Back the Kilkenny Cats, A Hurling PowerhouseWe decided to take to the rails for a day trip to Kilkenny. I knew something was up as we boarded the train and I saw a guy decked out in a yellow and black cap toting a garbage bag full of merchandise. That weekend, Kilkenny would take on Tipperary in the GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship! We arrived in Kilkenny and the town was awash in gold and black. The residents and businesses of Kilkenny love hurling and visibly support their team. We saw Kilkenny pride everywhere with black and gold flags waving on almost every lawn nearby. I was impressed by a hurling cake (complete with Kilkenny Cat) created by Keogh's Model Bakery. We even saw a rather intimidating looking cat wielding a hurley on the rooftop of a building along the river. Go Cats!
Kilkenny CastleWe headed straight for Kilkenny Castle, one of the major landmarks in Kilkenny City and an anchor at one end of Kilkenny's Medieval Mile. Kilkenny Castle is a Norman castle that was build in the 12th century and was impressive inside and out. The Castle grounds are surrounded by a luxurious lawn which is great for picnics and sometimes hosts local events.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Love castles? Then you must check out the Loire Valley in France. Drive this Loire Valley road trip itinerary and see some of the most amazing chateaux and associated gardens in the world.
Walk Along the River Nore in KilkennyIf the weather cooperates, it's fun to walk along the river path in Kilkenny behind Kilkenny Castle. Take time to walk the demesne and forest surrounding Kilkenny Castle. You'll find colorful blooming trees in the Spring and vibrant foliage in the Autumn. Have a wander and see where Kilkenny's river trail takes you. The path has quite a history: it was 'improved' in 1861. A small tributary wound away from the main river through the woods. We spotted some old ruins in the distance. We communed with nature, surrounded by green. No wonder Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. Ducking into the forest behind Kilkenny Castle, our jaws dropped at the immense height of the old growth trees.
Kilkenny Crafts and Hidden HistoryKilkenny is known for crafts so pop into the Kilkenny Design Craft Centre for a look around. The Craft Centre is right across the street from Kilkenny Castle so there is not excuse not to stop by. We discovered a garden and the leaf covered Butler House through a passageway at the back of the Kilkenny Design Centre. We especially liked the stones that doubled as seating. Remnants of much maligned Nelson's Pillar are installed in the gardens at Butler House. The column commemorating British Admiral Lord Nelson was blown up on O'Connell Street in Dublin on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Kilkenny High StreetKilkenny features a compact city centre. Take a stroll along along High Street. Kilkenny used to be a walled city and we spotted bricks along the sidewalk calling out where the wall once stood. Walking up Kilkenny's main shopping street, we spotted a disembodied head. An imposing church sat along a back alley. Not far away, we smiled when we saw a sign for a Chewbacca Roar Contest with a 100 EUR prize for the best impersonation! While away an afternoon browsing the shops and checking out Kilkenny's pub scene.
St. Canice's Cathedral and Round TowerAt the other end of Kilkenny's Medieval Mile is St. Canice's Cathedral and Round Tower. Spot solemn figures embedded in the wall on the walk up to St. Canice's. The gray stone was striking against the blue sky. We ambled among the tilted gravestones and looked up at the impressive round tower next to the church. We spotted the grave of a couple of the more recent members of the famed Smithwick's brewery family.
The Black AbbeyWe walked a short distance to Kilkenny's Black Abbey, a lovely church erected in 1225. One theory about the name is that it's due to an outbreak of plague that passed through the area hundreds of years ago. The Black Abbey is one of the first Catholic priories of the Dominican order in Ireland. The Black Abbey features some positively stunning stained glass windows that alone are worth the visit.
Rothe House and Medieval Garden
Rothe House is a well preserved merchant house and museum located in the heart of Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile. The house and grounds were built by John Rothe Fitz-Piers at the end of the 16th century. A ticket covering the museum and gardens cost 7.50 EUR at the time of writing for a self-guided tour. Guided tours are only offered in the summer. Inside highlights include 10,000 yr old giant deer antlers and a costume gallery with hats you can try on. The Medieval Garden at Rothe House was a real highlight. You’ll find fascinating garden archaeology information on how they recreated the gardens as they were during Medieval times. The Rothe Medieval Garden is simply an all around beautiful place. I even spotted a hawk taking flight from a tree in the garden! I had the house and gardens all to myself when I visited Kilkenny in November.
Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile MuseumKilkenny recently opened the Medieval Mile Museum. Take the audio tour (8 EUR at the time of writing) and spend an hour admiring artifacts over 1000 years old. The museum is built on the site of deconsecrated St. Mary's Church. A major highlight is Liber primus Kilkenniensis, a town record book that dates back to 1231.
Smithwick's Experience Brewery TourWhile in Kilkenny, we signed ourselves up for the Smithwick's Brewery tour. The brand dates back more than 300 years and there is a ruined old abbey (St. Francis Abbey) on the property. I've done the tour twice: once in 2011 and once in 2019.
