Are you looking for the best things to do in Galway, Ireland? This Irish city is the fifth largest in the country and a major vacation destination for those visiting Ireland. It’s drawn us back three times, and we know we will be back again in the future.
While many visitors flock to Dublin, I much prefer the vibe of Galway. It’s known as “The City of the Tribes” and feels much more Irish to me than the capital. There are so many things to do in Galway City center, and even some epic day trips from the city. A visit to Galway should be on every Ireland itinerary.
Best Things to do in Galway
The Spanish Arch & the Galway City Walls
Ancient cities come with old structures, and both come with rich and intriguing histories. Galway, dating from 1124, exhibits much of this ancient architecture and makes for a notable attraction when visiting this city.
Galway’s original settlement was encased in infamous walls, many of which are still standing today – some in very peculiar places, such as the citadel and wall section inside a shopping mall. Also among the list of things to do in Galway City is the Spanish Arch, which built in 1584 as an extension of the city walls.
It quickly became more of a defensive strategy due to its location; built on the bank of the River Corrib where the latter meets the sea, it helped to prevent foreign ships from passing through and looting merchants. Along with notable points in the wall and the Spanish Arch, you’ll find informative plaques giving context and information on the ancient stonework.
Eyre Square is a public park located in the heart of Galway City. It’s one of the best free things to see in Galway and being in a bustling part of town; it offers vibrant nightlife and a wide array of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes. The square built over what was known as “The Green” in medieval Galway, located in front of the city gate. Townsfolk would congregate here to pass the time, much as they do today.
The park has undergone several redevelopments throughout its lifetime, complete with name changes. While it is widely known as Eyre Square, it was officially renamed as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, since the US President had made a speech there during his term in office.
The Square is home to statues, public art (there is a beautiful sculpture of the Galway Hooker boat on display), and was even the site of the third most extended Occupy Camp movement in the world, at 216 consecutive days.
Buy a Claddagh Ring
If you are still wondering what to do in Galway, why not check out a Claddagh ring shop? A highlight of our trip to Ireland was learning how to make the Claddagh Ring, a traditional Irish ring, which represents love, loyalty, and friendship!
The heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty. The ring originated in Galway and has produced there since the 1700s. You can find shops selling the ring around the city center, and sometimes you can even find them making them.
St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church
Churches are always at the top of the list when visiting new cities, particularly those with a varied and lengthy past. The St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church is a medieval Anglican church in the center of the town. It is steeped in nearly 800 years of history, making it a must-see on the endless list of things to do in Galway City.
As a church, its hallowed interiors have seen many facets of life in the city. During the reign of the 14 tribes of Galway, it was the location for mayoral election deliberation and voting. There is even a widely-circulated belief that Christopher Columbus prayed here during his stopover in Galway en route to the New World.
Though Sunday Mass may not be for you, there’s no denying it’s part of life and culture in Galway; this church’s mass often welcomes up to 300 churchgoers for the 11 am service.
Quay Street is your best bet if you’re looking for things to do in Galway City that are a mix of fast-paced and laid back. Quay Street is perfect for an afternoon wander through the best combination of shops, restaurants, cafés, and pubs (it is Ireland, after all).
If you’re hungry, the area boasts excellent local oysters; you can wash them down with a pint from a bar (or two!) that comes highly recommended, such as Tig Coili or O’Connell’s Bar.
Once you’ve had your fill of food & bevies, a little shopping may be in order. If you’re more of a take-it-all-in kind of person and love to people-watch, just wandering through the winding cobbled streets is always a great way to spend time in this part of town.
Live music, street performers, and buskers can be found all over, giving this little gem in the heart of Galway a beat and personality all its own.
In a city as old as Galway, architecture remains from many different eras of design, style, and construction. The Lynch’s Castle is one such edifice, erected in a classic Irish gothic style that, despite its predicted age of around 500 years, looks deceptively unassuming from outside. It even houses a bank in a fitting unity of old and new.
Lynch’s Castle was once home to one of the most powerful families in the area; one of 14 tribes who ruled the region. The castle was their refuge from raids and features many architectural intricacies, such as gargoyles, window carvings, and detailed moldings.
The Lynch family crest features prominently on the outer facade. One of only a few earthly treasures from Galway’s past still standing today, it is a building worth seeing, though only the first of its four floors are open to public perusal.
If you’re into castles with a side of mystery and folk magic, then Menlo Castle is a must-visit. It was home to the wealthy and powerful Blake family, who owned land in many regions. The ivy-ridden, overgrown ruins that remain today are a glimpse of the grandiose structure that once stood.
Its history is shrouded in lore, with tales of faerie rings and lights being spotted by a midwife shortly before the fire that overtook the Lord and Lady’s daughter’s bedroom, presumably claiming her life (they never found remains). Some years later, the Blake baronet who inherited the land, was found dead.
