Explore the castle
It’s hard to miss Kilkenny Castle. This imposing 13th century structure dominates the middle of the city, an imposing presence despite centuries’ worth of assaults.
For 600 years it was the home of the Butlers of Ormonde, before passing into the hands of the state in 1969. An extensive restoration resulted in the state rooms being restored to what they would have looked like in the 1830s, with huge tapestries and family portraits on the walls and ‘pole screens’ next to the huge fireplaces (to prevent the ladies’ wax make-up from melting).
You can take a self-guided visit at any time, scanning the QR codes printed in each of the rooms to get a bit of background on each space. But you’ll get a much better insight into the castle’s incredible history by taking one of the regular guided tours, as well as the chance to step behind the ropes to see some of the decorations up close.
In the Drawing Room, for example, you can get up close to the portrait of the Langrishe family and check out the multiple layers of paint: rather than commission a new portrait for each generation they would simply paint over the old one, replacing the faces.
Before you leave, take a walk around the grounds on the Blue Trail (2km, 25 minutes). The route loops around the edge of the Kilkenny Castle Parkland, going from the edges of the neatly manicured lawn to the wildflower meadows and woodland at the end. You get a great view of the castle, too – the best spot for a photo is on the raised mound in the middle of the park (where Cromwell placed his cannons back in 1650). There’s a free Parkrun here every Saturday, if you want to join others for a morning jog.
Adjacent to the castle — in an area that was once the stables — you’ll find the National Design and Craft Gallery, where you can take part in workshops, see artists at work and admire contemporary pieces designed by Irish and international artists. Wander through the exhibitions on display, then pick up a craft or design item to take home from the shop at the Kilkenny Design Centre.
Keep the historical theme going with a trip to the nearby Medieval Mile Museum. This marvellous space in St Mary’s Church and Graveyard tells the 800-year story of Kilkenny through artefacts like carved stone coffins, sandstone high crosses and pieces found during the extensive excavation process. There are guided tours available, but if you go for the self-guided option, you get a handy audio device, which plays snippets of info when you point it at the pillars next to each exhibit.
One of the most interesting (if macabre) exhibitions is the remains of three bodies removed near the entrance of the graveyard. After analysing the remains, archaeologists pieced together their backstories – their bones are on display along with the explanations and discoveries, like the blue and green stains from shroud pins, or the fractures to the spine that indicated decades of hard labour.
Just behind the exhibit, there’s an interactive display about the concept of legacy. You can write down how you think you’ll be remembered and pin it to the wall; it’s worth flicking through the thoughts left by recent visitors before adding your own.
Upstairs, there are splendid views of the city through the glass wall of the Kilkenny Room. It’s also where you’ll find a collection of old letters and civic petitions, each hidden behind a wooden door. The handwriting is faded and elegant, but the content is scandalous, from medieval punishments for the city’s bawdier characters to the sowing of seeds for future rebellions.
See the other side of the city
Take a walk over the river to the Butler Gallery, a contemporary art space set within the historic Evans’ House. As well as their regular exhibits, their schedule of events also include painting workshops with working artists and Sip 'n’ Sketch events, where you can get artsy with a glass of wine in hand. Otherwise, there are permanent collections of 20th century Irish art alongside contemporary pieces and rotating exhibitions of artists like Eamon Colman, or pieces from the local animation studio Cartoon Saloon.
Cartoon Saloon is one of Kilkenny’s biggest success stories of recent years, an animation studio that specialises in hand-drawn work including the Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers, which both form part of a trilogy that began in 2009 with The Secret of Kells. The studio’s works are highlighted in murals throughout the city: there’s an impressive cityscape from Wolfwalkers on a wall by the Medieval Mile Museum, and the key characters from the film are painted opposite.
You can tick off a few more of these murals on a walking tour of the city with Shenanigans. These 90-minute jaunts are a handy way of seeing the sights of Kilkenny in one fell swoop, as you make your way from the grounds of the castle up the Medieval Mile. The tours bring the past to life in a more animated way, with magic tricks, comedy and a healthy amount of roaring thrown into the mix.
As you walk around Kilkenny, you’ll get a brief introduction to the main attractions like Rothe House and the Smithwick's Experience – while you don’t get to go inside, it’s a good way of planning what you might want to see on your own speed. You’ll also hear the story of Kilkenny’s most infamous resident, the 14th century noble Alice Kyteler, the first person condemned for witchcraft in Ireland.
If you’re still in an exploring mood toward the end of the day, a relaxing way to see the city is with a gentle amble along the River Nore on a guided tour with Boat Trips (40 minutes, every hour). These laidback tours take place on a motorised, open top boat that moves at a slow pace up the river. You’ll make your way up the Nore, passing the riverside buildings and get a fine view of the castle from the water, as ducks swim alongside the boat and swallows fly overhead. The guides will throw in some local knowledge along the way, but this isn’t a jam-packed historical tour: it’s all about slowing down and taking in the scenery.
Where to eat in Kilkenny
In the mood for a spot of brunch? Café La Coco is a cosy spot close to the castle, where you can get things like maple and bacon pancakes, or avocado toast drizzled with peanut rayu and edible flowers. There’s also a stash of glazed croissants and giant scones by the door, if you fancy a sweet treat.
If you want a quick coffee and a bite to eat, La Rivista Market is a great shout. Part gourmet food market and part restaurant, this is a one stop shop for food to eat on the go, like a chicken Caesar salad bowl or a fudgy chocolate brownie. If you’re there in the evening, you can sit in for a bowl of homemade pasta or a pizza – try the Nduja, with spicy sausage, roast garlic and tenderstem broccoli.
Feeling fancy? Campagne is Kilkenny city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, and one of the best value one-star restaurants in Ireland, with a moderately priced three-course early bird menu. This is the place to go if you like delicately plated dishes like lamb shoulder with white turnip gratin, or grilled octopus with chickpeas.
Or head down Patrick Street to Zuni, a modern Irish restaurant located in a hotel of the same name that was once a historic theatre. You'll find confit pork belly plated with black pudding mousse and tempura bok choy alongside seared scallops with lemon and saffron risotto.
Down the narrow alley of Butterslip, Petronella is an intimate restaurant with original oak beams and stone walls, where you’ll find a mishmash of Italian and Irish vibes on the menu – think sourdough bruschetta and fried Wicklow brie. It’s worth paying a visit if only to pay homage to its namesake, Petronella de Meath. The handmaid to Alice Kyteler, Petronella ended up taking her place in the witchcraft trial and was therefore the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake for heresy.