50 Best Sights in County Cork, Ireland

Bere Island

Fodor's choice

Bere is one of Ireland's largest islands and took a decade to hand back to the republic after independence due to its strategic and imposing location on Bantry Bay---but it is still navigable within a day. Unlike other islands that have seen their population dwindle over the years, Bere has retained its residents who live alongside the island's distant past, and are reminded of it daily with the abundance of historical monuments etched into the hilly terrain: a round Martello tower, standing stones, and wedge tombs are local landmarks, with the mainland's Hungry Hill across the sea as a backdrop. A scattering of pubs and facilities in the village offers guests the option to recharge their batteries after a brisk hike or cycle (bike hire is available on the island) around the island. Ferries run every day, year-round, with trips almost every hour.

Blarney Castle

Fodor's choice

In the center of Blarney, the ruined central keep is all that's left of this mid-15th-century stronghold. The castle contains the famed (or infamous) Blarney Stone. Kissing the stone, it's said, endows the kisser with the fabled "gift of the gab"---which is probably just a load of "Blarney." It's 127 steep steps to the battlements. If you're determined to kiss the stone, (who are we to judge?) you must lie down on the battlements, hold on to a guardrail, and lean your head way back. Expect a line from mid-June to early September; while you wait---or change your mind---you can admire the views of the wooded River Lee valley and chuckle over how that word "blarney" came to mean what it does. As the story goes, Queen Elizabeth I wanted Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Blarney, to will his castle to the Crown, but he refused her requests with eloquent excuses and soothing compliments. Exhausted by his comments, the queen reportedly exclaimed, "This is all Blarney. What he says he rarely means."

Despite all that Blarney nonsense, the castle is very impressive as are the gardens. You can take pleasant walks around to discover the Rock Close which contains oddly shaped limestone rocks landscaped in the 18th century and a grove of ancient yew trees that is said to have been a site of Druid worship. In early March, there's a wonderful display of daffodils.

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Charles Fort

Fodor's choice

Built---almost symbolically---on the site of the ruins of an earlier Irish castle, Charles Fort on the east side of the Bandon River estuary in the late 17th century was constructed by the British after they defeated the Spanish and Irish forces. One of Europe's best-preserved "star forts" encloses some 12 clifftop acres and is similar to Fort Ticonderoga in New York State. If the sun is shining, take the footpath from Kinsale signposted Scilly Walk; it winds along the harbor's edge under tall trees and then through the village of Summer Cove.

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Crawford Art Gallery

City Center South Fodor's choice

The large redbrick building was built in 1724 as the customs house and is now home to Ireland's leading provincial art gallery. An imaginative expansion has added gallery space for visiting exhibitions and adventurous shows of modern Irish artists. The permanent collection comprises more than 2,000 works and includes landscape paintings depicting Cork in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as contemporary video installations. Take special note of works by Irish painters William Leech (1881–1968), Daniel Maclise (1806–70), James Barry (1741–1806), and Nathaniel Grogan (1740–1807). The café is a good place for a light lunch or a house-made sweet.

Elizabeth Fort

Fodor's choice

The tapestry of Cork's volatile past half millennium unfolds during a visit to this large star-shaped fort, starting from the point when it was constructed as a stronghold after the Siege of Kinsale in 1601. It played a key role in history when it was fortified during Oliver Cromwell's invasion and later it was a prison depot for infamous Australia-bound convict ships. In the middle of the 19th century, it stored maize for the poor to buy and inflated prices before being shipped abroad as the great famine decimated the population. In the 20th century, it was occupied by British forces, and during World War II it was an air-raid shelter. It's worth a visit just to take in the commanding views over Cork City from its walls.

