Cork may be Ireland’s second-largest city, but it is still relatively small in comparison to other European cities, making it a great destination for a relaxing vacation. Known as Rebel County, Cork offers visitors plenty of nature to explore, picturesque small towns to visit, markets and, of course, castles (It is Ireland, after all.) We at Road Affair don’t want you to miss out on any of the city’s amazing attractions, which is why we have carefully compiled a list of the best things to do in Cork. This way, you can spend less time planning and more time packing!
Go Shopping in the English Market
First up on our list of places to visit in Cork is the city’s renowned English Market.
Visitors can wander through stalls and shop for fresh local produce and meats, international foods, and even fresh spices. One of the favorite local dishes available in the market is tripe & drisheen. There are also vintage clothes stands to browse through and a number of market cafés where visitors can enjoy a cup of coffee or a traditional Irish meal. The English Market, dating to the 17th century, is one of the oldest covered markets in Europe. It is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Explore Elizabeth Fort
If you’ve come to the Emerald Isle to explore old stone forts and castles, then Elizabeth Fort is a can’t-miss attraction.
Elizabeth Fort is one of the best free things to do in Cork. The star-shaped fortress dates to the 17th century and was built in response to the nearby battle of Kinsale, which saw local leaders try to evict the English from their lands. Since then, the fort has served many purposes, including holding Irish prisoners while they waited for ships to take them to Australia and as a British base during the Irish War of independence. Today, visitors can explore the well-maintained fort with a guided tour or on their own with an audio guide. The ramparts offer fantastic views of the city and the River Lee below, so be sure to bring a camera!
Take a Day Trip to Blarney Castle and Gardens
Blarney Castle is one of the most popular attractions in all of Ireland and is conveniently located less than a 20-minute drive from Cork’s city center.
The castle is most famous for the Blarney Stone, which according to local legend, will bestow the gifts of eloquence and persuasiveness to any visitor who kisses it. After having a smooch with the stone, visitors can wander through the stunning 60-acre garden, which features winding paths through an arboretum, water features, an ice hut, and much more. The medieval castle is in very good shape, and visitors can explore the dungeons, banquet hall, chapel, and other unique rooms. Blarney Castle is open every day except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Wander the Ramparts at Blackrock Castle Observatory
Blackrock Castle Observatory is another fantastic Cork attraction.
It was originally built in the 16th century as a defensive fortification to protect Cork’s port and harbor. Today, however, the castle has been transformed into a place for visitors to learn about science, more specifically, the universe. There is an interactive exhibit on the cosmos and a planetarium, along with several other rooms where visitors can learn about the history of Cork and the castle.
Visit the Titanic Experience in Cobh
The Titanic may have originally set sail from Southampton, England, but the ship’s last stop before heading to New York was Cobh (Queenstown at the time)!
This picturesque seaside village is located just over a 30-minute drive from Cork and is a great place for visitors to enjoy the feel of a small Irish town – plus, there’s lots to do. Visitors can wander about Cobh and marvel at the colorful homes, visit St. Colman’s Cathedral, or even take a boat cruise. However, the number one attraction in this town is the Titanic Experience, which is located in a former White Star Lines ticket office. In the museum, visitors can go on a guided interactive tour and learn all about the ship and its passengers and hear firsthand accounts from survivors about the terrible tragedy that played out only days after the ship departed from Cobh’s port.
Admire the Gothic Architecture of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral
If you are headed out to do some sightseeing in Cork, make sure you put Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral on your list of places to visit.
This dramatic three-spire Gothic revival cathedral is named after the patron saint of Cork, Saint Fin Barre. The site where the church is built is said to have been used by Christians as far back as 606 CE. Visitors can walk around the outside of the church or purchase a ticket to go inside, where they will find some of Ireland’s best-preserved stained-glass windows, grand arches, mosaics, and incredible red marble accents.
Take a Tour of the Cork City Gaol
Cork City Gaol is a fantastic fun tourist attraction in Cork for visitors of all ages. This castle-like prison used to hold both male and female prisoners in the 19th and 20th centuries. It officially closed its gates in 1923, and today it is a museum.
Visitors can go on a guided tour or self-guided tour with an audio guide and explore the old prison while learning about some of its famous inmates. One of the gaol’s most notable inmates was Countess Markievicz, who was a member of the Irish Citizen Army and played a hand in the Easter Rising in 1916. She claimed that Cork City Gaol was “the most comfortable jail” she’d ever been in. Visitors can test that statement out themselves by getting locked in one of the cells!
Go for a Stroll in Fitzgerald’s Park
This beautiful park situated on the west side of the city near Cork City College is a great place to go for a stroll if the weather permits it.
Fitzgerald’s Park has a well-maintained landscape with manicured gardens, a fountain, walking paths, statues, and a playground. Enjoy a leisurely walk through the lush green park, or bring a picnic and park yourself along the River Lee for an afternoon in the sun. Fitzgerald’s Park is also home to the Cork Public Museum, a free museum where visitors can learn about both Irish history and local history. The Cork Public Museum is open from Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Book a Whisky-Tasting Tour at Jameson Distillery Midleton
Irish whisky is some of the best in the world, so why not book yourself a whisky-tasting tour and learn all about how this liquor is made and how to taste it?
One of the most popular places to do a whisky tasting tour is at the Jameson Distillery Midleton. Here, visitors can taste the legendary, world-renowned Jameson Whisky and see how it’s made in the largest pot still in the world while on a guided tour and tasting. All of the Jameson Whisky sold worldwide is brewed on this 15-acre estate. Jameson Distillery Midleton is located roughly a 30-minute drive from Cork. It is also possible to reach the distillery by the 260 bus from the Cork Bus Station.
