Galway. It’s a place that evokes juxtaposed scenes in the mind. On one hand, Connemara is the definition of the Wild Atlantic Way, an untamed landscape stretching across mountains to the ferocious ocean. Galway, on the other hand, is a university town with a young population, and widely regarded as the urban centre with the best nightlife in Ireland. The best thing about them is you can live both worlds on the same trip. The finest things to do in Galway City and Connemara are easily combined in a road trip. It is the ultimate way to travel Ireland after all.
Start the trip with a stay in Galway City. The compact centre means that it can be fully explored with a few days, before heading out to the open countryside. Galway is known as the gateway to the west, the last urban centre before reaching the wild landscape beyond. Base yourself in the centre or out by the sea, enjoy the restaurants and pubs and make some memories.
If you are not quite sure why Galway rings a bell, maybe its due to the song the Galway Girl. It’s lively, traditional, comforting, yet wild and modern at the same time. A bit like the place that provided its inspiration.
Where to stay on a Galway Trip
The most traditional places to stay in Galway are in the city’s heart or Salthill. In high season, accommodation is quite expensive with rates comparative to that in Dublin. The G hotel, The Hardiman and The Galmont are among the most fashionable properties. For a more economical option (or those seeking Galway’s night life) the Eyre Square Hotel and Jury’s are perfect.
Salthill repertoire of hotels is impressive, with a string of excellent 4 stars such as the Ardilaun, Clybaun Hotel, the Galway Bay Hotel, and the Salthill Hotel. B&B’s occupy many houses in the area, and rightly so, as the tourist industry thrives here for domestic and foreign travellers.
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Things to do in Galway City
Galway is a small compact city with a population of 80,000. With a high student populace, its young, vibrant and renowned for its night life. Busy shopping streets by day, turn to rambunctious party streets by night. This reaches its heights for the August bank holiday weekend, when the Galway Races take over the town. It’s quite possibly the most fun you could ever have on this party island. Streets heave with people and beer is drank by the truck load. However the city has its charm throughout the year.
Galway sadly had a misadventure as the European City of Culture in 2020 with most events cancelled, but naturally this was not of its own doing. We all know what we can blame for that one.
Walk Galway City Centre Streets
We start our adventure on Shop Street, without our car. Of course Galway is best explored on foot, as with any city. For the sake of this blog we are presupposing you are using Galway as a base. Besides Shop Street is pedestrianised. Never a good call to take ones road trip up those.
Galway’s heart runs through High Street, Shop Street and Quay Street. While all the usual high street stores are represented, so too are Ireland’s finest crafts. Aran Sweaters, Claddagh Rings and weavers all give good value for the visiting buck.
Along the well trodden route there are points of note too. The Lynch Memorial Window is nefarious as the place where the town’s mayor hung his own son in 1493, for murdering a visitor. Further along Lynch’s Castle, which now operates as an AIB bank, is a fortified town house built in the 16th century. The Lynch’s were one of 14 powerful Norman families who governed Galway at the time. Worth a photo too is the bench hosting Oscar Wilde and Eduard Wilde. Why not join in their chat. It’s bound to be interesting.
People Watch at Eyre Square
At Galway’s heart is Eyre Square, an excellent place to meet up. Though officially known as the John F Kennedy Memorial Park (he made a speech here in 1963), its been hard to break from its old moniker. The square is surrounded by bar and restaurants, and hosts a number of attractions both permanent and temporary. Check out the unusual Quintessential Fountain and Browne Doorway. The renaissance doorway once adorned the Browne House of 1627. It’s design features the houses coat of arms. It was removed in 1905 to it’s current location. In winter Galway Christmas Market takes over the area selling local and ornamental fare. Eyre Square is also the location of my favourite mural in Galway on its North east side.
Eat at Supermacs in Galway City
It’s rare for me to recommend a fast food restaurant but Supermacs deserves its plaudits. Supermac’s started in 1978 in Ballinasloe in Galway. More recently they took on the might of McDonald’s in a court and won, for the right to use their name in the US. If you are looking for fast food in Ireland, Supermacs burgers have that proper beef taste and the chunky chips are real potato. Try the 5oz burger or the Mighty Mac with some garlic and cheese fries.
