The Republic of Ireland’s second city is a town of commerce with a growing high-tech sector spearheaded by Apple, who have their European headquarters here.
Cork is also a fresh-faced city as the home of the University College Cork, often touted as the best place to study in Ireland.
Cork is only a few minutes from Blarney Castle and the famous stone that grants people the gift of the gab.
In the city centre, St Anne’s Church has its own place in the heart of Irish culture, and also on the menu are dynamic cultural amenities and a roll-call of monuments that have just been revamped as high-class days out.
You can set foot in a feared 19th-century jail, walk the ramparts of an artillery fort and catch some live music from the pews of a converted church.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cork:
1. Blarney Castle
Under ten kilometres from Cork’s city centre is the partial ruin of a Medieval castle that is etched into Ireland’s consciousness.
As it appears today Blarney Castle was built by the King of Munster Cormac MacCarthy in 15th century, and most of the keep has been preserved from that time.
Many come up to the battlements to kiss the Blarney Stone, which can be found on the machicolations and according to tradition grants its kissers the gift of eloquence.
Although the stone gets most of the attention there’s a lot to keep you occupied around the castle, like the themed gardens that include a poison garden growing wolfsbane, ricin, mandrake, deadly nightshade and poison ivy.
Rock Close on the grounds is the site of an ancient druidic settlement under lofty yews and oaks, and there are trails along the picturesque banks of the River Martin.
2. English Market
Most of Cork’s leading restaurants get their produce straight from the English Market, which is in a splendid Victorian hall running from Grand Parade to Princes Street.
This is the place to go for meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, spices, fresh herbs, cheese, baked goods, and a great deal more.
For those who want to get in touch with Irish cuisine, you’ll be able to get hold of regional delicacies like battlebord (dried salted ling), drisheen (blood sausage), buttered eggs and spiced beef, which is similar to pastrami and seasoned with ginger, cloves, pimento, cinnamon and black pepper.
At the Farmgate Cafe in the gallery you can go for a quick cup of tea and a slice of homemade cake.
3. St Anne’s Church
Set in the Shandon district, St Anne’s Church was raised in the mid-1720s on a rise over the River Lee, all contained by a network of little streets.
The church is one of the sights most easily identified with Cork, and this has a lot to do with its bells, made famous by the 19th-century song, Bells of Shandon by Francis Sylvester Mahony.
Atop the 50-metre bell-tower is a three-metre weathervane with a golden salmon, symbolising both Jesus and the salmon stocks in the River Lee.
You can go up the tower for the best view of Cork, and to ring those fabled bells that date back to 1752 and were last recast in 1906.
4. University College Cork
Founded in 1845, the University of Cork is ranked as one of the top places of higher education in Ireland, winning Irish University of the year in 2017. You can take a look around the university campus every day of the week, and on Saturday afternoons.
There’s a visitor centre pointing out the worthwhile things to see and organising tours.
This is set in the Stone Corridor, a passageway lined with Ogham Stones, ancient gravestones dating from the 2nd and 3rd Century AD. The President’s Garden in the quad has mature beeches and oaks, and even giant redwoods going back to the university’s foundation.
Finally, the Crawford Observatory has a equatorial telescope for which its designer, Howard Grubb won a Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris 1900.
5. Cork City Gaol
This fortress-like prison was founded in 1824 in Cork’s Sunday’s Well area.
The high elevation was chosen specifically to help contain outbreaks of typhus, then known as “gaol fever”. The gaol functioned for 99 years, and perhaps its most eventful period came just before its closure in 1922-23 during the Irish Civil War.
In November 1923 40 Republican prisoners made an escape.
You can hear about this feat, check out tableaus with lifelike characters, step into cells that have barely changed in a century and learn about everyday life for the prisoners and guards.
After the closure Governor’s House contained Ireland’s first official radio station, 6CK, and you can step into the restored studio and see an exhibition on Marconi.
6. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
Dedicated to the city’s 6th-century patron saint, Finbarr of Cork, this neo-Gothic cathedral was constructed in the 1870s.
The cathedral has copious sculpture from biblical images to gargoyles, all designed by the building’s architect William Burges.
This was Burges’ first commission at the start of an illustrious career in Victorian Ireland and England.
On the jambs of the three portals there’s a line-up of saints, as well as the five wise and five foolish virgins from the Parable of Our Lord at the main entrance.
Then in the main portal tympanum sits an intricate piece depicting the Last Judgment from the Book of Revelations.
Burges also designed every one of the cathedral’s 74 stained glass windows and oversaw their production.
7. Elizabeth Fort
On a bend in the River Lee next to St Finbarre’s Cathedral, Elizabeth Fort has only just opened up to visitors.
From 1601 to 2013, this building had a variety of roles and was first built to reinforce Cork’s city walls against the new threat of artillery.
The fort was beefed up by Cromwell in 1649, and in 1690 the Jacobite defenders came under siege by the Williamites (fighting for the Dutch protestant prince William of Orange). The siege lasted just four days before Cork fell.
