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Galway is a small city that lends itself to quick exploration, but you’ll have to be smart about it. Despite the compact, walkable main streets and impressive local cultural attractions, there’s a lot to uncover, especially when it comes to experiencing the true texture of the Connacht capital. If you do find yourself in the City of Tribes for just 24 hours, here’s how to make the most of every second, with our fast-paced perfect day.
There’s only one way to start any day in Ireland, and that’s with the greasy perfection that is a full Irish breakfast. Usually consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, hash browns, tea, toast and the dreaded black pudding (blood sausage), it’ll set you up for a lively day of high-energy exploring. Lohan’s in Salthill is one of a whole lot of options, and perfectly located for the top spot to spend your morning: Salthill promenade.
The seaside promenade that once served as a stop-off on the Volvo Round the World boat race is an old-school tourist resort, home to chunky hotels, an aquarium, lots of traditional slot machines and views out over Galway Bay. If you’re feeling brave enough, a dip in the Atlantic is best started with a leap from the high-diving boards, which take you close to a floating platform just off the sea wall that’s ideal for a shivering lie-down. The walk itself is great in the early morning, too, with the sun lighting up the hills across the bay.
Come mid-morning, having played the penny slots and sampled the local ice cream at The Bean and Cone, stroll back towards the city centre via The Claddagh, where you’ll often catch a glance of the symbolic (typically red) sails of a Galway Hooker floating off the coast, or pass a game of Gaelic football at the Father Griffins GAA club in South Park. Check out the Famine Ship Memorial as you pass, or stroll some of the narrow walkway to Mutton Island for a clearer view of the coastline.
Arriving at the Corrib River, you’re within a stone’s throw of many of Galway’s best museums, a corner of town worth staying put in for a couple of hours. If you went for the full Irish, you won’t need much more – a stop-off at hip Mexican joint Boojum or popular local fish-and-chip shop McDonagh’s will cover lunch.
Drop in on the Fisheries Watchtower Museum, an odd square building overlooking the Corrib with gorgeous views, and guides who can detail Galway history in astonishing detail – soak up their take on the famine, salmon and the traditions of The Claddagh. From there, stroll through the rustic-looking Spanish Arch itself. On the far side, you’ll find The Galway City Museum, where a revolving array of exhibitions could take in prehistoric Galway, the times of the Medieval walled city, the impact of the Gaelic Athletics Association and a display from one of the countless impressive local artists.
Having strolled around the docks for a quick glance at some of the city’s stark street art, head for Shop Street, William Street and High Street where you’ll often find al fresco performances from street musicians and where almost every pub is worth at least a glance. This is very much the city’s heart, the trio making up a stretch to Eyre Square, home to the gruesome mythology of Lynch’s Castle (now a bank), and a plethora of souvenir-friendly local retailers. The key spots to check out are the Claddagh Ring shops (one – at the Claddagh end of the street – also contains a small museum), gorgeous independent toy shop Wooden Hearts and local souvenir supermarket ‘Treasure Chest’.
There should still be time for a swift walk over towards Galway Cathedral to check out the soaring ’60s architecture and John F Kennedy mural, passing by Nora Barnacle’s House (the former home of James Joyce’s wife and muse, maintained as it was during her life) to take a look at another bend in the Corrib.
If you can get a seat at Kai, the organic, local-leaning spot is Galway’s finest, taking seasonal local cuisine and adapting its menu on an almost daily basis to account for whatever’s fresh. You won’t lack for great options, though, with Monroe’s simply ‘pizza in pub’ a great easy option for the tired traveller. Ard Bia at Nimmos is another varied and always top-class option in an arty location, while Hotel Meyrick’s purpose-built bar is a good bet for those oysters.
Galway peaks with its nightlife, though, and checking out the best of the beer and buzz is what you’ll want to focus on. Roisin Dubh – a live music venue meets club – is unquestionably the local favourite, regularly hosting world-class musicians of the indie/pop persuasion. Slightly out-of-the-way Dominick Street and nearby William Street have many of the city’s best watering holes, in fact. Dive into some Galway Hooker in the rustic Crane Bar, one of the city’s most enticing old-school trad music pubs, or check out An Pucan for a happy tourist buzz, Guinness and thick Irish stews.
To close the night, you can’t go wrong with a pub crawl down Shop Street and High Street, while the local students have developed a tradition of closing weekend nights with raves outside a local fast-food place, SuperMacs on the corner of Eyre Square, if you’re into some memorably daft 3am antics.
If you’re going heavy on the evening festivities, you may as well save some money by crashing at Barnacles, a lively hostel that’s clean, central and affordable. If you prefer something a little more high end, the Radisson Blu (complete with a high-end spa) is as luxurious as Galway gets, while the afternoon teas at the House Hotel form the best part of a nice upper-mid-range boutique offering.