If you plan to explore the South of Ireland, Kilkenny is an excellent stop along the way to Cork or before setting out to drive the Ring of Kerry. In fact, the Irish town is so close to Dublin that you can even visit as a day trip.
Kilkenny is one of Ireland’s best preserved medieval towns and is sometimes known as the Marble City because of the way its limestone walkways glisten in the rain. With a long history and a picturesque setting, there is plenty to see, starting with the celebrated castle and moving on to the round towers and centuries-old buildings of the city center.
Visit Kilkenny Castle
There are plenty of hidden gems in Kilkenny, but the best thing to do on any visit is to step inside the stunning Kilkenny Castle. The castle is one of the oldest buildings in continuous use in Ireland, serving first as a defensive fort and later as a noble country home. Originally built in the 13th century—soon after the Norman conquest of Ireland—much of it was extensively remodeled in the 19th century. Today, it is an incredible example of Victorian style. Wander through the historic rooms and galleries, stop for tea and scones, or explore the 50 acres of gardens and pathways. Unlike some of Ireland’s other notable castles, Kilkenny Castle is very well restored and fully open to the public. You can visit the castle year-round, but be sure to check the schedule online for special events, such as the summer Music in the Garden series.
Climb the Round Tower at St. Canice’s Cathedral
Also known as Kilkenny Cathedral, St. Canice was built in the 13th century and is filled with unexpected treasures, including ancient tombs and images of pagan gods. In addition to the fascinating history of the unique cathedral, St. Canice’s also has one of the only Irish round towers that you can actually climb. The ascent is steep and fairly small inside, but the climb is well worth it for the views over the town and countryside, as well as for the chance to get up close with a piece of Irish monastic history.
Wander Through the Medieval Mile
Kilkenny has one of the best preserved medieval city centers in all of Ireland. Many of the buildings date back to the 12th century, and this historic quarter forms the heart of modern-day Kilkenny. To learn more about the history of the town, plan a visit to the Medieval Mile Museum, which is located inside the only church that was built within the old city walls. The museum has interactive exhibits to make the distant past come to life, as well as a terrace with views over Kilkenny.
The Rothe House is a former 16th-century trader’s house which has been converted into a lovely Kilkenny museum and garden. From outside, the building looks like a regal stone home sandwiched between more modern shopfronts—but the exterior hides three internal courtyards and gardens which are the only known examples of an unaltered “burgage plot” in Ireland. The construction of the house includes unique post-Medieval details, while the layout is notable because it contains three houses in a row, all of which were built by the wealthy merchant and Mayor of Kilkenny City, John Rothe Fitz-Piers. The home is now a museum which recounts the Rothe family history and acts as an exhibition space for local artifacts.
Walk Down the Butter Slip
Kilkenny’s charming historic center is full of tiny lanes, but the most picturesque of all may well be the Butter Slip. The arched alley was built in 1616 and used to run under two houses. Because of its sheltered, cool location, it became the spot where butter traders set up their stalls. Today, the stone steps and curved passageway connect High Street to St. Kieran's street.
St. Mary’s Cathedral is built on the highest point of Kilkenny City and is therefore easy to spot from all over town. The Gothic-style Roman Catholic church was consecrated in 1857 and remains one of the major landmarks in Kilkenny. Inside, the cathedral has a beautiful ceiling, stained glass walls that send rainbows over the limestone walls, and a sculpture of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni Maria Benzoni.
Have a Pint of Kilkenny
In Ireland, Kilkenny is a city, a county, and a beer. Kilkenny beer is an Irish cream ale that was traditionally brewed at the 13th-century St. Francis Abbey, but has been produced and bottled in Dublin since 2013. Now owned by Guinness, Kilkenny remains a hometown favorite and an excellent choice for an Irish drink if you are planning to have a few pints on a night out. Downtown Kilkenny is full of lively pubs including the Hole in the Wall, Andrew Ryan’s, and The Field, which all serve the ale.
After Guinness, Smithwick’s is one of Ireland’s most popular beers. The red ale (which is pronounced like “smittix”) is Ireland’s oldest ale and has long been produced in the Marble City. The brewery tour is a more intimate experience than touring the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, and includes multiple interactive exhibits that break down the process in an entertaining way. Of course, there is also a pint of Smithwick’s included in the price of the tour to be enjoyed at the end of the experience.
Watch a Hurling Match
Hurling is a sport that dates back more than 3,000 years in Ireland and is a must-see when visiting the Emerald Isle. The Kilkenny Cats are widely known to be one of the best teams in Ireland and have taken home multiple national championship titles. The high-speed sport is widely followed in Kilkenny, so join the fun by watching a Gaelic Athletic Association match yourself.
Stroll Along the Canal
It can be hard to tear yourself away from exploring the interiors of Kilkenny’s amazing historic buildings, but the Irish city also has a lovely waterfront. Kilkenny is built on both banks of the River Nore, and its citizens and visitors have enjoyed walks along the canals since at least 1763. Start at John Bridge and follow the river as it winds through town. The canal walk will take you past many of the city’s major landmarks along an easy-to-follow paved path (as you pass below Kilkenny Castle, keep an eye out for the inscribed stone which commemorates the improvements made to the walkway in the 19th century). If you continue on for more than 15 minutes, you will reach open areas with peaceful settings and plenty of Irish countryside wildlife.