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When Ireland's national tourist bureau and Kilkenny Tourism invited us to spend a day in Kilkenny as their guests, we couldn’t resist. Who could be a better tour guide than someone who’s in the business of promoting tourism there?
We expected them to show us the best things to do in Kilkenny – and they did – but we didn’t expect that there would be so many fun things to do or that we would fit so much into 24 hours!
Tip: If you are planning a trip to Ireland’s “Sunny Southeast,” Waterford and Wexford are also worth visiting. You’ll find related articles at the end of this story.
One day in Kilkenny: the itinerary
Kilkenny began as a religious community in the 6th century and has since grown into the fifth-largest town in Ireland. Most people know about 800-year-old Kilkenny Castle, but it's known for more than that.
Kilkenny’s medieval center is full of a rich history and culture. You can lose yourself for hours just walking down cobbled streets and admiring the centuries-old buildings that have been kept in such pristine condition. but if you enjoy shopping, Kilkenny is also known for its many shops selling pottery, jewelry and artwork along its quaint lanes.
We'll admit it: Some of the things to do in Kilkenny that they shared are a bit off the beaten path, unusual tourist attractions. We might not have tried them on our own, but that would mostly be because we haven’t found them on any “Kilkenny things to do” list.
We’re going to fix that here, by sharing the “one day in Kilkenny itinerary,” that was created for us. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful as you plan your own trip.
1. Try your hand at Irish Hurling
Speaking of unusual things to do in Kilkenny, this activity is not what you might think.
In America, hurling is what college students do after having had too many drinks on a Saturday night. In Ireland, it's a 3,000-year-old sport that's only just begun to catch on overseas.
Never mind soccer or football; the Irish are rabidly passionate about this sport. Hurling has been played in Ireland for over three millennia and is arguably the world's fastest game … and Kilkenny has the best team in the country.
Just one day after the All Ireland Hurling Final, we got our own chance to try our hand at it, courtesy of The Kilkenny Way Ultimate Hurling Experience. Our host, P.J. Lanigan, is a veritable authority for all things hurling. He met us on a hurling field and gave a brief talk about the sport, its history, and why it's so popular.
Then the fun began. He had us each pick up a hurley (the stick) and a few hurling balls, and before we knew it we were blocking, hooking, lifting and striking — skills we'd never even heard of before. By the end of it all, he had us balancing balls on our hurleys while running across the field.
Even for someone like me who is not a sports fan — and most definitely not athletic— I thought this was a fun way to spend two hours.
- Tours daily: 11:45 or 2:30 Mon-Fri, 12 Sat-Sun
2. Stop in at Lanigan's Legends Hurling Bar and Restaurant
With all that running around you'll be hungry, I promise. The hurling experience ends up at Lanigan’s Legends Hurling Bar, the sports bar for hurling enthusiasts. We were escorted to the upstairs bar, which P.J. had turned into a hurling museum.
I didn't pay much attention to the downstairs, but the upstairs was pretty cool. Sure, it's a bar with food and all, but it comes complete with hand-painted murals of history's greatest hurlers, as well as a well-thought-out assortment of hurling memorabilia.
Adding to the experience, there's a TV on the wall, so if there's a game on, you can watch them using the skills you've just learned while you eat.
If I were a fan of the sport, I'd be in hurling heaven.
We ate lunch at Lanigan's. It’s a pub, after all, just with hurling memorabilia everywhere. We enjoyed a savory bowl of very traditional Irish lamb stew and a pint of Kilkenny's own Smithwick's, Ireland's most popular red beer.
3. Take a theatrical walking tour of Kilkenny's Medieval Mile
Out of our entire day in Kilkenny, this was our favorite thing to do. Here's how to make history entertaining: Take a one-hour walking tour of the Medieval Mile, the oldest part of Kilkenny, led by actors dressed in Medieval period costumes.
- Daily at 2 pm, from July to October. (Starts at the Hole in the Wall on High Street.)
Our tour was led by “Sir Mike,” the self-proclaimed Sovereign of Kilkenny, who claimed to be from the time of the Black Death. We played along as he took us through the city's ancient streets. Along the way, he told stories of people from his past and showed us the buildings, alleys and lanes of his time.
Sir Mike had a great sense of humor and made the city's history come to life, especially when we encountered some other colorful characters along the route. (Let's all pretend we never noticed that two characters were portrayed by the same actor.)
4. Tour Rothe House
“Sir Mike!” shouted a gentleman from the window of Rothe House. “Bring your guests inside!”
And soon we were in the courtyard of a unique Irish 16th-century merchant's townhouse complex. The man in the window was John Rothe Fitz-Piers, a wealthy merchant and father of 11 children. (He must have loved his wife. A LOT.)
John Rothe, a wealthy merchant, proudly took us around the house and gardens he had built in the 1600s. He bragged that he had built three houses with enclosed courtyards and that Rothe House has changed little since it was built. What he never mentioned but I later learned, was that the Rothes were part of an oligarchy of around ten families who controlled Kilkenny for nigh on three centuries.
Rothe House is considered to be a prime example of a house of Kilkenny's influential merchant class. We didn't go inside but we did see the garden to the rear, still a typical 17th-century garden.
5. Visit Kyteler’s Inn
Sir Mike led us into Kyteler's Inn to “meet” Alice Kyteler and hear her tell about her life.
