County Galway is located on the western Atlantic seaboard of Ireland. From the wild and rugged Connemara to the fertile lands of East Galway, there are few counties in Ireland that can claim such a variety of natural landscapes.
Galway is Ireland’s second largest county with an area of 6,149 km sq. Within this large area, there is a huge range of fantastic places to explore.
Galway is home to some truly iconic Irish landscapes such as Connemara and the Aran Islands, where the landscapes are breathtaking and the Irish culture and language are still part and parcel of everyday life.
I am lucky to have lived in Galway and have personally visited these locations more times than I can count. So here is my own personal view on the best places to explore on your next trip to County Galway.
But, first let’s get a general overview of its location and some quick background information.
Where is County Galway?
County Galway is located in the province of Connacht, in the west of Ireland. It’s bordered to the north by County Mayo, to the north and east by County Roscommon, to the east by Offaly. Tipperary lies to the southeast and Clare to the south . To the west lies the Atlantic Ocean.
County Galway is the second largest county in Ireland ( 6,149 km sq.) behind County Cork. In terms of population density, it is the 13th most sparsley populated (from 32 counties) with a density of 42 per km sq.
Galway also has the 4th longest coastline in Ireland (689 km (428 mi)). Its coastline is characterised by a series of bays, beaches, headlands, inlets and offshore islands, such as the Aran Islands and Inishbofin.
Quick Facts about County Galway
Population of County Galway: 258,058 (2016)
Largest Settlement: Galway City (population 79,934 (2016))
Irish Name: Contae na Gaillimhe
County Colours: Maroon and White
Nickname: The Tribesmen
Main lanaguages spoken: English & Irish
Largest Lake: Lough Corrib
Longest River: River Shannon
Highest Mountain: Ben Baun (729 m, 2,392 feet)
The 10 Best Places to Explore in County Galway
Our list is based on what we believe to be the most beautiful in the county. But let’s start off with arguably the best base to explore these wonderful regions from.
images via Failte Ireland
Galway City is a vibrant and culturally rich location that attracts visitors from around the world. With a population of approximately 80,000 people, it has more of a small town feel to it than a city.
Known as the “City of the Tribes,” Galway effortlessly blends its rich history with a youthful and artistic energy.
One of the most attractive aspects of Galway City is its lively atmosphere. The streets are filled with a mix of locals and tourists, creating a buzz of excitement, especially in the summer months.
Quaint cobblestone streets, adorned with colorful shopfronts and traditional pubs, wind their way through the centre. Eyre Square serves as a focal point for locals and visitors to congregate, have some lunch or just relax.
Galway City is renowned for its thriving arts and music scene. It is known both nationally and internationally as a place of creativity and inspiration, attracting talented artists, musicians, and performers.
Street performances and impromptu jam sessions are part and parcel of the street vibe.
The city also hosts numerous festivals throughout the year, including the renowned Galway International Arts Festival as well as the iconic Galway Races.
Galway enjoys a perfect location, surrounded by stunning natural scenery, with Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands all within a few hours of the city.
Galway City gets very busy and hotels are known to book out well in advance. There is though a huge selection of bed and breakfasts in the city, which offer slightly more affordable accommodation and an authentic Irish experience.
Unfortunately, it is worth pointing out that Galway has become very expensive of late, so looking for accommodation slightly outside is something we highly recommend. Have a scan around in the searchbar below for the best rates.
The Beaches of Roundstone (Dog’s Bay, Gurteen)
The photos don’t do it justice. To be honest, there are countless incredible beaches in western Connemara.
One of our other favourites is Glassilaun (beach guide here) but there really is something special about the twin beaches at Dog’s Bay and Gurteen Bay, near the beautiful village of Roundstone.
Although a cliché, it must be said; these beaches look more at home in a more tropical clime. They have all the ingredients of a tropical strand; blinding white sands and the clearest of turquoise waters, all located in one of Ireland’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty: Connemara.
The biggest difference is that the waters are on more on the chilly side. The greenery behind the beach and the customary free-roaming sheep also add that touch of Irishness to it.
Also, the beach nearest the car park (Gurteen) will get crowded during warm weather and parking is quite limited. Arrive early in the day or cycle to the beach if possible.
I visited this beach for the first time many years ago, oblivious to the fact that Dog’s Bay Beach is located behind Gurteen. This beach just blew my mind and was considerably less crowded.
Insider tip: Walk past the 2 beaches towards the headland and you’ll stumble across 2 small, but totally secluded beaches. A slice of West of Ireland paradise!
If you are lucky enough to get some fine weather in Ireland, we highly recommend making the journey to these beaches.
The Aran Islands
The Aran Islands, located in Galway Bay, are a group of three islands: Inishmore (Árainn), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), and Inisheer (Inis Oírr).
These islands are renowned for their rugged beauty, rich cultural heritage, and Irish traditions. Stepping foot on the Aran Islands feels like entering a different world, where time seems to have stood still.
Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, is home to some of the most iconic landmarks, including the ancient stone fortress of Dún Aonghasa. Perched incredibly on the edge of a cliff, this prehistoric fort offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Inishmaan, the middle island, is the quieter of the three but offers visitors tranquil landscapes, traditional cottages, and gorgeous beaches.
Inisheer, the smallest of the three, is my personal favourite. Rent a bike on a fine summer’s day and explore the incredible karst landscapes, castles and the famous shipwreck we all know from the iconic series Father Ted.
Spend the afternoon relaxing on the beach and/or cycling the island, and the evenings tucked away in one of the fine bars on the island. There are few better ways to spend a holiday on the west coast of Ireland.
I guess what really truly sets the Aran Islands apart is the preservation of Irish culture and language. The islands are a stronghold of traditional Irish heritage, and the locals still speak Irish as their primary language.
You’ll also witness dry-stone walls as far as the eye can see, and be amazed at the work that went into their creation. From a higher vantage point, you’ll see the results of this incredible patchwork of green fields and imagine that life must have been damn tough on these islands.
Whether you’re admiring the awe-inspiring cliffs, looking back at the mainland, cycling along winding roads, or interacting with the welcoming locals, the Aran Islands offer an unforgettable experience.
It encapsulates the true essence of Ireland’s rugged beauty and cultural heritage.
Little wonder then that Martin McDonagh chose the main island, Inishmore, as one of the prime filming locations of The Banshees of Ininsherin.
We have all these locations mapped out here. Rent a bike and off you go!
This picturesque island, located off the west coast of County Galway offers a truly unique and tranquil escape from the frantic modern world we live in.
The name itself originates from the Irish words ‘Inis Bo Finne’ (the Island of the White Cow) Interestingly, Irish is not the main spoken language on the island.
While on a recent trip there, a local islander explained to me that Irish was spoken up until the early 20th century. This changed gradually as more and more trade was being carried out with the town of Westport, County Mayo (an Anglo-Irish market town)
The island itself is special and you can fit the whole lot into a day. There are 3 looped walks, and if you’re keen, you can rent bikes too.
This is always my personal favourite way to explore the Irish Islands. King’s are the go-to company for bike rental on the island.
While you are out exploring the island, there are some wonderful places to discover, such as the East End Beach, 2 seal colonies and some spectacular coastal formations such as blowholes and cliffs.
You’ll also encounter ancient stone forts, monastic sites and Cromwell’s Barracks, serving as reminders of the island’s ancient roots and fascinating past.
While on the island, we stayed in Days Hotel, which was simple but comfortable. Their restaurant had some incredible local seafood, including lobster and a spectacular chowder.
The premises also has a lovely pub and we were lucky to be there to table quiz night, which was great craic!
The boat leaves from Cleggan, details of which are here. If you are doing Ireland without a car, there is a full day option from Galway, which includes all transport, including bus and boat. Check the details here.
Kylemore Abbey and Grounds
The world famous Kylemore Abbey and Gardens is located only 5 minutes away from Connemara National Park. This spectacular castle was originally built in 1868 and was the private residence of Mitchell Henry, an English doctor.
In the year 1920 the Benedictine Nuns acquired the house and subsequently set up a monastery. In the years that followed the nuns educated Catholic girls and became an international boarding school up until 2010.
