Did you know that Cork is the biggest county in Ireland, covering 7,500 square kilometres of rugged landscapes, rural seaside villages, bustling towns and the country’s second largest city? That means there are lots of things to see and do and lots of mileage to cover, so here are some of our favourite spots and activities for you to enjoy when you visit…
Blarney Castle: Kissing the Blarney Stone is a rite of passage if you visit Cork; there’s nothing like hanging over a gap to fulfil an ancient tradition – and once you kiss the stone, you’ll be granted the gift of eloquence! Built almost 600 years ago by one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains, Cormac MacCarthy, this is a true Irish treasure, with stunning grounds including a poison garden, a fairy glen and the enchanting Rock Close. Check out the Wishing steps and see if you can manoeuvre them to make a wish come true. Steeped in history and legend, this is a must-visit attraction not far from the city.
Cobh: A must-visit for Titanic fans, this pretty little Victorian seaside town is where the titanic set sail; only 10km outside of Cork city, you can drive or take a train – the waterside rail journey is lovely and part of the experience. You can learn all about the ill-fated Titanic voyage as well as the Lusitania, trace your ancestors, delve into the story of Irish emigration, and immerse yourself in naval and military history at the Cobh Heritage Centre and shipping harbour. Housed in a Victorian railway station, it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Fota Island: For animal lovers, Fota Wildlife Park is a wonderful attraction that combines a zoo with education and conservation, suitable for all the family. The beautiful grounds house thousands of both native and exotic animals and plants. The 100 acre park also boasts shows that entertain and inform, such as the exciting cheetah feeding run – daily times are available on the Fota Wildlife website. There is also a top class golf hotel and spa on Fota Island, with exclusive treatments and luxurious accommodation, as well as a gourmet restaurant.
The Wild Atlantic Way Drive: Rivalling The Ring of Kerry for its beauty, and still unmarred by hoards of tour buses, this beautiful drive stretches 2500km of the Atlantic coastline from Donegal to Kinsale. Boasting scenic vistas and gourmet food across seven counties, the West Cork section is an exciting and memorable road trip for all kinds of traveller. With 188 points of discovery along the whole stretch – and a unique ‘passport’ available to record those special memories – there’s something for everyone.
Kinsale: With its stunning harbour, award-winning restaurants, and intriguing history, Kinsale is a lively, cosmopolitan town with plenty to offer. Visit Garretstown woods, cycle the trails, try your hand at horse riding or pottery, or put your culinary skills to test in the Gourmet Academy. Watersports are also plentiful, with kayaking, sailing and scuba diving possible from the marina, and there is plenty to visit include James Fort and Dock Beach.
Clonakilty: Famed for its black pudding, this lovely town is only an hour from Cork and gives you an instant taste of rural Ireland. Visit the Model Village with the young ones, for a fun and informative look at the area, and head to the coast for some sea air at Inchydoney; one of the best Blue Flag beaches around. The world famous de Barra’s bar is also here, offering excellent music, from trad to blues to folk, all year round.
Skibbereen: One of the worst affected areas during the famine in the 1840s, Skibbereen is one of the most important towns in the country for famine heritage, and it is commemorated for visitors in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre. You can follow the famine Story App for a guided walk around the town, and get to know some Irish history. The Sky Garden in Lisaard House is a beautiful 40-acre woodland area for walking, with wildflower meadows and a special Sky garden landscaped by artist, James Turrell. Nearby Loch Hyne (5km) is a beautiful saltwater lake that’s great for kayaking and also studying marine habitats and species. Designated Europe’s first Marine Nature Reserve in 1981, the woods overlooking the lake on Knockomagh Hill are also worth a visit.
