Cork is one of those delightful small cities where everything is easily accessible, and you can enjoy yourself tremendously wandering down narrow lanes or up unexpected flights of steps. This is an up-and-down town, built on more hills than Rome, and that is reflected both in the steps and, even more engagingly, in the gloriously up-and-down accent of the true born-and-bred Corkonian. It is also a city of rivers, with more tributaries, channels and streams than the Danube delta. That's because it is built on an island in the River Lee which "Encloseth Corke with his divided flood" as the poet Spenser wrote many centuries ago. Spenser was of course married here, so the city always held a special place in his heart.
It will hold a special place in your heart too and once you've visited, you will always long to come back Even if you have only limited time - on this visit at least!
Blarney Castle, Blarney
Kiss the Blarney Stone
The one single compulsory thing so you might as well get it over and done with. Blarney Castle, just outside the city limits and set in superb parkland, is easily accessible by private or public transport. Which is more than can be said of the stone which confers loquacity or "the gift of the gab" on all who salute it. To obtain this rare gift (congenitally conferred on all those of Cork blood who are therefore banned under ancient statute from ever kissing the stone in case they get a double helping), it is necessary to hang backwards over a steep drop on the very top of the castle, your legs held firmly by willing attendants. Honestly, you won't stop talking afterwards, if only from relief.
St. Ann’s Bell Tower, Shandon
Or, to be more accurate, the bell tower of St. Ann's, Shandon, which dominates the skyline on the north side of the Lee with its golden salmon weathervane floating proudly over the city. There can be no better way to introduce yourself to Cork than to ascend the tower and play the superb carillion of bells hanging there. At any time of the day you can hear melodies carried on the breeze across the city as each individual bell gives out its distinctive note. While you're at it, commit to memory Father Prout's famous lines: "On this I ponder Where'er I wander, And thus grow fonder, Sweet Cork, of thee; With thy bells of Shandon, That sounds so grand on The pleasant waters of the river Lee."
Bargain On The Coal Quay
For centuries this has been the outdoor trading area for the city, right back to the days when merchant vessels moored at the banks alongside and unloaded their cargoes. It has always been a predominantly female commercial centre run by women who passed their stalls down from generation to generation and until recent decades proudly wore the traditional all-enveloping black shawl which earned them the familiar sobriquet of "shawlies". Today dozens of stalls offer everything from organic produce and home baking to musical instruments, secondhand clothing, furniture and carpets. Fridays and Saturdays are the best times to go; keeping an ear open for the legendary, quick-fire, razor-sharp repartee that is the centuries-old heritage of its stallholders.
Fota Wildlife Park, Fota Island
Keeps the kids happy
This wildlife park is home to a host of endangered and vulnerable animals including cheetahs, monkeys, wallabies, emus, flamingos and many others. Unlike most other zoos, the animals here are all free-roaming and there’s even a cheetah run; one of very few in the world. Teamed with educational tours, trails and workshops – it’s fun for all the family!
St. Finbarr’s Cathedral, Cork City
Explore the culture
One of Corks most famous landmarks, St Finbarrs Cathedral will give you a glimpse of Cork’s religious and architectural history. It was built in 1862 and based on William Burges’s French gothic style design. The resurrection angel made of copper and gold leaf carry’s a local superstition - if it falls, it will signify the end of the world. Tailor-made tours are available.
Jameson Distillery, Midleton
Learn about the famous Irish whiskey
Jameson was established in 1780. Jameson’s ‘angels share’ is the term given to the Jameson which evaporates and apparently it’s triple distilled for a smoother taste. You can find out many more facts about Jameson whiskey on your tour of the distillery. There are plenty of gifts and drinks in the gift shop. No trip to Ireland is complete without a keepsake or bottle of whiskey.
