Galway tour guide Shane Spelman is the go-to guy if you want to make the most of your visit to Ireland’s liveliest city. Here are his picks of the top attractions, things to do and the best pubs, restaurants and hotels.
As a Galway born and bred tour guide, it’s always nice when a client fires a compliment my way after I’ve shown them around the city I’m proud to call home.
The weirdest compliment I ever received in my 25 years in the tourism business came from a Texan in cowboy boots and a Stetson. As he was six-foot-six, I would have accepted an insult just as graciously.
I was telling my group of American visitors how the Spanish Arch was partially destroyed by a tsunami in 1755 when yer man looked up from his phone and drawled: “I’ve googled what that little guy just said, and my God, he ain’t lyin’.”
It would be easy to lie and make things up for a laugh, but in Galway, the facts never get in the way of a good story.
When I left school, I thought I had learned all the facts from my teachers. It was only when I went to NUIG to study history and archaeology that I discovered I knew only the basics. I soaked up every fascinating piece of information about my City of the Tribes and, indeed, about Ireland, and couldn’t wait to share it all when I graduated. That’s why I became a Fáilte Ireland approved national guide.
It’s my dream job because history is my passion and I love telling stories (my wife says I didn’t just kiss the Blarney Stone, I took a bite out of it). For me, living and working in the liveliest and loveliest city on this island of ours is the icing on the cake.
So, what are the attractions and activities that make Galway so enjoyable for visitors? The list is long, but here are just a few of the highlights.
1. The Spanish Arch
Before you leave Quay Street, have a look at the mural on the wall of Claddagh and Celtic Jewellery (1 Quay Lane), which depicts the Claddagh fishwives selling the catch at the Spanish Arch. The arch, which was completed in 1584, is the perfect starting point for exploring the West End, Claddagh and the waterways. When the tide is high and the weather fair, you can sit and admire the graceful Galway hookers under sail.
2. Eyre Square
In the square, which has always played a major role in the city’s development and was the main entry point to the walled medieval town, you’ll find the Browne Doorway. This Renaissance former entrance bay to the Browne house (1627) was removed from its original location in 1905 to form a free-standing architectural feature in the square. You’ll also find the John F Kennedy bust on the spot from which the US president addressed the people of Galway on June 29, 1963. The bronze statue of Galway-born writer Pádraic Ó Conaire is a replica of the limestone one that stood (or rather sat) here for decades but was removed after being decapitated. The stones that surround the statue come from Ros Muc in Connemara, where Ó Conaire was raised by relatives after the deaths of his parents.
3. Cathedral and University
The cathedral stands on the site of the old gaol and deserves an hour with a full visual display to self-guide yourself around this majestic building. A five-minute walk from here is the university, one of three established under royal charter in the mid-19th century. Children especially will enjoy a look around the museum across the green.
4. Galway City Museum
Perfect for all ages, with interactive maps and exhibitions over three floors. Filling the atrium is a Galway hooker suspended from the ceiling and in full sail. Artefacts dating from the Neolithic age and found locally are on permanent display. (Spanish Parade, galwaycitymuseum.ie)
5. St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church
Ireland’s largest medieval parish church was built in 1320 and is steeped in local and international history. There’s a lot to see, and if you time your visit right, you might catch a recital. (Corner of Mainguard and Lombard Streets, stnicholas.ie)
6. Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold
The original makers of the Claddagh Ring (since 1750), this quaint jeweller’s shop, which is the oldest in Ireland, has a small museum in the back that tells the story of one of the world’s most iconic items of jewellery. (1 Quay Street, claddaghring.ie)
7. Lynch’s Castle
Once home to one of the original 14 tribes of Galway, the Lynches, it’s now an AIB branch, but you’re welcome to walk in and see the original fireplace and the famous map of 1651. (40 Shop Street)
8. Boat Tours
See the city from a different perspective with a boat tour around the inner bay with skipper and guide Ciaran Oliver. It’s great fun. Foodies will love the optional add-on of visiting the Dockside Deli, run by Galway Bay Seafoods. (galwaybaytours.com)
9. Cliffs of Moher and Aran Islands cruise
This new day trip service, departing from Galway Docks, is an exciting addition to Galway’s tourist attractions. (aranislandsferries.com)
10. Galway Market
Everyone who spends a weekend in Galway ends up strolling around the open-air market in Church Lane and grabbing a snack from one of the many food stalls. Top tip: the pea and potato curry from Bean Tree, which specialises in vegan and vegetarian dishes, is phenomenal. (galwaymarket.com)
*To book your walking tour with Shane, see galwaycitytours.ie
11. Murty Rabbitt’s
Established by the Rabbitt family in 1872, this hugely popular pub close to Eyre Square serves lovely creamy pints and good food and is a delight at night when the atmosphere is buzzing. The staff are dotes and the beer garden is a beaut. 23 Forster Street
