This city in the west of Ireland has great seafood, ancient churches and pubs galore. Visit in September and it's also bursting with live music and art, says Frank Partridge
Why go now?
Ireland's fourth-largest city (after Dublin, Belfast and Cork) comes alive in September, when tourists, locals and students mingle to celebrate art, music, horse-racing and the prized oysters of Galway Bay. The narrow streets of the old town are filled with buskers and revellers, sustained by almost round-the-clock licensing hours.
Galway's airport, 7km east of the city, is served by Aer Arann (0870 876 7676; www.aerarann.com ) from Luton, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. Most incoming passengers rent a car or take a taxi (€12/£10) into town, because the airport bus (single fare €4.70/£3.90) runs only once a day, at 1.35pm. The bus and railway stations are next to each other, north-east of Eyre Square (1), around which city life revolves.
Get your bearings
Galway straddles the banks of the short, fast-flowing River Corrib, which careers downhill from Lough Corrib – the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland, 8km to the north – and tumbles into Galway Bay. The city gets more interesting as it approaches the sea, with a series of pedestrianised shopping streets funnelling towards the waterfront. The main tourist office – the Discover Ireland Centre (2) – is located on Forster Street (00 353 91 537 700; www.irelandwest.ie ). It opens 9am-5.45pm daily, except for some Sundays in winter, when tourist business is switched to a kiosk in Eyre Square (1).
Take a View
From the quayside there's a magnificent prospect across Galway Bay, with 300 swans in the foreground and the mysterious Burren hills of County Clare in the distance.
The ground-floor lobby, bars and restaurant of The Park House Hotel (3) on Forster Street (00 353 91 564 924; www.parkhousehotel.ie ) are among Galway's most animated meeting places. The well-refurbished bedrooms and bathrooms are large, the service cannot be faulted, and the hotel picks up one award after another. Standard double rooms start at €160 (£133), including breakfast.
The House Hotel (4), near the waterfront on Lower Merchants Road (00 353 91 538 900; www.thehouse hotel.ie ), is similarly named but couldn't be more different in style. No two of its 40 rooms are the same, and the designers have pulled off the difficult trick of making ultra-modern feel comfortable. Standard doubles (labelled as "comfy") start at €130 (£108), including breakfast.
The best hostel in town is Sleepzone Galway (5), at Bothar na mBan (00 353 91 566 999; www.sleepzone.ie ), just north of Eyre Square. It's modern and functional, and en suite doubles start at €50 (£41.50), excluding breakfast.
Take a hike
Galway's compact centre is laced with natural and man-made waterways popular with walkers and anglers. From Spanish Parade (6) on the waterfront, a path follows the riverbank inland as far as Salmon Weir Bridge (7), which crosses to the Catholic Cathedral (8). Stay on the right bank of the river, take two right turns into Eglinton Street, and keep going until you reach William Street. Turning right again, you enter the old town with its straight line of four historic and atmospheric streets, free of traffic after 10am, that lead you back to the seafront.
There are no windows but plenty of stalls at Galway's open-air market, which raucously comes to life next to St Nicholas Collegiate Church (9) every Saturday between 9am-5pm. The staples are fresh fruit and vegetables, but there's gourmet food too, as well as books, jewellery, gifts and handicrafts.
Kenny's Bookshop (10) on High Street (00 353 91 534 760) is a Galway institution – it also doubles up as an art gallery. The Eyre Square Shopping Centre (11) is remarkable for having been designed around a chunk of the city's medieval wall and two surviving watch-towers.
Lunch on the run
There are any number of takeaway food outlets along the main drag, but for something a cut above, have a sandwich at McCambridges (12), the long-established deli at 38/39 Shop Street, which offers a range of shop-baked breads and a vast selection of fillings, from €2.75 (£2.30).
The most striking exhibit at Galway's new City Museum (13) at Spanish Arch (00 353 91 532460; tiny.cc/JFjug) is a 10-metre-long traditional sailing boat suspended above the entrance hall. Elsewhere, three floors of exhibits and information panels tell the story of Galway and its people. It opens 10am-5pm every day between June and September, closing on Sundays and Mondays in winter, admission free.
The smart set congregate at The Parlour, part of The House Hotel (4) but open to non-residents. With low sofas, modern art and a metropolitan ambience, it's the one bar in Galway where ordering a pint of Guinness seems uncool.
Dining with the Locals
Rustic Irish fare such as Guinness stew sits alongside more international dishes at homely but classy Nimmo's (14), in a converted dock-side building beside the Spanish Arch (00 353 91 561 114; www.nimmos.ie ). The set three-course menu at €45 (£37.50) per head is particularly good value. The Malt House (15), in a courtyard at the back of High Street (00 353 91 567 866; www.themalthouse.ie ), reopened in May as one of the city's most stylish dining venues, and sources its ingredients from local producers. The seafood dishes are especially good. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.
Sunday morning: go to church
Galway's two main places of worship are both named after St Nicholas, but they were built more than 600 years apart. The older, St Nicholas Collegiate Church (9), was founded in 1320 and has been in continuous use since. One of the many ornate tombs inside has an inscription in Norman French and contains the relics of a 13th-century crusader. Church of Ireland Sunday services are at 8am and 11am.
On the other side of the river, the modern Catholic Cathedral (8) is a much showier affair, built out of green Connemara marble and crowned with an octagonal copper dome. The soaring, 3,000-pipe organ was shipped piece by piece from Liverpool, and when the church opened in 1965, it had cost £1m. Among some impressive artwork is a mosaic of John F Kennedy, who visited Galway in 1963, a few months before his assassination. Sunday Mass is held at 8am, 11am and 12.30pm.
Out to Brunch
Continue the religious theme in the more relaxed setting of The Quays (16), on Quay St (00 353 91 568 347). This is one of Galway's finest pubs, done out in stained glass, beams and pews salvaged from a medieval church that was being demolished. It opens at 10am and serves food all day, Sundays included. Alongside its plate-filling pub grub, the Quays seafood platter (€20.95/£17.50) is the equal of anything you'll find in a restaurant.
Take a ride
From the stop near Spanish Parade (6) take either bus 1D or 1S for a 20-minute ride along the seafront to Salthill, Galway's up-market suburb-by-the-sea since Victorian times. There's all the fun of the fair here, with good beaches, an aquarium, the usual array of cheerful seaside amusements and some seriously expensive apartments overlooking the bay. The return fare is €2.90 (£2.40).
A walk in the park
There's always something going on in tree-lined, breezy Eyre Square (1), which was renamed Kennedy Memorial Park in honour of the former US president, but is known to all as "The Square". In summer, it stages open-air concerts and exhibitions, and has a string of colourful flags along the northern perimeter bearing the insignia of the 14 Anglo-Norman families, known as the "Tribes of Galway", who effectively ran the place from medieval to Victorian times.
Icing on the cake
Take an extended pub crawl: it's where the heart and soul of the city can be found. Several establishments have a Tardis-like quality about them: modest on the outside, but extending deep into the buildings behind. As well as The Quays (16), another essential venue is The King's Head (17), at 15 High Street (00 353 91 566 630; www.thekingshead.ie ), in an 800-year-old building that once belonged to Colonel Peter Stubbers, the man who may or may not have wielded the axe that removed the head of King Charles I in 1649. A piece of Irish blarney? Who cares, now that the drink's flowing and the music's started...