When I close my eyes and think of Ireland, my mind immediately lands on a particular sunny day in County Cork. My husband and I leisurely walked along the cliffs of Ballycotton feeling as if we were the only two people on earth. I remember the peace l felt looking over the Celtic Sea, with the waves rolling in at their own steady pace. I remember the fresh air, salty and sweet from the sea water and fresh grass, stinging my lungs. I remember the sun, however briefly it showed itself, warming my face and shining in my hair. I remember the craggy path, teetering on the cliffs, and the massive thorn bushes that made us feel safe by barring our way to the edge. All of these things I remember with a reminiscent sigh, a testament that the coast of Ballycotton inspires even the busiest people to take a deep breath.
Of course, our time in Ballycotton is only one of many pleasant memories we have in County Cork. From the beautiful town of Cobh to the bustling city of Cork, my husband and I continue to look on the area with profound fondness. Below we have laid out an itinerary for anyone wishing to create memories like ours, anyone who wants to enjoy Ireland in the moment rather than spend all their time figuring out what to do next. Scroll to the bottom to download a Google Map with the sights and days mapped out for you. All you have to do is follow along or adapt it to your needs.
Why County Cork?
One word—variety. County Cork offers some of the best variety of things to do and see in Ireland. Historic landmarks, lush gardens, local food, castles, cliff walks, light houses, cathedrals, city streets, college life—Cork has it all.
When is the best time of year to visit?
Ireland has charm at any time of year, but know what you want before you go. My husband and I visited County Cork in late fall, early November. There are several pros to traveling in fall: less expense, changing colors, fewer crowds. There are also several cons: cold weather, less daylight, limited visiting hours. We didn’t mind the weather (talk about cozy) but when the sun goes down at five o’clock you have less time to see everything you want to see. The same goes for winter. Shorter days, lower temperatures, less crowds. But even in winter, Ireland can be beautiful.
If you were to go in summer, the sun would not set until 10 o’clock, leaving plenty of opportunity to see the sights. Most tourist spots also extend their hours in the summer. You would also have a better chance of sunny days, though that is certainly not guaranteed. On the downside, summer is tourist season and that means more people and more expense. You will be battling crowds and tour buses in must-see areas, and paying more too. Spring might be be the sweet spot. The flowers begin to bloom and temperatures begin to rise with less rainfall and fewer crowds.
What to bring for the weather?
Go for layers at any time of year. Bring a warm layer (top and bottom), a real rain coat, sunglasses, comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and an umbrella.
Where to stay?
For optimal sightseeing, we recommend staying in Cork City. Since Cork is central to the sights we suggest, it will entail less driving. If you choose a hotel near Fitzgerald Park, you can easily walk into the center of the city while also getting a little distance from the heavy traffic. Try the highly-rated River Lee Hotel or Fernroyd House B&B. Be sure to check about parking wherever you decide to stay since it is not easy to find on the street.
If you are looking for a more peaceful place to stay, we have also selected some places outside of Cork City on the route of our itinerary. In Cobh (pronounced “cove”), try Robin Hill House B&B. Slightly out of the center of the busy harbor you can get away from the cruise ship crowds and enjoy peace and quiet. Near Ballycotton, try the Bayview Hotel for incredible sea views. For a high-class experience and excellent food stay at the Ballymaloe Hotel in Shanagary.
What to do?
Ballycotton & Shanagary
After a beautiful drive into Ballycotton, hike the Ballycotton Cliff Walk trail. Park in the small lot near the trailhead, taking notice of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat, a historical landmark remembering countless shipwrecks on the shores of Southern Ireland. As you hike the narrow path looking over the sea onto Ballycotton Lighthouse, take in unimpeded sea views from the edge of the rocky cliffs. If you pay close attention you might see whales or dolphins splashing in the waves. Because it is a cliff walk, monitor children at all times (unfortunately the path is not wide enough for strollers) and don’t stray too near the edge. We suggest going about half-way along the trail. Look for the memorial of the Cooleen Shipwreck where the trail gets muddled and hard to follow before turning back the way you came.
