A slice of seaside heaven fringed by the River Bandon, Kinsale is the gateway to West Cork. A dapper town, Kinsale has been labeled the gourmet capital of Ireland and has managed to hold on to its medieval past, which can be sensed in all quarters.
You won’t find many places more visually cinematic than Kinsale, Ireland. Positioned on the southwest coast of Ireland in County Cork, this colorful port town is just 29 kilometers south of Cork City. Steeped in military history, the medieval fishing village lies close to the site of the RMS Lusitania’s sinking during World War I.
Kinsale’s streetscape is photogenic at every turn and derives most of its character from the lengthy waterfront, its maze of narrow streets, and its array of bold, flirting with garish, building facades of marigold, lime green, fuchsia and fire engine red. Somehow, though, these dazzling hues unquestionably add to the charm.
Grab your camera and explore the village on foot. One of the must-see sights is the storied Desmond Castle, also home of the International Museum of Wine. This circa 1500 structure has served various purposes over the years including a customs house, French prison, an arsenal by Don Juan Aguilla before the Battle of Kinsale, and most recently, a wine exhibition space.
Opened in 1997, the International Museum of Wine chronicles the story of thousands who migrated from Ireland in the 17th through 19th centuries because of religious persecution. Since many migrants went on to work in the wine trade, they became known as the “Irish Wine Geese.” Today descendants of those migrants live in every corner of the world. The museum provides an in-depth look at Ireland’s deep-rooted connection to the world of wine, both past and present.
Also worth a visit is the ancient St. Multose Church, one of the town’s most significant landmarks, with much of its exterior detailing still intact. The 800-year-old structure is a prime example of Norman architecture (be sure to see the Norman engravings) and continues to play an essential role in recounting Irish history. Check out the baptismal font, carved memorials and reredos, and the adjacent Sea Garden, as well as the graveyard where several of the Lusitania’s victims were buried.
Located south of Summer Cove on Kinsale Harbor, three kilometers from the town center, Charles Fort is one of Europe’s greatest star-shaped fortresses. Built from 1611 to 1682, this artillery fort named after King Charles the II of England was designed to guard Kinsale Harbor. In use until 1922, the fort, which now resembles a stark ruin, is worth a visit if only to experience the serene setting and spectacular coastal views. Across the harbor, the pentagonal James Fort, a smaller fortress that’s been in ruins since the 19th century, is also worth exploring. While Charles Fort charges an entrance fee, James Fort is free.
Food and Drink
Adjacent to the lively Market Square, a bounty of shops and dining spots – cafes, restaurants, and of course, pubs – provide more choices for eating and drinking than you can count. You could easily crawl from one quaint establishment to the next, making your afternoon in Kinsale a food and drinking fest. Expect the usual Irish fare, like blood pudding and lamb stew, as well as freshly caught seafood. Succulent shrimp, crab, Atlantic salmon, perch, and skate dot the menus of pubs and fine dining establishments.
To catch up on 400 years of history while you throw back a few pints of Murphy’s, pop into The Grey Hound (6 Market Square). Alive and well since 1690, this cozy hole-in-the-wall pub is rumored to be one of the oldest in Kinsale, drawing hipsters as well as the local crowd. Snuggle inside as you imbibe by the wood-burning fire, or sip your poison outside if the weather cooperates. Accepting cash and no credit, the Greyhound is just for drinking as it doesn’t serve food.
With a seven-course tasting menu and more than 100 wines in its collection, Bastion (Junction of Market St & Main St) represents world-class dining in Kinsale. Oysters and venison crown the lineup, as well as Irish cheese and beetroot, with Crown Prince pumpkin thrown in for a twist. From the bread to the dessert, every last bite at Bastion is made in-house so assume that you’ll encounter superb, flavorful food that’s flawlessly prepared and presented.