English Market

City Center South Fodor's choice

Fetchingly housed in an elaborate, brick-and-cast-iron Victorian building with a decorative light-infused dome-shaped ceiling, such is the fame of this foodie mecca that England's Queen Elizabeth II insisted on an impromptu walkabout here on her historic first visit to Ireland in 2011. Among the 140 stalls, keep an eye out for the Alternative Bread Company, which produces more than 40 varieties of handmade bread every day. Tom Durcan's Meats Limited sells vacuum-packed local specialties including spiced beef and dry-aged beef. The Olive Stall sells olive oil, olive-oil soap, and olives from Greece, Spain, France, and Italy. Kay O'Connell's Fish Stall, in the legendary fresh-fish alley, purveys local smoked salmon. O'Reilly's Tripe and Drisheen is the last existing retailer of tripe, a Cork specialty, and drisheen (blood sausage). Upstairs is the Farmgate, an excellent café.

Gougane Barra Forest Park

Fodor's choice

This secluded little spot conjures up all things mythical and magical you have been dreaming of in Ireland. The tiny oratory or chapel, accessed by a causeway, was the location of St. Finbarr's hermitage in the 6th century and it is one of the most sought-after places for wedding couples in Ireland, for good reason. The location is hard to match, lying beneath craggy mountains with an evergreen forest that cascades down to its location at the very edge of a still, crystal clear lake. The view is reflected upon the lake, doubling the impact and creating an otherworldly impression to the first-time visitor. St. Finbarr's oratory dates back to the 19th century and the ruins on the approach to the park are from 1700.

Ilnacullin

Fodor's choice

Many visitors head to Glengarriff because of that Irish Eden, Ilnacullin. On Garnish Island, offshore from Glengarriff and beyond islets populated by comical-looking basking seals, you can find one of the country's horticultural wonders. In 1910, a Belfast businessman, John Annan Bryce, purchased this rocky isle, and, with the help of famed English architect Howard Peto and Scottish plantsman Murdo Mackenzie, transformed it into a botanical wonderland. The main showpiece is a wisteria-covered "Casita"—a roofed-over viewing point that overlooks a sunken Italian garden and pool. The modest Bryce family home is open to visitors, presented as it would have been in the early 20th century.

You get to Ilnacullin by taking a Blue Pool ferry (10 minutes), which departs for the island from Glengarriff. George Bernard Shaw found Ilnacullin peaceful enough to allow him to begin his St. Joan here; maybe you'll find Garnish inspiring, too.

Credit cards are not accepted on island.

Mizen Vision Visitor Centre

Fodor's choice

Travel to this visitor center, set in a lighthouse at the tip of the Mizen Head (follow the R591 through Goleen to the end of the road), and you'll wind up reaching the Irish mainland's most southerly point. The lighthouse itself is on a rock at the tip of the headland; to reach it, you must cross a dramatic 99-step suspension footbridge---which has become a famous landmark over time. The lighthouse was completed in 1910; the Engine Room and Keepers' House have been restored by the local community. The exhilaration of massive Atlantic seas swirling 164 feet below the footbridge and the great coastal views and scenic drive here guarantee a memorable outing.

Ring of Beara

Fodor's choice

Glengarriff is the gateway to this 137-km (85-mile) scenic drive that circles the Beara Peninsula on R572. One of the main attractions is the Beara Way, a 196-km (120-mile) marked walking route that takes in prehistoric archaeological sites. Dursey Island is a birder's paradise that you reach by cable car. From Dursey Island, head for tiny Allihies, the former site of a huge copper mine, celebrated in its own museum. The area is now the home of several leading Irish artists, some of whom invite studio visits (watch for signs). Continue along a breathtaking coastal road to Eyeries—a village overlooking Coulagh Bay—and then up the south side of the Kenmare River to Kenmare.

Shanagarry Potters

Fodor's choice

Now returned to the village where he grew up, potter Stephen Pearce has reopened the traditional craft pottery that launched his career in the late 1960s. The showroom sells his distinctive, contemporary hand-thrown black-and-cream earthen tableware and the terra-cotta-and-white line, made from organic local clay and both beloved of collectors. The tearoom opens daily from May to September, weekends only in winter. Book a pottery tour in advance, and ask about workshops.

