Galway can best be explored with a rental car and a map of historical sites, which you can get from any tourist office or car rental agency.
Pick a picturesque place or two to stay the night (anywhere near the water) and then drive along the coast, stopping the car at any or every interesting site on the map, making sure to visit Galway City proper, the second-largest in the Republic of Ireland.
History/Geography of Galway
County Galway (Contae na Gaillimhe in Irish) is in the western province of Connacht, the literal and figurative end of Ireland. It was the last refuge for Irish peasants who were forcibly displaced from their lands in the 17th century by the conquering Englishman Oliver Cromwell, with the slogan “To Hell or to Connacht.” (In recent times, Connacht rugby adopted this phrase as a team slogan, which has understandably been met with some controversy.)
The area known as Connemara describes all the countryside between Lough Corrib and the Atlantic Ocean. In the north of County Galway is Killary Harbor, Ireland’s only fjord, flanked by impressive hills. Nearby Leenane is emblematic of an Irish village: small colorful buildings, native Irish speakers, and so small you have to go through a bar (Hamilton’s) to get to a grocery store. Further south is Kylemore Abbey, a preserved castle and gardens that has been home to Benedictine nuns since 1920.
Continuing south through Connemara on the aptly-named Sky Road affords excellent coastal views of rolling green hills and little white houses covered in mist. Pull your car over to the side (don’t worry about disrupting traffic, you’ll probably be the only car in sight) to get a panoramic view of the romantically crumbling, ivy-covered Clifden Castle, or trek through the wind and down the steep hill for a closer look.
Galway, Ireland’s second-largest city, is still easily walkable, with cobblestone pedestrian streets and decent shopping. It has a well-known music scene, so be sure to catch the traditional Irish bands that will invariably be playing at multiple pubs at night. Your hostel owner (or probably any person on the street) will be happy to tell you which pubs to visit. Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland, lies a short drive away.
The Aran Islands
The Aran Islands are a must-see for a glimpse into a traditional Irish lifestyle. These three islands are still populated by Irish-speaking farmers with small plots enclosed by low-lying stone walls and many ancient forts. On the largest island of Inishmore, the best sight is probably Dun Aengus, a two-thousand-year-old semi-circular stone fort built on the edge of a 300-ft cliff. The complete lack of guard rails between you and the edge make this a great spot for a picnic. Plan your trip ahead of time, as the ferry out to the islands leaves only three times a day from Rossaveal, an hour’s drive from Galway City center. Once there, you can either take a bus tour around or rent bikes for 10 euros and explore the island yourself.
Ireland Travel Tips
-Make sure the hostels you book have parking for your rental car.
-Bring a raincoat or an umbrella, as Galway, like all of Ireland, is subject to fast and frequent changes in weather.
-Buying food at grocery stores is a good idea, as restaurants in small towns close early and most hostels have kitchens.
-It is extremely windy, making it fairly cold even in summer. Dress accordingly.