Yep, there’s a pretty famous rock here. Tourist trap or hidden gem?
I feel like tourist attractions are much like New Year’s Eve – a whole lot of money, anticipation, and waiting go into it only for you to walk away feeling disappointed. The same holds true for me when I travel. I live in New York City, but when friends come to visit, I often tell them to skip some of the city’s most famous sites. During my time in Germany, I visited countless castles and cathedrals, but it was time spent meeting people there that made the trip worthwhile. And in Italy, I once went way out of my way to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and still feel like that’s six hours of my life that I want back!
So the fact that I even considered traveling to Blarney is something, seeing as it’s home to the Blarney Stone – Ireland’s biggest and most famous tourist trap.
So, was it worth it or should you skip it? Here’s this skeptic’s take.
Photo courtesy: Discover Ireland
What to do in Blarney?
The word blarney itself means a couple of things to the Irish: amusing and harmless nonsense or clever, flattering talk. Irish politician John O’Connor Power put it this way: “Blarney is flattery sweetened by humor and flavored by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience.”
But what I wanted to know was – is a visit to the town of Blarney just a bunch of blarney? The short answer is no. Would I travel all the way to Ireland just to kiss the famous Blarney Stone? No. But would I suggest that families driving through Cork on their way from Dublin to the Ring of Kerry (or vice versa) add Blarney to the itinerary? You bet. Or do it as a side trip if you’re visiting Dungarvan, one of our favorite little towns in the sunny southeast of Ireland.
If you find yourself in Blarney, there’s plenty for families to do:
Certainly the most touristy thing in Ireland, a visit to one of the most famous rocks in the world is, like so many things in life, all what you make of it. For us, four kids and four adults (six of them Irish, two of us American), it was about having a fun day out with family.
According to the legend, kissing the Blarney Stone instantly gives you the “gift of gab” as the Irish say or great eloquence and skill at flattery. Each year, more than 400,000 people pucker up to this piece of rock. And as if the thought of that many mouths touching the same stone isn’t enough to scare you off, you also have to hike up to the top of a tall tower and literally bend over backwards to smooch the silly thing. Some would say the steep entry fee and even steeper, slow climb up three stories of narrow, one-way stairs are a waste. But for me, it was a laugh that made for a funny photo and great story. Besides, Winston Churchill kissed the stone – worked for him, didn’t it?
There’s more to this place than just the Blarney Stone. The 60-plus acres of gardens and woodlands make for some fun exploring for little ones. There’s even a lake, an ideal spot for a family picnic. And if your kids are into princes and princesses like my daughter, they’ll feel like they’re in a real fairy tale. Cost: Youth $6.50; Adult $15; Family (2 adults, 2 children) $37.50.
No trip to this part of Ireland would be complete without a stop at the world famous Blarney Woolen Mills. What was once just a small thatch cottage on wheels that was pushed around the town of Blarney is now a three-story, 60,000-square-foot store and the largest purveyor of Irish goods in the world. This is the place to find those hand-knit Aran sweaters that Ireland is famous for. While you may know them simply as cable knit, the sweaters, traditionally made for fishermen in the Aran Islands, actually come in several different patterns – each with its own meaning. Back in the day, you could tell what county, village or family a fisherman was from just by the sweater pattern that he wore. Cost: Free (if you don’t count the hundreds of dollars that you’re likely to spend on gorgeous goods!)
KidTripster Tip: Take advantage of the store’s free shipping to America. It may not be the fastest, but it’s worth it to not have to haul around all the bulky sweaters, wool blankets, and other fun gifts that you'll find here. There are also tax refunds available for non-EU visitors on all purchases made in the store. But I’m not going to lie, it involves a bit of work. The money is put on a card which you have to take to a Fexco Horizon kiosk at the airport on your way out of the country. If you’re anything like us and just trying to get yourself and the bags and the kids through security and customs and security again, you’ll likely forget or simply not have the time to deal with it.
Nestled between the Blarney Castle Hotel and the Castle itself is a place that I tried with all my might to avoid but simply couldn’t. How could anyone not be tempted by the tantalizing aroma that wafts from the Blarney Chocolate Factory? Stop in for gourmet chocolates and fudge made in-house or ice cream made in Cork and topped with chocolate. Or get someone the gift of a chocolate “Blarney Kiss” or chocolate in the shape of Blarney Castle. Good luck getting it home without eating it along the way!
Side trips from Blarney?
