14 Unique Things to Do in and around Cork

by Paul Joseph  |  Published July 13, 2023

Situated in the southwest of Ireland, the country’s “second city” of Cork has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, and is now packed full of great things to see and do.

Blarney Castle seen through surrounding trees (Photo: Enrico Strocchi via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

With substantial investment revitalising its waterfront and adding much-needed life to its once ailing city centre, today artisan coffee bars, cosy pubs, hip restaurants and a mix of high street and high-end stores dominate Cork’s retail landscape. The city’s recent revival has also delivered a much-needed tourism boost, with large numbers of visitors flocking here every year. If you’re planning a trip to Cork and would like to start planning how to spend your time, we’ve picked out 14 of the city’s most unique attractions.

Kiss the Blarney Stone

Set in a wall of the 15th-century Blarney Castle, a 20-minute drive northwest of central Cork, kissing the Blarney Stone is a tradition that’s been around for centuries. However, it’s also a tradition with a sizeable catch: to gain the full benefits of giving the inconspicuous rock a peck (with the act said to imbue those whose lips touch it with new-found eloquence), you must do so while hanging upside down and suspended over thin air while clinging on to two railings Nonetheless, despite the feat of derring-do required, people travel from around the globe to perform this legendary ritual, hoping that it bestows them with the gift of the gab.

Blarney Castle & Gardens, Monacnapa, Blarney / Mon-Sun 9am-5pm

Visit a fascinating museum

A hidden gem in mid Cork, Independence Museum Kilmurry is a fascinating modern and innovative space, preserving artefacts and history of local , national, and international acclaim. A hit with visitors from all around the world the museum offers a rich tapestry of artefacts from Ireland’s revolutionary history from the Famine, Gaelic Revival, 1916 Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. These include a wheel from the Crossley Tender at Kilmichael Ambush , layout, maps and artefacts from the Beal na Blath ambush and a vast collection of artefacts and memorabilia relating to the late Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, who’s family hailed from the Kilmurry area. Opened in 2016 by President Michael D. Higgins, it is a shining example of what a small community can achieve, and a worthy tribute to all those who contributed to the fight for Independence.

Independence Museum, Kilmurry / Mon-Fri 10.30am-5pm Sat-Sun 2pm-5pm

Exhibits at the Independence Museum Kilmurry (Photo: Independence Museum Kilmurry)

Between the 1600s and the mid-20th century, vast numbers of people left Cork, either to escape famine or simply in search of a new start and the hope of a better life. Whether you’re interested in the Irish Emigration story, tracing your own ancestors, learning more about the ill-fated Titanic and the Lusitania ocean liners, or immersing yourself in the region’s rich naval and military history, Cobh Heritage Centre has it all. Situated within a beautifully restored Victorian railway station on an island in Cork city’s harbour, the informative and sometimes emotive heritage museum takes visitors on a fascinating journey of exploration of the lives of those who left.

Deepwater Quay, Cobh / Mon-Sun 9.30am-5pm

An exhibit room at Cobh Heritage Centre (Photo: Cobh Heritage Centre)

It may not be as indelibly linked with Ireland as Guinness, but butter has also played a prominent role in the nation’s export industry down the years. Standing as testimony to this heritage is Cork Butter Museum, which tells the story of how Irish butter came to prominence in the international dairy market in the second half of the 20th century, and still makes its way around the globe today. As well as a range of exhibits, there are also regular butter-making demonstrations. The museum is located in Cork’s historic market centre, which has been at the heart of the city’s trade for centuries.

O’Connell Square, Shandon / Mon-Sun 10am-4pm

Admire a majestic cathedral

Perched on the south bank of the River Lee, St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral is one of Cork’s most distinctive landmarks, and internationally acclaimed for its magnificent French Neo-Gothic architecture. For visitors, it is a sight to behold, boasting over 1,500 stone and wood carvings, spectacular stained glass windows, marble features, an elaborately decorated Chancel ceiling, and floor mosaics crafted by Italian craftsmen. The cathedral is also home to several notable historic artefacts, including a cannonball fired during the Siege of Cork in 1690, and the burial plaque of the only female Freemason in Ireland. Daily guided tours are available.

 Bishop St, The Lough / Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm Sat 9.30am-5pm Sun 12.30pm-5.30pm

An exterior shot of St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral (Photo: John Lord via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Attend a fun-packed festival

Set in the second-largest natural harbour in the world, Cork’s rich maritime history has given rise to the annual Cork Harbour Festival which celebrates this heritage with 9 days of fun-filled summer entertainment. Over 70 diverse events take place in Cork harbour including open sails, urban kayaking, seaweed foraging, and – the festival’s flagship event – Ocean to City, a regatta featuring a 200-strong fleet of vessels with everything from traditional wooden boats, currachs, gigs, Chinese dragon boats, and even stand-up paddleboards on show. There’s also plenty to enjoy quayside, including seafood markets, mobile saunas, free guided walking tours, and more.

