The Best Things to Do in Cork, Ireland

The 15 Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland

History, excellent food, and a stunning location on the banks of the River Lee are just three of the great reasons to visit Cork. 

Known as the “Rebel City” for its often-tumultuous part in uprisings and rebellions (usually against the English!), many in Cork will happily tell you to forget about Dublin because their city is the “real capital” of Ireland. And with a strategic position at the entrance to Cork Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean, it’s no surprise that this is the second-largest city in the country.

Visit the Cork Public Museum, and you’ll learn how Cork traces its origins back to the 6th century when a monk named Fin Barre founded a monastery here. Fin Barre is the city’s patron saint, and there’s a staggeringly beautiful Gothic revival cathedral dedicated to him. 

A simple monastic settlement expanded into a walled medieval town which then grew into the city you see today, and given Cork’s important location, you’ll find that many of the best sights include castles, forts, and even an island prison.

With so many things to see and do in Cork, you might not know where to begin. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the absolute best things to do in Cork for you. Stick to these fun and unique Cork bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this wonderful Irish city!

15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Cork

1. Delve into local history at the Cork Public Museum

The city has a fascinating history, and if you’d love to learn more, then one of the best places to visit in Cork is the Cork Public Museum. You’ll find this excellent museum in Fitzgerald Park, where exhibitions and exhibits have been educating visitors for over 75 years. 

There are currently 45,000 objects within the museum’s extensive collection. The objects are all part of Cork’s past, and the collection covers everything from local geology to local politics. The museum is divided into different sections you can browse through on your visit, with arguably the most impressive section being the archeology exhibition.

The museum’s first curator was an archeologist, and there’s a wealth of archeological information and exhibits to take in. The oldest objects date back tens of thousands of years – as far back as the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods of early human history. 

There are other sections dedicated to County Cork’s natural history, a history section telling the story of Cork from the 17th to 20th centuries, an exhibition on military and political history, and an extensive display of photographs and works of art depicting Cork.

2. Take a stroll along St Patrick’s Street

Cool Things to do in Cork, Ireland: St Patrick’s Street

St Patrick’s Street is one of Cork’s most famous thoroughfares. This long, central high street dates back to the 18th century, to a time when Cork began to expand outside of its medieval walls to develop into the large city you see today.

Stroll along St Patrick’s Street, and you’ll see how history and modernity collide in Cork. The street is home to Cork’s oldest shops and stores, although much of the area was severely damaged in 1920 during the Burning of Cork in the Irish War of Independence.

The street was repaired and then later brought into the 21st century when it was upgraded and made much more pedestrian friendly. Locals call St Patrick’s Street by the local name “Pana.” One of the best things to do in Cork is known simply as “doing Pana,” which is the popular Corkonian practice of walking along the high street for a bit of window-shopping!

Book a Cork Self-Guided Tour

3. Stuff yourself with great food and drink at the English Market

Fun Things to do in Cork, Ireland: English Market

The English Market is one of the best Cork attractions, but just make sure you arrive hungry. This iconic indoor market is heaven for foodies, and you’re going to love stuffing yourself with great food and drink as you browse through the shops and stalls.

The market is one of Cork’s oldest institutions, with a history dating back to 1788. It’s named the “English” Market, because it was originally set up by Protestants, with an Irish Catholic market being located elsewhere. It survived the turmoil and famines of 19th-century Ireland and the Burning of Cork during the later Irish War of Independence.

You’ll find that the English Market still promotes its age-old tradition of independent traders and fresh, local produce. Beneath the grand Victorian ceiling, traders sell everything from bread and cakes to vegetables and meat. There are small stalls selling home-cooked pastries alongside larger restaurants serving up sandwiches, sushi, and vegan nachos.

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4. Explore the battlements of Elizabeth Fort

With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean through one of Ireland’s best natural harbors, Cork has always been a strategically important city. In 1601, work began on a “modern” star-shaped fort that was located outside the medieval walls of the old city, and despite being torn down at least once and then rebuilt, it came to dominate the city for centuries.

