Don’t Skip Cork
Sometimes when you plan a longer trip and everything you see is amazing, you forget how great the first part of your trip was. I saw some comments online about Cork, Ireland, with people essentially saying you can skip it. I did a double-take, and got really upset! Don’t skip Cork!
I started off a two-week trip to Ireland with a weekend in Cork. The city is an excellent size to get around on foot but has an extensive bus system.
A Short History and Geography Lesson:
Cork City, in Cork County, is in the southeast of Ireland. Part of Ireland’s Ancient East, if you’re driving there is plenty to do in the Southeast region. Cork City has a natural harbor, the finest in Europe according to residents. Early on outstripping it’s neighboring rivals for with ports, Cork became the second city of Ireland beating out Waterford. By the 1800s it was the most important transatlantic shipping port in Europe and was a stop for supplies for British ships heading to America and the West Indies.
It also played an important role in the country for a long time because dairy farmers brought their butter to market in Cork. It’s actually why Cork is easily accessible to much to the country by road today – the same roads farmers helped create to get to the all-important market! (More on butter later!)
Here are the top sights to catch in Cork City:
St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral
Not to be confused with St. Fin Barre’s Church, the cathedral is near the walls of the city. The building is a beautiful Gothic Revival design, with beautiful gardens and an ancient cemetery. It does cost money to go inside, but before you start cursing the Catholic Church, this is a Church of Ireland, so know what church you’re cursing. Inside you’ll see what is supposed to be some of the best stained-glass in Ireland. I chose not to pay the fee out of annoyance. I question that – it’s not expensive but it was more than I would have dropped in a donation plate to walk around inside.
The current church was completed in 1879. Previous iterations have been on the grounds since the late first century, including a medieval church that was torn down due to its condition in the 18th century. Without going inside you can still walk around to the front to see the sculptures, and explore the gardens.
Right down the street is Elizabeth Fort – a fortress that has existed since before Queen Elizabeth I took the city, but was later renamed for her. Few structures inside remain from her time, but you can walk the ramparts and learn the history of the fort – and the city. It also offers excellent views of the city, especially if you’re tall. I may have held my camera up for a few shots and hoped for the best. If you’re not of Irish ancestry, and especially if you’re coming from an Anglo-American educational background – you’ll spend the whole trip learning how Queen Elizabeth I took Ireland for her own by brutal force! But you have pretty views to look at while you learn.
While there isn’t a lot within the fort to see, some historically -maybe accurate statues are staged to tell the history.
I read it was family-friendly and then saw this. I’m still unsure what it has to do with the Fort. If you know, please explain it to me!
For another incredible view of the city – and a killer workout, head up St. Patrick’s Hill for Richmond Hill. The park is beautiful and offers a great view of the city to the West. Go early in the morning while the neighborhood is still barely moving, or in the evening to catch the sunset without obstruction.
Visible but not really reachable from Richmond Hill is the Shandon area. This is where I stayed and I spent one afternoon thoroughly checking it out. The neighborhood is known for the church and more importantly – the bells!
The Shandon Bells
You can climb the bell town to the top and get incredible views in every direction of the city. This is the best view in Cork! However – as you go up be sure to stop and take a turn at playing bells. With directions and song options to pick from you’ll know what to do! I played Hey Jude.
The church is also open to walk through, though not as impressive as others. The small fee to walk to the top is completely worth it. That said – the steps get steep and narrow and there isn’t a lot of room at the top.
The Cork Butter Museum
Also in the Shandon area, this little museum tells a long story of butter production in Ireland, and the crucial role Cork played in the industry. The museum costs a few euros to go into and is 100% worth it! I really love little museums like this. They tell you so much about the area you’re visiting.
Sit through a short film on the history, and then walk through the two floors of exhibits. Some may look like something you attempted to build with Legos for a school project when you were 10 years old but just go with it.
This museum was also my first encounter of fairies within Irish history and lore. I’m still not clear on if they’re good or bad. But special things were done to keep the fairies from the butter.
A little history on butter in Ireland: The Cork market was the largest butter market in the world and dairy farmers brought their butter from all around Ireland. As the butter market in Cork began to see fewer farmers in the 20th century, especially in post-war years, the farmers wanted a better way to sell their butter overseas. Starting with an aim for Germany, the different farms came together to form an organization that would sell the butter as one brand to the rest of the world. Kerry Gold butter was born. All butter from Ireland bought outside of Ireland is packaged as Kerry Gold.
The English Market
Fish, meat, produce, bread, pastries, it’s all sold here., and has been since the 18th century. Grab food to go, and take your food to the park or the River for a picnic. If you’ve seen those photos of the Queen in the market with a huge grin, that’s likely what you’ll look like walking through. It was a little overwhelming and I wanted everything! (You may be hungry after this section.)
