With a rich culture, fairytale green landscapes, and friendly locals, there are so many reasons to visit Ireland. The Emerald Isle definitely has two crown jewels though. Most Irish would say that Ireland has two “capitals” — Dublin, the Republic’s true capital; and Cork, the island’s “real” capital, according to locals. So which is better? Which one should you visit? On one hand, we have Dublin, with all the effervescence of a major capital city, the bustling eastern gateway to the Republic of Ireland. On the other is Cork, peaceful and untamable. Whichever one you choose, both are sure to give you the warmest of welcomes.
Dublin, both the capital and largest city, is home to over a third of Ireland’s population. It’s also the most common point of arrival for visitors to the country. Located near the midpoint of Ireland’s east coast, at the mouth of the River Liffey, the city was founded as a Viking settlement in 841, and has been Ireland’s primary city for most of the country’s history since medieval times. Today, it’s the economic, administrative, and cultural center of Ireland, and has one of the fastest growing populations of any European capital city.
Dublin has a famous literary history, and has produced such prominent literary figures as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, and the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker. For the less literary-minded, or perhaps the more energetic, there’s a vibrant nightlife in Dublin and the city is reputedly one of the most youthful cities in Europe, with an estimated 50 percent of its population under 25 years old, although, it is an option for expats.
Cork is Ireland’s second largest city. Located at the southern end of the country, this city of more than 200,000 residents is located on the banks of the Lee River. Cork is bustling, but has the feel of a smaller city because of its narrow streets and its small and pleasant downtown. The city was built on marshland, and many of the streets are actually built over what were once river channels.
Known as Ireland’s second city, or Ireland’s “real” capital, Cork is often skipped over in favor of destinations like Dublin or Galway, which is a shame because it has a lot to offer. The city is packed with enough cathedrals, museums, and galleries to keep you entertained. There are plenty of buzzing pubs and arguably the best restaurant scene in Ireland. If the weather is nice, you can head out to Lough Park, a great place to people watch. Unlike some of the more popular destinations in Ireland, Cork feels as though it’s full of locals, rather than saturated with international tourists.
Still not sure whether you should visit Ireland’s first official city or find out first-hand why the people of Cork often refer to it as the “real” capital? Read on and let me help you decide.
The food in Ireland is good. In fact, it’s very good! Both cities have their traditional favorites. In Cork, it’s crubeens (boiled pig’s feet, battered and fried) and drisheen (blood sausage made from blood, fat, and oatmeal). For Dubliners it’s coddle (a stew made from left-over sausages) and the dish made famous by the song “Molly Malone,” cockles and mussels. Perhaps thankfully, many of these traditional dishes have somewhat faded into folklore, though, you’ll still find stalwart gourmets, for whom they are firm favorites! In both Dublin and Cork, you can also expect to find such classics as fish and chips, bacon and cabbage, Irish stew, and Irish fry (the local take on a full English breakfast).
Ireland’s economic revival in the 1990s was accompanied by a culinary renaissance of new restaurants that ditched meat and potatoes for more sophisticated cuisine. In Dublin, you’ll find a great mix of medium- to high-priced restaurants, offering an astounding diversity of options. The best restaurants are found south of the Liffey, but be prepared to pay well for a meal. Dublin has five Michelin-starred restaurants.
Cork’s food scene is fabulous. The city is home to a plethora of eateries and restaurants, enough to satisfy the fussiest of taste buds. There’s no better introduction to Cork’s foodie scene than the fantastic English Market. It’s the oldest market of its kind in Europe, and even got the royal seal of approval when Queen Elizabeth II visited here in 2011.
Pro Tip: Notable places to eat in Cork include Jackie Lennox’s Chip Shop (fish and chips), and Ó Conaill Chocolate for one of the best brownies on earth. For excellent food in an effortlessly elegant interior, try the fantastic Glass Curtain.
More than just rivers flow through the hearts of Dublin and Cork. Stouts — a thick, dark beer with a creamy white head — are everywhere you look, served on tap in countless pubs in both cities, from Dublin’s iconic Temple Bar to Cork’s local Franciscan Well Brewery.
For the average pint drinker, when you speak of the “dark stuff” you are probably talking about Guinness. Brewed in St. James’s Gate Brewery since 1725, it accounts for 25 percent of beer sales in Ireland. Dublin remains Guinness’s unrivaled spiritual home and you can’t leave town without visiting the Guinness Storehouse, a museum entirely devoted to the history of the beer. But there’s more to stouts than just Guinness. In Cork, the tipple of choice will more likely be Murphy’s, an equally-fine stout. While Murphy’s can only claim 5 percent of the Irish stout market, it can claim a whopping 28 percent in its native Cork. Stout drinkers will, of course, forever debate which is the best.
