The inhabitants of the Republic of Ireland’s second-largest city are famously proud of what is also known as the ‘rebel city,’ spread out over rolling hills overlooking the River Lee and offering a variety of fun things to do. Cork is renowned for its food scene and is a haven for lovers of independent coffee shops, second-hand bookshops and cool record stores. The city’s music and arts scene is celebrated throughout the year, from the buzzy Cork Jazz Festival, held annually since 1978, to the more intimate Quarter Block Party that showcases contemporary art, music and theatre. Wander out to the lush green haven of Fitzgerald’s Park, take in the bleak beauty of the soon-to-be redeveloped docklands or lose yourself in the narrow brick streets interposed with feats of modern architecture for a flavour of Cork’s eccentricity.
Best things to do in Cork
What is it? A spectacular bell tower that is the symbol of Cork and its most beloved landmark.
Why go? The iconic Shandon Bell tower has been immortalised in countless poems and songs since its construction in 1722. Part of the Church of St Anne in the neighbourhood of Shandon, it is affectionately known by locals as the Four Faced Liar because the clocks on each of its four faces never display quite the same time. Climb the tower’s 132 steps and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the city. If you can handle the vertigo, crane your head backwards to see the weathervane shaped like a seven-foot gold salmon etched against the sky. Best of all, visitors can ring the tower’s eight bells (the largest weighing 1.5 tons).
What is it? A green haven on the banks of the River Lee.
Why go? This is the perfect place to enjoy the lush greenery of the River Lee, which flows between Fitzgerald’s Park and the stately houses on the opposite shore. An ancient fountain sits at the heart of the park, where you might be lucky enough to see a heron perched at the edge of the water lily-filled pond. Winding paths take you among the park’s old trees, past sculptures that include a bust of Michael Collins, hero of the Irish War of Independence, and through a rose garden popular with picnickers in summer. Enter the award-winning pod-shaped Sky Garden structure for the best view of the Lee’s glassy waters, or take a wobbly walk over the Shakey Bridge, Cork’s only pedestrianised bridge.
What is it? A museum in a Georgian House at Fitzgerald’s Park.
Why go? You’ve heard of Guinness, but have you heard of Beamish? Beamish is the stout of choice among Corkonians, and the Georgian residence in leafy Fitzgerald’s Park was built by the Beamish brewing family in 1845. Now home to Cork Public Museum, which hosts a variety of archeological finds crucial to understanding the history of Cork. These include Bronze Age tools, War of Independence memorabilia, and examples of Cork silver, glass, and needlepoint lace. Lately it has become the final home of the Star of David that once embellished the city’s old synagogue, which closed its doors in 2016, and is part of an exhibition that celebrates Cork’s historic Jewish community. Don’t forget to head to the Natural Foods Bakery afterwards for a coffee and a slice of lemon cake.
What is it? An imposing neo-Gothic cathedral dedicated to the city’s patron saint.
Why go? The three spires of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral are an instantly recognisable feature of Cork’s skyline. Built in the neo-Gothic style in 1879 on the site of a seventh-century monastery, the cathedral looks almost mystical in the light of late evening (the best spot for taking photos of its silhouette against the sunset is from Nano Nagle footbridge). As Shandon’s salmon weathervane is known as the ‘goldie fish’, so the gilded angel on the cathedral’s eastern façade is known as the ‘goldie angel’. Local legend says that the sound of angels’ trumpets will give the denizens of Cork a heads-up that the Day of Judgement has come. The inside of the cathedral is no less impressive, with an echoing vaulted ceiling and vibrant stained-glass windows set in walls lined with red Cork marble. There’s also a cannonball on display, which became lodged in the exterior of the cathedral during the 1690 Siege of Cork.
What is it? One of Europe’s most renowned covered markets.
Why go? Below its beautiful vaulted ceilings you’ll find stalls selling the artisanal produce that the south of Ireland is known for: meat, fish, eggs, jams, organic fruit and vegetables, and specialty cheese, as well as spices, olives, and chocolates. Upstairs is the Farmgate Café, whose walls are decorated with handwritten poems by Irish writers such as Seamus Heaney, and where you can eat the traditional Cork dish of tripe and drisheen. Located in the mezzanine overlooking the market, this is one of Cork’s best locations for people-watching while sampling good food, wine, and coffee (or an Irish whiskey on a winter’s day).
What is it? A seventeenth-century star-shaped fort overlooking the city.
Why go? On historic Barrack Street is Elizabeth Fort, originally built as a defensive site during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and then used as a women’s prison, a base for the notorious Black and Tans during the War of Independence, and a barrack for the Gardai Siochana (Irish police force). It underwent redevelopment as a tourist attraction in 2014 and visitors can now walk ramparts that offer a spectacular view of Cork and get photographed in the stocks. Despite being the home of Alchemy café (where you can pick up a second-hand book along with your coffee) and the flower-filled beer garden of Tom Barry’s pub, Barrack Street’s narrow cobbled road and old shop signage still retain their old-world charm.
