A harbor city with just about 80,000 residents (many of whom are current or former university students), Galway is a small but mighty destination that has long-shaped Ireland’s cultural prowess. In 2020, it was named the European Capital of Culture, recognizing Galway’s outsized allure when it comes to music, crafts, literature, and events. But the very best things to do in Galway extend beyond the borders of the city. In fact, 48 hours in Galway should always include its stunning natural surroundings for that classic city-and-country travel experience—proving once again that our trips to Ireland can let you have it all.
On the first day of your Galway tour, get your lay of the land by staying in town. Galway, nicknamed the City of Tribes after the 14 families who once ruled the city centuries ago, is full of meandering streets, most of which are dotted with cool shops, friendly pubs, rousing live music venues, and tasty restaurants. Traveler Pamela said, “Galway is a sweet little city and very walkable,” thanks to many pedestrian-only streets.
As you tour around town, keep your eyes peeled: Galway is brimming with eras-old buildings and structures that hint at its rich history. Parts of the four-story Lynch’s Castle, for instance, are from the 14th century and was built by one of the original 14 tribes of Galway. There’s the Spanish Arch from the 16th century, and right behind it is the Galway City Museum, packed with artifacts that date back hundreds of years. Many of the objects displayed have actually been lovingly donated to the museum by locals proud of their city.
For a little retail therapy with a sense of place, spend an hour or two perusing the shops on lively Quay Street. Pop into Thomas Dillon’s—you can’t miss its red facade!—for an iconic Claddagh Ring with its crowned heart held by two clasped hands. Thomas Dillon’s is known to be the original makers of the ring, all the way back in 1750.
Another time-tested garment that originated from western Ireland is the Aran sweater, a rugged, cable-knit wool pullover that’s as durable as it is cozy—it’s named after the ancient islands off the coast of Galway. Aran Sweater Market has four floors of the stuff. There’s something for everyone in the family in a variety of styles and colors. And you never know when a warm sweater might come in handy during a trip to Ireland.
And on Saturdays, St Nicholas Market offers a unique opportunity to shop with locals in one of the oldest markets in Ireland. Vendors here range from furniture makers to cake bakers.
One of the best things to do in Galway is attend one of its many festivals and cultural events. If your trip to Ireland lands in the middle of July, make sure to check out the longstanding Galway Arts Festival, a two-week, multi-disciplinary arts and culture extravaganza. It’s been running since 1978, and hundreds of artists participate in or stage countless productions all over the city. There’s music, there’s dance, there are sculptures and theatrical performances... and there’s always plenty of food.
You can’t come to Ireland and not experience a traditional Irish music session; especially if you’re in Galway, home to some of the most celebrated venues and pubs for trad music. Traditional Irish music is a type of folk music that typically involves lots of instruments. A live session at a pub is often a casual, rousing event with plenty of laughter and dancing to accompany the music. We often include a trad show as an optional excursion, like on our Grand Tour of Ireland.
But if you want to strike out on your own: One of the best spots in Galway is Tigh Chóilí in the Latin Quarter. Its walls are covered with framed photographs of celebrities who have come through its doors. And an impromptu trad session happens almost nightly. During the summer, come early in the evening as the pub can get unbelievably crowded. And it’s largely the same at Tigh Neachtain, which seems to always be soundtracked with live Irish folk music.
Once you’ve gotten to know the rich cultural layers of the city, commit a full day to exploring Galway’s surrounding countryside. “Ireland’s countryside is steeped in history and agrarian beauty,” said staffer Jeff, who just returned from a week in Ireland. “Everywhere you turn, there’s either a castle ruin or quaint country scene to catch your eye.” And it’s no different up in Galway, where lush farms are framed with rugged seaside cliffs. Everything is a picturesque, postcard-worthy photo op, especially if your travels bring you to Ireland in the summer.
We know how special a visit to untouched nature can be, and when you’re in Galway, you’re within striking distance of one of Ireland’s six national parks. One of the most beautiful places to see in Galway, Connemara National Park is 7,000 mostly unspoiled acres of jagged peaks, rolling hills, and spongy bogs. You might even come across wild ponies. And, to top it all off, Connemara is also a birding paradise. Whatever you spot, you’ll soak in all the beauty like traveler Karen did. “The multiple shades of greens, pinks and blues of Connemara were stunning,” she said. “Fog rolling over the mountains was breathtaking.”
Go Ahead staffer Jeff soaks up the sun on the Cliffs of Moher in 2022
Whether you’re on our Ireland: The Wild Atlantic Way tour or Ireland for Solo Travelers, most of our trips to the Emerald Isle include a visit to the mesmerizing natural wonder that is the Cliffs of Moher. This nearly 10-mile stretch of towering sea cliffs are captivating on their own, but to see the rushing waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against them is a spellbinding treat. No wonder it remains one of Ireland’s most popular travel attractions. “The Cliffs of Moher are a sight to behold, especially on a mild and sun-soaked day,” staffer Jeff said. “The awe-inspiring views made for a really special experience.”
On our Traditions of the Emerald Isle tour, a free day in Galway would be best spent joining the excursion to the mystical Aran Islands. A 45-minute ferry ride from Galway, these islands offer a glimpse into a stunningly preserved Gaelic way of living. In fact, the Irish who live on these remote islands speak Gaelic to this day. On Inis Mór, the largest of the islands, fortresses from the Bronze Age remain perched above ocean-facing cliffs. Walking on the island’s rugged terrain will transport you to a forgotten time, and it truly is one of the most special things to do in Galway.