Dublin is the older of the two cities, with the area around Dublin Bay said to have been home to human settlement since around 140 AD, while the monastic community that ultimately became Cork is said to have been founded by Saint Finbarr in the 6th century. Cork is also believed to have been an important Viking trading port, and both cities played key roles in Irish nationalism. But Dublin is the city to go to for a full appreciation of Irish history.
It’s not easy to decide between Dublin and Cork when it comes to culture. Both cities boast a plethora of things to do and see from the minute you arrive amidst their narrow, Georgian, and Victorian-lined terraces and winding streets.
Dublin has its castle, the General Post Office, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and Christ Church, as well as the historical Kilmainham Prison. Dublin’s Gate, Olympia, and Gaiety Theaters, all situated a few blocks from one another, are synonymous with great theatrical performances. The Library of the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin is home to over 250,000 ancient books. Among them is the Book of Kells, a spectacularly illuminated 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels of the Bible’s New Testament.
Cork is home to Fort Elizabeth, Blackrock Castle, Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and Saint Anne’s Church. Visit Cork’s city prison for a glimpse into the country’s dark past. Cork also has a proud history of theaters with the Everyman Theatre, which has been open for 121 years, and the Opera House, which dates back to 1852. Travel 16 miles from Cork to the charming port town of Kinsale, one of the oldest and most picturesque towns in Ireland. Thirteen miles in the other direction is Cobh, known as the last port of call for the Titanic. A 15-minute drive from Cork Town is the village of Blarney famous for its 15th century Blarney Castle, home to the Blarney Stone said to grant you the gift of eloquence if you dare kiss it.
Both cities are pretty neck and neck when it comes to shopping. Dublin has its main shopping area around the bustling, pedestrianized Grafton Street, home to Brown Thomas, a very expensive department store. Just off Grafton Street you’ll find the Powerscourt Center, an impressive shopping center in a restored 18th-century townhouse.
In Cork, the winding St. Patrick’s Street, known as Pana to the locals, is the main shopping street and one of the best in Ireland.
This is an easy one. Dublin is expensive, really expensive, even more so than London! Economic research group Glassdoor found Dublin to be Europe’s 8th most expensive city, with Cork coming in at number 19. The cost of living in Cork comes in 22 percent cheaper than Dublin, so if you’re looking to go easy on your wallet, Cork’s your destination.
7. Getting Around
When visiting Dublin, book your lodging near the city center. Most of the city’s attractions are within walking distance. Other options for getting around are buses, trains, and the hop-on-hop-off buses. Dublin is notorious for terrible traffic, so renting a car can be a headache.
Pro Tip: DoDublin is your best bet for hop-on-hop-off buses in Dublin.
Cork’s small city center is an island between two channels of the River Lee, and is an excellent place to explore on foot because of its narrow pedestrian-friendly streets. There are many sights to see outside of the city center, the perfect chance to utilize public transportation.
Pro Tip: Take a guided bus tour, which is a good way to get oriented and see the main attractions of the city and surroundings.
There is so much to see in Dublin. During summer, things can get crowded, so make sure you arrive early. Interesting places to include in your itinerary are Chester Beatty Library, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, Dublin Writers Museum, Dublin Zoo, Dublinia & the Viking World, the General Post Office, Merrion Square, the National Botanical Gardens, and the National Museum of Ireland. With so much to see and do, allow yourself several days.
Elizabeth Fort is one of the must-see attractions in Cork. Near the fort, you’ll find St. Finbarr’s Cathedral (constructed during the 19th century). Visit the Lewis Gluckman Gallery if interested in art. Visiting University College Cork is worthwhile as well. Just 10 minutes from town is the famous Blarney Castle, home to the Blarney Stone, but also home to the fascinating Poison Garden, which houses a collection of deadly and dangerous plants from around the world, including caged specimens of deadly nightshade, wolfsbane, and poison ivy.
Pro Tip: If you want an in-depth look at Cork, it’s worth joining one of Kieran McCarthy’s excellent tours. Alternatively, take the weight off your feet with Cork City Tours, which operates open-top, double-decker bus tours.
9. Other Activities
When you tire of museums and attractions, how about watching a game of hurling or Gaelic football? Croke Park is the home of both these sports and the Gaelic Athletic Association has a museum here with interesting tours. Alternatively, take a day trip from Dublin to the beautiful Cliffs of Moher.
During summer and fall, there are some great festivals in Cork. The Midsummer Festival runs between June and July and includes art, poetry, and drama. The Film Festival, more than 50 years old, is in November and shows both Irish and international films. The Jazz Festival, one of the largest in Europe, is at the end of October and is an eclectic 4-day program of music and, best of all, over 90 percent of the performances are free.
I hope I’ve given you enough information to help you decide whether to go for the vibrancy of Dublin, or the chilled atmosphere of Cork. Whatever you decide though, rest assured, neither city will disappoint.