Is it worth visiting Cork?

View of Cork from the Shandon bell tower.
View of Cork from the Shandon bell tower.

The one word answer: YES.

The (much longer) answer:

Cork was one of my favorite cities of our whirlwind tour of Ireland (only Doolin ranked higher!) Why is it worth spending a day in Cork? What made our day in Cork so unique?

Transportation

Many people think of Cork as the jumping off point for their day trip to earn the gift of the gab by kissing the Blarney Stone, but in reality, Cork has so much more to offer!

Cork was unbelievably easy to get to from Dublin. For this leg of our journey, which took the train (Dublin Heuston to Cork Kent) which costs a little more than a bus would…but boy is it worth it! We traveled during Saint Patrick’s week, so I suspect things were a lot busier than normal (it was also prime spring break season for college students) and some of the train routes sold out. Consider booking in advance!

Just a casual vat of Guinness...truck transports Guinness beer through the streets of Dublin.
Just a casual vat of Guinness…

Dublin Heuston is a little bit of a hike depending on where you stay (we were at Skybackpackers, near the Ha Penny bridge) — the train station is more on the western side of town, not far from the Guiness Storehouse and Brazen Head Pub. Great stops along the way if you are heading to Cork later in the day!

Bonus: The train bathrooms have powdered soap! Apparently I was enthralled powdered soap when I visited Disney as a child. While I was young enough to not really remember my obsession, I’d bet money that I found it just as exciting as a twenty-one year old.

General tip: If you find yourself even the slightest bit inclined to car-sickness, opt for the train in Ireland. The windy roads (plus the blustery winds, if you travel in March like we did) made for a rough ride.

Hostel

After counting sheep on the way to Cork (literally: the scenery and sheep dotted fields are so beautiful that you don’t want to snooze on this train ride), we immediately headed to our hostel.

Converted church/ dentist office in Cork. Can this be my dentist, please?
Can this be my dentist, please?

Our walk was short, but by the time we passed an old church converted into a dentists office, I had already made my mind up that I really liked Cork.

Our hostel itself was inside of Bru Bar. It was a little tricky to figure out the entrance the first time: just head inside the pub and meander down to the end of the bar to find reception. We started our day pretty early, so our room wasn’t quite ready yet…but they were happy to stow our bags. We pulled out a stool, added our bags to a pile on the rack above the extra bar seating, and went on our way.

Snack

Anyone that has traveled with me [let’s be honest, spent more than three consecutive hours with me] knows how important snacks are in my life. When I travel at my pace, which means packing literally as much into the itinerary as possible—I’m lucky to have travel buddies in Emily and Tori, it means building in a scheduled snack time.

Tasty "stasberry" Danish with a bite taken out. Photo courtesy of Emily DeLessio....I was much too busy eating to take a picture!
Photo courtesy of Emily DeLessio….I was much too busy eating to take a picture!

Not long after dropping off our bags, we stumbled into El-Door Bakery. For some reason, as soon as I entered the doors, I was taken back to my blissful time with a horse-shaped bread I munched on in Barcelona. The woman working at El-Door didn’t speak much English, but soon we all were happily holding something she claimed to be a “strasberry” Danish. None of us had experienced strasberries before, but as the flavor exploded in my mouth, I was almost reminded of lingonberry juice from Ikea. On our way out the door, we were offered samples of beetroot and walnut bread.

Historic Shandon

Butter Museum

Pictured: me, standing outside the Butter Museum, incredibly excited to check it out!
Pictured: me, incredibly excited to tour the Butter Museum.

Yes, you read that right. An entire museum dedicated to butter. Emily, Tori, and I each took the lead on planning a different city on our itinerary (and we all gave overall thoughts on each location). I took the lead on Cork, mostly due to my desire to visit the Butter Museum.

Let me tell you: it did NOT disappoint.

Decorative butter stamps.
Butter stamps.

A Museum Studies graduate student from University College Cork reset the introduction video for us: the museum wasn’t exactly crowded when we arrived. For the next 17 minutes, I learned about the history of butter creation and consumption around the world….more invested in a documentary about butter than I ever could have imagined or expected.

