Galway is divided into two contrasting regions by the expanse of Lough Corrib. To the west is Connemara – a region of superb scenic grandeur, dominated by the rocky mountains known as the Twelve Pins. Many Connemara inhabitants are Irish speakers and much of the ancient Gaelic culture is preserved. To the east are the flat plains of the of the country leading down to the River Shannon, Ireland’s longest river and one of Galway’s most prominent natural attractions.

Although it’s difficult to pick any one area of Ireland as the most picturesque, Connemara definitely would be one of the top contenders. The mountains known as the Twelve Bens tower over a coast worn by the Atlantic into a maze of fingerlike headlands and inlets. Go inland, and you’ll find more water—hundreds of lakes whose waters reflect the mountains and sky. If you’re visiting Galway, we highly recommend a day of touring Connemara. You won’t fail to be impressed.

The best way to enjoy the Connemara region (the western half of County Galway) is to park the car and walk—some of the best walks in all of Ireland are found there. For a good introduction, stop at the Connemara National Park Visitors Center, near Letterfrack. If you have neither the time nor the inclination for a good walk, tour the country roads. Do be careful when driving—mountain sheep, the region’s favorite livestock, can easily leap over fences and onto roads.

One of the most beautiful routes in the region is Highway R 344, which runs through a tranquil and largely empty valley alongside a stream and a lake. (Look for the mounds of drying peat bricks along the way.) At the northern end of the valley (on Highway N 59) is Kylemore Abbey, which looks for all the world like a storybook castle. It’s actually quite new, having been built in the 1800s. It’s now a convent and school, and you may see teenage girls in uniform walking the grounds.

Clifden, the main town and capital of the region, is a great place to spend a night or so. It is primarily a tourist town, but a particularly charming one, with a main street lined with craft shops, pubs, hotels and fine restaurants.

The town of Roundstone (south of Clifden) is a pleasant seaside village. It’s home to Roundstone Musical Instruments, a workshop operated by Malachy Kearns, one of the most renowned makers of bodhrans (traditional Irish drums) in the country. The shop is located in a former monastery and includes a store and observation areas where you can watch the drum makers at work.

Some of the finest traditional houses in Ireland are found in Spiddal, just 10.5 mi/17 km west of Galway. Also recommended is a trip to Inishbofin Island, 5.5 mi/9 km out in the Atlantic, which is renowned for its birdlife. Ferries depart from Cleggan daily.

An essential part of any trip to Connemara is the trip across the water to the fabulous Aran Islands. The greatest stronghold of the Irish language and culture left in Ireland the island has spectacular scenery with mighty cliffs and ancient hill forts scattered through the islands. Bike tours are probably the best way to see the island, which attracts thousands of visitors every year making the short trip from the mainland. A trip to Aran is an unforgettable experience.