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From Aran to Oysters to John Wayne’s Bridge: 13 of County Galway’s Most Breathtaking Wonders

From Aran to Oysters to John Wayne’s Bridge: 13 of County Galway’s Most Breathtaking Wonders

Stuart Marley |

County Galway, located on Ireland's west coast and home of the famous “City of the Tribes”, is steeped in history, culture, and natural beauty. 

Known for its vibrant arts scene, rich heritage, and hundreds of miles of wild and gorgeous coastline, Galway offers a multitude of unique and surprising experiences. Here are just 13 things from County Galway to captivate all the senses.

1. The Rugged Beauty of Connemara

Connemara, a district in the west of County Galway, buffeted by the winds and weather of the Atlantic Ocean, is celebrated for its wild and rugged landscape. Dominated by mountains, bogs, and a coastline dotted with sandy beaches, Connemara's natural beauty is both dramatic and serene. The Twelve Bens mountain range offers spectacular views and challenging hikes, while the vast expanse of the Connemara National Park is home to a wide diversity of flora and fauna. 

Walking through Connemara, one cannot help but feel a profound connection to the land. The air is crisp, often filled with the scent of peat or wildflowers. The landscape is a patchwork of greens and browns, with shimmering lakes reflecting the ever-changing sky. It's a place where the silence is broken only by the call of a distant bird or the gentle rustle of the wind through the grass, and the sight of the scarlet fuchsia along the hedgerows is an enduring symbol of summertime in the wilds of Galway.

2. Kylemore Abbey: A Historical and Spiritual Haven

Nestled in the heart of Connemara, Kylemore Abbey is a stunning neo-Gothic castle built in the late 19th century. Originally a private residence, it later became a monastery when Benedictine nuns fled Belgium during World War I and sought refuge in Ireland. The abbey, with its Victorian walled garden and reflective lake, is a place of tranquility and beauty. The intricate architecture and poignant history of Kylemore Abbey make it a must-visit.

Visiting Kylemore Abbey is a sensory delight. The sight of the abbey reflected in the still waters of the lake is breathtaking, especially when the surrounding hills are bathed in the golden light of sunset. The scent of roses and herbs wafts from the meticulously maintained gardens, mingling with the fresh, clean air of the Connemara countryside. Inside, the abbey's stone walls and stained glass windows create an atmosphere of reverence and peace, a quiet sanctuary from the outside world.

The wondrous Kylemore Abbey. Photo via Dennis Wilkinson / Flickr Creative Commons

3. Sunset on the Aran Islands

The Aran Islands, lying just off Galway's coast, offer a glimpse into Ireland's ancient past. Inis Mór, the largest of the three, is home to the impressive prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa, perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The islands' unique culture, including the Irish language, traditional music, and distinctive knitted sweaters [LINK here], is preserved with pride by the islanders.

Stepping onto the Aran Islands feels like stepping back in time. You might find the air occasionally filled with the sounds of traditional Irish music, or the rhythmic clatter of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone paths. The landscape around you, with its stone walls and windswept fields, is both harsh and beautiful. The taste of fresh seafood, straight from the Atlantic, is a culinary highlight. The islands' isolation and unique culture create an experience that is both timeless and unforgettable, and anyone who has experienced a summer sunset there has witnessed something they will not soon forget.

Dún Aonghasa on the Aran Islands … Image via Wikimedia Commons

4. The Mystique of Lough Corrib

Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake and the largest in the Republic of Ireland, is a haven for anglers and nature enthusiasts. The lake, dotted with over 300 islands, is rich in wildlife and history. On Inchagoill Island, the ruins of ancient churches and grave markers provide a fascinating glimpse into Ireland's early Christian heritage. 

The serene beauty of Lough Corrib is a testament to Galway's natural splendor. The lake's waters are crystal clear, reflecting the surrounding hills and sky. The air is fresh and invigorating, and the call of waterfowl and the gentle lapping of waves against the shore create a peaceful soundtrack, inviting you to lose yourself in the tranquility of an ancient landscape.

5. The Quiet Man Bridge: A Cinematic Landmark

The Quiet Man Bridge, located near the village of Oughterard, is an iconic location from the classic film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. This charming stone bridge has become a pilgrimage site for fans of the film, capturing the timeless beauty of rural Ireland and its influence on popular culture.

Click to read more about Ireland at the Oscars.

Standing on the bridge, you might allow yourself to be transported to the romantic, sepia-toned world of the 1952 film itself. The bridge itself is a simple, rustic structure, but its surroundings are pure magic. The babbling brook beneath, the lush greenery, and the distant hills create a picturesque scene that feels both familiar and enchanting. The air is filled with the scent of wildflowers and the sound of birdsong, and it's easy to imagine the film's characters walking these same paths, their stories interwoven with the landscape.

6. Seventy Years of Oysters in Clarinbridge 

Every year, this picturesque locale of Clarinbridge comes alive with the vibrant oyster festival, a celebration of great food and entertainment — not to mention the exceptional Guinness which has over the decades become the perfect accompaniment to oysters.

Established in 1954, the festival has grown into an annual tradition. Oysters are cultivated in the sheltered waters of Dunbulcan Bay just west of the village, benefiting from the ideal blend of fresh and seawater and providing the perfect conditions to allow Clarinbridge oysters to be known as a world-renowned delicacy. Over 100,000 oysters are gulped down by attendees every year. 

