Galway has long been considered the cultural capital of Ireland. Festive and artsy, with many unique and elaborately painted pubs, the city may be the best place to enjoy good food, a few pints and a good craic. Located on the west coast of the island, and serving as the half way mark on The Wild Atlantic Way, Galway is a stopover point for every traveler who journeys to the western side of Ireland.
Because of it’s combination of authentic Irish culture and a signature Bohemian atmosphere, Galway was officially named the 2020 European Capital of Culture.
Looking back, Galway has a long and often difficult history. The town was first recorded in historical records in 1124, not 60 years after William the Conquerer defeated King Harold and the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, England in 1066.
Later In 1232, the now, Norman-English, sacked Galway and walls were built around it, officially establishing it as a city.
Galway remained an important port city throughout the medieval ages but suffered a few fires in the 1400’s that required the city to be largely rebuilt. The old stone buildings and foundations that are seen in the city today, are the result of this rebuilding.
A bit ironically given it’s present status, Galway is noted to remain a very ‘English’ town in customs until Ireland slowly started to breakaway and resist English influence starting in the eighteenth century.
Intriguingly enough, the town historically is known as ‘The City of Tribes,’ due it being heavily influenced and ruled by fourteen different families. The Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, French, Font, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerret families.
I spent a week in Galway in early December, enjoying it’s vibrancy and meeting other travelers, expats and locals alike.
Being here in December, meant for Christmas trees, lights, carolers, elves and Santa Clauses, to be scattered and thrown up everywhere from city centre, to Salthill Promenade.
Ideally, Eyre square is a great starting location to explore the city from and is full of food and craft vendors. For under 7 euros, one can enjoy a chocolate strawberry waffle or a hotdog with a tray of chips.
I found the Kinlay hostel to be great place to stay in this downtown area, even if it is quite popular and full of students and partygoers. The bed was comfortable and had a curtain for privacy. The lobby and reception area felt more like a hotel than a hostel but was quite a popular place to socialize with there being a pool table, multiple couches and a large TV. There was a South African Rugby team staying whilst I was here and I enjoyed siting and listening to them carry on in Afrikaans while chiding each other during a game of pool.
Even if you’re not much of a party goer or an admirer of the black tonic, Guinness, it is hard not to be drawn in to one of the numerous pubs that line the downtown of Galway, in which no two are the same.
The Quays, The Kings Head, O’Connell’s bar, all have a certain character, history and atmosphere that make them worth checking out to either have a pint, order some food or above all else, have a chat with a stranger. Despite Galway being a center of tourism in Ireland, the local pub goers seem to remain in good spirits and are more than happy to talk with you about where you are from or what brings you to Ireland.
The Galway Cathedral is probably the most impressive building in all of the town and is certainly worth visiting, even if its not entirely that old. It is an important cultural mark of Ireland and a reminder of the Island’s Catholic heritage. I found the inside, with its high arching walls and columns, along with the Christian murals and artifacts, to have a very calming affect. There is a saying in Southeast, that once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen em all. I’ve never entirely resonated with that and even if you have been to many cathedrals in Europe, I find it hard to believe that each individual one, doesn’t have something unique to offer, whether it be in architecture or in presence. Hence, I am saying Galway’s Cathedral is worth a visit.
The neighborhood of Salthill promenade, lines the water and its coastal presence allows for relaxing vibes. There is a long footpath that lines the water, as well as a few board walks (more of a ‘stone’ walk) that provide for a soothing walk/run/cycle by the sea.
While this part of Galway is quieter, O’Conner’s pub and The Oslo bar are still excellent places to go to socialize, eat and drink.
I found O’Connors to be the most superb and elegantly Christmas decorated places I had ever seen. The amount of effort to put up all the lights, ornaments, pictures and other christmasy things on the walls and ceilings, couldn’t have been a small task.
The Nest Hostel is the best budget place to stay in this neighborhood and has a boutique atmosphere (literally the ceiling in the lobby is adorned with brown paper sticks making it look like ‘A nest’) and a very outgoing, caring staff. They seemed to actually really enjoy their job and wanted to help guests in any way they could.
Perhaps one of the other great things about Galway, is it is a gateway town to Connemara National park and the twelve bens. Cycling and hiking into this region is a spectacular endeavor and one of the most scenic parts of the island. The small town of Clifton is only an hour and a half away from Galway and is a spectacular small Irish town in which you can spend a day or a few, visiting beaches, castles or cycling along The Wild Atlantic Way. The Twelve Bens or Beanna Beola (The Peaks of Beola in Irish) are striking mountains that while aren’t that high, are spectacular in appearance and in their hiking and climbing opportunities that they offer.
In short, the town of Galway, Ireland is a hard place not to love due to two many reasons to list. What ever you are into, this is an Irish city that has something for just about everyone. I know that I will certainly come back to this town to cross off many of the opportunities that were missed.