After living in Galway for more than five months, I thought I would impart some of the knowledge I picked up. Let’s start with the basic tourist attractions:
The Cliffs of Moher: The cliffs are a classic tourist stop, and for good reason. Probably the most iconic image of Ireland out there, the Cliffs of Moher are intimidating, yet beautiful. I’ve been three times now – once on a deserted day in January when it was so windy the foam from the sea could travel all the way up the side of the cliffs and over the stone walls; once on a beautiful day that was so packed with tourists you couldn’t turn around without bumping someone from Japan or Australia; and once we never made it into the parking lot because the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see two feet in front of the windshield. My advice is to do everything you can to get to this famous location, but be prepared for all types of weather. Actually, that can go for anything you do in Ireland, in general.
Connemara: Ireland’s beauty is perhaps best witnessed in the subtle mossy hills of Connemara. The huge expanse of soft scenery is empty for miles, but is home to the largest number of native Irish-speakers, making it the largest and most populous Gaeltacht region in all of Ireland. Connemara is well-covered in the travel books, and there are many buses that will drive you all around the countryside, but the best way to experience the breathtaking beauty is to get out of the car and hike on your own.
The Aran Islands: This is another location that all the guidebooks recommend, and yet the two times I went I always saw more local families on the ferry than I saw tourists. Your experience on the Aran Islands depends greatly on the weather, so pick a sunny day if you can because you’ll be spending most of it on a bike, exposed to the elements. There are three different islands to choose from, but the easiest one to get to for a day trip is the largest one – Inishmore. When I went to Inishmore with my family it rained the entire time, and we were soaking wet, but rain is part of the beauty of Ireland. Once you accept the fact that you will be wet the majority of the time you are outside, then any place can be enjoyed. (For more details on Inishmore, refer to my earlier post about Biking the Aran Islands.)
Galway City Museum: This free museum is an easy way to learn a lot about Galway in just an hour or two. It is located right on the River Corrib, by the Spanish Arch. The first floor on medieval Galway includes impressive artifacts and interactive maps of old towns. Well worth a stop, especially if it’s raining while you are exploring Shop Street.
And that brings us to Galway’s local attractions:
Shop Street: While many of the stores on Galway’s main street may be touristy, the buildings are not. If you go in the summer it will be crowded with more tourists, but I didn’t see too many up until the very end of April. The stone walkway is filled with people of all ages at all times of the day – I never quite figured out why school children were out wandering around at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. This is where you can buy famous wool Aran sweaters, Guinness pint glasses, and Claddagh rings, should you choose. But this is also where locals buy basic groceries and grab a cup of coffee.
Promenade to Salthill: Salthill is the affluent suburb of Galway, and the walk there takes you along the coastal shore. On clear days the water can be so still that it shimmers. But on overcast days the wind can blow the saliva out of your mouth. The salty beaches are littered with seaweed and shells, and benches are scattered along the the way. I spent many afternoons just journaling by the water there.
Galway Cathedral: I passed the Cathedral everyday on my way to class, but never went inside until the very end of my semester there, and I wish I had gone in sooner. Regardless of your religious inclination, the Galway Cathedral is an impressive spectacle. It was rebuilt recently so it has an air of modernity mixed with ancient elements.
Galway Market: Every weekend, rain or shine, food carts, art vendors and farmers gather by St. Nicholas’ Church on Church Lane. It will never compare in size or variety to the Madison farmer’s market, but let’s be honest, nothing really could. Instead of endless vegetable and cheese stands, the Galway Market offers more artwork and jewelry. Small tents sell wool socks, rings, slate paintings, wool hats, wooden boxes, leather belts. Most of the gifts I bought for friends and family came from one of those booths.
Galway is famous for its pub scene, but here are a few of my favorites:
Taaffes: Taaffes is the best place to see old Irish men play traditional music, complete with round, handheld drums (the bodhrán) and the Irish fiddle. The small pub is usually packed well before the music is supposed to start at 9:30 p.m., but expect the music to start at least a half an hour late.
Roisin Dubh: This nightclub is the best place to hear various eclectic live bands – we once watched a Norwegian death metal band perform with an electric cello. There also is a silent disco every Tuesday night for just 5 euro. For those of you who haven’t tried out a silent disco before, what happens is that everyone puts on a headset and chooses one of the channels to listen to. There are 2-3 DJs playing different songs, and everyone dances to whatever song they hear. If you take off the headphones, all you see is a packed room of people dancing in silence.
The Quays: The Quays became our typical hangout spot, probably it closely resembles an American bar. The live bands frequently play classic American rock songs or contemporary hits. When in doubt, we usually ended up at The Quays.
On a similar note, here are other aspects of student life:
Spanish Arch: When it is nice out, students congregate to play soccer and hang out between classes by the River Corrib, under the Spanish Arch. You also see a lot of people sitting along the edge of the river at any time of the day.
McDonagh’s: The classic fish and chips restaurant looks like a typical chain, but you will find it recommended in many guidebooks. It is affordable and quick, and very, very good. I never like the idea of fried fish or vinegar on fries until I tried McDonagh’s for the first time. And I’m not a fan of most meat. As a testament to its quality, you will see more locals eating here than tourists.
Supermacs after 2 a.m.: I have never eaten Supermacs in the light of day, and I’m not sure I would want to, but it is the staple late night food in Ireland. Supermacs is the equivalent of McDonalds in terms of quality, but everyone ends their night out at the chain. One time I was there on the same night as a school formal dance and the huge restaurant was swarmed with men in tuxedos and women in bright, fluffy dresses, all devouring burgers and greasy fries. The sight was confusing, to say the least. But this is where you find local students.
Other nooks and crannies: If you are in Galway for a while, keep wandering around. I was there five months, and the last few weeks I was still discovering new parts of town that I could walk to. Galway is not confined to just Shop Street, so keep exploring.