Galway might be a bit overrun with stag and bachelorette parties, but scratch under the surface and the “City of Tribes” is a great place for food, drink, and cool things to do.
A Short History
Galway holds a strategic location because of its port on the western shore of Ireland. Originally, in 1124 CE, a fort called Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (‘Fort at the Mouth of the Gaillimh’) was built here.
In 1232, Galway was captured by Richard Mor de Burgh. This was significant because the Richard and rest of the Burghs were Norman, not Irish. The Burghs ruled Galway, and expanded it significantly during their century long tenure.
Then, for the next 300 years, Galway was ruled by the Tribes of Galway, 14 merchant families. 12 of these families were, again, Norman, while only two were Irish. This Norman rule put Galway in sharp contrast to its Gaelic neighbors. In fact, laws were passed discriminating against Irish people in Galway.
Though Galway was largely loyal to England (because Normans) during this time, things came to a head during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, and Galway took the side of the Confederates (Irish Rebels). Then, 50 years later, Galway sided with the losing Jacobites and slid into decline for the next 300 years.
Galway survived the Irish War of Independence with the British planting a main headquarters in the city.
Today, Galway thrives as a hot tourist destination for Irish, English, Europeans, and North Americans.
Sausage Rolls are popular throughout the U.K. and Ireland. They consist of puff pastry wrapped around a pork sausage. Simple really. So simple in fact that no one knows exactly when they were “invented.”
But, by the mid 19th century, sausage rolls were definitely a part of the diet of the Irish and the English. One newspaper story in the 1894 talks about how a Sausage Roll maker in London would soak Brown Bread (see below) in a mixture of red clay (dirt), salt, and pepper, wrap the now Red Bread in puff pastry, and pass it off as a Sausage Roll. Yuck!
Today, of course, no one would try such a thing (we hope).
While you can get Sausage Rolls everywhere in Galway from restaurants to bakeries to gas stations, vegan Sausage Rolls are a little more difficult to find.
Ground & Co. makes an outstanding vegan Sausage Roll, though. What makes theirs so good is the puff pastry has notches cut in it allowing it to get even more crispy (bonus!). This also prevents the puff pastry from getting soggy or having the layers collapse on each other. Very good!
Brown Bread is a kind of soda bread, a simple loaf made with flour (all purpose and whole wheat), salt, baking soda, rolled oats, and buttermilk. What sets Brown Bread apart from soda bread is the addition of molasses for sweetness and color.
You can get Brown Bread all over Galway, all over Ireland, in fact. Murphy’s even makes an ice cream with bits of Brown Bread in it. My favorite way to enjoy Brown Bread is with a pint of Guinness. Brown Bread slathered with butter and a pint, now that’s living!
Most bars and restaurants will have Brown Bread with Ard Bia at Nimmos having some of the best.
When you start to see items like Goat’s Cheese Brioche with Toasted Pistachio, Peach and Prosecco Purée (Busker Brownes) you realize that Galway has ventured out of bland pub grub.
Many places in Galway are calling themselves Gastropubs, but my favorite of the bunch is John Keogh’s. In the slightly less touristy and definitely less rowdy West End, John Keogh’s Gastropub has certainly raised the bar when it comes to their menu.
I really like some of their soups, they change often, if not daily, especially the butternut squash. The soup is served with a multi-seed soda bread that is simply divine, Their desserts are also outstanding.
Drinking in Galway
Alright, get your mind out of the gutter. A Galway Hooker is a kind of fishing boat. So, a local microbrewery took the name when they started selling beer in 2006.
If you’re looking for a local, you can’t go wrong with Galway Hooker. Several of their brews have won awards including the Irish Pale Ale. Galway Hooker coined the term Irish Pale Ale. Their flagship ale is a sort of combination of an American Pale Ale and an Irish Red with caramel notes. It’s quite good and the Cascade hops are definitely not overdone.
The Galway Hooker lager is also nice and, this being Ireland, they also brew a very good stout. Galway Hooker is served in pubs all over the city.
Bars in Galway
Whether you’re looking for a stout, a shot of whiskey or an Irish coffee, there’s tons of places in Galway to get sip or two. Many of the classic places are in the center of town where tourists mingle with locals. And, these places can get quite rowdy, especially on the weekend when they’re often overrun with out-of-town stag and bachelorette parties. However, if you get out of the city center into the West End of Galway, you’ll see mostly Galwegians.
