With its tangled lanes lined with colorful shopfronts curving around Galway Bay, compact Galway is one of Ireland's most picturesque cities. Bolstered by an energetic student population, it's also one of the island's most vibrant, with musicians striking up in its atmospheric pubs and busking on its streets, a seafood-driven culinary scene, a jam-packed calendar of events and a bohemian soul.

Recently bestowed the honor of European Capital of Culture 2020, here’s what gives Galway its glory.

Irish musicians playing at Galway Street, busking
Buskers add life and energy to the streets of Galway © jon chica parada / Getty

Living history

Situated at the mouth of the River Corrib, Galway (Gaillimh in Irish) started out life as a fishing village, Claddagh, and really took off in the 13th century when it came under the Anglo-Norman rule of Richard Óg de Burgh (aka the Red Earl) and its city walls were constructed. It's likely the Spanish Arch, which protected moored merchant ships from Spain, is a remnant of the medieval walls. Another surviving portion has been incorporated in the Eyre Square Centre shopping mall. Fascinating archaeological finds are on display at the Hall of the Red Earl, a medieval tax office/courthouse/town hall whose remains were uncovered by accident in 1997. In 1396, Richard II transferred power to 14 merchant-family 'tribes'; the most powerful, the Lynch family, built Lynch's Castle, Ireland's finest town castle (now an AIB bank). More recent history – from 1800 to 1950 – is on display at the Galway City Museum, where exhibits include a traditional wooden Galway Hooker fishing boat.

To appreciate the city's storied history, book a guided tour here.

Character-filled pubs

Galway is famed far and wide for its pubs, most of which are just a crawl from the next. Join the friendly locals as they bounce from place to place, never knowing what fun lies ahead but certain of the possibility. A brilliant starting point is Tigh Neáchtain (or just Neáchtain's – pronounced 'nock-tans' – aka Naughtons), a bright-blue-painted 19th-century treasure that attracts all walks of life beneath its low ceilings and on its tree-shaded terrace. Old-school O'Connell's, with stained glass, pressed-tin ceilings and a partially covered beer garden, is another enduring gem.

Pints of 'the black stuff' (ie Guinness) are popular, of course, but be sure to look out for Galway Hooker Irish Pale Ale, a local success story brewing locally for over a decade. Whiskey specialists include laid-back Garavan's.

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Galway city is a swirl of enticing old pubs humming with trad music sessions
Galway city is a swirl of enticing old pubs humming with traditional music sessions © Ken Welsh / Getty Images

Live music

Galway’s brightly painted pubs heave with live music. You’ll hear high-spirited traditional tunes featuring any combination of instruments – fiddle, tin whistle, bodhrán (goat-skin hand-held drum played with beater), guitar, banjo, squeezebox and more – pouring out from inside. It's possible to catch a céilí (traditional music session and dancing, pronounced 'kay-lee') or spontaneous seisún (pronounced 'seh-shoon') virtually every night of the week. Cherry-red-colored Tig Cóilí is a fantastic place to catch music, as is the two-storeyed Crane Bar.

Bands of all genres get their break at legendary venue Róisín Dubh, which also hosts comedy. You'll catch buskers along Shop St (and its extensions, High St then Quay St) and around the Spanish Arch.

Creative cuisine at Kirwan's Lane Restaurant: Irish mussels with lemongrass, coriander and fresh chives

Seafaring cuisine

Seafood reigns in Galway. Terroir-focused Aniar uses local catches in many of its Michelin-starred multicourse menus. Celebrated seafood bistro Oscar's is a superb place for Galway Bay oysters. Ard Bia at Nimmo's serves local flavors like West Coast monkfish with spelt, preserved lemon, spinach and sorrel yogurt or pan-roasted Atlantic hake with braised fennel, clams, beetroot and grilled asparagus. West Coast crab (washed down with Galway Hooker) is a specialty of hip Kai Café & Restaurant. And down-to-earth McDonagh's is an essential stop for phenomenal fish and chips at its chaotically sociable communal tables.

Galway Food Tours provides a taste of the city's best artisans, purveyors and dining highlights.

Outdoor pursuits

Shoals of salmon and sea trout surge upriver at Salmon Weir in May and June; tackle shops can provide angling advice, or visit Fishing Ireland for permit information. The Corrib Princess runs cruises here in summer. Another favorite outdoor activity is a 2.5km stroll along the Prom to Salthill (be sure to kick the wall near the diving boards in true Galwegian tradition). If you just want to unwind in the sunshine, the lawns of central Eyre Square are ideal.

Timeless finds

One of the joys of wandering through Galway is stumbling across its small specialty shops selling everything from Irish-made fashion to local art and jewelry, including its Claddagh rings (with a heart, signifying love, between two hands, symbolizing friendship and topped by a crown, representing loyalty), named for the original fishing village; jewelry shops producing them include Ireland's oldest, 1750-established Thomas Dillon's Claddagh Gold. Other favorites include the warren of book-lined rooms making up Charlie Byrne's Bookshop, and P Powell & Sons and Kiernan Moloney, both selling traditional Irish musical instruments.

Galway's Saturday market

Fabulous markets

A local gathering point, Galway's festive street market has set up on Church lane by St Nicholas' Church for centuries. Saturdays (8am to 6pm) are especially lively, with scores of stalls selling farm-fresh produce, arts, crafts and sizzling up ready-to-eat snacks such as curries and crêpes. There's also a market on Sundays (plus bank holidays, Fridays in July and August and every day during the Galway Arts Festival) from noon to 6pm. On sunny days especially, buskers give the markets a carnival atmosphere. In December, from 9am to 6pm from the 14th until Christmas Eve, stalls glow with candles and fairy lights during Galway's enchanting Christmas market.

Travellers gaze at the astonishing scenery of Connemara
Travelers gaze at the astonishing scenery of Connemara © Alexander Klemm / Getty Images

Year-round celebrations

Galway is festive any time of year but especially during its annual celebrations (when you'll need to book accommodation well ahead). Standouts include late March's Galway Food Festival, with markets, food trails and family activities; late April's poetry- and prose-filled Cúirt International Festival of Literature; mid-July's Galway Arts Festival and Ireland's leading film festival, the Galway Film Fleadh; horse racing and high fashion at the uproarious Galway Race Week, starting on the last Monday in July; and late September's long-running Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival. Live music invariably provides the soundtrack.

Day trips

Part of the Wild Atlantic Way, Galway is on the doorstep of some of Ireland's most spectacular scenery. Easy day trips from the city include the evocative Connemara region, with its fissured coastline, undulating bogs, empty valleys and slate-toned lakes (plus peat fire-warmed pubs), along with the plunging Cliffs of Moher and the rocky, moonscape Burren. You can find guided trips here. Offshore, the Aran Islands are a boat ride or light-plane flight away.

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This article was first published September 2016 and updated October 2021

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