Things to Do in Western Ireland
Set off Ireland’s craggy, wind-battered Atlantic coast on the western edge of Europe, this trio of sparsely populated and starkly beautiful islands is a stronghold of traditional Irish culture. The Aran Islands’ jagged coastal cliffs enclose a patchwork of green fields, where the remnants of ancient stone forts and medieval churches can be seen, while in their one- and two-pub towns, locals trade gossip in Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) and traditional music sessions last well into the night.
Covering an area of more than 115 square miles (300 square kilometers), the Burren is a vast, otherworldly expanse of scarred and fissured limestone rock, naturally sculpted through acidic erosion. Though it may look barren from afar, this rocky plateau is anything but lifeless. In spring and summer, wildflowers and rare plants thrive here.
Zigzagging along Ireland’s west coast, the 2,175-mile (3,500-kilometer) Wild Atlantic Way driving route shows off some of the country’s most thrilling coastal scenery. From the wave-battered sea cliffs of Slieve League and Moher to edge-of-the-world archipelagos such as the Skelligs and the Aran Islands, this route is a visual feast.
Sitting on an outcrop jutting into Galway Bay, the 16th-century Dunguaire Castle appears like a fairy-tale vision to drivers traversing the coastal road, prompting many to pull over and reach for a camera. The site housed prominent local clans for centuries before famous Irish surgeon, poet, and playwright Oliver St. John Gogarty bought it in 1924. He then turned it into a hangout for Ireland’s literary elite, including Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, Seán O'Casey, and George Bernard Shaw. Today, most travelers admire the castle from afar, though some do venture inside.
Flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland’s west coast, Galway Bay laps the shores of some of the country’s most picturesque stretches of coastline. With the three windswept Aran Islands at its periphery, the bay meets land at the artsy city of Galway and numerous fishing villages, coastal cliffs, and beaches.
Standing along the edge of Kylemore Lake, the neo-Gothic Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden is every inch a storybook castle. Built in 1868, the abbey’s construction employed grateful locals still reeling from the Irish Potato Famine. Today, the resident Benedictine nuns welcome the public into parts of the abbey and the grounds.
While Ireland’s weather is famously cool, it isn’t the temperature that will give you chills when visiting Clonmacnoise. Rather, it’s the 1,500 years of monastic history that’s powerfully felt in these ruins—where temples, cathedrals, home sites, and graveyards have withstood the elements for centuries. Originally founded in the 6th century, this stone village along the River Shannon prospered for a time as Christian monastery in Ireland’s central plains. Years of outside siege, however, would leave the settlement in ruins, and even though it now sits empty and is a shell of its former self, the stone towers and towering crosses can still move people today. When visiting the ruins at Clonmacnoise, silently stroll past one of the largest collection of Christian gravestones in Europe. Gaze upwards at the brown sandstone that forms the Cathedral’s north wall—a piece of architecture that astoundingly dates to the early part of the 8th century. Once finished wandering the grounds and admiring the 12th-century churches, head inside the Clonmacnoise Museum for its collection of preserved Celtic crosses. Standing over 12 feet in height, the Cross of the Scriptures and the South Cross are both intricately carved, and are some of Ireland’s most famous examples of traditional high Irish crosses.
Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus) is the most-visited of several prehistoric forts around the Aran Islands, which lie west of Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and named after a mythical Irish king and pre-Christian god, the semi-circular stone fort dates back to the Bronze Age and offers insight into ancient Ireland.
Covering 69 square miles, Lough Corrib is the biggest lake in Ireland and a famous fishing spot that’s well-known for its wild brown trout and salmon. Practically cutting off western Galway from the rest of the country, the lake has inspired artists and writers for centuries, and in 1867, Oscar Wilde’s father, the historian William Wilde, wrote a book about Lough Corrib.
Straddling counties Galway and Mayo, Lough Corrib is a Special Area of Conservation. Since surveys began in 2007, objects that have been discovered in its waters include dugout canoes from the Bronze and Iron Age, a 40th-foot longboat that’s 4,500 years old, and a 10th century ship that was found carrying 3 Viking battleaxes.
365 islands dot the lake, the most famous of which is Inchagoill Island. Known for its secluded beaches and woodland, from Inchagoill you can look out to the Connemara mountains and visit the island’s ancient remains, which include the ruins of a 5th century monastery.
The village of Cong, located on the border of County Galway and County Mayo, in western Ireland, is known for its thatched-roof cottages and its connection to John Wayne’s Oscar-winning film The Quiet Man. The ruins of Cong Abbey, which date back to the 13th century, are a popular sight and a lovely spot for a stroll.
More Things to Do in Western Ireland
Located on the wave-beaten western edge of Ireland, this former fisherman’s village is known for its traditional Irish music scene. Every night, patrons squeeze into a trio of popular pubs to listen to fiddlers, singers, flutists, tin whistlers, and bodhrán (a traditional Irish drum) players take part in toe-tapping jam sessions.
