Galway - steeped in music and history; filled with friendly folk, festivals and crammed with cosy pubs, culture and craic. Get yourself to Galway; City of Tribes, Vibes and the time of your lives....
We arrived in Galway in June while the Volvo Ocean Race was in town resting before the next gruelling stage. The race boats were moored in the quay, masts clinking and brightly coloured logos adding a real dash of colour to the dock. The town was jam-packed and the crews up for some serious R&R after the long haul race across the Atlantic from Boston. The party mood seeped out of the dock weaving its way into Galway’s side streets and cobbled medieval alleyways. Traditional Irish music spilled from the doorways of colourful pubs and bars; nimble fingered fiddlers raced against the beat of bodhrán drums, toes tapped and the revelry flourished.
Walk the Galway Walk
Many of the sights are free and we found the best way to enjoy them is to simply wend your way through this vibrant city…
Eyre Square - see if you can spot the Galway Hooker; we did, standing proud, rusted sails aloft and seemingly afloat in the ebb and flow of the surrounding fountains. That’s right; the Galway Hooker is a boat – well what did you think it was? In the square are also the fourteen banners of the Tribes of Galway – merchant families who once prospered in the city and Kennedy Park named after the President who visited shortly before his death. A handy tourist kiosk is also on the square.
Shop Street is where you’ll hear the music before you see the scores of musicians and street performers. We joined a crowd to listen to a guy in a John Lennon T-shirt giving it everything as he sang a haunting ‘Imagine’. Upbeat buskers entertain and street artists cajole passers-by into becoming part of their acts – I was nicknamed ‘side-show Sue’ after throwing flaming torches up to a high-rise, unicyclist before having flowers plucked from behind my ears - well it’s all in a day's sightseeing.
All round the central pedestrian area are heaps of boutiques and purveyors of all things Irish: Charlie Byrne’s for second hand books, Powell’s for Irish music, instruments, and recordings, Twice as Nice sells crisp cottons and linen and for local handicrafts Design Concourse in ancient Kirwin’s Lane is stuffed with woodwork, jewellery and glass. If you’re after big brand names then Eyre Square shopping centre's the place.
Galway City Museum is situated behind the Spanish Arch and as entry is free it’s worth half an hour to see some Galway relics and learn about the history of the city (Spanish Parade, Galway; +353 91 532 460; http://bit.ly/botVeX; Open Mon 2pm-5pm; Tue-Sat 10am-5pm).
Saunter over the Wolfe Tone Bridge to the Claddagh and look back across the mouth of the bay for the best view of the ancient Spanish Arch and Long Walk, a pretty row of colourful fishermen’s cottages, you may see some working Galway Hookers moored here. Cast your gaze out to the Atlantic and if you’re lucky, on a clear day, you’ll spot The Aran Isles.
Pubs and Bars
Soak up Galway’s pub culture along with a few pints and delve deep into the heart and soul of the city – well it would be rude not to. The warm, cosy bars overflow with atmosphere, music, laughter and the rosy glow of a good pint. Then there’s the craic, the Irish word for fun, enjoyment and good times - can be mixed with alcohol and/or music for added revelry. Before you set off on your pub crawl one Irish word you should remember is Sláinte – cheers!
Taaffe’s Bar - Time for some of the black stuff and Taaffe’s Bar, filled with old wooden booths and a well-stocked bar, was the location for my first ever Guinness! The place was heaving, and not without reason; great atmosphere, good pub food and a hefty dose of traditional wild Irish music. Evening live sessions at 5pm and 9.30pm from April-October and at 9pm the rest of the year. 19-20 Shop Street, Galway; +353 91 564 066. Craic Rating: Serious - 9 out of 10
Quays Bar looks like another little front room pub from the outside but step into the tardis-like confines of Quays for one holy surprise. One of Galway’s finest and most popular pubs, it has a bit of a religious theme going on with dark wooden beams, stained glass, church pews and even a church organ. Its traditional Irish music sessions see the party spreading out onto the street. It opens at 10am and serves good, reasonably priced, pub grub – pastas, sandwiches. Live music sessions most nights. Quay Street; +353 91 568 347; Craic Rating: Praiseworthy – 9 out of 10
The King's Head is hundreds of years old and once belonged to Colonel Stubbers, the man who was possibly responsible for removing the head of King Charles I in 1649. A piece of Irish blarney? Filling, reasonably priced, Irish dishes and homemade burgers and pizzas served practically all day. 15 High Street +353 91 566 630; Craic Rating: Rocking – 8 out of 10
Across the Wolfe Tone Bridge is the renowned Monroe's Tavern, a large white building close to the Claddagh area and near the river. For locals and tourists alike with music seven nights a week and Irish Set Dancing on Tuesdays – onlookers welcome to join in the dancing; well now that the drink’s flowing... Dominick Street; +353 91 583397; Craic Rating: Storming – 9 out of 10
Given Galway's glorious pubs you may, perchance, over-indulge at some point - if so a walk up the river the next morning will blow away the cobwebs for sure. The fast flurry of the Corrib flows robustly for four miles from Lough Corrib into Galway Bay. From the Wolfe Tone Bridge take the beautifully scenic walkway up The Lower Corrib for a bracing breath of fresh air. We watched fishermen casting their lines in thigh-high gaiters, found small canals and lochs before arriving at Salmon Weir Bridge. Check out the brisk waters here for gathering salmon readying themselves for the dart over the weir and an upstream struggle to the spawning grounds in Lough Corrib. Cross the weir bridge for a visit to the imposing Galway Cathedral.
Dining with the locals
Cava is a brilliant Spanish restaurant and serves delicious hot and cold tapas (from €3 to €11). The goat’s cheese wrapped in sweet peppers and served on Spanish toast with olives was a hit. Open for lunch and dinner - they also do take-out – wonderful if the sun’s shining as you can sit on the grass at the nearby Claddagh and watch the world go by as you feast. 51 Lower Dominick Street; +353 91 539 884; www.cavarestaurant.ie
Cooke’s restaurant and wine bar serves good, unfussy comfort food in a cosy, candlelit, stone-walled, medieval building. Prices are reasonable at €10 for lunch. For dinner starters are from €4.50 and main courses average around €18. The pork fillet medallions with mushroom crème and mash are delicious at €15. 28 Upper Abbeygate Street; +353 91 568 203; www.cookesrestaurantandwinebar.ie
We stayed at Jurys Inn Galway ideally located to make the most of both the river, which gushed past our bedroom window, and the Spanish Arch area with its holiday vibe. No frills en-suite room-only accommodation from €99. Parking available next door. Quay Street, Galway.
It’s essential that you book your accommodation well in advance because whenever there’s a festival, and that’s most months, you can guarantee the city will be packed to the rafters.
Feb - Tedfest (Friends of Father Ted Festival)! - www.tedfest.org
April – Festival of Literature - www.galwayartscentre.ie/cuirt
July – Galway Arts Festival - www.galwayartsfestival.com
August - The Galway Races - www.galwayraces.com
September – The Oyster Festival - www.galwayoysterfest.com
July 2012 - The Volvo Ocean Race will finish in Galway