The West Cork Coast
The West Cork coast begins the slow build-up of beauty that culminates in counties further west and north, but what you find here is already lovely. Picturesque villages, ancient stone circles and some fine sandy beaches mark the meandering coastal route from Kinsale to Clonakilty and on to Skibbereen and Baltimore. Rather than follow the main N71 all the way, take the R600 and explore the maze of minor roads along the coast – perfect for aimless wandering.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The West Cork Coast.
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 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.
On an exposed hillside, with fields falling away towards the coast and cattle lowing in the distance, the Drombeg stone circle is superbly atmospheric. Its 17 stones, oriented towards the winter solstice sunset, once guarded the cremated bones of an adolescent. The 9m-diameter circle probably dates from the 5th century AD, and is a sophisticated Iron Age update of an earlier Bronze Age monument. To get here, take the signposted turn off the R597, approximately 4km west of Rosscarbery.
Kinsale's roots in the wine trade are on display at this early-16th-century fortified house that was occupied by the Spanish in 1601. Since then it has served as a customs house, a prison for French and American captives, and a workhouse during the Famine. There are lively exhibits detailing its history, and a small wine museum that tells the story of the Irish wine-trading families, including names such as Hennessy (of brandy fame), who fled to France because of British rule.
This 200-year-old signal tower houses a museum dedicated to the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915 with the loss of 1200 lives. You can walk to the nearby clifftops for impressive views south towards the Old Head, the nearest point of land to the disaster; a privately owned golf club prevents you from reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the headland. The tower is 13km south of town via the R604.
Constructed on the site of the town’s old gasworks, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre houses a haunting exhibition about the Famine, with actors reading heartbreaking contemporary accounts; a visit here puts Irish history into harrowing perspective. There’s also a smaller exhibition about nearby Lough Hyne, the first marine nature reserve in Ireland, plus a genealogical centre.
A visit to the Michael Collins Centre is an excellent way to make sense of his life and the times in which he lived. A tour reveals photos, letters and a reconstruction of the 1920s country lane where Collins was killed, complete with armoured vehicle. The centre runs tours of the crucial locations in Collins’ life (book in advance). It's signposted off the R600 between Timoleague and Clonakilty.
You can’t help but smile at the West Cork Model Railway Village. It features a vast outdoor recreation of the West Cork Railway as it was during the 1940s, with superb miniature models of the main towns in West Cork. There's also a road train that provides a 20-minute guided circuit of Clonakilty.
Baltimore harbour is dominated by the stone tower of 13th-century castle of Dun na Sead (Fort of the Jewels). Inside, the great hall houses seasonal art displays and exhibits on the town's and the castle's history, but the main attraction is the view from the battlements.