Even though it’s only seven miles long, Clifden’s Sky Road feels like a journey through all of Connemara and time. When driving this winding, rural road, views look down on the town of Clifden and its two iconic spires—which is a view you’re sure to see on any postcard of Western Ireland or Connemara. Behind the town are the 12 Bens hills, standing brown, rugged, and proud, and as the drive loops around away from town, views stretch out to the offshore islands and the open Atlantic Sea. Aside from the sweeping landscape views, ancient castles and historic mansions are around every bend in the road. At the 19th century Clifden Castle—built in a Gothic style—visitors can walk the dirt road that leads right up to the castle. Another stroll is up Memorial Hill and offers famous view of Clifden, and by turning uphill at the fork in the road, the drive climbs past the old Coast Guard station to 500 feet above sea level. There is a small parking lot near the road’s summit, where whitewashed cottages appear as flecks on the misty, wave battered coast. The Sky Road has often been called one of Ireland’s most scenic drives, and seeing as it’s just a short loop from Clifden, is an Irish road trip that any Connemara visitor with a car can enjoy.
The Burren area of County Clare offers more questions than answers. It’s a vast countryside of karst limestone and millennia of human existence, and a place that leaves you shaking your head at the mysteries it holds inside. At a place like ancient Poulnabrone Dolmen (also known as the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb for the two thin, vertical portal stones that support its 12-foot capstone) the first question that arises is how it was built in the first place. Dating to Ireland’s Neolithic period, the dolmen structure is estimated to be over 5,000 years old. When the area was excavated in 1985 to repair a crack in a stone, the remains of over 25 people—including adults, children, and an infant—were found buried by the Poulnabrone Dolmen, and along with items such as a stone axe and bone pendants, helped to date the portal tomb to around 3,600 BC. Today, when visiting this mystical and ancient site in the fields of County Clare, there’s a profound sense of historical unknown that’s held in the silence of the stones.
Set among green pastures, this 15th-century stone complex—once the home of Franciscan friars—now lies in ruins, peaceful and eerily empty, with tombstones dotted throughout the site. Inside, visitors can explore the roofless remains, including the church, cloister, kitchen area, and living quarters.
This museum focuses on the history of Galway, with exhibitions covering everything from the traditional Galway hooker boat to local literary figures. Among the items in the collection are prehistoric stone ax-heads, a medieval cannonball, and an execution warrant for Myles Joyce, a local who was wrongfully hanged for murder in 1882.
Imagine a village where the town soundtrack is the symphony of creaking dock lines, and every day is sweetly punctuated by the smell of salt on the breeze. A place where the docks are energized each morning by fishermen unloading their catch — which will invariably end up in a dimly lit pub as the afternoon fish and chips. Here in the town of Roundstone Harbor between the cities of Galway and Clifden, everyday life is the main attraction in this sleepy town by the coast. Aside from the refreshing natural beauty that’s intrinsic to small Irish towns, Roundstone is known for its artisan community of sculptures, painters, and jewelers. Given the gorgeous natural seascape and mountains that loom behind town, it’s no surprise that the coastal village is a source of creative inspiration. Between the clouds lingering over Inishnee island across the calm gray waters, and the red of trawlers bobbing on the tide that laps the emerald green shore, when taking a stroll through Roundstone Harbor, it’s almost as if you’ve entered one of the paintings that line the shops on shore.
Constructed in the 1960s, Galway Cathedral is among the youngest cathedrals in Ireland and one of Europe’s youngest stone cathedrals. While it’s a relatively modern build, the cathedral borrows elements from architectural eras past, with Renaissance, Romanesque, and Gothic detailing combined with Irish artwork and adornments.
Dunguaire Castle’s Medieval Banquet offers an evening of music and storytelling along with traditional food and wine. Once the home of noble medieval lords, the 500-year-old castle sits on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay. Today, the picturesque fortress’s medieval-themed banquet hall is the place to go for a fun night of revelry.
Westport House and Pirate Adventure Park make for an engaging day out for visitors of all ages. Wander more than 30 rooms in the 18th-century house, while learning the story of its owners and connection to Grace O’Malley, the famed pirate queen. Then, head over to the theme park for a ride on the swinging pirate ship or mini Ferris wheel.
Sandy beaches and a windswept coastline draw travelers to Salthill, one of Ireland’s popular seaside resorts located on the cusp of Galway Bay. A two-kilometer seafront promenade with panoramic views is home to bars, restaurants, and hotels. The summer months draw locals and international travelers alike for swimming, sunbathing, boating, and snorkeling.
A Galway landmark on the banks of the River Corrib, the Spanish Arch is the remains of a late 16th century bastion designed to protect the city. Located in the heart of Galway, the Spanish Arch is a short walk from other city landmarks including the Claddagh and the Galway City Museum.
The largest aquarium in Ireland is not in the capital city of Dublin, but along the west coast in Galway. Saltwater and freshwater species inhabit the tanks at Galway Atlantaquaria including seahorses, stingrays, eels, sharks, and a white skate nicknamed ‘Valentine’. One of the most popular exhibits is an enormous skeleton of a Fin Whale.
Dating back hundreds of thousands of years, the Doolin Cave sits within Ireland’s Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark. The main attraction is the 24-foot-long (7.3-meter-long) Great Stalactite, one of the world’s largest free-hanging stalactites. Besides cave tours, there’s a farmland nature trail, a café, and a gift shop.
Said to be one of Ireland’s most beautiful estates, Westport House and Gardens is a heritage attraction on the country’s west coast. With more than 30 rooms open to the public, the 18th-century home offers guided tours telling the story of its owners and connection to Grace O’Malley, the famed pirate queen.
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