A guide to Kilkenny, the modern Irish city in a medieval skin

A guide to Kilkenny, the modern Irish city in a medieval skin

A modern Irish city in a medieval skin, Kilkenny is a short break steeped in culture and has an engagingly independent spirit.

Published September 5, 2023

5 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

A gorgeous little sprawl straddling the River Nore in Ireland’s southeast, Kilkenny is a place you can walk in a day, fall in love with over a weekend and still find things to discover after a week. Its imposing Anglo-Norman castle and 13th-century cathedral bookend the Medieval Mile, a historic strip cutting through the city. But it’s between the old set pieces that the magic happens — the record store hidden down an alley; the talkative host of a pub squished into an Elizabethan townhouse; the stumbled-upon galleries, craft studios and vintage shops. Late summer and early autumn are good times to visit, with Culture Night (22 September) followed swiftly by Kilkenny Animated, and the Savour Kilkenny food festival a month later. 

Start at Arán Bakery, one of a new wave of Irish bakeries and patisseries challenging the previous generation’s obsession with sliced ‘pan’ (bread). Sourdough is milled with local flour, while cinnamon rolls are dipped in local Highbank Orchard apple glaze. They do an all-day brunch, too, with unlimited coffee refills.  

A short walk away on John’s Quay, Butler Gallery is in a former 19th-century servants’ home. The modern art exhibitions here change all the time, but a fixture is its collection of works by local artist Tony O’Malley bringing to life the landscapes of his native Callan. As at Butler House, the elegant hotel on Patrick Street, its name recalls the Butler family, generations of dukes and earls who resided at Kilkenny Castle.  

The castle, which evolved over 800 years, is Kilkenny’s anchor attraction. Highlights include its long picture gallery and Victorian nursery. The plaza alongside is a focal point for festivals, but a lesser-known nook lies across the road. Pass through the arch into a former stableyard to find the National Design & Craft Gallery, where exhibitions cover both modern designers and traditional Irish crafts, and a scattering of makers at work in Castle Yard, including a jeweller and potter. You can rummage in more retail rabbit holes on nearby Patrick Street, where shops like Yesterdays and Folkster occupy Georgian townhouses. The former is a repository of weird and wonderful Victoriana, 1930s American crafts and other homewares; the latter a local edit of vintage-inspired clothes.

Meander down the Medieval Mile until you come to Rothe House. Tours are available of the 16th-century merchant’s home and its walled garden. Turning left down New Building Lane brings you to the off-radar Black Abbey — a Dominican church named for the colour of its priests’ habits. The exterior is forgettable, but there’s magnificent stained glass in its Rosary Window — said to be the largest in Ireland.   

Smithwick’s is Kilkenny’s famous brewery, with a sensory experience and holograms among the bells and whistles telling the story of an ale older than Guinness. But savvy beer fans know Sullivan’s Taproom is where to find the best local brews, and you can get grub in its beer garden, too. Family-run Rinuccini cooks up classic Italian cuisine with Irish ingredients, and Michelin-starred Campagne takes a French-inspired approach. Besides these classic Kilkenny restaurants, there’s a clutch of new kids on the block. They include cosy cafe-restaurant Noinín (Irish for daisy), whose window seats are perfect for people-watching, and the vegetarian Higgs Field, where a take on the Irish breakfast roll swaps bacon for smoky cabbage.            

Finally, Hole in the Wall is one of Ireland’s most unusual pubs. Dip into this bar and music venue squirrelled away in a 16th-century townhouse off High St, and you’ll find intimate tunes, lashings of craic and warm chats with Michael Conway, the cardiologist who runs it all as a passion project. 

Published in the Sept 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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