The first time we visited, Smithwick's Brewery in Kilkenny was still active. Sadly, the working brewery shutdown several years ago and moved to St. James' Gate in Dublin. As we were led into the brewery, we passed all sorts of relics like a Smithwick's ceramic beer jug and bell. We suited up in high visibility vests and safety goggles for the tour.
In the tasters room, we were impressed by the training regimen that was adhered to. Very few people were certified to taste Smithwick's and make sure the quality and flavor were the same batch after batch for 300 years. It is a 3-5 year journey for an aspiring quality taster.
We took one last look at the chapel and Abbey from the outside before heading toward the modern production area. Giant stainless steel tanks stood as sentinels over the courtyard. The final stop of the tour was everyone's favorite - the tasting room! We each got to sample a pint of Smithwick's or Smithwick's Pale Ale. Our guide expertly and patiently poured the pints in two pulls. Smithwick's memorabilia sat off to the side. Sláinte!
The Smithwicks Experience has changed a lot since I visited several years ago. Francis Abbey ruins are no longer included but Smithwick's has definitely upped the technology and interactivity game. Taste wort, stir mash, and smell different types of hops on your tour. One thing hasn't changed on the tour... you still get to finish the Smithwick's Experience with a taste of Smithwick's finest beer. I upgraded to a tasting paddle of Smithwick's Blonde, Red, and Pale Ale for an extra 3 EUR on top of the 14 EUR ticket price.
Discover Kilkenny’s Georgian Doors
Much like Dublin, Kilkenny features some stunning Georgian architecture. I’m always drawn to Ireland’s colorful Georgian doors. Go door-spotting in Kilkenny City especially up and down the Medieval Mile and near Kilkenny Castle.
Live Gigs in Kilkenny at the Left Bank
Kilkenny is a great city for music. I was tipped off by the Kilkenny tourism office on Twitter that the Swingin' Bluecats would be playing from 4-6 pm at the Left Bank while we were in town. Perfect! The band was amazing and we hung out to listen and sip a pint of Smithwick's. From our seat just inside the Left Bank's large windows, we could see more historic buildings decked out to support the Kilkenny Cats.
Kilkenny Roots FestivalWe've visited Kilkenny twice now for the Kilkenny Roots Festival. On our first festival visit, we could immediately see that the Kilkenny Roots Festival was going to be taking over the weekend. Kilkenny Roots Festival is a mix of largely free Americana, Folk, and Bluegrass music sessions with a few premier paid gigs that take place in pubs across Kilkenny City.
We caught quite a few gigs at the Kilkenny Roots Festival. We started out at The Left Bank in mid-afternoon. Ben Reel was playing a free gig in the corner but we could barely see due to the size of the crowd. We caught a glimpse of his signature cap from outside.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other great music festivals in Ireland? The annual Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival in County Mayo is another of our favorites.
Since the sun was shining, we decided to move on and get a breath of fresh air before catching the next gig. We stopped at Breathnach's next. Blue Horyzon, a Scottish Bluegrass band, turned pop hits into Hillbilly classics. I couldn't believe how young they were! Amazing talent! We popped across the street to Langton's to see The MeatMen. The crowd was having an amazing time dancing to their high energy rockabilly sound.
We toned it down a notch in the evening at Ryan's where we saw The Lost Brothers perform melodic and soulful classics. The Lost Brothers were a delight to watch but I was amazed that they could perform in the heat of the venue in full three-piece suits. Back at Langton's we caught Rye River Band. Continuing through the illuminated streets of Kilkenny we made one final stop. Les Harpies were playing in a local hotel bar. Their vocals were amazing and they truly deserved a bigger audience than they got at this particular venue. It was the best performance of the night for us!
Kilkenomics is another popular festival in Kilkenny that takes place in November. The content sits at the intersection of comedy and economics. Expect to be both educated and entertained. One recent Kilkenomics featured a panel including famous economists Dan Ariely and Rory Sutherland debating the (de)merits of the gig economy.
Where to Eat in Kilkenny
Kilkenny may be a small city, but there is some great food to be found here. Learn about where to eat and drink in Kilkenny with the recommendations below.
Kilkenny Design Centre Food Hall
The food hall at the Kilkenny Design Centre is a great place to grab a quick breakfast or lunch in Kilkenny. Enjoy a homemade sausage roll with savory dipping sauce and a pot of tea. Nab the corner table for lovely views of Kilkenny Castle.
The Fig Tree
Delectable cakes beckoned to us from behind the glass counter at the Fig Tree. We opted for a walnut coffee cake and a fruit scone. A frothy latte washed them both down.
CakeFace Patisserie is so good if you have a sweet tooth. Grab a coffee and a homemade peanut butter marshmallow. Sit back and while away the afternoon or early evening.