After your hike, head towards Shanagary to the Ballymaloe Farm and Gardens. There is a small shop at the Ballymaloe Cookery School where you can pay the entrance fee to tour the grounds. The farm and gardens are full of hidden wonders beyond animals and crops. Be sure to solve their Celtic Maze, a hedge maze that is surprisingly difficult, and step into the Shell House, a gazebo-type building decorated entirely with real shells. While here you will learn about growing food, raising animals, and eating locally—all major factors in the farm to table movement. (You should eat there too—see below!)
After exploring Ballycotton and Shanagary, head to the popular harbor town of Cobh. Park your car free in the Cathedral Carpark before following our walking route of the city (download the Google Map below) starting at St. Colman’s Cathedral. The cathedral was completed in 1915 and has one of the largest bell carillons in Europe. From there, head down West View hill and stop for a picture of the cathedral at the park. As you continue, you will also pass a memorial for victims of the passenger ship Lusitania, which German troops sunk off of Ireland’s southern coast during World War I.
You will arrive at The Titanic Experience, a memorial for another well-known shipwreck tragedy that in part began here. Learn in an interactive way about the victims of the Titanic, which left Cobh over 100 years ago never to see land again. When you leave, walk along the harbor towards John F. Kennedy Park and a monument to Annie Moore, the first person to immigrate through Ellis Island. End up at Cobh Heritage Centre, where you can discover more about the history of the area and its people. Grab dinner (see below) before you head back to the car, taking a look at the memorial erected for the victims of the Titanic as you pass.
The next day, explore Cork City on foot. Follow our walking route (download Google Map below) to see the cities best sights, starting with Fitzgerald Park. The park is named for Edward Fitzgerald, a city mayor who once brought an international exhibition (i.e. world trade fair) to Cork. Situated on the banks of the River Lee, the park invites visitors to stroll through and appreciate the landscape, the modern art displays, and enter the public museum. Afterward you have had your fill, head across Daly Bridge (colloquially referred to as “Shakey Bridge” because of the way it moves when you cross it) which was built in 1926.
The next stop is Cork City Gaol, a historic building that most notably housed prisoners in the 19th century. As you wander its halls and learn about its inhabitants, you will feel lucky to be alive and free. Head towards St. Anne’s Church through one of the residential neighborhoods, taking in what the locals call home. Learn about the history of the church and its famed tower clock (known as the “four-faced liar because it is notoriously wrong), then ring the famous Bells of Shandon. Afterwards head to the English Market for lunch (see below). Take a bite of history while you are there—the English Market traces back to the reign of King James I in 1610 and has been officially trading since 1788.
After lunch, head to St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Completed in 1879, the cathedral is believed to have been built on the site where the St. Fin Barre founded his monastic school in the 7th century. It is particularly beautiful from the outside and is illuminated at night. The inside also has its treasures, including a 24lb cannonball from the siege of Cork in 1680. Finish your day at Crawford Art Gallery, an an expansive and free art gallery featuring many Irish artists, before getting dinner in town.
The next day, if you have time after Blarney, be sure to check out some of the pubs (below) and the grounds of University College Cork. Go to the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, free to the public, for an art fix. Stroll through the President's Garden to appreciate the grounds. If nothing else visit the Stone Corridor, home to several real Ogham Stones, and the Crawford Observatory, home to several historic telescopes.
On your third day in Cork, get an early start to Blarney. Visit Blarney Castle & Gardens, home to the famed Blarney Stone. The stone was set in the tower in 1446 and there are various stories about the origin of the legend that surrounds it. Regardless, legend has it that kissing the stone gives you grand eloquence and skill in flattery. The word blarney, meaning “talk that aims to charm, pleasantly flatter, or persuade” derives from the legend. Over the years millions of people have kissed the stone, including Winston Churchill and other celebrities.
Sound disgusting? Don’t worry, they do sanitize the stone (at least, that’s what I deduced from a the spray bottle of alcohol next to it). But that might be the least of your concerns. The stone happens to be placed in a peculiar position—hanging off the edge of the top of the tower. In order to kiss it, you must lie on your back while someone with a curious job title dips you backwards off the edge of the tower. If you have a fear of heights or tight spaces, it may not be for you. And that’s perfectly okay because the line to accomplish this ridiculous feat can get very long. We recommend getting there right when they open and climbing directly to the top of the tower before the tour bus crowds get there. Then you can tour the castle and grounds at your own pace afterwards.
