With tales of invasion and shipwreck, this historic part of Ireland holds many stories for its visitors to uncover as they wind their way along its stunning coast. You can cover a lot of ground in a couple of days or stay in the one place and explore.
Explore historic Kinsale
On a calm day the harbour in Kinsale reflects colourful shopfronts and historic buildings like a picture perfect postcard. Kinsale is the first (or last) stop on the Wild Atlantic Way and is an unmissable haven for foodies with plenty of history and interesting walks to help build up your appetite.
A great way to get your bearings in Kinsale and to uncover the secrets of the place is on the Heritage Walk. Your guide, Kinsale native Dermot Ryan has plenty of rich history to draw upon. The town dates back nearly 1,000 years and is the site of a famous battle between Irish, English and Spanish forces that proved the swansong for Gaelic Ireland.
As you wander along the harbour watch out for the signposted Scilly Walk which takes you along a coastal trail to picturesque Summercove. Stop at the Bulman restaurant and take in the views with a coffee before heading up the road to Charles Fort, a star-shaped military fortress that was constructed in the 1600s.
Kinsale Harbour Cruise
You can also get spectacular views of Charles Fort aboard The Spirit of Kinsale, as you finish off your evening with a harbour cruise. Of course, you cannot leave Kinsale without trying one or two (or let’s be honest, three or more) of its famous restaurants.
On Market Street, Bastion is an intimate wine bistro that like most Kinsale restaurants makes the most of superb local seafood to earn itself a Michelin star. Three other Kinsale eateries rate a Michelin-mention, including the, ahem, catchily-titled Fishy Fishy, Max’s Wine Bar on Main Street and nearby Finn’s Table.
The Old Head Kinsale & Signal Tower
If you continue on your journey from Kinsale to Clonakilty, make sure to take the road south along the coast to Old Head of Kinsale, a stunning peninsula jutting over three kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean with a sense of history to match its spectacular setting.
The Old Head Signal Tower is definitely worth a visit – with many wreck artefacts from the sinking of the Lusitania just off Kinsale Head.
Time to visit Clonakilty
Clonakilty, shortened to ‘Clon’ by locals, is a vibrant and colourful town and a real must-see on your trip. True to another West Cork tradition – great food with a distinctly local flavour - ‘Clon’ also enjoys a special place in Irish history as the birthplace of Michael Collins.
Michael Collins Centre
Even his arch-rival Eamon de Valera conceded that “history will recognise the greatness of Collins.” And so it has proved, with the legend of ‘the Big Fella’ growing year by year. You can find out more about this West Cork legend through stories and interesting memorabilia at the Michael Collins Centre, which was set up by family members, halfway between Clonakilty and Timoleague.
If you’re visiting Clonakilty on a Friday don’t miss the Farmers Market where you can assemble a ‘locally-grown’ picnic before heading to the stunning white strand of Inchydoney just ten minutes away. A true highlight of the region, you could easily spend an afternoon wandering the beach or trying your hand at surfing, kayaking or stand up paddleboarding.
Cork Whale Watch
You can easily reach Skibbereen on the main road from Clonakilty in 30 minutes, but you should make a little time to travel the quieter route through the beautiful fishing villages of Glandore and Union Hall, connected by the unique one-way Poulgorm Bridge. A real highlight in Union Hall is Cork Whale Watch with local marine expert Colin Barnes who takes you in search of humpbacks, fin and mink whales and bottlenose dolphins.
Skibbereen, as you’ve probably guessed, is “Skib” to the locals, whose easy-going attitude to life has no truck with multi-syllable names. ‘Skib’ is the acknowledged capital of West Cork with colourful streetscapes and a buzz that’s palpable in the air.
Cycle Tours and Bike Hire
Skibbereen is a great base to cycle this part of West Cork and you can rent all you need for your trip from Cycle West Cork. Ease yourself in gently with a short spin out to Tragumna Beach or keep going up the steep headland with stunning views across Toehead Bay.
This part of West Cork is all about the food, so you won’t want to miss some of the best local produce at Skib’s famous Saturday Farmers Market. Mingle with the locals, sample craft foods and find all you need for a picnic on Tralispean’s sandy beach just ten minutes out the road.
It’s no surprise that you could hike for days around Skibbereen given its stunning setting. Test your boots with The Lisheenacrehig Loop Walk, an easy 7.5km trail which winds past Kilcoe Church with its beautiful window designed by the renowned artist Harry Clarke.
Lough Hyne, the only salt-water lake in Europe, is a ten-minute drive (or a 40-minute cycle) from Skibbereen, and a scenic haven of kayaking, snorkelling and generally exploring the wonderful marine life of the region. A nice option if you’re feeling adventurous is a night kayaking on the lough with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, which could prove to be a highlight of the whole trip - something to ‘tell the folks back home’.
While you’re in the area…
Stop off for a ramble in Kilbrittain, Midway from Clonakilty to Skibbereen. There’s a great choice of looped walks from the village to suit every level of walker. The Kiln Walk is a particular favourite taking you through 14.5km of incredible scenery, south to Courtmacsherry and returning to Kilbrittain with amazing views over the bay.
If time permits, keep going on to Bantry and The Beara Peninsula. Like we said at the start, West Cork never runs out of things to see and do. Take a look at our Cork destination page where’ll you discover more of the places you have to visit in the People’s Republic.