There are plenty of ways to round out a day or two in Blarney with short side trips:
If your kids were less than thrilled about being dragged through row upon row of cable knit sweaters at the Blarney Woolen Mills, make it up to them with a trip to this place. Fota Island Wildlife Park is like a zoo only better. Located just 15 miles from Blarney, this 70-acre wildlife park lets animals roam free as much as possible. Many of them are the kinds that you’d only see on an African safari. Your kids will love how they can get up close and personal with a Sumatran Tiger, Indian Rhino, and Asiatic Lion. You can get a tour of the park by taking the train which runs regularly and saves the little ones who may not be able to handle all the walking. Bring a packed lunch, as there are plenty of picnic tables. Four playgrounds dot the park; the one located near the entrance is right next to the ice cream stand – bonus! Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-15) $11; Adults $17; Family pack (2 adults, 2 children) $50.
KidTripster Tip: If you want an extra special experience, “push the boat out” (as the Irish say) and book the VIP Family Tour. You’ll get a private, two-hour, behind-the-scenes tour of the park with the warden, and you’ll even get to feed the penguins and giraffes. Cost: $160 (2 adults, up to 4 kids); ages 3 and up only.
KidTripster Tip: If a 5-star stay is in the budget, Fota Island Resort is the place to go. This gorgeous, modern hotel set on 500 acres has everything: championship golf, tennis, spa, pools, and indoor and outdoor playgrounds. Deluxe rooms for four start at $265/night and often include admission to the wildlife park.
No one goes to Blarney without also going to Cork. There’s so much to do in Ireland’s “Second City.” But if for no other reason, make the 15-minute drive into the city to see the English Market. It’s a foodie paradise with hundreds of local vendors selling fresh fish, organic produce, and artisan breads and cheeses. Even the kids will enjoy checking out all the delicious foods throughout the hall. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.
3/Relive tales of the Titanic in Cobh
About 30 minutes from Blarney is the town of Cobh (pronounced Cove), which was the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. Stop at the Titanic Experience, where you’ll be given a boarding pass with the details of one of the 123 passengers who bought a ticket for the ship’s maiden voyage to New York. The tour takes you through the last moments leading up to the final embarkation of the most intriguing voyage in history. Cost: Youth $5; Adult $10.25.
4/Tip a few in Midleton
Jameson Whiskey may have called Dublin home for more than 200 years, but these days, it’s distilled in the tiny town of Midleton about 30 minutes east of Blarney. A guided tour of the distillery lasts a little over an hour and includes a complimentary Jameson signature drink at the distillery bar afterward. Jameson is by far the best-selling Irish Whiskey in the world and even if you’re not a fan of whiskey, The Jameson Experience tour is fascinating. Cost: $19. Afterward, enjoy lunch at The Malthouse Restaurant; it even has a children’s menu.
KidTripster Tip: For $60, you can take a 2-hour 15-minute, behind-the-scenes tour and for $323, you can learn how to make and taste whiskey in a 4-hour tour that includes cask opening and sampling of premium whiskey. Obviously, this experience is not kid-friendly;
KidTripster Tip: The Jameson Experience runs a bus service (March 30 - October 31) that shuttles visitors from Cork City directly to the distillery. Buses depart twice daily from St. Patrick’s Quay at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Roundtrip tickets (which include the cost of the basic tour) are $22 and can be purchased on the bus.
Photo courtesy: Discover Ireland
Where to eat & stay?
If you’re planning on spending more than just the day in Blarney, The Blarney Hotel is the best bet for families, large and small. Just 15 minutes from Cork City and a 5-minute drive to the center of Blarney village, this hotel has more amenities for kids than any other in town. With a swimming pool, playroom, playground, and go-karts, your kids will have plenty to do. And with a golf course and spa, there’s plenty to keep the adults happy, too. There are three on-site dining options. Cormac’s Bar is a relaxed setting that’s kid- and budget-friendly, serving up pizzas, sandwiches, and other pub fare. Iniscarra Restaurant is a little fancier but still kid-friendly (as is the case with most restaurants in Ireland in my opinion), and it’s also where breakfast is served each morning. Another casual option on the property is the Lion’s Den Bar & Bistro. Located in the golf course clubhouse, it’s a nice spot for salads, sandwiches, and burgers; it even has a kids’ menu.
