The capital of Ireland for short time in the 17th century, Kilkenny is a city with a long history. St Mary’s Cathedral in Kilkenny is the seat of the Diocese of Ossory, which lies within the same pre-Norman boundaries as the ancient Kingdom of Ossory, dating back 2,000 years.
In the 12th century the Normans founded Kilkenny Castle, later adapted as a noble estate, and both teh house and its serene gardens are a must-see.
You’ll have every chance to dig deeper into Kilkenny’s Medieval past, at St Canice’s Cathedral, watched by a 9th-century Celtic tower, and the Dominican Black Abbey, a rare survivor from the Reformation.
On summer evenings the city centre pulses with energy, and by day you can potter around the Georgian High Street and shuffle down the adjoining narrow lanes known as the “Slips”.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kilkenny:
1. Kilkenny Castle
On a rise by the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle started out as a Norman wooden fort in the 1170s, and over time became a palatial home for the noble Butler family.
In the first half of the 19th century the Butlers decided to return the palace to its Medieval appearance, giving it the Gothic Revival design that remains today.
Head to the gardens to amble around the pristine lawns, rose garden and ornamental lake.
Two of the castle’s wings are newly restored and you can take in the Drawing Room, Library and the celebrated Long Gallery, which is adorned with historic portraits and Chinese-style tapestries.
The Gallery in the castle’s basement has an overview of Irish art going back to the 1700s, furnished with works by Jack Butler Yeats and Louis de Brocquy.
2. St Canice’s Cathedral
On an ancient spot where there has been a church since the 500s, St Canice’s Cathedral is an Early Gothic monument from the 13th century.
At 68 metres it’s the second longest cathedral in Ireland and both its architecture and fittings will keep you rapt for good hour or two.
Outside you’ll notice the faux battlements that give the cathedral a fortified air.
Right by the southern transept is a perfectly preserved Celtic Christian round tower, dating back to the 9th century one of only three in the country that can still be climbed.
Look out for the black marble columns dividing the nave from the aisles, the delicate groin vaults in the choir, the ancient enthronement stone for bishops in the north transept and the Medieval baptismal font.
3. Black Abbey
Dating to 1225, this Dominican monastery was built outside Kilkenny’s city walls as a way of staying independent from the old Irish and English quarters.
The abbey is close to a tributary of the River Nore, and over 800 years has suffered repeated floods.
Like all abbeys in Ireland and Britain the Black Abbey was shut down during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, but unlike most, it was preserved as a courthouse.
The abbey was finally re-consecrated in 1864 and under its rib vaults are historic ledger stones and Medieval carvings, including Ireland’s last remaining statue of St Dominic.
In the south transept look for the stained glass Rosary Window, painted at a Munich workshop in 1892 and evoking the 15 Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.
4. Medieval Mile Museum
A new historical museum for Kilkenny, the Medieval Mile Museum opened in 2017 at the converted St Mary’s Church and graveyard.
The site goes back to the 13th century and the museum is just the place to get to know the merchants who controlled the economy and political life in Kilkenny in the Middle Ages.
Two of the famous Ossory High Crosses from the Early Middle Ages are here, together with a trove of exciting artefacts unearthed when the church was restored.
Along with Kilkenny’s ceremonial sword and mace there are two historic volumes, the Liber Primus Kilkenniensis from 1231 and the Charter of James I from 1609. These are all matched with high-tech installations like a giant touch-screen display that has a timeline of Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile.
5. Rothe House and Garden
On Parliament Street you can find a stunning Tudor townhouse, almost unchanged for hundreds of years.
Rothe House was built for the powerful merchant John Rothe at the turn of the 17th century, and is remarkable for the amount of original architecture that is still intact.
Rothe House is in fact three connected houses, built in 1596, 1604 and 1610, each with its own courtyard and sharing a garden.
The property is also rare in that it is all constructed on a narrow Medieval burgage plot, one of the few surviving in Ireland.
The interior has a small archaeological museum with finds gathered around Kilkenny, while the formal garden has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and has an orchard, potager, herb garden and topiaries.
6. St Mary’s Cathedral
When the Puritan Oliver Cromwell arrived in Kilkenny in 1650, St Canice’s Cathedral was converted into a Protestant place of worship, leaving the Catholic congregation without a cathedral.
This was only rectified in the mid-19th century when the Gothic Revival St Mary’s Cathedral was constructed at the highest point of the city.
The building is partly modelled on Gloucester Cathedral in England and built from local limestone.
One of the outstanding pieces of liturgical art here is the image of Mary by Italian sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni.
7. Smithwick’s Experience
Also on the Medieval Mile, the old Smithwick’s brewery has been turned into an ale-oriented attraction with interactive exhibits, tastings and a gift shop at the end.
Ale has been brewed at this place since the days of the Franciscan monastery that stood here in Medieval times.
And while this was eventually closed down during the Reformation in 1537, its sacristy was rediscovered during building works in the 19th century and was integrated into the brewery as a chapel.
The current outer building goes back to 1700 and operated as a brewery until 2014 before reopening as an ale-themed experience.
