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Have you been hearing about Kinsale and wondering if it’s worth a stop on your trek through Ireland? This little beauty is known as one of the most picturesque towns on Ireland’s southwest coast, so I can understand why you’re thinking about it.
It’s located in Co. Cork. And it’s an historic town that was a former medieval fishing port and important battleground (with not one but TWO 17th-century fortresses).
It’s perhaps most famous for its narrow winding streets and brightly painted stores and houses. And it’s one of many must-sees on the Wild Atlantic Way.
From quaint coffee shops and fresh seafood restaurants to historic tours and nature trails, there’s plenty to do, see, and eat in this laid-back coastal town.
Read on to learn about the 15 top things to do in Kinsale, Ireland.
1. Explore History at Charles Fort
The distinctive star-shaped Charles Fort can be found at the water’s edge.
This classic late 17th-century fortress is an Irish National Monument and has seen its fair share of battles from the Williamite War in the late 1600’s to the Civil War in the 1920’s.
Today it stands as one of Kinsale’s most popular attractions (and one of the best activities to do during a day trip from Cork).
Some of the outer defense walls reach up to 16 meters high and offer stunning views of the Kinsale Harbor for miles. It now has a tea room for light food and beverages during certain times of the year to enjoy those views.
Charles Fort is open for self guided tours year-round, with hours of operation varying slightly from summer to winter.
You can arrive at the fort by either taking a tour bus, a rental car, biking, or walking (it’s about 2km from town ~ less than 1.5mi).
2. Visit the Kinsale Museum
This one might be a little obscure. But it’s great to pop into if you’ve found yourself visiting on a rainy day, or if you’ve got any history lovers in the group.
The Kinsale museum is full of artifacts that tell a story of the town’s history (maritime, military, and otherwise).
You’ll learn all about the Kinsale Giant – Patrick Cotter O’Brien – who lived in the late 1700’s. He was an 8 foot tall Irishman that toured around England as part of a freak-of-nature show. (A little bit of a sad story, to be honest).
The museum also has a wide variety of pieces from Kinsale’s maritime history including pieces from the sunk ship, the RMS Lusitania (WWI buffs will get it). Like much of Ireland, Kinsale has a deep seafaring history. At one point in time it had 3 shipyards and the Dutch East India Company operated out of its ports.
If you fancy a visit, you’ll find this building (a former 16th century courthouse) in the center of Kinsale town.
3. Wander Through James Fort
The James Fort ruins is another bastion fort from Kinsale’s military history. It’s an early 17th century (built in 1609), pentagonal fortress that stands tall over the Kinsale Harbor from the Castlepark Peninsula.
From here you’ll have lovely views of the town, the River Bandon, and Charles Fort.
This one is a hidden gem if you’re looking for free things to do in Kinsale. The parking is free as well, and it’s dog friendly.
There’s a walking trail that winds around the fort. On the loop, you’ll walk around the perimeter of the fort ruins and through to Dock Beach/Kinsale Beach, which makes for a great spot to enjoy a picnic or a rest. You’ll also be right next to Castlepark Marina where you can charter a boat for some sailing with the fam.
This is definitely not a stop you’ll want to consider on a rainy day. But if you’ve been blessed with some good weather, keep this one in mind.
4. Enjoy Views Along the Scilly Walk
The Scilly Walk is a beloved 3.7 mile loop walk from Lower Road to High Road.
The walk will take you along the edge of the glistening waters of the Kinsale Harbor. You’ll enjoy panoramic views of the James and Charles forts, as well as many luxurious waterfront homes. You may even spot seals, herons, cormorants and the occasional dolphin.
A portion of the walk includes towering trees, lush plants, and beautiful flowers. Toward the end of the loop, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a steep hill that you’ll need to climb. However, the effort is more than worth it as you get a chance to look out over the horizon.
At the top of the hill, you can either take a left up High Road toward town, or you can take a right down the hill which will bring you back to Charles Fort. Here you can grab a delicious dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants (like the Bulman – the views are incredible!)
This walk is a favorite among locals and tourists alike, and is a must-do when in Kinsale.
5. Take a Break at The Flying Poet Aviation Cafe
This sweet and quirky cafe is a favorite among locals, and is the brainchild of a former airline pilot. The owner, who also runs a popular aviation themed bar in Johannesburg, wants to share and spread enthusiasm for the aviation industry in Ireland.
