Cork is often overlooked as one of the top places to see in Ireland, with most tourists opting to stay around Dublin or heading West to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway. While Cork city is known to be one of the most friendly cities in Ireland, if not the world, I believe the real hidden Ireland is to be found in the Cork countryside. Sometimes, if you explore far enough, you will find some true hidden gems hiding right under your nose. Having spent the last 2 months in Cork exploring home territory, below are my top 17 secret things to do in Cork. Sure, many might not be a secret to locals, but I would like to think they’ll come as a welcome surprise to many visitors. Please leave a comment with any more suggestions you might have.
My Top 17 Things To Do in Cork
17. See Cork from above at the Model Railway Village
I remember visiting this place as a child and being fascinated with every tiny building and every miniature town, wondering how they made such perfect replicas of Cork’s best known towns and villages. Clonakility’s Model Railway Village is a dream come true for every kid and a return to childhood for imaginative adults! As the name of this places indicates, expect to see lots of model trains doing the rounds around the village as well as an old steam carriage which now acts as a brilliant little cafe. You can also take the Choo Choo Train from the village on a tour of Clonakilty Town.
16. Walk the old railway line to Crosshaven
The story behind the stunning old railway walk from Carrigaline to Crosshaven is what makes this beautiful walk all the more interesting. The walk connects two of Cork’s villages and runs the length of the old railway line that used to connect Crosshaven with Cork City. The building of the walk, including digging the pathway, the placement of benches at intervals throughout the walk and the landscaping and planting of flowers was not done by the local council but was carried out by two local men, Bill Condon and Eddie Cogan in 1996.
15. Visit the seals near Garnish Island
Garnish Island near Glengarrif is by far one of the most unique places to visit in Cork. Situated in a protected part of Bantry Bay, the island has a micro-climate unlike anywhere else in Ireland. Here you will find exotic plant life not normally found in Ireland, plants that flourish due to the sheltered nature of the harbour and the effects of the warm gulf stream which pass by the island. On the ferry ride to the island you will stop by the famous seal island, home to hundreds of friendly (and very loud!) fur seals! You should also look out for rare birds, such as white-tailed sea eagles, and you might even spot some dolphins.
14. Try out night kayaking in Lough Hyne
One of the top 50 unique things to do in Ireland, kayaking in the pitch dark in Lough Hyne is also one of the most unique things to do in Cork. You will set out before nightfall to let your eyes adjust gradually to the darkness, and once the sun has fully set you will paddle your way through the lake, mesmerised by the bioluminescent plankton that glows in the water while listening to interesting tales from your guide and learning all about Lough Hyne’s unique biodiversity as Europe’s only salt water lake. Contact Atlantic Sea Kayaking for more information.
13. Catch a trad session in Sin E
If you’re looking for cool things to do in Cork but are short on time, I highly recommend checking out a trad session in Sin E. One of Cork’s most loved pubs, Sin E will charm the pants off you. With live traditional music (and not the type you’ll find in Dublin’s touristy Temple bar district!!) many nights a week, an evening in here will be an evening to remember. Full of characters holding up the bar and some very interesting decor including an old barbers chair upstairs, this tiny but cosy pub is one of Cork’s true hidden gems. Located on Coburg Street – check out their FB page for events and updates.
12. Feed the ducks at The Lough
This is another fun thing to do within walking distance of the city. Feeding, or simple observing, the ducks up at The Lough has been an age-old tradition in Cork, especially among locals from the area. Below is fun video documentary about Cork’s famous “talking ducks”!
11. Go stargazing at Blackrock Observatory
Blackrock Obseratory is one of the best attractions in or near Cork City. This incredible castle turned stargazing observatory is both stunning to look at it from the inside and out. Ideal for kids and adults a like, a visit to Blackrock Observatory is one you won’t forget. If you’re not interested in space or the stars, you can go or a lovely walk near the castle and finish up in the castle cafe which serves up some delicious home cooked cork treats.
10. Devour lunch at Ballymaloe House
A trip to cork, and Ireland’s, most famous cookery school at Ballymaloe House will send your senses into overdrive. First of all the delicious food you will be served is all sourced locally, with the menu changing daily, and prepared and cooked by students from the cooking school. Should you be lucky and visit when the sun is shining, you can enjoy a walk around the beautiful house and gardens and understand why so many Corkonians choose to host their weddings at this incredible venue. If you’re lucky you might even be introduced to resident owner, girl boss and celebrity chef Darina Allen!
9. Go surfing at Inchydoney Beach
Voted Ireland’s best beach, Inchydoney Island is one of the most spectacular beaches in Cork. Stretching on for miles on either side of the island (where the award-winning Inchydoney Island Hotel is located) this beach is also a top spot for surfing, especially in winter. Granted you’ll have to wear a horrible wet suit and the water will of course be absolutely freezing, but nothing will cure your hangover quicker or make you feel more alive than an early morning surf!