The house is currently open to the public, along with the must-see gardens and a Gothic chapel (that is an absolute must-see)
This must be one of the most photogenic places in all of Ireland. The most photographed motive is taken on the path on the way to the cashier and even the worst photographers out there will find it hard to take a bad one!
You’ll find that the surrounding greenery, mountains and lakes create a beautifully idyllic setting, and if you are lucky to visit in May, the rhododendron will be in full bloom.
Take a glance high up the mountain behind the abbey and you’ll see Ireland’s answer to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue!
The adjoining Kylemore Cafe is also genuinely excellent. On a recent visit, we were amazed at the massive variety of food, from home-cooked hot meals to soups and sandwiches.
For those with a sweet tooth, the selection of home-made tarts, pastries and cakes will make your mouth water. There’s a lovely outdoor seating area when the weather is good to take in the breathtaking scenery all around.
Connemara is located in the west of County Galway, in an area known for its vast wilderness and spectacular, rugged scenery. The landscape here is characterized by countless lakes, mountain peaks, open blanket bog and valleys.
Connemara is one of our favourite places in all of Ireland and is, in our opinion, a destination you should prioritise on your trip. What makes it so special?
For one, it’s one of the last strongholds of Irish language and tradition. Being a Gaeltacht region, you’ll hear Irish being spoken here amongst the locals and be probably amazed at how it sounds!
You’ll quickly realise there are no similarities to English whatsoever.
Don’t worry though, the locals speak English too!
The second reason is the incredible variety of landscapes on offer in a relatively small area. There are literally hundreds of lakes, many linked with streams and rivers teaming with trout and salmon.
The magnificent 12 Bens and Maamturk mountain ranges, although relatively small in height provide a dramatic backdrop to the vast, open peatlands and offer some of the best trekking/hiking in Ireland. Connemara is wilderness at its beautiful best.
Come late spring, early summer this wilderness will come to life with a burst of colour, from rhododendrons to fuchsias, bog cotton to heather.
Then, you have the beaches. One better than the other. Dog’s Bay we have mentioned above, but there are a multitude to choose from.
The beaches west of Ballyconneelly spring to mind as being some of the most remote and picturesque in the region, but the choice is endless.
As a traveller with limited time, a great way to get a feel for the region is by visiting Connemara National Park.
For your convenience we have a full guide, which takes in everything and anything to do, along with some practical info. Click here for more details about Connemara National Park.
Clifden is the ‘capital of Connemara’ and is a town we love. It’s home to the annual Connemara Pony Festival and is also a great base to explore Connemara from. Clifden is located only 15 minutes away from Connemara National Park.
It’s home to some fantastic pubs and restaurants, including our very favourite restaurant in all of Galway, Mitchell’s. The town is full of character and colour in the spring and summer months.
Stick your head in the door of Lowry’s, Mannion’s or Griffin’s pubs for a good Irish music session on a summer’s evening.
Take in the nearby epic ‘Sky Road’ drive for some amazing views out over the Atlantic Ocean or visit Clifden Castle ruins. There are also some tasteful craft and gift shops in the town including the brilliant ‘All Things Connemara’
Have a browse around here for accommodation in Clifden.
We highly advise exploring Connemara by car, or even better still by bike! Should you be visiting from Galway, here is the recommended route we advise to take.
If renting a car is not an option (more than likely due to the crazy prices of car rental in Ireland) and you are using Galway as a base, there are a number of great tours from Galway city. Have a look here.
Something to be aware of: The trip to Kylemore and the national park will book out quickly in the summer months.
The Shannon Region/Lough Derg
An often overlooked area of County Galway is the southeastern corner, which borders the counties of Offaly and Tipperary.
Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon forms the natural boundary to these counties, along witih the river’s second largest lake, Lough Derg.
This region seems a far cry from the wilder regions of west Galway. The lands here are mainly flat and you’ll experience lush green pastures as far as the eye can see.
A very underrated town with some excellent sights and beautiful walks is Portumna, on the banks of Lough Derg. We highly recommend a visit to Portumna Castle and Gardens.
