It’s something of an acquired taste…
If you’re visiting the baths, then you must also sample the afternoon tea at The Pump Room Restaurant. Famous faces frequently visit the Regency-style venue for sandwiches, cakes and champagne. During the afternoon, we heard music by the Pump Room Trio and Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden dropped in for a spot of tea.
After a brief (and expensive) visit to the marvellously tempting Fudge Kitchen, it was time for dinner. Located just off London Road, the cosy King William pub gave us a hearty welcome and plate of delicious Bath chaps, a local delicacy of fried pig cheek with caramelised apple purée. It sounds strange, but it’s incredibly moreish, especially topped off with a generous swig of craft beer.
A short morning walk along the River Avon led us back for another day in town, starting with the striking Bath Abbey. Dating back to Norman times, the breathtaking parish church has survived centuries of war and religious conflict, and boasts a vibrant towering window displaying 56 scenes of the life of Jesus Christ.
After retracing the steps of our Roman ancestors, it was time to enjoy the city’s natural warm springs for ourselves. Thermae Bath Spa is a haven of aromatic steam rooms, warming baths and vitality treatments. After a soothing swim in the open-air rooftop pool, we relaxed with a couple’s aromatherapy massage to banish our aches and pains.
There’s so much to see in this stunning city. With more than 20 attractions and sightseeing tours on land and sea, yes, it’s a great place for a weekend break – but you’ll have to return.
Grove Lodge Bath reopens in February and has a special midweek offer (Sunday to Thursday) of three nights’ bed and breakfast for the price of two (direct bookings only). Call 01225 310860 or visit grovelodgebath.co.uk. For news and attractions, see visitbath.co.uk.
The stunning Geneva lake front
I’ve been to Geneva many times, usually landing at the airport and boarding a coach to a ski resort. We might discuss the beauty of the lake as we pass, gawping at the impressive 140-metre Jet d’Eau fountain crashing into it. But for history and culture, it’s worth delving deeper into Switzerland’s second largest city.
If you’re staying in Geneva, tourists are entitled to a Geneva Transport Card, which enables you to explore for free (via train, bus, tram or boat). We were given the pass upon our arrival at Hôtel Bristol Genève – which is within a stone’s throw from Lake Geneva and it’s a helluva backdrop.
My room was like no other I have stayed in before. The majority of the hotel is as you would expect from any other four-star offering – spacious with luxury furnishings and soundproof windows eradicating the hustle and bustle from outside. But the first floor is dedicated to women, with Ladies First rooms fit for a princess. Here, you’ll find soft, pastel furnishings with top-of-the-range hairdryers, hair straighteners, Molten Brown toiletries and other necessities a woman might need.
And the pièce de résistance? The exquisite restaurant, Côté Square. I chose Swiss wine (unusual outside of Switzerland but a must-try) to accompany my king prawn and black truffle starter, followed by the nicest beef cheek I’ve ever had. Don’t miss out on the dining experience here.
Head to the end of the street from the hotel, and you’ll find the impressive lake. Described as the world’s most stunning lakeside, the views of the Jura mountains and Alps with Mont Blanc in the background are picture-perfect.
The city has a real sense of luxury – designer watch shops and boutiques are 10 a penny, and the streets are clean and litter-free. And despite the fact that Geneva is Switzerland’s second largest city, it feels quaint and cosy with meandering, cobbled streets. It’s refreshing to see the integration of people from different cultures and countries, too – 41 per cent of its population are foreigners and there are 190 nationalities here.
I thought it would be rude not to sample some Swiss chocolate. There are 30 master chocolatiers – a paradise for chocolate lovers. I nibbled on treats from Philippe Pascoët Sarl while heading to the buzzing outdoor markets at Carouge – I can highly recommend.
It’s also worth the steep climb up the towers of St Peter’s Cathedral. If the stairs leading up don’t take your breath away, the view from the top certainly will.
In 2016, the city celebrated 200 years since Mary Shelley visited Geneva and created Frankenstein. Find Frankenstein’s monster’s statue in town, and head to the outskirts for a view of her house overlooking Lake Geneva.
Other things to do include visiting the MEG museum, where you’ll find a number of exhibitions. Pick up the Geneva Girls’ Guide for other great ideas and discounts around the city. We got glammed up with a makeover at Chez Louise beauty salon and enjoyed a traditional hammam at Bain Bleu – bliss.
There’s a big emphasis on food in Geneva, and it’s home to 59 gourmet restaurants.
A highlight for us was dinner at Parc des Eaux-Vives. In summer, you can have a picnic on the lawns in front of the grand house overlooking the lake. Soaking up the buzz
and sights of the man-made city while being overshadowed by Mother Nature in all her glory, there are few places I’d rather be.
Flights from London to Geneva with EasyJet start at £35 one way. A Ladies First room at Hôtel Bristol Genève costs from £208 per night (bristol.ch). The Geneva Girls’ Guide includes gifts, discounts and a complimentary aperitif, available to buy from Geneva Tourism’s Tourist Information Centre. For information, visit geneve.com.