Things to Do in Western Ireland
Covering an area of more than 115 square miles (300 square kilometers), the Burren is a vast, otherworldly expanse of scarred and fissured limestone rock, naturally sculpted through acidic erosion. Though it may look barren from afar, this rocky plateau is anything but lifeless. In spring and summer, wildflowers and rare plants thrive here.
Said to be one of Ireland’s most beautiful estates, Westport House and Gardens is a heritage attraction on the country’s west coast. With more than 30 rooms open to the public, the 18th-century home offers guided tours telling the story of its owners and connection to Grace O’Malley, the famed pirate queen.
Flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland’s west coast, Galway Bay laps the shores of some of the country’s most picturesque stretches of coastline. With the three windswept Aran Islands at its periphery, the bay meets land at the artsy city of Galway and numerous fishing villages, coastal cliffs, and beaches.
Sitting on an outcrop jutting into Galway Bay, the 16th-century Dunguaire Castle appears like a fairy-tale vision to drivers traversing the coastal road, prompting many to pull over and reach for a camera. The site housed prominent local clans for centuries before famous Irish surgeon, poet, and playwright Oliver St. John Gogarty bought it in 1924. He then turned it into a hangout for Ireland’s literary elite, including Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, Seán O'Casey, and George Bernard Shaw. Today, most travelers admire the castle from afar, though some do venture inside.
Set off Ireland’s craggy, wind-battered Atlantic coast on the western edge of Europe, this trio of sparsely populated and starkly beautiful islands is a stronghold of traditional Irish culture. The Aran Islands’ jagged coastal cliffs enclose a patchwork of green fields, where the remnants of ancient stone forts and medieval churches can be seen, while in their one- and two-pub towns, locals trade gossip in Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) and traditional music sessions last well into the night.
Even though it’s only seven miles long, Clifden’s Sky Road feels like a journey through all of Connemara and time. When driving this winding, rural road, views look down on the town of Clifden and its two iconic spires—which is a view you’re sure to see on any postcard of Western Ireland or Connemara. Behind the town are the 12 Bens hills, standing brown, rugged, and proud, and as the drive loops around away from town, views stretch out to the offshore islands and the open Atlantic Sea. Aside from the sweeping landscape views, ancient castles and historic mansions are around every bend in the road. At the 19th century Clifden Castle—built in a Gothic style—visitors can walk the dirt road that leads right up to the castle. Another stroll is up Memorial Hill and offers famous view of Clifden, and by turning uphill at the fork in the road, the drive climbs past the old Coast Guard station to 500 feet above sea level. There is a small parking lot near the road’s summit, where whitewashed cottages appear as flecks on the misty, wave battered coast. The Sky Road has often been called one of Ireland’s most scenic drives, and seeing as it’s just a short loop from Clifden, is an Irish road trip that any Connemara visitor with a car can enjoy.
Standing along the edge of Kylemore Lake, the neo-Gothic Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden is every inch a storybook castle. Built in 1868, the abbey’s construction employed grateful locals still reeling from the Irish Potato Famine. Today, the resident Benedictine nuns welcome the public into parts of the abbey and the grounds.
Dunguaire Castle’s Medieval Banquet offers an evening of music and storytelling along with traditional food and wine. Once the home of noble medieval lords, the 500-year-old castle sits on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay. Today, the picturesque fortress’s medieval-themed banquet hall is the place to go for a fun night of revelry.
One of Ireland’s most-photographed ancient sites, the Poulnabrone Dolmen—comprising a long slab of rock placed horizontally on top of several upright slabs—has stood on this lonely limestone plateau for 5,000 years. It marks the site of a mass grave containing the remains of ancient people buried here between 3800 and 3200 BC.
A Galway landmark on the banks of the River Corrib, the Spanish Arch is the remains of a late 16th century bastion designed to protect the city. Located in the heart of Galway, the Spanish Arch is a short walk from other city landmarks including the Claddagh and the Galway City Museum.