This spot on the list is more of a self-service visiting point, as the castle is now in ruins and no museum nor guided tours operate on the grounds. However, it does make for a lovely walk (or bike ride) and some beautiful pictures, particularly with the greenery overtaking the crumbled stone.
While most European cities are exciting in their own right, with a diverse array of museums, restaurants, bustling neighborhoods, and vibrant city streets, sometimes the purest joys of traveling come from the quiet days where you can slow your pace.
Barna Woods – located only three miles from Galway’s city center – offers a respite from the city’s fast pace. With creeping moss, oak trees, old stone bridges, and a forest floor carpeted with fallen leaves, Barna Woods gives off an aura of ancient magic and lore—how very Irish!
It’s a beautiful spot for an afternoon bike ride, a picnic, or even just a stroll, but be sure to bring boots as there is often mud.
No need to hop on a boat to access this island; Mutton Island is connected to Galway City’s South Park by a long causeway of about a mile and offers some pretty spectacular views the whole way there.
Bonus: you can begin your walk along the banks of the River Corrib by South Park before turning onto the causeway; this gorgeous path is lined with old houses and beautiful greenery.
Mutton Island has no permanent residents, though being the base of a sewage treatment plant, it hosts plant workers daily. There is a path that follows along the perimeter of the plant, with sweeping views out to sea.
This beauty makes the causeway and the island a popular spot for marriage proposals, so if any ladies are traveling with a partner in tow, cross your fingers!
With Ireland being famous for its shorelines, it’s no surprise that Galway Bay is on the list of things to do in Galway City. Bring your camera, because the views you’ll see from here are among some of the most beautiful in the region, mainly if you capture the brightly colored houses dotting the shoreline.
The bay is also well-known for the Galway Hooker, an all-red traditional sailing craft from the years leading up to the Great Famine.
Visit the Aran Islands
If you have an extra day or a little spare time, Galway is not too far from the bay to the Aran Islands, which are well-known for their natural beauty and their ancient structures.
The island’s 1200 inhabitants, while fluent in English, speak primarily Irish Gaelic, since the region is a part of the Gaeltacht. If you happen to be interested in brushing up on your Irish Gaelic, this would be an excellent place to take a quick lesson!
Galway Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas
Though not particularly old, the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, and St Nicholas (commonly referred to as the Galway Cathedral) is among the top things to do in Galway City. Interestingly, it was initially the location of the city prison. Upon its completion in 1965, it became the last stone cathedral to be built in Europe.
Mass is daily, and the inside of the cathedral is worth seeing for its stone walls, rose and glass mosaic windows and impressive dome and pillars done in Renaissance style. If you happen to be near the Spanish Arch, it’s not much farther to walk here.
Another one for the list for those seeking outdoor activities, the Salthill Beaches are one of the top outdoor things to do in Galway, no matter the weather. Made up of several beaches that range in type from sandy to rocky, Blackrock Beach and Ladies Beach are the top ones to visit.
If you’d rather keep your distance from the chilly water, there’s a lovely promenade winding along the shoreline that is popular with runners and walkers.
Whether you’re there for a wintry stroll or plan to spread out and enjoy a summer day, the ocean breeze and perfect beachcombing make the Salthill Beaches a memorable way to spend the day.
Day trip to the Cliffs of Moher & the Burren
It would be a shame to visit Ireland and not pay a visit to the famous Cliffs of Moher. To get to the Cliffs of Moher from Galway will take you less than two hours drive. It’s a perfect day trip opportunity, and you will find many tour companies that offer this service.
The Cliffs themselves are astounding. From walled areas for those afraid of heights to un-walled areas for thrill seekers, the views you will get of the crashing sea below, the endless skyline, and the famed Irish shorelines are among some of the most beautiful you will see in your lifetime.
The entire region surrounding the cliffs is known as the Burren; taking a scenic drive through this region will show you the impressive bedrock formations that coat the ground.
Leftover from the last Ice Age, they are now permanently a part of the environment here. Additionally, this region was once home to Mesolithic and Megalithic peoples, the latter having built many tombs that are still standing (and visitable) today.
Day trip to Kylemore Abbey & Connemara National Park
Only an hour and a half drive from Galway City is Kylemore Abbey, a beautiful and elegant estate home built in 1868 for a wealthy family and founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1920.
Located on the edge of Pollacapall Lough and backdropped by a fertile green hillside, it is a famous landmark in the region (and makes for some beautiful photography). Today, its neo-Gothic church, Victorian walled gardens, and ancient mausoleum are among some of its most popular features.