Dame Alice de Kyteler began Kyteler's Inn in 1324. As the daughter of a Norman banker and the owner of a popular Kilkenny inn, she became very well-to-do and very well-connected to the local gentry. Unfortunately, she also had the misfortune of being a widow four times.
Jealousy over her success led Alice to be eventually accused of having used witchcraft to kill her husbands. The penalty for witchcraft was to be burned at the stake, so loyal friends in the local gentry ensured that she was ‘spirited’ away to England before she could be arrested.
It's not very often that you'll get the chance to enjoy a meal or a beer in a 750-year-old building. Kyteler's history is fascinating, but so is its layout. I almost got lost just looking for the restroom. Everywhere I looked I seemed to discover more quaint details, such as the beautiful stained glass windows on the top floor. Each room led to another room, all connected to the main inn in a hodge-podge fashion.
Tip: Return after dinner for traditional Irish music.
6. See St. Canice Cathedral
Sir Mike brought us to St. Canice Cathedral, where we were introduced to a “former bishop” who bore a striking resemblance to John Rothe, haha. The bishop boasted that he served in a cathedral that was built in the 1200s, and Christians have been worshipping on the site ever since the 6th century.
Now belonging to the Church of Ireland, the cathedral that stands today has been carefully preserved in its original Early Gothic style. Enter the church and you’ll find the original baptismal font, as well as a replica of an original 13th-century stained glass window. The cathedral also contains some of the finest 16th-century monuments in Ireland, so it’s definitely worth a visit.
Tip: Sir Mike pointed out a nearby 9th-century round tower that was once a watchtower and refuge. If you have time, he said, you can climb to the top. It offers remarkable views of both the city of Kilkenny and its surrounding countryside – weather permitting, of course.
7. Explore Kilkenny Castle and its grounds
We had reached the end of the Medieval Mile. Sir Mike bade us goodbye at Kilkenny Castle.
Goodbye, Sir Mike. We had a wonderful time!
Kilkenny has its own castle, built in 1195 to control an important fording point on the river that runs through the center of town. It was privately owned until 1936 when it was sold to the government. I'm guessing the upkeep was too much to bear.
There is no charge to walk about the extensive grounds, but they charge a fee to tour the castle's interior. Two wings have been restored to what they might have once looked like in the 1800's.
I'd have liked to have shared a few photos of the interior to inspire you to visit… but since no photography was allowed inside, I can't share much more. Trust me when say, though, that this is a definite Kilkenny must-see.
8. Learn to play a bodhran
If you will only be in Kilkenny for one day, then you must plan to visit on a Monday or Tuesday. On either of those two evenings, you'll be back at Kyteler's Inn for a unique cultural experience. Damien Walsh gives group lessons in how to play the bodhran, Ireland's traditional drum.
Believe me, you don't want to miss this. What better way to learn to play the ancient drum than at Ye Olde Kyteler's Inn? Here the historic bar's ambience and traditional drum's rhythm will complement each other so well that you may lose yourself in the experience.
Damien, a Bodhran master, made everything so simple. As fun as it might seem just to watch people try to learn to play the bodhran, it's all the more fun to try it yourself! Even if you have very little musical ability and even less rhythm, you'll get the hang of it and end up feeling like a talented musician by the end of the class.
9. Enjoy a 5-star dinner at Zuni Restaurant
We usually look for inexpensive local hangouts when we travel, and rarely have the opportunity to dine at a Michelin-rated place like Zuni Restaurant.
What a treat! The talented chef, Maria Raftery, only uses the best locally-sourced ingredients, and she even designed her menu so that it reflects where each ingredient came from.
The best way I can describe their cuisine is Irish-global fusion. The foods are native to Ireland, yet the flavors and tastes are from all over the globe. As guests of the restaurant, Maria planned and prepared a menu to showcase the restaurant’s specialties. Even so, they seamlessly adjusted dishes at the last minute for those on special diets.
My mouth still waters when I remember that duck with mushroom risotto….
10. Find an authentic Smithwick's experience
What would an Irish pub be without its beer? There's Guinness, of course, but if you're in the mood for something lighter, Smithwick's might be just what you're looking for. “Smitticks” is the most popular ale in Ireland.
Kilkenny's love affair with beer began long before 1710 when John Smithwick founded Smithwick's Brewery. Actually, Franciscan monks had brewed ale in Kilkenny since the 1300s. Smithwick's was a part of Kilkenny life for three centuries until it was finally bought by Guinness.
This is the one Kilkenny attraction that we missed, but it deserves a mention. The 300-year-old brewery was Ireland's oldest operating brewery when it closed in 2013, just a week before we were there. It has since been renovated and now hosts The Smithwick's Experience, Kilkenny's newest tourist attraction.
Quoting from their website: “Just a 5-minute walk from Kilkenny Castle. Smithwick’s Experience Kilkenny brings you through over 300 years of history behind Ireland’s most loved ale…. As part of your tour, you’ll have the chance to mill the malt, stir the mash and smell the hops, just as we do in the famous Brewery.”
Where to stay in Kilkenny
Just outside of town is Lyrath Estate, a luxurious hotel-spa-convention center, where we were lucky enough to stay for a night. Lyrath Estate is a classic estate house with a very modern wing that somehow blends into the hotel's history. Its gardens are amazing, and they make a wonderful background for the many concerts and events that are held throughout the year.
Dan took so many great shots of this beautiful hotel while we were there that we thought it deserved its own post.
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