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When planning a trip to Ireland, Dublin and Galway are two of the main destinations that spring to mind. But Cork should be on any list, too. Located in the southwest of the country, it’s Ireland’s biggest county and has the second most populous city. The River Lee runs through it, and Cork is on the coast, too — so there are plenty of unspoiled beaches with big skies.
Not only does Cork, also known as the Rebel County, have some terrific dining spots and activities in the city itself, but there are also loads of fun, interesting and magical things to do and see nearby. From its dramatic coastline to kissing the Blarney stone and visiting the Titanic’s “last port of call” — there’s something for everyone. And you will certainly pick up some interesting turn of phrases along the way.
So here are our picks of the best spots and some insider tips for your first — or maybe return — visit.
Cork City is compact and very walkable — it even has the second-largest natural harbor in the world. You would definitely need a car for exploring the county, as public transport — especially in the countryside — isn’t amazing, but while you’re in the city, on foot is best. There are loads of cafes, some great shopping and, of course, a pub on almost every corner. Cork has an exciting music scene, too.
The English Market
This fresh food market started in 1788 and has been described as a “food lover’s delight” and “one of the best-covered markets in the U.K. and Ireland.” It’s brimful of tasty delicacies including the freshest of seafood. And if you’ve seen the Young Offenders, it’s where Mairead, Conor’s mom, works. You can buy everything from cakes to spices to wine — so definitely make a stop before any picnic.
The stalls range from fledging traders to those who have been there for generations. It can be found between Grand Parade and Princes Street and is open Monday to Saturday year-round 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Crawford Art Gallery
Crawford Art Gallery is a fabulous space dedicated to the visual arts with a collection of more than 3,000 works, ranging from eighteenth-century Irish painting and sculpture, through to contemporary video installations. The Crawford also houses the famous Canova casts — a gift from the Vatican 200 years ago. The casts were created by Antonio Canova, a renowned Italian Neoclassical sculptor who is said to be the most famous of his time.
There’s also a lovely cafe, so stop off for tea and cake after getting your cultural hit. Admission is free.
St Anne’s church, located in the Shandon area of the city, is one of the only churches in the world that lets you ring its bells unaccompanied. The belfry has eight bells — weighing six tons in total — and there’s a range of tunes you can play. But remember, you can be heard all over the city, so make sure you get it right.
You can also tread the 135 steps to the top of the tower for a stunning 360-degree view of Cork. Cork is known as a city of steeps and steeples, and you’ll see why. The church and tower are open year-round and admission is $7.
The music scene
Cork attracts musicians from all over the world — from trad to jazz to choral music. There are loads of events that will keep you up till the small hours, singing your head off.
To experience some Irish “trad” music, head to The Oliver Plunkett where you can hear live tunes every night. This late-night place is somewhat of an institution — see who you can spot on its photo-covered walls. Plugd Records is a great record shop that also holds indie events. Every year, Cork hosts the Guinness Jazz Festival in late October and it attracts hundreds of jazz names and thousands of fans. The atmosphere is electric and greats such as Ella Fitzgerald have even performed at the event.
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
Time it right, and you might catch the choir practicing and see the magnificent organ being played at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Built in 1870, the cathedral is actually on grounds where Christians worshipped way back in the seventh century. The neo-Gothic architecture is something to behold. Admission is free.
Restaurant top pick: Izz Cafe
Izz Cafe is Cork’s only Palestinian eatery and has just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Located at George’s Quay in the city center, it’s created a huge amount of buzz since it opened. Izz is owned and run by a Palestinian couple who moved to Ireland as asylum-seekers. Specialties include maneesh (Palestinian pizza), “guilt-free” falafel and tasty cinnamon rolls.
Where to stay
There is a generous choice of places to stay in Cork, and most are fairly affordable. There are very few chain hotels in Cork, and many are family-run — this provides a whole different experience that you should embrace while you’re there.
You’ll find genuine Irish hospitality, and Irish breakfasts are super. Wait until you try some freshly baked soda bread slathered in butter. Here are two of our favorite places to stay.
This is Cork city’s only five-star hotel and is essentially a manor house within a city. Each of the 88 rooms is individually adorned with antiques, and the vibe is pampered and serene. The property itself is a fairly new build but looks the opposite. However, the grounds and gardens date back 150 years.
And yes, Hayfield Manor family-run. There’s also a gorgeous spa with an indoor pool overlooking the garden, an outdoor hot tub and most spa breaks come with lunch or afternoon tea. Rooms start at $271 a night.