The fort was named after Queen Elizabeth I of England, so for the Irish, it became a symbol of oppression in the many wars that followed English efforts to control Cork. The fort later became a prison, then was burned again during the Irish War of Independence in the 20th century, until finally it was decommissioned and opened to the public from 2014 onwards.

Today, you can explore the battlements of Elizabeth Fort, where you can uncover the history of one of Cork’s most notorious landmarks. The views from the high stone walls are impressive, and you can join a daily guided tour at 1 pm to find out more about the pivotal role the fort has played in local history. 

Book a Cork Historical Walking Tour

5. Enjoy a walk around Fitzgerald Park

Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Fitzgerald Park

If you’d love a break from the urban environment, then why not take a walk around Fitzgerald Park? 

One of the most popular Cork attractions, this lovely public park is located in Mardyke, right along the southern bank of the River Lee. There are 12 acres of greenery to explore, and the trees, grass, and flowers all make for a welcome respite after sightseeing in the city center.

Fitzgerald Park is named for Edward Fitzgerald, a former Lord Mayor of Cork who was in office in 1902 when the park became the site of an international world’s fair. Since then, the park has been open to the public and is now also home to the excellent Cork Public Museum.

Along the River Lee, you’ll also find one of Cork’s most enduring landmarks. Head to the riverbank, and you’ll see Daly’s Bridge spanning the water. Cross the other side, and you’ll quickly understand why the bridge has taken on the nickname “Shakey Bridge!”

6. Learn true stories of crime and rebellion at the Cork City Gaol

Cork, Ireland Things to do: Cork City Gaol

One of the best Cork sightseeing attractions is the Cork City Gaol. This former prison first opened its doors to inmates in 1824, and it was in operation for 99 years before it was closed down in 1923. It’s now a fascinating museum, and if you book in advance, there’s a daily tour at 2 pm that will teach you everything you need to know about its history.

The tour provides intriguing insights into the local people who found themselves behind bars. You’ll hear true stories of the men and women (and sometimes children) who were held in jail for crimes ranging from drunkenness to murder.

Cork City Gaol became somewhat more infamous during the 1920s when it was used to hold political prisoners during the Irish War of Independence. The prison even held Constance Markievicz, an Irish Republican who also had the distinction of being the first woman elected to the United Kingdom’s parliament. 

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7. Churn butter at The Butter Museum

Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Butter Museum

One of Cork’s most prized exports has long been the city’s delicious butter. If you love your butter, then a trip to The Butter Museum is without a doubt one of the most fun things to do in Cork!

The museum is surprisingly comprehensive. The exhibitions start by taking you back thousands of years to explain the earliest instances of butter production in Ireland. Archeological evidence suggests that the earliest people in Ireland once preserved butter in bogs, while the importance of cattle raiding showed just how valuable cows were to the economy. Rather uniquely, you can even see a thousand-year-old keg of butter that’s on display. 

Move through the museum, and you’ll learn that in the 1700s, Cork became the center of the world’s butter-making trade. With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, the city was home to the Butter Exchange, where farmers brought their butter to be sold on international markets.

If you’re lucky, then your visit to Cork will coincide with one of the museum’s butter-making events. Get yourself a spot, and you’ll not only learn how butter is made, but you’ll see the process in action. You’ll even get to try a little bit of butter-churning yourself!

8. Ring the Bells of Shandon

Cool Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Bells of Shandon

In the Shandon district, on the north side of the River Lee, you can find one of Cork’s most iconic churches. The Church of St Anne has punctuated the Cork skyline since it was built in 1726, and the 36-meter-high tower has since become a stalwart landmark on the horizon.

The Church of St Anne is the subject of one of Cork’s most famous songs: “The Bells of Shandon.” The song was inspired by the eight bells that hang in the tower, and you’ll hear them ringing across Shandon throughout the day.