More Things to Do in Western Ireland
Stretching for 69 square miles, Lough Corrib is a lake in the west of Ireland that straddles County Galway and County Mayo. It is a famous place for fishing, especially for its wild brown trout and salmon. The lake has inspired many writers and artists over centuries, including Oscar Wilde’s father—the historian William Wilde—who wrote a book about Lough Corrib.
Constructed in the 1960s, Galway Cathedral is among the youngest cathedrals in Ireland and one of Europe’s youngest stone cathedrals. While it’s a relatively modern build, the cathedral borrows elements from architectural eras past, with Renaissance, Romanesque, and Gothic detailing combined with Irish artwork and adornments.
Dating back hundreds of thousands of years, the Doolin Cave sits within Ireland’s Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark. The main attraction is the 24-foot-long (7.3-meter-long) Great Stalactite, one of the world’s largest free-hanging stalactites. Besides cave tours, there’s a farmland nature trail, a café, and a gift shop.
The village of Cong, located on the border of County Galway and County Mayo, in western Ireland, is known for its thatched-roof cottages and its connection to John Wayne’s Oscar-winning film The Quiet Man. The ruins of Cong Abbey, which date back to the 13th century, are a popular sight and a lovely spot for a stroll.
This museum focuses on the history of Galway, with exhibitions covering everything from the traditional Galway hooker boat to local literary figures. Among the items in the collection are prehistoric stone ax-heads, a medieval cannonball, and an execution warrant for Myles Joyce, a local who was wrongfully hanged for murder in 1882.
The Twelve Bens range rises on the horizon while fishing boats bob in the water at the picturesque Roundstone Harbour. Behind the harbor is Roundstone village, a colorful cluster of houses, craft shops, and galleries, as well as pubs, cafes, and restaurants specializing in seafood hauled in fresh from the Atlantic.
Sandy beaches and a windswept coastline draw travelers to Salthill, one of Ireland’s popular seaside resorts located on the cusp of Galway Bay. A two-kilometer seafront promenade with panoramic views is home to bars, restaurants, and hotels. The summer months draw locals and international travelers alike for swimming, sunbathing, boating, and snorkeling.
Set among green pastures, this 15th-century stone complex—once the home of Franciscan friars—now lies in ruins, peaceful and eerily empty, with tombstones dotted throughout the site. Inside, visitors can explore the roofless remains, including the church, cloister, kitchen area, and living quarters.
The Galway Arts Centre is a cultural institution supporting local talent in visual art, writing, theater, photography, and more. It first opened in 1988 and over the decades has showcased a variety of both Irish and international contemporary art. In addition to its galleries, the centre has an event space for readings, performances, and classes. There’s also a darkroom for hire.
Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus) is the most-visited of several prehistoric forts around the Aran Islands, which lie west of Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and named after a mythical Irish king and pre-Christian god, the semi-circular stone fort dates back to the Bronze Age and offers insight into ancient Ireland.
Set in green fields next to the River Shannon, this monastic complex was founded in the 6th century by St. Ciarán and served as a center for Christian learning in Ireland. An air of spirituality still hangs in the air amid the scattering of stone ruins; among them a cathedral, churches, round towers, high crosses, and grave markers.
Located on the wave-beaten western edge of Ireland, this former fisherman’s village is known for its traditional Irish music scene. Every night, patrons squeeze into a trio of popular pubs to listen to fiddlers, singers, flutists, tin whistlers, and bodhrán (a traditional Irish drum) players take part in toe-tapping jam sessions.
The largest aquarium in Ireland is not in the capital city of Dublin, but along the west coast in Galway. Saltwater and freshwater species inhabit the tanks at Galway Atlantaquaria including seahorses, stingrays, eels, sharks, and a white skate nicknamed ‘Valentine’. One of the most popular exhibits is an enormous skeleton of a Fin Whale.
Westport House and Pirate Adventure Park make for an engaging day out for visitors of all ages. Wander more than 30 rooms in the 18th-century house, while learning the story of its owners and connection to Grace O’Malley, the famed pirate queen. Then, head over to the theme park for a ride on the swinging pirate ship or mini Ferris wheel.