That said, don’t skip the gardens (which it seems like a lot of people do). The grounds of Blarney Castle are expansive and include many features of interest, including a Poison Garden where you are forbidden from touching, smelling, or eating any of the plants. Read the signs next to each of them to find out how the poison works and what people used to use it for. Also see Rock Close, where nature and legend meet. Climb the wishing steps and see the witch’s stone as you learn about this magical place in history.
Where to eat?
On day one, if you need breakfast to get your energy up before the Ballycotton Cliff Walk, stop in to Pier 26 nearby. They have a simple but tantalizing menu of hot breakfast items. While in Shanagary, after exploring the grounds of the Ballymaloe Farm and Gardens, head towards the Ballymaloe Hotel and Restaurant. Enjoy a fine-dining experience at the hotel restaurant or head to the Ballymaloe Shop Café next door. Enjoy dishes made from local foods, many grown or raised at the nearby farm. Darina Allen (founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School) and her daughter Myrtle Allen, who received a Michelin Star during her time at the Ballymaloe Restaurant, are considered responsible for bringing the farm to table movement to Ireland. Eat dinner in Cobh at Gilbert’s Bistro on the Square before getting a drink and listening to traditional music at Kelly’s Bar.
Day two, eat breakfast at your B&B in Cork, or head to Café Depeche for a quick bite to start your day. Eat lunch at the historical English Market, where people have been trading and eating for over four hundred years. The Farmgate Café upstairs of the market ought to fill you up. Eat dinner in the center of Cork at Market Lane for something a tad nicer.
On your final day, if your hotel doesn’t supply breakfast, eat in Blarney at The Old Blarney Post Office where you will find delicious food in a surprisingly convenient location. Eat lunch at Blarney Castle & Gardens, leaving you the opportunity to spend as much time as you want there. After you leave and head to the University, grab a beer and a pizza at the Franciscan Well Brewery back in Cork. Finish your night with another drink at Sin é, a Cork hotspot where you can hear traditional Irish music.
You Should Know . . .
Language: English and Irish (one of the gaelic languages), expect to see signs fully or partly in Irish
Tipping: 10-15% only in restaurants, but check first for a service charge
Driving: There's a serious joke I like to make with people about the size of the roads in Ireland. I say, "Take a highway in the US. Eliminate the shoulders. Eliminate one of the lanes. Make that road a little smaller. Add stone walls on either side. That's a two way road in Ireland."
Outside of Dublin, you are going to want to rent a car to see the best sights. But be warned: driving in Ireland can be difficult. If driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road down curvy single-lane two-way roads scares you, stick to the highways as much as possible. Some roads have four-foot stone walls on either side with blind corners and no shoulder. In many areas you have to pull off to allow other cars (and tourbuses) to come through. Plus, those yellow signs we have in the US to tell us how much to slow down on curves? They don't have those there. So don't say I didn't warn you.
For those SUV drivers in the US, here are some things to take note of:
drive on the opposite side of the car
drive on the opposite side of the road
walls on either side
pull-off points to allow for other cars
small cars have a better time
have insurance or pay
Make it romantic
We call ourselves Make a Date of It because romance can be instilled into almost any activity. While travel can be stressful, it can also bring couples close together and inspire cherished memories. Here are a few tips to up the romance on your trip to County Cork:
Tip #1: Walk wherever possible
You may have noticed that we recommend walking through Cork City and Cobh, which means tiring days on your feet. That may not appeal to you, but if anything do it for the sake of your romance. Driving in Ireland is stressful. When we first arrived in Cork the road was a mess of traffic, j-walking students, and confusing one-way roads. We spent thirty minutes (not an exaggeration) driving around our hotel looking for how to reach the driveway. Not romantic. Not to mention, when you are struggling to figure out how to get to each place and bickering about how you missed the last turn, you miss seeing the city. Walk the streets, hold hands, and take it all in.
