As an adopted Corkonian, I truly believe (as a lot of Cork people do), that Cork is a real capital of Ireland! Sorry, Dubliners, don’t hate!.. If that’s possible for you :). Cork has all the conveniences of a big city – great restaurants, bars, fantastic shopping, yet it’s small and compact. For the most part you can walk everywhere, which I enjoy as I don’t drive!
Another thing I love about Cork is there’s always something going on. There are numerous festivals happening throughout the year, from the world famous Jazz Festival, to Poetry, French Film, International Choral and Book Festivals, as well as smaller events, such as Burger, Dessert, Oyster or Whiskey Festivals. You can find the full guide of Cork events here.
If you are in the area or visiting only a few days, be sure to explore the stunning Cork County and experience all the beauty of West Cork. See my top 10 things to do in Cork County here.
If you only have a day or two to spend in the city, here are my top 12 things to do that are free or quite cheap.
- Cork Walks
Like I mentioned above, one of the greatest things about Cork is that a lot of the main attractions are within walking distance from one another. In fact, Cork City Council has developed several fantastic self guided tours that you can access via their website. They provide you with everything you need – a map of the route that shows all the major attractions, a list of the attractions in alphabetical order, and bits of history and information on each of those sights. Throughout the city you will also see the signs for Cork Walks, so if you see one that means you are going the right way! Find the links for two main routes for the city center here: South Parish Walk and City Center Island.
- The English Market
A beautiful covered market right in the heart of Cork, the English Market dates back to early 17th century and truly is an institution of daily life. You can buy fresh fish, meats, spices, fruit and veg, artisan chocolate and bread, as well as many other local goodies such as pudding, tripe and drisheen. Cheese fanatics (by which I mean anyone who has had cheese at least once in their life) be sure to check out “On the Pig’s back” – an artisan shop famous for their cheese and pate. Farmgate Cafe, located on the second floor of the market, offers great lunch options as well as an awesome view of the market. The Queen of England has famously visited the market in 2011. For more info and opening hours check out their website.
- Crawford Gallery
If you love arts, then definitely check out the Crawford Gallery, which is located right next to the Cork Opera House. It is a regional art museum for Munster, dedicated to the visual arts, both historic and contemporary. The admission to the gallery is free, so it makes for a wonderful and inexpensive afternoon activity. And when you’re done, pop across the street, or up onto Patrick, to check out one of the local restaurants or pubs. Trust me, there’s plenty.
4. Shandon Street Area
Across the river Lee from the Crawford Gallery, is a historic area called Shandon. Not only is it a beautiful area that offers great views of the city, but there are also a number of things to do. You can go up on top of St. Anne’s Church and ring the Shandon Bells, visit the Cork Butter Museum, or check out a dance performance at the Firkin Crane. At the end of June, the whole area transforms for the annual Shandon street festival with loud music, street performers, food vendors and DJ’s at night, celebrating the great city of Cork. And what would this guide be without a suggestion for a place to drink – cool off, or more likely dry off at the Bierhause. I’ll tell you more about this place in an upcoming post. 🙂
5. University College of Cork (UCC)
University College of Cork (UCC) was established in 1845, and is the main university in Cork. It is located 15-20 minute walk away from the city center, or you can hop on a city bus 216. This beautiful Victorian style building is surrounded by stunning gardens, and is definitely worth the visit. Don’t miss the free guided tour Monday to Friday at 3:00 PM, and 12:00 PM on Saturdays. All tours are in English and last approximately 70 minutes. The tour includes a visit to the Aula Maxima (main hall), the Ogam Stones (which are megalithic stones with carved inscriptions that represent the earliest written source of the Irish language, as well as the oldest recording of Irish personal names), the Main Quadrangle and the refurbished Crawford Observatory. Be sure also to visit the Lewis Glucksman gallery, a modern art gallery located on campus. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.
