Galway

Dublin had already changed my mind about Ireland with its rousing history and rebellious spirit, but Galway’s people and landscapes are what really made me fall in love with Ireland. Galway is artsy, bohemian, and filled with students, who are a large reason why the music scene here is one of the best in the country.

One of the first things we did was stumble into a free walking tour — the only walking tour that has ever made me tear up! Besides taking us on a fascinating walk through Galway and teaching us about its history (full of invaders) and cultural traditions, our guide — aware that the majority of tourists are Irish-Americans — spent a minute to affectionately acknowledge them. “We genuinely welcome you back. Your ancestors had to leave Ireland for a better life, and they succeeded. Because they succeeded, you are able to come back here today, and we are so, so proud of you.” What a welcome! I had never wanted to be Irish so badly!

During the tour, she brought us to a church that didn’t look like much, so when she told us that it was her favorite church in the world, I was intrigued. In 2002, the first public blessing for a same-sex couple in an Irish church occurred here. This Protestant church also allowed Catholics to worship here when their own church was being refurbished — a shocking gesture when you consider the history of Ireland. This church is regularly used by the Romanian & Russian Orthodox Churches, as well as a Syrian church. In a world full of division and hatred — especially between religions — this church exemplifies a type of humanity I wish I could see more of. Ireland may be known as a Catholic country, but the Irish people we met both in Dublin and Galway were all incredibly progressive.

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St. Nicholas Collegiate Church

Galway is compact, with brightly painted pubs and seafood restaurants filling the main roads. A salmon-stuffed river runs through the city, and a long waterfront promenade leads to Galway Bay. That was where I first encountered real Irish grass. I just could not get over this grass. We should be banning all sprinklers because this blindingly-green grass nourished naturally from the sky and sea (using seaweed fertilizer!) should be the only grass allowed around the world. Love songs should be written about it. I am not a nature person, but this landscape had me in awe. I’ve never seen anything like it. It made me want to put up with the nonstop rain.

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Grass in Galway

That night, I had the first oysters I’ve ever liked. Apparently the oysters are reason enough to visit Galway, which hosts an international oyster festival every year. Oysters from Galway Bay are huge, flat, and known as some of the best-flavored in the world. Although we only had two days in Galway, we ate oysters three times because I was so amazed by how good they were.

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Oysters with a shot of Guinness and salsa

The next morning we began our all-day tour with Galway Tour Company. When I saw the huge tour bus, I had flashbacks of Iceland, but fortunately summertime in Ireland is a lot more pleasant than wintertime in Iceland. Our tour guide did not make me tear up but he was hilarious and knew exactly how to make the drive entertaining: silly jokes and frequent rest stops. We stopped by a castle, a cemetery, and a charming town in which we filled up on delicious seafood chowder and homemade fudge, before finally arriving at the Cliffs of Moher.

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Dunguaire Castle

The Cliffs of Moher rise 702 feet nearly vertically above the Atlantic Ocean. Legend has it that there is a lost city called Kilstiffen beneath the Cliffs, but the shoreline was pummeled by an evil witch who lived there and fell in love with a hero of Irish mythology. He did not return her affection, so she pummeled the shoreline, giving the cliffs their distinctive shoreline. We spent about three hours here and I could’ve spent longer. Sure, we’ve seen coastlines before (I’m from Hawaii, after all), but there’s something particularly magical about the Cliffs of Moher — perhaps it’s the crisp air (the cleanest air in the world!), the perfect Irish grass everywhere, or the finicky weather (if it’s raining anywhere in the country, it’s on the western coasts of Ireland, so the fact that the skies eventually cleared up and didn’t rain a drop on us made it feel all the more special). They like to say that on a clear day, you can see the Statue of Liberty, reminding the Irish of their diaspora in America.

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Lounging on the softest grass
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Hello!
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Iconic view

When we returned to Galway that evening, we had about eight hours until our early morning bus ride to the airport. We spent that time strolling along the river, stuffing ourselves with oysters and Murphy’s ice cream (yes, there is a Murphy’s in Galway — thank goodness!), wasting time at bookstores, and having Anthony’s favorite meal of our entire trip at John Keogh’s.

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You know the steak is going to be good when an entire page of the menu is dedicated to it

When it was time to leave Ireland and hop over to France, I felt like a slightly different person. Our five days in Ireland had changed me in so many ways. I eat oysters now. I am fond of Irish accents, which until this trip I found unappealing. I am a grass snob. Most importantly, however, I have a new appreciation for the people of this stunning country.

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Tips for future travelers:

It’s astounding how convenient the bus system is in Ireland. Galway is on the other side of the country, but a comfortable Citylink bus took us straight from the Galway station to the airport in Dublin in just an hour and 20 minutes.

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Waiting for a Citylink bus

Oysters are probably good everywhere in Galway, but we tried them at McDonagh’s, John Keogh’s, and The King’s Head.

Besides oysters, eat ice cream at Murphy’s and flaky, savory pies at The Pie Maker.

We stayed at a charming bed & breakfast called Petra House, just a few minutes from the Latin Quarter. I always love breakfasts at B&Bs, but Petra House took it to another level. When we sat down in the breakfast room, we were given an entire menu to choose from. I chose a bangers and rashers, Anthony chose potato waffles, and then we shared porridge topped with Baileys liqueur. Each dish came with an Irish bread basket with fresh butter, coffee, and orange juice.

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The outside of our B&B
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Bangers & rashers
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Porridge with Baileys

Our free walking tour with Tribes was probably the best walking tour we’ve ever been on. Because it was free, guides work harder since their salary depends on tips. It was the perfect way to begin our time in Galway.