Best of all, you can climb the steep steps to the belfry, where the Bells of Shandon hang from the rafters. Surprisingly, tourists are still allowed to actually ring the bells!

9. Be impressed by the Gothic-revival architecture of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

Fun Things to do in Cork, Ireland: St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

The three spires of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral have towered above Cork since 1879. 

This is one of the Church of Ireland’s most impressive cathedrals in the country, and you’ll love the dramatic Gothic-revival architecture that stands out on the skyline.

The cathedral took over a decade to build, but you’ll understand why when you see the intricate details on the facade. The exterior of the cathedral is adorned with gargoyles and gothic motifs, while a total of three spires reach upwards toward the heavens.

The cathedral is dedicated to St Fin Barre, the patron saint of the city of Cork. St Fin Barre lived in the 6th and early 7th centuries and was one of the first bishops of Cork. The ground where the cathedral is located was the site of even older churches that were also dedicated to the patron Saint, and the cathedral continues Cork’s historic religious traditions to this day.

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10. Admire great works of Irish art at the Crawford Art Gallery

Must do things in Cork, Ireland: Crawford Art Gallery

For culture vultures, a visit to the Crawford Art Gallery is one of the best things to do in Cork. This is the city’s premier art institution, and it traces its roots back to the Cork School of Design, which was first opened in the 1850s.

The art gallery is located within a historic, former customs house in Cork that dates back to the 18th century. Inside, you’ll find an eclectic selection of artwork collected from around the world.

The focus, of course, is predominantly on Irish artists, including many local artists who began their careers studying at the Cork School of Design. You’ll find works by James Brenan, Henry Jones Thaddeus, and many more painters and realists. There are also original works from Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, as well as the British-Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke.

11. Go stargazing at the Blackrock Castle Observatory

What to do in Cork, Ireland: Blackrock Castle

Overlooking the River Lee on the eastern edge of Cork is a domineering 16th-century fortification known as Blackrock Castle

The castle was originally built to protect the people of Cork from raids by pirates and privateers, but in the modern era, it’s taken on a more unusual use.

In 2007, the Blackrock Castle Observatory was opened to the public, and ever since, it’s been entertaining and educating locals and visitors about the stars.

The main exhibition is “Cosmos at the Castle,” a unique and interactive display that allows you to chase comets, explore how the universe began, and see how it might, one day, end. The observatory also holds stargazing events and astronomy lectures at the castle, and it’s also interesting to know that serious astronomical research is carried out on the premises.

The second exhibition is entitled “Journeys of Exploration,” where you can explore Cork’s maritime history. The exhibition takes a look at the origins of Blackrock Castle, as well as the smugglers and pirates who often worked and raided along the Cork coast.

12. Kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle

Unique Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Blarney Castle

Just five miles from Cork, you can visit one of the most iconic attractions in all of Ireland. Blarney Castle dates back to the 13th century, and built into the battlements is the world-famous Blarney Stone.

Explore the castle first, and you’ll learn how it’s been involved in the many, many conflicts that have taken place in County Cork over the centuries. It was built around 1200 AD by the McCarthys of Muskerry, a local family descended from Irish kings. Much of the present keep, tower, and walls you see were added in 1446, and they were built in the classic medieval style of the day that we associate with traditional castles. 

As impressive as Blarney Castle is, it’s always going to be overshadowed by the Blarney Stone. You’ll find it firmly fixed into a wall, next to the queue of people attempting to kiss it. The exact origins of the stone and the legends that surround it are steeped in mystery. But as popular myth has it, kiss the stone, and you’ll be endowed with the gift of gab, or the ability to charm those around you with flattery. 

It’s no easy gift to gain, though. The Blarney Stone is in a slightly perilous position, and before the railings were added, it was common for people to be injured or even killed attempting to kiss it. To kiss the stone, you have to be lowered backward over the edge of the battlements with the help of an assistant. It’s thrilling – or terrifying! 