We’ve already established that fine dining is alive and well in Kinsale and the trend continues at John and Julie Finn’s restaurant. Heavy on the butter and packed with flavor, the menu at Finns’ Table (6 Main St) suggests a variety of interesting dishes. The West Cork Surf ’n Turf with grilled filet and king prawns, and pan-fried fillets of John Dory alongside spinach, lemon, crab and herb butter are both front-runners. The classic steak and kidney pie is also a solid choice, and the crispy egg with asparagus, hollandaise, and pickled cucumber is a nod to a Scotch egg sans sausage. Meats are sourced from John Finn’s parents’ butcher shop, and the fish is local and caught earlier that day.
If you fancy sawdust on the floor and a dose of Kinsale history The Spaniard Inn (Scilly) – named after Don Juan Del Aquila, fleet commander during the Battle of Kinsale – should be on your radar. Perched on a hill above the harbor away from the crowds, this award-winning pub with an adjoining restaurant is a town favorite for a pint or hearty meal. Bartenders and waiters are as warm as the digs of the 1650 establishment, where the food is top notch and the atmosphere cozy.
Chocoholics might not be able to resist Koko Chocolate (Pier Rd) on Kinsale’s main pier. Brimming with delicacies, this artisan boutique crafts a delightful selection of chocolates – be it milk, white, dark or sugar-free. Inspired by Mast Brothers, chocolate maker Frank Kean works his magic in the kitchen and churns out sinfully good candies, truffles, chocolate shapes (animals, hearts, castles and the like), as well as a killer hot cocoa, chocolate shots and coffee to go.
Life is better with accoutrements, and that’s apparent at the flagship location of The Kinsale Leather Company (Market Square). Helmed by Irish Accessory Designer of the Year Dee Mangan, the shop stocks backpacks, coin purses, clutches and more, all handcrafted of fine leather in fashionable colors, and toting simple, straightforward designs, proving that Kinsale is a fashion-forward town.
Granny’s Bottom Drawer (53 Main St) purveys linen, merino wool, and cashmere blankets, throws, hats, scarves and sweaters. Serving Kinsale since 1993, this lifestyle shop is reminiscent of the wonderfully sentimental things that you might find in a grandmother’s dresser drawer. Items are hand-woven by local Irish craftsman and sell for a fraction of the price you’d pay in the US and Europe. And if your luggage is bursting at the seams, the shop will ship for a fee.
For funky jewelry and wearable art, pop into Stone Mad (Market Ln). Owner and American transplant Jill Brennen curates a treasure trove of goodies in her tiny, flower-adorned shop that’s made the cut twice for the top 50 places to visit in Ireland. Baubles, bangles, shoes and other unique items round out the collection of must-haves, so be prepared to treat yourself to that special something.
For stylish accommodations in the heart of Kinsale, try Actons Hotel (Pier Rd). Opened in 1946 by the Acton Family, this boutique-style property has grown to become one of Kinsale’s most chosen places to stay. Besides the convenient location, this hotel affords stellar views as it overlooks the Kinsale Harbor and Yacht Club. The 74 guest rooms include spacious suites and family rooms, and the hotel provides a range of amenities. A bar and brasserie offer all-day dining; a separate restaurant serves lunch and dinner; and a health and leisure club with a fully equipped gym, large indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam room, and treatment rooms is the ultimate spot for pampering.
Also overlooking the harbor is the Giles Norman Townhouse (45 Main St). This one-of-a-kind guest house not only offers luxurious accommodations, but it also serves as the home of Giles Norman’s art studio and gallery, bringing his classic black and white photographs of Ireland to life. Giles and Catherine Norman’s vision was to design interiors that reflect Giles’s photographic style. Guest rooms are meant to be extensions of the main gallery, with each room curated by Giles and exhibiting pieces from his extensive portfolio. All rooms include Nespresso machines, complimentary Wi-Fi, HDTVs and elegant en-suite baths complete with rain showers and organic VOYA toiletries. Three of the four guest rooms offer stunning waterfront views of Kinsale’s marina.