Pearce's simple, practical, but beautiful pottery makes for great, contemporary Irish gifts and souvenirs. U.S. shipping is available if you can't limit yourself to something packable!

Ballycotton Cliff Walk

The trailhead of this invigorating walk is close to the pier in Ballycotton. Passing sandy beaches, a small stone bridge that crosses a stream, and wonderful animal and plant life, this trail also offers magnificent views across the bay, with rambling meadows and fragrant growth on land side. As the trails cut through a bird sanctuary visitors can linger on benches to enjoy the feathered company or just to breathe in those views. The trail ends at Ballyandreen Beach.

Ballycotton Lighthouse

After Sirius, the first vessel to cross the Atlantic completely under steam, sank off Ballycotton Bay on a foggy night in the mid-19th century, the lighthouse was constructed in its wake. Tours starting at 10 am in season take in 360-degree panoramic views of the bay, as far as Kinsale Head. The 90-minute tour includes a visit to one of Ireland's rare black lighthouses and the recounting of legends that surround the local maritime community.

Ballymaloe Cookery School and Gardens

The extensive organic gardens here provide herbs and vegetables for the school and the restaurant, and visitors can ramble through wildflower meadows and admire herbaceous borders leading to an ornately crafted shell house, the potager vegetable garden, rustic tree house, and a Celtic maze. A farm walk visits cows in their clover field, rare-breed pigs, and some 400 hens. Conclude your visit in the Farm Shop, open the same hours as the garden.

Darina Allen, Ireland's most famous celebrity chef and slow-food advocate, rules at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, 3 km (2 miles) east. The school offers 12-week residential courses for aspiring professional chefs, and day and half-day courses with famous visiting chefs (including Darina's daughter-in-law, Rachel Allen).

Bantry House and Gardens

One of Ireland's most famed manors is noted for its picture-perfect perch on a hillock above the south shore of Bantry Bay. The fine Georgian mansion is surrounded by a series of stepped gardens and parterres that make up "the stairway to the sky." Spreading out below lies the bay and, in the far distance, the spectacular range of the Caha Mountains—one of the great vistas of Ireland. Built in the early 1700s and altered and expanded later that century, the manor became the ancestral seat of the White family from that period. The decor of the house was largely the vision of Richard White, 2nd Earl of Bantry, whose father---having hailed from farming stock---had secured extensive land as a thank-you for supporting England when Irish and French rebel forces failed in their bid for Ireland's freedom. Richard traveled extensively throughout Europe and brought a lot back to Ireland with him: fabulous Aubusson tapestries said to have been commissioned by Louis XV adorn the Rose Drawing Room, while state portraits of England's King George III and Queen Charlotte glitter in floridly, flamboyant rococo gilt frames in the Wedgwood blue--and-gold dining room. Never shy about capitalizing on the flow of history, he acquired an antique or two thought to have belonged to Marie Antoinette—sometime after her execution in 1793. Throughout the famine years in the mid-18th century the estate carried out extensive manual work. After Irish independence the house was used as a hospital during the Irish Civil War from 1922 and later the estate was occupied by the Irish Army.

Outside, the drama continues in the garden terraces, set with marble statues, framed by stone balustrades, and showcasing such delights as an embroidered parterre of dwarf box trees. The tearoom serves light lunches, and features local artisanal foods. In summer the house hosts concerts in the grand library, notably the West Cork Chamber Music Festival (held during the first week of July). The house also doubles as a B&B.

N71, Bantry, Ireland
027-50047
Sight Details
Rate Includes: €14 house and garden, €5 garden only, House closed Nov.–Mar.

Bantry Market

Growers of organic plants and veggies have a strong presence at this traditional street market.

Wolfe Tone Sq., Bantry, Ireland
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Closed Sat.--Thurs.

Barley Cove

One of the most photographed beaches in Ireland, this expanse of soft flaxen-colored dunes that curls around the sapphire and turquoise shades of the Atlantic’s water is a West Cork Instagrammable highlight. A river cuts through the sand and spills into the ocean, giving a fresh flow of cool water on either side of the green, tufty headlands. There are public facilities and car parking. A nearby inn opens seasonally, where visitors can stop by for a beachfront beverage.