What is it? A museum dedicated to what was once the world’s largest butter exchange.
Why go? Who doesn’t love butter? Irish butter in particular is known worldwide for its golden creaminess, and in the heart of Shandon’s warrens you’ll find the home of what was once the largest butter market in the world. Learn the techniques of traditional butter-making at the old Cork Butter Museum which, in its glory days of the 1800s, oversaw the export of butter to four continents. Featuring a keg of 1,000-year-old ‘bog butter’ and a collection of butter wrappers throughout the decades, the Butter Museum is definitely one of Cork’s quirkier sights and is as charming as it sounds.
What is it? A traditional pub that’s home to Cork’s liveliest traditional music.
Why go? You might expect the Sin É, a stop on Cork’s heritage pub trail, to be packed to its dark ceiling with tourists, but it’s locals who mostly populate this dim, cosy public house decorated with fairy lights, an impressive collection of beer mats and vintage music posters. One corner is often reserved for regular sessions of traditional Irish music during which the sound of fiddles and flutes soars above the chatter and clinking glasses. But if someone calls for a song, you’d better be sure to fall quiet and listen. Upstairs offers lovely views of Coburg Street and as it is often quiet in the daytime.
What is it? A tiny restaurant serving southern Indian vegetarian street food.
Why go? A small room with only seven tables and a large window facing onto Pope’s Quay, Iyer’s is a family-run gem. Come here for delicate samosas, dosas served with mint and tomato chutneys, and a sweet and rich mango lassi. It offers the very best authentic and good-value southern Indian street food, and it’s all vegetarian. Afterwards pop next door to the sweet Myo Café for some loose-leaf tea and a pastry, perhaps picking up an instrument or sketchbook that the café provides for its patrons.
What is it? Some of the most outstanding examples of architecture in Cork.
Why go? The best time to visit University College Cork is at dusk: most of the students have gone home, there’s something mysterious and ancient about the willow trees drooping to the river and the illuminated buildings of the quadrangle look as if they’re straight out of Harry Potter. The Stone Corridor in the North Wing contains an exhibition of ancient Ogham stones, carved with an early form of the Irish language represented by a code of notches and grooves. In the daytime go and see an exhibition at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, whose appearance of floating above the university has won it prestigious architectural awards. Make sure to check in for brunch at Bobo café where the menu is based around local artisanal produce.
What is it? The docklands where ships reach Cork City.
Why go? The docklands of Cork don’t usually feature on best of lists as they are somewhat run-down and forbidding. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check them out, especially because they are scheduled for redevelopment so their heritage may get lost. Here the derelict flour mill – a listed red-brick building with the iconic Odlums logo still set over the door – and towering grain silos are juxtaposed with the glittering Celtic Tiger-era Elysian, the tallest building in the Republic of Ireland. There are often interesting ships from all over the world docked here and at night the city’s hills roll into the distance beyond the neon letters that inform ships they are now entering the Port of Cork.
What is it? A pub on historic Coal Quay where you’ll find great live music.
Why go? The Roundy is noted for its eponymous curved shape, and on a sunny day, its outside tables are the best place to drink a beer and watch the world go by. Upstairs, Plugd Records – a vinyl store by day and venue by night – showcases local and international musicians, curating everything from jazz improv nights to techno.
What is it? The area of Cork known as its Victorian Quarter.
Why go? Take in the grand façade of the Metropole Hotel before heading into the cosy Cork Arms for a pint (top tip: it lets you bring in fish and chips from the award-winning Fish Wife across the street). Grab a pizza from Novecento or some sushi at Japanese restaurant Sakura or visit Tandoori Nights for some excellent Indian cuisine. Catch a play at the Victorian-era 650-seater Everyman Theatre, or head up to Mother Jones’ flea market where you could lose hours browsing through vintage clothes and retro decor. And don’t forget to drop by Sultan Delight, a Turkish sweet shop.
What is it? A grassy area offering the best views you’ll find of Cork city.
Why go? Bell’s Field is one of the most popular spots for locals to hang out in when the sun shines. If you make it up the many steps of the steep Patrick’s Hill, you’ll find a beautiful grassy area overlooking the north side of the city. From here you can pick out landmarks through the haze: Shandon Bells, the unique circular roof of the Firkin Crane theatre, the fairy tale silhouette of the Cork School of Music, the three spires of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and the illuminated block of Cork County Hall, the third-tallest building in the Republic of Ireland. From a certain vantage point you might even glimpse Callanan’s Tower, a yellow-painted 140-year-old folly on the south side that was originally surrounded by seven acres of pleasure gardens.