There are two things I do when I visit a city for the first time. I check out the local supermarket to see what the natives are having for their tea, and then I find out if there's a botanic garden. These are invariably tranquil, beautiful places (the lungs of the city if you like) and, most of the time, they're free to visit.
And so it is with the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Run by the Office of Public Works and situated in a quiet corner of Glasnevin (near the triangular church and opposite Addison Lodge), the wrought-iron gates are a welcoming sight to many people on a sunny weekend afternoon.
However, even on a cold Thursday morning in December, there's plenty to enjoy. The modern cafe is a bright and cheerful place and at this time of year, it is serving slices of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies, as well as the usual assortment of cakes, sandwiches and hot meals.
And if you're looking for some last-minute Christmas presents, there are lovely prints of water lilies and the Palm House and beautiful prints by Eimear Brennan.
The Gardens were established in 1795 by the Dublin Society (now the Royal Dublin Society) on lands in Glasnevin. The original purpose of the Gardens was to promote a scientific approach to the study of agriculture, but by the 1830s the agricultural purpose had been overtaken by the pursuit of botanical knowledge.
By 1838, the basic shape of the Gardens with its paths and features, had been established and this was cemented by the construction of the glasshouse.
Richard Turner, the great Dublin ironmaster, had already supplied an 'iron house' to the Belfast Gardens and he persuaded the Royal Dublin Society that such a house would be suitable for Dublin. Of course, there are now several glasshouses (or 'iron houses') in the Gardens. The Alpine House, set within a walled courtyard garden, is a tranquil place and has a display of Christmas trees showing the most popular trees in Ireland.
The Cactus House has a magnificent collection of towering and some deceptively furry-looking succulents from far-flung places such as Madagascar and South Africa.
From the front gate of the garden, winding paths take you on a journey past neat beds of plants, with brilliantly zany names -- try Peeping Tom, Bee's Lemon, First Interstate and Pandora's Box. The great Palm House (my favourite) with its huge palms, flowing, pebbled stream and bamboo hut is quite simply the most peaceful place in Dublin.
The Viennese philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, stayed in Dublin during the winter of 1948-49 and apparently liked to sit on the steps here and write. A good place to philosophise, I think. Maybe it reminded him of the Imperial Tropical Butterfly House in central Vienna, which is well worth a visit if you're ever in that part of the world.
Anyway, the Dublin Gardens mightn't have butterflies, but they do have plenty of birds and usually cheeky grey squirrels (they don't come out on cold, wet days).
Walk through the rockery with its cascading waterfall to the large pond where the ducks gather near the little green bridge and you could almost imagine yourself to be in Monet's famous garden outside Paris.
The sound that you hear as you walk towards the Chinese plants is the rapids of the River Tolka presided over by a rather grand statue of Socrates. There are some great sculptural pieces scattered throughout the Gardens.
Don't miss the curvilinear range of glasshouses -- where you can see olive trees, star fruit, rare island plants and 'cabbage on a stick' (a critically endangered species from Hawaii).
The purpose of the Gardens is to explore, understand, conserve and share the importance of plants. It's also a lovely place to spend a few hours and recharge your batteries.
The Gardens are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4.30pm and Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 4.30pm. Admission is free.