County Galway is a sprawling region replete with scenic vistas, pristine beaches, and one of Ireland’s most beautiful urban centers. Whether you’re there for a day or a week, there’s plenty to see and do in this rugged western county. It is home to Ireland’s premier Irish language studies program at the National University of Ireland in Galway city, as well as some of the few remaining Irish-speaking regions in the country in Connemara. From historic boglands and sweeping bays to ancient castles and peaceful quays, Galway has long been a sojourner’s destination. Here are our top choices for the best places to visit and things to do in County Galway.
STROLL DOWN SHOP STREET TO THE SPANISH ARCH
Galway city is a bustling urban center and home to the National University of Ireland, countless pubs and restaurants, and historic architecture. Shop Street, the city’s main drag, is filled with retailers and eateries that are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Beginning at the city’s central park, Eyre Square, the street runs down to the ancient port of the city, terminating at the Spanish Arch, a 16th century fortification that was added to the old city wall to protect merchant vessels from piracy. Today, it still stands as a remnant of when the city was western Ireland’s busiest port for trade with continental Europe, as well as a grand portal that leads straight to the Galway City Museum, where you can learn about the city’s founding and development.
TAKE A FERRY TO THE ARAN ISLANDS
The Aran Islands, located at the mouth of Galway Bay, have long been a source of inspiration for those looking to experience a mythical sense of “traditional Ireland.” Remote, forbidding, and sparsely populated, the islands have been inhabited since prehistoric times, remnants of which can still be seen today. The Dun Aengus Fort, located on the largest island, Inishmore, is the best-known of these ruins, parts of which date to the Bronze Age. The Irish language is still widely spoken on the islands, which are comprised of Inishmore, the largest and most populated, Inishmaan, the middle of the three, and Inisheer, the smallest. The islands are just a short ferry ride from the town of Rossaveal, about 20 miles west of Galway City, but a world away.
SEE WHERE THE CLADDAGH RING WAS FIRST MADE
The Claddagh, an area across the River Corrib from Galway city center, is known as a quaint coastal village comprised of colorful row houses and the birthplace of the Claddagh ring. Legend has it that a Galway merchant was captured by pirates and sold into slavery to a goldsmith. After many years in captivity, he was released and returned to Ireland with gold shavings he had secretly amassed. Once back, he fashioned these into the first Claddagh ring for his lost love at home as a symbol of his unending devotion to her. Though today the best jewelry shops to browse Claddagh rings are located across the river on Shop Street, The Claddagh is a peaceful area to stroll around and take in the bay breeze.
VISIT THE ANCIENT DERRIGIMLAGH BOG
Located near the farthest western reaches of County Galway, about 50 miles from Galway city, Derrigimlagh Bog is a beautifully barren landscape filled with tiny pools and peat, which was the primary combustible fuel source for much of Ireland throughout its history. But this bog is no mere fuel source. Today it is a protected environment and host to two monuments to two of the most significant events in world history. In 1907 Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio signal from a transmitter built in the bog, and later constructed the first transatlantic radio station at the site. Though it burned down during the Irish War of Independence, remnants of this feat of modern communication are still visible today. Also in the bog is a white monument shaped like an airplane wing, dedicated to the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight ever completed, which ended in a crash landing in the bog.
TAKE A CRUISE AROUND IRELAND’S LARGEST LAKE
Lough Corrib, a few miles north of Galway city, is renowned for its fishing, wildlife spotting, and cruising. It is the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland and the second-largest on the island. In addition to a number of fish species that call the lake home, its environs are populated by hawks, bats, otters, stoat or short-tailed weasel, mink, and other small mammals. It is also the location of the first canal ever constructed in Ireland, a 12th century endeavor to allow boats to pass to and from Galway Bay via the River Corrib. It is also a popular destination for scuba diving, as the lake bed contains many shipwrecks dating to the Viking age in Ireland, including the Carrowmoreknock Boat, a 10th century dugout boat filled with Norse axes.
STEP INSIDE A 15TH CENTURY CASTLE
Thoor Ballylee Castle is a 15th century Hiberno-Norman tower house that has been dubbed the most important building in Ireland by poet Seamus Heaney. It was owned and inhabited by poet W.B. Yeats, who used it as inspiration for his seminal collection, “The Tower,” published in 1928. Today, it houses a small museum and educational center on W.B. Yeats, and while well-preserved relative to its age, is still undergoing fortification efforts to maintain its structural integrity for generations to come.
RELAX ON A PRISTINE BEACH
One of the most unique and picturesque beaches in all of Ireland, Gurteen Beach is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the county during the warm summer months. The sand on this beach, unlike most sand found throughout the world, is made up not of ground rocks but seashells, making it some of the finest anywhere on the planet. The beach is also unique in that is forms one half of a sand spit, the other formed by Dog Beach, separating a small tombolo from the mainland. Because of this unique geological formation, the water is near crystal clear and protected from strong atlantic currents, making it one of the most popular places for swimming for families.
TRAVEL BACK IN TIME TO CELTIC IRELAND
Located less than two miles from the shores of Lough Corrib and a half-hour drive from Galway city center, Brigit’s Garden is unlike any traditionally landscaped formal garden in the country. Instead, it is comprised of four gardens, each themed on a specific Celtic season set amid 11 acres of native Irish flora. A walk through the garden is a walk through the ancient festivals of the Celtic calendar, beginning with Imbolc, representing the coming of spring, and continuing through Bealtaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain, the harvest season. The garden is named for St. Brigid, Ireland’s second patron saint after St. Patrick and whose feast day is February 1, also the traditional time for the Imbolc festival. The garden also serves as a heritage center, and contains reconstructions of ancient Irish buildings and monuments, including the largest Celtic sundial in the country, ring forts, a Neolithic round house, and more.
SPEND A DAY AT THE GALWAY RACES
The Galway Races is one of the longest horse racing meets anywhere in the country, beginning on the last Monday of each July and continuing for a week afterwards. Held at the Ballybrit Racecourse just outside of Galway city, the races draw spectators from around Ireland and beyond. The races date back to at least 1869 and have been made famous by the W.B. Yeats poem “At Galway Races,” which is probably better known as the Clancy Brothers song by the same name.
Do you agree with out list? Did we leave something off that should be included for anyone traveling to Galway? Let us know in the comments below!