- Fitzgerald Park
This stunning Park located just a few minute walk from the UCC. Recently redesigned, the park is a tranquil place to sit down and relax by the river. The grounds of the park comprise of the Cork Museum, Riverview Café, many sculptures, a waterlily pond, and a skate park. Daly’s Bridge, built in 1926, connects Sundays Well Road with the park. This pedestrian bridge is made from timber planks and is known locally as the ‘Shakey Bridge’. The park often hosts wonderful free events such as Laya City Spectacular, a two day festival sponsored by Laya Healthcare, featuring performers, street vendors, various activities for kids and more.
- Cork Gaol
Cork City Gaol (Irish for Jail and pronounced the same) was opened in 1824 and became an all-female prison in 1878. In 1922-1923 it was used for incarceration of male anti-treaty supporters. It was closed in August 1923 with all remaining prisoners either released or transferred to other Gaols. From 1927 until the 1950-s the top floor of the Governor’s house was used as a radio broadcasting station by Radio Eireann (now RTE). After that the Gaol complex became totally derelict until its innovative restoration and reopening to the public as a visitor attraction in 1993. The visit to the Gaol is quite fascinating and gives you a vivid insight on how the prisoners and guards used to live. Adult Entrance fee is €8.00. See their website for more information.
- St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral
St. Fin Barre’s is a Magnificent Gothic Cathedral about a 10 minute walk away from the city centre. Constructed in 1870, it features multiple statues and stained glass mosaics inside. The entrance fee to get inside of the cathedral is €5.00 EUR which you can skip, and instead just enjoy the beautiful façade, as well as the Celtic crosses of the monks’ tombs scattered around the cathedral grounds.
- Blackrock Castle and Observatory.
Blackrock Castle is a bit of a walk from the city center (would take about an hour to get there by foot), although if you have time, the walk can be most lovely as you stroll by Cork Marina and the river Lee. If you are pressed for time or don’t feel like walking, you can hop on the 202 bus that will bring you right to the castle. The original castle was constructed in the late 16th century to “repel pirates and other invaders”. It was destroyed by fire in 1827 and was rebuilt in 1829. In the 20th century the castle entered private hands. For a while was used as a private residence, offices, rowing club headquarters, and a restaurant. The building was reacquired by Cork Corporation in 2001, and work commenced on renovating and re-purposing the complex as an observatory and museum. Today, there are science projects and events for kids of all ages taking place at the castle, so you can bring your whole family to enjoy them, or just visit the castle grounds for a lovely lunch at Castle Café Restaurant. Entrance fee to enter the castle is €6.50 (however you only have to pay if you are going inside of the castle itself). Click here for event schedules, tickets and more info.
- Elizabeth Fort
Located right in the heart of the older part of the Cork city center, just off of Barrack street, Elizabeth Fort dates back to 1601. Overlooking the old South Gate, it has a rich history that you can explore by navigating through a self-guided tour. The plaques on the walls tell a story of the fort, Cork’s development and major historic events. The fantastic views of Cork from the Fort walls are definitely worth the visit. Best of all, the entrance to the Fort is completely free. See their website for more information.
- Nano Nagle Place
Having just undergone an extensive renovation, this beautiful historic building is now open to public and tells a compelling story of a Cork native, Nano (Honora) Nagle. Nano was an amazing person who did a lot of great work for the poor back in 1700’s. Before her death in 1784, Nano had opened 7 schools for poor children across Cork city, founded an almshouse for poor women, and most notably, founded the Presentation Order who continue her education and social inclusion work today. Nano Nagle Place is comprised of a Heritage Center dedicated to Nano’s life, a Cafe, Shop, Archives, Historic Buildings and Gardens. Find out more information here.
- Patrick’s Hill
Perhaps the steepest hill in Cork (and there are a lot of steep hills in Cork, Nicholas Street, I’m looking at you here!), St. Patrick’s hill can present quite the challenge even for the fittest of travelers. If you’re up for the task, get your walking shoes on, bring some lunch with you (and loads of water) and climb that hill! I promise you, the views of the city that you will have from up top will be worth all the sweat and tears you will shed in the process.
Enjoy your time in beautiful Cork, let me know if you have any questions, leave me a comment, share your thoughts and check me out on Facebook and Instagram for more pics of my travels!