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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Farrell

72 hours in Cork: A cosy festive break


2024 got off to a good start with a three night-stay stay at the lovely Maryborough House Hotel & Spa. We pull up to the door on a cold, wet and miserable January afternoon but our mood changes as we enter the foyer. Beautifully and tastefully decorated for Christmas, we are greeted by a friendly face, an open fire and the wonderful festive scent of cinnamon. Our shoulders relax and all the stresses from a long car journey dissipate - just like that.

The Maryborough was everything we wanted for a chilled-out post-Christmas break. A family-owned boutique hotel, it oozes charm and old-school hospitality with plenty of character. The house itself is an original Georgian mansion dating back to the early 18th century, but the modern extension is tasteful and compliments the older architecture. The location is perfect: peaceful and surrounded by trees in the suburb of Douglas, yet less than 20 minutes from Cork city centre. Best of all, it boasts a spa and thermal suite which is free to use by all residents and, unlike many other hotels, you don't need to book to use, unless of course you're having a treatment.

We stayed in one of the large Deluxe rooms in the newer part of the hotel overlooking the grounds. And first impressions certainly do count - we were chuffed to find a bottle of bubbles on ice in the room as a welcome gift.

What we liked:

  • A seriously comfy bed and the BEST pillows.

  • Breakfast - a well-stocked Continental buffet with a spread of fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese, meats and smoked salmon, as well as delicious pastries and even some mini custard doughnuts (seriously tasty, FYI...). Guests can also avail of a made-to-order hot breakfast including a traditional Full Irish, Eggs Benedict, pancakes or an omelette - I'd highly recommend the latter.

  • No need to deal with parking or taxis - leave your car at the hotel and take the bus into the city centre. A stop for the 220 is located across the road from the main entrance. Buses are frequent, running every 15 minutes, and best of all, you can use your Leap card. A trip into the city costs a mere €1.35.

  • The spa and thermal suite with complimentary access for all hotel residents. The fragrance of scented candles fills the air while the calming sound of flowing water provides a hypnotic soundtrack. We sweated out all of those festive indulgences in the sauna and cleared our minds and opened up our senses in the aroma steam room. A hot tub and Jacuzzi pool completed the relaxation experience, while the hot jets pummeled all of the tensions out of our necks and shoulders.

Rates from €199 per room B&B with special offers available

Maryborough House Hotel & Spa, Maryborough Hill, Douglas, Cork


 

Food & Drink in Cork city


Cork is regularly lauded as a foodie's paradise and after spending three days eating and drinking my way around the city, I'd have to concur. There are any number of fantastic restaurants, from casual to high-end, and a multitude of great pubs & bars, too many to squeeze into a three-night stay, though we tried our best. We marked the start of the year with two truly exceptional meals in Paradiso and Goldie: I'd be surprised if these can be topped before the year ends.


Paradiso


2024 was the year that we finally made it to Paradiso. And you won't be surprised to hear that it was pretty sensational. At the moment they are offering a set tasting-menu only for €68 with the option of adding a wine pairing for an additional €30 per person, or a wine pairing with aperitif at €35 - we chose the latter.

Paradiso has long been a gem on the Cork food scene. The brainchild of chef Denis Cotter, it opened in 1993 and quickly developed a reputation for its innovative and exciting vegetarian menus. With a focus on local, seasonal produce, the presentation of its dishes is exquisite, the flavours outstanding. Today, they also offer a vegan menu.

We really enjoyed the wine pairing - always a good opportunity to try unusual wines that we wouldn't normally order. At Paradiso, the focus is on natural or organic wines, well-paired to bring out the subtleties and flavours of each dish. Here's what we had:


  • Beetroot tartare, rice cracker & coconut tamarind broth

  • Carrot escabeche and citrus labneh

  • Smoked leek,  fried capers and spiced butter

  • Pinenut and greens cannelloni, burnt onion broth, saffron - *this was the star of the show for us. I'm still dreaming about it.

  • Turnip, chestnut and mushroom galette, beet port gravy and sprouts.

  • Christmas pudding ice-cream, whiskey raisins and date crumb - *this was such a clever dish, replicating all of the flavours of this Christmas favourite



Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Mardyke, Cork, T12 AR24



Goldie restaurant


Research Goldie online and you'll see nothing but glowing reviews. Now I see why. We enjoyed a flawless meal from start to finish in this buzzy, exciting fish restaurant. Service is warm and friendly, the atmosphere relaxed and unfussy, while the food is nothing short of outstanding. Unsurprisingly they were awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand.

What I really loved about this place is its ethos of local sourcing, both for its seafood and artisan ingredients. They give a shout-out to all of their suppliers here and you'll note how many of them are based along the southern coastline. Fish and seafood is caught fresh each morning from small day boats so this dictates the evening menu which can change daily - seriously impressive.

