What makes Ireland such a superb travel destination besides the epic coastlines, quaint countryside and world-renowned pub life are its cities and towns. From Dublin on the east coast to Galway on the west coast, from Belfast (let’s include Northern Ireland too, as it’s part of the same island after all) in the north to Cork in the south, Ireland’s cities are places that should by no means be skipped when visiting this charming island. And, one of the most brilliant, possibly even underrated, towns in Ireland, in my opinion, is little Kilkenny.
This is my favorite city in all of Ireland. Even though it is home to no more than 9,000 people, Kilkenny is often referred to as a city. In fact, it is actually, officially a city, having been given a Royal Charter by King James I of England in 1609 (Kilkenny celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2009. The city is known for its long and incredibly rich history, its many religious buildings and its vibrant pubs, as we shall see below.
Kilkenny is situated in the heart of County Kilkenny in the province of Leinster, which occupies the southeast of the country. The city lies on both banks of the River Nore, a calm and peaceful river lined with walking paths. This welcoming and undeniably small city—walking across doesn’t take longer than a half hour—features a wealth of attractions. I would even say that no other place in Ireland comes close to Kilkenny’s number of highlights, even when divided by surface area. There is a solid reason that Kilkenny is considered to be Ireland’s “heritage city.”
This is the smallest city in Ireland, yet makes for an absolutely recommended, and impressive, destination.
Arguably the greatest of all highlights of Kilkenny is Kilkenny Castle. Set dramatically atop a small hill on the banks of the River Nore and dominating this part of the city, Kilkenny Castle offers visitors the chance to step back in time to a 13th-century stronghold. The origins of this magnificent Anglo-Norman castle go back to 1204 when William Marshall began building a defensive structure around the town. Nowadays, the castle features a number of different architectural styles, reflecting its many purposes during its lifetime. This is one of Ireland’s most iconic castles—a true must-see place.
While it may be a small city, Kilkenny is home to not one but two of Ireland’s greatest breweries—Kilkenny and Smithwicks. If you want to visit a brewery in Ireland, Kilkenny is a close second to only Dublin. Additionally, the city wouldn’t be an Irish city without a large number of pubs, particularly Parliament Street which is lined with some wonderfully colorful pubs—excellent spots to finish off a day filled with sightseeing.
St. Canice’s Cathedral
Constructed between 1204 and 1285, St. Canice’s Cathedral is one of the oldest cathedrals in Ireland and has been a place of continuous worship for more than eight centuries. The cathedral and its separate round tower are remarkably well-preserved and both are open to the public. The view from the top of the round tower—only suitable for people comfortable with heights!—are probably the best anywhere in Kilkenny. The cathedral is named for St. Canice, who also lent his name to the city itself—Kilkenny comes from the Irish name of “Cill Chainnigh”, which refers to the “Church of Canice.”
Dating back to 1324, Kyteler’s Inn is one of the oldest still-operating inns in Ireland. What sets this one apart is its intriguing history of witchcraft and stories of poisoned husbands. This three-floor inn is also a vibrant pub and restaurant, always filled with locals and tourists enjoying a pint of beer.
William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, didn’t only found Kilkenny Castle; he also established the Dominican Black Abbey. He did so in 1224. This serene abbey gets its name from the Black Friars, which used to be the nickname of the Dominicans. Beautifully restored, the Black Abbey can be visited and it features extraordinary stained-glass windows, including the largest one in Ireland.
St. Mary’s Church and Graveyard
A graveyard may seem like a strange tourist attraction, but this one is definitely worth a visit. St. Mary’s Church and Graveyard lies just a few steps from the visitor center and is one of the oldest Ecclesiastical buildings in the country. Established in 1205, this unassuming church is not the highlight; it is the surrounding graveyard that steals the show with its unique collection of old tombs.
The Canal Walk runs along the River Nore and underneath Kilkenny Castle. It is a popular place to go for an after-dinner stroll, or a suitable place to clear your head after a pint too many in the pubs. Offering beautiful views, peace and quiet, this walk is also a recommended stroll for early-morning walks.
Medieval Alleys and Lanes
Most of Kilkenny’s historic attractions are linked together by the fantastic “Medieval Mile”, a discovery trail that runs through the heart of the city, connecting Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral while taking in a number of other medieval sites on the way. One of the highlights of this walk is the many narrow medieval alleyways that you will be able to explore. Just try not to imagine what it must have been like to wander along these lanes in the Middle Ages.
Written by and Photos by (unless noted) Bram Reusen for EuropeUpClose.com