‘Good things come to those who wait,’ runs the ongoing slogan for some stout or other – I don’t remember which. Galway rewards the traveller for a journey that might not quite reach odyssean distances, but still requires a bit of persistence. The flight from London is pleasantly brief – you’ve barely time to strap yourself in at Heathrow before landing at Shannon, County Clare, an hour later. The next step, however, is an hour-and-three-quarter coach journey (or a taxi, if you’re flush) through the province of Connacht and the town of Ennis.
It’s not the most rapid transfer, but the feeling upon entering the city of Galway is one of arriving somewhere worth travelling to. During the short walk to my hotel I heard about ten languages spoken – the fact that the Galway Arts Festival was in town had a lot to do with the cosmopolitan crowds, but the city has international representation year-round (20,000 students study here). This port town on the Atlantic coast of Ireland has long been a stop-off for those emigrating to the US, and in turn receives a good number of American tourists back. There’s also a gentle sort of bohemianism in evidence: it feels like the sort of place people might wash up when they can’t drift any further west. It’s one of those ‘cities’ that doesn’t quite deserve the title on population alone (around 75,000), but outward-looking attitude and many attractions means no one’s complaining.
Bars and pubs in Galway
As I strolled around the narrow streets of the town centre (the partially medieval Quay Street, High Street and Shop Street) in the afternoon, my guide Conor Riordan (www.legendquest.ie) advised me on the merits of the many, many pubs we passed. ‘Now that’s a grand pint of Guinness. That’s where I’d probably go at the start of a night. That pub’s somewhere I’d go with a group of lads for a proper session. And there – I’ve seen that place still serving at six in the morning.’
There are few better places than Galway to experience a proper Irish boozer. They range from cavernous rugby pubs to those nook-and-crannied, wood-panelled hideaways that remind you why publicans the world over try to emulate their eternal cordiality. The town centre’s pedestrianised streets throng nightly with tourists, Galwegians and herds of stags and hens (who don’t get served in the nicer pubs, thankfully). A few Beckettian street drinkers do a great job in reminding everyone this isn’t Disneyland (although Walt’s ancestor John Disney was reportedly mayor of Galway in the eighteenth century). Try Tigh Neachtain (17 Cross St, +353 91 568 820) for live music and shelvefuls of curios, old enamel advertising signs and books. On draught here is the local Galway Hooker (named after a type of boat) in case you grow tired of the Guinness – it does happen, which I can only admit now I’m out the country.
‘Over the river’, in the west end of town and less touristy, are the vast and raucous Monroe’s (Upper Dominick St, +353 87 978 3245) and the more intimate Crane Bar (2 Sea Rd, +353 91 587 419), where people listen to the live music more intently and many know the words. To really rub shoulders with the locals try the friendly, traditional and tiny Murphy’s (9 High St, +353 91 564 589) or the Gaelic-speaking Club Áras na nGael (45 Dominick St, +353 91 567 824).
Restaurants in Galway
As befits a town of such sophistication, Galway has restaurants from most parts of the world. But a Londoner doesn’t travel to Ireland for the weekend to eat curry – try Kai (Sea Rd, +353 91 526 003), a delightful little spot with pointed stone walls, flagstones and wooden beams. The kitchen puts local ingredients to imaginative use in dishes like Connemara crab with pickled cucumbers, or silver hake and yellow beetroot. Ard Bia at Nimmos (Spanish Arch, Long Walk, +353 91 561 114) brings international influence to the likes of Galway Bay lobster, St Tola goats’ cheese and Longford lamb.
Sights to see in Galway
Sometimes the best way to see a city is to step outside it for a while. Outdoors Ireland takes novices and experts alike on sea kayaking trips into Galway Bay, around the old harbour, into the mouth of the fast-flowing Corrib river, and out towards Mutton Island Lighthouse, among swans, seals and (so I’m told) the very occasional killer whale. From €50 per person.
If you're after mental, rather than physical exertion, check out Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop (Middle Street, +353 91 561 766); a crammed labyrinth of new, secondhand and rare editions and the sort of place where whole afternoons can slip by unnoticed. Pick up something by Beckett, Joyce or Yeats, retreat to Murphy’s (see above) and enjoy a classic in a whole new light.
Galway City Museum (Spanish Parade) is a bright and modern space with cleverly displayed artefacts modern and ancient, a concise history of the city and a regularly changing schedule of international touring exhibitions (I saw 'George Grosz: The Big No', a collection of the German caricaturist's satirical sketches).
Hotels in Galway
Although the House Hotel (Lower Merchants Road, +353 91 538 900) is right in the city centre, it’s on a quiet street. It’s set in an old stone building, but inside is a riot of pink tones and exuberant flourishes that fall the right side of tasteful. A room for the night - plus a great breakfast - starts at €89.
Festivals in Galway
The Galway Arts Festival has taken place every July since 1978, and now presents a two-week programme of international and Irish acts. This year’s highlights included theatre from Galway institution Druid, The Fall, West Cork Ukulele Orchestra, Chic with Nile Rodgers, Christy Moore and Marina Abramovic. Racing fans from all over Ireland (and there are a lot of them) flock to the Galway Races Summer Festival (July 30 to August 5 2012). And this year, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival celebrates all things molluscan and piscatorial from September 28-30 2012; the famous Clarenbridge Oyster Festival, held in a village just south of the city, is September 15 and 16 2012.
Trips out of Galway
The city is a perfect point from which to explore the rugged west coast of Ireland. The wild and sparsely populated Connemara National Park is an hour or so away by road, and is a haven for fishing, golf, mountain climbing and outdoor pursuits. The Aran Islands are a 40-minute ferry from Rossaveal, itself an hour’s drive from Galway City. The ruggedly beautiful three islands stare face-on into the Atlantic, and their inhabitants still speak Irish every day.
Aer Lingus flies to Shannon airport from London Heathrow, with one-way fares starting at £45.99.