Things to Do in Western Ireland
One of Ireland’s most unique and photogenic landscapes, stretching over 160 square km, the Burren, derived from the Gaelic word Boireann meaning ‘rocky place’, is one of the most visited attractions in the Shannon region. Aptly named, the karst topography is characterized by its unusual limestone formations, naturally sculpted through acidic erosion over thousands of years. The natural landscape is an otherworldly terrain - a giant jigsaw of rocks, made up of grikes (fissures) and clints (isolated rocks jutting from the surface), with pockets of lush greenery poking between the expanses of bare rock.
Located at 300 meters above sea level, the Burren lies close to the Atlantic Coastline and the towering Cliffs of Moher, offering incredible views both underfoot and out to sea. It’s not only the rocks that draw thousands of hikers and naturalists to the area, either – the contrasting green spaces are inhabited by around 700 different species of plants and ferns.
Tucked in the shadows of the mighty Seven Pins Mountain range, Kylemore Abbey cuts a striking figure against its majestic backdrop. A Benedictine monastery founded in 1853, the Abbey took seven years to build and remains in use today as an all girls’ school governed by Benedictine Nuns - the only Benedictine Community in Ireland - as well as opening its grounds to tourists. With its idyllic surroundings encircled by woodlands and postcard-worthy façade fronted by a glistening lake that perfectly reflects the grand building, Kylemore Abbey has fast become one of County Galway’s most popular iconic sights.
While parts of the 1000-acre estate remain closed to the public, visitors can tour many of the most impressive sights, including the magnificent Gothic Chapel and the Abbey’s beautifully restored main hall. The 6-acre walled Victorian Gardens are another highlight, where pretty walkways, 19th-century flowerbeds and a series of greenhouses.
Renowned for their stark beauty and enduring Irish traditions, the enigmatic Aran Islands have long drawn fascination from their mainland neighbors, inspiring generations of Irish artists and writers with their idealistic way of life. A visit to the Aran Islands - three small, sparsely populated isles, overlooked by the immense Cliffs of Moher - is like stepping back in time. Here, Gaelic-speaking communities populate traditional farmhouses, local ladies make a living knitting traditional Aran sweaters, sold throughout Ireland, and cars are overlooked in favor of rickety pony traps and trusty bicycles.
Reachable by ferry or plane from Rosaveel, Galway or Doolin, and easily navigated on foot or bike, the islands harbor a number of attractions, including the remains of one of the world’s smallest churches and a 16th-century castle once used by Oliver Cromwell’s troops.
Off the west coast of Ireland and beside Galway City, Galway Bay is a beautiful bay that has inspired many Irish legends and songs. You may have heard it sung in Arthur Colahan's Galway Bay or John Lennon’s Luck of the Irish. Yet the Atlantic coast of Ireland is a scenic, natural beauty that deserves to be seen with your own eyes. It’s also a magnet of authentic Irish and Celtic culture and has been called “the most Irish place in Ireland.”
Galway Bay is known for a few things in particular, including its morning dew and unique sailing culture, including a boat type called the Galway Hooker. As Galway was the center of maritime activity in western Ireland at the time, the Hooker boats were prominent in the mid-19th century. Many beaches dot the coastline that are accessible for swimming. Deep sea fishing, boating, and visiting the nearby Aran Islands are other popular activities on the bay.
Of the scenic Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, Dún Aonghasa is the most visited prehistoric fort of the area. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it has become a notable place for visitors from all over the country and the world. The semi-circular stone fort dates back to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, offering a glimpse into a rarely seen part of history. It is named for “Aonghus mac Úmhóra,” a mythical Irish king and pre-Christian god. Its multiple ancient stone walls, stairwells, and chambers create enclosure and different layers to explore.
It is still unknown exactly when and for what purpose Dún Aonghasa was originally constructed. Part of the structure has collapsed into the sea, adding to the site’s mystery and intrigue. Aside from its archaeological and historic importance the fort offers some of the most beautiful panoramic views in all of Ireland, with spectacular sights of the coastline and surrounding sea.
Celebrated as one of the most picturesque of Ireland’s many castles, the majestic Dunguaire Castle is perched atop a grassy promontory off the coast off Kinvarra in Western Ireland. A four-story medieval fortress, built by the O’Hynes clan back in 1520, the castle’s spectacular setting – jutting out from the bay and encircled with water – has made it one of Ireland’s most photographed castles, despite having little history to boast of. In fact, the castle never saw battle and had a somewhat meager legacy until it was bought by 20th century writer, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and became an important meeting spot for Irish literati like W. B. Yates, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. A popular day trip from Galway or Ballyvaughan (around a 30 minute drive away each), Dunguaire Castle is most famous for its atmospheric medieval banquets, organized by the same team behind those held at the equally popular Bunratty Castle.
More Things to Do in Western Ireland
Set between the lakes of Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, the idyllic village of Cong is known for its pretty, thatched-roof cottages and its starring role in the Oscar-winning movie, The Quiet Man, where it was upstaged only by the lead actor — John Wayne.
Covering 350 acres, Ashford Castle and its grounds are also a popular visit while in Cong. The old country estate of the Guinness family, today it’s one of Ireland’s finest 5-star hotels that’s hosted everyone from Brad Pitt to Princess Grace of Monaco. Surrounded by forests, streams, and lakes, Cong sits on the border of County Galway and County Mayo. While in the village, a popular attraction is the ruins of Cong Abbey. Dating back to the 13th century, the abbey is the burial site of the last High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, and a National Monument of Ireland that’s said to feature some of the country’s finest medieval ecclesiastic architecture.
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.
A spectacular feat of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture, Galway Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas, has a regal presence, perched on the banks of the River Corrib. The masterful building - the largest in the city and the last stone church to be built in Ireland - was constructed in 1965, revivifying the plot where one of the county’s most notorious jails once stood. Designed by J.J. Robinson and overseen by Bishop Michael Browne, the cathedral was built with locally sourced materials and workers, as well as featuring native Irish decorations and carving designs, bringing a uniquely all-Irish quality to the finished product.
The cathedral’s copper domed roof, visible for miles around, has become one of Galway’s most beloved landmarks, but it’s the resplendent interiors that visitors find most impressive.
With allegedly more musicians per square mile in this county than anywhere in the world, it’s unsurprising that this small fishing village is hailed as the capital of Irish folk music. Musical traditions still reign strong today, and those looking for an authentic taste of traditional Irish music won’t have to look far in Doolin. The village’s three historic pubs, Gus O’Connor’s, Mcdermott’s and Mcgann’s, all host nightly music sessions, where you can hear Gaelic poetry set to music and admire the soulful timbre of traditional instruments like Celtic harps, tin whistles, fiddles and Irish flutes. Musicians from all over the globe visit Doolin in search of the genre’s roots, and a number of events throughout the year bring together local and international musicians for impromptu jam sessions. With nearby tourist attractions like the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and the Aran islands, this northwestern town in County Clare also makes a popular base for travelers.
Overlooking the famous Spanish Arch, the Galway City Museum has been devoted to preserving the history and heritage of Galway since it opened its doors in 1976. The award-winning building is worth a visit for the views from the roof deck alone – spanning the Claddagh, the River Corrib and Galway Bay, as well as the iconic Arch – but those looking to understand the city’s unique cultural roots will find plenty of intrigue inside.
Three floors of exhibitions focus on contemporary Galway and the importance of the Arts, medieval Galway, and the Claddagh village, featuring among them a collection of local artworks, historic photographs (including one of President John F Kennedy's 1963 visit), artifacts dating from Prehistoric and Medieval times and personal items chronicling the history of the people of Galway.
Designated as the National Aquarium of Ireland and the largest aquarium in the country, Galway Atlantaquaria is one of western Ireland’s most popular attractions. An incredible 170 saltwater and freshwater species inhabit the aquarium’s tanks, imaginatively designed to mimic their natural environments and showcasing Ireland’s incredible diversity of marine ecosystems. Seahorses, stingrays, eels, lobster and even sharks are among the highlights, as well as the world’s only White Skate on public display, lovingly nicknamed ‘Valentine’.
It’s not only the colorful sea creatures that draw in the crowds - the aquarium’s unique displays and hands-on approach has proven a hit with all ages. Visitors can help out at feeding time, delve into the waters inside a model submarine and visit the aquarium’s popular ‘touch tanks’ for the chance to hold starfish and spider crabs.
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