Whether it’s the culture and notorious nightlife of the city itself, the hills of Connemara, or going rural and rustic with the memorable throwback lifestyle of the Aran Islands, Galway has more to explore than most visitors can ever hope to uncover. If you do have a bit of time to explore The Curragh, castle hope, and circumnavigate Lough Corrib, here are the 20 spots we’d file under ‘must do’.
Shop Street, Galway
Galway city’s high street – full of arty independents stores, buskers, street paintings and houses that look like they’ve been here generations – is just better than your typical shiny corporate-shopping stop off. Original souvenirs and a colourful buzz (as well as local seafood and ageing pubs) make it worth your time.
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.
A huge region of Galway besotted with the Irish language, and well worth several days in its own right, there’s a 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 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 angle on the town centre, its church spires, and Connemara’s peaks fading into the background.
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 originally 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, Victorian former glory, and the gardens and lake trails idyllic in the summertime.
Another stop that requires that boat journey 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 any aversion to heights.
The unofficial name for the area in front of the Spanish Arch where locals like to al fresco drink 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 with a party-social bone in their body. Follow it up with legendary music venue Roisin Dubh.
Galway’s main square is likely to be your first real glance at 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 knoll 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 across the entire country. It’s one for the history buffs.
The Galway City Museum is where visitors can 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. It does mean you can never quite predict what’ll be there, but they tend to bring the city to life. 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 (brave) swimming opportunities. 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 amongst 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.