If you don’t feel like venturing outside the city for your whisky-tasting needs, then check out the Shelbourne Bar in the Victorian Quarter. They have an impressive selection of over 300 whiskies to sample.
Listen to Traditional Live Irish Music
There is something so soulful about Irish traditional music (also known as trad), and one experience you cannot miss out on when visiting the Emerald Isle is listening to it live in a bar!
Trad sessions, as these live concerts are referred to, can be found in many pubs in the city, and they are quite an affair to remember. Many of the local patrons sing along to the familiar songs of “Molly Malone” and “Whisky in the Jar” as they sip a pint. Some of the best places to experience a trad session are at the Old Oak on Tuesdays, O’Sho on Saturdays, and Sin É every night of the week.
Take a Day Trip to Kinsale
If you’re wondering what to do in Cork, consider taking a day trip from Cork to the small seaside village of Kinsale.
This beautiful village is tucked in the mouth of the River Brandon and is known for its rich history and colorful homes. Two towering forts in front of the village watch over the entrance to the Celtic Sea. Visitors can explore Charles Fort with a self-guided audio tour and enjoy fantastic views of Kinsale and the river. Considering its history of battle and siege, the fort is in fairly good condition. The other lesser-known fort is James Fort, which sits directly across the water from Charles Fort. James Fort still has a strong foundation but has been overgrown with nature. However, it is still a great attraction for visitors as other tourists don’t normally make the hike to get to it. Another fantastic attraction in the town is Desmond Castle, which has been converted into a wine museum.
Kinsale is located a 35-minute drive or a 45-minute bus ride from Cork.
Visit the Animals at Fota Wildlife Park
If you’re looking for activities in Cork that are good for kids, consider visiting the animals at Fota Wildlife Park.
This is a truly unique attraction where visitors can get up close and personal with animals. The park is home to over 30 types of mammals and 50 species of birds, and some of the animals, such as lemurs and wallabies, wander freely among the spaces with the visitors. Other animals include black spider monkeys, flamingos, lions, and zebras. Fota Wildlife Park also features wildlife dining, with cafés and restaurants located beside animal habitats, allowing visitors to wave hello to friendly meerkats while enjoying a bite to eat. The park is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Take a Boat Trip to Spike Island
Spike Island, located just off the coast of Cork harbor, is home to a large star-shaped fort that visitors can explore with a tour from Spike Island Tours.
The company offers several different tours to the island, but their regular tour is just as good. A regular ticket includes the ferry ride to and from the island, entrance to Fort Mitchel, and a guided tour of the grounds and fort. After a tour of the grounds, visitors are free to explore the 103-acre island on their own. Options include hiking the 2.4-kilometer walking trail known as the Ring of Spike or the short 1.4-kilometer trail along the harbor. Fort Mitchel also has many exhibits and museums within the fort and prison area to check out, along with a café and two gift shops. Visitors can purchase and download the Augmented Reality app on their phones and use it to explore the island. History comes alive through the app and map, allowing visitors to discover the island in a unique way. Audio guides are also available.
Enjoy Panoramic Views at Shandon Bells and Tower St. Anne’s Church
The iconic church tower of St. Anne’s Church is a must-see in Cork for visitors.
Not only is this a beautiful attraction to see in person but it is also quite different from your normal everyday place of worship. This 18th-century church allows visitors to get a little more hands-on, literally, because it’s one of the only churches in the world that allows visitors to play its bells unaccompanied. The bells are quite famous, too, with many songs and poems being written about their beauty. After ringing the bells, visitors can then climb 135 stairs to the top of the tower and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
Visit the Butter Museum
Another unique and fun thing to do in Cork is visit the Butter Museum!
This quirky attraction is the museum you never asked for, but you will be glad you visited. It showcases the history of the butter industry, with special attention to the success of the butter trade in Ireland and Cork. Visitors can learn how butter used to be made and how it was stored, and can see a collection of butter wrappings throughout the ages. The Butter Museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from October to November and March to May, on weekends from December to February, and every day from June to September.
Take a Ghost Walking Tour of the City
What better way to explore the city and its haunted past than with a ghost walking tour?
This hour-long ghost tour of the city is a great thing to do in Cork for visitors of all ages. Enjoy hearing the stories of Cork’s dark past from animated tour guides that know how to have a good laugh. The kid-friendly tour aims to share local stories, history, and haunted tales. By the end, you’ll be both frightened and laughing.
Go Shopping on St. Patrick’s Street
This bustling street in the center of Cork is widely regarded as one of the best shopping streets in Ireland. The area has always been a popular spot for shopping as it was the main merchant area in the 18th century.
Shopping isn’t the only attraction on the street, though, as much of the beautiful architecture reflects the ages of the city. When the weather is nice, you’ll find many of the locals socializing here, which is why the street is loved by Cork natives.
Explore the Tunnels Under Camden Fort Meagher
Last on our list of places to check out in Cork is this truly unique fort located about a 30-minute drive from the center of Cork.
Like other forts, Camden Fort Meagher was built at the mouth of the Celtic Sea to protect Cork’s harbor from invasion in the 16th century. Today, visitors can explore the many exhibitions and grounds while enjoying spectacular views of the sea. Unlike other forts, Camden Fort Meagher has some seriously unique attractions. It is home to the only 9/11 exhibition outside the USA, historic reenactments at the fort are performed regularly, and there are underground tunnels visitors can explore. There is also a World War I memorial dedicated to the Irish Regiments, exhibitions showcasing artifacts from the fort, and a beautiful tea room overlooking the water.
Well, there you have them, the best things to see and do in Cork. Now that we have done the heavy lifting and sorted out all the amazing attractions, all you have to do is figure out how many you can fit into your holiday itinerary. Good luck!