Cooke’s Thatch Bar
Hands down, my favorite drinking establishment in Galway. It’s not for the selection of beer, which is rather small. Nor is it for the decor which is plain. But, the atmosphere can’t be beat.
Cooke’s is a local’s place to be sure. Oftentimes, folks will sit and sing traditional Irish songs (and some pop songs, too). Mind you, these aren’t professionals, just some customers having a good time. One older gentleman might start singing a tune and if the others nearby like it, they’ll join in. If they don’t like it, the song peters out or the others might berate the singer’s daft musical choice. Quite entertaining.
Cooke’s also has more organized Trad music sessions on Wednesday nights.
Ireland has been about Guinness, and to a lesser extent Smithwick’s and Murphy’s and Beamish, for centuries. But recently, craft beer has entered the Irish scene.
Bierhaus, just a short walk from Cooke’s Thatch Bar, has been pouring craft beer longer than about anyone in Galway. They’ve got about 2 dozen taps with all different styles of brew for every palate. Certainly far more hipsters in Bierhaus than Cooke’s, but if you’re looking for that hoppy IPA or malty Porter, this is the place to be.
The King’s Head
In the Latin Quarter of Galway is an historic tavern called The King’s Head. The building holds a fascinating history dating back 800 years. Even today, Medieval artifacts are being uncovered at The King’s Head.
The bar itself covers three floors and several drinking and dining areas as well as a stage that supports live music.
The King’s Head serves local microbrew Galway Hooker.
Galway Hooker also brews a beer specifically for the bar; The King’s Head Blood Red Ale. It’s a traditional Irish Red that has more pronounced hops than the Galway Hooker Irish Pale Ale.
Sonny Molloy’s might have the best selection of Whiskey in town. And, if you’ve got deep pockets, they have a collection of premium whiskeys that can set you back over 1,000€ (!). Nice atmosphere in a very busy part of town.
Things to do in Galway
Galway Food Tour
This is one of my favorite food tours ever. Not only do you get a lot of great food (chocolate, cheese, beer, whiskey, and so much more!) but the guides are top-notch.
My recommendation is to take the Galway Food Tour on your very first day in the city. Ask questions and get recommendations from your guide. You may even get good ones from other tour customers. I guarantee you’ll get some ideas for places that aren’t on your list of things to do or places to eat in Galway…yet.
St. Nicholas Market
Every town has a farmers market these days. But, I gotta say, I really like the St. Nicholas Market in Galway. Sure, there’s vendors selling organic produce and flowers. There’s also buckets of freshly brined olives and ceramics. But, you’ll also see a guy making fresh donuts. Get one straight out of the fryer! And, there’s even a stall selling “Freshly Caught Fairies.” Don’t ever change, Galway.
Back in Medieval times, there was a green space outside with city wall of Galway where a market was held. This space became known as Eyre Square when the Mayor of Galway, Edward Eyre, formally presented the land to the city in 1710.
On June 29th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the square. It was renamed John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in 1965 to honor the slain President. However, most Galwegians still refer to the space as Eyre Square.
The green space is nice because it’s centrally located, has several benches and trees for shade on the few sunny days in Galway. It’s also a great spot for meeting friends or a picnic. Pick up provisions at McCambridge’s, just a 3 minute walk from the square.
McCambridge’s has snacks like chips and sweets, but they also have a great little deli with lots of sandwiches including some vegan options that have saved me on more than one occasion. Plus, McCambridge’s sells my favorite Irish whiskey, Slane. They’ve got all sizes of bottles, including little nips you can fit in your carry-on (Score!).
Yes, Galway has a beach, But, don’t get carried away. You’re in Ireland, not the Caribbean.
The highlight is the 2 kilometer promenade (aka The Prom) that follows the waterfront. There are several restaurants along The Prom, small sandy beaches, and rocky tidewater areas. There’s also a couple hotels and a sad little amusement park.
It is quite enjoyable to walk along The Prom, take some pictures (there’s a lighthouse in the distance) and people watch. Also, there’s a great little coffee shop along The Prom called Ground & Co. They’ve got good coffee and the best vegan Sausage Rolls in Galway.
Constructed in 1584, the Spanish Arch (2 arches, actually) was intended as protection for Galway’s Quays (docks) along the Corrib River waterfront. Interestingly, the arches were partially destroyed by a tsunami caused by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, 1,000 miles away.
The area was expanded in the 18th century and now includes an are called “The Long Walk,” which is only about 1 kilometer and, therefore, not long at all.
