Built in 1172 and set amid 50 acres of rolling lawns beside the River Nore, Ireland's most recognizable castle is a bewitching marriage of Gothic and Victorian styles. It conjures images of knights and damsels, dukes and duchesses. For more than 500 years, beginning in 1391, Kilkenny Castle served as the seat of one of the more powerful clans in Irish history, the Butler family, members of which were later designated earls and dukes of Ormonde. Around 1820, William Robert,
son of the first marquess of Ormonde, overhauled the castle to make it a wonderland in the Victorian Feudal Revival style. In 1859, John Pollen was called in to redo the aptly named Long Gallery–a refined, airy hall with dazzling green walls hung with a vast collection of family portraits and frayed tapestries, and a marvelously decorated ceiling, replete with oak beams carved with Celtic lacework and brilliantly painted animal heads. The main staircase was also redone in the mid-1800s to become a showpiece of Ruskinian Gothic.
The castle's Butler Gallery, formerly the servants quarters, houses a superb collection of Irish modern art, including examples by Nathaniel Hone, Jack B. Yeats, Sir John Lavery, Louis Le Brocquy, and James Turrell. Be sure to stroll the grounds, and the Celtic-cross-shaped rose garden, after a spot of tea in the old Victorian kitchen.