A bohemian enclave in the cultural spotlight – an expert guide to visiting Galway

David Atkinson
The Claddagh, once an ancient fishing village, in Galway - iStock

Why go? 

Compact and characterful, Galway is southern Ireland’s favourite cultural hub. It’s also the European Capital of Culture in 2020 with some 80 per cent of the cultural programme free or low cost to attend. That makes it an ideal day-port stop for passengers with the likes of Silversea, Saga and Oceania. The western Ireland university city, outward looking towards the Atlantic, also acts as the gateway to Ireland’s spectacular west coast.

Cruise port location

Galway is an increasingly popular stop amongst southern Ireland’s five ports with 20 ships and 10,000 cruise passengers visiting in 2019. Ships anchor in the harbour, ferrying passengers by tender to the cruise pontoon from where it’s a short walk into the centre. An expanded cruise terminal is due for completion by 2024.

Can I walk to any places of interest?

Greeters await disembarking passengers with free walking maps amid displays of traditional Irish dancing. It's a 15-minute stroll into central Eyre Square, where the tourist information centre is located. All the main attractions are walkable, including the medieval church of St Nicholas, the Latin Quarter of central shopping streets and lively local pubs. Swing by Galway Bay Seafood, located in the port, for boat-fresh fish and chips en route back to the ship.

Getting around

Excursion coaches depart from the quayside but Galway favours independent explorers on foot given its compact size. There’s a little tourist train and a hop-on bus service if you’re sheltering from the notoriously changeable weather.


Spend time exploring Galway's shops and eateries Credit: iStock

What can I do in four hours or less? 

The pedestrianised streets around Shop Street are Galway’s visitor hub but the West End, located across the fast-flowing River Corrib, forms its beating heart. It’s worth popping into the Galway City Museum to understand the city’s complex political and maritime history. The museum is to relaunch as the expanded Atlantic Museum Galway as part of the refurbishment of the Spanish Arch district. Alternatively, stretch your legs with a stroll along the riverside promenade to the seaside suburb of Salt Hill with cafes and views across Galway Bay. For a slower pace, head to Corrib House, a guesthouse and tearooms in a quieter section of the centre, for afternoon tea or weekend brunch with homemade bread, scones and cakes. 

What can I do in eight hours or less? 

Of the various walking tours, Galway Food Tours offers a refreshing glimpse of Galway life through the prism of its burgeoning food culture. The two-hour stroll includes stops at McCambridge’s historic food hall, Hazel Mountain bean-to-bar chocolatiers and Little Lane coffee amongst others. The guides share their passion for the city with tastings at each stop and a take-home goodie bag of tasty treats en route. Pre book online the regular morning tour. Of the raft of organised day excursions, the most popular are visits to Kylemore Abbey with its walled garden and woodland walk in Connemara, or the scenic drive to the Cliffs of Moher, an area of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife haven on the County Clare coast. There are also two golf courses in the area. 

What can I do with a bit longer? 

A day visit to the Aran Islands is a stretch, so best tackled as an overnight trip with weather-dependent ferries to Inis Mor, the closet of the three islands, from Rossaveal, one hour west of Galway. Driving a stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way, the scenic coastal driving route, opens up the widescreen scenery of the west coast.

The Cliffs of Moher Credit: iStock

Eat and drink

Local seafood is superb on the west coast and Kai, a slow-food restaurant with an international twist in the West End, offers a great lunch of local flavours, such as smoked mackerel and hake, as well as pheasant and venison according to the season. Or try Ard Bia at Nimmos, located by the Spanish Arch, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for locally sourced brunches and lunches.

A pint of the black stuff is the essential tipple, of course. If you’re looking for the elusive Irish craic, then Tigh Neachtain is a favourite with traditional Irish music and free-flowing Guinness adding to the lost-in-time ambiance. Alternatively, Salt House is a craft-ale pub from The Galway Bay Brewery with a range of microbrewery ales, including a very quaffable milk stout.

Don’t leave Galway without…

It seems like half the places along the main street are trying to sell traditional Aran sweaters. One of the biggest is the Aran Sweater Market which, while not cheap, will ship anywhere in the world. More offbeat is Charlie Byrne’s independent bookshop to stock up on literary greats, O’Maille for local crafts, or Judy Green for traditional pottery.

Dunguaire Castle, Galway Bay – a feature of Ireland's stunning West Coast scenery Credit: iStock

Need to know

Safety

Galway has a low crime rate and visits are trouble free with the usual precautions.

Best time to go

The cruise season runs from May to September when the climate is best. Small boats can shuttle in passengers from the Aran Islands during inclement weather. Galway hosts a wealth of festivals in summer, notably the Galway International Arts Festival in July and Galway Races in August, when the streets are heaving.

Closures

Shops and restaurants open daily during the cruise season, although expect a later opening on Sundays and closures Sunday-Monday out of season.