My husband, daughter, and I stayed here on a 3-night getaway with our entire Irish family. Most appealing to us were the self-catering lodges on the property: fully-furnished 2-bed/2-bath townhouses, complete with kitchens. We rented four of them, side-by-side to accommodate 16 of us in total. It was the perfect arrangement for us, giving each individual family their own space. Our rate included free breakfast (first morning only) and access to all of the amenities on the property; but sometimes those aren’t included, so make sure to ask when booking. Rooms start at $95/night; lodges run $140/night.
KidTripster Tip: This is, quite possibly, the most random and ridiculous tip that we’ve ever given, but here it goes! If you’re staying in the self-catering lodges, and you’re just back from the pool, and it’s close to dinner time, and no one has even thought about what to do for dinner, nor can they be bothered to shower and get the kids out the door, order Chinese takeout (or takeaway, as they say in Ireland) from Lantern House in the center of town. The absurdity of the fact that I’m recommending a Chinese restaurant in Ireland is not lost on me, but it’s actually good (and that’s coming from someone who lives in NYC and eats a fair amount of Chinese takeout)! We ordered a ton of food for 16 people, and not one order was messed up; everyone was happy with their food. And the restaurant even delivers to the hotel.
KidTripster Tip: The golf course on the property is just okay. If you’re really into golf, you’re very close to some of the best courses in Ireland, including the unique, 27-hole experience at the Fota Island Golf Club (about a half an hour away) and the jaw-dropping, bucket-list-worthy Old Head Golf Links (about an hour’s drive away).
KidTripster Tip: If you’re searching for additional information on this property, please note that some other travel sites and forums have it listed as The Blarney Hotel & Golf Resort or Blarney Hotel Golf & Leisure; they’re all the same hotel.
Perfectly-situated close to all the attractions, Blarney Woolen Mills Hotel is a cozy hotel with a funky vibe. Built within the old stone walls of the historic mill, this place has all the charm and nostalgia of times gone by but with all the comforts of a modern boutique hotel. The hotel’s 48 rooms are quite traditional in style, but the large lobby has an industrial loft feel with brick walls, exposed ductwork, and large leather sofas with jewel-toned pillows. It’s a great spot for a spot of tea, which, conveniently enough, is served here every afternoon.
For breakfast or lunch (whether you’re staying at the hotel or not), The Mill Restaurant is a must. With its farmhouse style, wooden tables, and colorful, mismatched chairs, this bright and airy restaurant is perfect for families. Serving everything from avocado toast and chia pudding to a full Irish breakfast to homemade soup with brown bread, the food is fresh. There’s also plenty of outdoor seating, if you’re as lucky as we were to get a nice warm, sunny day in Blarney. Also next door to the hotel is Christy’s Bar, which serves lunch, dinner, and of course, Guinness and Murphy’s. Only danger of staying here is the amount of money you might spend at the Blarney Woolen Mills next door! Rooms start at $171/night.
KidTripster Tip: Everyone knows Ireland is famous for its Guinness, but what you may not know is that Guinness isn’t the only Irish stout out there. In Cork, where Murphy’s is made, you simply don’t order Guinness. So head to the hotel’s pub and try a pint of it for yourself. And catch some traditional Irish music while you’re at it.
You can stay just outside the gates of Blarney Castle at Blarney Castle Hotel, a quaint, little hotel in the town square. Warm and welcoming, the unfussy hotel may not have many amenities, but it does have clean, affordable rooms overlooking the village green, a friendly staff, and a lovely, traditional pub. It also has location, location, location! Just a 2-minute walk to the castle, it’s also just down the road from Blarney Woolen Mills and dangerously close to Blarney Chocolate Factory (right next door!). Rooms start at $139/night.
Photo courtesy: Blarney Woolen Mills Hotel
There are currently no direct flights from the USA to Cork. Several carriers, including Aer Lingus, British Airways, and Ryan Air, do fly to Cork via Dublin, Shannon or London. Taxis from Cork Airport to the city center cost about $12, while the CityLink bus costs about $5.
Blarney is just five miles northwest of Cork. The route 215 bus from the Cork Bus Station at Parnell Place runs every half hour to Blarney. You buy your ticket on the bus; it’s cash only. It costs about $5 for a one-way ticket.
Marcia Breen is an American writer who went to London, met an Irishman with a Russian name, and followed him to Bermuda. Nearly a decade later, they are married and living in New York City with their 3-year-old daughter and extremely lazy cat. Marcia is now fluent in Irish (yes, it’s different than English!) and addicted to Tayto, Jacobs Fig Rolls, and Barry's Tea.