The Most Unique Experiences in Cork City, Ireland

Blackrock Castle | © John Hughes / Flickr
Blackrock Castle | © John Hughes / Flickr
Photo of Kate Phelan
19 September 2017

The Republic of Ireland’s second-largest city is imbued with a deep-seated cultural identity and strong regional pride, evident in everything from its many nicknames – The People’s Republic of Cork, The Rebel City, The Real Capital – to the enthusiasm it gave its tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2005. Try these local experiences to get a feel for what makes Cork so special.

Cork City Gaol

Cork City Gaol is an important part of the city’s revolutionary history. First opened as a prison in 1824, it housed female Republican political prisoners during the Irish War of Independence, including the famous nationalist and politician Constance Markievicz. During the Irish Civil War, when the gaol also admitted male prisoners, Cork writer Frank O’Connor – a member of the Anti-Treaty IRA at the time – was another inmate.

Designed by the renowned local architect and former Mayor of Cork Sir Thomas Deane – who also designed the original buildings of the city’s university and other architectural landmarks – the sprawling Georgian-Gothic building is today open to the public as a museum. Their eerie evening tours cost €10 and need to be booked at least a week in advance.

Cork City Gaol, Convent Avenue, Sunday’s Well, Cork, Ireland, +353 21 430 5022

The Ogham stone collection at University College Cork

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© Douglas Lander / Alamy Stock Photo
Thomas Deane’s impressive Main Quadrangle at University College Cork (UCC) isn’t just worth visiting for its architectural significance. Inside, its so-called Stone Corridor is home to what the college describes as the largest collection of Ogham stone inscriptions on open display in the country. Free of charge, visitors can explore Ireland’s earliest form of writing, carved into the displayed stones sometime between the fifth to the seventh century AD.

The Shandon Bells at St Anne's Church

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Shandon Bells & Tower St Anne's Church, Cork
Shandon Bells & Tower St Anne's Church, Cork
The bells that inspired the well-known song ‘The Bells of Shandon’ are at the 18th-century St Anne’s Church – also the site of the clock tower known to locals as ‘The Four Faced Liar’ (because its four faces apparently all tell slightly different times). If you’re willing to climb more than 100 steps, you can ring the six-tonne bells for yourself and hear the sound echo across the city.

The Lee Sessions at Sin É

Serving the people of Cork since 1889, Sin É pub is the place to go to hear authentic traditional Irish music in Cork. An important stop on the Cork Heritage Pub Trail, the venue hosts live ‘trad’ seven days a week, including The Lee Sessions – almost-daily gatherings of some of the best musicians in the city, sponsored by Cork City Council.

Sin É, 8 Coburg Street, Shandon, Cork, Ireland, +353 21 450 2266

A Cork Tasting Trail

Cork is known as Ireland’s food capital, and the Cork Tasting Trail will allow you to truly eat and drink like a local – or possibly even better. A two-and-a-half-to-three-hour ‘food stroll’ will set you back €55, but it will be more than worth it for foodies who love nothing more than discovering the best-kept secrets of a city’s dining scene, and there are plenty of free samples along the way. Tours are limited to small groups, and private tours are also available.

If you prefer to do your gastronomic exploring under your own steam, just make sure you get to at least one Cork food market to sample the cream of the crop of local offerings. The English Market is the obvious choice – and it is fantastic – but the Coal Quay Saturday Food Market is full of goodies too.

Too early for elevenses? #cork #fabfoodtrail #trysomethingnew photo cred: @joleencronin

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A kayaking tour of Cork Harbour

For something a bit different, you can also explore Cork from the water, with a leisurely kayaking tour. Atlantic Sea Kayaking provides a Cork City: Under the Bridges Tour as well as one to the outer reaches of the sizeable natural harbour, taking in the town of Cobh – the final port of call of the Titanic – and Spike Island, aka ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’.

Cobh | © Ed Webster/Flickr

Blackrock Castle Observatory

Museum, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
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A 16th-century defensive fortification later made into a castle, Blackrock Castle has found new purpose in the 21st century as an observatory and museum – and a great one at that. Its interactive Cosmos at the Castle exhibition was given an Award for Outstanding Achievement from TEA, the world association for themed attractions.

Crane Lane Theatre

For music lovers, no visit to Cork would be complete without taking in a gig at Crane Lane Theatre, one of the most loved venues in the city. Opened as a gentlemen’s club during the 1920s, it’s now a multi-purpose performance space with three separate bars – plus a roomy beer garden – where you can go and watch some cabaret or listen to anything from smooth jazz to pop rock. The vibe here is best described in their own words: “Think Hunter S. Thompson meets Joyce around midnight.”

Crane Lane Theatre, Phoenix Street, Cork, Ireland, +353 21 427 8487

The Triskel Arts Centre Cinema

This neoclassical 18th-century church is the unusual home of a justifiably popular art house cinema, which screens a diverse programme curated by their cinema programmer Chris O’Neill. The Triskel Arts Centre cinema has voluntarily incorporated the F-rating – developed at Bath Film Festival and recently introduced on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) – which highlights films with female writers, directors or strong lead actresses.

Triskel Arts Centre, Tobin Street, Cork, Ireland, +353 21 427 2022

Cork Butter Museum

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The Cork Butter Museum
The Cork Butter Museum | © William Murphy/Flickr
Situated in the historic Shandon district, close to St Anne’s Church, Cork Butter Museum celebrates one of Ireland’s best exports. The area was once home to an outdoor butter market that later evolved into the hugely successful Cork Butter Exchange – apparently handling around £1.5 million worth of butter during its busiest time in the 1880s. Visitors to the museum can trace the history of the Irish dairy industry and see a keg of thousand-year-old butter.

Cork Opera House

Opera House, Theatre
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Cork Opera House
Cork Opera House | © William Murphy / Flickr
Ireland’s only purpose-built opera house, with one of its largest stages at 12 by 10 metres (39 by 33 feet), Cork Opera House was made not just to be enjoyed, but to delight. Its orchestra pit can accommodate up to 70 musicians, making for powerful renditions of productions such as La Traviata and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Performances aren’t restricted to the realm of opera though – it’s set to host everyone from indie rockers The National to comedian John Bishop to The Royal Moscow Ballet over the next few months.

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