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. 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.
If you want to head straight for the English Market or on a food tour of Cork city, go ahead, but the real hidden gems in Cork are to be found in the countryside. As one of the top experiences in Ireland, to trip to the Emerald Isle would be incomplete without a few days in Cork.
From Fota Wildlife Park to Gougane Barra, there are so many fun things to do outdoors in the county. Having spent the last 2 months there exploring my home territory, below are my favorite unique things to do in Cork.
Top Hidden Gems and Unique Things To Do in Cork
Look no further than this list of the best things to do in Cork for a guaranteed unique experience. They’re bound to make for some incredible holiday memories.
The Farmgate Café is a great little spot situated with views overlooking the English Market. It’s split into two with one half being for basic meals on the patio and the other a bit more formal.
The food is so good that it’s always busy and has a great and buzzing atmosphere. Their soups and sandwiches are delicious, so it’s a perfect spot for a good lunch. All the ingredients come directly from the market downstairs, which means the menu changes daily and the food is as fresh as one could possibly hope.
A picture of my Dad working in his vegetable gardens is on the wall here — so if you spot it, let me know!
Cork Ghost Tour
This is one of the more unusual things to do in Cork. If you like to be spooked, then the Cork City Ghost Tour is perfect for you. During the one-hour walking tour, you’ll hear lots of spooky stories and also learn about Cork’s darker history — maybe you’ll even have a few frightful experiences. It’s a great interactive tour, especially perfect for families.
Most of the tours start at 7 pm and take place from May to September. Adult tickets cost €15, students/teens/OAPs €12, and families of 2 adults and 2 children cost €42.
There’s also a Titanic Ghost Tour down in Cobh which is pretty spooky and only costs about 18 euros. You can check out the times and book your tour here.
19. Taste O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausages
If you’re in Cork City and looking for a quick bite to eat, then I seriously recommend you go for a sausage at O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausages on Winthrop Street. It has a charming little seating area upstairs.
Their hot dogs are delicious and will certainly leave you in a food coma. Think handmade Cork pork sausages, a great choice of hot and spicy sauces, accompanied by some tasty potato wedges. Great for food on the go — and they also have a stall inside the English Market (but no seating area).
18. See a Show at Triskel Arts Center
If you’re looking for things to do in Cork at night, Triskel Arts Center is one of the quirkiest places to visit in Cork city. The center has been converted from what was an old 17th-century church and consists of a space for presentation and one for exhibits. There’s also an art gallery.
The venue often hosts various events and concerts, including the Cork Film Festival and lots of local bands and artists for music gigs. Make sure to research what’s going on before you go so you can get your hands on some tickets.
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, wondering how they made such perfect replicas of Cork’s best-known towns and villages. Clonakilty’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 place indicates, expect to see lots of model trains doing the rounds about the village as well as an old steam carriage which now acts as a brilliant little café. You can also take the Choo Choo Train from the village on a tour of Clonakilty Town.
Tip: Looking for a fantastic place to stay in Clonakilty? Check availability at The Dunmore House Hotel.
16. Walk the Old Railway Line to Crosshaven
One of the hidden gems in Cork, the story behind the stunning walk is what makes it all the more interesting.
The building of the walk — including digging the pathway, placement of benches at intervals, landscaping, and planting of flowers — was not done by the local council. It was carried out by two local men, Bill Condon and Eddie Cogan in 1996.
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. It’s a picturesque way to spend an afternoon strolling through the bliss of the countryside.
Tip: Looking for the best hotels near Crosshaven? Check availability at the Maryborough Hotel and Spa
15. Visit the Seals near Garnish Island
Glengarriff is a special place, and nearby Garnish Island 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 the country. Plants flourish here due to the sheltered nature of the harbor and the effects of the warm gulf stream which passes 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 while you’re at it.
If you fancy staying the night, try the charming and well-located Aran Lodge.
Watch the video below to see my trip to Garnish Island with my mum — and a fun spa escape in nearby Glengarriff.
14. Try Out Night Kayaking in Lough Hyne
One of the more unique activities to do, kayaking in the pitch dark in Lough Hyne is also one of the most fun things to do in Cork for couples.
You will set out before nightfall to let your eyes adjust gradually to the darkness. Once the sun has fully set, you will paddle your way through the lake, mesmerized by the bioluminescent plankton that glows in the water.
Your guide will enrapture you with interesting tales and histories that revolve around Lough Hyne’s unique biodiversity as Europe’s only saltwater lake. Contact Atlantic Sea Kayaking for more information.
13. Catch a Trad Session in Sin É
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 É. One of Cork’s most loved pubs, Sin É 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 here will be an evening to remember. Full of characters holding up the bar and some very interesting decor including an old barber’s chair upstairs, this tiny but cozy pub is one of Cork’s true hidden gems.