Tip #2: Look for hidden gems
Some of the areas we suggest visiting are very touristy. Don’t worry—they are touristy for a reason. All we recommend is that you go beyond the obvious and find the path less travelled. When you visit Blarney Castle, don’t just kiss the stone and call it quits. Explore the grounds and find a peaceful spot in the gardens away from the tour bus crowds. When you visit the Franciscan Well Brewery, don’t just sip a beer in the corner booth. Head up to the attic for storytelling by a real seanchaí. Explore the Shell House at Ballymaloe Farm. Walk the labyrinth at St. Fin Barre’s. Listen for the Bells of Shandon. Nothing is more romantic than living in the moment.
Tip #3: Go to bed early
What causes the most arguments while traveling? Being tired and hungry. Travel is tiring. If you follow our itinerary while in County Cork, you will be on your feet almost all day, everyday. That’s why we suggest going to bed early. If you eat when you are hungry and go to bed early, you will have energy for all new adventures the next day. Plus, you’ll have the energy for a little bedroom romance with your partner. Win win.
Download this 3-Day Itinerary for FREE using GoogleMaps
Day 1: Hit the Coast
On your way from Dublin or Waterford, stop for breakfast before doing the Ballycotton Cliff Walk.
Afterwards, head to Ballymaloe Farm & Gardens. Take a tour of the grounds before heading to the Ballymaloe Shop Café or Ballymaloe Hotel Restaurant for lunch.
Drive to Cobh. Explore the town, starting with St. Colman’s Cathedral. Walk to the harbor and tour the Titanic Experience and Cobh Heritage Museum, seeing several sights along with way. Download and follow the route provided on the Google Map.
Eat dinner in Cobh at one of the places we suggested, or somewhere that appealed to you upon arrival. Then, check in to your hotel.
Day 2: Tour Cork City
Download and follow the walking route on Google Maps. Get an early start with breakfast and a stroll through Fitzgerald Park, enjoying the modern art exhibits. Time permitting, stop into the museum.
Then, cross Daly Bridge (AKA “Shakey Bridge”) and head towards the Cork City Gaol. Spend a few hours here learning about this history of the building.
Afterwards you will walk through some of residential Cork, getting a feel for the city. Your next destination is St. Anne’s Church where you will ring the Bells of Shandon and get 360 degree views of the city.
By then you will be pretty hungry. Cross the River Lee yet again and head to the English Market. Explore the vendors, appreciate the history, and snack on any items that appeal to you. Upstairs you will find Farmgate Café, a busy and delicious spot to get lunch.
After you have had your fill, head to St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Appreciate the architecture from the outside (and meditate in the labyrinth) before heading inside and learning about this spectacular historic building.
Add some variety to your day with a stop at Crawford Art Gallery. Wander the halls and take in the artwork.
Finally, grab dinner before you depart back to your hotel.
Day 3: Get the Gift of Gab
Get an early start and head to Blarney, where you can eat breakfast before experiencing Blarney Castle. Avoid the tour bus crowds by getting to the castle right when they open and heading straight to the Blarney Stone. Smooch the stone, then take your time and follow your guide book coming back through the castle.
Afterwards, explore what makes Blarney Castle worth visiting: Blarney Gardens. Learn the history and enjoy the peacefulness of the grounds. Eat lunch while you are there. Once you had enjoyed every aspect, head back to Cork.
Next on your list will be University College Cork. Go to the Lewis Glucksman Gallery for an art fix. Stroll through the President's Garden to appreciate the grounds. If nothing else visit the Stone Corridor, home to several real Ogham Stones, and the Crawford Observatory, home to several historic telescopes.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, visit the Franciscan Well Brewery for a pint. On the back patio you will find Pompeii Pizza, which you can eat with your beer. Enjoy the atmosphere and, if you are lucky, catch one of their events. They host live music as well as a traditional Irish storyteller (a seanchaì) every week.
Hop to the next pub for the best place in Cork for traditional Irish music, Sin é. Then, head back to your hotel or to the airport.