Schull: Continuing on the Wild Atlantic Way, Schull is a small and friendly, yet cosmopolitan village that’s popular all year round, but busiest in the summer thanks to its mild climate, stunning scenery and excellent harbour. Known for its sailing and fishing, there are plenty of islands to visit nearby via ferry (summer only – Schull pier or Colla pier) or on your own boat, including Cape Clear, Sherkin, Castle Island and Long Island. You can also book a boat trip around some of the Hundred Isles or out to the famous Fastnet Rock lighthouse. There are some lovely marked walks for all abilities, such as the Foreshore Walk, Colla Ring and the Butter Road Walk, as well as many cycling routes. From Easter until October, there is an artisan market in the pier car park every Sunday and each May, visitors flock for the renowned Short Film Festival which showcases incredible short films and offers a range of filmmaking workshops with some of Ireland’s top directors, writers and producers. Hackett’s bar is a favourite haunt for a pint with locals and visitors alike, and often offers live music. Blue Flag Barleycove beach, with its stunning sand dunes and long stretch of sand and floating bridge, is also nearby.
Baltimore: Offering ferries to Sherkin, Heir and Cape Clear year-round, Baltimore is known for its day trips to the local islands, but the pretty village is also worth a visit in its own right. The lovely walk to the Beacon (also known as ‘pillar of salt’ and Lot’s wife) gives stunning views over the Atlantic. Sailing, fishing and watersports are popular activities here, and scuba diving has also grown increasingly popular due to the number of shipwrecks in the locality. Another highlight is the annual Fiddle Fair; a four-day music festival that features world-class national and international artists in intimate settings as well as workshops and sessions. There is also a unique wooden boat festival every May and an annual regatta, with yacht races, market stalls, music and fun for all the family.
Cape Clear: A short journey from Schull or Baltimore, Cape Clear boasts beautiful walks, stunning scenery, great bird watching, lively bars and an infamous storytelling festival. Accommodation is plenty and varied, from camping to cottages to friendly B&Bs, and if you’re an adventurous sort or looking for something different, you can even stay in a luxury yurt complete with stove – a great choice for a small family. On the first weekend of September, the Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival is an annual highlight, attracting an avid audience of serious storytelling enthusiasts year after year, catering for all ages, with plenty of opportunity to join in.
Mizen Head: Mizen Head, the 'land's end' of Ireland and the country’s most South-Westerly point, is a signal station and visitor’s centre overlooking the wild Atlantic. Cross the iconic bridge, learn about the life of lighthouse keepers, and scan for dolphins and whales from this incredible vantage point.
Glengariff: A favourite for walkers, visit Barley Lake and Glengariff woods in the famed nature reserve for some great walks and excellent views over the stunning local landscape. The bamboo park welcomes visitors year round for walks in their tropical garden, complete with over 30 types of bamboo as well as palm trees and other tropical plants. And if you’re looking for fun for all the family, don’t miss out on the amazing Sculpture Garden (open summer only – outdoors). A unique mix of nature and art, walk the grounds and discover a hidden world of incredible, and often amusing, or interactive, art – a real gem for any age and certain to be a memorable visit. You can also see seals and visit Garnish Island via ferry from Glengariff pier; the gardens sheltered by woodland were designed by Annan Bryce and Harold Peto and boast a unique microclimate that allows exotic species to flourish. As well as beautiful landscaped gardens, the island also boasts an historical Martello Tower, an Italian temple and an Italian Tea House. A short drive from here is stunning Gougane Barra, with its pretty St Finarr’s Oratory, friendly bar and hotel, and beautiful National Forest Park.
Beara Peninsula: You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve left Cork county when you head to Beara, because of the distance, but trust us, it’s worth the drive. Perfect for those looking for peace and quiet, there are plenty of villages and towns to explore, such as; Ardgroom, boasting the tallest (17 foot) Ogham inscribed standing stone in Europe, sleepy Eyeries with its own renowned Anam Cara Artists and Writers Retreat, the copper mining village of Aillihies, and the working fishing port Castletownbere. The Healy Pass is a jaw-droppingly beautiful drive, and the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist retreat offers the perfect sanctuary for some guided meditation or quiet reflection.
Cork City Gaol: An interactive experience, gain a fascinating insight into the lives of 19th century prisoners, from pre –famine times to the foundation of the state, as you learn about the personal histories of the inmates. You can also take a night tour, for something a little different if you’re not easily spooked.