In a multisensory environment you’ll hear the monks’ chants, feel the heat coming from freshly roasted barley, catch the scent of the hops, and taste a pint of Smithwick’s at the end.
8. Jerpoint Park
About 15 minutes south of the centre of Kilkenny is the lost Medieval town of Newtown Jerpoint.
Founded in the 12th century, Jerpoint once had 27 homes, 14 taverns and a courthouse.
Amid chestnuts, beeches, lime trees and oaks you can now find the ruins of a domestic tower and the Church of St Nicholas, which has a 14th-century tomb effigy.
The town was abandoned after its toll bridge on the River Nore collapsed.
Jerpoint Park is a kind of rural attraction, with heritage tours of the ruins, sheep dog demonstrations and angling on the riverbank.
Just next door are the extensive ruins of the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, established at the same time as the town.
On High Street you can’t miss this monument with an imposing high arcade.
The Tholsel is from 1761 and is now Kilkenny’s Town Hall.
In the past it has been a custom house courthouse and a guildhall.
Projecting from the roof is a small octagonal turret, clad with copper and clock, and with a viewing platform below.
The Tholsel is a natural place for people to congregate, and there’s always something happening under the facades be it carol singers at Christmas, or street musicians at any other time of year.
At Christmas you can come and see Kilkenny’s Crib, while there’s temporary gallery here during Kilkenny’s Arts Week in August.
10. Dunmore Cave
Although rather compact at 46 metres deep and 400 metres long, Dunmore Cave is worthwhile for its limestone formations and human history.
The Annals of the Four Masters, written in the 1600s claims that there was a Viking massacre at Dunmore Cave in 928. A large amount of human remains were found in here in 1869, and in 1999 a hoard of silver dating to 970 was discovered in a gap in the rock.
You’ll learn more about these discoveries and marvel at some of the most impressive calcite formations to be found in Ireland.
These have taken shape across 11 million years, and in these columns you can make out the fossilised skeletons of bats.
11. Woodstock Estate
Near the village of Inistioge southeast of Kilkenny are the ruins of an 18th-century stately home that was burnt down in 1922 during the Irish Civil War.
The house has been left as a shell, but the gardens are the reason you have to make the trip.
Rolling out on the River Nore Valley, they were planted between 1840 and 1900 by the landowner William Tighe and his wife Lady Louisa Lennox.
The couple introduced a variety of exotic species, like a coast redwood, noble fir and a monkey puzzle tree.
You can idle around the grounds admiring the arboretum, walled garden, a restored fountain, rose garden and “yew walk”, before rounding off your trip at the tea rooms.
12. Kells Priory
South of Kilkenny, the ruins of the Augustine Kells Priory lie outside the namesake village and by the River Kings.
The site is an Irish National Monument and its most eye-catching image is an outer wall punctuated by square guard towers, which are mostly in good condition.
Kells Priory was established at the end of the 12th century by Geoffrey Fitzrobert, who was the brother-in-law of the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, better known as “Strongbow”. Within its first 100 years the priory was raided and set alight three times, which explains the need for such powerful defences.
Most of what remains is from the 1300s and 1400s, and labelled in the northern portion of the ruins you can make out a chapel, church, sacristy and a variety of monastic buildings.
13. Castlecomer Discovery Park
Minutes north of Kilkenny is a family adventure attraction in more than 30 hectares of woodland.
The Castlecomer Discovery Park opened in 2007 as a way of bringing rural tourism to a former colliery that closed in 1969. The park has the longest over-water zip-line in Ireland, more than 300 metres in length, and the 140-metre tree-top adventure walk, high in the forest canopy.
If you’re up for a challenge you can test your climbing skills on the high ropes course, the Octagon.
There’s also a new climbing course for little ones, and an elf and fairy village.
The indoor “Footprints in Coal” exhibition explains the mining history and geology of the area, while the quaint old stables have arts and crafts workshops.
14. Kilfane Glen and Waterfall
Not far southeast of Kilkenny is a six-hectare Romantic garden planted at the end of the 18th century.
Kilfane Glen has been compared to Marie Antoinette’s idealised Hameau de la Reine, and its flowerbeds are in the same format as when they were laid out more than 200 years ago.
The garden has a thatched cottage orné and a bubbling stream traversed by cute ornamental bridges.
There are flowerbeds with fox gloves and ferns, all dwarfed by centuries-old mature trees.
Maybe the prettiest sight is the 10-metre man-made waterfall, fed by a purpose-built canal, while you can also follow a sculpture trail winding into the woodland.
15. Maudlin Castle
By the north bank of the River Nore is a 16th-century tower left over from a Medieval hospital set up around the 13th century.
The heavily fortified hospital was positioned outside the centre of Kilkenny and mainly treated lepers.
The name “Maudlin” comes from Mary Magdalene, as leprosy was a disease generally associated with prostitution in Medieval times.
The tower is 25 metres and four storeys high, and went up just before the hospital was dissolved during the Reformation.
Check out the walls which are pierced with arrow loops, and if you look closely you’ll see an old garderobe (toilet opening!).