Kilkenny is a fascinating mixture of old and new.
The city boasts plenty of medieval and Norman architecture, with Kilkenny Castle being a particular highlight, along with the Medieval Mile, which includes St Canice’s Cathedral and Rothe House.
Although proud of its rich history, Kilkenny is very much a modern city, known for its vibrant arts scene and bustling nightlife.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival has been one of the leading festivals in Ireland since 1974, and for ten days each August, it gathers many of the world’s finest musicians, performers, writers and artists.
The Top Ten
With all these factors in mind, Hospitality Ireland decided to examine the top ten visitor attractions in Kilkenny, based on Fáilte Ireland’s Visitor Attractions Survey 2019, which was carried out by SRI in the third quarter of 2020.
The year 2019 was chosen as a good indicator because it was pre-Covid, and so the sample was more in line with tourists’ behaviour under normal circumstances, rather than during an exceptional event like the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Kilkenny Castle Parklands
Kilkenny Castle Parklands is the number-one tourist attraction in Kilkenny, with 905,642 visitors as of 2019.
The estate overlooks the River Nore and has both formal and informal gardens, including a famous rose garden to the front of the castle, along with mature trees and shrubs, as well as an ornamental lake.
The Castle Park includes all the walled demesne parkland to the south of Kilkenny Castle and the formal terraced gardens to the north, comprising a total of 50 acres.
All areas of the castle gardens can be visited free of charge.
2. Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle had been the home and headquarters of the powerful Butler family since 1391.
The castle was founded soon after the Norman conquest of Ireland and has been rebuilt, extended and adapted to suit changing circumstances and uses over a period of 800 years.
Kilkenny Castle – largely a Victorian remodelling of the thirteenth-century defensive castle, furnished with family paintings, tapestries and objects d’art – is open all year round.
3. Nicholas Mosse Pottery
Nicholas Mosse Pottery is located in an old mill in Bennettsbridge.
Nick and his team make every single piece of pottery that they produce by hand and apply their patterns using an age-old tradition dating back to the eighteenth century – by using cut sponges, they individually sponge-dab the patterns onto each piece of pottery.
Every piece of Nicholas Mosse pottery undergoes a 20-step handmade process, and Nick personally trains every individual decorator who works at Nicholas Mosse.
4. St Canice’s Cathedral
St Canice’s Cathedral dates back to 1285 and is located in the Irishtown area of Kilkenny. It has been a site of Christian worship since the sixth century and was known as the last stronghold of the Druids before that.
Visitors can take in the largest collection of burial monuments in Ireland or view St Kieran’s Chair, which had been the Bishop of Ossory’s throne since the fifth century. The cathedral features stained-glass windows from artists like Harry Clarke and brass work from renowned sculptor Oisín Kelly.
5. Kells Priory
The existing ruins from Kells Priory mostly date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They consist of a church, a chapel, the prior’s residence or sacristy, and a number of domestic buildings, all standing on an enclosed site of some four acres.
The site features a collection of medieval tower houses spaced at intervals along and within the walls, which enclose a site of just over three acres.
Kells Priory was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert in 1193. FitzRobert was brother-in-law to Strongbow, and the priory succeeded an earlier church, which was dedicated to St Mary, the Blessed Virgin, and served as the parish church to nearby Kells Village.
6. Dunmore Cave
The geology and evolution of the area around Dunmore Cave dates back over 350 million years.
The cave is located about ten kilometres from Kilkenny City, and an interactive virtual museum is on site, where visitors can learn about the ecology of the caves and the Viking massacre that took place there in 928.
Dunmore Cave is currently closed until further notice, while essential works are carried out.
7. Jerpoint Abbey
Jerpoint Abbey is located about 2.5 kilometres south-west of Thomastown and dates back to the late twelfth century.
The abbey is a good example of Ireland’s Cistercian heritage and features carvings and sculptures.
Visitors can also look at the Romanesque church and see tombs from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, among them the final resting place of the abbey’s first abbot, Felix O’Dulany.
8. Medieval Mile Museum
The Medieval Mile Museum is located on the site of thirteenth-century St Mary’s Church and Cemetery, displaying artefacts going back more than 800 years.
Some of the treasures include high crosses, stone-carved tombs, and significant artefacts unearthed during the restoration of the church and surrounding graveyard.
The Rothe Chapel has tombs belonging to the medieval merchant Rothe family, and there is a high-cross exhibition that introduces the High Kings of Ossory and the foundation of the monastery of Kilkenny by St Canice.
9. Jerpoint Park
Jerpoint Park offers a guided heritage tour of a deserted twelfth-century medieval town: the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint.
It was founded by either Earl Marshall or Griffin Fitzwilliam in the twelfth century, just west of the Cistercian Abbey, where the main crossing of the River Nore was formed by a toll-paying bridge.
The site also contains the tomb effigy of St Nicholas (Bishop of Myra), plus the Church of St Nicholas.
10. Jerpoint Glass
Jerpoint Glass Studio was set up in 1979 by the Leadbetter family, who passed on their skills and passion for glass to their four children, who are experts in their field.
Visitors to the studio can watch glassblowers turn molten glass into Jerpoint pieces, and each piece is made by hand.
The tour also includes the Glass Attic Gallery, which has carefully selected work by some of Ireland’s finest craftsmen, along with paintings by local artists.