The café is filled with photos, books, and other odds and ends belonging in the aviation space.
For food you’ll find some small bites for breakfast and lunch, amazing bakery items, and for drinks: coffees and wine. Pro tip: try the turmeric latte.
It’s a cozy spot to start the day for breakfast or brunch, or relax and unwind after a day of hiking the town.
6. Take a Walk Around the Old Head of Kinsale Loop
If you’ve done the Scilly Walk and you want more, then head toward the Old Head of Kinsale Loop.
This headland extends more than 3km (1.9 miles) into the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps one of the most popular attractions on it is an early 17th century lighthouse established by Robert Reading.
Not only is it stunning, it’s a very important historical place. It’s known as the nearest point of land to where the RMS Lusitania sank in 1915.
The most popular starting point for the loop is the Speckled Door Bar. One of the many reasons it’s so popular is because you can park in their car park, and then hit up the bar after your walk.
If you’re more of a beach bum, you can start the walk at Garretstown Beach, which can add up to 2km (1.2 miles) onto the total loop. The entire walk takes about 1.5 hours, but can take up to 3 hours or longer if you stop for photos (which you totally should!)
7. Play a Round of Golf at Old Head of Kinsale
If you’re into golf, the Old Head is also home to a famous world-class, 18-hole golf course. The nine holes along the cliff tops provide stunning views, but all 18 holes boast panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Old Head golf links is considered one of the best in Ireland (and that’s saying a lot!)
The course itself includes five par 5s, five par 3s, and eight par 4s with a minimum of six tees per hole. After you finish the course, you can head to The Clubhouse to dine on local cuisine at The Terrace.
The Clubhouse also offers dining at the de Courcey Restaurant, or the Lusitania Bar. Both provide a luxurious vibe and stunning views of the lighthouse. This is a really gorgeous place and definitely worth checking out if you’re into fine dining.
8. Enjoy the Beaches in Kinsale
There are five amazing beaches that are less than 20 minutes from the town center. These beaches include Harbour View Beach, Coolmain Beach, Garrylucas Blue Flag Beach, Garretstown Beach (shown above), and Sandy Cove Beach.
The closest of these beaches is Sandy Cove (only 8 minutes away), and the furthest is Harbour View at 20 minutes.
There are also numerous other beaches that are less than an hour’s drive from town. These include Dunworley Beach, Inchydoney Beach, Fountainstown Beach, and Myrtleville Beach.
All of these beaches are great spots for swimming, dolphin viewing, surfing, or bodyboarding. The best thing about Kinsale beaches is that you can’t go wrong – they’re all beautiful.
9. Stroll Through Kinsale Town Center
The town center of Kinsale is a destination in itself! One of the top things to do in Kinsale is to explore it on foot.
Some tours are led by local residents who know the town inside and out (look into Kinsale Heritage Walks). Popular spots that you will pass along the way include the 12th-century St. Multose Church, the Desmond Castle, and Kinsale Harbor.
The best time to experience these tours is May through September when the weather is mild and warmer.
Along the way, be sure to check out the many art shops, souvenir and craft stores, and of course, the pubs. A few favorites include Granny’s Bottom Drawer, Boland Crafts, Stone Mad Gallery, and Koko Kinsale (for the most delicious chocolates).
10. Get Spooked on a Kinsale Ghost Tour
If you’re looking to get spooked in a good way, you’ll want to take a Kinsale Ghost Tour.
Different from your typical “tales of the dead” experiences, two actors weave funny stunts and stories into a walking tour of old streets, monuments, and alleyways. Most after-dark tours last just over an hour and are theatrical, humorous, and more funny than scary.
After the tour, head to one of the nearby pubs such as The Spaniard (open since the 1650s!), Kitty O Se’s, or Dalton’s bar for a night cap, some light bar fare, and likely some great music.
11. Fill Your Bellies on a Walking Food Tour
It’s not a trip to Kinsale without taste testing the cuisine – and when I say “taste test” I actually mean indulge in as much food as possible. Seriously, though. Kinsale is such a gourmet foodie town!
