10 unmissable things you need to do in Cork
Anyone who wants to see Ireland in all its glory will find the city of Cork pretty high up their list. It’s easy to see why: this bustling harbour town boasts some of the country’s top attractions, some dating back to the 7th century when it was first established as a monastery.
But with so much to do, where do you start?
To help you plan your perfect trip, we’ve put together a list of Cork essentials, from ancient castles to island forts.
1. Blarney Castle
- Adults: €16
- Children: €7
Opening times: 9 am to 5 pm (later during summer)
Blarney Castle is considered one of Ireland’s greatest treasures. It’s about 6 miles outside of Cork, so you can get there in the car in just fifteen minutes
Blarney Castle plays host to not just one but two iconic pieces of Irish mythology. The first is the Seven Sisters, an ancient druid stone circle that features heavily in Irish folklore. You’ll find it in the Blarney Gardens, a 60-acre wonderland of arboretums and waterways that surrounds the castle.
The second big attraction is the Blarney Stone, a gigantic limestone built into the ramparts. Legend has it that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone will ‘never again be lost for words’. Here’s the catch, though: you have to dangle upside down off the edge of the castle walls to do so. Thankfully, health and safety standards have improved a bit since the Middle Ages; there’s now an iron bar that you can hold on to so you don’t dangle too far.
2. The English Market
- Monday to Saturday: 8 am — 6 pm
- Sunday: Closed
Is there anything more typically British than going abroad and going to something called “the English Market”? Well, this time, you’re off the hook: Cork’s English Market is authentically Irish, despite the name.
The English Market is one of the oldest markets in Europe. It’s been trading since 1788 and has since survived wars, famines and floods to remain a Cork staple. The English Market is so iconic that it’s even hosted a royal visit from Queen Elizabeth II.
Today, you’ll find all sorts when wandering through the market, from specialist seafood and creative confections to a whole host of start-up stalls. And though they might not roll out the red carpet for you personally, you can always expect a friendly greeting!
3. St Anne’s Tower
Admission (Cash Only):
- Adult: €6
- Child: €3
Opening times: Varies throughout the year, but is usually open between 12 pm and 3 pm
St Anne’s is nearly 300 years old, making it one of the oldest churches in the city. It also has an unfortunate nickname. Locals call it the ‘four-faced liar’ on account of the tower’s four clock faces — which, historically, all told a different time.
The real attraction here is the famous Shandon Bells which sit at the top of St Anne’s Tower and first rang out in December 1752. Paid entry to the tower gives you more than just a view of the clock’s inner workings; you’ll get to play a tune on the bells yourself, too!
St Anne’s has one more trick up its sleeve: a fish-shaped weather vane. At 4 meters long, the ‘goldie fish’ (which is supposed to be a salmon) is hard to miss.
4. Cork City Gaol
- Adult: €10
- Child: €6
Opening times: 10 am – 4 pm
When friends ask you, “What did you do on your trip?”, “I went to prison” isn’t usually a good answer. But Cork City Gaol is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Though it stopped housing prisoners nearly a century ago, Cork City Gaol looks just as imposing as it did in its peak. It’s a magnificent castle-like building with — as you can imagine — a fascinating history.
Today, you can wander through the wings of the gaol and see the cells for yourself with an audio tour. Life-like wax figures and eery graffiti reveals the inner lives of the prisoners that once lived there.
And the best part? You can leave without having to devise a big breakout — unlike the jailbirds who did exactly that back in 1923.
5. Fota Wildlife Park
- Adults: €16.50
- Children: €11.50
- Toddlers (up to 36 months): Free
Opening times: 10 am till 4:30 pm
Ten kilometres east of Cork City is a 100-acre paradise: Fota Island. It’s home to hundreds of animals from across the globe, all housed at Fota Wildlife Park, one of Cork’s top family attractions.
Looking to get the kids involved? Fota offers ‘Wild Experiences’ that you can book online. These fun days out see you and your little ones feeding and caring for some of the most popular animals in the park: the mischievous Humbolt penguins are a fan favourite.
