The very first time the city of Kilkenny entered my travel radar was from the pages of a menu in an Irish pub in Rome. The munched up, black and golden page had a choice of three types of drink from the Emerald isle and one of them was an intriguing ‘Kilkenny beer’, that the bartender described to me as a ‘red ale style beer from Kilkenny’. ‘It’s a city in Ireland’, he added, rightly attributing the lost expression on my face to my profound ignorance of Irish geography.
Fast forward a couple of decades and Kilkenny has become for me more much more than an exotic name conjuring up images of monastic sites and windswept landscapes. Since that night in Rome 20 years ago I have moved to Ireland and I have been to Kilkenny four times, one of them to attend the wedding of my now brother in law, whose wife has family there!
The last time we visited Kilkenny was a little over a couple of weeks ago: I was in the mood for a day trip from Dublin and Kilkenny seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Having wooed the kids with a promise of a juicy burger, a castle, and a playground, we left home in the morning and headed South.
What to see and do in Kilkenny
How to get there: Kilkenny can be easily reached by car, bus or train. By car: access to Kilkenny by car is easy thanks to the M9 (motorway) that connects it to Dublin (North East) and Waterford (South). If coming from Dublin, the city can be easily visited as a day trip: if you do so, make sure you plan a whole day here also to make the most of the many design shops in town, a great complement to the city’s rich sightseeing. The city offers several covered parking spaces that give easy access to the town centre. Kilkenny is best explored on foot so I highly recommend leaving the car in one of the designated area close to the castle and the Main Street.
By train: Kilkenny has a train station connecting it to the rest of the country. I am personally only familiar with the train from Kilkenny to Dublin, which connects the two cities in about 1.5 hours. You can check full train schedule on the Irish rail website here.
By bus: many buses stop in Kilkenny. You can reach the city with the National Bus service Bus Eireann or you can join one of the many day tours available
How much time should you spend in Kilkenny: The city is compact and you can see its main sites and landmarks in one afternoon but, if you have the time, it is worth it to spend a night here and enjoy the lively cafes and restaurants. Something special: Kilkenny is famous for being a vibrant centre for the arts: as well as being the home of many beautiful design shops, every summer Kilkenny hosts the Kilkenny Arts festival, a multi-day event that sees musicians, performers, writers and artists flock to the city and fill its historical buildings with performances and exhibitions.
Things to do in Kilkenny Ireland: top tourist attractions
Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile
Kilkenny is a medieval city and its origins are still visible in the compact layout of its city centre where historical buildings frame the meandering street connecting its majour landmarks. Two of them, St Canice’s cathedral and Kilkenny castle, punctuate the opposite external borders of the city and the are connected by the so-called ‘medieval Mile’ a discovery trail looping through the heart so of the city of Kilkenny and touching most if not all of the city’s main historical buildings.
The trail itself is not long and it won’t take more than a few minutes to walk from one end of it to the other, but it is so full of attractions, shops and restaurants the best way to explore it is to devote to it a full afternoon. If you can, arrange your day to have either lunch or dinner in town: the city centre literally bursts with restaurants and cafes and whether you fancy a pint or a coffee you are sure to be spoilt for choice.
What’s the best way to explore the Medieval mile? The medieval mile is a loop and I believe the best way to see it is starting from the side of the main street closest to Kilkenny castle. From here, walk down Kilkenny main street all the way to St Canice’s cathedral and, on the way back, follow St Kieran’s (the road to your left, you’ll recognise it for the many restaurants and the fact that it is closed to traffic).
Top tips for families visiting Kilkenny with kids: Take the tourist road train My kids spotted it first and since they laid eyes on it all we could hear for the rest of the day was: can we take the train please, pleeeaase. Nothing is as appealing for my kids that a street train! Indeed, the one crisscrossing Kilkenny’s city centre is very cute and with 25-minute tours makes you see all the main tourist attractions in Kilkenny. You can find additional information on the train website: www.kilkennycitytours.ie
St Canices’ cathedral
If you came to Ireland looking for mystical atmospheres, ancient graveyards and mysterious round towers overlooking windswept green lawns, you will love the monumental complex of St Canices’. Dating back to the 6th century, this gothic cathedral sits on the top of a small hill overlooking Kilkenny city and it is an impressive site: the church itself is gothic in style and has large and elaborate stained glass windows and arched naves. It sits beside a small cemetery with huge celtic crosses and side by side with one of the most impressive round towers in the whole of Ireland.
The round tower is the oldest standing building in Kilkenny and one of the only two towers of this kind open to tourists. if you are not scared of heights and your legs can take the steps, you will be rewarded by a beautiful view over the city and the river below.
Please note: height restrictions apply and small children are not allowed on the tower.
What are Irish round towers? Round towers are one of the most distinctive, albeit not unique, architectural and historical traits of Ireland: there are about 53 of them, all over the country, in various state of conservation, and they date as far back as the 9th century. They are an impressive and evocative sight: you can usually spot them from the distance in often remote areas, shooting up amidst a green landscape of hills and brooks, with a pointy roof piercing the grey sky.
Historians have devoted great attention to the meaning of these towers and several explanations about the original use are given: maybe bell towers, granaries, belfries or hermit dwellings, there is no complete agreement on what their main purpose was, but they were sure connected with settlements of monks and hermits and had at least some religious significance.