Shandon Bells & Tower, St Anne’s: Climb 132 steps (to 120 feet) to see the lovely views across Cork City from the top of St Anne’s Church; built in 1722, this is one of the oldest churches in the city. And for something a little different, you can ring the 18th century Shandon Bells from the first floor. You can also view the six tonne bells and the internal workings of the clock - and there’s a nice little traditional sweet shop nearby to replenish some much-needed energy after all those stairs! The bells are easy to find – just look for the goldfish in the sky!
Crawford Gallery: For art lovers, this small but perfectly formed art gallery houses over 2000 pieces of sculpture, art, glass and video, with regular contemporary exhibitions. Make sure you also check out the magnificent wood-panelled library – it’s not open all of the time so ask a member of staff to view it if it’s closed.
Triskell Arts Centre: An exciting venue for cinema, live music, theatre, arts and festivals, with an excellent and reasonably priced bistro including a list of excellent wines, this is a buzzing spot for students, musicians, artists and visitors alike at all times of day and night. The room for performances is stunning – it’s a converted 18th century church and you can take a peek when it’s not in use.
Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral: Dating from 1863, built on a site of religious worship since the 12th century where the patron saint of Cork founded his first school and church, this cathedral is a stunning example of gothic architecture, with impressive stained glass, sculptures, mosaics and metal work designed by William Burges.
English Market: An iconic market selling excellent food produce in the heart of Cork City, you can buy everything you want in a single visit – expect local artisan cheese and charcuterie, fresh fish and meat, handmade chocolates and ice cream. There’s also the excellent Farmgate Café upstairs, serving delicious food using the market’s produce; it’s a great spot for people watching when you sit along the balcony.
Cork Opera House: As well as opera, the programme includes a variety of top entertainment, both Irish and international, including comedy, ballet, classical, pantomimes and contemporary music. Check out the programme – but also try the café for some delicious eats at reasonable prices.
University College Cork: With lovely grounds, the Glucksman Gallery, Crawford Observatory and the stone corridor of Ogham Stones, UCC is well worth a visit. The visitors centre offers an audio tour as well as guided tours by students, and when you’re done, nearby Fitzgerald Park leads you along a lovely walking trail back to the city centre.
Festivals: The Midsummer Festival is Cork’s biggest multi-disciplinary arts festival, with an incredibly eclectic line-up for all ages including theatre, puppetry, photography, dance and literature. Established in 1956, the Cork Film Festival is Ireland’s oldest film festival and it continues its annual celebrations of all things films across the city, with Irish, independent and international screenings. Also a longstanding institution, every October since 1978, the Cork Jazz Festival brings some of the world’s best jazz musicians to the city for a variety of shows, open mics, and sessions.
From the seaside village of Baltimore catch the ferry across to explore both Sherkin Island and Cape Clear Island. Mizen Head the most westerly point in the area is where you can take a tour of the Mizen Vision Centre which includes Mizen Head Signal Station once you have crossed the footbridge across and its wonderful views. Take in some beautiful scenery driving from Bantry to Glengarriff. The area of Durrus, and Sheep's Head are known for their stunning scenery and rugged beauty. Castletownbere and the Beara Peninsula where you can take in some wonderful walks including the Beara Way. The County is also very popular for its many water sports, be it wind surfing, kite surfing, sailing or kayaking and also has a number of Blue Flag Beaches such as Barleycove Beach West Cork, Garretstown Beach, Inchydoney Beach, Claycastle and Redbarn in Youghal and the Warren Beach at Rosscarbery.
County Cork has many sights and attractions for the visitor Blarney Castle which you can climb up and kiss the famous Blarney Stone and obtain the ‘gift of the gab’ as most Corkonians have as you will discover when you visit Cork! The lovely town of Kinsale, just a short drive from Cork City offers many fine restaurants and where you can also visit the 17th century star shaped Charles Fort. Timoleague is where you will find the wonderful 13th century Franciscan Abbey and travelling onto the great seaside village of Courtmacsherry. Clonakilty is a lively busy town where you will find out more information about Michael Collins and his statue. Drombeg Stone Circle is a short distance from Skibbereen and Glandore, thought to have been from the Bronze Age.