Henry McDonald, The Guardian, February 03, 2014
Have no fear … Galway is regarded as one of the safest and most-relaxed cities in Ireland. The "capital" of the ancient Irish western province of Connaught is also something of a cosmopolitan spot, with a fifth of its population falling into the non-Galwegian category. Add in the 17,000 students who arrive each autumn at its university and you have a small city with an international feel. Galway is known in Ireland as the "city of festivals", with a season that climaxes in the arts festival. The July festival attracts 165,000 people annually, involve 500 artists and use 29 venues. But, whenever you arrive, you will probably find a festival, literary event or cultural shingdig going on. It's why culture vultures find the city, particularly the arts-and-music quarter that straddles the river Corrib, a refreshing alternative to Dublin.
Start the day with genuine Irish hospitality and a late breakfast at the Cupán Tae tea rooms on Quay Lane. Sip a pot of its Galway Cream Tea (€6.95) from antique bone china cups while also munching on melt-in-the-mouth feta cheese tart or gluten-free sweet treats such as beetroot and chocolate cake. With more than 30 specialist brews on offer, tea lovers will be in seventh heaven.
Just across the road from Cupán Tae and close to the Spanish Arch is the Galway City Museum. Don't be put off by its glass-fronted, modernist exterior: the museum is home to a number of fascinating artefacts, including a full-size Galway Hooker boat suspended from one of its ceilings and a moving permanent archive of the men from Connaught Rangers who died in world wars and other campaigns for the British army regiment.
Galway has a reputation for being at the forefront of Ireland's organic food movement. Sample the culinary best of the west at lunch in restaurant-cafe Kai on Sea Road, on the western side of the river Corrib. The decor is recycled, with jam jars turned into light holders dangling above tables while the fresh, organic produce has rustic touches. It is a must for fish food lovers with dishes such as delicately cooked whiting fish fingers with tangy pesto-based tartare sauce; or the Connemara Smokehouse board with locally sourced smoked salmon and peppered mackerel accompanied by homemade brown bread. Carnivores won't be disappointed, especially by beef and chickpea pies that have such crisp, perfectly formed crusts that you'll feel guilty breaking them up with your fork.
Take a bracing stroll with the energetic Conor Riordan on his erudite Legend Quest Tour of Galway city. Meet Conor outside Lynch's Castle in Shop Street, named after one of the 13 legendary tribes who founded Galway. From there follow him to St Nicholas' Church, completed in 1320 and the largest medieval church still used as a place of worship in Ireland. Now an Anglican church, there are signs of Cromwellian vandalism, such as angels' faces smashed by the iconoclastic Roundhead soldiers, and, intriguingly, a memorial tablet to a Galwegian Jane Eyre – local legend has it she was the inspiration for Charlotte Brontë's heroine.
Relax with wine and cheese upstairs at Sheridans Cheesemongers in Church Yard Street, directly facing St Nicholas's. Saturday is a great day to sample its wines from France, Portugal, Spain and Italy as there is a weekly organic fruit and veg market outside.
Culture lovers should check out what's on at one of Galway's cultural hotspots, the Druid Theatre in Druid Lane, a respected home of Irish drama that has launched the careers of internationally acclaimed directors and playwrights, such as Garry Hynes and Martin McDonagh.
No trip to Galway is complete without a visit, and the odd pint or two, at Tigh Neachtain's in Cross Street. In autumn, winter and early spring there are fires in the bar's nooks while musicians play impromptu sessions of traditional Irish music amid the clink of glasses and the sweetish aroma of turf smoke. Other pubs worth checking out further up towards Eyre Square are Murphy's Bar and, directly facing it on High Street, Freeney's, which seems as popular with the locals as the blow-ins.
For cheap and cheerful eating try Fat Freddy's (+353 91 567 279), a chilled out pizzeria in Quay Street with friendly waiting staff. Also try: La Salsa (+353 91 539 700) on Mainguard Street is a quirky Tex-Mex that also caters for vegetarians and vegans. Its meal deals start at €7.95.
Some Galway bars don't close until 2am and there is a lively, relatively safe, late-night scene. Even in the wee small hours buskers and street entertainers will ply their trade among the throngs. The Quays on Quay Street is one of the most famous late-night pubs and even has a huge church organ in its upstairs Music Hall.
Sarah Clancy, Galway-based award-winning poet
Galway Stories (edited by Lisa Frank, £18.49) works both as a collection of short fiction about the city and its environs, and as an unusual tourist guide. The majority of its 20 short stories are set in a significant corner of Galway and it acts as a kind of literary compass guiding you around the city. The short stories are published by the Connemara-based Doire Press publishing house
Where to stay
The House Hotel is a rather fancy boutique-style hotel with funky furniture, helpful staff and a late bar. It is in Spanish Parade, in the city's Latin Quarter (which is a good central location for visitors), and has rooms from €75 per person, B&B. An alternative to a hotel is to rent one of the all-mod-cons apartments behind the medieval walls in 15 Kirwan Court. Contact Joe Ronan at [email protected] or check out views of the court – where ancient stone masonry meets postmodern hip – online at daft.ie/holiday-homes/galway
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk