One of the most charming little seaside towns in Ireland is Kinsale, located along Ireland’s southern coast. From its quaint harbor to the historic forts on the ocean, it is a quintessential Irish coastal village.
Kinsale has a well-protected harbor which made it an important port for centuries. It was the most utilized natural harbor in Ireland for the shipping trade in the 16th – 18th centuries when England was fighting both Spain and France for dominion over the seas. At the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the English held off an attack by the joint forces of the Spanish armada and Irish clans (both were Catholic and saw this as a way to push the Protestant English out of Ireland). Once the battle was over, the Irish earls fled to the continent, and England controlled Ireland, instituting its rule and establishing “plantations” with Protestant emigrants from England and Scotland. Thus began the centuries-long rule that resulted in the “troubles” in modern times. England also built two forts at the mouth of the harbor, Charles Fort and James Fort, realizing that whoever controlled Kinsale would control Ireland.
Kinsale is also important as the nearest land to the site where the Lusitania was torpedoed by German U-boats in 1915. Hearings to investigate this act of war which drew the US into WWI were held in the courthouse here.
Now Kinsale is important in the Irish tourism sector as the beginning point of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Today Kinsale is a charming coastal village full of tourists, art galleries, and good restaurants. My younger son loved it so much that he declared he wanted to live here as an adult!
We spent a morning walking the quaint streets and having an ice cream before heading to Charles Fort. Park in a lot right at the Kinsale harbor and wander into the shops and restaurants along the water. We found several great souvenir shops with local goods in the town. Rick Steves recommends a guided walking tour which would be great with older kids/teenagers or those who want to learn more about Kinsale’s history.
We just wandered on our own for a little while before walking to the heart of the little town, which includes the St. Multose Church built in the 1190s. While the church itself is atmospheric with its stone tower and 6th century baptismal font, it’s the graveyard that will be interesting for history lovers. This is where some of the Lusitania victims were buried.
You can also visit the Kinsale Regional Museum in the middle of town to learn more about its long history. It even has items from the Lusitania on display.
Just past the main square is Desmond Castle, which once served as a customs house, a British prison, and a famine workhouse. It now houses a museum about Ireland’s wine trade.
After seeing the town, hop in your car and head to the star-shaped Charles Fort (or take the picturesque 45-minute walk along the mostly pedestrian-only trail called the Scilly Walk – not recommended with strollers or young children).
Charles Fort is a great stop with kids and is a fun place where they can run (just be sure to watch them on the crumbling ramparts). Our kids had a blast wandering around the centuries-old fort and pretending to be soldiers preparing for invasion. If you’d like a guided tour, those can be arranged at the ticket booth.
You can wander in the ruins of buildings and along the sea wall but be sure to pay attention to the do not enter signs for your own safety.
The two-story Barracks Stores building houses a small museum about the fort and its history.
The views of Kinsale and the mouth of the harbor are breathtaking!
Be sure to stop for a spot of tea and pastry at the cute cafe in the fort. It has a great view from its perch above the harbor!
You can drive around the town to the other fort on the opposite shore, James Fort, but it is just ruins. Charles Fort is the one you want to visit!
Kinsale makes a great day trip from the tourist towns of Cork and Cobh. We visited it as part of a day trip from our home base in Castlemartyr (a 50-minute drive). We visited Kinsale, Cork, and Cobh in one day, easily doable for families with older kids/teenagers.
Kinsale is one of those traditional Irish coastal villages that is quaint and picturesque but also has great restaurants, shops, and historical sites to visit. Be sure to make it a stop on any Irish itinerary!
- Cost: Charles Fort costs 5EUR/adults and 3EUR/child
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 3-4 hours for town and fort
- Gift shops located in town and at Charles Fort
- Transportation: Kinsale is best seen by automobile (there is no train station)
- Dining options: There are several great casual seafood restaurants along the harbor – Rick Steves recommends Dino’s Fish and Chips and Jim Edward’s Restaurant. He also recommends the Bulman Bar along the Scilly walk. We ate at an ice cream shop right along the harbor and at the little cafe in Charles Fort.
- Nearby hotels: We stayed about an hour away at the Castlemartyr Resort and it was fabulous! Check out the Kinsale tourism site for suggestions in Kinsale.
- Other attractions include: Titanic Experience Museum in Cobh and the town of Cork
Books to Read:
See my Ireland book list on Bookshop.org to purchase books about Ireland and its history (affiliate link).