Cork is Ireland’s second city, but compared to the touristy streets of Dublin, the city is a relatively unknown destination.
Amongst locals and those who make the effort to visit though, it’s well known that Cork has just as much as history and culture to offer as the more frequented Irish capital does.
Found in the south-west, Cork is a port city on the River Lee that has always been at the forefront of Irish history and politics.
The city began life as a simple monastery hundred of years ago before being ruled by Vikings, the Normans and then the English.
In more recent Irish history, Cork was at the center of events during the Irish Civil War, as the locals were fiercely in favor of independence. For this reason, there’s a lot of national pride in Cork, and a lot of history waiting to be uncovered!
To inspire your trip to Ireland, here are our favorite things to do in Cork!
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Ireland (Travel Guide)
15 Best Things to Do in Cork, Ireland
1. Shop at the English Market
The English Market is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, and strolling through this bustling covered market is one of the best things to do in Cork.
The market has been here since the 19th century and has retained much of its original Victorian-era architecture making it just about as photogenic as it is charming.
The market has a huge emphasis on food and you’ll find vendors selling everything from fruit and vegetables to fresh fish and meat from their shops, while there are also some great little cafes serving up local specialties to the tourists all through the week.
2. Visit the Cork Public Museum
Learn more about the city’s history by visiting the Cork Public Museum. For history lovers, this is one of the best things to do in Cork, and the museum is located in the beautiful surroundings of Fitzgerald Park.
It’s not a huge museum, but it is detailed, and you’ll find plenty of intriguing exhibits to explore inside.
The museum has a heavy focus on prehistoric finds that have been unearthed around the city, and you’ll learn about early history in south-west Ireland, before then being taken on a journey through life in Medieval Cork, through to modern times.
3. Relax at Fitzgerald Park
Fitzgerald Park, where you’ll find the Cork Public Museum, is a tourist attraction within itself. The pleasant public park is found right on the banks of the River Lee, offering visitors a wonderful riverside setting to enjoy.
You can find sculptures and fountains through the park, as well as a lively population of ducks and swans on the waterways. You can even cross the river on the legendary local footbridge, which is somewhat of a city icon.
Fitzgerald Park is incredibly well maintained, and all through the year is a great escape from the city, be it during the blooms of spring, the heat of summer, resplendent and colorful autumn or frosty winter.
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4. Cork City Gaol
Surprisingly, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and one of the best things to do in Cork is to tour through the Cork City Gaol.
This was once the city’s main jail but has in recent years been turned into a fascinating museum that delves into the lives and living conditions of the many inmates that have been held within its dark cells.
The prison was built in the early 19th century and was in use until Irish independence.
While it held many common criminals from the city, during the Irish War of Independence it was used by the British to hold many of the local Irish nationalists fighting for their freedom, and consequently, it became an enduring symbol of oppression.
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5. University College Cork
Cork has long been at the heart of history and politics in Ireland, but it’s also been at the forefront of education too, and in the city, you can find the illustrious University College Cork, which dates back to 1845 and is today consistently named as the top university in Ireland.
University College Cork has extensive campus sites across the city, and you can visit many of the historic Victorian buildings that are found in splendid surroundings.
You can also visit the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, an exceptional art gallery that hosts many great exhibitions.
6. St Anne’s Church
Found in Shandon, one of Cork’s historic districts, St Anne’s Church is one of the city’s most iconic symbols. The church dates back to the early 18th century and the tall tower can be seen from much of the city.
This tower is home to the Shandon Bells, a marvelous piece of local heritage that has been immortalized in many a local song. For great views, you can even climb the old tower and look out over the city.
7. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
Another great local church to visit in the city is St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, a magnificent piece of Gothic architecture dating from the late 19th century. It’s named for the city’s patron saint, who went by the name of Finbarr of Cork.
You can explore the interior, but make sure you look out for the ghastly looking gargoyles that adorn the exterior walls too.
8. Red Abbey
The Red Abbey is an ancient abbey in Cork that has lain abandoned since around the turn of the 18th century. It’s a great piece of local history to visit, as it’s one of the last remaining legacies of the medieval city that still stands.
Little is left of the abbey except for the imposing spire, which still stands tall. This dates to around the 14th century, and which because of its historical importance, has been designated an Irish National Monument.
9. St Patrick’s Street
Visiting St Patrick’s Street is one of the best things to do in Cork because this is really the center of the modern city.
It’s a historic walkway that’s now home to some of the city’s best shops and restaurants, while it was originally one of the first streets to be constructed outside of the medieval walls.
Since then, it’s become the heart of Cork, and you can stroll along, visiting shops and cafes and taking in local life in the city!
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Ireland (Travel Guide)
10. Triskel Arts Centre
Triskel Arts Centre is the cultural center of Cork, and it’s found in a uniquely historic location in the city center.
The center is run from Christchurch, an old church dating back to the 19th century which was built in a neoclassical style, on a religious site that has been a place of worship since the 11th century AD.
Now, the site is a space for cultural activities, hosting art galleries and events, the most popular of which are the regular cinema showings, which take place inside the church itself, making for a peculiar setting for movie nights!
11. Elizabeth Fort
Elizabeth Fort is found in the city center, and this important defensive structure was built far back in the early 17th century.
It’s found in a strategic location atop a hill, on what was at the time of its construction land outside of the city walls.
It’s an iconic part of the cityscape, and it makes for a great place to learn more about the city’s intricate history.
12. Spike Island
Spike Island is a small island that’s located in Cork Harbour, and it makes for a great trip from the city.
The island has an important place in local history, as its isolated position has made it home to everyone from hermits and friars through to prisoners held here to stop them from being able to escape!
You can take a tour from Cork, including a cruise through the harbor to reach the island itself.
13. Bell’s Field
Bell’s Field is a beautiful scenic area outside of the city center. A short walk through the suburbs of Cork will take you into the hills, where you can enjoy spectacular views over the city from afar.
It’s an excellent place to escape the city, and to find some peace and quiet. Head here at sunset for the best vistas!
14. Day Trip to Kinsale
Half an hour outside of Cork is the small town of Kinsale, and it makes for a great day out from the city. The town is just about as historic as it gets around here, and it’s found in a beautiful location on the coast.
There are ramshackle, yet incredibly brightly colored streets to explore, alongside some of the best food in County Cork.
Due to its strategic location, many forts and castles have been built here through the centuries, while many important battles – including against the Spanish – have been fought here.
Charles Fort is one you simply can not miss, this is one of the best-preserved star forts in Europe.
Our top recommended tour of Kinsale: Full-Day Kinsale and West Cork Tour
15. Day Trip to Blarney Castle
Just a short drive from the city is one of the most famous attractions in Ireland, and one of the best things to do in Cork is to take a trip to Blarney Castle.
The medieval castle has long dominated the countryside, but it’s perhaps best known for being the home of the Blarney Stone.
This fabled piece of rock is said to impart upon anyone who kisses it the ‘gift of the gab’ – the ability to speak eloquently. It’s a legend that has international fame, and that attracts thousands of people each year looking to kiss the stone!
Our top recommended tour of Blarney Castle: Cork Tour Including Kinsale and Blarney Castle
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