Book a Blarney Castle Full-Day Tour

13. Visit the Titanic’s last port of call

Cork, Ireland Bucket List: Cork Harbour

Follow the River Lee, and you’ll come to Cork Harbour, a natural sound that’s protected ships from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean for centuries. Overlooking the northern side of Cork Harbour is Cobh, a lovely seaside town that’s known for its colorful houses and maritime history.

Take a day trip to Cobh, and at the local museum, you’ll learn how many famous ships have called into port here. Cobh became a center of emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as many people left Ireland for America, Australia, Canada, and other parts of the world. The most infamous ship to call into Cobh Harbour was the Titanic, a vessel that needs little introduction.

In fact, Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic before the liner began its fateful journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Over a hundred passengers boarded at the harbor here, many of whom never returned. You can find out more about Cobh’s role in Irish emigration at the Cobh Heritage Centre, but if you’re interested specifically in the Titanic, there’s no better place to visit than the dedicated Titanic Experience.

The Titanic Experience is located within the former White Star Line Building in Cobh. Take the guided tour, and you’ll hear moving stories of the passengers who boarded the ship in Cobh as you follow in their final footsteps on land before they set sail.

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14. Take the ferry to Spike Island

Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Spike Island

Look out across Cork Harbour from Cobh’s waterfront, and you’ll see a large island in the distance. This is Spike Island, a former island fortress that’s just a 12-minute ferry ride away from the mainland.

A visit to Spike Island is one of the best things to do in Cork. The island has a long history dating back at least 1,300 years to the first Irish monks who settled here to escape the outside world. The monks didn’t stay, and the island remained barren and isolated until the first military fortifications were built here in 1779 during the American Revolution.

The fortress expanded and soon became one of the largest military structures in the world. It was then turned into a prison for convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and eventually became the largest prison anywhere in the British Isles. Spike Island remained a prison until very recently, when it was finally closed in 2004.

Visit Spike Island today, and you’ll discover this fascinating history, and more, on the guided tour you’ll join once the ferry docks. After the tour, you’re free to explore the island and walk the nature trails at leisure before catching a ferry back across Cork Harbour to Cobh.

15. Visit Midleton for a tour of the Jameson Whiskey Distillery

Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland: Jameson Whiskey Distillery

A half-hour drive east of Cork will bring you to the town of Midleton, where you’ll find a visitors center dedicated to one of Ireland’s most popular exports. 

Jameson Whiskey is one of the best-known Irish whiskey brands, and they have a huge market both at home and abroad. They’ve been distilling whiskey using the same recipe that was concocted by John Jameson in 1780, and in years past, it was often distilled here in Midleton.

The Midleton Distillery was a center of distillation for almost 200 years (not just Jameson Whiskey, but many more brands distilled here, too), until the old stills were transformed by Jameson Whiskey into a whiskey experience that now attracts over a hundred thousand tourists every year. 

There are several different tours you can join to learn more about the distillery and the whiskey distillation process in general. The standard tour introduces you to the largest whiskey distillation pot in the world, as well as the history of Irish whiskey and its production process. 

The extended Behind the Scenes tour offers a more in-depth look at the process and includes a premium whiskey-tasting experience at the end. Serious whiskey fans will then want to opt for the Cask Opening Experience, a rare chance to open and taste directly from an aged cask of whiskey!

Book a Jameson Whiskey Distillery Tour

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Cork. What’s your favorite thing to do in Cork?


About the Author:

  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

1 thought on “The 15 Best Things to do in Cork, Ireland”

  1. Glenda O’Donnell Nee Grey

    Some of my ancestors were from Cork. Previously I’ve travelled to the outskirts of Cork though not Cork itself. I was keen to visit Cork all those years ago however time had run out.

    Seeing how interesting and beautiful Cork is, I will now return with more time available to visit historical sites, buildings, parks, walking trails and taste the cuisine.

    One of my forbearers was a Mary McCarthy leaving me little chance of ever finding her family area. So many McCarthy’s.

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