Graces courthouse and Rothe House
Strolling along Kilkenny main street, graces castle catches your attention for its grand facade. The building was originally erected as a fortress in 1210, it was converted into a prison in 1568 and then in a courthouse in 1792.
Almost in front of grace’s courthouse sits another impressive building sure to get your attention: rothe house. I spent the best part of my stroll trying to take a picture of this gorgeous house but despite my failed attempts at capturing an image that does it justice, ti stayed as one of my favourite bits of the whole town. Rothe house takes its name from the family who built it as it is now the headquarters of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. It is a gorgeous building with an amazing garden stretching back to the city walls and it is a lovely place to visit both for its important history and for the artefacts now on show here.
The Smithwick’s experience
What the bar attendant in Rome did not tell me, at the time, was that Kilkenny beer is only one of the local brews from this beautiful town: The other one is Smithwick’s ale and it has been brewed here in the city for over 300 years. Since we were here just for the day and with the kids, we didn’t venture into the Smithwick brewery and exhibition centre, but it was with a tinge of regret that we walked away: the place seem to have really well-organised tours getting you to familiarise with the history and the production of this drink and the reviews we read about it were raving so I guess this is one we will try and do our next time in the city!
Kilkenny castle is one of the most impressive buildings in the city and one of the most distinctive castles in the whole of the country: if you have seen photos of Irish castles, chances are Kilkenny castle was one of them and its size and rich history explain why.
The original structure, probably made of wood was originally built by Strongbow in the 12th century, probably around 1172 nd was rebuilt less than a century later in stone, when it acquired the four imposing towers we still see today. In the 14th century it became the property of the Butler family, rulers of Kilkenny and despite the many historical vicissitudes the castle and the country went through, the Butler family kept living there until the 1930s! Despite being in the hands of the same families for many centuries, the castle suffered bad damages over the course of the centuries and in 1967 was eventually sold to the castle restoration committee that, since then, made an amazing job of reconstructing its interior and maintaining the impressive grounds. In case you are wondering, the family didn’t exactly make a lot from this sale: the castle went for 50 Pounds!
As well as taking a stroll into Kilkenny castle and around its beautifully manicured gardens, make sure you stop and browse in what used to the castle stables: this area, dating back to the 18th century, has now been converted into the Kilkenny design centre, a fantastic place to admire (and buy!) locally crafted design products ranging from home decor to weather and fashion.
Tip for families visiting Kilkenny castle with kids: My kids are still a little small to fully appreciate castles but the one in Kilkenny had something that put it on their radar: a massive playground! It is located inside the castle yard, it is fenced and equipped with loads of swings, slides and climbing frames: access to the castle yard and playground is free and it os a pleasant spot for adults too.
Best hotels in Kilkenny for families
Kilkenny is very well equipped to welcome tourists and there is no shortage of accommodation. Following the suggestions of friends and our personal experience, these are the Kilkenny hotels we recommend for families wishing to spend one or more nights in the city.
Butler house Something truly special and a treat for castle lovers. This hotel is part of Kilkenny castle and it is as grand and elegant as you expect castle accommodation to be. The location is incredible and baby-sitting service is available on request.
Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel Right in the centre of the medieval city, this hotel has beautiful family rooms, a nice restaurant and a heated swimming pool on site for the use of guests.
Kilkenny River Court: Located on the bank of the river Nore, that crosses Kilkenny just under the impressive bastions of its castle, this hotel is the centre of town but has a quiet courtyard that shelters from the noise of the busy city streets. Family-friendly hotel with children services including baby sitting.
Rosquil house A lovely B&B located 15 minutes walk from Kilkenny town centre, it is non-smoking throughout and offers family rooms, a terrace, and bike rental options.
Things to do in Kilkenny for kids: outside of the centre
Kilkenny city is a lovely place to visit with kids and sightseeing is easy even with little legs rotting around with you; however, children attractions are available, all a short drive away from the city. Disclaimer: we haven’t yet been to these attractions and I am reporting them here, with the relevant links, for information purposes only.
The reptile zoo (www.reptilevillagezoo.ie). A space of over 6000 square ft, indoors, hosting over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians. it is the only zoo of its kind in Ireland and its mission is to increase the understanding of the world of reptiles and amphibians. The zoo has a plethora of activities for kids and offers many opportunities for kids to interact with the animals in a way that is safe for both. It also offers a picnic area, a cafe and a soft play area.
Take a water safari (gowiththeflow.ie) An activity I would love to do with the kids: kayaking on the river! You can book half or full day family adventures and the instructors promise they will help you negotiate the river and discover hidden spots you can only see from the water. Kayaking is available in the summer months only.
Castlecomer discovery park: another activity for the adventurous, Castlecomer discover park is about 20 km from Kilkenny city and has woodland trails, tree climbing, zip-lining, an adventure curse and a fairy village.
Dunmore Caves: Located 10 km from Kilkenny city, the caves are said to me among the most impressive in Ireland because of peculiar calcite formations. They take the form of a series of chambers formed over millions of years and can be visited by guided tours only.
So, what would you say: have I convinced you to add Kilkenny to your Ireland trip?
Please note: this post contains hotel affiliate links and if you make a purchase through them, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. This little money will help with running this blog. The mention of hotels is unsolicited and unbiased and I only recommend structures I believe will give you the best experience.
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