Not only does Cork revel in its reputation for fine food and drink, the city also regards itself as the country’s only genuine guardian of Celtic culture.

Lunch at Cork's English Market gives new meaning to the phrase “locally sourced food”. Tucking into a hearty bowl of Irish stew or a platter of sea-scented rock oysters at one of the market’s mezzanine Farmgate Cafe tables, you can look down on the stalls where the chefs sourced their produce that very morning.

Ireland's second city, tucked away in the southwestern corner of the country, revels in its reputation as a champion of fine food and drink. But the self-styled “Rebel City” also regards itself as the nation's only guardian of Celtic culture; a city that is more genuinely Irish than Dublin.

The “rebel” nickname dates back to the late 15th Century, when the city lent support to the Yorkist cause in England's Wars of the Roses, but it is chiefly associated with the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921) when Cork was a hotbed of resistance to British imperial rule – an era dramatically fictionalised in Ken Loach’s 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley (starring Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy).

Stroll the streets
Cork's compact size – its population of 120,000 is less than a 10th of Dublin’s – makes it ideal for exploring on foot. The city centre is a low-rise sprawl that straddles an island in the River Lee, where modern glass and steel buildings such as the Opera House (radically remodelled in 2003) sit shoulder to shoulder with 19th-century Neoclassical architecture and remnants of Victorian warehouses.

Across the river to the north is the picturesque suburb of Shandon, where brightly painted terrace houses cluster around the clock tower of St Anne's Church. You can climb the 18th-century tower for a grand view over the city and a chance to ring the Shandon Bells, immortalised in a sentimental 19th-century song that was carried around the world by the Irish diaspora. Laminated song sheets beside the bell ropes detail the range of tunes that can be rung on the eight bells, from Abide with Me to Waltzing Matilda. Nearby, delve into history at Cork City Gaol, a grim reminder of the darker aspects of Ireland's past. In addition to being a place of execution, the jail was used to incarcerate republican political prisoners during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War (1922 to 1923).

Go to market
But the Cork’s main draw is its well-deserved reputation as the food capital of Ireland. The epicentre of the city’s gourmet scene is the English Market, dating from 1788 and regularly lauded as one of the finest covered markets in Europe – TV chefs Rick Stein, Rachel Allen and the late Keith Floyd have all raved about it, and it was a high point of Queen Elizabeth's 2011 visit to Ireland.  

Get there by mid-morning to browse the colourful stalls that groan with the bounty of County Cork's rich farmland and coastal waters. Fish merchant Kay O'Connell's 24m-long marble counter glistens with more than 50 varieties of fish and seafood, from cod and ling freshly landed at the West Cork port of Castletownbere, to organic smoked salmon from Bantry Bay, 80km west of Cork, to tanks filled with live lobster and crab.

There are greengrocers' stalls piled high with cabbages, leeks and a dozen varieties of spud, and a whole range of butchers' shops, with their serried ranks of pork ribs, ham hocks and sides of bacon, dark red slabs of richly marbled sirloin, and neatly arranged trays of crubeens (pigs' trotters, cooked long and slow to gelatinous tenderness then crisped in the oven – a local speciality).

Look out for A O'Reilly's display of tripe and drisheen, two of Cork's traditional favourites. Drisheen is a variety of black pudding, made with beef and sheep's blood and poached in milk. If you are feeling adventurous, try it at the market's famous Farmgate Cafe.

Eating out
Founded in 1984, the ethos of Farmgate Cafe is simple – to promote top quality local produce and champion traditional Irish cuisine. At the top of the stairs near the market's Princes Street entrance, turn left for the formal, table-service restaurant or right to order at the counter and grab a bar stool overlooking the market below. The menu ranges from scrambled eggs with smoked salmon to lamb's liver and bacon to fish chowder, shepherd's pie, and tripe and onions with drisheen – and all of the meat and fish comes from the market stalls below.

Farmgate closes at 5 pm, but English Market produce is also on the dinner menu at Market Lane, a few blocks to the east. Lively, informal and crammed with locals, this restaurant operates a walk-in policy (reservations only taken for parties of six or more), but waiting for a table is a pleasure. Order a Cork Dry Gin and tonic (distilled in the city since 1793 and possessing a distinctive citrusy nose) or a bottle of locally brewed Angel Stout, and strike up a conversation at the convivial bar. When it is time to take a seat, choose from a menu of honest Irish cuisine such as smoked haddock with bacon and cabbage potato cakes, or ham hock with cauliflower cheese.

Cork's restaurant scene is not all surf and turf though; the city's Cafe Paradiso is one of Ireland's top restaurants and is 100% vegetarian – something of a rarity in Ireland. Chef Denis Cotter was ahead of the curve when he opened this place back in 1993; since then, the rest of Ireland has caught up with his dedication to top quality, locally-sourced produce. Most of the vegetables on the menu come from a farm just 16km outside Cork, and are lovingly incorporated into dishes such as parsnip ravioli with roast portobello mushroom and ginger butter, and salsify and shallot risotto with braised fennel and sheep's milk cheese.

Drinking up
Cork's independent turn of mind extends to its choice of drink. Dubliners love their Guinness, but when it comes to stout, Corkonians prefer Murphy's or Beamish, both brewed in the city since 1792 and 1856 respectively (though both brands are now owned by Heineken).

The takeover of beloved Cork brands by multinational megabrewers has seen the emergence of local craft breweries, such as the Franciscan Well, which has a cracking pub and beer garden a short walk northwest of the city centre; order a pint of their mellow, toasty Shandon Stout and Guinness will never taste as good again. Newer microbrewing ventures include Cork's Elbow Lane Brewhouse, an offshoot of the Market Lane restaurant that opened in 2012 (try their refreshingly light and hoppy Elbow Lager); and Eight Degrees Brewing at Mitchelstown in north County Cork, which launched in 2011 and is famed for its dark and chocolatey Knockmealdown Porter. There is also Stonewell Cider founded at nearby Kinsale in 2010, which produces a delightfully dry craft apple cider with no added sugar.

Sailing by
If Cork is the food capital of Ireland, the pretty yachting and fishing harbour of Kinsale is its seafood capital. Just 28km south of Cork, Kinsale's cute cobbled streets are lined with art galleries, craft shops, artisan bakeries and cafes, and a small square that hosts a weekly farmers market (10 am to 2:30 pm Wednesday, except January).

There are a dozen or so seafood restaurants here, of which Fishy Fishy Café is the undisputed king. Again the emphasis is on local produce – much of the restaurant's fish is landed at the jetty just along the road. Typical dishes include local oysters, pan-roasted cod, and seared scallops with Clonakilty black pudding and parsnip puree.