Tuesday 6 December 2016

The West's Awake - 10 great reasons to visit Galway this summer

Kaleidoscopic Galway

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

The docks in Galway.
The docks in Galway.
Bundee Aki... when he had his medal
Photo: Facebook.com/roisindubhgalway
Photo: Facebook.com/coffeewerkandpress
Valyssa Monterg ridden by Ruby Walsh go on to win the Ladbrokes Handicap Hurdle during day six of the Galway Festival at Galway Racecourse, Ballybrit
Galway City. Photo: Getty
Galway at dusk. Photo: Deposit
Salthill, Galway. Photo: Getty
Macnas in Galway. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Pól Ó Conghaile in Charlie Byrne's book shop.
Photo: Facebook.com/loamgalway
The statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire at Galway City Museum.

Pól Ó Conghaile has 10 great reasons to go west, from casual food to craft beers and Connacht rugby.

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Galway. Just say the word. See how people react.

This city is special. It’s like that album you listened to at a magical time in your life, a place that always seems special — weather, traffic and sprawling suburbs be damned.

Galway inspired Steve Earle to song. The New York Times said it may be our “most charming"city. When I tweeted for tips ahead of this feature, I received the most replies I’ve had to any tweet, ever... Galway mixes coastal flair, student swagger, continental confidence and hippie heart in one thrilling West of Ireland cocktail.

From bright potential to broken dreams, it’s the real deal.

1. Coffeewerk + press

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Photo: Facebook.com/coffeewerkandpress

It’s the coolest little coffee shop west of the Shannon... and so much more besides. Daniel Ulrichs’ café, gallery and design store, sandwiched between the kitschy shopfronts of Quay Street, is Galway in a nutshell. Purist-friendly, pick-me-up coffee catches your attention downstairs. A dilly of a design shop surprises on the first floor. It’s a perfect fit for Instagram, curated in a completely different way to the brilliantly cluttered Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop (charliebyrne.com), for example, but there’s substance behind the style — in everything from the Copenhagen Coffee Collective brews to beautiful ceramics, candles and specially-commissioned postcards (yes, postcards). Pop in for a nose; pop out with a new favourite shop.

Details: 4 Quay Street; facebook.com/coffeewerkandpress

2. Pádraic’s place

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Older visitors to Galway may remember the modest little statue of local writer, Pádraic Ó Conaire, that once sat in Eyre Square. Its head was knocked off by vandals in 1999, in a crime the presiding judge at a subsequent court case equalled “to the Mona Lisa being taken from the Louvre in Paris”. The statue (with head reattached, thankfully) now resides at Galway City Museum, although it has been as láthair of late, due to a cast being taken of it for a bronze replica — shortly to be unveiled in the square.

The little museum, tucked away behind the Spanish Arch, is the perfect spot to get your historical bearings. Exhibitions range from an actual Galway Hooker (the boat, that is) to the county’s links with the Great War and life in the medieval city. There are champion views over the River Corrib from the upper storeys, and its foodie pitstop, The Kitchen, is surprisingly good, too.

Details: galwaycitymuseum.ie; admission is free.

3. Saucy Salthill

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There’s a lot more to Salthill than the prom.

And in truth, institution  though the walk is (don’t forget to kick the  wall at the Blackrock end), the seafront isn’t a patch on what lies further along the Connemara coast.

My advice? Bring an appetite instead of  the bathing trunks, pop into the Gourmet Tart Company for Sunday brunch (blueberry buttermilk pancakes, anyone?), nab picknicky bits in Morton’s (“one of the most masterly examples of culinary editing in Ireland”, according to John and Sally McKenna’s Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way — guides.ie; €12), and grab a whiskey in O’Connor’s or a craft beer in Oslo, one of the Galway Bay Brewery’s expanding empire of pubs. Bliss.

Details: gourmettartco.com; oconnorsbar.com; galwaybaybrewery.com

4. Festival fever

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Every weekend feels like a festival in Galway. The city bid successfully to be European Capital of Culture 2020, and with shindigs including the Galway Races (galwayraces.com, above), Galway Arts Festival (July 11-24; giaf.ie), Galway Oyster Festival (September 23-25; galwayoysterfestival.com) and the ever-improving Galway Food Festival (Easter, galwayfoodfestival.com), you’d be a brave soul to bet against it. Remember that Galway is a pretty cosy city, so hotels, bars and restaurants fill up in jig time around festivals... there’s a little more elbow room on non-festival weekends, and often just as much fun.

Details: galwayfestivals.com

5. Connacht abú!

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John Muldoon & Bundee Aki. Photo: Sportsfile.

You couldn’t have made up Connacht’s 2015/16 season. Total rugby. Team spirit. Big scalps. Bundee Aki. Pro 12 Title. Bam! Of course, this overnight success was years in the making, with Pat Lam, his squad and backroom team getting up just as early for poor performances over the years. But the year of the underdog, and the team’s likeability, has turned the windswept Sportsground into a fortress — and an excellent excuse for a weekend in Galway. Toulouse and Wasps will be coming to town thanks to the Champions Cup next season... and that’s not even starting on John Muldoon’s beard.

