Whether you’re headed for the culture and exuberant nightlife of the city, the hills of Connemara, or a slice of rural bliss on the beautiful Aran Islands, Galway has more to explore than most visitors can ever hope to uncover. To make sure you get the most out of your time here, we’ve rounded up the 25 things you absolutely must do.
Galway city’s high street – full of arty independents stores, buskers, street paintings and houses that look like they’ve been here generations – is miles better than your typical corporate-shopping stop off. Original souvenirs and a colourful buzz (as well as local seafood and cosy pubs) make it well worth your time.
If you didn’t travel to Ireland’s rustic west coast to uncover the rusting hulk of a long-abandoned boat in the wilds of the Aran Islands, you don’t know what you’re missing. MV Plassy is one of those memorable symbols of beautiful failure, a wreck dumped on a Galway beach and left to become a photographer’s favourite and exploratory landmark.
There’s a good reason that Connemara and its soaring national park star almost endlessly in romantic folk ditties and rural imaginations. Think hardy slopes and ramshackle towns that beg you to hike, ride and dig deep into the ancient culture.
An odd little tower on the banks of the Corrib in Galway city, this spot was originally designed to stand watch over the fishing stock, but it is now a tiny, welcoming little museum that looks oddly – yet somewhat impressively – out of place. The three floors deal mainly in the city’s boating and fishing history, but it’s the charming guides with whom you should spend your time.
Take in panoramic views of the rocky Connemara coastline, including a view of offshore islands Inishturk and Turbot. The highest point is about 5.5 kilometres (3.4 miles) outside the town of Clifden, where a viewing platform gives a sublime view of the town centre, its church spires and Connemara’s peaks.
A petite fishing port with a castle, abbey and rustic nature reserve, Kinvara is a pleasant spot all round. However, the hundreds of bottles of whiskey that line the shelves at Green’s Bar — the town’s Emerald-coated traditional pub, dating back to 1865 – are all the reason needed to grab some ‘sea air’.
A town that’s far too often overlooked, Cong – right on the border with neighbouring County Mayo – is a tiny lakeside spot with less than 200 residents, a pub, an old abbey, and the sublime Ashford Castle Estate. Pierce Brosnan chose the opulent, gorgeous but utterly budget-smashing castle as the site of his wedding. It’s luxurious in the extreme.
The classic view of Galway Bay, Salthill is a beachy seafront area to the north of Galway, a spot where many of the city’s better hotels have set up shop overlooking the hills across the water. An old-school holiday spot, it’s now home to a frequently wind-battered diving platform, abundant penny slot machines and the best ice-cream parlours in the county.
This museum might be part of a shop (and so inherently slightly advertising in nature), but the history of Galway’s Claddagh ring – consisting of two crowns and a heart – is worth exploring. The iconic jewellery also makes for the ideal Galway souvenir.
A Victorian Gothic nunnery constructed in part to demonstrate the potential of isolated rural living in Ireland’s west, Kylemore Abbey is now one of the county’s most picturesque offerings, with its rooms restored to their ornate former glory, and the gardens and lake trails idyllic in the summertime.
Another reason to travel across to the Aran Islands, Dún Aonghasa is a 3,100-year-old hill fort sitting at 100 metres (328 feet) over the spray of the Atlantic. Despite its layers of thick stone walls and extreme Atlantic drop off, the fort was likely ceremonial in purpose. It’s best avoided for those with an aversion to heights.
The unofficial name for the area in front of the Spanish Arch where locals like to drink outdoors in the summer, Buckfast Plaza (a reference to a sugary tonic wine that’s the source of many a heady Galway night out) is a must-visit for anyone who loves a party. Follow it up with a stop at legendary music venue Roisin Dubh.
Galway’s main square is likely to be your first real glimpse of the city, with both the bus and train station nearby. It’s a large open plaza often home to mini festivals and buskers, plus it also stars artworks depicting the traditional hooker boats and one of the city’s great loves, John F Kennedy. The square cost an astonishing €20 million to develop.
