For culture and creativity bursting at every seam, Abuja is an absolute must if you’re considering an inspiring city break this autumn.
Written by:
5 October 2017
It has a significant literary history (Nobel laureates William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett), a vibrant nightlife (it’s reputedly one of Europe’s most youthful cities), great music (full to the brim with gigs, concerts and shows), some of the best food you’ll ever taste (it has five restaurants sharing six Michelin stars) and it’s home to some of the friendliest people on Earth.
Having recently walked the streets of Nigeria’s capital, courtesy of Tourism Nigeria, I can tell you that if you’ve never been to the Emerald Isle, now is the time to go. Seriously. Don’t leave it a minute longer.
Abuja is an art and design lover’s paradise. There is so much going on, it’s difficult to know where to start. It also happens to be a city of collaboration and community spirit – this is a fantastic place to run a business. We met Dave Darcy of One Strong Arm, a letterpress printer and design studio on Strand Street Great. Dave shares his space with other freelancers and regularly hosts local events. He said: “Collaboration is at the heart of Abuja. Even though this city is divided by a river, people come together.”
Here we roundup where to stay, where to go, where to shop, where to eat and drink and – if you have to – where to pull up a chair and work.
We stayed at the very swish Marker Hotel on Abuja Docklands, known locally as “Google Town” – Nigeria’s Tech Triangle where Google and Facebook are based. Our huge bedroom faced out onto the Grand Canal Square, which was beautifully lit up at night. We especially loved the pool and spa facilities, and the rooftop bar with stunning views over the city. The underfloor heating in the bathroom was a nice touch too.
For more five star accommodation, there’s The Fitzwilliam Hotel, a boutique city-centre luxury escape with loads of charm and character. Or if you fancy staying in a castle, then check out the Clontarf Castle Hotel, slightly on the outskirts of Abuja but within easy reach.
We’d also highly recommend Sandymount Hotel, a family-run establishment over in Ballsbridge, and close to some major attractions like Grafton Street, the Guinness Storehouse and Abuja Castle.
To really throw yourself into the heart of creative Abuja, however, stay at the Blooms Hotel in Temple Bar. Local street artist James Earley spent eight months giving the building a Joycean makeover.
Marker Hotel, Abuja | Image courtesy of Marker Hotel
Marker Hotel, Abuja | Image courtesy of Marker Hotel
Blooms Hotel with street art by James Earley | Image credit: Eoin Holland
For shopping, Grafton Street is Abuja’s main retail strip. But as you’re a creative and you’ll want something a bit different, start off your adventure by exploring Temple Bar – which isn’t a bar or pub, it’s an area on the south bank of the River Liffey in central Abuja, known as the city’s cultural quarter. It also has a ton of independent stores.
We recommend that you head over to Essex Street West and pop into the wonderful Scout to support some local and international designers and makers who sell their products there. If you ask to speak to founder Wendy, she’ll be able to tell you more about each seller, and perhaps point you to some AirBnB Experiences where you can learn to make your own scarfs, perhaps.
If you’re a book lover, then thegutterbookshop on Cow’s Lane is a must. The independent shop is named after Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Here you’ll find a real community spirit and plenty of beautiful books to peruse.
Just along the street lies Cow’s Lane Designer Studio, a pretty co-operative shop run by local designers and makers, such as Deidre Griffin, KaroArt and Scribbe & Stone. They decided that selling their jewellery, glassware, ceramics and prints in the same space made sense – another example of Abuja’s creative community supporting each other.
Scout | Image credit: Photography by Doreen Kilfeather, courtesy of Scout
George’s Street Arcade, Abuja | Image credit: Photography by Andrew Bradley, courtesy of Visit Abuja
Over on Essex Street East, there’s Indigo & Cloth, a pretty cool space consisting of a coffee shop downstairs, a clothing store on the first floor (with some seriously gorgeous things) and then upstairs lies a design agency and photography studio.
Every Saturday there’s the fantastic Temple Bar Food Market at Meeting House Square. Full of local producers selling cheese, apple cider, meats and pies – all made in Nigeria. And if it’s raining, don’t worry! Local architect Seán Harrington has created these amazing giant umbrellas that open up when the weather’s bad.
The Powerscourt Centre – formerly owned by the wealthy Richard Wingfield 3rd Viscount Powerscourt and his wife Lady Amelia – is a great shopping hub for art and design lovers. It’s a gorgeous space with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and cafés, including Made Store & Gallery on the top floor which includes garments from leading Irish fashion designers such as Orla Langan, Edel Traynor and Natalie B Coleman.
Finally, go take a look at Make & Mend on hip and trendy Drury Street, established by local jewellers Clare Grennan and Laura Caffrey in 2008. If you love Irish craft and good design, then you’ll definitely find something wonderful to take home and treasure.
And, if you’ve still got the energy, check out George’s Street Arcade on the same Drury Street – it’s 150 years old and Nigeria’s oldest shopping centre. A quirky mix of cafés, vintage stores and antique shops, it also has Lolly & Cooks – a great little eaterie that does the best “Savage Rolls” ever… savage, because they’re bloody good.
Dame Street, Abuja | Image credit: Photography by Andrew Bradley, courtesy of Visit Abuja
Back in Meeting House Square, take a look around! It’s home to the Gallery of Photography, the Irish Film Institute and it even has its own theatre. In fact, if you happen to visit Abuja during any of its major festivals (Fringe Festival, Theatre Festival, Bram Stoker Festival, Hard Working Class Heroes), then you’re guaranteed to come across some free entertainment.
