As Ireland’s County Galway begins a year as European Capital of Culture 2020, Lesley Gillilan explores the colourful harbour city at its beating heart, finding a blend of wonderful food, live music, Irish heritage, and salty seaside walks

The River Corrib, which races through Galway city en route from Lough Corrib to Ireland’s Atlantic coast, is among the shortest rivers in Europe; it’s also one of the fastest-flowing. And for me this noisy leap of water sums up the spirit of this town-sized harbour city. Galway punches above its weight – and never more so than now as the whole county begins a year-long stint as European Capital of Culture 2020, an honour that recognises its status as Ireland’s cultural heart. A melting pot of arts, crafts, literature, language, landscape and tradition comes together in this so-called ‘City of the Tribes’, where live music can be heard on every corner. Ed Sheeran cut his teeth on Galway’s pavements – the video for his song Galway Girl was shot in two of the city’s classic pubs, O’Connor’s and O’Connell’s.

From February, Galway’s year-long programme of arts events – from glassy art installations to a beach tour of Homer’s Odyssey – adds piquancy to its usual offer: the colourful Latin Quarter, medieval city walls, pubs, fantastic food, beaches and the annual Galway International Arts Festival in July.

If there is time to explore, there are boat trips to the Aran Islands, and road trips to the spectacular mountains of Connemara or along the Wild Atlantic Way. But for a weekend, there is more than enough to do in Galway city.



After checking into the G Hotel, I head into town to join a Galway Food Tour – to sample the region’s rich larder of food and drink. At Griffin’s Bakery on Shop Street, I meet Orla, our guide, and three Americans from Chicago. The bakery, Orla tells us, was founded in 1876 and is still owned by the same family. We are introduced to buttermilk brown soda bread, loaves salted with seaweed, and a moist carrot cake (which we get to try). At McCambridge’s, an old-fashioned deli with a distinct Irish flavour, we sample goats’ cheese made with fenugreek, air-dried lamb from Connemara and local tipples, including poitín, a once-prohibited Irish spirit originally made with grain and local ‘bogbean’. This one is from Micil, a family-run Galway Bay distillery, which re-introduced a version of the strong liquor after it was legalised in 1997.


The next stop on our tour is Tigh Neachtain, a brightly painted pub on the corner of Cross Street in the Latin Quarter. Like most of Galway’s atmospheric watering holes, it features smoky walls of vintage pictures, whiskey bottles, dark wood and live music. Seated in a cosy snug, we try Flaggy Shore oysters cooked in buttermilk, Connemara smoked salmon on homemade bread and glasses of Kojack, a dark oatmeal stout from local brewer Soulwater. From here, it’s a short walk to Cupán Tae, a stylishly old-fashioned tea room, where we try tea-infused miniature cakes and Dreamy Creamy Galway tea (among a choice of loose-leaf varieties) served on mismatched vintage china and embroidered table cloths. Finally, our two-hour tour ends with tapas in Merrow, the acclaimed restaurant inside Galway’s indy arthouse cinema, Pálás. Prices for The Galway Food Tour from £60pp (+353 86 7332885,


With time to spare, I continue to explore the Latin Quarter – a network of narrow cobbled streets, with vividly painted shop fronts and a touch of New Orleans (with a busker on nearly every street, the place is like an open-air theatre of foot-tapping live music). As the sun begins to dip, I’m drawn to the water; sitting on the banks of the Corrib is a popular evening pastime in Galway. I stroll past the ‘postcard row’ of coloured houses on Long Walk, through the 16th-century Spanish Arch, part of the old city walls, and north along Riverside Walk, a path that runs between the racing Corrib and the peaceful Eglinton Canal.


For dinner, I head for Kai on Sea Road in Galway’s West End. Dave Murphy and his New Zealand wife Jess turned this former florist’s shop into a homely restaurant, which has since won awards for its imaginative European dishes made with fresh, organic and often wild ingredients. The interior is an atmospheric mix of bare stone, rustic wooden tables, candlelight and an open kitchen – the place is buzzing and the menu looks amazing. From a choice of five seasonal starters I go for Clare crab with celeriac and pumpkin seeds, followed by a main dish of monkfish, spinach, rope mussels and a Madras broth, and finish off with white chocolate panna cotta served with roasted rhubarb. A three-course dinner at Kai costs around £40 per head, there are vegetarian dishes and the restaurant opens Tues to Sat evenings (+353 91 526003,