Béal na mBláth

The peaceful setting along this country road was shattered by the sound of gunfire on the 22nd of August, 1922. The ambush resulted in the death of one of Ireland's most famous statesmen---Michael Collins---and the assassination is still shrouded in uncertainty. A large limestone cross and other monuments mark the spot where this happened, which is frequently visited by a steady stream of people to this date.  Expect to discover the unique game of road bowling—an Irish sport where competitors throw a metal ball along a predetermined course—along this stretch of country lanes.

Blackrock Castle and Observatory

To the east of the city center, the past and present are fused together in this ornate riverfront castle that was constructed in 1829, when the original buildings were destroyed by a series of fires---the last happened when a boozy banquet hosted by the local council in 1827 got out of control. Today, the castle sits perched on a rock (hence its name), and visitors can explore its dungeons and murky past with smugglers and pirates---or take in one of the interplanetary shows hosted throughout the day. If all else fails, skip to the top of the tower and battlements for a rewarding view of the city. There is a café on-site.

Castle Rd., Blackrock, Cork City, Ireland
021-432--6120
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Adults €6.50

Cork City Gaol

Sunday's Well

The austere Georgian Gothic mansion in the center of the complex, with its castellated-style, three-story tower, was once the governor's residence. The two enormous gray wings that span symmetrically to the left and right detained prisoners for a century. Life-size wax figures occupy the cells, and they illustrate the wretched backstories of those incarcerated and those who held them captive, with suitably somber sound effects. Take note of the weighing chair near the governor’s office---beneath its bright, timber surface lurks a dark secret—it was used to weigh prisoners before a suitable rope strength could be selected for their upcoming rendezvous with the gallows. Rebel leader Constance Markievicz and writer Frank O'Connor were former inmates. The Radio Museum Experience exhibits genuine artifacts from a 1923 radio station, 6CK, and tells the story of radio broadcasting in Cork.

Cork Public Museum and Fitzgerald's Park

Western Road

This picture-perfect riverside park a short walk west of the city center is accessed along the Mardyke, a tree-lined walkway overlooking a pitch where cricket is still played. Like the cricket pitch, the park is a remnant of Cork's Victorian past, and was the site of the 1902 Cork Exhibition. Its best-loved feature is the "Shakey Bridge," a famously unstable pedestrian suspension bridge linking the north and south banks of the Lee. The park is a popular venue for outdoor entertainment during the Midsummer Festival, and contains the Cork Public Museum, a Georgian mansion with displays of the city's history.

Courthouse and Regional Museum

Memorabilia from the wreck of the Lusitania are among the artifacts in this museum, housed in a 17th-century, Dutch-style courthouse. The 1915 inquest into that ship's sinking took place in the wood-paneled courtroom. Downstairs is a fascinating collection of antique tradesman's tools. Because the staff consists of volunteers, it's best to call to confirm opening times.

Drombeg Stone Circle

On a windswept hill that tumbles down as far as the coast, this huddled gathering of megalithic standing stones has marked the changing seasons and braced the elements for thousands of years. Nearby, an ancient outdoor barbeque (fulacht fia) popular with Bronze Age alfresco diners has revealed its prehistoric culinary secrets to scientists— but modern-day travelers will find more convenient options available a few kilometers away, at the pretty, billowy, sailboat haven of Rosscarbery.

Dunboy Castle

The Beara Peninsula was the cradle of the most powerful O'Sullivan clan, and the crumbling walls of Dunboy Castle that lie wasting away by the ocean shore just south of Castletownbere were once its stronghold. Of enormous historical significance, the castle was the last bastion of strength held by the O'Sullivan chieftain, Donal Cam O'Sullivan, until it was laid waste by Elizabethan forces shortly after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Almost the entire clan of mostly women and children perished in a massacre at a failed hideout on nearby Dursey Island in the aftermath, the rest along the 804-km (500-mile) infamous odyssey due north in a bid to safeguard the clan. This is now waymarked and coined the O'Sullivan Way or Beara-Breifne Way, and is Ireland's longest walking and cycling trail. It can start at either Dursey or Castletownbere. Keep an eye out for Dunboy's neighboring ruin, Puxley Manor, a Victorian Gothic manor that was subjected to a botched development project during Ireland's Celtic Tiger period---its fate is still undecided.