7. The Famous Galway Hookers

With almost 700 miles of coastline, Galway's connection to the sea is deeply woven into its history and culture. The traditional sailing boats known as "hookers” — celebrated with the Galway Hooker Festival each year, as well as a very popular local ale — have been used for centuries along the west coast. 

The city of Galway itself has a long maritime history, evident in landmarks such as the Spanish Arch and the Claddagh, once a thriving fishing village. As much as anywhere in the world, exploring Galway’s coastline is a feast for all the senses. The sea salt tang is everywhere, while the taste of freshly caught seafood, whether in a fine restaurant or one of the simple fish and chips shops you’ll find on many a street, might just be the thing that sticks most in the memory.

A famous Galway hooker … Image via Zug Zwang / Flickr Creative Commons

8. Aughnanure Castle: A Fortress of the O'Flaherty Clan

Aughnanure Castle, located near Oughterard, is a well-preserved 16th-century tower house and a stronghold of the powerful O'Flaherty clan. The castle, with its imposing walls and strategic location, offers a fascinating insight into the turbulent history of Galway's Gaelic chieftains. 

Aughnanure Castle …. Exterior via Wikimedia Commons. Interior via Heritage Ireland / OPW.

Aughnanure’s stone walls, weathered by centuries of wind and rain, tell stories of battles and clan rivalries stretching back the best part of a thousand years. The surrounding landscape, with its dense woodlands and tranquil river, provides a stark contrast to the castle's fortress-like appearance. The air is cool and damp, carrying the scent of moss and ancient stone. Inside, the castle's narrow staircases and hidden chambers evoke a sense of mystery and adventure, offering a tangible connection to the past.

9. The Galway Races: A Long-Established Festive Tradition 

The Galway Races, held annually at the end of July, are one of the pinnacles of Ireland's social and sporting calendar. A week-long festival that attracts thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the lively atmosphere, fashionable gatherings, plenty of stout, whiskey and wine — and a few days of great horse racing too! — the Galway Races epitomize the county's love of celebration and community spirit.

The first racing festival to be held in Ballybrit was all the way back in August 1869, a full 50 years more before Ireland’s independence from Britain. Records from the time show that a staggering 40,000 people turned up to attend, and in order to cater for such crowds, Eyre Square in the middle of Galway city was set up as a temporary campsite!

The Galway Races … Image via Barnacles Hostel / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the race-track’s most famous days had nothing at all to do with horses, however. The visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979 remains one of Galway’s most historical moments, when an estimated 280,000 people flocked to Ballybrit to get a glimpse of His Holiness.

10. The Hidden Gem of Coole Park

Coole Park, once the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, is a place of literary and natural significance. The park's serene landscapes inspired many Irish writers, including W.B. Yeats, who wrote a famous poem titled “The Wild Swans at Coole” which started with one of the Nobel Prize winner’s most memorable verses:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The autograph tree at Coole, carved with the initials of famous literary figures, is a unique emblem of Galway's cultural and literary heritage.

“The Autograph Tree” at Coole Park … Image via IrishFireside / Flickr Creative Commons

11. The Majestic Connemara Marble

Connemara Marble, often referred to as "Ireland's Gemstone," is a unique, green-hued marble found only in the Connemara region of Galway. This beautiful stone has been used for centuries in jewelry and decorative arts. Its distinctive color and patterns make it a sought-after material for artists and craftspeople.

The marble’s natural beauty and historical significance make it a perfect souvenir from Galway​​​​ (and we have a number of Connemara Marble jewelry pieces available for purchase here).

Image via Joseph Mischyshyn / Creative Commons

12. The Serenity of Dog's Bay and Gurteen

Near the village of Roundstone lies one of Galway's most stunning and unique natural attractions: the twin beaches of Dog's and Gurteen Bays. These twin crescent-shaped beaches, separated by a narrow strip of land, are known for their white sandy shores composed of tiny fragments of seashells, giving them a unique texture and color.

The beaches offer a full-body sensory experience, with pristine white sand, soft and cool underfoot; the clear turquoise waters of the Atlantic; and air filled with both the fresh and salty scent of the sea and the subtle undercurrent of nearby wildflowers and grasses. Indeed, the experience of wandering here provided the inspiration for iconic British perfumer Arthur Burnham in developing Ireland’s famous fragrance, Inis.

13. The Ancient Monastic Site of Clonfert

Clonfert, located in eastern Galway, is home to an ancient monastic site founded by Saint Brendan the Navigator in the 6th century. The site includes the beautifully preserved Clonfert Cathedral, renowned for its Romanesque doorway adorned with intricate carvings of biblical scenes and mythical creatures.

Saint Brendan, one of Ireland’s most famous saints, is said to have embarked on a legendary voyage across the Atlantic in search of the “Isle of the Blessed,” a tale that has inspired many explorers and writers. 

So that’s all for this whistle-stop tour of Galway’s iconic sights, sounds, smells and tastes. As much as any part of Ireland, County Galway provides the perfect combination of history, landscape and culture. 

From Connemara’s wild beauty to the fun and festivity of the Galway Races to the delicate delicacy of Clarinbridge’s oysters, Galway has something for every heart and every soul.

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