Every dish is a work of art - beautifully presented in a vibrant palette of colours. But most importantly it tastes sublime. Here's what we had:

  • Pibil monk cheek with pickled red onion and salsa verde

  • Cod tail schnitzel with celeriac and gherkin remoulade.

  • Salt plaice fish cake with Ballycotton shrimps and brown mussel butter

  • Pan roast pollock with roast celeriac in tomato and lemongrass masala

We also heroically managed to fit in a dessert - spiced port pannacotta, caramelised apple and ginger crumble. It's also worth noting the focus on local craft beers and a small but unusual selection of wines, available by the glass, pichet and bottle.


Goldie, 128 Oliver Plunkett St, Centre, Cork, T12 X5P8



The English Market


No visit to Cork is complete without a visit to the iconic English Market, a bustling hub for food lovers in the heart of the city centre. Dating back to 1788, it's one of the oldest covered markets in Europe. For context, it's been around for 80 years more than the famous Boqueria Market in Barcelona.

Inside you'll find a variety of food stalls & stores selling meat, fish, cakes, pasta, wine and cheese with an emphasis on local traders and small-scale producers. You'll be spoiled for choice for lunch on the go: choose from artisan sandwiches, O'Flynns's gourmet sausage rolls (expect to queue..) or a fresh, wholesome & zingy Poké bowl from Maki Sushi. To follow, grab a specialty coffee with a sweet treat or two from the master chocolatier.

English Market, Grand Parade, Centre, Cork



MacCurtain wine cellar


Exploring the beautiful Victorian Quarter on our last afternoon, we spotted this very inviting looking spot on the corner. So obviously we had to go back to visit that night - purely for research purposes of course. What a fantastic little place this is, and absolutely buzzing with life on a chilly Thursday. It's a family-run independent wine shop by day, doubling as a wine bar in the evenings. We were lucky to bag the last spot at the counter to enjoy some of their delicious wines & to chat with the friendly staff.

And what does one need with a glass of wine? Why a giant chunk of Delice de Bourgogne (a triple cream cheese, no less...) with a cranberry, port & orange jam. Basically Christmas on a cheese board. In addition to some carefully-chosen wines by the glass, you can also pick a bottle off the shelf  for an additional corkage charge of €15. It's a place to linger for hours, sipping, nibbling and chatting.


MacCurtain Wine Cellar, 11 MacCurtain Street, Victorian Quarter, Cork, T23 FR66



Lea's at the Glucksman


After a thwarted visit to the Glucksman Gallery (closed for Christmas break during our stay), we stumbled upon this lovely café secreted away in the basement. What an unexpected surprise this was. At the bottom of the concrete stairs was a cheerful Christmas tree, leading the way to a fabulous café called Léa's. Newly opened in August 2023, it features cool stripped back décor with a Scandi-influence. Huge windows run along one side offering views of the surrounding trees and gardens.

We arrived just as they were closing up but they kindly allowed us to order two coffees. If a place can be judged on its coffee (I think it can...), then this bodes well for the rest of the menu. Open for breakfast, lunch and brunch only, dishes range from avocado toast to a variety of exciting and innovative options including Jalapeño smash burgers, Korean fried chicken and Shakshuka. My mouth was watering. They also offer a range of wines by the glass or carafe. One to return to on our next visit I think.

P.S. the architecture of the building is fantastic - you can read more about it in the What to do section below.


Léa's, The Glucksman, University College Cork, University College, Cork, T12 N1FK



BURNT - Neapolitan pizza


We enjoyed a slightly more casual dining experience on our last night. Always a sucker for a proper Neapolitan pizza, we headed for BURNT on Princes St, in the heart of the city centre. I was immediately struck by the European dining vibes on this street. Pedestrianised during the pandemic, Princes St is bisected by tables and chairs for outdoor dining with a canopy of colourful umbrellas overhead. On a cold January evening, we opted to sit inside (obviously...), tucking into two pizzas, Diavola and Parmigiana, and a comforting glass or two of Chianti. An authentic woodfired pizza oven created that bubbly, slightly burnt crust and the sauce was good, made with San Marzano tomatoes. Their chips are great too. However the salad was overpriced and disappointing so don't bother - just stick with the carbs.


BURNT, 20/ 21 Princes St, Centre, Cork, T12 PE04


 

Pubs


The Oval bar


We gravitate naturally towards the city's traditional old-school pubs with low lighting and comfortable interiors. First up is The Oval bar, recommended by a friend in the know. Outside, the rain is teeming down with a chill wind blowing. Inside it's cosy and inviting with an open fire and a welcoming smell of peat. We pull up a pew and order... creamy pints of Beamish, of course. Controversial I know, but I'm beginning to think that the Corkonians might have a point on the Guinness v Beamish debate.

