At the mouth of Galway Bay, off the west coast of Ireland, you’ll find three islands where the locals speak Irish and the pace of life is slow and steady. Inishmore is the largest and most-visited of the Aran Islands; Inishmaan is the second largest; and Inisheer is the smallest.
The limestone landscape can be harsh and exposed to the elements, but the people hare hardy and always eager to introduce you to their home. While the locals all speak English and don’t mind doing so with their guests, it’s worth your time to learn the culture and appreciate the language.
From Galway city
Most people come to explore the Aran Islands from Galway city, where ticket offices downtown sell bus and ferry combo passes. Buses tend to depart early in the morning, as tourists generally opt for the day trip, but even the largest island can be thoroughly explored in one afternoon.
After a short drive to Rossaveal, you’ll be directed to your ferry. Several ferries run to and from the islands, but your bus will point you in the right direction. Sit near the window if you can—I was lucky enough to have a convoy of dolphins escorting us along the way!
From County Clare
Seasonal ferries operate from Doolin in County Clare, from mid-March to the end of October. Like Galway, you can buy bus/ferry combo tickets, but the journey is a little longer.
Fly with Aer Arann Islands
This might be the shortest flight in the world; Aer Arann Islands from Inverin to Inishmore only takes seven minutes, but be sure to book in advance.
Inishmore is the largest and most populated of the islands, at a whopping 840 citizens. If you want solitude, you’ve found it! Even on the busiest island. Most visitors come here because it’s easiest to access and navigate, so be prepared to bump shoulders with other tourists.
You have several ways to get around: horse and carriage, a private taxi minibus, on-foot, or bicycle. I recommend forking over the 20EUR for bicycle hire—even if you’re a novice rider, you’ll have tons of space on the road, and some huge Atlantic Ocean views. I stepped off the ferry with hundreds of other people, but found myself often alone on the roads for long stretches of time.
As soon as you step off the ferry, you’ll find several bike rental shops around the dock. Feel free to shop around, but you’ll find most deals are the same.
If you’re with a group of friends, renting a van taxi is fairly inexpensive, and guides will cater to your schedule with flexibility. The horse-and-carriage gig is bit of a novelty—it isn’t quick, and it isn’t as affordable, but it’s fun!
Since this is a tourist hotspot, you’ll find lots of bed and breakfasts, hotels, and even hostels for an overnight stay.
What to do
You could spend all day cycling Inishmore, and the experience is worth it. You’ll pass tiny clusters of cottages and homes, abandoned churches and stone foundations of forgotten buildings, and derelict pubs where chickens own the front garden. Pause and listen to the carriage and cab drivers chatting in Irish, or stop for a pint of Guinness at Joe Watty’s. Even if you’re traveling solo, you’re never in harm’s way—even the cab drivers waved and smiled at me as they passed on the road. I passed an elderly Irish man along one stretch of trail, and he tipped his hat to me with a smile and welcomed me to his island.
The biggest highlight is Dun Aengus, a Bronze Age and Iron Age fort on the edge of the Atlantic. Admission is only 3EUR, but you’ve got bit of a climb (330 feet) to reach the fort at the top of the stone stairs.
The view is worth it, and in my opinion, rivals the Cliffs of Moher. The barren, karst landscape drops from sharp heights into the ocean from inside the fort, and you’re free to wander the edge. If ancient archaeology is your thing, you should also check out Dun Ducathair (the Black Fort). Oddly, little is known about either fort, but the scale of the foundations dating back thousands of years ago will give you a humble sense of ancient history.
You’ll also find a tropical-looking beach with tons of white sand here, known as Portmurvy. The bicycle path takes you straight to it, and you’re free to swim and sunbathe if weather permits.
Only 160 people live here, making it the quietest of the three islands. Inishmaan doesn’t have the convenience of minibuses or bicycle hires, but the winding roads and trails make it easy to get around on foot. Rumor has it you can also hire an informal local guide for as little as 5EUR.
What to do
Relax! You’re on the ocean and all is quiet. There are few places in the world left where you can find such a retreat.
Along the coast, there are several empty beaches and ruins of early settlements. The fort of Dun Chonchuir is one to check out. Summer is the best time to come, once the wild flowers are in bloom and the ocean winds don’t bite as severely. You might want to check out Synge’s Chair as well, a lookout on the edge of a limestone cliff. The famous writer John Millington Synge reportedly used to sit here and seek inspiration.
There are a few bed and breakfasts for overnighting, but if you’re on a tighter budget, you can pitch a tent just about anywhere. Seriously, nobody minds.
This is the most eastern of the Aran Islands, and has a population of about 300 (which makes it seem like a big city in comparison to Inishmaan). Many people prefer this island of the three, as it has all the amenities and creature comforts of Inishmore but without the hoards of visitors.
Walking around the island is the best way to do it. You’ll see all the main sites on route, and it doesn’t take a great deal of time. Like Inishmore, however, you can also rent bicycles, a horse-and-carriage, or a “wanderly wagon” (a tractor and converted trailer providing tours). Again, you can find all these from the dock.
What to do
There are several traditional pubs and restaurants on the island, where you’ll likely find a good trad session and folks all willing to join you for a tipple.
Noc Raithni is the most popular destination on the island—a monument discovered in 1885 thanks to a storm, which exposed the ruins. It dates back to the Bronze Age (1500 BC) and was used as a burial ground. If you’re into shipwrecks, The Plassey makes for some great photo opportunities and is located about an hour’s walk from the dock.
Like the other islands, Inisheer has no shortage of accommodations suitable for all budgets. You’ll find it refreshing how laid-back and accepting the locals, and should you come across trouble, you’ll never be stranded!
Learn more about things to do on the Aran Islands
– Candice Walsh