The perfect Kilkenny mini-break – two days in Ireland’s Medieval City
Kilkenny is a popular short break option for Irish people and visitors alike, and it’s easy to see why. Almost in the centre of the Republic, it has good train and bus connections, making it an easy two-day destination. It also has well preserved medieval buildings, a picturesque river setting and evocative winding lanes that are home to everything from boutique shopping to bustling nightlife, meaning you get a lot for your 48 hours here.
Start your day off by losing yourself in Kilkenny’s maze of narrow, medieval streets, soaking up the atmosphere while familiarising yourself with this small city's layout. When your stomach rumblings become too loud to ignore, amble towards Mocha’s Vintage Tearooms, the cutest stalwart in the city’s dining scene, and it's filled with just the right amount of classy clutter. You can mix and match the various breakfast items and pig out on a hearty full Irish breakfast one minute and then pause to delicately sip tea from fine china teacups the next.
If you’d like to explore some of Kilkenny’s famous churches, it’s best to plan for a day other than Sunday when hours are limited because of religious services. If you can only do one, make it St Canice’s Cathedral. A religious site since the 6th century, its oldest existing structures have been standing since the 1200s. Fascinating though it is, the real treasure is the Round Tower beside it. You’ll spot these all over the country, but this is one of only two you can actually climb. And climb it you should, but be warned, the excellent views of the city are only reachable by ladder, so it’s strictly for the mobile and those with a good head for heights.
Continue your history lesson with a visit to the slightly strange but immensely worthwhile Rothe House and Gardens. Admission gets you a self-guided tour of the restored Tudor home, which is a sort of time capsule of interesting and historical objects from the area. The restored gardens are a highlight and best visited in warmer weather for the full blooming effect.
Pop into the Gourmet Store to carb load for the afternoon ahead; the fresh ingredients used here elevate the humble art of sandwich making, and the crumbly quiches are excellent too. If the weather is fine, get them to go and and wander into Kilkenny Castle Park to relax and enjoy at your leisure while indulging in a spot of people-watching. The view from the park is great, but the real appeal is inside the castle. You can take a self-guided tour (except in November and December when you’ll get a guide) to explore the magnificent rooms full of tapestries, furniture and even a contemporary art gallery in the basement.
If Dublin is all about Guinness, then Kilkenny is about Smithwick’s, an ale that was first brewed in the city in 1710. Though production has now moved to the capital, it’s still synonymous with the town, and the Smithwick’s Experience will give you a full rundown of its swings in fortune. If you’re in any way a beer fan, you should upgrade your ticket to get the ‘full experience’: three tasters of their red, pale and blonde ales, served at the end.
Continue your education in all things Smithwick’s and beyond at the nearby Left Bank. Inside this old bank building, the polished Victorian-style decor expands through multiple levels and bars, but its array of nooks and crannies manage to make it still feel intimate despite its size. Crowned the best bar in Ireland in 2017, it makes a perfect spot for a pre-dinner aperitif.
To treat yourself on your mini-break, book a table in advance for Campagne, Kilkenny’s only Michelin-starred eatery. Reasonably priced for a high-end meal – though somewhat lacking in ambience – the French-inspired menu rotates with the seasons and chef Gareth Byrne’s creative whims. After stuffing yourself, it's time for a nightcap, and for that, you should make your way to the Dylan Whisky Bar. Choose from more than 200 varieties of the water of life or an excellent selection of cocktails.
Whether you're up early to continue your Kilkenny exploration or sleeping in because you're on holiday, the Fig Tree's excellent all-day breakfast will be waiting whenever you’re ready.
With a full belly, it's time to find out why the city is known as the Design Capital of Ireland. Opposite the entrance to the castle, you’ll find a good starting point, the National Craft Gallery. Running exhibitions for nearly 20 years, it remains the only gallery space dedicated to design in the country.
After getting some inspiration here, it’s natural if your thoughts turn to bringing back a piece of the city for yourself. The Kilkenny Design Centre next door is chock full of artistic gifts from fashion and jewellery to homewares and handmade cosmetics. For something ultra chic, don’t leave the city without visiting Folkster. Although they have very successful branches in Dublin, Kilkenny is where it all started, with a fabulous boutique on the ground floor and a basement full of vintage clothing. If your budget knows no bounds (or you just like to imagine it doesn't), the exquisite pendants on display in Rudolf Heltzel are a sight to behold. For something totally different, consider booking a perfume workshop at Valley of Roses. Here Andriana will teach you the basics of perfumery and help you create a personalised scent taking inspiration from everything from your hobbies to your horoscope. Your individual fragrance will be kept on file so you can reorder from anywhere in the world in the future.
After satisfying all your materialistic instincts, dive back into Kilkenny’s history with a visit to the excellent Medieval Mile Museum. It’s worth opting for the guided tour to get a better appreciation of this treasure trove of medieval finds, Renaissance tombs and hilarious anecdotes about some of the residents of the adjoining graveyard.
For a worthy gastronomic send off, book your evening meal for Rinuccini. A softly lit basement restaurant, it has a classic Italian menu boasting a stunning array of fresh pasta and meat dishes that mean decision-making will be a real chore. Spend the rest of the evening lingering in the candlelight over drinks at the beautifully designed Bridie’s or, if you have the energy for something a bit livelier, you’ll often find live music at Kyteler's, as it hosts trad sessions daily during the busier times of the year. Enjoy it while sipping on that last pint of Smithwick's before saying so long to its birthplace – for now.