Galway has many colourful and distinctive districts, despite its small size and population. This is partly due to the city's age and partly due to its recent rapid growth. Like many older European cities, the periods of history which the city has witnessed have left their mark on the central and outlying areas.
The city centre is that of a small, coastal town with its roots in the thirteenth century. The streets are narrow and the older buildings cluster cosily together. In this area of the city, many of the buildings and architectural artifacts still testify to Galway's long history.
The focal point of the city centre is John F. Kennedy Park, or as it is still known by the locals (Galwegians), Eyre Square . Re-named in the 1970s, JFK Park is a picture postcard scene of greenery and trees, the openness of which is in contrast to the narrow streets which mark each corner. Home to the old city gates and its defending cannon, the vista provided gives a glimpse into the Galway's less than peaceful past. One of the more peaceful residents of the Square is Padraig O Conaire. Renowned writer and carouser, O Conaire's statue has stood (almost) undisturbed since its erection in the first half of the 1900s. JFK Park is also home to a more modern sculpture, the 'Galway Hooker', which despite its suggestive name, is none other than a sculpture of a type of fishing boat used in the waters around Galway Bay for well over one hundred years.
For those fond of nightlife, the city centre will not fail to please. The greatest concentration of pubs and clubs is to be found in the centre, with practically every taste catered for. Galway is famous for its live music, particularly the traditional music sessions, often impromptu, which can be found in many of the pubs in the central area.
Galway is a coastal city, and has its own Docklands area. Previously a less than attractive section of the city, the dockside has been revamped beyond recognition. New attractive apartment blocks have replaced warehouses and storage containers. While most of the oceangoing traffic passing through the Galway docks is commercial, it is not uncommon to see pleasure boats docked here, and if you are lucky, you may be witness to the breathtaking sight of a fully rigged clipper ship moored for a short stay.
As we head north-west of the city centre, the next area of note is the Claddagh. The original town encompassed little more than the Claddagh, and true to this tradition, there is still a king (of sorts) in residence in the area. While the 'King of the Claddagh' has no administrative or ruling power, he is still an indelible feature of this characterful place, the residents of which are intensely proud of their heritage as residents of the original sea-side town which became Galway. The world famous Claddagh Ring is named after this area also, and while the jury is still out on the origin of this evocative design, it would be ill-advised to question its authenticity as a historical object unique to Galway in the earshot of any true Galwegian.
Further along the coast is the seaside resort of Salthill. Salthill has traditionally been the destination of choice for generations of sea lovers. Most of the development in and around Salthill took place in the last forty years, but the lengthy beaches have been an attraction for locals and visitors alike for much longer. Salthill was originally a seaside resort in the same vein as north-west England's Blackpool, although on a smaller scale. However, the last ten years has seen much investment and development in the area to ensure that it keeps right up to the mark when it comes to an enjoyable seaside holiday.
The road west from Salthill leads into picturesque Barna and Furbo, villages worth visiting for their scenic qualities alone. These areas also mark the beginning of the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area). This region is steeped in old Irish culture, and the native Irish language is often predominant, with English spoken only to accommodate outsiders.
The Gaeltacht area is not only along the coastline. Bleak and rugged Connemara to the north and west of Galway city is also part of this culturally rich vicinity. Much of this area is included within the Connemara National Park and so is protected from unsympathetic development. From Newcastle, in the north of Galway city, the road leads towards Moycullen and on to Oughterard, where, like its seaside relatives, the Irish language and culture still flourish.
Newcastle Road, to the east of the city, is also the address of the National University of Ireland, Galway (University College Galway). This split-personality university is rich in old-school academic values and tradition on the one hand, yet is right up to date with the newest technological developments. This can be seen quite clearly in the architecture of the many buildings which comprise the university. The original university buildings, which date from the mid-nineteenth century, combine with the latest in contemporary building design. A visit to Galway is never complete without a visit to its oldest seat of education.
The south-eastern parts of Galway tend more towards the residential, with Galway's oldest housing estate, Mervue, to be found on the main Galway-Dublin road. Also in this area are Ballybane and Renmore. This off-centre development of the city gives a slightly unbalanced picture of its population, with most of the residential density on one side of the city. This gives rise to a community spirit which may be less and less a factor in urban and suburban living, but is still a central part of Galway life.
