Most of these places aren’t ‘cool’ in the fashionable sense. They’re more unspoilt, friendly, full of stories and very much bedded into the context of where they sit. We think that’s pretty cool in itself. Here are Culture Trip’s favourites.
Sometimes the obvious starting point is the right one. Galway city centre is very much the heart of the entire County Galway community. Shop Street is home to strings of unique independent shops. Eyre Square, a controversial development in its new form, now hosts enticing events as a classy landscaped corner, while a number of museums, the al-fresco drinking culture at the Spanish Arch, local markets and quirky architecture mingle with the myths of the city. If you want to see the place come to life, target the utter madness of August’s race week.
The main village on the largest of the Aran Islands, Kilronan is where you’re likely to stay if you hit the Atlantic boltholes. It’s developed a spectacular, seafood-based food culture and is also home to its own heady busking tradition, abundant bars and a beautiful white-sand beach. Inis Mor has more than 50 ancient monuments to explore, including the spectacular cliffside fort Dún Aonghasa, and it also recently hosted a round of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Championships.
A really mellow town in the middle of Connemara, Clifden is small enough to count as a single neighbourhood, but at the same time, it’s sufficiently different to have plenty of draws. With a significant portion of Irish speakers, the town is a cultural haven for language, arts, history and one of its icons, hill-wandering ponies. It has its own museum (Connemara Heritage and History Centre), gallery (The Whitethorn), castle and market, but you’ll probably want to be hitting the hills, which are nothing short of breathtaking, and ending your day with lively trad music in the local bars.
A short hop across the bay from Galway itself, Kinvara is a small village with a big heart. Home to a towering castle and tiny harbour, the town’s backed by soaring hilltops and has a colourful, petite main street that makes for a fun hour of strolling. One of its best draws, though, is a bar. The traditional Green’s Bar is home to one of the largest collections of different whiskeys you might ever hope (or hope not) to stumble upon. It’s a lot like Galway in miniature: traditional at its heart, with hills, seas and plenty of bars.
Close enough to Galway city to almost be considered part of it, the waterside village of Oranmore is home to a picturesque castle, sizeable park and lots of cows, wheat fields and sports clubs. If people leave Galway city to raise a family (and they don’t, generally), this is probably the spot – a pleasant, quiet, nothing really happens kind of area that still has all the basic amenities you could want. It’s a perfect place for an extended stop-off if you’re main aim is to assimilate into the ‘real’ west of Ireland.
Yet another minute, quaint village, and one that people from neighbouring County Mayo will claim as their own (it straddles the border), Cong has only one key attraction: its castle. The structure is now home to the astoundingly opulent Ashford Castle Hotel, the 800-year-old resort was recently named Britain and Ireland’s best and has featured the weddings of Rory McIlroy and Pierce Brosnan. There’s a great feel to the entire area, though; a walk from the castle takes you past lakes and an ancient abbey to the tiny town’s typically Irish, traditional pubs.
A tiny, Irish-speaking village with rocky, rustic beaches set against the outer reaches of the Galway Bay, Spiddal has formed into an artistic community hub around the fantastic Spiddal Craft Village, where a collection of artists inspired by the Connemara region blow glass, weave baskets and paint. The area is also known for its Irish language courses, while the charming village centre was once home to the Seoige sisters (pronounced sho-guh), now regular stars on plenty of Irish TV’s bigger shows.
An area of Galway city that you could easily stroll through without really clocking its significance, The Claddagh – almost a part of the city’s heart these days – is beloved by the people of Galway. Once a 5th-century fishing village occupied by sea lovers in thatched cottages, the area still has an honorary king, and is famed for its distinctive boat, the hooker. It remains a largely working-class area and has also become known around the world for its ring, the Claddagh Ring. Supposedly, a jeweller who was kidnapped by pirates on their way to the West Indies created it, later returning with his new craft.
An adventure-leaning corner of the county that’s home to horse riding, karting, pet farms and golf clubs, Loughrea is also one of the friendliest communities in the west, a place that welcomes visitors with open arms. The mill and the cathedral are also worth a look, and while it’s a growing commuter town for Galway itself, the presence of a sizeable lake (which led to severe flooding in recent years), forest and hills make this an outdoor-loving spot. That’s led to a favourite local annual triathlon, and, oddly, a poetry contest.
Galway’s seafront contains little beaches, a diving platform, a view across Galway Bay, an aquarium and quite a few of the best hotels in the city. Something of a ‘city playground’, it’s also home to casinos and ice cream stores, pubs and restaurants. It’s a place to stroll lazily through on a Sunday afternoon, with a touch of faded seaside glamour and a touch of hipster chic rolled into one. It’s the part of Galway city to hit up on a sunny day.