Dating back to 1759, The Oval is listed as one of Cork's Heritage Pubs. Décor is traditional with wood paneling, comfy leather seats and a snug inside the window. Candles on tables create a cosy atmosphere.

The Oval bar, 25 S Main St, Centre, Cork, T12 Y15D



Mutton Lane


Another rainy night, another cosy pub. We liked this one so much, we came back again the night after. One of the city's oldest drinking spots and also listed on Cork's Heritage Pub Trail, Mutton Lane has everything I want in a pub: low-lighting, creamy pints, friendly staff & a welcoming atmosphere, great tunes (not too loud either so you can hold a conversation) and not a sign of a television. But if pints aren't your thing, they also have a nice Rioja by the glass.


Mutton Lane, 3 St Patrick's St, Mutton Ln, Centre, Cork, T12 RV07



Hi-B bar

Another old-school institution, beloved of locals and visitors alike, the Hi-B bar is the place to come for good conversation and great pints. A mosaiced welcome mat on the street directs you up the stairs: on the first-floor you'll find what is reputedly Cork's smallest bar, comfy, traditional and full of character, which feels like someone's living room. Service is warm and friendly: those seated on high stools at the bar chatted equally to the barman as  to each other. And the best bit - they have a strict no-phones policy with a sign telling you to "talk to each other" instead. How utterly refreshing!


Though it feels like a remnant from a long-distant past, I'm happy to say you can also get a decent glass of wine here too after a post-Covid revamp.


Hi-B Bar, 108 Oliver Plunkett St, Centre, Cork, T12 E6CX


 

What to do in Cork City


Though Ireland's second-largest city, Cork is compact and perfect for exploring on foot. Architecturally, it's an attractive city, with many of the traditional shop fronts and signage still beautifully preserved today.


The Victorian Quarter is worth a stroll to admire the elegant red-brick buildings which line the street on the north bank of the river Lee. Sandwiched between the N20 to the west and Railway St to the east, here you'll find an eclectic mix of shops, bars and restaurants.

It's in this quarter you'll find the fabulous MacCurtain Wine Cellar mentioned above, but we also like Priory Coffee Co. Serving delicious gourmet coffee by one of my favourite roasters, Cork-based Badger & Dodo, it also has a selection of homemade sandwiches and cakes. Nab a seat at the window for people watching. We loved the quirky if slightly unsettling sculptural artworks on the walls, which looked not unlike death-masks.

Priory Coffee Co, 33/34 MacCurtain Street, Victorian Quarter, Cork, T23 DR52 (NB: there are four other branches in Cork)


Cork is also known for its striking street art dotted all over the city. Ardú, a city-wide contemporary art project came to life during the height of the pandemic in 2020, bringing colour, character and cheer to its inhabitants. There's a cool interactive map on their website to accompany your visit and to guide you on your tour.



Two of the most recognisable features on the Cork city skyline are the spires of St Fin Barre's cathedral on the south bank of the River Lee, and the Shandon Bells & Tower of St Anne's Church on its north bank. Both are worth visiting for different reasons.


St Fin Barre's Cathedral

We arrived at St Fin Barre's on a particularly dreary grey evening (are you starting to see a pattern here?...) but our spirits lifted as we walked through the grounds, the stained glass windows creating a golden, almost otherworldly glow from within. Located in a prominent position on a hill overlooking the city, the cathedral is named after the patron saint of Cork. The existing structure dates to 1870, a dramatic example of a Gothic Revival church with three-spires.

It was fascinating to read that architect William Burges was not only responsible for the building but he also designed the beautiful stained glass windows, not to mention the staggering 1,260 pieces of sculpture. Make sure to go inside to get up close and personal with the stained glass. Burges insisted on the use of a Medieval technique for their execution and it's very effective.

There is a wealth of sculptural detailing surrounding the three portals telling stories from the bible including The Last Judgement and Abraham sacrificing Isaac, while gargoyles jut out precariously above our heads.

Entry to church: €7


St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Bishop St, The Lough, Cork



Shandon Bells & Tower, St Anne's Church


One the city's most-loved icons stands on a hill on the north side of the river, recognisable by the golden salmon perched on top, a symbol of the salmon fishing industry which was so important to Cork. Dating to the early 18th century, the church has an unusual exterior. The north and east aspects showcase a red sandstone while the south and west façade uses a white ashlar limestone. Rumour has it that the colours of the tower influenced the modern-day sporting colours of Cork. A clock occupies each side of the tower, though not always in exact time with each other, leading to the affectionate  local nickname ‘the four faced liar’ .

