Galway is an intimate city; more a sprawling town than a booming metropolis. Filled with college students, international travelers, and now you, Galway’s eclectic population is reflected in the city’s diversity. There are enough restaurants, bars, and nightclubs to have your pick whether you’re a vegan or a Viking. The city is less tourist-oriented than Dublin, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see. Most of the sights are integrated into the city, yet they brim with history. While a two-hour walk around Galway might suffice for a sightseer, you’ll need to delve deeper in order to capture the real vibe of the city. Make sure to spend plenty of time in the outdoor terraces of the local pubs, diving into some of the freshest seafood in Ireland.
The Corrib River and Eyre Square sandwich Galway’s eastern bank. Follow Quay Street from the river to get to Eyre Square, or take Abbeygate Street if you are coming from the north. The western bank is home to the historic Claddagh Quay; follow it all the way out of the city to the Salthill Promenade. Dominick Street Upper and Lower host most of the western bank’s businesses, which are tightly clustered on those two streets. Wood Quay, on the northern side of the eastern bank, is the center of the quieter, more residential area of Galway.
On the east side of the River Corrib you have the busy and energetic Quay St. with pub after pub and tourists shops on every corner, as well as plenty of tourists and locals roaming through the streets. Then on the west side there’s the calm grassy banks alongside the river where people take a break to have lunch, read a book, or take a nap, as well as the huge expanse of field that is South Park and the more residential area of town. Regardless of which side of the river you find yourself on, you’re guaranteed good food, good pubs, and a good time in what’s known as Ireland’s most Irish city.
Don’t stress out when deciding which sites to visit – here are our top three picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Irish cuisine has revolved around the country’s staple, the humble potato, for a very, very long time. Since its introduction to Ireland in the 16th century, the potato has been a constant feature on every Irishman’s plate, with the exception of the two Great Famines. For a long time, the Irish stuck chiefly to the potato and other potato-based dishes. However, in recent decades the Irish have tried to modernize and diversify their cuisine. Nowadays, Irish cuisine is known for the freshness and quality of its ingredients. The Irish highlight these ingredients by keeping their recipes relatively simple. Most cooking is done without herbs or spices, except for salt and pepper, and food is usually served without sauce or gravy.
Along with the potato, other food staples that have played a constant role in the Irish diet are grains (especially oats), dairy products, and soups. The Irish have been accomplished cheese makers for centuries. And Irish soups are thick, hearty, and filling, made with potatoes (duh), seafood, and various meats.
Representative Irish dishes are Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, coddle, and colcannon. The most famous of these dishes would have to be the stew, as it’s been the national dish for the last two centuries. Traditional Irish stew is made from lamb or mutton, as well as potatoes, carrots, onions, and parsley. Bacon and cabbage, as the name implies, consists of unsliced back bacon boiled with cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes other vegetables, such as turnips, onions, and carrots, are also added. Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake, similar to a latke. There are many different recipes, but they all contain finely grated, raw potatoes and all are served fried. Coddle consists of layers of roughly sliced pork sausages and rashers (thinly sliced, fatty bacon) with sliced potatoes and onions. Finally, colcannon is yet another potato-based dish that consists mainly of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage.
In addition to their meat and potatoes, the Irish also love their bread. Be sure to try their thick, fluffy loaves of soda bread along with their soups. Soda breads are a heavy white bread made with soda instead of yeast, often with prepared with raisins or spices. Take-out has become increasingly popular in Ireland, and the most popular dish is fish and chips, which consists of battered, fried fish served with chips.
Let’s be honest here—Ireland is not famous for its food but rather for its drinks. In 1759, Arthur Guinness began brewing his popular London “porter.” He, his family, and the entire drinking world hasn’t looked back since. Guinness is known around the world for its impenetrable blackness. Although it is no longer given away free in Dublin hospitals to new mothers as a lukewarm restorative (true story), it is available on tap everywhere. Guinness is the quintessential Irish beer. It is also an acquired taste.
However, Guinness is not the only stout in town. Other popular brands are Murphy’s and Beamish. In addition to stout, Irish whiskey is also immensely popular, and it comes in many forms, including single malt, single grain, and blended whiskey. True whiskey connoisseurs can make whiskey the focus of their trip through Ireland, visiting distillery after distillery and making their own whiskey trail. Other famous Irish drinks include cider (drunk by the pint like beers), mead (combines the sweetness of honey with the bite of alcohol), cream liquor, and Irish coffee.
All of Ireland goes green for St. Patrick’s Day (Mar. 17). On Bloomsday (June 16), Dublin celebrates James Joyce’s Ulysses. In mid-July, the Galway Arts Festival offers theater, trad, rock, and film. Many return happy from the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in the Burren in early September.
Sports in Ireland are immensely popular, for both athlete and spectator. Regardless of whether you’re a sports fan or not, being a spectator (whether at the sporting arena or in your favorite pub) can be a great way to get to know the sports—and the drinking—culture.
The Irish are fanatical about their two native sports, Gaelic football and hurling (not to be confused with curling), and they are organized on an all-island basis, with a single team representing the whole of Ireland in international competitions. Other sports, such as soccer and netball, have separate organizing bodies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Gaelic football, commonly referred to as “football,” “Gaelic,” or “Gah,” is the most popular sport in Ireland in terms of spectator attendance. A cross between British Rugby and soccer, Gaelic football is played by two teams of 15 on a rectangular grass pitch with H-shaped goals at each end. A goal is scored by kicking or striking the ball with the hand through the goals. Players advance the ball toward their goal by a combination of carrying, soloing (dropping and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands), kicking, and hand-passing to their teammates.