It’s a great place to walk through and just experience the market itself. You can also eat there, from a stall, or from one of the two on-site restaurants. Head up the stairs and go to the left for sit down service, to the right to counter order; they’ll find you a table while you order your food and anything not ready immediately will be brought to you. The menu at each place overlaps but has some differences. I recommend choosing based on the time you have for lunch, and your budget. A helpful travel tip: there are restrooms in the market. They cost 20p unless people are being nice and holding the door from one person to another.
Where else to eat in Cork:
The Fish Wife
You need to get fish and chips at some point – and it should be here. There’s not much space to eat them. Grab a counter stool or head take it back to where you’re staying, or down by the river. This may have been my first meal in Cork. And by may have, I mean I dropped my stuff at my hostel and made a beeline for this place.
After wandering past a ton of restaurants looking for a pub, I settled on the Woodford for the look of the inside and the plentiful gluten-free options. It was a great spot with regular tables, as well as, couches and armchairs. Plenty of options including snacks, in case you just want to graze.
Perry Street Market Café
I kind of loved this place. And then I couldn’t find my way back, because I accidentally found it. I went for breakfast – and missed the free city walking tour because I had to go in and sit down. Order at the counter, find a seat and your food will come to you. The inside has a very rustic feeling, which I’m a fan of. I had avocado toast with poached eggs on top.
Son of a Bun
It’s a trendy burger bar. Burgers are good and plenty of options to choose from. Here’s why to go: they have a lot of local beer options, so get picky and try some new beer. (Hint: gluten-free buns are available.)
I stopped here for coffee multiple times. It’s super tiny, and if you miss rush hour you can get one of the cute tables that feel like they’ve been shoved into the corner of a bookstore. They have plenty of gluten-free and vegan options for breakfast and lunch from their small menu.
Day trip to just outside Cork: Cobh
A short train ride from Cork City, Cobh is another harbor town. You may know it from history as Queenstown. After Queen Victoria’s visit, the city of Cove was renamed in her honor, despite her barely leaving her ship, which was docked a short ride out of the harbor. After Irish independence, the city reverted to its old name, but this time with the Irish spelling. Why would you know Queenstown? The Old Head of Kinsale was the nearest land point to the Lusitania. Queenstown was the last place the Titanic stopped before sinking. The town of Cobh is home to a memorial to those lost in the sinking of the Lusitania, and the Titanic Museum built on the old dock and ticket office used for ship passengers.
Full disclosure: This is why I went to Cork.
You are given the identity of an actual Titanic passenger who boarded at Queenstown. Along with being walked through replicas of first, second and steerage class cabins, you also see where passengers waited to board the ship. Because Cobh is a shallow harbor, most large ships stayed further out in the harbor, while tender ships carried passengers, luggage, and supplies out to the ship. The tour includes stories of passengers, both embarking and disembarking at Queenstown.
Cobh History Museum
Like I said above, I love a good small-town museum. The Cobh History Museum is housed in an old church and costs a few euros. Much of the museum covers World War I – when British, American, and Canadian soldiers called Cobh their temporary home. It’s well worth the interlude of exploring the town.
St. Colman’s Cathedral
You’re in Ireland – there’s always another church to visit! St. Colman’s is a Catholic cathedral and open for visitors. Building started in 1868, and took 47 years to finish; there has been a diocese there since 560AD, founded by St. Colman.
Cobh Heritage Centre
Another small museum, this covers the history of naval, shipping, and emigration history of the area. This is right by the train station so a good place to start or end your day. Don’t miss the Annie Moore statue outside. Annie Moore was the first immigrant to enter America through the brand new Ellis Island. She has a statue on the other side of the Atlantic as well. (She was from the Shandon neighborhood in Cork!)
What else is nearby?
While most of this requires a vehicle, you can do it all from Cork City in a day trip or two, or you can base yourself in Kinsale after you do Cork City.
A quaint village in Cork County with colorful houses and buildings, and some amazing views of the sea.
Old Head of Kinsale
It’s in, surprise! Kinsale. A short and easy hike through the hills along the sea.
Charles Fort and James Fort
Charles Fort is a military fort dating back to the 1600s, it was last used in the 1920s in the war for Independence, and was made a national monument in 1973.
James Fort is across the river from Charles Fort and was built in 1607. Because of Charles Fort, James Fort fell into disuse and in ruins by the 19th century.
The Donkey Sanctuary
This is real! If you’re driving around Ireland, you need to stop here! Every creature needs love and care, including donkeys. Go check them out and meet their residents.