Ireland’s ancient south east is often overlooked by tourists who flock to the west coast to see the sweeping Atlantic views and popular natural cliff scapes of the rugged coast. But closer to Dublin lies the heart of medieval Irish culture, a mix of Norman, Gaelic, and English styles that form some of the country’s best examples of castles, churches, and towers from the middle ages. There’s even one you can stay in!
One of the most striking examples of medieval architecture in Ireland, the 13th century Kilkenny Castle was built by the Normans and occupied for centuries. Today, you can explore the grounds and visitors center for free, or take a paid tour of the castle’s many hallways and grand rooms. The castle was inhabited until the early 20th century, and transferred officially to the people of Kilkenny in 1967. The castle has been renovated, restored, and expanded upon since it was completed in 1213, and today is missing one of its four walls, creating a U-shaped design that centers on a courtyard. Inside, part of the National Art Gallery of Ireland is on display, and outside, there is a children’s playground.
St. Francis’s Abbey Brewery
Though Guinness is the best known of Ireland’s breweries, it can’t hold a candle to Ireland’s oldest brewery. Though only formally founded in 1710 when John Smithwick began putting his name on the beer produced from the Abbey brewery, the roots of brewing at this location date as far back as 1231. It was then that a group of Franciscan monks gave up their quest to purify water and instead focused on beer making. Though little remains of the original Friar’s well from which the monks brewed their beer, the Smithwicks visitors experience is a great way to spend an afternoon. Plus it ends with a free pint.
For a trip back in time to the golden age of Irish medieval Catholicism, a trip to Jerpoint Abbey is a must for any visitor to Kilkenny. Founded in 1158 by the King of Osraige, a small Irish kingdom between Leinster and Munster, the Abbey is a well-preserved ruin that has been declared a national monument and is open year-round to the public. A small visitor’s center tells the story of the Abbey, including the transitional architectural style, between late Norman and early English. Renowned stone carvings adorn the abbey and are a favorite of photographers.
Though not a castle or abbey in a strict sense, Rothe House is one of the most important and oldest buildings in Kilkenny city. With construction beginning in the 16th century, the house was eventually expanded into several houses and a garden. The house was originally occupied by Mayor of Kilkenny John Rothe Fitz Piers, who kept adding additions to the structure as the number of his children continued to grow. Today, it houses a small genealogical research center as well as the Kilkenny Archeological Society.
If you’ve ever wanted to experience medieval life, Tubbrid Castle is the place for you. A 15th century tower house, this castle is actually listed as a rental on Airbnb, meaning you can actually stay there overnight for an authentic medieval Irish getaway. The castle was restored to its original glory by a father and son team. Modern fittings like electricity and indoor plumbing have been added to the house, as well as contemporary furniture, offering the perfect combination of vacation luxury with medieval vibes. Check out the listing here and for $199/night, this Kilkenny treasure could be yours for the weekend.