Try the Sicilian street food at U Liotru
Despite all the excellent Irish restaurants in the city centre, this little cafe on the quiet back street Abbeygate Street Lower is what won over my heart (aka belly). The string of Italian customers coming in and out is the first sign of encouragement. Then there’s the arancini. The large selection are all made by hand at the time by the passionate owner. It’s definitely a place to slow down after a lot of walking. But don’t use your whole appetite on the arancini. Cause the only thing better in Galway is the cannoli. The best I’ve tried outside of Sicily. Words don’t do them proper justice.
Get a bit Tipsy in Galway’s Pubs
By night Shop Street and Quay Street are the nexus of the street life I spoke of. Having a pint in The Quays is a quintessential Galwegian experience, but there are many excellent other pub such as O’Connell’s, The Front Door, and the Liquor Lounge. Most serve excellent Irish fare as well, cause if you are going on the session, its best not to do it on an empty stomach. Galway isn’t a place for “just one or two” either. On the weekend of the Galway Races these streets are thronged end to end with patrons, frivolously spending their winnings. Or in my case, drowning my sorrows and forgetting my losses at the track.
On a regular night you wont have to look far for entertainment either. Live music is a regular feature of the weekly lineups. Whether its rock bands or traditional Irish you are looking for, look no further. The best pubs in Galway for live music are An Pucan, Seven Bridgestreet, Taaffes Bar and The Crane Bar. Salthill’s O’Connors has featured many famous faces of the Irish music scene over the years too. You might just wander into a session with Ed Sheeran or Shane McGowan.
See Europe’s Newest Cathedral at Galway Cathedral
A short stroll from the city will take you across the Salmon Weir Bridge and in full view of Galway’s modern cathedral. The renaissance style building was only opened in 1965 on what was the site of an old prison. This makes it the last great stone cathedral opened in Europe. On size, its the city’s most impressive building. But don’t stop and only look at the twin-towered, green-domed exterior. Inside the cathedral is bright and airy. The grey stone contrasts wonderfully with the stain glass windows, rose windows, and art of the sanctuary and dome.
Go Medieval at Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church
Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church is the largest medieval church in Ireland still in continuous use. Believed to have opened around 1320 it is also the oldest building in Galway. It was founded by the Normans, and a tomb inside known as the Crusader is from this time. Christopher Columbus prayed here in 1320, before heading to the New World. It was extended somewhat in the 16th century, and the baptismal font (which is still used to this day) was added.
Several motifs and statues around the church are of great interest. There are a number of faceless statues within, defaced by the Cromwellian soldiers that used the church as a stable in 1652. The outer walls have a series of animal motifs, with a lion, a dragon and an ape, and also two mermaids. The top of the church has a number of gargoyles and horse heads. Worthy of exploration too is the graveyard.
The church is open daily from 9am to 7pm, during normal times.
Walk in Squares around the Quadrangle
North of the city is the National University of Ireland in Galway. While the university has sprawled out, its first inspection was in a building known as the Quadrangle. Known then as Queen’s College it opened in 1849, it was built in limestone in a Tudor Gothic architectural style. Christ Church in Oxford University was its principal influence. The building is Galway’s finest structure. While it functions predominantly as offices, it can be visited to walk around and admire.
Feel the Culture in The Latin Quarter
The joke going around Galway is that the people are nearly more Spanish than Irish. Galway has always had a strong relationship with Spain and Portugal as a result of its port, and the district around has become known as the Spanish Quarter. I’ll bet those tanned sailors looked good a few centuries back. Including one superstar sailor known as Christopher Columbus.
The area is the cultural heart of the city, with bars and restaurants lining the cobblestone streets. The most aesthetic of the streets is Kirwan’s lane a medieval street of stone buildings. It’s flanked by stone buildings that have recently seen a restoration. Some of these are of historical note, the Slate Nunnery is now Browne’s Pub and an old theatre built by Richard Martin, where Theobald Wolfe Tone once performed.