It looked like the museum was in the middle of a revamp, but that didn’t stop me from posing with the bog model and checking out an ancient keg (note: keg is size of cask, more on this later). It was tucked away in a side room on the second floor that I suspect people seldom find. We stamped our own butter labels and joyfully exited the museum (literally) to the tune of hit song “Please Leave My Butter Alone”. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t semi-serious jokes about Emily singing it for the “sing-for-your-pint” deal at Bru Bar Hostel.

Shandon Bells and St. Anne’s Church Tower

The historic Shandon bell tower at St. Anne's Church.
The historic Shandon bell tower at St. Anne’s Church.

The historic Shandon Bells (St. Anne’s Church) are only steps away from the Butter Museum, making it a convenient next stop. Entry to the tower was only €4 for students (€5 for adults). The price tag included climbing the tower, playing the bells, petting a small white poodle-mix named Molly, and protective earmuffs to wear so you don’t go deaf while you climb the tight spiral staircase next to the bells and someone starts ringing them.

Me pulling the ropes to ring the Shandon Bells!
Ringing the Shandon Bells!

You get to ring the actual tower bells. For some reason, I had a hard time grasping this in advance. I can only imagine the special kind of hatred that the people who live and work in the area have for the tourists that ring the same songs all day, every day.

Emily makes her way to the top of the bell tower...with a bell right next to her! 
Next step: get onto the wooden beam at the front of the photo.
Photo courtesy of Tori Grubb.
Emily makes her way to the top of the bell tower…with a bell right next to her!
Next step: get onto the wooden beam at the front of the photo.
Photo courtesy of Tori Grubb.

It’s important to note that getting to the top of this tower isn’t exactly easy. The spiral staircases are some of the tightest I’ve experienced (and I’ve experienced a surprising number of spiral staircases on the way to tower-type views). At one point, you have to crawl under a beam, squeeze past a bell, and use two handle bars to make it to the next section of stairs (pictured above).

The view from the Shandon Bell Tower, with the Firkin Crane at the center! 
Bottom right: Butter Exchange; above that: the Butter Museum.
The view, with the Firkin Crane at the center!
Bottom right: Butter Exchange; above that: the Butter Museum.

All of that aside, there’s a great view from the top. One of the first things one notices is a round, barrel shaped building—it lies between the Butter Museum and the Shandon Bells. This is the Firkin Crane and in reality, it’s actually firkin shaped, not barrel.

Allow me to shed some knowledge that I learned at the Guinness Storehouse: not all “barrels” are actually barrels. A barrel is actually a size of cask, firkin being a different size. We clung to this knowledge the entire trip, absolutely thrilled by any situation it remotely applied to.

The view of the Firkin Crane and Butter Exchange from outside St. Anne's (street level). If you continue down this street (toward the Firkin Crane), you arrive at the Butter Museum.
The Firkin Crane and Butter Exchange from St. Anne’s. If you continue down this street (toward the Firkin Crane), you arrive at the Butter Museum.

A sign outside the Firkin Crane teaches you that the original building was used to store and repair butter firkins. Another nearby building, somewhat resembling a train station or, go figure, a market, was the Butter Exchange. During the 1800s, this was the largest butter market in the world, distributing Irish butter to five continents. It all makes sense when you think about the fact that these buildings are in the same block as the Butter Museum.

Lunch: English Market

I hate to say that the English Market was a bit of a letdown for all of us. I had read some pretty remarkable things online, so I thought it would be the perfect lunch stop (and we definitely needed lunch by this point). All in all, it was a standard market with not much lunch fare to be found. There was a small soup/ sandwich shop…and some local shamrock.

Gaol: Cork City Jail

Cork City Gaol.
Cork City Gaol.

Next on our agenda (and also a 30 minute walk away and closing in half an hour: that could have been planned better. Whoops! Too much time thinking about butter firkins) was the Cork City Gaol. There were gaols (or “jails”) in a few cities we visited. We decided that given the length of our trip, it made sense to only visit one; being the museum critic of the group, I decided that Cork was our “best” jail option.