12. Feed the Ducks at The Lough
This is another fun thing to do within walking distance of the city. Feeding — or simply observing — the ducks up at The Lough has been an age-old tradition in Cork. Especially amongst locals from the area. They say that Cork has some famous (or infamous) “talking ducks,” but is this fiction or reality? There’s only one way to find out — come see them for yourself.
11. Go Stargazing at Blackrock Observatory
Blackrock Observatory 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.
With the stars at your gazing disposal, it’s one of the most scenic places in Cork. Ideal for kids and adults alike, a visit to Blackrock Observatory is one you won’t forget.
If you’re not too interested in space or the stars, you can go for a lovely walk near the castle and finish up in the castle café, which serves up some delicious home-cooked Cork treats.
10. Enjoy 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. All the food is prepared and cooked by students from the cooking school.
Should you be lucky enough to visit when the sun is shining, you can enjoy a walk around the beautiful house and gardens. It’s easy to see why so many Corkonians choose to host their weddings at this incredible venue. If you’re lucky, you might even be introduced to the resident owner, girl boss, and celebrity chef, Darina Allen.
Check prices at Ballymaloe House for an unforgettable stay.
9. Go Surfing at Inchydoney Beach
Voted Ireland’s best beach, Inchydoney Island is one of the most spectacular beaches in Cork. Stretching 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 wetsuit and the water will be absolutely freezing, but nothing will cure your hangover quicker or make you feel more alive than an early morning surf. This is one of the best beaches on Ireland’s wild Atlantic way and the finish line of one of the world’s most epic road trips and cycling challenges. If you fancy exploring this road with a guide, try this driving tour of the area.
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.
This means the money you donate will go towards the upkeep of the sanctuary and taking care of your adopted animal. For animal lovers of all kinds, this is one of cork’s hidden gems that shouldn’t be missed whether you choose to adopt a four-legged beast of burden or not.
If you do adopt one, though, don’t worry: you won’t have to take it back with you and donkey-proof your home. But you can leave with the knowledge that your donation will help the donkey have a happier life in Liscarroll.
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.
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. It’s just as beautiful from the ground as it is from the sky.
6. Bid Farewell to Cruise Ships 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 colorful ‘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. You can book a walking Titanic tour around Cobh for a more immersive experience.
5. Go Wild at Fota Wildlife Park
While the locals might not consider this wildlife park one of the hidden gems in Cork, to a tourist visiting for the first time, it qualifies hands down. First of all, Fota is not a zoo. It’s a humane habitat where the animals are in wide open spaces and roam around freely, to an extent of course.
The best part is waking (or taking the train) around the park and observing the giraffes munching on the trees or having a cheeky peacock to steal your sandwich at lunch. You can get right up close to the kangaroos which aren’t locked in anywhere and watch the monkeys swinging around their own private island. Honestly, this place could occupy the entire family for hours.
Splash out on a stay at the beautiful Fota Island Hotel & Spa if you really want to push the boat out, or simply visit Fota via the train for a day trip 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 dishes, 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 the best places to eat for the duration of your stay. Be sure to check out the English Market, too — a landmark building and historic marketplace.
3. Enjoy Panoramic Views from Camden Fort
While Kinsale’s Charles Fort and James Fort have become popular tourist attractions in Cork, most people seem to forget about Camden Fort, close to Crosshaven. While the fort is sadly only open on weekends, it has been beautifully preserved and is well worth the trip down.
You can take stunning photos across Cork Harbour to Cobh in one direction, Spike island in another, and over to Roches Point Lighthouse in yet another direction. During the summer months they host family fun days, and sometimes the rooms are used for local events such as art exhibitions.
Besides Camden Fort, there are also some very impressive forts near Kindle in West cork worth checking out, best done on a fun day trip from Cork city.
2. Soak Up the Tranquility in Gougane Barra
By far my absolute favorite place in Ireland, Gougane Barra always has this special effect on me. Pulling me, mesmerizing 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. As such, it’s one of the best things to do on your own in Cork if you feel like some solitude. You can easily go for a walk and suddenly find yourself totally alone, surrounded by towering mountains and a 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. This means that inhabitants speak Irish first and English second.
There’s a shop, a pub, a school, 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 that he hand-makes from goat’s milk. The fact that he is blind doesn’t stop him at all, and a frozen treat from him will be a highlight of any trip to Cape Clear.
Be sure to check out the annual storytelling festival if you’re in town at the right time. If you want to stay somewhere truly unique, book into the luxury yurts for a bit of fabulous glamping in Cork.