Galway might be Ireland’s most charming city: compact, walkable and filled to the brim with independent shops and restaurants that walk the fine line between cool and kitsch. Cozy, old-fashioned pubs showcase the city’s ever-growing selection of craft beers, chefs serve up west-of-Ireland ingredients in creative new ways, and almost every building housing a modern cafe or new atelier has a centuries-old story behind it. It’s not a city in which to hustle; rather, it’s one in which to enjoy a locally brewed pint, relish the excellent seafood and get your fill of views of the rushing River Corrib as it sweeps out to Galway Bay.
1. GO TO CHURCH, 3:30 P.M.
Kick off a Galway visit with a dip into the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, which dates back to 1320 and is still used for Anglican services. The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Christopher Columbus worshiped here in 1477. Check out the smashed faces of the stone angels, damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in a bout of mid-17th-century vandalism, and note the lovely low Gothic arches. When services aren’t being held, the church is calm; on a recent visit, a solitary man was playing the organ to rows of empty pews.
2. COFFEE AND DESIGN, 4:30 P.M.
Coffeewerk+Press is at the forefront of Galway’s nascent coffee scene (Urban Grind, on William Street West, is also good). The multiconcept space opened in 2015, and its ground-floor cafe serves precisely made coffee from Denmark’s Coffee Collective (cappuccino, 3 euros, about $3.35). Up the stairs you’ll find a gallery displaying work by 40 international and local artists — you can buy postcards of their work in the cafe. A second floor hosts a design shop selling everything from colorful cups and saucers from Amsterdam-based Jansen+co to gorgeous modern tweed items by the Galway Tweed Project, which are good protection from the howling winds that come off the bay and are chic to boot.
3. FISH AND CHIPS, 6 P.M.
Opinions differ, passionately, as to where you’ll find the best fish and chips in Ireland, but McDonagh’s is a strong contender. Four generations have been serving fish and chips (€8.50) over the counter to customers who can sit down and dig in at the provided tables and benches. The adjoining restaurant opens at 5 p.m. and has a more formal atmosphere, plus an expanded menu of seafood, but it lacks the old-fashioned appeal of drizzling vinegar over crispy battered cod and a heaping helping of thick-cut chips and eating them with your hands.
4. PINTS IN A SNUG, 7:30 P.M.
Just up the street from McDonagh’s is Tigh Neachtain’s, one of the town’s best spots for happening upon a spontaneous traditional Irish music session. Crammed with snugs (small, partly closed-off sections) and warmed by open fires in the winter, this century-old pub is often standing room only, filled with people sampling one of the more than 100 whiskeys on offer. But that just adds to the cozy atmosphere engendered by the old enamel advertisements and shelves of books. The building itself was once the home of the Earl of Connemara, Richard Martin, known as Humanity Dick, one of the founders of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
5. BRUNCH, THEN HISTORY, 10 A.M.
Ard Bia is a well-established local favorite, and for very good reason. The unpretentious, much lauded restaurant takes full advantage of the bounty of local produce in Galway as well as its prime location. Try to get a seat by the window, which looks right out on the River Corrib. It’s got rustic-chic appeal, with simple wooden furniture, a good wine list and a short menu of homey dishes like avocado toast with poached egg and the quintessential Irish lunch: a ham and cheese toasted sandwich (here it’s made with baked ham and Gubbeen cheese from West Cork, with tomato relish). Brunch for two, around €25. From Ard Bia, step across the alley to the Galway City Museum (both are by the Spanish Arch, a part of Galway’s medieval city walls and a local landmark). The compact museum (free) features exhibits on Galway history, including a life-size Galway hooker fishing boat suspended from the ceiling.
6. NUNS ISLAND, 12:30 P.M.
The delightfully named Nuns Island is an easy walk over Bridge Street and home to quiet green spaces, as well as the Galway Cathedral (free). Built on the site of Galway Jail, sold to the Bishop of Galway for £10 in 1940, the stone building was dedicated in 1965, and its 144-foot-high octagonal green dome is a signature part of the Galway skyline. Inside, Romanesque arches and stained glass make this one of the more beautiful modern cathedrals.
