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Blarney Castle in Cork

Blarney Castle in Cork is a must-do, even if you don’t want to kiss the stone.


Second City

By Marjie Killeen

Blarney Castle photo by Chris Hill | Mizen Head photo by Arthur Ward


To best experience Ireland, start in Cork and venture forth to explore the Emerald Isle.

I owe my last name, which means “little church” in Gaelic, to my husband, Liam, whom I fell for soon after he arrived in Chicago in 1989. Since then, we’ve traveled to Ireland almost every year to visit his family in Cork, which is Ireland’s second-largest city and a relaxed, authentic place to experience the best of this beautiful country.

County Cork is sprinkled with historic manors that are now luxe guesthouses and hotels. In the heart of Cork City, the five-star Hayfield Manor (suites $1,000-$1,750 per night) is a family-run boutique hotel next to the vibrant University College Cork and a short walk from downtown. The hotel offers luxurious guest rooms and expansive suites, perfect for families or groups. Surrounded by private gardens and boasting a gourmet restaurant and full-service spa, Hayfield Manor is an oasis of luxury in the heart of the city.

Twenty minutes outside of Cork City is the Castlemartyr Resort (junior suites from $285 per night) centered around the ruins of the town’s namesake castle, built in the early 1200s. The expansive property includes a luxury hotel with a full spa and an 18-hole golf course, horseback riding, carriage rides, fishing and archery.

Heading west to Skibbereen is the magical Liss Ard Estate (suites from $235 per night). The gracious Georgian-style country house is surrounded by 163 acres of spectacular gardens, forests, walking trails and a 50-acre lake. Don’t miss “Sky Garden,” an immense earth sculpture designed by artist James Turrell. Enter the crater through a tunnel and lie down on a rock slab for an otherworldly view of the sky.

If you’d rather have a manor all to yourself, the gracious Farran House ($3,800 to $5,400 per week) is just 15 minutes outside of Cork City. The 200-year-old residence has grand proportions, but its rural setting makes it feel private and relaxed. With four spacious suites, a huge kitchen and elegant living spaces, it’s perfect for group gatherings. Take advantage of owners Patricia and John’s offer to provide one of their Irish-stew dinners. Their specialty is lamb, raised on the premises.

Liss Ard Estate

The Georgian-style Liss Ard Estate is surrounded by walking trails and “Sky Garden,” an installation by internationally famous artist James Turrell.

In Cork, farm-to-table isn’t having a moment; it’s a way of life. No place illustrates this more than Ballymaloe House and Cookery School, a foodie wonderland. Irish cooking star Darina Allen founded Ballymaloe in 1983 and has been instrumental in promoting farmers markets in Ireland. The school offers all sorts of cookery classes, or you can drop by to wander the organic farm and enjoy lunch in the cafe.

Just outside the picturesque harbor town of Kinsale is one of the most charming pubs in Ireland, the award-winning The Bulman & Toddies Restaurant. Just steps from the Atlantic Ocean with a nautical vibe, The Bulman offers live music, fresh seafood and a dramatic view. Dangle your feet over the seawall and enjoy a fresh pint of Harp—it’s heaven.

Cork is known for “beef, butter and beer,” but herbivores need not despair. Cork City is home to Paradiso, a renowned vegetarian restaurant that revolves around locally sourced seasonal ingredients. With main dishes like feta and pistachio couscous cake with smoky greens and lemon chickpeas, every diner will be satisfied.

In Cork’s city center is the lively English Market, worth a visit for the scene as much as the cuisine. The indoor market is filled with local vendors selling all sorts of produce, cheeses, fish, pastries and meat, and is one of the oldest municipal markets of its kind in the world.

Mizen Head

The pedestrian bridge along the cliffs of Mizen Head

Golfers have many options in Ireland, but none more scenic than the Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale. The stunning headland that stretches for 2 miles into the sea used to be farmland and walking trails. Now it’s Cork’s most exclusive golf course and a thrill to play. For an even more dramatic experience, travel to the course by helicopter.

Kissing the Blarney Stone may seem cliche, but a visit to Blarney Castle & Gardens is a delightful adventure. The climb to the top of the crumbling castle to lean backward over the parapet to smooch the famous keystone takes nerve. The walking paths through the gardens—complete with druid rocks, a bog and a Poison Garden—make you feel like you’ve entered a fairy tale. Stop by the Blarney Woollen Mills for a cup of tea after your visit and shop all of Ireland’s signature handcrafts.

Rising high above the Atlantic Ocean at Ireland’s most southwest point are the cliffs of Mizen Head, where the currents from the west and south meet to create churning waves that crash into the craggy coastline. Cross the pedestrian bridge high above the gorge to the lighthouse and watch for seals, whales and dolphins in the surf. Then head to the nearby Barleycove Beach, a pristine stretch of sand and dunes, to experience the coast in a more serene way.