Eyeries and Allihies

These two brightly painted villages on the southern tip of the Beara Peninsula are regularly featured on tourism posters for their perfect, vernacular streetscapes---and dramatic settings. Allihies has an interesting mining backstory and pretty beach.  

Fota House, Arboretum & Gardens

The name of the Smith-Barry ancestral estate is derived from the Irish Fód te, which means "warm soil," a tribute to the unique tidal estuary microclimate here and the reason why one of Ireland's most exotic botanical gardens was established here. The original lodge house was built in the mid-18th century for the family, which owned vast tracts of land in South Cork, including the whole of Fota Island. The next generation of the powerful family employed the renowned architects Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison to convert the structure into an impressive Regency-style house that has now been painstakingly restored. The symmetrical facade is relatively unadorned and stands in contrast to the resplendent Adamesque plasterwork of the formal reception rooms (somewhat denuded of furniture). The servants' quarters are almost as big as the house proper. Fota's glories continue in the gardens, which include an arboretum, a Victorian fernery, an Italian garden, an orangerie, and a special display of magnolias. You can also (for an extra charge) visit the Victorian working garden. There's a tearoom, and the house hosts a program of concerts and exhibitions.

Fota Island, Ireland
021-481–5543
Sight Details
Rate Includes: House tour €10, House closed Oct.–mid-Feb.

Fota Wildlife Park

The 70-acre park is 12 km (7 miles) east of Cork via N25 and R624, the main Cobh road, and also accessible by rail from Cork's Kent Station. It's an important breeding center for cheetahs and wallabies, and also is home to monkeys, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, flamingos, emus, and kangaroos.

Henry Ford's Model T Monument

Just 8 km (5 miles) north of Clonakilty, in the "blink and miss it" hamlet of Ballinascarty (it's really just a crossroads) an unsuspecting traveler might pause to inspect the stainless steel, fully-to-scale Model T that's perched on a limestone pedestal on the side of a road. Across the street, the Henry Ford Tavern is open for business---because this is the cradle of a modern-day basic---the car. Henry Ford's father, William, was born in this tiny townland, and fled to the safer shores of America during the Great Famine that decimated Ireland's population. In fact, both of Henry’s parents were of County Cork stock, which is why the European Ford production line for Ford Cars was located in the Rebel City until its fortunes changed back in 1984.

Inchydoney Beach

The beach is on an island connected to the mainland by causeways, and accessible by car. It consists of two flat, wide stretches of fine white sand divided by a rocky promontory. The east side is the most sheltered and has dunes that can be walked. The slope to the sea is so gentle that at low tide it's a long walk to find deep water. Busy in July and August, its vast expanses offer exhilarating walks the rest of the year. Amenities: lifeguards; parking (no fee); toilets; water sports. Best for: surfing; swimming; walking.

Clonakilty, Ireland

Jameson Experience

On a tour of the Old Midleton Distillery, you'll learn how this now world-renowned whiskey (uisce beatha, or "the water of life") was made in the old days. The old stone buildings are excellent examples of 19th-century industrial architecture, the impressively large old waterwheel still operates, and the pot still—a copper dome that can hold 32,000 imperial gallons of whiskey—is the world's largest. Tours end with a complimentary glass of Jameson's Irish whiskey (or a soft drink). A gift shop and café are also on the premises. From April to October there is a daily shuttle bus service from St. Patrick's Quay Cork; inquire when booking.

Early in the tour, requests are made for a volunteer "whiskey taster," so be alert if this option appeals.