It may technically be the smallest city in Ireland, but Kilkenny is still a big draw when it comes to Irish tourism, and rightly so! While Dublin, Cork or Kerry may be destinations high on your Irish wish list, I implore you not to forget this South Eastern treasure.
Located on the banks of the river Nore within the Province of Leinster, the colourful city of Kilkenny was voted Ireland Top Tourism town for 2013 by Failte Ireland, and still houses a wealth of attractions and reasons to visit two years later. It is a city rich in history and culture, and despite its relative small size, it is more than able to compete with the bigger destinations when it comes to sights and good times.
Whether a history buff, sports nut, foodie or shopaholic, Kilkenny will serve you well as a travel destination, and if you will allow me, I’d like to give you a few reasons as to why you should visit.
Let’s begin shall we?
The medieval mile they call it, but I guarantee you’ll walk much much further than a single mile while exploring Kilkenny’s history. Your fitbit/pedometer will back me up on that one.
Where to start exploring Irelands Medieval capital is up to you, but here’s a few of the sights along the mile you dare not miss …
Probably the hardest of the Medieval Miles historical marvels to miss, Kilkenny Castle is located very centrally and towers high over the River Nore. Built in 1195 by William Marshal (the 4th Earl of Pembroke), the castle was the cornerstone of the towns defences.
Technically, the castle and surrounding parklands are today the property of the people of Kilkenny, although the Office Of Public Works manage the site. The castle was sold by the previous owners, the Butlers who having bought the castle in 1391, sold it in 1967 to the people of Kilkenny for the tidy sum of just £50.
You can venture inside the restored castle and take a 45 minute tour around the gallery, library and bedrooms for a small entrance fee, but the vast gardens surrounding the castle are yours to wander at your leisure. Great place for a picnic I’d say.
Across the road from Kilkenny Castle lies the castle yard. Built in 1790 and used as a stable house, the unique arched set of building have a very different use today, providing a home to the National Craft Gallery and Kilkenny Design Craft Centre.
Butter House and Gardens
Moving further away from Kilkenny castle still and through the castle yard will bring you to Butler House and it’s resplendent gardens.
The Butler House was once a dower house to Kilkenny Castle, owned by and home to the Earls of Ormonde (the Butler family) from 1391. The Earls spent a large sum of their vast (and then later not so vast) wealth on restoring and expanding the castle, but then years later in 1935 they abandoned ship due to rising costs and let the castle fall into decay. They eventually sold up for £50 in 1967.
Today the Butler House operates as a hotel, and whilst you obviously have to pay to stay in the hotel, the surrounding gardens are yours to wander as you please, and a wander is very worthwhile. The gardens a beautiful pocket of peace and quiet in an otherwise tourist heavy part of town.
St Candice Cathedral and Round Tower
Probably my favourite location along the Medieval Mile, owing to my love of terrific views and a liking for stained glass.
The Round Tower is the oldest standing structure in Kilkenny, and one of only two such tower in Ireland, which you can climb.
The Cathedral is a little touristy in places (gift shop inside), but those windows are something to behold! The great east window is one window you won’t want to miss. The window depicts a number of scenes from the life of Christ, and the original was so well admired that in 1640 Roman Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rinuccini once offered what was a massive sum of £700 to purchase the window and have it taken back to Rome. The offer was refused and the window remained in Kilkenny until 1650 when it was completely destroyed by Cromwells army. Lucky for us that the window designs were not lost, and a stunning recreation of that window now illuminates St Candice in a rainbow of colours, and has done since 1875.
Both St Candice Cathedral and the Round Tower are worth your time whilst visiting Kilkenny. With that, I highly recommend purchasing the combo ticket for the two sights.
The black abbey
Founded in 1225 by Sir William Marshall (Earl of Pembroke) for the Dominican Friars, the abbey is another site along the Medieval Mile which features a tower and incredible windows. It is also another site which fell victim to Cromwell’s army (1650), but like the east window within St Candice, the abbey was rebuilt and re-opened as a place of worship in 1864.
The origin of the name ‘The Black Abbey’ is said to have originated from either a) the black capes worn by the Dominicans, or b) the black plague that claimed the lives of eight priests in 1348.
Talbot’s Tower and its adjoining walls are the best preserved section of Kilkenny’s medieval defences.
Back in the day (around 1300), Kilkenny was the largest walled town in Ireland, and potentially it’s most important. In order to protect the towns citizens and important market places, a giant stone wall measuring almost 2 miles in length and standing 2m thick by 8m high, encircled and guarded the town.
Today, portions of that wall still stands, the most historically significant part of which is Talbert Tower, and thanks to efforts Kilkenny Borough Council’s City Walls steering committee, you can still visit the tower and learn more about Kilkenny’s history.
For more information on the Medieval Mile, head on over to visitkilkenny.ie where there are a couple of very handy PDF documents which will help guide you around the mile.
