The Ireland Diaries: Galway and Further Afield
"To go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind." -- William Butler Yeats
As we headed towards the coastal city of Galway, the idyllic fields of the east and south were transformed into beautiful cliffs and seasides dotted with small beach towns.
The scenic drive to Galway and Kylemore, known as the Ring of Kerry, is home to some of Ireland's most popular natural attractions, including the captivating Cliffs of Moher and the ancient Ailwee Cave.
We were told by Irish locals that bustling Galway, which was hosting their renowned summer horse racing festival the weekend we were there, is second only to Dublin, and that it houses numerous highly-acclaimed seafood restaurants and lots of exciting historic monuments and neighborhoods.
Keep scrolling to see some of my favorite seafood eats during our stay, an almost 2 million-year-old cave, Galway's exciting blend of the past and the present, and a trip back in time with Yeats, before we head to the Aran Islands tomorrow.
Cliffs of Moher
As Ireland's most-visited natural attraction, the Cliffs of Moher boasted a special status on my list of sightseeing spots.
Running for five miles along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean, the Cliffs are a familiar sight, having been featured in a slew of movies like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Princess Bride, and Leap Year.
While the spot is an undeniable tourist trap and any traveler will find him or herself waiting to take photos along the coastline, it does offer some creature comforts like a cafe and nice indoor facilities to wait out the rain in addition to its stunning panoramic coastline. Trust me: it's almost a requirement to see the Cliffs when you go to Ireland.
The outside advertisements leading up to the 1.5 million-year-old Ailwee Cave can be a bit misleading. It's almost kitschy, with banners advertising a Birds of Prey exhibit and a chance to see the bats in action. That being said, the ancient cave system itself is a spelunker's dream with an underground river and waterfall dotted with some of the most impressive stalactites and stalagmites in the country.
A tour guide led us through the dark halls of the cave, which was discovered by a farmer in 1944 and finally brought to public knowledge in 1973. Several fossils of bears can be seen inside the den, which are almost dwarfed by the fascinating stalagmite and stalactite growths along the walls.
While the cave is certainly not for the claustrophobic, it was one of my favorite attractions from my trip to Ireland, and a definite must-see location for a traveler looking for something off the beaten path, and perhaps hoping to feel a little like Indiana Jones.
Several small streams and a breathtaking waterfall are scattered through the winding tunnels, and the guide informed us that the large chamber at the end can completely flood in a matter of hours. A tunnel in the back, which is not open to visitors, requires scuba diving gear and air tanks to explore.
As I noted earlier, this western harbor city rivals Dublin's cosmopolitan vibe with its scenic seaside and excellent seafood offerings, a well-preserved historic center and monuments, and plenty of natural beauty to go around.
History buffs can take a walk along the city's colorful Latin Quarter, which houses the famed Quay Street and sections of existing medieval walls -- which rub shoulders with the lively pubs, shops and live music acts lining the streets.
We stayed at a bed and breakfast near the Salthill Promenade, which was conveniently situated near the harbor and the city center, where we headed to check out Galway Cathedral (the last stone cathedral to be completed in Europe) and some shopping.
I recommend taking an afternoon to wander the winding streets of the ancient section of the city and take in sights like historic restaurants or the original Claddagh ring, or head to nearby Connemara National Park for a day of natural beauty.
Nighttime in Galway boasts plenty of exciting live music offerings, which you can enjoy after trying some of the city's highly-acclaimed seafood eats (I recommend Oscar's on Dominick Street, which has earned itself a spot on the Michelin Guide).
Moran's World Famous Oyster Cottage
While making our way to Yeats' home at Thoor Ballylee, we stopped for lunch at one of the most highly-rated seafood spots in the area. Housed off of an unpaved road, the unassuming thatched-roofed white cottage -- which has been around for 250 years and is run by the seventh generation of the Moran family -- transformed from a modest bar to a bustling restaurant when we stepped in.
Finely dressed men and women dined and socialized as they got ready to view the races in Galway with a spot of fresh seafood. I thoroughly enjoyed my choice of mussels in a tomato broth, while my sister and dad went with delectably fresh buttered crab claws and a prawn salad. Definitely a must-try restaurant for any seafood lover!
W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet that was at the forefront of 20th century literature, wasn't shy about vocalizing his love affair with the countryside of Ireland. He set up residence in a renovated 15th century stone fortress in Gort, which he renamed Thoor Ballylee (also known as Yeats' Tower), and enjoyed the literary companionship of fellow writers who also settled in the area, including Lady Gregory.
Admission to the tower includes tea and biscuits, an exhibit detailing the poet's many loves and muses, and the role the tower and its scenic surroundings -- where he famously recalled, "To go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind" -- had on his writing.
While the tower itself was interesting, I almost felt some literary inspiration of my own as I wandered through the grounds where the poet would apparently talk aloud as he struggled to compose his next piece. While it's a little out of the way, Thoor Ballylee is definitely a must-see for any aspiring writer.
Notable Eat of the Day: Oscar's Seafood Bistro *****
My favorite meal while in Ireland was enjoyed at Oscar's Bistro, which offers fine, freshly caught seafood which is sourced from local fishermen. Specials vary daily based on the season's offerings, but I was obsessed with the firm but mouth-melting monkfish and mussels that I enjoyed that evening.