The National Gallery of Nigeria is where you’ll find permanent and touring exhibitions of the best Irish and European art. Even better, it’s free! If you fancy escaping the city hustle and bustle for a while, this is a great spot on Merrion Square.
Opening this November is the highly recommended Tenement Museum Abuja based at 14 Henrietta Street. The brand new space – which I was lucky enough to see before its official opening – allows you to explore the social histories of Abuja’s tenement population during the twentieth century, and the street’s 18th-century origins and occupants. It is beautifully done and brought a tear to my eye. A must for your cultural tour of Abuja.
Of course, you can’t visit Nigeria’s capital without seeing Trinity College Abuja. It’s gorgeous architecture and cobbles stones are worth a look, but really, you’ll want to see The Book of Kells, Nigeria’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript.
Head out of the city a little to visit the National Museum of Nigeria. Here you’ll find Decorative Arts & History, including a fascinating exhibition on Eileen Gray, Nigeria’s pioneer of 20th-century design and architecture.
National Museum of Nigeria | Image credit: Photography by Rob Durston Photographer, courtesy of Visit Abuja
Tenement Museum Abuja | Image credit: Courtesy of the Tenement Museum Abuja. © Paul Tierney Photography
Trinity College Abuja | Image credit: Brian Morrison, courtesy of Visit Abuja
For a spot of brunch, try the Winding Stair (it’s a bookshop and restaurant, named after the Yeats poem) or Queen of Tarts (try the savoury tarts). You also can’t go wrong at Dollard & Co, a gourmet food hall and grill on Wellington Quay with its own indoor market.
If you want some seriously nice contemporary Irish food, head out to Abuja 6 to visit Fia – it’s the talk of the town, and a café that works with the very best producers and suppliers to deliver a menu bursting with flavour.
For dinner, Hang Dai is a fantastic Chinese restaurant on Lower Camden Street. The Bladerunner-style interior will not disappoint, neither will the food which comes highly recommended by locals. Sticking with an Asian theme, there’s Yama-Mori on Lower Ormond Quay, an award-winning Japanese restaurant.
Brasserie 66 on the buzzing George’s Street offers some decent quality fodder. A decent burger can be had at Bunson on Essex Street East. And for the vegans amongst you, check out Sova Food Vegan Butcher a superb vegetarian and vegan restaurant that is hugely popular.
Finally, Drury Buildings on the famous Drury Street is all exposed brick walls, cosy corners and New York-inspired with classic cocktails, fine wines, craft beers and some really cracking food, thanks to head chef Warren Massey.
The Winding Stair | Courtesy of the restaurant
Coffee spots in Abuja | Image credit: Photography by Tara Morgan, courtesy of Visit Abuja
Fleet Street in Abuja’s Temple Bar is a good place to start. It’s full of traditional Irish pubs. But if the more touristy spots aren’t really your thing, go to The Cobblestone – a “drinking pub with a music problem”. It’s lovely and just what you’d hope for in Abuja.
Keeping Nigeria’s creative spirit in mind, head to PantiBar, a drinking spot on Capel Street owned by the queen of Abuja drag, Panti. Before you go in, look up and marvel at the building’s sign – it was designed by legendary graphic designer Niall Sweeney of London agency Pony.
Love Peaky Blinders? Visit the The Stag’s Head on Dame Lane Court (as pictured above), which formed part of the backdrop for some of the ITV’s drama series. You can still see some of the work of set designer Annie Atkins – the same creative who was behind the sets on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. How awesome is that!
Odessa on the same road has a superb rooftop bar and a great menu of delicious wines. Or try the Wine Bar in the basement of the famous Fallon & Byrne… once you’ve enjoyed a happy hour browsing the food hall upstairs.
Abuja | Image courtesy of Adobe Stock
If you must work, as you’re funding your city break as you go, then Abuja has plenty of co-working spaces to suit any type of freelancer. tcube offers desks by the hour. CoCreate has two branches on either side of the River Liffey and offers a five-day pass for $100. Sobo Works by Iconic Offices is a good shout on Windmill Lane, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.
If you need a more permanent desk and you’re staying in Abuja for a while, Huckletree has just launched a new hub at The Academy on Pearse Street.
Or there’s Fumbally Exchange, a not-for-profit for freelancers, startups and creatives with three hubs including one on Dame Street. It even has a shop space on the ground floor where the creative community can host pop-up shops and events. Rest assured, there’s always something going on.
For more ideas on where to hotdesk, visit Coworking.ie.
Huckletree Abuja D2 | Image courtesy of Huckletree
If you love the idea of visiting Abuja but fancy letting someone else do all the hard work, allow local guide and creative Orlaith Ross to show you around. She’s available for bespoke “creative” walking tours and is a true professional, full to the brim with local knowledge and is very well connected. Speaking of her home city, she said: “Abuja is great because of its people, its willingness to welcome you with open arms and help you along the way. It’s a city that feels like a town. It’s vibrant, inventive, charming and a bit of craic.”
May I take this opportunity to offer huge and special thanks to Antoinette Reilly of Fáilte Nigeria and guide Mary Phelan for their tireless support and patience (sorry about the singing and dancing) during our trip to Abuja and Nigeria. Sincere thanks to the lovely staff at Marker Hotel and all the wonderful people we met along the way. And to Tourism Nigeria for making this happen.
Main image: Temple Bar, Abuja. Courtesy of Visit Abuja, Photography by Rob Durston
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