Cork Harbour / June each year

For over four decades, Cork Folk Festival has been captivating music fans each year with its stellar line-up of folk performers. Among the notable names to appear at dozens of venues throughout the city include some of Ireland’s finest musicians, such as accordion maestro Sharon Shannon, blues and jazz singer Mary Coughlan, and senator and singer Frances Black. The packed festival programme also features concerts in accordion, fiddle, flute and uilleann pipes, a céilí mór, sean nós dancing, music workshops, trad sessions, and walking tours.

Venues across Cork / September-October each year

A live performance at Cork Folk Festival (Photo: Dragon Thomas)

Explore an atmospheric market

There are few better ways of getting to know a city than by visiting a local market and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of face-to-face commerce. In Cork, the English Market has been trading since way back in 1788, making it one of the oldest markets anywhere in Europe. Entirely covered, the building is also architecturally significant, helping drive its popularity as a tourist attraction with visitors coming in their droves to pick up, or simply peruse, the fresh, local produce sold by traders, many of whose family connections to the market go back generations.

Princes Street, Centre / Mon-Sat 8am-6pm Closed Sun

Take a scenic boat trip

One of the best ways to see Cork is from the vantage point of its many picturesque waterways. This two-hour scenic boat trip allows you to take in some of the city’s most famous landmarks and attractions, as well as the area’s spectacular natural scenery, as you cruise River Lee and through Lough Mahon in the north-western part of Cork Harbour. Other highlights include passing by the colourful town of Passage West and the historic Haulbowline Naval Base, as well as keeping your eyes out for resident seals. Top deck seating allows for 360-degree views throughout the trip.

Book at GetYourGuide

Houses on the banks of a waterway in Cork (Photo: Cork Harbour Cruises)

Get a taste of Cork’s food scene

Cork has a thriving culinary scene and one way to discover it for yourself is by joining a guided food tour. Starting with a mid-morning meet at Cork Tourist Information Centre, you’ll spend the next three hours exploring some of the city’s foodie hotspots, including the famed 18th-century English Market where you can chat with friendly traders while sampling some of the local fare. There’ll also be a stop at Cork’s Coal Quay Market  as well as a light pub lunch complete with a local brew included in the tour price.

Book at Viator

Embark on a whisky-tasting adventure

Jameson whiskey is one of Ireland’s most successful exports and happens to be distilled in County Cork. Fans of the blended Irish spirit can discover the secrets behind its unique flavours and taste by joining The Jameson Experience, a fully guided tour around the original Midleton Distillery which brings the brand’s rich heritage to life. During the experience, you’ll also get to learn about the complexities of the field-to-glass processes as well as take part in a tasting session featuring three famous whiskeys.

Book at GetYourGuide

Outside the entrance to The Jameson Experience (Photo: Courtesy of Jameson Distillery)

Journey to a historic lighthouse

Among the many attractions surrounding the Cork coastline, the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse stands out – quite literally – like a beacon. Those with an interest in lighthouses can join a 6-hour guided tour that also takes in Cape Clear Island. After boarding a ferry at Baltimore Harbour, you’ll begin your voyage, crossing through the beautiful waters of Roaring Water Bay Baltimore Beacon, making your way to Cape Clear Island. After exploring and enjoying lunch on the island, you’ll return to your boat and move on to marvel at the 19th-century lighthouse from the water, keeping an eye out for wildlife including dolphins and whales along the way, before journeying back to Cork.

Book at Viator

Walk in the shadows of revolutionary prisoners

Now a museum, Cork City Gaol played a key role in Cork’s revolutionary past. The vast Georgian-Gothic castle-like building housed female Republican political prisoners during the 20th century Irish War of Independence as well as several prominent male inmates throughout the equally tumultuous Irish Civil War, including the likes of Brian Dillon, John Sarsfield Casey and James Mountaine. Today the former prison welcomes visitors keen to discover one of Cork’s most resonant landmarks, with eerie evening tours available.

Convent Avenue, Sunday’s Well / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm

The austere interior of Cork City Gaol (Photo: NeticolaFollow via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Spend the day at a wildlife park

A short drive east of Cork city centre brings you to Fota Island, home to Ireland’s only wildlife park. First opened in 1983, the 100-acre Fota Wildlife Park offers visitors the chance to come face to face with an assortment of free-roaming animals and birds from all over the world, including kangaroos, ring-tailed lemurs, Asian Lions, Sumatran Tigers, Indian Rhinos, cheetahs and giraffes. As well as the numerous exotic residents to see and admire, there are also several cafés, play and picnic areas, and a gift shop.

Fota, Carrigtwohill, Co / Mon-Sun 9.30am-6pm

Board a ferry to a tranquil island

One of the most popular excursion for visitors to Cork is a trip to Garnish Island, home to gorgeous gardens set against the dramatic backdrop of Bantry Bay and the Caha mountains. Reachable from Cork by driving southwest to the picturesque town of Glengarriff and then taking a 15-minute ferry ride out to the island, once here you’ll be free to take in the scenic views and array of exotic plant life. During the ferry ride, be sure to look out for the seals, white-tailed sea eagles, and even dolphins that can often be spotted in the area’s waters.