All players are amateurs, and the main national competitions are the inter-county All-Ireland Senior Football Championships and the National Football League (NFL). Every year the All-Ireland Finals in Dublin bring in crowds of 80,000 to Croke Park, the nation’s largest sporting stadium. The most successful and famous “Gah” teams are Kerry, Dublin, Meath, and Cork.
Along with Gaelic football, hurling is another one of Ireland’s national sports. This fast and dangerous game has been played for at least 3,000 years and is thought to be the world’s fastest field team game. The object of the game is for players to use a wooden stick (a hurley) to hit a small ball (the sliotar) between the opponent’s goalposts, either over the crossbar for one point, or under the crossbar and into a net for a goal of three points. The hurley is used to hit the ball along the ground or through the air, but players can also kick the ball or hit it with the flat of their hands.
In Ireland, hurling is a fixture of life. It has been featured regularly in both film and literature, and it is continually popular among members of the expat Irish community abroad.
Association football, usually known as “soccer” or “football,” is the team sport with the highest level of participation in the Republic of Ireland. The domestic leagues are the League of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland and the IFA Premiership in Northern Ireland. Some of the major teams in the Republic include St. Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers, and Bohemians, while Glentoran and Linfield represent Northern Ireland. On the international stage, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams have each competed in three FIFA World Cups.
Traditional Irish music has remained vibrant throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. In fact, many forms of music in the US, such as country, have roots in traditional Irish music. Additionally, Irish music has occasionally been fused with other genres, including rock and roll and punk rock. Some of these fusion artists have attained mainstream attention, both domestically and abroad.
Traditional Irish music (called “Trad”) includes many types of songs, including drinking songs (of course), ballads, and laments. All can be sung either unaccompanied or with traditional dance music instruments, such as hornpipes and jigs and reels. But don’t let the soothing melody of “Danny Boy” fool you: the Irish can cut a rug. Traditional Irish dances include the polka, set dancing, and jigs.
A revival of traditional Irish music took place around the turn of the 20th century. The button accordion and the concertina became popular, Irish stepdance was performed at many country houses and music festivals, and Irish singing was supported by the educational system and patriotic organizations. After a lull in the 1940s and 1950s, traditional Irish music experienced a second wave of revitalization in the 1960s thanks to musicians as such The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Irish Rovers, and the Dubliners.
The 1960s saw the emergence of major Irish rock bands and artists, such as Them, Van Morrison, Emmet Spiceland, Skid Row, Dr. Strangely Strange, Thin Lizzy, and Mellow Candle. Groups who formed during the emergence of punk rock in the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s include U2, The Boomtown Rats, The Understones, The Pogues, and Gavin Friday. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, Irish punk developed into new styles of alternative rock, which included bands such as That Petrol Emotion, My Bloody Valentine, and Ash. Also in the 1990s, pop bands like Boyzone, Westlife, and B*Witched emerged. Since the 2000s, the Irish pop/rock scene has continued to grow with well-established, popular acts such as Snow Patrol, The Coronas, Two Door Cinema Club, and The Script.
In general, Irish society is relatively more conservative than other European and American countries due to its long history and connection with the Roman Catholic Church. Most people in Ireland are Roman Catholic, and up until the 1990s the church extended a wide reach into all aspects of Irish society. Even though the church’s role has diminished over the past two decades, religion still impacts society’s views on family, marriage, and abortion, and you will find that many of Ireland’s older generations are still very orthodox in their beliefs.
The basic greeting is a nice firm handshake and a hello (or salutation appropriate for the time of the day). It is expected that you will maintain eye contact with the person you are talking to, and even if you do not know your partner in conversation very well, the Irish are a bunch of chummy blokes (and dames), so don’t be surprised when the conversation takes a friendly turn.
Of course, there are certain topics that should be avoided during casual conversation. Unless you’re very familiar with your companions, steer well away from The Troubles (see the History section for more information), as well as religion. And remember that the Irish have probably come across more leprechaun jokes than they have pints of Guinness, so unless you want to participate in a pub brawl, don’t reference any little green men or pots of gold. (Lucky Charms cereal may also cause trouble.)
The Irish have turned speaking into an art form. Like your average folks, the Irish appreciate modesty and are suspicious of loudmouths and braggarts, so please don’t talk to the Irish as you would talk to frat boys.
Communication styles vary from direct to indirect depending on who you are speaking to; however, there is a tendency for the Irish to view politeness as more important than absolute truth. It’ll be wise to keep that rule in mind, especially after a few pints of Guinness.
Finally, while it is common in the US to flip only the middle finger to tell someone to “bug off,” the Irish flip both their middle and index finger, forming a V shape. However, take note that “flipping the bird” is only insulting when you position your hand so that your palm is facing you. If your palm is facing away from you, then you’ve messed up and have just signaled to everyone that you’re a dirty hippie.
The Irish have a reputation for their wit and humor, which they call “having a crack.” They like to combine dry, wry humor with quick jokes, which make the Irish eloquent and well-informed speakers. They take pride in being able to find humor in nearly every situation, and they are often self-deprecating and ironic. It is not unusual for the Irish to trade well-meaning insults or to tease one another when engaged in conversation with good friends (called “slagging”). If you are teased, remember not to take it personally. And again, refrain from unleashing the pot o’ leprechaun jokes you have mentally stored.
Even though the Irish are relatively light-hearted and easy to share a good joke with, there are several topics that you should definitely not address. Please don’t talk about homosexuality or abortion, as a majority of the Irish are very religious and conservative when it comes to social values. Never refer to the Republic of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. And finally, never refer to someone or call someone a “mick” (a derogatory term for an Irishman) or “Briton”, as this is considered a major insult.