The Old City Gaol, Cork City
Go To Jail
Now a hugely popular heritage centre, has an atmosphere you could cut with a knife. From the moment you step through the forbiddingly high gateway and see furtive twisted figures half-hidden in the dim gloom, you seem to have returned to Victorian times, when stealing a loaf of bread could mean transportation, and poaching a deer, death. Founded in the 1840s, the gaol is preserved exactly as it would have looked in the 19th century, with stark corridors, iron staircases, barred windows, and cells with the original graffiti still on the walls, scratched by hands long since laid to rest. Many thousands were transported from here on convict ships to America and Australia; now their descendants return to complete the missing piece of family history. It'll send a shiver down your back - especially if you see one of the ghosts - but it's an experience you shouldn't miss.
The English Market
Shop in the English Market
Dating from the mid-19th century, this superb example of a Victorian indoor market is so-called because originally only the reliable, loyal English settlers were allowed to trade here, while the native Irish were kept strictly outside the city walls. Today, you'll find French cheeses, Italian pasta, Greek olives and Indian spices cheek by jowl with local organic produce, meats, buttered eggs, and fish straight from the trawler. Above all, the English Market is famed for Cork's unique delicacy, drisheen, as well as tripe and black and white pudding. With its ornate iron gates and highly decorative fountain, it's a place you'll find yourself returning to again and again.
Experience the Ogham Stones
Cork University on the Western Road has the finest collection anywhere of ancient enigmatic ogham stones - those tall rocks with varying sequences of short lines etched along one side, recording events and occasions in a venerable and still little-understood language. The stones are lined along a corridor opening on to the lovely central quadrangle of the college (known familiarly to one and all as The Stone Corridor) and are an inspiration for anyone seeking to know more of the long ago in Ireland.
Cork Butter Museum
Sample the Butter Museum
From the late 18th century onwards, Cork's prosperity was founded on butter, which was exported from the city to all corners of the world. The rich green lands of the south were - still are - particularly suited to butter production, and folk would trudge with their heavy loads from as far away as Kerry along the old Butter Road to Cork city and the Butter Exchange. At the museum you can re-live an industry that made Cork the largest butter market in the world. Incidentally, you will find that Cork butter is more salted than usual: this is a direct result of that export business - salt was a very effective way of preserving the product on long voyages. You're tasting history.
Take the Beamish/Murphy Test
Here in Cork we have two fine historic breweries of our own, each producing its own superb stout, Beamish and Murphys. If you take these things seriously - and believe me, we do - you really need to be able to distinguish at first sniff, let alone sip, between these rival products, and it is advisable that you make arrangements to become initiated as early as possible in your visit. Here's how you do it. Select a suitable hostelry. (Have we plenty of pubs in Cork? Have we what? If you're looking for amusement, try counting the number in, for example, Oliver Plunkett Street. Get a friend to start at the opposite end and see if your numbers tally - they never do!) Order a half pint of each. Then take a good draught of one, savour it, roll it round your mouth, and let it descend your throat slowly. Pause and consider the flavour. You need to allow at least ten seconds for this. Then repeat the process with the other, and so on until refills are necessary. (By the way, if you're used to the instant splash-and-serve of beer in other countries, you need to know that pulling a perfect pint in Cork takes at least five minutes, usually longer - it's the layering that's important.) By the end of the evening you should be able to decide which you prefer - that's if you can remember which was which.
Emigrant train, Cobh
Follow The Emigrant Trail
Take the short train ride to Cobh and re-live the experience of thousands of emigrants in The Queenstown Story. The reconstruction of life below decks in a coffin ship during an Atlantic storm is frighteningly effective. Stop at Fota Island on the way back (it has its own little railway halt) and go talk to the lemurs and the cheetahs in the Wildlife Park.
Stroll Back Into History
On your own personal tour of Cork. You can take one of the open-top buses to get your bearings (and sort out all those confusing bridges and branches of the Lee) but by far the best way to discover the Viking, medieval, Elizabethan, Victorian past of this city built on the marshes is on foot. There are several excellent booklets on Cork's historic past and equipped with one of these you can return to an earlier time when waterways instead of streets stretched in every direction, haughty noblemen emerged from their fine town houses, and busy sailors unloaded silks, spices, wines and exotic foodstuffs from boats tied up at ancient stone steps.
Don't worry if you can't see it all on this first visit. You'll be back. Cork has a habit of staying in your mind forever.