For a city with a population of fewer than 80,000 souls, Galway certainly tends to punch above its weight.
Recently designated a UNESCO City of Film, and currently in the reckoning to become European Capital of Culture in 2020, it was voted the friendliest city in the world by a New York-based magazine late last year.
According Travel + Leisure magazine, Galway stood out due to its festive nature, lively population, and the love of music which ensures you will always find a talented busker on the city’s narrow streets or a rousing session in one of its hospitable pubs.
More than 23,000 full-time students help the city’s bars to maintain a thriving trade through the wet and windy winter months, but it’s in summer time that Ireland’s western capital really comes into its own.
There is hardly a weekend between April and October when the city’s citizens are not celebrating one festival or another, from the major international Arts Festival in July to raucous celebrations of film, literature, music, theater, and all things culinary.
If you do happen to visit the City of the Tribes during the forthcoming peak season, for what it’s worth, here is a local’s guide to the ten pubs you must visit if you really want to sample the best of the night life the city has to offer.
11 Forster Street.
This pub underwent a major renovation after new owners took it over a couple of years ago, but thankfully the new-look An Pucan has become a huge favorite on the locals’ social scene. Boasting live music seven nights a week, good food, and a cavernous beer garden, the pub is a hit with students and young professionals at weekends.
Also popular with sports fans, the pub has become a 21st century Galway institution and regularly wins awards for the quality and innovation of its social media campaigns.
Once a small grocery and bar, O’Connell’s boasts a fantastic location in the heart of the city. Overlooking the green space in John F. Kennedy Park, where the late US President addressed a huge crowd just months before his assassination in 1963, it has been trading solely as a pub since the 1970s. It also has one of the best beer gardens in the city.
A preserved building, the pub’s stunning, traditional décor includes tiled floors and stained glass windows, with historic photographs on the walls. It attracts a diverse clientele throughout the year, although it is particularly popular with professionals (who frequent the pub after work in the early evenings) and rugby fans. The home ground of the Connacht rugby team, currently enjoying their best ever season, is just a five minute stroll away.
If you wander the narrow streets of Galway in search of a lively, impromptu traditional music session, chances are you will end up in this pub in the heart of the pedestrian zone. During the peak tourist season it can be almost impossible to get a table, as many of the region’s finest musicians are regularly found here belting out the tunes free of charge. ‘Tig’, incidentally, is Gaelic for “the house of” and affable owner Coili is hugely popular with the punters.
Often the musicians just sit around a table, without any amplification, so getting in early to grab a good vantage point should be at the top of your priorities for the evening. The pub has an attractive outdoor seating area, where you can watch the world go by on sunny afternoons. Some of the city’s best buskers regularly set up for the day right outside the front door.
There is nothing particularly notable about the décor or lay-out of this pub, tucked away beside a canal on the west side of the River Corrib. A lot of Galway pubs are brighter, breezier, and bigger, but none can match the sheer variety of craft beers available at The Salt House. This place boasts 120 varieties of bottled craft beers from all around the world, and 21 different types of beer on draught at any one time.
The bar staff here are knowledgeable and passionate about their beers, so much so that they love to make recommendations about their favorite brews. You could spend an entire week sampling the wide variety of beers here, some of which are brewed locally in Galway. Just don’t ask for a Guinness or a Heineken when you make it to the top of the queue!
17 Cross Street
Local comedian John Donnellan recently quipped that you need to drink in Tigh Neachtain at least three or four nights a week if you are to be considered a “serious artist” in Galway. There was an element of truth to his provocative claim, as many a novel, poem, or screenplay was conjured up – if not quite completed – within the pub’s four walls.
With a splendid location in the heart of the city’s Latin Quarter, good food from the stylish restaurant upstairs, open fireplaces, and live music, this has been a firm favorite with a Bohemian clientele for decades. It’s also a great place to watch the world go by from the outside seating area in high summer.
This new pub in the historic Woodquay area showcases the boom in craft beers which has taken place across Ireland over the past five years or so. With 18 types of beer on draught, you will be spoiled for choice when you enter this friendly bar, which is a big hit with the city’s sports fans and native Irish speakers.
Although it’s one of the newest additions to the Galway pub scene, the affable Fergus McGinn has over two decades of experience in the pub trade behind him. Killer pizzas and slow roast meats cooked around a wood-fired oven set this premises apart from the competition.
19 Shop Street
Just up the street from Tig Coili, this is another pub which has been synonymous with music in Galway for many years. Amplification is actively encouraged here as guest bands blast out the ballads and rebel songs for a young, lively crowd.
The pub has been owned by the Lally family, who’ve had strong connections with both the Connemara Gaeltacht and Galway’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) teams for many years. It’s a great place to sing along to ballads, to watch a GAA game in summer, or to hear locals speaking their native tongue.
Dominick Street Upper
This cavernous venue spanning three floors is a Galway institution, owned and run by the same family for decades. You can find traditional Irish set-dancing, rousing ballads, and good food on the ground floor; while the late night upstairs bar features visiting acts seven nights a week.
Late night bars have taken over from night clubs somewhat on the Galway social scene in recent years, and venues such as Monroe’s, the Front Door, and The Dail cater for those who want to enjoy a late drink after the ‘normal’ pub closing time.
Lower Dominick Street
Just a stone’s throw away from Monroe’s, you will find the city’s other main live music venue in the part of the city known to locals as “The West.” Roisin Dubh is probably the best place to see touring live international and national rock bands in Galway, while it also provides a welcome stage for emerging local artists.
Some of Ireland’s best live acts, such as Le Galaxie, Villagers, and Two Door Cinema Club started playing free shows here on Thursday nights and the venue is also a huge hit with the city’s comedy fans. Management at the Roisin also put on occasional gigs at bigger venues such as the Seapoint ballroom in Salthill, and co-promote the music program for the Big Top at the Galway International Arts Festival in July.
The sleepy seaside suburb of Salthill might not have the night life to match Galway’s thriving city center, but it boasts one of the most attractive pubs in the city in O’Connor’s, which has been run by the same family since 1942.
First established in 1845, the pub is as famous for its hospitality as its free live music sessions. One of the country’s original singing pubs, its décor has to be seen to be believed. Not too many pubs across Ireland boast a bicycle hanging from the ceiling!
For more of Aidan Coughlan’s photos, visit his Facebook page.