Cork City is sometimes known as Ireland’s second city because it is the largest city in the Republic after Dublin. Split by the River Lee and crisscrossed with quays and bridges, the waterfront city has been settled since pre-Viking times and its residents sometimes consider their hometown to be the “real capital of Ireland.”
Capital rivalries aside, Cork is a wonderful city to visit for its unique museums, incredible food, pretty parks, and impressive churches. In addition to a walkable city center filled with activities and sights, the city is the gateway to discovering the rest of the County Cork, with some of Ireland’s most famous landmarks and most charming towns.
Ready to explore? Here are the best things to do in Cork City, Ireland.
Cork has a well-deserved reputation as a major foodie destination in Ireland and its shining star is the English Market. There has been a market on this site in the heart of downtown Cork since the 1780s. The beautifully restored Victorian building is still full of traders, hawking everything from fresh, local fish to gourmet imported olives. The atmospheric food market is the perfect stop for shopping, or you can dine at one of the cafes and restaurants on the second floor.
St. Anne’s Church is one of the few 18th century churches in Ireland which still has its original bells. The tower is one of Cork’s most well-known landmarks and you can easily spot it from various parts of the city by keeping an eye out for the golden salmon weathervane that sits at the top of its roof. Climbing the 132 stairs of the belfry is one of the most popular things to do when visiting Cork. Once at the balcony, 100 feet above the ground, you can help to ring the Shandon bells, which were first cast in 1750. The eight bells were made famous by the 19th-century song "The Bells of Shandon" and their tower home has become a symbol of the city. There is a clock on each side of the tower, which has earned the local nickname "The Four Faced Liar," thanks to each side showing a slightly different time until they all strike the hour together. After ringing the bells, be sure to step inside the tranquil Victorian church itself and admire the stained glass windows and the vaulted ceiling.
Wander Through Fitzgerald Park
Stroll through the formal gardens or spot swans along the water while enjoying a leisurely afternoon in Cork’s favorite park. Fitzgerald Park is named for Edward Fitzgerald, Cork’s former Lord Mayor and the man responsible for organizing Cork’s International Exhibition. The signs of this Exhibition are still visible in the pavilion and fountain, which were built for the fair, but there are plenty of other activities to enjoy in the park as well — including a visit to Cork Museum or tea at the charming Riverview café.
Experience Life Inside Cork City Gaol
It might not be apparent from the beautiful exterior but this castle-like building is Cork’s most famous former prison. The old gaol once held repeat offenders who committed crimes inside the city limits, and some unfortunate prisoners were even shipped off from Cork to the faraway shores of Australia. The jail was closed after the Irish Civil War and is now a fascinating museum, complete with wax figure prisoners inside the cells, and an audio-visual show about life in Cork a century ago.
Kiss the Blarney Stone
Cork’s most famous attraction lies a few minutes’ drive outside of the city center. Blarney Castle is one of the top things to see in all of Ireland. The well-preserved 15th century castle built of gray stone and dripping with ivy is a romantic sight in its own right, but it is best known for the stone that sits atop its upper level, which you can only reach by hanging off the side. Every trip to Cork also requires a trip here — to kiss the Blarney Stone and to earn the Irish gift of the gab.
The Cork Opera House was first built in 1855 but tragically burnt down the same year it turned 100. Luckily, the performance venue was rebuilt and these days the modern glass-fronted building is one of the best places in the city to catch a show. More than classical music, the Opera House is the place to be for everything from ballet, to energetic cover bands, and kid’s performances inspired by popular stories.
Admire Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral
The three Gothic spires of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral are an unmissable part of the Cork skyline south of the river. The Church of Ireland cathedral dates back to the late 19th century but it is built on a sacred area which has been a religious site since the 7th century. The pretty church is dedicated to Finbarr, the patron saint of the city of Cork, who was one the abbot of a monastery located here. The outside is decorated with gargoyles and biblical figures, but be sure to step inside to admire the light stream through the 74 stained glass windows.
Known to locals simply as the Crawford, this Cork art museum features a broad collection of work spanning from Greek and Roman sculptures to 20th century stained glass and paintings by local artists. Housed inside of the former Cork Customs House, the art museum offers free tours on Sunday and has a regular program of events for the creatively minded.
Elizabeth Fort was first built to defend the city of Cork in 1601. Though the five-point star fort changed hands over the years, it has been in continuous use for four hundred years. It has been a barracks, a food depot and most recently a police station, before being converted into a free historical monument. Its high walls offer sweeping views of the city and the River Lee so be sure to take time to walk the ramparts after learning about life inside the fort four centuries ago. There are also tours of the fort every day at 1 p.m., but you can walk the ramparts during any visit.
Remember the Rebels at the National Monument
Ireland has a long history of rebellion and these various uprisings have been immortalized with a memorial on the Grand Parade in the center of Cork. Topped with Gothic-style spires, the grey stone monument pays homage to the Irish rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867. The idea for the monument came about during the lead up to the 100-year celebration of the 1798 rebellion, but it was only unveiled on St. Patrick’s Day 1906. The important Cork landmark stands 48 feet high, and circling around its base you will find Irish patriots from centuries past, including Wolfe Tone and Michael Dwyer.
Stop for a Specialty Coffee
In Ireland, the “black stuff” usually refers to a pint of Guinness, but Cork is actually one of the best cities in the country for a great cup of coffee. There are several coffee bars which roast their own beans, and even more cafés which take caffeine seriously – offering artisan coffee, pour overs, velvety flat whites, crema-topped espresso, and homemade goodies on the side. Two of the best places to stop for your morning pick-me-up are Cork Coffee Roasters (2 Bridge St) and Filter Coffee (19 George's Quay).
Strategically built on the banks of the River Lee, Blackrock Castle was first constructed in 1582 to help protect Cork from pirate attacks. The fortified building and round tower may have first been meant as a defensive point, but these days the Blackrock contributes to scientific inquiry. While many of Ireland’s castles have become hotels or medieval banquet spots, Blackrock Castle has been converted into an observatory with a cosmic-focused visitor’s center. There are also historical exhibits that detail the castle’s past but kids, in particular, will love the Planetarium Show which takes place every 1-2 hours. After touring the castle and climbing to the round tower lookout point, you can warm up with tea and scones in the onsite café.
There is so much to do in Cork city center, but one of Ireland’s best animal encounters is also tantalizingly close. Fota Wildlife Park is a conservation project set on 100 acres just six miles outside of the city center. The sprawling park is home to a huge range of species, including lemurs, rhinos, monkeys, tigers, and reptiles, and has one of the most successful cheetah breeding programs in the world. Many of the animals roam free — but don’t worry, while you can get close to see the predators, the majestic, big cats are safely behind barriers.
Take a Day Trip to Kinsale
Escape the quiet hubbub of the city with a quick trip to the harbor town of Kinsale, 15 miles south of Cork. The brightly painted homes on the water’s edge seem almost made for a postcard, and make a lovely backdrop for a stroll on a sunny day. The town is also renowned for its restaurants and annual gourmet food festival so you can also make the quick trip south for a dreamy seafood lunch. After wandering through the town, make your way out to Charles Fort for stunning views across the water and bit of haunted history.