From that time on the fort had all kinds of uses, as a depot for convicts being sent to Australia, and as a food warehouse during the Great Famine in the mid-19th century.
Up to 2013 the fort was a Garda (Irish police) station, and now you’re free to patrol the ramparts, which are labelled with information panels pointing out the evolution of the building.
8. Lewis Glucksman Gallery
In a head-turning modern building unveiled in 2004, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery is at University College Cork’s main entrance on Western Road.
The building won a raft of awards when it was completed, and was designed by the Irish firm, O’Donnell + Tuomey architects.
The gallery has three floors of exhibition space, putting on three temporary shows a year.
When this post was written there was retrospective of shows throughout the gallery’s history, with pieces by Martin Healy, Fiona Kelly, Alice Maher and Suzanne Mooney.
There are talks, art workshops and film screenings all year round, and a stylish restaurant with a riverside view.
9. Fitzgerald Park
In western Cork, the Fitzgerald Park is eight hectares of former marshland reclaimed from the River Lee in the Mardyke area.
This was done in time for the Cork International Exhibition of 1902 and the park is named for Edward Fitzgerald, the Lord Mayor of Cork who proposed the plans.
Holdovers from the event are still sprinkled around the park, like the pavilion and ornamental fountain.
There are formal flowerbeds, mature deciduous and evergreen trees and a duck pond lush with water lilies.
Crossing the River Lee is the handsome cast iron suspension footbridge Daly’s Bridge, built in 1926 and nicknamed the “Shakey Bridge” for obvious reasons.
10. St Patrick’s Street
Cork’s main thoroughfare is also south Ireland’s prime shopping street.
St Patrick’s Street came about in the 18th century when the city grew beyond its Medieval walls.
Since the start of the 2000s the city has made a few pedestrian-friendly changes to St Patrick’s street, like a redesign of the pavement by the architect Beth Gali in 2004, while since March 2018 road traffic is prohibited between 15:00 and 18:30. The way is traced by 19th-century buildings now occupied by chains like Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Penney.
Parts of the street however were lost to the Burning of Cork during the Irish War of Independence in 1920, which took out 340 buildings in centre of the city.
St Patrick’s Street is also on the route of the St Patrick’s Day parade on 17 March.
11. Nano Nagle Place
Moments from the English Market and St Patrick’s Street is a preserved group of 18th-century buildings that used to be the Presentation convent.
In the time of the oppressive Penal Laws imposed by the English, this was where the nun, Nano Nagle fought to educate Cork’s many underprivileged children.
The congregation she founded, The Presentation Sisters, would eventually spread to the New World, opening schools in San Francisco in the 1850s.
The heritage centre in the complex paints a clear picture of life for Cork’s underclass in the 18th century, while outside in the gardens you can visit Nano Nagle’s tomb.
12. Red Abbey
A rare relic from Cork’s Medieval walled city, all that’s left of the Red Abbey is a solitary tower, safeguarded as an Irish National Monument.
The tower is from an Augustinian monastery founded around the 1200s or 1300s and functioning through the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century until as late as the end of the 17th century.
After that the building was used as a sugar refinery before it burnt down in 1799, leaving just the tower.
13. Fota Wildlife Park
On the east shore of Lough Mahon, 18 kilometres from Cork’s city centre is a non-profit animal park in 40 hectares of parkland.
Fota Wildlife Park has been praised for its animal conservation efforts, and has large enclosures with discreet barriers.
Some species, like the ring-tailed lemurs, move around the park at will, while the maras, wallabies and kangaroos are kept in semi-freedom.
Other animals are kept according to their region, so the “Asian Sanctuary” has Indian rhinos, Asiatic lions and Sumatran tigers, while the “African Savannah” holds zebras, ostriches and giraffes in one large paddock.
The stars of the show are the Northeast African cheetahs, which can be watched hunting down their meals at full speed using a device a bit like a greyhound lure.
14. Triskel Christchurch
A performing arts centre in a de-consecrated church, Triskel Christchurch was born in 2011. The solemn Neoclassical building goes back to the 18th century, and the nave, still with its wooden pews and galleries, is used as the centre’s auditorium.
There’s loads happening on all days of the week, be it live classical music, jazz, leftfield music or pop, cinema screenings or art exhibitions.
The centre is a key venue for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival in October and the Cork World Book Festival in April.
15. Spike Island
In the middle of Cork Harbour, Spike Island is in a handy defensive location, and when France declared war on Britain in 1793 work began on an artillery fort.
This was the last bastioned fort to be constructed on what was then the British Isles.
An array of guns is on show, from the early cannons to the 6-inch artillery guns that followed later in the 19th century.
For much of its history the fort doubled as a prison, and the Irish patriot John Mitchel spent time here in 1848 before being deported to Bermuda.
Later the fort was a detention centre for Republicans during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and was in the hands of the Irish military until 1985. Now Spike Island’s deep history can be fully revealed, while the Glacis Walk on the outside of the fort has arresting views of the lower harbour.