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Cork City is so compact that you can easily pick and mix a few of its trendiest areas to explore in a day. They naturally bleed into each other, but each has enough of its own distinct charm and history to woo travellers independently.
North of the River Lee from Cork’s commercial centre lies the newly branded ‘Victorian Quarter’, centred around MacCurtain Street. The city has invested in promoting this area’s historic architecture and concentration of independent, multicultural businesses with events like the new Soul in the City Festival – bringing together soul music and food in the so-called ‘heart and soul of the city’.
This is also ideal shopping territory, especially for antiques. On the weekend, expect to lose hours at Mother Jones Flea Market, named after Shandon-born Mary Harris Jones – a vocal advocate for workers’ rights in early 20th-century America. The market caters to every type of vintage taste in a well-organised indoor warren of stalls.
Midweek shoppers can take a break at photogenic Tara’s Tea Room for afternoon tea served on mismatched china. For a stronger caffeine fix, Harley’s Coffee House serves Badger & Dodo boutique coffee roasted in Fermoy, plus great lunch fodder and pastries.
There’s no shortage of options for evening dining and drinking here either. Award-winning chef Bryan McCarthy launched new hotspot Cask in early 2017, serving small plates and artisan cocktails in the warmly lit, lofty space of a former antique shop. McCarthy’s other venture on this street, Greene’s Restaurant at Hotel Isaacs, is much more established, enjoying a loyal local following. Tucked away down a little lane complete with its own waterfall, this atmospheric spot is ideal for a romantic treat.
For some music to go with your meal, Gallagher’s gastro-pub showcases a diverse range of live music alongside excellent food. Named after Cork’s own Rory Gallagher – who once called MacCurtain Street home and bought his Stratocaster in Crowleys Music – their near-nightly acts range from jazz to folk through blues and soul. Also on MacCurtain Street, the Everyman Theatre attracts the best of music and drama, and serves as the home of the internationally renowned Guinness Cork Jazz Festival every October. If you have time, catch a show and immerse yourself in its Victorian splendour.
Shandon (sean dún means ‘the old fort’ in Irish) holds the key to some of Cork’s most fascinating history. This area was home to a fort settlement as early as the 1170s, and Shandon Castle – built around 1183 – once acted as the administrative seat of the entire Munster province, but was destroyed during the Siege of Cork in 1690. However, many historical buildings remain as testament to this area’s importance to the city’s cultural and commercial life.
Celebrated in the song ‘The Bells of Shandon’, the bells at St Anne’s Cathedral were first rung in 1752. Visitors can have a go at ringing the six-tonne bells themselves, and the tower here gives the best panoramic views of the city.
Just a two-minute walk away on Rowland’s Lane, the childhood home of Annie Moore is well worth seeking out. Then 17 years old, Moore was the first person to be processed at Ellis Island’s new immigration centre on the January 1, 1892. Although only marked by a small plaque, her house is a poignant reminder of the well-worn trail of Irish-American migration. Down the hill on Pope’s Quay, St Mary’s Church with its classical façade is another enduring marker of its time – it was built in the 1830s, in line with the Catholic Emancipation.
Foodie visitors will also love Shandon for the Butter Museum – a relic of the booming 1800s era of local butter trade. The museum gives an illuminating insight into the rise and fall of the importance of butter to the Irish economy.
South of Shandon and across the River Lee you’ll find the Huguenot Quarter, around French Church Street, Carey’s Lane and Paul Street. The Huguenots were a group of French Protestants. some of whom settled in Ireland after suffering persecution under King Louis XIV. The church they established here has long been demolished, but an 18th-century Huguenot cemetery still stands on Carey’s Lane.
Today, the narrow lanes of this cool quarter are home to some of the best places to eat and drink in the city. Duke’s Coffee Company stands out for excellent coffee, snacks and breakfasts, while those with a sweet tooth won’t want to miss the artisan chocolate offerings at O’Connaill’s Chocolate & Coffee Shop on French Church Street.
Also on French Church Street, the Love Hate Social Club tattoo parlour was opened by Ami James of Miami Ink fame as an extension of his US-based brand – he even made many fans’ dreams come true by completing their tattoos at the opening. Voyeurs can watch people getting inked from the street outside through a specially designed gallery window.
Forming the T-bar of the Huguenot Quarter, Paul Street leads into the historic market area of the Coal Quay – aka Cornmarket Street – to the west. If you’re around this district – known for its long history of street trading – on a Saturday morning, make sure to visit the farmer’s market at the Coal Quay Plaza. To the east, Paul Street gives way to Emmet Place, the site of two of Cork’s biggest cultural attractions: the Cork Opera House and Crawford Art Gallery.
Oliver Plunkett Street was the winner of the 2016 Great Street Award by London’s Academy of Urbanism, and is home to both high-end shops and bargain-friendly outfits. At its north-east end you’ll find some of the more luxe independent retail offerings of the city, such as Olori boutique and the family-run Shoe Suite – a haven for fashion-forward designer footwear from brands such as Bugatti and Van Dal.
The streets that run off the central vein of Oliver Plunkett Street provide a similarly eclectic mix to satisfy the whims of any visitor. Arthur Mayne’s Pharmacy and Wine Garden on nearby Pembroke Street offers quality wines and a diverse food menu in a 120-year-old chemist’s shop that retains most of its original fittings and even some stock. The bar itself is an old glass apothecary counter, and ceiling-high built-in glass cases filled with potions long past their best usage, line the walls.
On Prince’s Street you’ll find one of the entrances to the famous English Market, dating back to 1788. Home to an overwhelming number of quality producers, both traditional and trendy, it’s an excellent spot to while away a few hours browsing and stocking up on presents, or having lunch in the mezzanine restaurant.
As they venture west from Grand Parade into the former medieval heart of the city, explorers will be rewarded with a mixture of the creative and the historical, and some of the city’s best food. The most notable attraction of the parade itself is the National Monument, unveiled on St Patrick’s Day in 1906 as a testament to the rebellions that had gone before but pre-dating national independence. To the west lies Bishop Lucey Park – a well-used city garden – and Triskell Christchurch, a former church than now functions as a cinema, live music venue and all-round creative arts hub.
Northwest of here is Washington Street – quickly becoming the new foodie centre of the city – where chef Rachel Allen of the legendary Ballymaloe House recently launched her first solo venture. With vegetables fresh from the Ballymaloe kitchen garden, and daily catch from Ballycotton, much of the impeccable provenance practices of Ballymaloe have been transported to the city centre here, albeit with a less traditional delivery. After dinner, float to the attached Piano Bar for one of their ‘experience’ cocktails, sound-tracked by resident pianists.