It’s time for a spot of shopping. What visitors tend to look for when shopping here are Irish woollens, Aran knits and Celtic jewellery – in particular the famous Claddagh Ring. Dozens of these legendary rings – featuring two hands clasping a heart and crown to signify love, friendship and loyalty – are on display at Claddagh Jewellers at 25 Mainguard Street, where you can also watch a video about the history of the ring. It’s believed to have been created by Richard Joyce, a fisherman from Galway’s Claddagh village who learned his craft while enslaved by an Algerian goldsmith in the 17th century (



Saturday’s St Nicholas Market – one of Ireland’s oldest street markets – is a jumble of stalls wrapped around St Nicholas Church in the heart of the city. Pushing through a crowd, I find traders selling organic veg, fresh flowers and ‘wild and Irish’ seafood, local crafts, cakes, cookies and ‘freshly caught fairies’ (each fairy doll comes with her own adoption certificate). It’s a great place to grab lunch on the go, with stalls serving everything from falafel and cheeses to mussels in garlic sauce. I decide on Wa Sushi, a Japanese-Galwegian fusion – sushi with turnip is certainly a first. Open every Saturday, 8am-6pm, Sunday 12pm-8pm (


Just around the corner from the market is the one-up, one-down house once home to Nora Barnacle, wife of Ulysses author James Joyce. A sign in the window of what is now a tiny museum explains that it’s ‘open randomly’ – but not today it seems. So I head south, crossing the river, for Katie’s Claddagh Cottage which proves hard to find – set, as it is, in a modern housing estate. This unlikely location is the site of the ancient Claddagh fishing village, which was demolished in the 1950s. The Gaelic thatched cottage is a recreation of an original dwelling and – as home to Claddagh Arts Centre – is a charming combo of museum, crafts shop, warm fire and tea room with occasional live musicians. From 10m-4pm, from Monday-Saturday, admission free (


From Eyre Square – the city’s central hub – I get a bus back to the G Hotel and spend an hour or so in the spa (available to guests for a £10 fee) before heading back into town for dinner at Dela, a friendly little restaurant near the river. The menu boasts ‘Scandinavian-style cooking with an Irish twist’ and much of the produce (vegetables, eggs and greens) comes from the owners’ farm at nearby Moycullen. From the autumn menu, I go for wood pigeon breast with caramelised beetroot tart and potato skins followed by grilled sea trout, polenta chips and green beans. No room for a pudding. A two-course dinner at Dela costs £23; three courses for £27 (+353 91 449252,



Salthill is only a half-hour coast walk from the city, or a five-minute drive, but it has a very different vibe. With a long promenade that curves around a string of Galway Bay beaches, it is a traditional seaside resort: a busy line of bars and cafés, the Galway Atlantaquaria aquarium, gardens, guesthouses and good views of the Aran Islands and the Clare hills. I spend an hour or so pottering in the rockpools on the sands on Blackrock and Ladies Beach. When I reach the end of the prom, I make sure to kick the wall – a local tradition meant to bring good luck, though nobody seems to know why.



It’s just a 20-minute drive to the seaside village of Barna, and I stop on the way to check out the cliffs and sands at Silverstrand (a Blue Flag beach popular with families). There’s a wilder, rockier beach at Barna, but I’m here for O’Grady’s on the Pier, an unpretentious oyster bar where I sit outdoors in the autumn sunshine and enjoy views of the beach, the harbour, the boats on Galway Bay and a hearty bowl of O’Grady’s seafood chowder. A perfect way to end a perfect weekend (+353 91 592223,



coast stayed at the G Hotel & Spa, Galway’s hot-ticket hotel, half-an-hour’s walk from Eyre Square with views across Lough Corrib. It’s a large rectangle of illuminated glass (below), with flamboyant interiors designed by Galway-born milliner Philip Treacy. A series of interconnecting spaces include extravagantly decorated lounges (shocking pink, tangerine, deep purple and gold), sleek monochrome lobby with tropical fish, Riva restaurant, indulgent spa, and a vast silvery hall festooned with dangling mirror balls. The rooms and suites are in quieter shades, with floor-to-ceiling windows and luxury bathrooms. Price from £128 B&B, per room per night (+353 91 865200,


The nearest airport is Shannon, but there are more frequent flights to Dublin (Aer Lingus from Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Glasgow and London City among other UK airports). Galway is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Dublin; or you can use an Irish Rail train service from Dublin to Galway. An hourly Citylink bus also runs between the two cities. For more info, visit