It is just minutes from Connemara National Park, which boasts nearly 3,000 hectares of grassland, forests, bogs, and mountains – perfect for all you hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Additionally, it houses remnants from early human civilization, including megalithic tombs over 4,000 years in age, and a 19th-century cemetery.
Galway City Museum
Museums are often a promising way of spending an afternoon, but especially so in a city such as Galway, where history is so diverse. The Galway City Museum, located right beside the Spanish Arch, offers a multitude of fascinating exhibits, both permanent and temporary.
Among the permanent exhibits offered by the museum are the history of prehistoric Galway and Medieval Galway, providing a fascinating insight into how tiny ancient settlements grow into thriving cities over many hundreds of years.
With a country so steeped in history as Ireland, you can bet that each city’s history is just as enchanting, and Galway is no exception. The museum is relatively new (only open since 2006) but its collections and exhibits are worth a visit.
Hall of the Red Earl
The building is one for the history buffs visiting this city. The Hall of the Red Earl is one of the unique things to do in Galway. Richard, the Red Earl, had his hall built in the 13th century to entertain guests; while much of the building is lost, the foundations remain.
Even more fascinating is that these stone foundations lay undiscovered until the 1990s when they were found unexpectedly during an expansion of the main building.
The remains are encased in glass for visitors to admire. Some of the fascinating artifacts also found among the ruins are displayed as well (these include items such as pipes and gold cufflinks). Entry is free, so it’s an excellent spot to visit if you’re feeling a little more frugal towards the end of your trip.
Enjoy the Galway Oyster Fest
The native Galway Flat Oyster comes into season every September through April. There’s no better or Irish way to celebrate this wild Atlantic and salty oyster than with a giant festival, a few pints of Guinness, and live Irish music in Galway Bay Harbour. In celebration of the season, the Galway Oyster and Seafood festival happens on the last weekend of September every year and has over the previous 64 years.
It may have started as a little gather of a couple of dozen people, but since has grown to include several thousand people and truckfuls of oysters. While you can enjoy oysters all year, like Oyster Pacific Oyster or Giga, the festival highlights the native flat and is quite the party!
Head Out to Cnoc Suain
Cnoc Suain may be the best cultural experience you can have in the Galway region. And that’s in an area that is brimming with cultural experiences! Cnoc Suain is a collection of small cottages set on on top of a hill. It all plays well to the name since Cnoc Suain means “restful hill” in Irish, although we still can’t pronounce it!
Your hosts Dearbhaill and Charlie could not be more welcoming and eager to teach more about the history of the property and Irish culture. The two teach you about Irish food, history, music, and the surrounding landscape.
Enjoy a Festival!
The city of Galway has been dubbed “Festival City” and is well known as the festival capital of Ireland. Throughout the year the city draws in visitors from all over the world for world-class events, like St. Patrick’s Day in March, the Galway Races in the summer, Galway Jazz Festival, the Comedy Festival, and Galway International Arts Festival in October.
A lot is happening in this little Irish city, and that extends beyond the song “Galway Girl” and enticing pubs they’re world famous. Besides the Galway Oyster Fest, we were able to visit the Halloween Festival and see one of the best Halloween Parades on this planet!
Where to Stay In Galway?
We often opt to stay in Airbnb while traveling as it allows us to cook and relax in the comforts of a home. We didn’t stay in one for the festival as to add to growing rent prices in the city, but we did stay in this lovely home on the coast after the festivities.
If you want to know more learn about our best Airbnb tips or want to pick up a coupon, read our post about Airbnb.
Quick Ireland Travel Tips
- ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Gaelic: “Dia dhuit” and “Go raibh maith agat”
- Currency: Euro – (EUR) – €
- Visa: The Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland are separate countries on the island of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland known as ‘Ireland’ grants 90-day visas. Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom also grants 90 days.
- Weather: Expect lots of weather! Ireland is known for having rapid shifts in and lots of rain – it’s only the only reason a country like Ireland remains so green and fertile. See our full packing list here.
- When is the best time to visit Ireland? Ireland is a fantastic country to visit year round. Though you’ll find crowds during the summer. My favorite time to visit Ireland is in September when the weather is cool and the crowds are low. You can read all about the weather in Ireland here.
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Plan and Pack for Ireland
You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while you’re traveling around the world. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak. You can see all our other backpack recommendations below:
The fleece sweater is a perfect layer when combined with an outer shell to keep you warm. We purchased wool sweaters from independent retailers in Ireland, but good ones weren’t easy to find. For those with less time a little bit of online shopping for wool sweaters will suffice. Start here!
Goretex Rain Jacket
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy many times. It can always rain in Ireland, so it’s best to be prepared. Rain jackets are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof and really a great travel rain jacket. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buys plastic water bottles. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
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