This west coast charmer is walkable, foodie and loves a festival, says Shilpa Ganatra
The beating heart of west Ireland, Galway is often used as a base for nearby attractions like the Cliffs of Moher and the rugged, wild area of Connemara. But its beguiling liveliness means it’s not an easy city to leave. The city’s bohemian population has given Galway an independent, creative vibe that’s reflected in its status as the European Capital of Culture for 2020 (carried over into 2021 after the pandemic temporarily derailed things). You feel its artistic heritage right across the city – from the steady stream of festivals it hosts to the buskers out in force on sunny days. If it’s drizzling, which it often is, you’re never too far away from a cosy pub with a raucous trad music session, either.
What to do
Get your bearings with a walking tour
More than other Irish cities, a walking tour is the ideal way to explore Galway. Not only is it compact enough to see a lot on foot, but it’s most captivating with a local pointing out the hidden quirks of the city, from the story of the 14 tribes whose flags line Eyre Square today, to the surprising connections with Spain.
Catch a festival
A hotbed of creative folk, Galway has arts festivals which secure big names and coveted premieres – eminent playwrights like Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh first showcased their work here. The cornerstone is the Galway International Arts Festival, in the last two weeks of July, but there’s rarely a dull moment in the calendar. Annual highlights include the comedy festival at the end of October, Culture Night in September, the jazz festival in October and the literature festival in April. As the global pandemic has disrupted some festival dates, do check the websites in advance before booking your trip.
Take a coastal stroll
On a fine day, there’s a choice of easy, flat, coastal walks to tackle, accompanied by a big lungful of North Atlantic sea air. The promenade in Salthill makes for an invigorating stroll, but the route to Mutton Island is something even more special – with a kilometre-long causeway lashed by huge Atlantic waves crashing left and right.
Explore Galway City Museum
Set back from the Spanish Arch – a landmark and remnant of the city wall – Galway City Museum tells this area’s colourful story, from prehistoric times to its part in the 1916 Rising and beyond. Within the museum, the imposing Máirtin Oliver fishing boat takes centre stage, but even small possessions like letters written by yesteryear’s Galwegians carry poignancy. Free entry, open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12pm-5pm.
Where to stay
Top of the lot is The House Hotel. A centrally-located boutique hotel, its contemporary rooms are on the small side but they ooze elegance and comfort. The Yard, the hotel’s modern European restaurant, is a draw in itself. The hotel gets booked well in advance at weekends, so book your stay here nice and early. Doubles from £107, B&B.
Otherwise try Galway’s fanciest crashpad, The G Hotel, which opened in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger economic boom – and it shows. The aesthetic of mirrored furniture, fuchsia pinks and royal blues may have dated, but the magnificent design by celebrity milliner Philip Treacy (a Galway native) is still a sight to behold. The 101 rooms are found down dark corridors, adding to the drama of it all. Doubles from £170, B&B.
The Galmont Hotel & Spa is a more muted and centrally-located alternative. Doubles from £158, B&B.
For a no-frills stay, Snoozles is just the ticket. Service is friendly, the dorms and private rooms are clean, the kitchen is well kitted-out, and the basic breakfast is free. There are two locations in Galway: one in the heart of the nightlife action on Quay Street, the other, five minutes away on Forster Street, for a more relaxed stay. Private doubles from £119, B&B.
Where to eat
Home to a peppering of Michelin stars and memorable cheap eats, it’s no chore to eat your way around Galway. A standout choice is Kai, a cosy, art-filled restaurant run by a New Zealander-Irish couple who know delicious food and warm hospitality. Their hearty monthly menus use trending ingredients that feel ahead of the curve – but never at the expense of the flavour. Brilliant wine list, too. Ard Bia at Nimmos offers a similar vibe, but is better suited to breakfast and lunch, when the daylight makes the most of its waterside location.