This place is slightly edgier. It’s very modish and located in the heart of Cork’s theatre district, among lots of trendy boutiques and cafes. Hotel Isaacs used to be an Edwardian tobacco warehouse and some of the rooms have retained original features. But don’t worry, there are heated towel rails, a pillow menu and rainfall showers. Another big draw is the hotel’s restaurant, Greene’s. It has been regularly voted one of the best in Cork, and residents get a 15% discount. The courtyard even has a natural waterfall — a welcome respite from the din of the city.
The Blarney Stone
You can’t visit Cork without kissing the Blarney stone. I did it as a child, and looking back, it’s probably not that hygienic — millions of other mouths have done the same. But, if you brave it, you’ll supposedly be blessed with “the gift of the gab.” That’s where the expression “talking blarney” comes from — the knack of clever, flattering sweet talk.
The stone, laid in 1446, is at Blarney Castle, about three miles outside Cork city. The origin of the stone is shrouded in mystery but one extreme theory is that it’s the same rock Moses himself struck to provide water for the Israelites after escaping slavery in Egypt. After smooching the stone, you can also explore the castle, dungeons, the grounds and more. Entry is $18 for adults, and for children younger than 16, it’s $8.
Fota Wildlife Park
This 100-acre wildlife and conservation park is home to 30 different types of mammals, including kangaroos, wallabies and cheetahs. In fact, Fota has successfully bred more than 200 cheetah cubs. All its habitats are carefully designed to promote biodiversity and “encourage the expression of a range of natural behaviors in the animals it houses.” So much so that Fota created the “cheetah run” — a device that suspends food items on a wire that travels 10 feet off the ground, at approximately 40 miles per hour to emulate a cheetah chasing its prey.
The park is on Fota Island, in Cork harbor, and visiting is a good activity that practices social distancing, as there’s plenty of space. You can also stay at Fota Island Resort — a five-star hotel and spa nearby. It offers self-catering lodges, too. Rooms start at about $199 per night.
This is the town I grew up in, so it has a special place in my heart. However, bias aside, it’s marvelous. Kinsale is a fishing town about a 25-minute drive from Cork Airport and is home to some of the country’s finest seafood restaurants. I highly recommend Max’s Wine Bar and Fishy Fishy. The town itself is full of twisty alleyways and hidden corners and the buildings are all brightly daubed. Plus, there are practically no chain businesses — for the most part, they’re independently owned.
There are some great pubs including The Spaniard and The White House, and once you’ve fed and watered yourself, there’s lots of walking to be done. Either down the pier to admire the marina, up to Compass Hill for some amazing views, to either James or Charles Fort for a bit of history or just meandering around the many shops. If you fancy a spot of crabbing, pop to Mylie Murphys on Pearse Street for all your bicycle and fishing needs.
Keeping with the seaside resort theme, from Kinsale, keep heading west along the coast until you get to Clonakilty, home of the famous black pudding. Clonakilty is a big tourism hub for West Cork and was voted the best town in Europe in 2017. The town is abustle in the summer with loads of flowered shop fronts with hand-painted signs in Gaelic and quintessentially Irish bars with a big emphasis on live music. I recommend De Barra’s, a famous folk venue, which has seen the likes of Christy Moore and Roy Harper play there.
Nearby is the small island of Inchydoney, which is connected to the mainland by two causeways. It has two stunning and popular beaches, as well as a surf school. To stay, there’s the luxurious Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa, which offers seaweed therapies as well as delectable seafood and lovely rooms.
Cork is full of pretty towns by the sea — Cobh is another. However, one reason it particularly stands out is that it was the last place the ill-fated RMS Titanic docked before she set sail for America on her maiden voyage in 1912. There were 123 passengers who boarded at Cobh (then known as Queenstown) with only 44 of them surviving the sinking.
Historically, Cobh is also important as it was where millions of hopeful Irish people set sail for America to find their fortunes. To learn more, you can visit the Titanic Experience, which is in the old White Star Line ticket office. There’s a guided tour, an exhibition and you will learn all about life on board and about the role of RMS Carpathia in the rescue of the survivors.
If you want to visit somewhere besides Dublin that is beautiful, authentic, close to the coast and near an international airport, then Cork needs to be on your bucket list. The myth that Irish people are friendly, welcoming and love to chat is true. Corkonians are ready and waiting to welcome you with a pint… or even a drop of the pure.
Featured photo by Susanne Neumann/Getty Images