A magnet for locals and visitors, this is where Ed Sheeran filmed his Galway Girl video with Saoirse Ronan. Step through the main door and you’re in a Victorian bar; venture further and you’re in the big beer garden, where pizzas are served by the lads at Dough Bros. Al fresco pints and pizzas – a winning combination. 8 Eyre Square
13. McGinn’s Hop House
Craft and draught beers galore, plus breakfast, lunch and dinner menus with generous servings. They’re mad for all live sports at McGinn’s, which is Galway’s Glasgow Celtic HQ. 19 Woodquay
The Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year 2017 is a favourite stop and one of the most photographed on my Pub and Grub tour. The perfect spot to grab a pint and sit outside or in one of the many cosy snugs inside. 46 William Street
15. Taylor’s Bar & Beer Garden
This dog-friendly traditional pub with a huge sun-trap beer garden out the back is easy to love and hard to leave. Of all the bars I take visitors to, this is the one they rave about most (if I’m missing someone at the end of a walking tour, I usually retrace my steps and find them chatting away or watching a match on the TV in Taylor’s). 7 Dominick Street Upper
16. The Crane Bar
A truly traditional pub with an intimate and relaxed atmosphere where musicians and visitors gather for memorable sessions. No food, just great music and good company. 2 Sea Road
17. Monroe’s Tavern
A family-run vibrant bar and restaurant that serves food all day and attracts the most talented local and visiting musicians. A great spot to enjoy a gig and round off a night out in the West End. 14 Dominick Street Upper
18. Tig Cóilí
Royal toes were tapping when Prince William and his wife Kate popped in for a pint with the musicians during their visit to Galway in March last year. Tig Cóilí, with its distinctive fire engine red facade, is a magnet for trad music lovers and enjoys an enviable international reputation. 24 Mainguard Street
19. The Dew Drop Inn
A great place to meet up and try some craft beers before hitting the town. Often described as Galway’s cosiest pub, it’s part of the Galway Bay Brewery stable, which includes Dublin’s Against The Grain (Camden Street) and The Brew Dock (Busaras). 12 Mainguard Street
20. Taaffes Bar
Traditional pub that’s as well-known for its welcoming and friendly staff as it is for its live music. Simple and satisfying food complements a feelgood atmosphere where GAA is invariably the topic of conversation. 19 Shop Street
If you want to take a break from sightseeing and indulge in nothing more than a pint and a look at the horse racing on TV, you’ll find like-minded souls in Freeney’s (19 High Street), which has a huge selection of whiskeys, and Murphy’s (9 High Street).
I slaver at the thought of the ham hock terrine and lamb shank. Cooke’s retains all of the building’s medieval charm and is a great choice for small groups and couples. 28 Abbeygate Street, cookes.ie
22. The King’s Head Bar & Bistro
The website says “if it’s fresh, local and seasonal, it goes on the menu”. I can vouch for that. Everything, including the soda bread, is made each day from scratch (the chunky wild Atlantic seafood chowder is the biggest seller), and customers who pop in for a full Irish often return for dinner. A great place to eat. 15 High Street, thekingshead.ie
Fabulous, generous and reasonably-priced Italian dishes from talented chef Andre (the craft beer selection isn’t bad either). Very popular with locals and visitors. 16/18 Eglinton Street, zappisgalway.ie
24. Cava Bodega
A taste of Spain in Galway. There’s a huge selection of tapas (70 at the last count) and Spanish wines galore to accompany them, plus innovative fish and meat dishes (the pork belly is sensational). Cava Bodega is small, so reservations are a must. 1 Middle Street, cavarestaurant.ie
25. Il Vicolo
I get nothing but positive feedback every time I recommend this riverside Italian restaurant. The setting, menu and exclusively Italian wine list are first-class and were much-missed when the doors were closed. The Bridge Mills, Dominick Street Lower, ilvicolo.ie
Serving fish and chips to beat the band since 1902. A Galway institution. 22 Quay Street, mcdonaghs.net
27. Handsome Burger
Best pals Rory McCormack and Cathal O’Connor started selling burgers at markets. Four years after investing €350 each in their start-up, they have restaurants in Galway and Athlone. Oh, and their beef burger was named the best in Ireland in 2019. 49 Dominick Street Lower, handsomeburger.com
28. The Lighthouse Café
Lovely little place serving home bakes and vegetarian lunches. Daily specials sell out rapidly. 8 Abbeygate Street Upper, @lighthousecafegalway
29. Kinlay Hostel
Recently renovated and rated “superb” by Hostelworld, this modern, award- winning hostel is a couple of minutes’ walk from the train and Bus Éireann stations. Loads of accommodation options and complimentary continental breakfast. Merchants Road, Eyre Square, kinlaygalway.ie
30. Imperial Hotel
Comfortable, reasonably- priced and centrally-located hotel that’s ideal for a short break. There’s a full day and evening menu, and locals say the daily carvery is the best in Galway. Eyre Square, imperialhotelgalway.ie
31. Harbour Hotel
A few minutes’ walk from the city centre yet in a quiet location, this stylish hotel with a renowned restaurant and lively bar frequently offers great-value deals. New Dock Street, harbour.ie
32. The Hardiman
The 4-star Hardiman (formerly the Meyrick) has been a Galway landmark for nearly 170 years. Overlooking Eyre Square, it oozes character and Victorian charm, and its Gaslight Brasserie is top-notch. Eyre Square, thehardiman.ie
33. House Hotel
Chic boutique hotel with a glamorous and hugely popular cocktail bar, The Yard, that’s attracting a lot of attention. Spanish Parade, thehousehotel.ie