For a special experience, don’t miss out on Loam, a relaxed Michelin one-star found in an airy, spacious basement. It uses locally-sourced and foraged ingredients in its daily menu, and rustic touches run throughout the restaurant, from the canvas bread baskets to foliage within its interiors. Pick between seven courses for £73 or nine for £116.
As a student city, Galway serves up plenty of affordable spots, too. Hooked specialises in fresh seafood (oysters are the signature dish) with inventive veggie options; while McDonagh’s is the obvious choice for unfussy, delicious fish’n’chips. Galway’s Spanish influence means tapas is popular, and Cava Bodega does a mean patatas bravas, the litmus test of any self-respecting Spanish eatery.
Where to drink
To start the day well, join the snaking queue at Coffeewerk + Press, a hip indie coffee joint that’s big on design but delivers on the caffeine front too.
Later, make like Ed Sheeran and kick back with a pint of Guinness at O’Connell’s. The local favourite hit the bigtime when the singer and actress Saoirse Ronan filmed his ‘Galway Girl’ video there. Tigh Neachtain’s is another great option for the black stuff. It’s a convivial pub dating from the 19th century that’s historically attracted the city’s musicians, writers and artists – though these days it’s heaving with every type of character from morning until close.
Or try Tig Choili to combine the pub atmosphere with live music – it hosts trad sessions at 6pm and 9.30pm most nights. For contemporary music, Róisín Dubh is the place to hang out. Have a tipple at the bar, and take a peek at its listings to see who’s playing – on one of my previous visits, it was Hot Chip on the decks, no less.
Upstairs from the Dáil Bar on Middle Street, cocktail drinkers will find classic and edgy choices on the menu at the backlit Liquor Lounge bar. For Irish flavours, try the Stay-Cay Cocktail made with gin, lemon juice, honey, ginger – and plenty of poitin, the national homebrewed spirit.
Where to shop
If the main, high-street style shopping centre of Eyre’s Square doesn’t appeal, give the Farmer’s Market a look. It curves along Church Lane on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. As well as stands selling fruit and veg, and food trucks of falafel, empanadas and bahn mi, artisans tout handmade crafts which make excellent gifts. That said, the Claddagh (a ring featuring two hands holding a heart) is the hallmark of the city. Find out its history at the small, free museum and browse through an extensive collection of jewellery at T. Dillon & Sons, the original makers of the Claddagh since 1750.
For edible souvenirs, McCambridge’s is culinary heaven. It sells an abundance of premium local whiskies, chocolate, jams and teas, ranging from big Irish names to small artisanal producers. It’s not cheap, but you’re guaranteed quality purchases.
Galway Cathedral on Nun’s Island stands out, with an octagonal dome that dominates the skyline. It was only completed in 1965, and with interiors of cut stone and geometric designs, offers a more contemporary take on traditional stylings.
Galway nuts and bolts
What currency do they use?
What language do they speak?
The county of Galway has the largest population of Gaelic-speakers, though English is the main language in the city.
How much should I tip?
10-20 per cent, depending on service.
What’s the time difference?
Ireland is in the same time zone as the UK.
How do I get there?
Flight-free travel option: There are several ferry options for travelling between the UK and Ireland, with Stena running services from Holyhead in Wales to Dublin Port and P&O offering a Liverpool-Dublin route. In most cases, when travelling as a foot passenger, you can buy a ticket which combines “Rail and Sail”. Trains run between Dublin and Galway every day and are operated by Irish Rail.
If flying, it’s just over an hour from the UK to Knock or Shannon airports, and a bus (or expensive taxi) from there.
How should I get around?
The city is compact enough to walk between most places, but buses are the best option otherwise.
What’s the best view?
Head to the top of Galway City Museum for a bird’s eye view of the River Corrib, the Claddagh area, Atlantic Ocean beyond. The highlights of the view are pointed out on a handy map.
In the neighbourhood of Blackrock, there’s a specially constructed diving tower along the beach for the aquatically-inclined. Dive if you dare.