An ancient harbour located on the enchanting west coast of Ireland, Galway is the beating heart of the surrounding County which takes its name from the city. Full of life, music fills the brightly coloured bustling streets night and day, whether seeping through the doors of its many pubs or being belted out by the talented street performers that are a central and charming feature of Galway. It’s rich history is evident in the buildings and historical points of interest that are liberally dotted in every nook and cranny, and though it’s a modern city there’s a firm connection to the tradition it’s built on.
Galway has become an incredibly popular destination for visitors from within Ireland as well as further afield, but it manages to wear its high tourism levels seemingly effortlessly. Though it definitely feels “touristy”, it’s justifiably so as Galway certainly has plenty of reasons why visitors should come here. And there’s still an overwhelmingly traditional atmosphere that makes it feel like the real thing rather than an appropriation of it, which some popular places suffer from.
Here's our guide on the best things to see and do in Galway.
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Eyre Square & Kennedy Park
This centrally located square has existed in one form or another for a few hundred years and remains a focal point in the city centre. It was officially renamed John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in honour of the American president who made a speech here in 1963, but it’s still referred to by many people by its former moniker, Eyre Square.
It’s surrounded by pubs, hotels and shops on all four sides, and has a number of landmarks within its walls. There’s Browne Doorway, a medieval house front that was moved here to be put on display, a water fountain statue that represents the city’s connection with the sea and a bust portrait of Kennedy himself.
Oscar & Eduard Wilde Statue
This one had me puzzled when we came across it, because though I’m obviously very familiar with the famous Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, I was completely ignorant as to who the mustachioed guy sat next to him on the bench was. Having done a bit of research I’ve discovered that there’s quite a simple and slightly strange story behind it.
The statue was gifted to Galway by the Estonian City of Tartu and Eduard Wilde was a celebrated Estonian novelist who apparently had a similar wit to Oscar Wilde. Despite being alive during the same period, the two never met, and I’m not even certain they were aware of each other’s work. The meeting depicted was imagined by the sculptor and the original statue is in Tartu, but Estonia was keen to gift a replica to Galway.
The Lynch family was one of the 14 founding tribes of Galway, and at one time the most powerful force in the city. This town castle that bears their name dates back over 500 years and was once the family home. It now forms part of the busy Shop Street which is lined with really colourful and old looking buildings, but the architecture definitely stands out.
The four storeys are decorated with intricate gargoyles, coats of arms and fancy arches and window openings. It’s now a bank which seems a shame for such an historically significant building, but it does mean that you can still go inside and see it from another perspective.
St Nicholas’ Church
We stumbled across this church whilst exploring the streets that go off in all directions from Shop Street and were taken straight away with its striking architecture. Incredibly, it’s been in continuous use since it was built in 1320 and has got a fascinating history, having been used by Christopher Columbus as his place of worship during a stop off he made in Galway.
Even though the window itself isn’t much to look at, the story behind it and its legacy is almost beyond belief so it’s well worth seeking out. James Lynch was the magistrate at the time and had a fierce reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, but when his son murdered a Spanish merchant who was staying with the family in Galway for being a bit too amorous with his girlfriend, he was left in a difficult position.
To keep his integrity intact, he took on the task of handing out a suitable punishment and shockingly hung his son from the window of the family home. It was this incident where the term “lynching” actually came from. Probably not the proudest legacy, but definitely a lasting one.
Curiously, the Spanish Arch is actually two arches that stand at the site of the former harbour next to the river. They both used to be part of the ancient city wall, which parts of can be seen still standing at various points throughout the city. These are a well preserved reminder of the illustrious trading city that Galway once was, with the name coming from the Spanish merchants that used to dock here to trade their various exotic goods.
Galway Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best named cathedral in the world. But even better than the name is the beautiful architecture both inside and out. For both a cathedral and a building in Galway, it’s a relative new build having been completed in 1965, but what it lacks in historical significance it makes up for in sheer splendour.
The stone building is one of the main landmarks on Galway’s skyline, and the green domed roof can be seen from quite a distance. Its cavernous interior is intricate and magnificent and the dome takes on different colours from the inside, it was pink whilst we were there in the late morning sun.
Canal, River & Promenade Walks
Galway has a number of short waterside walks which run along the Eglinton Canal, the Corrib River and the seafront promenade. They’ve all got stunning scenery and are easy to get to from the city centre. We didn’t complete all of them as we were hit by a snowstorm during our trip, but we walked a portion of all three and would definitely recommend them for the views and the fresh air.
The aptly named Shop Street is the main shopping street in Galway, but it’s not your run of the mill modern shopping district. The best way to observe this street is to look up as you walk down it because the architecture is ancient, colourful and varied - it’s pedestrianised so you don’t have to worry about being run over as you’re staring upwards!
There are brilliant street performers at regular intervals down the street, performing a soundtrack of both traditional Irish and modern music. Towards the bottom end of Shop Street there are also a number of cafes, pubs and bars making it the busiest street in the city.
Watch Traditional Irish Music with a Pint of Guinness
Galway is alive with the sound of music. Most of the watering holes in the city have live bands playing daily, often two or three times every day. There are many popular pubs that are renowned for their music but our favourites were the Taafees Bar at the bottom of Shop Street and the An Pucan pub on Forster Street.
Both have live bands on from around 5.30/6 and 8.30/9.00 PM, serve good food and a great pint of Guinness (it really does taste better in Ireland). You’re guaranteed a friendly welcome and there’s a great mix of locals and visitors.
Other Useful Info on Galway
- Beware, food in most pubs is not served beyond 8PM, we didn’t realise this and struggled to find somewhere to eat on our first night.
- Galway is a fantastic place to spend a couple of days, but if you have any more time to spare then it’s also the gateway to the wildly picturesque Connemara district. Hire a car and spend a day driving around the castles, cathedrals and beaches on the Connemara Loop.
Are you planning a trip to Galway, or have you visited in the past? Do you have any recommendations for things to see or do that aren't on this list? Drop us a comment down below and let us know!