And now for the fun bit. Visitors have the opportunity to play a tune on the famous Shandon bells. To do so, you'll need to climb some of the 132 steps in the tower leading to the best 360 degree views of the city. Claustrophobes and vertigo-sufferers take note - at some points the thick walls narrow considerably, and the final ascent is steep. On the way up, pause on the first platform to test your musical ear. Here you'll find eight ropes for the eight bells with simple music notation for a number of different tunes. Follow the numbers and pull the ropes - just don't forget that whatever you play can be heard across the entire city.

Earphones are provided for visitors to protect from the sound of the enormous six tonne bells in the belfry. And after the enclosed passageway, it's a relief to finally emerge on the upper balcony to take in the expansive city views. Entry: €6




Glucksman Gallery


To the west of the city in the leafy grounds of University College Cork stands the renowned Glucksman Gallery, showcasing three floors of national and international contemporary art. But it's not just the art that visitors come to admire: the building itself is pretty extraordinary.

Designed by multi-award winning architects O'Donnell & Tuomey, the gallery is raised above ground. appearing almost to hover in the trees like a giant treehouse, creating a sense of lightness. An inclined walkway leads to a podium with access to the galleries upstairs and the lovely Lea's café downstairs (see earlier mention in Food & Drink). Steps on the other side lead down to the river with picturesque views.

Visitors up to the 10th March 2024 will have the opportunity to view large-scale works by one of Ireland's most respected artists Hughie O'Donoghue. Sadly the gallery was closed for Christmas break during our visit but we look forward to a return visit later in the year.

Just something else to note: there are gorgeous views of the city rooftops from the carpark.


Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, University College, Cork, T12 N1FK



Crawford Gallery


Last but not least is the wonderful Crawford Gallery, a must-visit for any newcomers to the city. Housed in one of Cork's most historic red-bricked buildings you'll find a fabulous collection of paintings and sculpture from 18th century to present day. Artists in the permanent collection include Jack B. Yeats, Mainie Jellett, Dorothy Cross, James Barry and Seán Keating, to name but a few.

It's worth noting that some of the permanent galleries are closed to the public at present. The Watercolour Room and Modern Galleries are currently off-limits, as is the wonderful Harry Clarke Room but this is due to reopen on 24 February 2024. However, we were lucky enough to catch Harry Clarke: Bad Romance, a temporary exhibition of works by this great master, featuring some of his extraordinarily detailed book illustrations, watercolour studies and three of his earlies works in stained glass. They are jaw-dropping. Show runs to 18th Feb 2024.

I also particularly enjoyed the All Eyes on Us portrait exhibition (running until 24th March 2024) Victoria Russell’s Portrait of Fiona Shaw is fantastic, and the sculpture busts are wonderful too.

It's free to visit but donations are gratefully accepted.


Crawford Gallery, 1 Emmett Pl, Centre, Cork, T12 YHN7


 

Practical Information - worth noting before you visit

After all that positivity on my new favourite city in Ireland, it would be remiss of me not to have a little gripe about the slightly bonkers parking situation in Cork city. I'll preface this by saying you probably don't need a car in the city. It's very walkable and the bus service is really good and inexpensive, as far as my limited experience goes. However, if on the occasion that you might actually need your car, there are a few things you should know which nearly drove us over the edge on this visit. And not just us - I've heard multiple friends referring to the inexplicably complicated system of street car parking.


So, here goes. There are quite a few multistorey carparks dotted around the city. I was wondering why this was the case but now I see why they are necessary. If you can figure out how to park on the street, you deserve a medal. Let's start with the mystery as to why there are no parking meters. They're usually straightforward right? You put in cash or pay by card, it gives you a ticket and off you go. Hey presto! But no. Here we have mysterious signs that say 'disc parking only'. With absolutely no information about what that might mean to a visitor. We try to use our Parking Tag app which has worked all over the country. But no, not here. So we Google it and find that there's an entirely new system at play in Cork. You need to set up a new parking account with Cork City Council on an app or, wait for it, you can ring up and park by phone (what is this, the 1990s?) It needs a minimum of €10 lodged to the account either way (we only wanted to park for an hour and would likely not need to use this again for a long time..). Can you imagine if you were a tourist, or new to the city and in a hurry. Or had no access to the internet or your phone had died? After 20 minutes of trying to figure it out and yelling at each other, we decided to ask the nice lady in St Anne's Church. She informed us that you can actually buy parking discs for one or two hours in some local shops and establishments to place in your windscreen.


Why, oh why, is that very important piece of information not available to visitors at the disc-parking spots? Maybe a QR code which links to a page with all the places you can buy a disc. Not this really awful and entirely useless PDF on their website which lists them but doesn't have a location map to show you where they are. You'd be sitting in your car manually typing in the addresses to Google Maps to see if there's one near you. What is this madness? Am I missing something? I would really like it if someone could enlighten me. Thank you :)


But apart from that one little annoyance, we absolutely loved Cork city and are dying to come back for another visit. Too many restaurants, too little time.


Happy travelling


K xx




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