Anyone that’s ever spent any time in the sweet little City of Tribes will tell you that it’s not getting to Galway that’s the problem, it’s getting out of Galway that is. If you know Galway well, the following words may be wasted on you (if you aren’t currently wasted already, forgive the pun), but if you’re new to the city, read on.
Standing stoutly on Ireland’s west coast looking bravely out into the rather unfriendly Atlantic Ocean, Galway is surprisingly soft. From the gentle curvature of its stone alleyways to the worn wood in its best pubs, Galway is a place where proverbs seem to become reality (time stands still, dreams are born, nothing is as it seems) and everyone is actually friendly.
Sure, Galway’s known for its hippies and artists and they are part of what makes the city so disgustingly charming, but it is also a sophisticate’s place, with a whole slew of European cafes and shops dotting its main streets and making it a very easy town in which to forget your woes in comfort.
If it’s your first time to Galway, here are a few of my favourite places around the city for eating, drinking, sleeping and seeing.
Galway is really more about relaxing and finding yourself than it is about heavy sightseeing, but there are a number of historic sights around the place, such as the Spanish Arch, an extension of the old city walls built in the 1580s; Galway Cathedral, which, with its massive stone interior and sparkling stained glass, is among the youngest of Europe’s cathedrals; Eyre Square (pronounced “air”), the city’s main square and park; and the Salthill Promenade, an open length of footpath stretching north from the city centre that offers a great place to take in the sea air (or be blown down by it!).
What you really want to do, though, is use Galway as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside. To the north, Connemara is a desolate space of purple mountains and Irish speakers that has inspired some of the country’s iconic literature. To the south, the lunar karst landscape of The Burren and the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, all of which should be on any first-time visitor’s itinerary.
If you’re comfortable, consider hiring a car to set your own pace and spend some time (or even take an overnight somewhere like Clifden). Here’s a handy guide to driving in Ireland and you can follow our scenic driving loop through Connemara.
Alternately, a number of tour companies offer day trips by coach to these destinations, including the Galway Tour Company and Fáilte Tours. Be aware, though, that you might be run a bit ragged by the end and probably won’t get as much time to soak in the beauty of these places as you would if travelling on your own.
If you only eat one thing in Galway, make it McDonagh’s. Half take-away chipper and half nicer sit-down restaurant, McDonagh’s caters to all with its perfectly perfect fish ‘n’ chips – arguably the best you’ll have in Ireland. You’ll choose your fish from among cod, plaice, whiting and salmon (almost all freshly caught by local fishermen) and then an array of sides, including the hand-cut chips (I doubt I need to sell you much beyond the above photo).
For something slightly more upmarket, Martine’s Wine Bar has a thoughtful menu of European style dishes that range from pastas and steaks to fresh fish.
There are a lot of great places to drink in Galway (’tis a university city, after all), but I am going to tell you about the traditional pubs because those are the ones I personally love and can recommend. Pictured above, Galway’s famous blue pub is Tigh Neachtains and you can’t miss it on any stroll down Quay Street. Inside you’ll find well poured pints of Guinness and lots of wooden nooks and crannies.
Music lovers should make for the Crane Bar, which requires a short walk west across the River Corrib to Sea Road. Downstairs they host regular traditional Irish music sessions, while true unplugged treasures (from professional trad to folk, blues and country) abound on the small stage upstairs. Tig Coili – that bright red pub you passed while you were shopping – does excellent trad sessions (don’t be surprised to hear some of Co. Galway’s most famous and infamous players here), or for a plain ole pint of good Guinness, there’s nowhere better than the simplicity of Freeney’s on High Street.
For a city of its size, Galway has a surprising number of accommodations including many budget options. I often opt to book into the Sleepzone Galway City, a hostel-meets-hotel where rooms are cheap, clean and fairly central. If you want to be right in the action, you should check out Barnacles Galway, a party-hardy hostel located right on pedestrianised Quay Street, or for something a little more comfy, the newly renovated Forster Court Hotel offers a gracefully upmarket option just behind Eyre Square.
Getting there & away
Coming from Dublin or Cork, there are a number of private coaches, such as the CityLink, which tend to offer the best value and comfort for your money and include services like toilets and free WiFi on board. Trains are a much comfier option but prices can be much higher and transfers between Cork and Galway, for example, require a change.
If flying into Shannon Airport in the West of Ireland, you can also catch the CityLink or, alternately, Ireland’s slow-but-somewhat-sure national bus service, Bus Éireann.