County Cork in southwestern Ireland offers so much for travelers to experience. After all, it’s the largest county in the whole country and contains a mix of well-known tourist sites and off-the-beaten-path gems. On a trip to the area, you’ll find great eating, shopping, and attractions, not to mention stunning natural vistas. From foodie highlights to crumbling castles and jagged coastlines to charming towns, County Cork truly has it all.
I recently took a trip there with the women-owned tour company Traverse Journeys, which focuses on eco-friendly and socially minded travel. This responsible tourism lens provided the perfect way to experience the best of County Cork and beyond.
Follow these tips to ensure that your trip to County Cork is a smooth and enjoyable one.
1. Fly Into Dublin
For easiest access to Cork and the cheapest international flights, visitors should consider flying into Dublin Airport. From there, it’s a roughly 3-hour drive to Cork City. Just be sure to drive on the left side of the road! Travelers could also meander down the coast to County Waterford, famous for its eponymous crystal. If you're uncomfortable about driving on the left side of the road, many private chauffeur companies exist to assist you.
Trains and buses are also available to transport tourists from the capital to Cork City. Or, for those who wish to fly, both the Kerry Airport and Cork Airport can be accessed from Dublin; from Kerry, Cork City is about a 90-minute drive, and from the Cork Airport, the city is just 20 minutes away.
2. Go Ahead And Speak English
Most Irish citizens speak English, though technically Ireland has two official languages, Irish (or Gaelic) and English. In County Cork, only a small percentage of residents speak Irish first; they live on Cape Clear Island near Baltimore, in Ballyvourney, in Ballingeary, and in Coolea. Irish-first regions are called the Gaeltacht. Other Irish regions in the Gaeltacht are County Donegal, County Galway, and Dingle.
3. Start Your Wild Atlantic Way Adventure In Cork
Ireland’s most famous tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way, actually starts in County Cork. This path is about 1,500 miles long and winds around the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean up to County Donegal. The so-called Haven Coast of Cork, including foodie capital Kinsale, have been designated the southerly start of the Way.
4. Spend Some Time In The City Of Cork
Cork is the largest and southernmost of Ireland’s 32 counties. It’s also home to the city of Cork, the second-largest city in the country. Visitors to County Cork should plan to spend some time in the city, a walkable and historic waterside municipality. The city is situated on the River Lee and is near Cork Harbour, one of the largest natural harbors in the world. The local university boasts a lovely campus that visitors can enjoy, including a Stone Corridor featuring ancient ogham stones. Numerous old churches and cathedrals are sprinkled throughout the city, and there are great shopping opportunities on Saint Patrick’s Street. Cork is often considered Ireland’s tech capital, since Apple’s European headquarters can be found there. The city also boasts some unique street art.
5. Make Time For Cork’s Magical Spots
Part of the Traverse itinerary involved stops in the scenic countryside. In County Cork, that meant trips to two ancient stone circles: Ardgroom and Dromberg. Dromberg, known locally as the Druid’s Altar, is one of the most well-known stone circles in the country and offers sea views. Ardgroom is located near the village of Ardgroom. We passed sheep grazing and a little bog on the way -- about the most Irish combination I can imagine. The magic was nearly palpable.
Another mystical feature of the Cork area is the hawthorn tree, where legend has it that fairies live. Even grizzled farmers won’t cut down a hawthorn tree -- it’s said to be bad luck. Roads are rerouted to accommodate the trees, which are said to bring prosperity to the lands upon which they stand.
6. Get To Blarney Castle When It Opens
County Cork is home to Blarney Castle, which is nearly 600 years old and is situated on sprawling grounds. If it’s not too rainy, visitors could spend half a day exploring the gardens, castle, and caves on the property. There’s even a café where thirsty tourists can enjoy a Baileys hot cocoa or Irish coffee.
The ultimate draw, however, is the famous Blarney Stone high up in the castle. Guests planning to see it should wear shoes with good grips and be prepared to squish into small, spiraling tower staircases. Be aware that to actually kiss the stone -- an act that, legend has it, bestows the gift of gab -- guests must lie on their backs and slide backward to reach it. While staffers are on hand to help those looking to gain eloquence, the experience may not be suitable for those who are mobility impaired (or for those who are afraid of heights!).
Blarney Castle is one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions -- more than 200,000 people visit it each year -- and the lines can get quite long. Our tour group arrived at the castle right when it opened at 9 a.m. in order to avoid the rush. You might want to consider getting there early, too.
7. Don’t Skip Baltimore
By far, my favorite part of the trip was our journey to Baltimore in West Cork. This very southerly and westerly village is a true charmer! There’s a tiny town square with local pubs and restaurants -- be sure to try the mussels at Jacob’s Bar. The ferry service to nearby Sherkin Island also shouldn’t be missed, though travelers with motion sickness should take medicine before embarking. The island is home to an abandoned abbey, summer cottages, walking trails, a scenic beach, and more. I witnessed the most beautiful sunset at the Beacon atop a cliff near the harbor entrance, but the beauty of Baltimore is just as easily appreciated from the village's more accessible attractions.
8. Try Cork’s Version Of Guinness
It’s no surprise that the Irish like their stouts. After all, one of the world’s most successful stouts, Guinness, is based in Dublin. But visitors to Cork should be sure to try the local version: Murphy’s Irish Stout. It’s been brewed in Cork City since 1856. Truly, I preferred it to Guinness. When I ordered one at a hole-in-the-wall lunch spot on the Beara Peninsula, a local man turned to me and said, “Well done, lass!” This beer pairs perfectly with friendly locals and a trad (or traditional Irish) music session at a pub.
9. Wear Rain Boots
It’s Ireland. It’s going to rain, sometimes for 5 minutes and sometimes for 5 hours. So unless you want wet feet and to constantly be changing your socks, rain boots are a good idea. Despite the valuable real estate they take up in your suitcase, they are 100 percent worth it. I was the only tour participant to bring rain boots, and I was glad I did. One of Traverse’s goals is to take travelers off the beaten path, and we were tromping around in all kinds of unexpected places. Another woman on the trip wore GORE-TEX tennis shoes, which are water resistant for a few hours and take up less space. They’re another great way to handle the watery weather.