10 great reasons to visit Kilkenny
#TravelTV: The Marble City
It’s got heritage, hurling, and some of the hottest festival tickets in Ireland. Welcome to the Marble City.
Kilkenny is on a roll.
From sizzling food to medieval set-pieces, shopping secrets to brilliant bars, this is a city that’s easy to get to, fun once you’re here, and always hard to leave.
Join Henry Shefflin, Travel Editor Pól Ó Conghaile and more for a look at the big hits and hidden gems in one of Ireland's great city breaks.
1. Shopping secrets at Folkster
Folkster, Patrick Street. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Folkster is a slick, vintage-inspired store set in an old bank building on Patrick Street (the exterior is obvious, but don't miss the mosaic-tile logo in the hallway). It’s home to a sweet edit of clothes, homewares and accessories that don’t cost the earth - think brands like Lavish Alice, Gild & Cage or Cotton Candy. There will be browsing...
Our tip? Check out the shoes. They’re affordable (c. €29-€69), fashion-forward and "they never let you down,” as shop assistant, Alice Norwood, puts it.
Details: 27 Patrick Street; 056 770-3312; folkster.com
2. Storied ales at Smithwicks
A blast from the past at Smithwicks. Photo: Andres Poveda
Smithwicks dates from 1710, though the Kilkenny brewery is a dab hand at technology, too. Lonely Planet listed this as one of its hottest attractions for 2015, and guided tours take you through the brand story and brewing process with the help of holographic monks and talking paintings… a real Harry Potter moment.
Visitors can get hands-on with the brewing process, too - stirring the mash and sniffing the hops as they learn what distinguishes this storied ale from lager and stout (5pc of the barley used in Smithwicks is roasted, compared to 10pc for stouts).
The big surprise? Smithwick is older than Guinness - though Franciscan monks were brewing on the site as long ago as 1231. Hence the holograms.
Details: 056 778-6377; smithwicksexperience.com; €12
3. The Medieval Mile
Rothe House, Kilkenny
Many cities would be happy with a handful of medieval buildings – even one or two old ruins that withstood the test of time (and 20th century development).
Kilkenny, however, boasts a whole mile of medieval marvels. Stretching from its iconic castle to St. Canice’s Cathedral, highlights include the atmospheric alleys and lanes (try the Butter Slip, once lined with 17th-century butter sellers) as well as the terrific time capsule that is Rothe House (1594).
This old merchant’s abode is steeped in local and national history, and not just indoors – a Tudor garden out back is crammed with the same fruit, vegetables and herbs that would have been cultivated in the city hundreds of years ago.
Details: 056 772-2893; rothehouse.com; €5.50
4. The Salt Yard
Chef Ernest Subirana Sanchéz. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Got an appetite? Kilkenny has you covered.
The county boasts two Michelin Stars (at Mount Juliet and Campagne), though the casual end is arguably strongest. The Salt Yard is a case in point - a relatively new addition, but a sign of an evolving food scene that gets richer by the year.
Here's a local tapas restaurant with a simple USP - Spanish cooking techniques combined with choice Spanish and Irish ingredients. Chorizo from Salamanca cooked in Highbank Orchard cider, anyone? Or how about Kilmore Quay hake cooked in a San Miguel batter? We're hungry just thinking about it.
Proprietor Padraig Enright and chef Ernest Subirana Sanchéz have hit a canny niche. The room is funky, there's a neat range of cava cocktails, some excellent sherries, and we love that the meats are sourced across the road in Paddy Kenna’s butchers.
It's a sizzling slice of Kilkenny... via Seville and Barcelona.
Details: Friary Street; 056 770-3644; thesaltyard.ie.
5. The fastest game on grass
Henry Shefflin in full flight. Photo: Sportsfile
You can’t talk about Kilkenny without talking about hurling.
The Cats dominate the sport in Ireland, and sporting lore runs deep in an assembly line of greats ranging from Eddie Keher to DJ Carey and ‘King’ Henry Shefflin (who shares his tips for the city in our video above).
Fancy seeing what the fuss is about? Try the Kilkenny Way hurling experience, which kicks off with an introduction in PJ Lanigan’s pub before heading for a tour of Nowlan Park and a hands-on lesson on the pitch.
You’ll huff, you’ll puff, and it’s fair to say you’ll hit a few wides (if you hit the ball at all), but it’s a brilliant insight into just how difficult and deep the game is, freshening your admiration all over again. Oh, and there's a bowl of Irish stew afterwards, too.
Details: 056 772-1718; thekilkennyway.com; €25
6. Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle. Photo: Deposit
The Anglo-Norman Kilkenny Castle is the city’s centrepiece - “a beautiful place” sitting above the River Nore, as Henry Shefflin describes it in our video (above).
As with many Irish castles, this one has been altered significantly over the years – rendering it a mix of architectural styles. It’s best known as the main Irish residence of the Butler dynasty (from 1391-1971), and a self-guided tour takes in highlights including the tapestry room, ‘withdrawing room’ and grand staircase.
The kitchen is pure Downton Abbey, and don’t forget the park outside either… it’s a super green space at the heart of the city, with a playground to match.
Details: 056 770-4106; kilkennycastle.ie; €7/€3
7. The Black Abbey
The Rosary Window, Black Abbey, Kilkenny. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Kilkenny has its big hits, but it also has its hidden gems.
Down tiny Abbey Street, off the Medieval Mile, you’ll find the Black Abbey - a Dominican church whose community first arrived in 1235. The building was so-called due to the colour of its priests' habits, though the old nave and aisle are among the only bits remaining from the early days.
From the outside, it looks fairly plain. Step inside, however, and you’re greeted by a breath-taking explosion of stained glass. The Rosary Window is said to be the largest in Ireland.
Details: 056 772-1279; blackabbey.ie
8. Festival fever
Savour Kilkenny. Photo: Garrett FitzGerald Photography
It’s knack for combining heritage with the here-and-now makes Kilkenny a top festival city. Check out Medieval week in April, the Roots festival and Cat Laughs in late spring and early summer, the summer Arts festival and of course Savour Kilkenny in October. There’s even a craft beer festival.
Details: savourkilkenny.com; kilkennyroots.com; thecatlaughs.com.
9. Heltzel's Hidden Gem
Christopher Heltzel at work. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Rudolf Heltzel first came to Kilkenny from Berlin in 1968. His impact is hard to underestimate. Four generations of women are now wearing his creations, and countless jewellery makers have learned from the master.
Heltzel's son Christopher (above) has now taken the mantle, using centuries-old tools to hand-craft sheet metal and precious gemstones into unforgettable works of art.
"We're not interested in what’s in fashion," he says. "We create things that we hope are beautiful."
Details: 056 772-1497; rudolfheltzel.com.
10. A parting glass
Hidden histories. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Our parting glass is hidden down a tiny lane off High Street. It’s the aptly-named Hole in the Wall, a brilliantly intimate inner house of an Elizabethan mansion dating from 1582. Pop in, and you might find a gig, a party or an exhibition underway. The Duke of Wellington is among those said to have supped here, and you never know who you’ll meet today. It’s the perfect place to toast Kilkenny.
Details: 17 High Street; holeinthewall.ie
For more on Kilkenny, see visitkilkenny.ie.