David Williamson explains why Galway is an excellent option for a New Year break and looks at how groups can extend a visit over the 2017 festive season. 

The Emerald Isle has many album-worthy cities and towns. But after visiting Galway for New Year 2016, I’ve discovered that few can compete with this west coast city.

We booked to stay for two nights over New Year in order to see the Cliffs of Moher via the Wild Atlantic Way and, perhaps more importantly, to enjoy the ‘craic’ in a few of the traditional taverns of the city centre.

The road that takes you along the Wild Atlantic Way in the direction of Galway is the R477. This modestly named trail runs parallel to some of the best sights Mother Nature has to offer.

Before we even reached the Cliffs of Moher we’d seen views that made us feel like we couldn’t park up quick enough, in order to get out and see them.

The gulfs here are violent and chaotic, but so silent. Waves break against the tormented rocks with a venom that I have never seen before.

And these scenes are coupled with a backdrop of terrain that only Neil Armstrong would be accustomed to.

The Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher welcomes travellers with a visitor centre where there’s plenty of spaces for coaches. On our visit we arrived just after lunch and climbed the steep incline up to the peak of the cliffs where one of three viewing platforms is located.

As we climbed, we battled the howling Atlantic winds that hadn’t hit land for thousands of miles. This is when my wife enthusiastically informed me that some evil chap named Voldemort had hidden his horcrux at the Cliffs of Moher. Whoever this Voldemort was or what on Earth a horcrux is, I had no idea, but what I do know is that he has a superb eye for hide and seek locations.

From the North Platform viewing station you can look out over Galway Bay and the desolate Arran Islands with no obstacle to the west other than a reasonably well-known land space called the USA. If you’re lucky, your only companions here will be puffins, whales and peregrine falcons. Guided tours are also available here.

Into the city

The Cliffs of Moher are only an hour and a half’s drive from Galway. So, on our trip, we arrived in the city centre just as the sun had disappeared below the dark ripples of Galway Bay.

Once there, we began our advance on Quay Street. This is the main street that cuts through the city and begins at the easy-on-the-eye starting point that is Eyre Square.

Eyre Square

Eyre Square is Galway’s main transport hub with taxis and buses circling a rather picturesque park that, over December, is home to the Christmas markets, and at other times the green canvas in which picnics and first dates occur.

Leaving the square behind us, we strolled south, where the pied-piper sound of a busker’s Irish flute baited us towards Quay Street.

Quay Street is pin-up pretty at Christmas. If Galway is the Emerald City, this is its very own yellow brick road.

The playful tones of fiddles and flutes harmonise your walk down a corridor of restaurants, taverns and shops that could almost be part of a movie set.

Elegant Christmas decorations cross the street above your head to form the kind of canopy you only ever tend to see at expensive weddings. This is where my jaw finally gave up the ghost and dropped to the floor.

One huge asset that Galway possesses over other European cities is the kindness and approachability of its locals. In 2015 it was voted ‘the world’s friendliest city’.

As we were welcomed into The Quays pub (the number one tourist spot on Quay Street) we felt immediately at ease. We found a table close to the band, who were belting out some superb traditional Irish music.

The Quays is not alone in the way it welcomes you as if you were part of the family. Taaffes and The Front Door also provide the same experience.

This openness is something you will have to get used to when you visit, do not be alarmed when a Galwegian approaches you for a chat and, in our case, a request to play a game of snap with one of us.

“I’ve had a fair few pints now but I bet you I can beat you in a good game of snap,” was the challenge put forward by Shaun, the friendly young man who had just shuffled past my wife and I noticing we were armed with a pack of cards.

After Shaun had taught us a lesson in the dark arts of snap he bought us both a drink, wished us well for the New Year and then disappeared into the cold, Atlantic night.

Just two hours later, our party finally saw in the New Year by singing Old Lang Syne. My wife and I had our arms around two Irish lads, an American, a young Chinese man, a Welsh girl, a Londoner and a lad from Blackpool…if only Donald Trump had grown up in Galway! What a night.

The Emerald City of Galway was more impressive than I could have ever imagined, and a perfect pick for New Year, which leads me to believe that Dorothy was telling fibs when she clicked her ruby slippers and said “there’s no place like home.”

There is, and it’s only a few hours away from the UK.

Best for groups at New Year

Galway Cathedral: Situated on the banks of the River Corrib in Galway city, Galway Cathedral is the most recently built of Europe's stone cathedrals. Group visitors are welcome.

Galway City Museum: This museum houses a variety of permanent and touring exhibitions representing Galway's rich archaeology, heritage and history.

Galway Christmas Market: Featuring more than 50 wooden chalets of festive food and gifts, the Galway Christmas markets run from the end of November to end of December in Eyre Square.