National Geographic Traveler Associate Editor Susan O’Keefe made her first trip to Ireland last spring where she spent time exploring Cork city and the surrounding area. “The city is a walker’s paradise, and I was able to cover a lot of ground in a few days,” she says.
From strolling along the banks of the River Lee in Fitzgerald Park to ringing the famous bells of Shandon, she found a great variety of diversions–and never felt like a stranger wandering on her own. “Corkonians are friendly and engaging,” Susan says. “They’re proud of their Celtic heritage and enjoy telling stories. Just pull up a chair at a pub and listen.”
Here, Susan shares her discoveries in the city and beyond:
Putter Around a Manor
In Cork city, book an overnight at the incomparable Hayfield Manor, an unpretentious, ivy-clad estate within walking distance of the city center. Along with gracious staff that rivals the Downton Abbey personnel, this family-owned hotel boasts plush guest rooms appointed with heated towel racks, golf putters and ball returns, books about Ireland, and trail maps for jogging around the city. If a stay is too much of a splurge, then reserve a spot for afternoon tea in the comfy drawing room and sit back and enjoy homemade scones—light and moist, they’re among the best scones in the country—served with preserves and clotted cream. (If you can’t make it to Cork to try them for yourself, make them at home with this recipe.)
Stock the Larder
During Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Ireland in the spring of 2011, the British monarch paid a visit to the English Market, the oldest market in the country, trading in Cork city since 1788. The Queen and Prince Philip walked among stalls and chatted with vendors.When they stopped at Pat O’Connell’s seafood counter, the cheeky fishmonger pointed out an unattractive monkfish dubbed “mother-in-law fish.” Before leaving the market, the Queen was presented with a hamper of Irish artisan foods that included Clonmore cheese, Bandon butter, and Wexford honey. Search for these and other native specialties, then head upstairs to Farmgate Café to sample dishes prepared with bounty from the market. Menu favorites include rock oysters (from O’Connell’s), Irish lamb stew with jacket potatoes, and shepherd’s pie.
Make a Racket
Topped with an 11-foot golden salmon weather vane, the Church of St. Anne has towered over the Shandon neighborhood in Cork since 1722. Wannabe campanologists (bell-ringers) who don’t mind steep steps, narrow passageways, and the occasional pigeon, may climb to the first floor of the tower to ring the bells of Shandon. A selection of music—from “Waltzing Matilda” to “When the Saints Go Marching In”—and noise-cancelling earmuffs are available at the entrance. If you do ring the bells, have mercy on the surrounding neighbors who endure the clanging shenanigans throughout the year. From the bell tower, continue climbing up to the top of the steeple for a bird’s eye view of the city and River Lee, where salmon continue to thrive.
Learn Something New
A short walk from Hayfield Manor, the University College Cork campus, with its imposing Gothic architecture, makes for a good stroll with a few surprises. Start at the Honan Chapel to glimpse the mosaic floor depicting the zodiac and the “River of Life,” then jump ahead a century to the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, an ultra-modern, timber-and-steel visual arts center tucked within the trees. In the historic Main Quadrangle Building, don’t miss the ancient Ogham stones, containing traces of Ireland’s earliest form of an alphabet, considered to be the largest collection on display in Ireland.
Tap Your Toes
Serving pints for some 200 years, An Spailpín Fánach (Gaelic for “wandering farmhand”), located across from the old Beamish Brewery, is beloved by locals for its nightly traditional Irish music (aka “trad sessions”) and convivial atmosphere. Strike up a spirited debate by asking locals which stout they prefer–Murphy’s or Beamish? Both are brewed in Cork (Beamish has been producing beer here since 1792). Just don’t ask about Guinness; it’s brewed in Dublin, a rival city for Corkonians. For more trad sessions with fiddles, flutes, and guitars, head to Sin É (Gaelic for “that’s it”), a tiny pub with walls covered in postcards and music posters. Arrive early and grab a table or a barstool because in this lively joint, next to a funeral parlor, it’s usually standing room only.
Inhale the Sea
Just south of Cork city, the 18th-century fishing village of Kinsale nestles between hills and shoreline on the Atlantic coast. Its cobbled streets are lined with art galleries, bakeries, and cafés. Join a walking tour (they begin at the tourist office) to hear about the epic Battle of Kinsale, or, on your own, visit Desmond Castle, built as an urban tower house by the Earl of Desmond in 1500, it later served as a prison. Inside, a small museum documents the story of the Wine Geese, the Irish emigrants who fled the country in the early 1700s and immersed themselves in winemaking around the world. If it’s lunchtime, stop for fish-and-chips or a bowl of chowder at Fishy Fishy Café, where much of the seafood comes straight off the boats docked at the harbor.
Reflect on the Past
From 1849 to 1950 Cobh (formerly Queenstown, pronounced Cove) served as the emigration port for more than 2.5 million Irish who left their native shores for a new life. The experience of saying goodbye to a loved one here was referred to as an “American wake,” for once someone left the country it was likely they wouldn’t return.
Cobh was also the last port of call for the RMS Titanic. Situated in the original offices of the White Star Line, the location marks the embarkation point for 123 passengers who boarded the ill-fated ocean liner on its maiden (and final) voyage to America. A new permanent exhibit tells the moving story of the Titanic and its connection to Cobh, and includes rarely seen photos by Francis Brown, a young Jesuit priest who captured candid moments aboard the ship during its brief passage from Southampton to Cobh. Brown disembarked in Cobh to return to work. His haunting images—from children playing on the third-class deck to the ship’s first-class gymnasium—are the only full record of daily life aboard the Titanic.
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Myrtle Allen opened Ballymaloe House in rural Shanagarry (about 20 miles east of Cork) 50 years ago as a small restaurant where she served traditional Irish dishes made with vegetables and herbs from her husband’s farm. Since then, this gracious country house, still run by the affable Allen clan, has evolved into a 30-room inn and a hive of activity. Morning breakfasts are cozy fireside affairs with farm-to-table eggs and bacon, local stone-ground oatmeal, and homemade soda bread.
In the afternoon, view wildflowers along the Ballycotton cliff walk, tour the estate’s eclectic art collection, or make a field trip to the Cookery School. Founded by the dynamic Darina Allen (referred to as the “Julia Child of Ireland”), this state-of-the-art facility sits in the middle of a 100-acre organic garden. Culinary students from all over Europe board in charming stone cottages on the grounds, a kitchen shop stocks picnic provisions; a weekend pop-up restaurant serves homemade pizza. If you’re lucky, Darina herself will lead a tour through the house made entirely of shells (an anniversary gift to her husband).
If it’s Saturday, ask Jim Whelan, Ballymaloe’s resident guide and the country’s best storyteller, to drive you to the Midleton Farmers Market (Darina is the founder of the farmers market movement in Ireland). Hit Casey O’Cannaill’s booth for a steamy cup of white chocolate hot chocolate. For a delicious souvenir, pick up beech-smoked salmon from Frank Hederman. The award-winning purveyor has been smoking fish at his timber smokehouse in Cobh—the oldest traditional one in the country—for 30 years. And it’s okay to bring it home: The fish comes vacuum-packed and clears customs without a hitch.
Susan O’Keefe is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Twitter @sokeefetrav.