We perform simultaneous coplanar measurements of velocity and density in solitary internal waves with trapped cores, as well as viscous numerical simulations. Our set-up comprises a thin stratified layer (approximately 15 % of the overall fluid depth) overlaying a deep homogeneous layer. We consider waves propagating near a free surface, as well as near a rigid no-slip lid. In the free-surface case, all trapped-core waves exhibit a strong shear instability. We propose that Marangoni effects are responsible for this instability, and use our velocity measurements to perform quantitative calculations supporting this hypothesis. These surface-tension effects appear to be difficult to avoid at the experimental scale. By contrast, our experiments with a no-slip lid yield robust waves with large cores. In order to consider larger-amplitude waves, we complement our experiments with viscous numerical simulations, employing a longer virtual tank. Where overlap exists, our experiments and simulations are in good agreement. In order to provide a robust definition of the trapped core, we propose bounding it as a Lagrangian coherent structure (instead of using a closed streamline, as has been done traditionally). This construction is less sensitive to small errors in the velocity field, and to small three-dimensional effects. In order to retain only flows near equilibrium, we introduce a steadiness criterion, based on the rate of change of the density in the core. We use this criterion to successfully select within our experiments and simulations a family of quasi-steady robust flows that exhibit good collapse in their properties. The core circulation is small (at most, around 10 % of the baroclinic wave circulation). The core density is essentially uniform; the standard deviation of the density, in the core region, is less than 4 % of the full density range. We also calculate the circulation, kinetic energy and available potential energy of these waves. We find that these results are consistent with predictions from Dubreil-Jacotin–Long theory for waves with a uniform-density irrotational core, except for an offset, which we suggest is associated with viscous effects. Finally, by computing Richardson-number fields, and performing a temporal stability analysis based on the Taylor–Goldstein equation, we show that our results are consistent with empirical stability criteria in the literature.