Of further historical interest nearby is The Fisheries Watchtower, an 1853 watchtower, now a museum with guided tours of its fishery related collectibles. A mere street away, the Hall of the Red Earl is a 13th century site with walkways over the remains of the building. It was the site of a huge architectural find.
March through the Spanish Arch
The Spanish Arch is one of Galway’s most recognisable features. It was an addition to the 16th century walls of the city in 1584 to give access to Spanish parade beyond. Once it housed soldiers and cannons manned the top of it, ready to protect the city. Although originally known as the head of the wall, the number of Spanish sailors that docked on the Corrib at this point led to the misnomer sticking. Nowadays it can merely be passed through to walk in the footsteps.
Explore the City History at the Galway City Museum
The Galway City Museum was once housed in Comerford House at the Spanish Arch but has moved to a new purpose built premises since 2007. All of its artifacts are connected with Galway specifically. It’s focus is on maritime, farming and military exhibitions. Claddagh and its rings are the stars of the show, and a few Galway Hookers will seduce you. Galway Hookers are a traditional type of fishing boat used in Galway Bay. the boats were developed seas and are defined by their black hulls and red sails. The Galway City Museum can currently be toured virtually here.
Take The Long Walk- get some fresh air while crossing off the 20 best things to do in Galway City
The best place to escape the confines of the busy city streets is the long walk that stretches out along the mouth of the River Corrib. Its a breezy short stroll to the end. If your lucky you might just catch a glimpse of a Galway Hooker.
Explore The Claddagh
Galway is at the heart of traditional Irish crafts. On Shop Street the tale of how Claddagh rings are made is brought to life at the Legend of the Claddagh Ring. But the real community behind those rings is the Claddagh, across the Corrib from the Long Walk. Claddagh rings are based on a Celtic motif and feature two hands in the band, holding a heart, and topped by a crown. It’s a delicate combination and symbolises friendship, loyalty and love. Worn facing outward on the right hand it indicates someone is single, while inward on the left means one is married.
The area nowadays is a far cry from its fishing roots in the 5th century, and unfortunately not much is left in a historical way. But the rings live on. A causeway links the area to Mutton Island, whose only inhabitants are a broad range of sea faring birds.
Spend the Day at the Seaside in Salthill
Galway’s famous sea side resort is Salthill. Salthill Promenade stretches for kilometres along the Atlantic coast, with the lively Salthill town behind. If you are looking for a base in Galway with good hotels, restaurants and the direct line of sight to the beach, this is it. Salthill is another classic Victorian sea side resort in the ilk of Bray (see my recent post on the Bray to Greystones Cliff walk). Salthill has enough to keep the kids happy too with a fairground, mini golf, parks and playground. For the wetter days the Seapoint leisure centre, cinema and Atlantaquaria will help to take the boredom away.
We were hosted at the Atlantic Lodge, a guesthouse embracing social distancing. At no point had we any contact with our hosts. It’s not an Irish welcome but apt in the times, and warmly reassuring. A succession of codes and key safes got us into our room. Breakfast magically appeared outside our door in the morning! While it wasn’t a full Irish, the continental choices did set us perfectly up for the day, and I’ve never felt safer in any hospitality establishment all year.
Restaurants are not in short supply with establishments such as the Black Cat, La Collina, and The Galleon offering a broad spectrum of dishes. Our 2020 visit took us to The Galleon. Finding a table in the midst of a pandemic is a challenge. Sometimes it works out well though, as in this case it took us to the Galleon. They specialise in comfort food, well prepared, and we were both relaxed and well fed there.
Stay dry at the Galway Atlantaquaria
Besides having a pretty cool name, the Atlantaquaria in Salthill is the perfect escape from the rain on a wet day in Galway. Yes it does rain a lot down here on the west coast. Situated on Salthill Promenade, the aquarium has 100’s of species over two floors. It provides an insight into the marine life that have a natural habitat in the waters around Ireland. They include sharks, jellyfish, stingray, clown fish and bass among many others. Non-fishy highlights include a 60-foot skeleton of a Fin Whale, a Galway Hooker Boat, and a Bearna dugout canoe, that is 5500 years old. Admission is €13 for an adult and €8.50 for a child. It’s an enjoyable hour or two and provided a good distraction from the storm outside for us.