South of the city lies Co. Clare, home of the Burren. This region has also been designated a National Park and is home to a landscape unlike any other—the great limestone flagstones of the Burren shelter a ecosystem unique in the world. Finally, at the mouth of Galway Bay lie the Aran Islands. The three islands are included in the Galway Gaeltacht and maintain their own distinctive traditions in spite of the many visits from tourists. The landscape of the islands is bleak and unforgiving—great cliffs rise sheer from the sea and the magnificent ring fort of Dun Aenghus perches right on the cliff edge.
Galway's continuing expansion has led to an increase in the number and diversity of its cafes and restaurants. In contrast, the pubs have remained reassuringly unchanged. The superpub has not yet conquered Galway, and most drinking establishments concentrate on the quality of the Guinness instead of the hipness of the jukebox. Eating and drinking are leisurely pastimes in Galway, less hindered by the power lunch and after-work drinks traditions which plague other cities. Searching for sustenance is particularly easy as Galway's medieval city centre hosts numerous cafes and bars to suit a variety of wallet sizes.
McDonagh's , at the bottom of Quay Street, is the best place to go in Galway for fish and chips. These are so good here that they are elevated beyond their fast food status. McDonagh's also offers oysters and other shellfish in the adjoining restaurant. Further along Quay Street several restaurants jostle for your attention. Fat Freddy's , Trattoria Pasta Mista and Pierre Victoire specialise in reasonably priced, good food, and target visitors to the city. For something a little more innovative, try the River God Cafe , located above Tigh Neachtain's pub, which features Mediterranean cuisine. The portions are generous and the unexpectedly airy dining room provides great views of Quay Street. Alternatively, the Da Tang Noodle House is just around the corner on Middle Street, and offers a variety of Chinese dishes with homemade noodles, all prepared by the Chinese chef and served by his Irish wife. Pizzas with a variety of exotic toppings are available down the street at Milano, where you can savour your anchovies in studiously cool surroundings.
If your wallet has a healthy amount of plastic in it, you may want to have dinner at either Kirwan's Lane or Nimmo's , two places which are vying for the title of Galway's best restaurant. Both are located in the city centre; Nimmo's is just past the Spanish Arch overlooking the River Corrib, and Kirwan's Lane is situated on the narrow walkway of the same name. Nimmo's serves stunning seafood in a gorgeous upstairs room with lovely views of the river. The wine bar downstairs provides a perfect place to start or prolong your evening. Kirwan's Lane has a deserved reputation for innovative Irish cuisine, which is combined with usually impeccable service. In the best Galwegian tradition, both places will let you linger over your coffee or liqueurs.
If a search for Irish authenticity brings you to Galway's pubs, you'll be spoiled for choice. Tigh Neachtain's , on the corner of Quay Street and Cross Street, is far too comfortable to not spend the evening in. Fireplaces and traditional music combine to create a great atmosphere, while the cosy snugs are watched jealously for signs of vacating occupants. The Quays pub on Quay Street is a warm, cavernous space with lots of tucked away tables, which unfortunately can get fairly boisterous. It's also a favourite with the myriad backpackers who stay in the hostel across the street. The Front Door, also on Cross Street, incorporates the older O'Riada's pub, resulting in an acceptable interpretation of the superpub. Home to Galway's beautiful people at the weekends, the Front Door provides the perfect opportunity to meet the locals in their Saturday night finery. Dominick Street, just across the Corrib, contains several great pubs. The Crane features Galway's best traditional music sessions, while Roisin Dubh's is one of the best music venues in Ireland. Taylor's unapologetically unadorned interior provides a comfortable ambience; at least, the Beastie Boys thought so when they came here for some after-gig pints two summers ago.
Pubs and inexpensive restaurants also abound in nearby Salthill, which functions as a mini beach resort in the summer. The Ocean Palace on Upper Salthill, the neighbourhood's main street, offers traditional Chinese food, along with a few European dishes. Fans of Indian food should try Karachi, also on Upper Salthill, who also deliver. The pubs here cater to the locals in winter but throw their doors open to weekenders in the summertime; P.J's and O'Reilly's provide good pints and a warm atmosphere.
Some lovely restaurants are only a short scenic drive from Galway. Drimcong House in Oughterard is justly famous for its food; its chef has even published his own cookbook. Donnelly's of Barna, at the edge of Connemara, serves fantastic seafood in relaxed yet comfortable surroundings. The Moorings Hotel in Oranmore incorporates a fine restaurant, which features game and seafood dishes. If you're willing to venture further afield to Clifden, you'll be rewarded with a choice of fine seafood restaurants and see some beautiful scenery along the way. Fogarty's restaurant is one of the nicest in the area, recognizable by its thatched roof and serving a wide range of dishes.