This magnificent 17th-century castle offers a guided tour through its beautifully restored interiors. Afterwards, you can take a stroll through the perfectly manicured gardens, which lead directly down to the lakeshore.
Nearby, there’s the brilliant Portumna Forest Park. This expansive woodland boasts a diverse array of flora and fauna, with numerous walking trails and picnic areas to enjoy.
You may spot some native wildlife here, including red squirrels, deer, and a variety of bird species.
History enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the chance to visit the Portumna Workhouse and Famine Museum.
This site provides insight into the hardships endured during the Great Famine, showcasing exhibits and stories that commemorate this significant period in Ireland’s history.
If cruising on the Shannon has always been a dream, why not rent a boat? The monastic site of Clonmacnoise is not far away and you can set off from the town of Portumna, details of which are here.
The Republic’s largest lake, the majestic Lough Corrib, covers an huge area of 176 square km. It borders County Mayo to the north and its southernmost tip lies just north of Galway City.
From this point, it is drained by one of Europe’s shortest primary rivers, the River Corrib (7 km) The lake is a premier location for wild brown trout and salmon fishing and you can hire boats from many locations around the lake.
From a scenic standpoint, the lake is uniquely beautiful. The northwestern shores border to Connemara and the landscapes here are wild and rugged.
The western shores are far greener, with some of the best farming land in the county. It’s impossible to take in the whole lake in one day but here are some of my personal highlights having visited these locations numerous times.
- The drive from Clonbur to Maum along the R345 is in my view one of the West of Ireland’s most underrated scenic drives. It epitomises everything that’s magical about the region, complete with rolling sheep-dotted hills, stone walls, dense, colourful vegetation and the vast Lough Corrib with its countless green islands below.
- Cong. Perhaps one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. Made famous by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the classic Quiet Man, and home to one of the world’s great hotels, Ashford Castle, the village lies on a series of idyllic streams on the shores of Lough Corrib. A quaint gem and a place we highly recommend visiting.
- A Lough Corrib Cruise. Here, you have 2 options. The first departs from Galway city and will take it the River Corrib and the southern section of the lake. For those based in Galway, an ideal trip. Details are here.
- Near the village of Cong, there is also the option of going on a cruise to explore the northern shores of Lough Corrib. We have personally completed this and we highly recommend. This trip will also take you to Inchagoill Island, home to some fascinating historical sights. The guides were very informative and the views to the wonderful Ashford Castle are magical.
Killary Fjord is located to the northwest of the county, on the border to County Mayo. It is Ireland’s only true fjord, meaning its galcial valley was flooded by the sea during the end of the last ice-age.
The fjord is 16 km in length and a landscape such as this seems more fitting in a Scandanavian country than in the west of Ireland.
To the north of the fjord, you’ll see the majestic peaks of the Mweelrea range in Mayo and to the west the fantastically named ‘Devil’s Mother’ stands proudly amongst a range of bare hills and peaks.
You can explore the fjord by boat, where you’ll get to witness the beauty of the landscape, as well as being well informed of the local geography and history of the area.
One such story relating to World War 2 is particularly interesting…
As well as being a beautifully scenic location, there are some great things to visit in the Killary area. Here are our best 5 things to do in and near Leenaun:
1. For example, paying a visit to a west of Ireland sheep farm is a proper authentic experience. At Killary Sheep Farm, you’ll get to witness first-hand the unbelievably skilful sheepdogs in action, guided meticulously by their owner.
On the fram, you can also try your hand at turfcutting, a unique west of Ireland tradition. Turf, or peat is derived from bogs and was the traditional and valuable form of heat used for centuries around Ireland.
In many parts of the West of Ireland, it’s still used today and during the colder months fills the air with a very distinctive aroma.
2. Pay a visit to the famous village of Leenaun, the last village before reaching County Mayo. This is one of my favourite villages in the Connemara region.
The setting alone makes it worth a visit, with high mountains everywhere you turn, along with a stunning vista all the way down the fjord towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Many visitors are drawn here to pop their heads into Gaynor’s pub, made famous by Jim Sheridan’s classic movie, The Field.