The Arch itself is a major tourist attraction in Galway, not so much for the arch itself, but for the atmosphere around the Quay and The Long Walk. It’s nice to stroll the area and maybe stop for a drink if the weather is nice.
Shops all over Galway sell Claddagh rings. These rings show love, loyalty, and friendship with a heart surrounded by two hands and topped with a crown. The origin of the Claddagh ring isn’t clear, but the best story is the one that involves Richard Joyce. The Joyce’s were one of the original 14 Tribes of Galway so it was an outrage when Joyce was enslaved by Algerian pirates around 1675. Joyce’s master was a goldsmith and he learned the trade in Tangiers.
In 1689, Joyce was released by decree of the English King and returned to his home in Galway where he is said to have invented the Claddagh ring.
Tons of shops sell Claddagh Rings. If you’re just looking for a memento of your trip, you should pay well under 50 Euro for your ring. If you’re looking for a piece of fine jewelry, expect to pay much, much more.
Just a 15 minute drive from Galway is the abandoned Menlo Castle. You could also walk to the sight, but that would take at least an hour.
The castle was built in the mid 16th century along the River Corrib. It was originally occupied by Thomas Colman but shortly thereafter, the Blake family (the Blakes were one of the original 14 Tribes of Galway) acquired the castle and lived there for several generations. Then, in 1910 a fire swept through the castle while Sir Valentine Blake and Lady Blake were away in Dublin. Their disabled daughter, Eleanor, was killed and her body was never recovered. The Blakes left the castle, never to live there again.
The Galway City Council obtained the castle and property in 2000 yet it was left to rot and ivy grew up the outside walls of the castle.
Recently, construction fencing was placed around the castle, preventing visitors from going inside the crumbling ruins. There’s also a gate at the entrance of the property but many people ignore it and walk around or hop the gate.
The entire castle used to be covered in ivy, but recently many of the vines were cut back (by the construction company?) and now little ivy remains. However, ivy is relentless, and if they don’t stay on top of it, the vines will soon take over again.
Still, ivy or not, it is an awe inspiring sight and well worth a visit. There are no facilities on site, but if you bring food and a blanket it would be a nice spot to picnic along the river.
Dublin is less than 3 hours by train, bus, or car. The train is a bit faster, the bus is cheaper. Dublin certainly deserves more than a single day and we’ve written a comprehensive Foodie Travel Guide to the city.
If Galway is the party city and Dublin is the monied high tech city, Cork is the blue collar working class city. About 3 hours by bus, Cork is a great city for beer (Beamish and Murphy’s are brewed here) and has a couple great veg/vegan spots. We’ve written a full Foodie Travel Guide to the city.
There is no airport serving passengers in Galway. You’ll need to arrive by rail, bus, or car. It’s less than 3 hours to Galway from Cork (by bus) or Dublin (bus or train). The Galway bus and train stations are both convenient and near the center of town.
Bus Éireann operates the local bus service in Galway. Many buses originate at Eyre Square.
There is currently no Uber service in Ireland. There is an app called Free Now that will summon a taxi for you on your phone.
TFI Bikes has dozens of bike racks around Galway. Rentals are inexpensive but you need to buy a subscription plan. The 3 day pass is best for visitors.
Index of things to do in Galway
Excellent food tour.
Galway’s green space in the middle of town. Great spot to people watch or have a picnic.
Seaside promenade with a beach, restaurants, and a sad amusement park.
Galway’s massive Renaissance style cathedral has been called a monstrosity. You decide.
16th century historical arch is an extension of an earlier Medieval Norman arch.
Statue of Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde
Speculative statue of a meeting between the Estonian and Irish writers.
Evocative Victorian Cemetery
See the city by boat.
Abandoned 15th century castle ruins a short drive from Galway.
Index of places to eat & drink in Galway
Quintessential local’s pub.
Excellent craft beer bar.
Iconic bar. Galway Hooker makes a special brew for King’s Head.
Bar with an incredible whiskey selection.
Famous pub with great live music.
Excellent deli and gourmet food shop. Vegan sandwiches in the deli.
Galway institution. Lots of veg. options.
Pizza place with lots of veg. options including vegan cheese.
Great little coffee shop with vegan Sausage Rolls
Index of shopping in Galway
Excellent deli and gourmet food shop. Vegan sandwiches in the deli.
Top notch weekend market.
Eco store selling bulk items with minimal packaging.
French-style chocolates with many vegan options.
Index of places to stay in Galway
Newly renovated B&B in the less busy West End.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Dublin and Cork. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.