Across the bay from Galway city, near Kinvara, Dunguaire Castle sits on a grassy hill overlooking the water and looks almost unchanged since its 16th-century construction. While off the main tourist trail, the castle is the unheralded star of movies such as North Sea Hijackand Kurt Russell’s lesser-known Disney flick Guns in the Heather. It’s a hidden gem.
It might be best known for the music of its lonely fields, but it’s Athenry’s Medieval walls and churches that visitors will want to check out. A blocky 13th-century castle and the city walls that lead around it are the main draws, while the town also contains the only Medieval market cross still standing in the entire country. It’s one for the history buffs.
Head for the Galway City Museum to learn about the history of the Claddagh, Galway’s Spanish influences, British control and invading Vikings. This spot has a rotating range of exhibits that keep things riveting, and though that does mean you can never quite predict what’ll be there, you can guarantee it’ll bring the city to life in a new and interesting way. There are plenty more museums to enjoy, too.
The highest peak in Galway (and 10th highest in Ireland) hasn’t gained quite the prominence of the iconic pilgrimage hikes in County Mayo, to the north. However, Benbaun’s rough, boggy base and windy peak is essential Connemara, a spot where plants digest insects for nutrients, and the Connemara pony is king.
Ireland’s largest lake, Lough Corrib contains more than 1,300 islands, featuring secluded beaches, forest walkways and plenty of opportunities for (brave) swimmers. Caislean-na-Circe island – containing the Hen’s Castle – was once the home of pirate queen Grainne O’Malley, while popular Inchagoil Island contains the remnants of 12th-century residents.
An arty, rural roadside one-stop shop for Galway souvenirs, Spiddal’s artistic community blows glass, produces watercolours and weaves baskets. Handmade crosses and jewellery produced from ancient coins are also among the offerings. The colourful cottages also contain an award-winning restaurant, and many of the artists work on-site, in full view of the public.
The lively Latin Quarter is Galway’s beating heart. Bars, pubs, galleries and craftsy shops rub shoulders in this small but exuberant district, where the air is always abuzz with music and laughter. On the left bank of the River Corrib, and with cobblestone streets, the Latin Quarter is one of Galway’s most picturesque places. Head here to pub-crawl, shop, or just amble aimlessly – with street-performers on every corner, you’ll never be short of things to look at.
Galway certainly has no shortage of castles. If you haven’t yet had your fill, make sure to check out this little tower. Though it may be less spectacular than some of its peers, Lynch’s castle is incredibly well-preserved, considering its age – its limestone facade dates back to the 14th century. Built by the Lynch family, who once presided over the region, it’s essentially a fortified house, complete with four storeys, cornices and grisly gargoyles. Not your average family home. Find the castle at the corner of Shop Street and Abbeygate Street.
Not exactly an attraction in itself, Wild Atlantic Way is more of a magical highway to all of Ireland’s most remarkable offerings. The trail winds along 2,500 kilometres of Ireland’s west coast, and Galway is pretty much bang in the middle, which makes it the ideal base for some stunning road trips. Head north to reach the Malin Head, at the very tip of the land, or far south to get to Kinsale Harbour. The verdant Connemara National Park, the rocky Burren, and all manner of other natural wonders lie between.
A delightful little slice of Galway’s city centre, Kirwan’s Lane does quaint and trendy in equal measure. Inside the city’s old city walls, the promenade feels thick with history. There’s even a pub, called Busker Brownes, in what was once the 17th-century Dominican Slate Nunnery. That’s not to say that it’s stuck in the past – Kirwan’s narrow streets are crammed with some of the finest and most cutting-edge restaurants that Galway has to offer. Don’t miss The Seafood Bar if you’re into five-star fish.
This 16th-century symbol of Galway is now a favourite place for a drink (hence its alter ego: Buckfast Plaza, see above), and to watch kayakers ride the waves as the Corrib makes its way out to sea. The Spanish Arch was built to protect the city’s quays from invasion, and now stands as a stark, chunky reminder of the city’s long history.