7. LOCAL BREWS, 2:30 P.M.
Galway’s craft beer game is exceptional, even in a country where Guinness has in many pubs been displaced by microbrews. Stroll back into the city center by way of the Salthouse Bar, one of the pubs owned by Galway Bay Brewery, and the perfect place to sample a midafternoon pint or two. Try the brewery’s own maritime-themed beers like the Buried at Sea chocolate milk stout, or the Of Foam and Fury double IPA (pints around €5), or let the bartender pour you a few samples of craft beers from around the world and a draft of cask ale.
8. ON YOUR BIKE, 3:30 P.M. P.M.
A cycle down the “prom” (promenade) out to Salthill means taking in beautiful Irish coastal scenery: beaches strewn with seaweed and rocks, a lighthouse and gloriously big sky. Rent a black-and-red bike from one of the 16 Coca-Cola Zero stations scattered around the city center (€3.50 for three hours) and cruise your way west along the curve of Galway Bay toward Salthill, making sure to look out for the Aran Islands in the distance. The town of Salthill has become trendier recently, with a number of hip pubs, but if you decide to stick around until opening hour at 7:30 p.m., head to O’Connor’s. It dates to 1875 and though it seems custom made for tourists, this cramped, antiques-crowded space is patronized by locals and serves up an excellent pint of Galway Hooker (named after the boat, not the profession).
9. LOAM, 6:30 P.M.
Galway’s been building a reputation for imaginative cuisine that’s hyper-focused on local ingredients, thanks in no small part to Loam. It had been open only 10 months when it picked up a Michelin star in 2015, a testament to the detail-driven creativity of its chef, Enda McEvoy. The six-course tasting menu (€60) of deceptively simple dishes changes daily (they characterize their food as “obsessively seasonal”) but is always an amalgamation of west-of-Ireland products, from Connemara air-dried lamb to West Cork cheese. A recent meal included a savory broth of squid, shiitake and beach herbs, and hay-flavored ice cream.
10. GRAB BAG, 9 A.M.
One of the liveliest and most eclectic of Galway’s (and Ireland’s) night-life venues, the Roísín Dubh’s stage has been graced by everyone from Two Door Cinema Club to De La Soul — and that’s in addition to the comedy nights, open mikes, silent discos (a room full of headphone-wearing dancers bopping away to music only they can hear) and D.J.s spinning everything from indie to electro-pop. There’s also a rooftop terrace with city views. The cheerful, laid-back crowd is at least partly made up of some of Galway’s many university students. Saturday nights feature live music earlier on, then D.J.s and dancing until 2 a.m.
11. SHOP STREET, 10 A.M.
Do as the locals do and wander up and down the aptly named Shop Street. This, with the connecting High Street, is the liveliest part of the city, packed with shoppers even on inclement days. Stop by Lynch’s Castle, which dates back to the 14th century and displays beautiful gargoyles, stonework and coats of arms (the Lynches were one of the 14 Galway “tribes,” or merchant families, who effectively ruled the city in the early modern era). The building was restored in 1930 and is now an AIB bank. Up the street is Aunty Nellie’s Sweet Shop, where the shelves are lined with big jars of old-fashioned sweets. Pick up a handful of sherbet limes or rhubarb and custard bonbons (€1.40 for 100 grams) before strolling across the street to Cloon Keen Atelier. This boutique perfumery offers chic fragrances and candles, all made by hand in nearby Spiddal.
12. OYSTERS ON THE WEIR, 1 P.M.
Take a jaunt to Moran’s Oyster Cottage, an oversized, thatched-roof “cottage” that sits on the banks of the Dunkellin River and serves up succulent native oysters. A 25-minute drive southeast of the city center, this family-run restaurant serves Irish lobster, seafood chowder and legendary oysters, which are sourced from a nearby estuary and served on a bed of seaweed. Have a pre- or post-lunch drink in the tiny front bar, which doesn’t appear to have changed in a century. Lunch for two, around €60.