Leenaun is a lovely stop-over while tripping around this wonderful part of the West of Ireland. Grab a coffee, or a bite to eat in one of the coffee shops in the village and walk around to stretch the legs.
3.Pay a visit to one of Ireland’s most scenic cemeteries, located here.
4. Then take a trip to the Aasleagh Falls, just over the Mayo border. Although not exactly a high waterfall, they are known as one of the best West of Ireland photo motives.
Visit in June and you may witness salmon leaping upstream, a magical sight we have witnessed multiple times.
The Erriff river, by the way, is incredibly picturesque and should you decide to make the trip from Leenaun to Westport, you’ll pass through the Erriff river valley.
We travelled the opposite way and documented our journey. Have a look at our video below:
5. Grab some epic food at The Misunderstood Heron, located here. This is a food-shack type eatery with some of the best views you’re likely to see anywhere in County Galway.
Imagine tucking into your gourmet sandwich while enjoying views like this:
What better place to finish our list of the best places to explore in Galway than by taking a trip to Galway Bay.
Many will have heard of this place through the song of its namesake, which almost has anthemic status in this part of the world. And what a song it is.
You may hear it late into the night in pub in Galway and will be an earworm for the days that follow…
The bay itself is substantial in size, with a width of 10 kms and a length of 50 km. Its entrance is guarded by the 3 karst islands of the Aran Islands (Inishmore, Inismaan and Inisheer)
These islands are an ‘extension’ of the karst (limestone) regions of the Burren located in County Clare.
The south side of the bay is where you’ll find this uniquely beautiful landscape, and The Burren National Park you’ll pass through on your way to the Cliffs of Moher from Galway City.
Along the southern shores of Galway Bay lies the wonderful coastal village of Kinvara, with one of the most photographed castles in all of Ireland, Dunguaire.
Along the coast road, you’ll be treated to endless stone walls, plenty of greenery and the stark, bare limestone hills providing a stunning backdrop.
The northern shores of Galway Bay is where most settlements lie, Galway City of course being the largest. As you make your way west, you’ll be entering An Gaeltacht, the Irish speaking region of Galway.
Here, the road follows the shores of Galway Bay and you’ll be treated to some vistas westwards to the Aran Islands and looking south, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Burren.
Eventually as you venture more westwards, the jagged outcrops of the Cliffs of Moher will come into view.
Make a stopover at Spiddal, where you’ll notice the local businesses there will have their signs in the Irish language. Listen to their chatter in the local coffee shop and you’ll soon realise you’re in the west of Ireland!
The boat for the Aran Islands departs from the port of Rossaveel, a small hamlet located just at the corner before you turn inland and northwards towards the wilds of Connemara.
The beautiful Galway Bay, a place immortalized in song and script, is where we will wrap up our list of our favourite places to explore in County Galway.
Creating a list such as this is no easy task, as there truly is a wealth of places to explore in the county. We hope that by showing you the varied and beautiful landscapes, as well as its fascinating culture, you’ll can add some of these locations to your Ireland itinerary.
If you have any questions, we’d be more than happy to help. Have you visited any of these locations yet?
Where are the most scenic places in Galway?
We would argue that of all the places we have visited, Connemara is the most diverse and beautiful regions, not just in Galway, but in all of Ireland.
For inland locations, the northern shores of Lough Corrib offer something different. Here you’ll experience quintessential West of Ireland landscapes, with verdant, sheep-dotted hills and stone walls.
What is Galway City known for?
Galway is known for its youthful, vibrant atmosphere, and for being arguably Ireland’s cultural centre. It hosts over 100 festivals annually and attracts visitors, musicians and artists alike.
It’s a university city also, which means the polulation increases by a quarter come September. With this comes plenty of nighlife and pubs and clubs are busy all year round.
What is the nearest airport to Galway?
The nearest larger airport is Shannon, approx. 1.5 hours away. Knock airport is located about an hour away and although is smaller, is connected to many UK airports.
Dublin airport, Ireland’s largest, is located about 2.5 hours away. Shannon and Dublin are linked to Galway via motorway. There is also a direct train link from Dublin to Galway.