Family Vacations to Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny, Ireland
KILKENNY CASTLE: Take a tour of the historic castle, with impressive stone turrets and ramparts that dominate the city (Irish Tourist Board)

Kilkenny, Ireland Highlights

  • Survey the medieval spread of Ireland's old capital from the ramparts of Kilkenny Castle.
  • Be entertained by the yarns of traditional Irish storytellers during the Kilkenny Arts Festival.
  • Enjoy an outdoor concert in Ballymore Amphitheatre, a former stone quarry.
  • Speed around in a go-kart on the twisting racetrack of Kiltorcan Raceway Karting Circuit.
  • Explore the flatwater and rapids of County Kilkenny's scenic riverways.
  • Delve underground to explore the spooky interior of massive Dunmore Cave.

Located in Ireland's scenic heartland, just 70 miles from Dublin, the medieval city of Kilkenny is a great place to taste the true flavor of rural Ireland. The small city, with a population of less than 10,000, mixes the charm and easy bonhomie of traditional Irish life with a cosmopolitan, modern outlook. This means a fun roster of year-round events and activities, including one of Ireland's biggest arts festivals, along with lazy days exploring the city's ancient streets and bucolic County Kilkenny countryside. The hyperactive family might find they exhaust their options too quickly, but then they'd be missing the point.

Kilkenny was the capital of Ireland until the 12th century, and this pre-eminence is reflected in the cluster of historic monuments, churches, colleges, and abbeys that fill the city center. Perched on a bluff overlooking the River Nore, the impressive stone turrets and ramparts of Kilkenny Castle dominate the city. The site of a fortress since before the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1171, it was "Strongbow" Richard de Clare who erected the 12th-century tower that now forms the castle's central core. A one-hour guided tour of the castle will give you a taste of the building's furnishings as well as Kilkenny's history, while a children's playground and expansive grounds outside are a nice place for the kids to burn off excess energy. Other notable historic buildings in Kilkenny include the Black Abbey and Saint Canice's Cathedral, both of which are easy to visit on a leisurely walking tour through the medieval heart of town. Needless to say, there are countless cafés, shops, pubs, and restaurants in which to duck for sustenance and souvenirs.

For such a small place, Kilkenny attracts some incredible artistic talent, particularly during the acclaimed Kilkenny Arts Festival each August. This annual culture fest originally began as a gathering for classical-music enthusiasts, but has since broadened its remit to include jazz, literature, dance, theater, film, and street performances. There is also a dedicated children's program that features fun events like Irish storytelling, puppetry, music and poetry workshops, and performance art. Parents with older kids should also consider visiting Kilkenny during the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival earlier in the summer, an event which attracts big-name comedians from Ireland and around the world.

The Ballykeefe Amphitheatre is another good venue for live music, theater, and puppetry. Located in the bowl of a disused stone quarry seven miles outside of Kilkenny, this is a unique spot in which to enjoy outdoor performances by traditional Irish folk musicians, plus the occasional B-list rock band and evening ceilidh (think line dancing with fewer scripted moves—and better music). Check the schedule for family "fun days," where activities include live concerts, rock-climbing displays, archery, treasure hunts, and puppet shows.

To pick up the pace after a peaceful day exploring Kilkenny's historic core, look no further than the half-mile circuit of the Kiltorcan Raceway Karting Circuit. Speed demons will love zooming around the impressive all-weather track without fear of speeding tickets—or a weeklong grounding for reckless driving. There's also a skate park where young shredders can top up their vacation adrenaline fix.

Of course, the countryside surrounding Kilkenny offers plenty of other places where you can get the heart beating faster. Known around the world as a top-class thoroughbred breeding center, numerous riding centers and stables offer everything from show-jumping courses to pony-trekking. One good half- or full-day option is a trip to the Mount Juliet Estate, which offers guided tours through the lavish grounds of its 1,500-acre spread.

Starting with the Nore and extending to the Barrow, Suir, Shannon, and Slaney rivers, County Kilkenny's waterways are another excellent source of fun. The flat water is ideal for family canoe trips, while some faster stretches of whitewater are fun to run in a canoe or kayak. Go With the Flow River Adventures, across the county line in County Tipperary, offers guided trips with varying degrees of difficulty, along with canoe and equipment rentals if you want to explore on your own for a day or more. Indeed, you could go one step further by renting a canal boat and take the slow float all the way to the Shannon and Dublin Bay.

Look for adventure underground, including in Dunmore Cave about six miles outside of Kilkenny City. Formed over millions of years, this enormous karst-limestone cavern features some impressive calcite formations, as well as notoriety as the place where the bones of 44 bodies were uncovered, presumably the victims of marauding Vikings in the tenth century. Castlecomer Discovery Park also allows visitors to scratch beneath the County Kilkenny surface, this time for its coal-mining past. A newly opened visitor center showcases the area's history of coal, while the woodland grounds offer four miles of hiking trails and a pond stocked with rainbow trout. Castlecomer is about 12 miles north of Kilkenny City.

Tip: Have fun with the locals by attending a game of hurling at Nowlan Park, home stadium for the championship-winning Kilkenny "Cats." By night, visit St. James Park for the twice-weekly greyhound racing.

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Kilkenny


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