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Dublin

Ireland humbled me. I wasn’t excited to visit at all, but I ended up falling in love with the people, the landscapes, and surprisingly, even some of the food.

Anthony and I spent our first three nights in Dublin, staying at a bed & breakfast near St. Stephen’s Green. The location was perfect, as we were able to walk everywhere and appreciate the genteel Georgian homes in our neighborhood. Why does Dublin have so many colorful doors? After Queen Victoria died, England ordered Irish citizens to paint their doors black in mourning. The Irish rebelled. This rebellious spirit was one of the reasons I found Dublin so captivating. The Pope was scheduled to arrive in Dublin during the tail-end of our trip, and throughout the city were protest signs directed at him, demanding him to address the Church’s sex abuse scandals.

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These colorful doors all over Dublin are symbols of protest

Since it was my first time in Dublin, we did quite a few touristy things. We gawked at the stunning Long Room at Trinity College, which has the rights to receive materials published in Ireland and the United Kingdom free of charge.

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Long Room

We drank Guinness at the Guinness Storehouse, a huge pint glass-shaped structure with multiple floors of information and a panoramic view of Dublin at the top. We learned that a “perfect pour” takes 119.5 seconds: pour the Guinness at a 45° angle, then rest. This rest is crucial. After a pause – long enough so that the liquid in the glass is pitch black – fill the rest of the glass at a 45° angle. Serve with a creamy head and at exactly 42.8F.

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Drinking Guinness at the Storehouse bar at 10:00 am
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Look at that head!

We also toured Kilmhainham Gaol, a former prison where leaders of the uprisings against the British were executed, but also where many Irish convicted of petty crimes (such as stealing bread) were imprisoned. It was built for 100 prisoners but at one point held over 9,000. The youngest prisoner was 5 — held here for stealing an iron chain. Quality of life here was awful, but during the famine, people were so desperate for food that some committed crimes on purpose just so they could be imprisoned here and be fed.

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Kilmainham Gaol

My favorite activities, however, were drinking tea with a local Dubliner and joining a musical pub crawl. A small museum, appropriately called The Little Museum of Dublin, organizes a program called City of a Thousand Welcomes, in which Dubliners can volunteer to hang out with tourists for a beer or a coffee/tea. Our local Dubliner was a retired farmer who taught us about the Easter Uprising, explained the crazy weather in Ireland, and gave us tips on where to eat and how to avoid the Pope chaos tomorrow. Thanks to the program, we had a free afternoon tea at the lovely Merrion Hotel with him. Every major city should have this program! He only had to hang out with us for an hour, but after our leisurely tea, he walked with us through the rain to our next destination before heading back home on the commuter train. Our entire trip was a confirmation that the Irish really are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, but our Dublin friend also proved how helpful and out-of-the-way considerate they can be as well.

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Tea at the Merrion Hotel

A few hours later, we joined our musical pub crawl, which was probably the highlight of our time in Dublin. For about 3 hours, we followed a couple of professional musicians to different pubs, listening to Irish music and watching a private Riverdance performance. It was such an entertaining way to learn about the rivalries between Irish cities, as well as Irish stereotypes of other European countries.

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Musical pub crawl

Ireland has so often been an underdog throughout history, and as a nonwhite woman in America, I can’t help but relate to and root for the Irish. People often come to Ireland just for the countryside (which is completely understandable; the Irish countryside is otherworldly), but we were utterly charmed by Dublin. If not for the weather, which was a bit dreary for summertime, we could easily see ourselves living here.

Random tips for future travelers:

Roam around the Temple Bar neighborhood. Temple Bar had run into decay and ruin during the 20th century. In the 1980s, a transportation company made plans to level the whole place and build a bus terminus. However, after protests from artists, gallery owners, and small shop owners, the company canceled its plans and the government helped develop Temple Bar into a vibrant cultural center filled with bars and restaurants and shops that attract both locals and tourists.

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Bustling Temple Bar

It’s easy to reach Dublin from the airport. An Aircoach bus brought us straight from the airport to a few blocks from our B&B in 35 minutes. I bought tickets in advance, but you can purchase tickets right at the station. Buses come every 15 minutes, running throughout the day.

Visit the Long Room as early as possible. It gets extremely crowded, and you want to have enough time and space to appreciate the architecture.

Restaurants we loved: L. Mulligan Grocer (where the menus are hidden in old books, each dish is paired with a beer or whiskey, and the food is phenomenal); Etto (dine early to catch the affordable pre-theater menu); and Klaw (fresh seafood in a relaxed environment).

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Outside L. Mulligan Grocer
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Scotch egg at L. Mulligan Grocer
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Hake & cockles at Etto

Most importantly, though, eat ice cream at Murphy’s. We went to Murphy’s every single day (literally!) that we were in Ireland. Ireland is going through a culinary renaissance right now, excelling at the farm-to-table movement, so it was no surprise that Ireland’s most beloved ice cream shops does not use colorings, flavorings, or milk powder. Everything starts with fresh-from-the-farm milk, local cream, free-range eggs, and organic sugar. Then they toast, simmer, bake & extract real ingredients, whether distilling Dingle rain to make sorbets, making sea salt from Dingle sea water, or infusing gin by hand. My favorite flavors were Caramelized Brown Bread, Dingle Sea Salt, and Kieran’s Cookies. I would return to Ireland just to eat Murphy’s ice cream.

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Murphy’s ice cream