Details: connachtrugby.ie

6. Tigh Neachtáin

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It’s the obvious choice for a pint and people-watching, and there’s a whiff of touristy shtick, but still. Hosting cosy conversations and barnstorming craic since 1894, there’s nowhere better for an old-school pint in Galway. Tigh Neachtáin’s isn’t a complete time warp, either. An exclusive range of Galway Hooker beers, a whack of whiskeys and a decent food menu (try the crusty Irish pastrami baguette, or the lamb and goat’s cheese burger at €10.95) complement the dyed-in-the-wool atmospherics nicely. Sláinte.

Details: 17 Cross St; tighneachtain.com

7. Ireland’s sweetest small city stroll

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You know the one. You start out towards Shop Street, making your way past institutions like McCambridge’s, easing down the lane by St Nicholas’s Church for a gander at the Saturday market. You mosey into the Latin Quarter, along High Street and Quay Street, smiling at landmarks like Ó Máille’s and Tig Cóilí. The streets get narrower and more psychedelically colourful as you go. Foodie aromas float about, from Sheridan’s cheese to McDonagh’s chips. It’s all pedestrianised, and you feel your pulse slowing with every step. By the time you reach the Corrib, you’re basically Galwegian yourself.

Details: See @galwaygaillimh and galwaytourism.ie for things to do.

8. From Michelin stars to McDonagh’s chips

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Loam, Galway. Photo: Facebook.com/Loamgalway

Food, glorious food. Galway now has two Michelin Star restaurants to its name (Aniar and Loam) — a situation that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. JP McMahon and Enda McAvoy’s concepts are two of the purest expressions of terroir you’ll find in Ireland, but it’s the casual end where things really click. Don’t let the rustic, laid-back settings of café-restaurants like Kai (kaicaferestaurant.com), Dela (dela.ie) or Ard Bia at Nimmo’s (ardbia.com) fool you. These specialise in ambition by stealth, with a grá for ingredients, a flair for flavour combinations and an appreciation for simplicity shining through in dishes like Kai’s Sea Road Fishfingers (hunks of pollock with buttermilk and panko crumbs, served with kohlrabi and cucumber salad at €12.50).

Cava Bodega (cavarestaurant.ie) is JP McMahon and Drigin Gaffey’s other masterpiece, a buzzy restaurant and tapas bar that evokes Galway’s ancient links with Spain in a space that somehow feels both timeless and bang on-trend (last time I was here, a Flamenco dancer hit the boards, and the salted cod cakes with lemon mayo were the devil). There’s lots of Twitter love for The Dough Bros (thedoughbros.ie) and An Púcán (anpucan.ie) — which I’ve chalked for the next visit — and, of course, the legendary McDonagh’s (mcdonaghs.net), where the late, great Paolo Tullio once found Ireland’s best bag of chips. Perhaps the best way to get your foodie bearings is by joining one of Sheena Dignam’s Around the Marketplace tours, a whistlestop, two-hour snack-fest ranging from sushi to oysters and sweet treats.

Details: aniarrestaurant.ie; loamgalway.com; galwayfoodtours.com

More: Galway's Orient Express: Inside Ireland's most unusual hotel restaurant

9. The G Spot

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It’s a love it or hate it kind of place. Or maybe love it or don’t get it is a better description. Entering the g hotel “is like walking on to a film set”, as its designer, Galway native Philip Tracey, once said. A film set overseen by Tim Burton and Sofia Coppola, maybe. Swirling carpets, Swarovski crystals and real, live Connemara sea horses are just the start of its Mad Hatter maximalism. Over a decade since its launch, the ground floor sequence of lounges remains one of the most impressive hotel set-pieces in Ireland.

Details: theghotel.ie; B&B plus dinner from €270 per room.

10. Róisín Dubh’s & Dominick Street

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Nightcap, folks? One of the greatest gigs of my life was in Roisín Dubh’s. I dread to think how long ago it was, but Canadian post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor were in town, and I got so close, I could rest my pint on the guitarist’s Fender Twin. Sometimes magic, sometimes messy, summer listings range from silent discos to Mmoths and Mary Coughlan — not on the same bill, mind. After a craft beer at The Salt House nearby, and perhaps a bite on Lower Dominick Street, end your night in the lap of the Galway gods.

Details: roisindubh.net

More: Ireland's funniest signs!

Where to stay

Nox (noxhotelgalway.ie) has a ‘Date Night’ package including B&B, a cocktail and 3-course dinner from €129pp. The Heron’s Rest (theheronsrest.com) is a chic guesthouse on the Long Walk. B&B from €80pp, which is worth it for the slap-up, gourmet breakfast alone.

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