8. Adopt a donkey in Liscarroll
If you want to do some good while visiting Cork, adopting a donkey seems a pretty great place to start!! The Donkey Sanctuary at Liscarroll near Mallow is free to visit but you will be given the choice to “Adopt a Donkey” while there which means the money you donate will go towards the upkeep of the sanctuary and taking care of your donkey. Don’t worry, you don’t have to take the donkey home with you, but you can leave with the knowledge that your donation will help the donkey have a happier life!
7. Enjoy a pint, a walk and the view in Baltimore
Nothing beats a few pints outside either Bushes Bar or The Waterfront in Baltimore. With the best beer garden in Ireland and one of the most stunning views, a day trip to West Cork should definitely be one of the first things you do while visiting Cork! You can enjoy a freshly cooked pizza from La Jolie Breeze or some more traditional seafood sambos or freshly caught oysters, depending on your preference. Be sure to walk up to the famous beacon or hop on the ferry and head over to the beautiful Sherkin Island for the day.
6. Bid farewell to a cruise ship in Cobh
The coastal town of Cobh is famous for being the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic before it sailed out to sea. These days the picturesque town, famous for its beautiful cathedral and the colourful ‘house of cards’ street, is also a great place to spend an afternoon. Many of the world’s biggest cruise ships make a stop here and it can be a lot of fun to see how big these ships really are in person. Waving them off as they sail out into Cork Harbour, regardless if you know anyone on board or not, is certainly a unique way to spend an afternoon in Cork! Be sure to stop by the small Titanic Museum while here – the memorabilia alone is well worth a visit.
5. Go wild at Fota Wildlife Park
Before local people go wild at me saying “Fota is hardly a hidden gem”, it should be noted that just because us locals love Ireland’s only wildlife park does not necessarily mean that visitors will have a clue what it is or where it is!! First of all, Fota is NOT a zoo. The animals are in wide ope spaces and roam around freely, to a extent. The best part is waking (or taking the train) around the park and observing the giraffes munching on the trees or allowing a cheeky peacock to steal you sandwich at lunch! You can get right up close to the kangaroos which aren’t locked in anywhere and watching the monkeys swinging around their own private island could occupy the entire family for hours. Splash out on a stay at the beautiful Fota House if you really want to push the boat out, or simply head to Fota on the train for the day if you’re on a budget.
4. Eat your way around the city on a fab food tour
Last Saturday I spent my morning on a Fab Food Tour of Cork. I couldn’t believe how little i knew about my own city and how clueless I was about where the food I eat every day comes from. It was fascinating to do a food tour in my own city, to discover new foods, new restaurants and new people along the way. This is a way better alternative to your usual walking tour of a city and I highly recommend signing up to a food tour on your first day in Cork – you’ll be sorted for places to eat for the duration of your stay!
3. Enjoy panoramic views from Camden Fort
While Kinsale’s Charles Fort and James Fort have become popular tourists attractions in Cork, most people seem to forget about Camden Fort, close to Crosshaven. While the fort is sadly only open at weekends, it has been beautifully preserved and is well worth the trip down to Crosshaven. You can take stunning photos across Cork Harbour to Cobh in one direction, Spike island in an another and over to Roches Point light house in yet another direction. During the summer months you will find family fun days and some times the rooms are used for local events such as art exhibitions.
2. Soak up the tranquility in Gougane Barra
By far my absolute FAVOURITE place in Ireland, Gougane Barra always has this special effect on me – pulling me, mesmerising me, reassuring me that Ireland really is as naturally beautiful as we all imagined. While it’s not exactly on, nor is it off, the tourist trail, I always find myself one of the only people there. You can easily go for a walk and suddenly find yourself totally alone surrounded by towering mountains and flat calm lake that almost seems magical. The church here, St Fin Barres Oratory, is both tiny and perfect at the same time. I will never get sick of seeing it reflected in the lake water, and I could easily return here every weekend and never get bored. If you’re looking for a place to stay nearby, I can recommend the Gougane Barra Hotel – you can’t possibly wake up to a more beautiful view.
1. Meet the blind goat farmer on Cape Clear Island
While it’s quite the mission to get to and involves a 45 minute ferry ride from Baltimore, once you arrive on Cape Clear Island you will never look back. This sparsely populated and very remote corner of Ireland is also predominantly a gaelic speaking district, which mean inhabitants speak Irish first and English second. There’s a shop, a pub, a school and an abbey and….not much else! If you walk to the top of the island you will find a sweet old man who sells delicious ice-cream which he hand makes from goats milk. The fact that he is blind doesn’t stop him at all, and a visit here will be a real highlight of any trip to Cape Clear. Be sure to check out the annual storytelling festival and if you want to stay somewhere truly unique, book into the luxury yurts for a bit glamping!
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