Everything good about Ireland can be found in County Cork. Surrounding the country's second city – a thriving metropolis made glorious by location and its almost Rabelaisian devotion to the finer things of life – is a lush landscape dotted with villages that offer days of languor and idyll. The city's understated confidence is grounded in its plethora of food markets and ever-evolving cast of creative eateries, and in its selection of pubs, entertainment and cultural pursuits.
Further afield, you'll pass inlets along eroded coastlines and a multitude of perfectly charming old fishing towns and villages. The scenery is every bit as enchanting as the best bits of Ireland, particularly along the Mizen Head, Sheep's Head and Beara peninsulas, where you can hike wild hills and touch Ireland's ancient past.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout County Cork.
This imposing former prison is well worth a visit, if only to get a sense of how awful life was for prisoners a century ago. An audio tour (€2 extra) guides you around the restored cells, which feature models of suffering prisoners and sadistic-looking guards. Take a bus to University College Cork (UCC), and from there walk north along Mardyke Walk, cross the river and follow the signs uphill (10 minutes).
One of Europe's best-preserved star-shaped artillery forts, this vast 17th-century fortification would be worth a visit for its spectacular views alone. But there's much more here: the 18th- and 19th-century ruins inside the walls make for some fascinating wandering. It's 3km southeast of Kinsale along the minor road through Scilly; if you have time, hike there along the lovely coastal Scilly Walk.
The English Market – so called because it was set up in 1788 by the Protestant or ‘English’ corporation that then controlled the city (there was once an Irish Market nearby) – is a true gem, with its ornate vaulted ceilings, columns and polished marble fountain. Scores of vendors set up colourful and photogenic displays of the region's very best local produce, including meat, fish, fruit, cheeses and takeaway food.
With its melancholic air of faded gentility, 18th-century Bantry House makes for an intriguing visit. From the Gobelin tapestries in the drawing room to the columned splendour of the library, it conjures up a lost world of aristocratic excess. But the gardens are its greatest glory, with lawns sweeping down towards the sea, and the magnificent Italian garden, with its staircase of 100 steps, at the back, offering spectacular views. The entrance is 1km southwest of the town centre on the N71.
This low-lying green island in Cork Harbour was once an important part of the port's defences, topped by an 18th-century artillery fort. In the second half of the 19th century, during the Irish War of Independence, and from 1984 to 2004 it served as a prison, gaining the nickname 'Ireland's Alcatraz'. Today you can enjoy a guided walking tour of the former prison buildings, then go off and explore on your own; the ferry departs from Kennedy Pier, Cobh.
This horticultural miracle of an island was created in the early 20th century when the island's owner commissioned architect Harold Peto to design a garden on the then-barren outcrop. Topsoil was shipped in, landscaped gardens laid out, and subtropical species planted; camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons now provide a seasonal blaze of colour. Harbour Queen and Blue Pool run 10-minute ferry trips to the island past colonies of basking seals and a nesting site for white-tailed eagles.
Cork's public gallery houses a small but excellent permanent collection covering the 17th century through to the modern day, though the works on display change from year to year. Highlights include paintings by Sir John Lavery, Jack B Yeats and Nathaniel Hone, and Irish women artists Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone.
The Victorian country estate of Liss Ard is home to the remarkable Sky Garden, a piece of landscape art created by American artist James Turrell in 1992. You enter through a tunnel and emerge at the bottom of a grass-lined, oval crater, so that all you can see is sky. There's a plinth where two people can lie toe-to-toe and contemplate the heavens. Open days vary each year – check Liss Ard's Facebook page. The estate is 2km southeast of Skibbereen on the R596.
If you need proof of the power of a good yarn, then join the queue to get into this 15th-century castle, one of Ireland's most popular tourist attractions. Everyone's here, of course, to plant their lips on the Blarney Stone, which supposedly gives one the gift of gab – a cliché that has entered every lexicon and tour route. Blarney is 8km northwest of Cork and buses run hourly from Cork bus station (€5.60 return, 20 minutes).