Do Backflips from the Blackrock Diving Tower
On an ocean battered end of Salthill Promenade, the Blackrock Diving Tower is a must visit. It ranks top as both its most iconic structure and its most exciting. Whether your intention is to climb the stairs and perform theatrics into the ocean, or simply laugh and wow at others shenanigans, its more than worth a fraction of your time. The first diving board was set up here in 1895, but the present structure replaced it in 1942. Even on the day we visited during a storm, the tower was a major attraction. One of the most fun things to do in Galway City.
Cruise the Corrib River the most relaxing thing to do in Galway City
From Wood Quay in the heart of Galway the Corrib Princess takes passengers on a cruise of the Corrib River. It’s Ireland’s largest lake, and the 60 or 90 minute route takes you by its scenic banks. Keep an eye out for the spectacular ivy ruins of Menlo Castle. The cruise is priced at €17 for an adult, and if you are in Galway to live it up, there’s a full bar service on board.
Have a Punt at the Galway Races
Without a doubt this is the most expensive week of the year to visit Galway. Even less so in doubt is that it is the funnest. The races run for the week from the last Monday in July through the August bank holiday weekend. The races have been a tradition since 1869, and with each year their popularity grows. It’s best to book your tickets in advance through the Galway Races website, in particular for the Wednesday and Thursday of the week, when the Galway plate and Ladies Day are held respectively. Even more scarce are hotels so get in early.
The races are held at Ballybrit race track about 8 km outside the city. Thankfully there’s a bus shuttle service from Eyre Square each day of the races. The service costs €10 return, and leaves at 3 pm Monday-Wednesday and Friday, and at 11 am Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Expect huge queues for this service too, but there are enough buses to shuttle all.
Take Some Day Trips from Galway City
Within reach of Galway City are some of the most beautiful places in Ireland. All are easily reached as day trips from the city, and Galway is the perfect base for it. Dunguaire Castle is the most photographed castle in Ireland (its not difficult to see why) and lies on the edge of County Clare and the Burren. More on that region coming to Carpediemeire soon.
Heading west from Galway travel to the magical land of Connemara. Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) it has the Connemara National Park at its heart. Mountains, lakes, lively towns, and wild wild ocean. Clifden, the Sky Road, Lough Inagh and Kylemore Abbey are absolutely unmissable in this part of the county. Superb hiking awaits in the national park, with the popular Diamond Hill hike offering unrivalled views.
To the north of Galway is Menlo Castle, and within 45 minutes of the city is Cong. This is one of the most visited locations in Ireland, owing in no small part to the movie The Quiet Man which was set here. It still retains much of its old charm. If you want to trade up to the ultimate luxury hotel in Ireland, Ashford Castle is a medieval and Victorian castle-turned-hotel and often ranks among the best in the world. Spoil yourself and splash out on the €2000 a night stateroom.
Use Galway as a springboard for the Aran Islands
The Aran Islands are a trio of islands off of Galway in the Atlantic. As day trips from Galway go, there are few better. Aran Islands Ferries run a year round service from Galway City with one departure each morning at 9:30 from Galway, and evening at 18:00 from Inis Meain. Boats actually depart from Rossaveal Port 40 km west of the city (there is the option to drive and park there), but a connecting bus service runs from the companies office on Forster Street. Ferry crossings take in the region of 45 minutes and cost €30 for an adult.
Summary of Things to do in Galway City
Undoubtedly Galway is full of enough things, both cultural and fun to justify a weekend break, or a stop on a round Ireland trip. It’s nightlife has to be experienced (and possibly regretted the next day) and then there’s more than enough to see during the day before you get to go back to the pub. Salthill is a perfect place to be for those travelling with families, but also a more relaxed location for all not wishing to stay in the centre. That’s all before you get to the amazing countryside and history that lies on the road just beyond.
Private Tours of the Best Things to do in Galway
More in the West of Ireland
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