The park has made some massive infrastructure upgrades that have taken the last five years to complete. This means it’s easier than ever to get around, perfect for anyone looking beat the queues.
6. Spike Island
- Adult: €20
- Child: €11
- Monday to Friday: 10 am — 4.30 pm
- Saturday: 9 am — 7 pm
Who knew that Ireland has its very own Alcatraz? Cork’s Spike Island is a real-life island fortress with a bizarre history: it’s been everything from a monastery to a high-security prison. Today, it’s one of the world’s most immersive museum experiences.
You can get to Spike Island by taking a ferry from Kennedy Pier in Cobh, a small town about a 20-minute car ride away from Cork. Once you’ve arrived, there are a bunch of different ways you can experience the fortress. For movie lovers, Spike Island runs ‘Cinema Club Tours’, showing popular films like Shutter Island and The Shawshank Redemption with the island prison as its venue.
‘After Dark’ tours are available for thrill-seeking visitors, offering a more heart-racing experience in what was once called “Ireland’s Hell”. Maybe not one for the kids!
7. Ballycotton Cliff Walk
Opening times: N/A
One of Cork’s best features is its close proximity to some seriously breathtaking views. The most memorable of all are those you’ll find walking the Ballycotton Cliffs.
The famous cliff track extends between Ballycotton village to Ballyandreen beach. It’s a round trip of about 5 miles, give or take, at an elevation of over 500 feet. Along the way, you’ll come across lighthouses, old watchtowers and breezy cliff-top meadows. It’s enough to give any nature-lover their fix.
Why not take a picnic with you and enjoy the view with a bite to eat?
8. University College Cork
- Monday to Friday: 9 am — 5 pm
- Saturday: 12 pm — 5 pm
A 15-minute walk from Cork’s city centre is one of Ireland’s most prestigious universities. University College Cork has plenty of famous alumni, including TV’s Graham Norton and prominent film star Cillian Murphy.
But the real attraction here is the campus itself. UCC is home to the famous Lewis Glucksman Gallery, one of the most visually striking buildings around today. You can also visit the Crawford Observatory, where you’ll find the gigantic telescope that won Howard Grubb a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition back in 1900. It’s a must-see for any budding astronomer.
Want to get the most out of your visit? Take a guided tour with a University College Cork student to see what life is like behind the scenes.
9. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
- Adult — €6
- Children under 16 — Free
- Monday to Saturday: 9.30 am — 5.30 pm
- Sunday: 1 pm — 5.30 pm
Few buildings in Ireland can match your first sighting of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. It was the first major commissioned project of Victorian architect William Burges and anyone who’s seen it will tell you: he wanted to impress.
The cathedral is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Finbarr of Cork (hence the name). Finbarr was the man who built the settlement that later became Cork over 1400 years ago. The church grounds have soaked up plenty of history; they’re located south of the River Lee on the Holy Islands, which is where Finbarr set up his monastery in the 7th century.
Today, St Fin Barre’s puts on guided tours and liturgical music from its boys’ and girls’ choirs. You can access the tower and learn to ring the bells of Fin Barre’s, too.
10. Fitzgerald Park
Opening times: 8.30 am — 9 pm
We love Cork, but city breaks can be tiring! What better way to unwind than to relax in a serene 18-acre garden?
That’s exactly what Fitzgerald Park has to offer. Better still, it’s right next to the city centre.
Named after the Lord Mayor of Cork in 1901, Edward Fitzgerald, the park features ponds, grassy knolls and even modern art. It also hosts the Cork Public Museum and the famous Daly’s Bridge (commonly known as the ‘shaky bridge’ — no prizes for guessing why) which is currently being renovated. You should also check out the Sky Garden; it won a gold medal at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in 2011.
One thing’s for sure: watching the river from the patio with a drink and a hot sandwich from the local cafe is a real pleasure after a long day sightseeing.
Start your Cork adventure
Want to get the most out of Cork? You can take the car from the UK to the Republic of Ireland by taking the ferry. The easiest way is to hop on board our South Wales service from Holyhead to Dublin. Why not book your journey today?