As far as small cities go, Galway has a lot going for it. It’s got a small town sense of atmosphere, without the usual accompanying small town boredom; it has the big city entertainments, without the big city crime and grime. It’s a university town, so there’s plenty of theatres, cinemas, festivals and whatnots to entertain the lively student crowd. And, if you’re keen on exploring the beautiful west of Ireland, Galway’s a great base from which to go exploring.
Sights of the City
Of course, before you leave the city to see the countryside, it’d be a good idea to see what sights the city itself offers — and truth to tell, there aren’t that many, so its not much of a chore to make a little time for them!
The best place to start is in Eyre Square in the heart of the city. Popular with the locals as a sunning spot and general get-together place, the park was originally named after the Mayor who officially presented it to the city. Now it is officially known as Kennedy Memorial Park in honour of the US President who visited the park shortly before his assassination. The park is also home to the statue of Galway’s cherished son, the author Padhraig O Conaire.
Near the Square is Lynch Castle, historic home of the city’s most powerful family and a magnificent example of Irish Gothic architecture, if you like that sort of thing. A bit of a ways away is something slightly more macabre — Lynch’s Window. According to local tradition, the mayor of Galway, James Lynch FitzStephen, hanged his son from the window of his home in 1493, as punishment for the son murdering a Spanish man in the care of the family. The castle is now a bank.
The famous window is set in a stone façade in Market Street at the side of St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. One of the oldest and most beautiful parish churches in Ireland, St Nicholas has been a place of worship since the 14th Century and today, is still at the heart of the city’s activities. The main Galway market is held every Saturday outside its gates and in addition to its regular services, St. Nicholas’ hosts concerts throughout the year.
Galway’s answer to the Paris’ famed Left Bank is the Quay Street area, where some of the city’s most forward looking shops and cafes rub shoulders with its oldest monuments. The area boasts landmarks such as the remains of Blake’s Castle, a 17th century fortified tower house; the historic Fishmarket area; and most popularly, Kirwan’s Lane, one of Galway’s fourteen oldest surviving medieval streets and the heart of the historical town centre. The lane was named after one of Galways fourteen founding “tribes” and still retains the feel of medieval Galway — despite the abundance of hip watering holes and trendy restaurants just a short distance away.
Another popular attraction, and practically synonymous with the city, is the Spanish Arch (pictured above) on the left bank of the Corrib, where Galway’s river meets the sea. The name is a bit misleading as it was originally built to keep the Spanish out! The Arch is part of the remains of a 16th century bastion, and together with the crumbling city walls nearby, once formed part of the city’s defenses.
Some of the Best Food in Ireland….
There are a other sights and attractions at hand, but once you’ve done the first few and gotten a bit peckish, you’ll probably be hungry and want a bite to eat. Once you’re in this situation, you may not ever get around to seeing the other sights, for if there’s one thing Galway is famous for, then it’s the food.
Since the city is located on the shores of Galway Bay, the seafoodis divine; and since it is also on the banks of the
Corrib River, the fresh river fish is also wonderful. The variety of food available depends on the season and catch but the lobster, mussels, crab are certainly worthy of investigation, and to leave the city without trying the celebrated Galway oysteris very nearly a crime. The Corrib is also considered one of the best salmon rivers in the west, and the best place to see salmon being caught is near the Salmon Weir Bridge, particularly in September.
There’s plenty of restaurants offering mouth-watering Irish cooking, but one of the more highly recommended ones is Spike’s on High Street, where just about everything on the menu is worth a try. There’s also Conlon’s Seafood Restaurant on Eglinton Street, where the famed oysters — and any other type of seafood — can be sampled at their very, very best. And if you’re in town in late September, you can also foot it over to the Galway International Oyster Festival, where the little delicacy is celebrated in true Irish style.
If the food doesn’t waylay you, then the pubs just might do the job. It being Ireland, there are few streets that don’t sport at least one pub, where the locals pop in to wind down after work, or before an evening out. With the constant influx of students to Galway University, you can bet your Murphy’s the pubs are lively spots to be on a Friday night, and even on nights when the students are busy cramming for exams, there’s still plenty of good laughs, a bit of singing and the occasional fight to keep things interesting. It’s cheaper to have fun in Galway too: a pint here only costs about IR 2.20, rather than IR 2.50 and up in Dublin, and that’s a very good reason to step in a pub or two for a taste of the local life.
Exploring the West of Ireland…
If you can, by sheer force of will, manage to pull yourself away from the city and its merry delights, there’s lots to see elsewhere. The West of Ireland is known for its spectacular scenery and one of the loveliest spots is the Connemara,
a desolate, hilly area to the north and west of the city. Photography, picnicking, and general slack-jawed gaping at the scenery are the usual activities in this area.
If you want someplace a bit further away to get away from it all, then the Aran Islands — big, popular Inishmore, midling-sized Inishmann and tiny Inisheer — would probably be a good place to go. Looking like jagged piles of rocks scattered in the blustering ocean, the Arans are some of the most desolate looking islands anywhere, but the sense of sheer loneliness overhanging them only adds to the stark beauty of the islands. On these islands, Irish is still the primary language and the thick cable sweaters that have gone on to become a symbol of Ireland are not only sold as souvenirs, but are still worn as everyday garments by the locals.
Then there’s Slea Head, the tip of the Dingle Peninsula (pictured above) and directly opposite the Blasket islands. In a region known for its beautiful scenery, this area was picked by National Geographic as one of its Top Ten Most Scenic Sites, and can be spotted doing duty as background in such movies as ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and ‘Far and Away’. There are many historic sites in the area, as well as some of the best surfing in Europe. Then there’s the Ring of Kerry, with its numerous little picturesque towns and majestic castles, wide beaches and waterfalls, and other attractions too numerous to list.
The best way to go about visiting all these attractions outside of Galway is to head over to the Tourist Office, which not only provides comprehensive information on the sights but also runs a number of tours and day trips to the more popular ones. If you’d rather go a bit more independently, there are plenty of private tour operators available for anything from a week long country wide tour to an three hour long spur of the moment hike. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can pick up a map and a moderately detailed guidebook, and go off on your own.
Getting To Galway
Actually, even getting to Galway can be something of an adventure in itself. The recommended way would be a little cross country trip — Ireland’s not too big a country, and the magnificent scenery is well worth the extra time. The most straightforward drive from Dublin to Galway goes by the N6, the main highway in Ireland, and at 140 miles distance, takes about three hours of solid driving. Of course, if you’ve got the time, enough petrol, a good map and a decent sense of direction, you can take the scenic route by sticking to the back roads, but in that case there’ll be no telling when — or if — you arrive in Galway.
A quicker way would be to take a plane to Galway airport, but you do miss the scenery. A good option would be to take the national bus service Bus Eirann, which runs a service from Dublin to Ceannt Station in Galway city centre. There are also a number of private companies which make the Dublin — Galway run, and are good value for money. Finally, there’s also a regular train service by Irish Rail and Ianrod Eirann from Dublin to the Ceannt Station, but they’re notorious for being slow, susceptible to breakdowns, and twice as expensive as the bus.