One of the best ways to explore this food scene is to book a walking food tour. The local company Kinsale Food Tours is top-rated and offers numerous tour options both on land and sea. You will taste your way through the town on a half-day, small-group culinary tour. You’ll sample traditional fare including local cheese, seafood (oysters) and craft beer. You’ll even learn how to make a classic Irish coffee!
For outdoor enthusiasts, the foraging and picnic tour may be for you. You’ll harvest your own food (think wild shellfish, seaweed, and plants), and then the best part… taste them!
12. Tour the Lusitania Museum & Signal Tower
This is another great peace of Irish history. During the Napoleonic era, there were 81 signal towers built along the coast from Dublin to Donegal. The one in Kinsale is Ireland’s only restored tower, and it offers absolutely stunning views of the coast and sea.
The museum gives a tribute to the sunk ship, the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U boat during WWI. This area in Co. Cork is the closest point of land to the sunk ship.
Visitors can also visit the memorial garden (“garden of remembrance”) in front of the tower in tribute to the lives lost on the ship.
13. Eat All the Seafood You Can
Due to its location, Kinsale is known for having some of the freshest seafood in the world. One of the most popular local seafood haunts is Fishy Fishy.
The menu here changes daily to reflect the catch of the day, and all dishes are made fresh-to-order. Be sure to get there early. Fishy Fishy is so popular that Chef Shanahan made an upgrade to a larger restaurant space on the waterfront to accommodate high demand!
Max’s is another one to try. This restaurant is run by chef and owner Olivier Queva. Its menu is seasonal and described as French fare with an Irish twist. This one has also been given Michelin status, so you know you’re in for something really special.
High Tide is a cozy spot with a fresh seafood selection too. This is a more traditional restaurant with meats and pastas on the menu as well. But you can’t go wrong with a classic battered fish and chips dish. You know it’ll be fresh and plentiful.
14. Cruise around Kinsale Harbor
Another one of the top things to do in Kinsale is a relaxing harbor cruise. Harbor cruises are a popular activity to enjoy the scenic beauty of Kinsale from the water.
Harbor sails are a perfect combination of culture, information, relaxation and stunning scenery. Most tours start at the yacht marina through the picturesque former fishing village of Scilly. You’ll pass Charles Fort, The Old Head of Kinsale, James Fort, and the 15th century Block House.
Along the way you’ll hear commentary from an expert guide. You’ll learn all about the landscape and historical landmarks. And you’re more than likely too catch a glimpse of seals, otters, different species of birds, and plenty of the beautiful, natural landscape. It’s a beautiful coast and well worth the trip!
Check out Kinsale Wellness on Water. The captain has 40 years’ experience on the sea. And they are passionate about their role in offering their clientele the best and most unique experience.
15. Visit the Kinsale Mead Distillery
Kinsale Mead started in 2016 as the first mead distillery (meadery?) to open in 200 years (in Ireland anyway). Since then, they have gone on to win awards for their product throughout Europe and in America.
From beginning to end, Kinsale Mead is made in the heart of Kinsale. They work lovingly on their product and closely with local bars and restaurants.
In their tours you can sample the varieties and learn about their sustainability practices as well as how the mead gets made. It’s a great opportunity to do something a little different on your trip to Ireland and possibly discover your next favorite cocktail!
FAQs: Things to Do in Kinsale Ireland
Should I Stay in Cork City or Kinsale?
You really can’t go wrong with either choice. If you’re looking for a more vibrant city-like atmosphere, choose Cork city (and then you can take a day trip to Blarney Castle).
For a small coastal town vibe still with plenty of options, Kinsale is your best bet.
Cobh vs Kinsale for a day trip?
If you decided to plant yourselves in Cork and then looking for a day trip, again, these are both good choices!
If you have a passion for the Titanic, then absolutely you should visit Cobh. Not only is it a gorgeous seaside town, but the history is amazing and well represented for visitors.
Kinsale, too, has a great history to it. It is often coined as the most colorful town in Ireland. It’s a tourist’s dream, but not a touristy town (if that makes sense).
Is Kinsale worth visiting?
If you’ve read through the above content, then you’ll know Kinsale is totally worth a visit. There’s something for everyone here (like much of Ireland, to be honest). This is a seaside town you and your crew will love.
What is Kinsale famous for?
Being a really cute, colorful, coastal town with a lot to offer!