What I really liked about Kilkenny was the absence (or shortage) of brand names on the main streets. If you wanted them they could be found in malls on the outskirts of the city, but only a smatter of them existed within the city centre. In their place stood delightfully coloured and charming independent stores, selling their own goods that you’d be troubled to find anywhere else.
Now shopping may not appeal to all, and normally I wouldn’t entertain shopping whilst travelling unless my good lady insisted, but in Kilkenny shopping came onto my radar purely because when walking through a shop entrance I stood a chance of seeing something different and unique.
The artwork and exhibitions
Now it’s not massive, and clearly it’s not wanted by those who govern Kilkenny, but there is a smidgen of a street art scene about Kilkenny. It’s clear that a lot of artwork gets cleaned up and painted over, but certain works still remain down alleyways and in less public spots, with one BIG exception by the way of this number by Mick Minogue of Dame Alice Kyteler, the first woman In all of Europe to be tried by the Church for crimes of witch craft.
The cafes and restaurants
Thirsty work is exploring Kilkenny, and so you’ll definitely be needing a caffeine (or hot chocolate) hit at some point during your visit. Luckily, Kilkenny is blessed with not only charming independent shops, but cafes too. Alfresco caffeinating is not lost on the good folks who reside in this part of the world, and sipping on a tasty hot beverage whilst watching the world go by is a must. Your feet will thank you for the break, and your tastes buds will thank you for whatever you choose from the menu.
Moving from day-time to night-time as the sun sets over the River Nore, dining choices are not in short supply either, in fact they are in abundance along both High Street and Patrick Street. Whether you stick to traditional Irish cuisine is up to you, but if you wish to stray away from tradition, French, Italian and Asian dining options are plentiful. Likewise there are a range of pricing options. For those on a budget, many public houses will off tasty pub type grub at low cost, or if you’re looking for something a bit more formal, Kilkenny has some fine Michelin starred restaurants; well worth checking out – booking is advised though.
The pubs and bars
You won’t need to walk far to find a decent pint of liquid refreshment (most likely Guinness, but I would recommend trying a locally brewed craft number also) in Kilkenny. A street isn’t a street unless it contains at least one public house.
Seriously, the choice of pubs in Kilkenny is massive, and if you’re indecisive like me you’ll find picking one a (not) terrible ordeal. Safe to say that once you have decided on where to frequent for an evening, said evening will be filled with good ale, good people and good entertainment, usually in the form of some traditional Irish music.
Harder than knowing, which pin to choose will be knocking when to call it a night … Or getting up the next morning.
- Lanigans (sports)
- The Field (music)
- Langtons (nightlife)
- Paris Texas (craft ale selection)
- The hole in the wall (historical ale … You’ll understand when you visit).
… And if you want to see how some of the good stuff is brewed, head on down to Smithwicks brewery and take the tour.
Kilkenny is the polar opposite of what you would call dull, taking a walk through the city centre could be compared to taking a walk along a rainbow,
… but there are 2 colours that outweigh all others in this part of Ireland, and with good reason as they are linked to Kilkenny’s most successful pastime – the traditional Irish sport of Hurling
“Black and yellow Amber, Black and yellow Amber” – sang Wiz Khalifa (almost)
… Black and Amber, the famous colours of the Kilkenny Cats, hurlings most decorated team.
You cannot move in Kilkenny for seeing Black and Amber, the locals are barmy for their team, and can quite often be seen walking the streets not only with team jersey on, but with Hurley and Sliator in hand too. Never are they to miss the chance of a quick match.
An interesting aspect of Hurling as a sport is that a team can only be represented by individuals born in the area. There are no transfers or changes of allegiance like in other sports, and with that comes a fierce proudness of a teams accomplishments, for each player on the team is a ‘local lad who done good).
Of course, from the outside looking in as someone who has never heard of, let alone seen Hurling before the above section may be lost on you a little. I apologies for that, but highly recommend you to watch the short video below and learn just a little about the world’s oldest and fastest field sport.
Getting to and from Kilkenny
With a hire car at your disposal, Kilkenny is obviously very accessible from anywhere in Ireland, or even from Wales if you wish to take the ferry from either Hollyhead or Pembroke. There is ample car parking within the city centre, but at a cost and in places with a 3 hour max stay. If you’re thinking of visiting for a few days, I would recommend choosing accommodation with its own car park.
Without a car though, there are of course trains and buses that can land you down in Kilkenny. The train from Dublin Hueston takes a mere 90 minutes each way, and a direct bus run by Bus Eireann would take roughly the same amount of time, but at half the price of the train or there about’s – train €15 one way / VS bus €8 one way. Actual prices may vary, this is just a guideline.
Accommodation in Kilkenny
Kilkenny has pretty much all accommodation types covered, ranging from plush suites at 5* hotels to backpacker hotels and dorm rooms. Those hotels and B&B’s on the outskirts of city are the more likely to have car parking facilities, and the walk into the city centre isn’t too bad, maybe 30 minutes at most.
Check out the latest deals on accommodation in Kilkenny here, and plan your trip today.