We all bought our tickets online, which was a bit of a weird situation; they were processed through Paypal (if I remember correctly) and we never received actual tickets in our email inboxes. Luckily this didn’t cause any problems, but you would probably be fine purchasing at the door!

Caution: a fair number of wax figures can be found hidden in the Cork City Gaol.
Caution: a fair number of wax figures.

The gaol was a blend of original, restored, and replaced. I tended to enjoy the original the most: the blocked off hallways full of rubble and destruction had a slightly spooky vibe.

Maybe don't lay down on the straw mattress. Just a thought. The disgust I felt says it all!
Maybe don’t lay down on the straw mattress. Just a thought.

We did have lots of fun with the reproduction side of things…although I wouldn’t recommend the “try-the-old-cell” beds. They were horribly damp, which should have been expected from a straw bed in an old stone jail in Ireland in March. Also, be mindful if you decide to put your head in the stocks. I almost accidentally cut off my ability to breath.

Creepy wax figure at the Cork City Gaol...I guess this guy would have watched us overnight! Let's not think about that.
I guess this guy would have watched us overnight! Let’s not think about that.

Oh, and did I mention that we got locked in? They were getting ready to close and locked the doors in anticipation. We weren’t even the last people to leave; they were ready to keep us all there overnight.

University College Cork (UCC):

University College Cork (UCC) quadrangle.
University College Cork (UCC) quadrangle.

Whether or not you anticipate going to university in Cork, the UCC campus is worth a walk-though. Maybe skip this if it’s raining—sorry, friends! It might just be me, but the main quadrangle and long hall give off some major Hogwarts vibes.

Dinner: Oliver Plunkett

We went to Oliver Plunkett, which was good but nothing to write home about! Points for the banofee pie and the hurls on the wall, which I could identify thanks to an extensive lesson in the Irish sport of hurling while I was in Amsterdam.

Pub: Sin É

Tori, Emily, new American friends, and the band. Looking down at Sin É pub from the staircase.
Tori, Emily, new American friends, and the band.

If you want to actually experience an Irish pub with traditional (also referred to as trad) Sin É is your place. We barely managed to find seats, sharing a table next to the band with some other Americans.

Eventually, they left and were replaced with a local Cork woman, who chatted to us about everything imaginable: finding out she had Italian pupils (yes, in her eyes; no, I’m not sure what she meant) while she had grown up thinking she was viking Irish, to only being allowed to wear spikes while she ran if it meant she kept up with the guys. She also delighted us by talked about how Cork has changed over the years. She’s been going to Sin É since 1991 or 1992, back when you could hear the priests saying prayers and the rosary to the dead—I guess there was (is?) a funeral parlor next door.

Poor quality photo; high quality memories. "Very cool, so fun." Our coaster, stuck up on the wall!
Poor quality photo; high quality memories. “Very cool, so fun.”

If you read this and go to Sin É, look for our coaster…and shoot me an email or comment if you find it! When you walk in, head straight back as far as you can go. It’s near the left table along the back wall.

If we’d had more time…

Streets of Cork.
Streets of Cork.

While I loved Cork dearly, a day was probably enough time. I’m not really sure what else we would have done had we stayed longer!

Cork can be used as a jumping off point to head to Blarney. We caught the first bus to Blarney in the morning, came back to Cork to grab lunch (and our bags—Bru Bar was kind enough to hold them again). Then we caught another train, en route to Doolin!

Me, standing on the stairs at Sin É. The walls are covered with eclectic decor!
Me at Sin É!

If we’d had more time in Cork, I would have wanted to check out St. Fin Barres and Elizabeth Fort. We walked past both, but they were already closed for the day. I’d also stay another night to enjoy the pub scene…but probably just head back to Sin É.

Yours in adventures and observations,
Julianna


All thoughts and opinions about Cork and the places I visited there are completely mine! I haven’t received compensation to say nice things about the Butter Museum, I promise. But seriously: it’s the number one reason to visit Cork.


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