Trip idea: The Aran Islands

Aran Islands, County Galway

Famed for their wild landscapes, distinctive knitted jumpers and pretty thatched cottages, the Irish-speaking Aran Islands on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way never fail to wow…

Located 48km (30 miles) off the County Galway coastline and surrounded by the Atlantic, the cluster of three islands known as the Arans are celebrated for their heritage, culture and arresting landscapes. Crossing the fathomless, grey-blue sea towards them feels like entering a different dimension. These lands have a startling and often harsh beauty that has drawn poets, artists, dreamers and adventurers for thousands of years.

Your Aran Islands adventure starts with a trip by passenger ferry from Rossaveal, County Galway or Doolin, County Clare. You can also get there by air in just 8 minutes! Island-hop between the three, rent bicycles and explore the hidden corners, ancient sites and enduring traditions. Travel one, or make it your business to visit all three – the choice is yours.

The Aran Islands

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Inis Oírr

Cycling the roads lined with dry-stone walls and flecked with wildflowers is the best way to explore Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands and the closest to the mainland.

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Inis Oírr, County Galway

Small but perfectly formed

The first thing you notice when you arrive on Inis Oírr is a powder-soft, white sandy beach lapped by crystal-clear waters. It’s a wonderful introduction to an island that blends moments of fragile beauty with the rough good looks of craggy limestone, typical of the area. Maybe it’s this contrasting beauty, maybe it’s the island’s tiny size (only 4km long), maybe it’s the warmth of the islanders – but Inis Oírr has a personality that seems to wrap itself around you.

WHERE TO STAY

The Hotel Inis Oírr is a comfortable and pleasant place to stay, but you’ll find an array of B&Bs and guesthouses all over the island, including Tigh Ruairí and South Aran House.

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O'Brien's Castle, Inis Oírr

Castle on the hill

Inis Oírr may be small but there's plenty to see. The ruins of O’Brien’s Castle, located on one of the island's highest points, offer commanding views. The castle was built in the 14th century, within the Stone Age Dún Formna fort, by the O'Brien clan who ruled the island at that time.

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME

Mixing homegrown ingredients with local culinary traditions gives the lovely little café of Teach an Tae a foodie edge. The baking is a real delight, with fluffy scones and Irish porter cake, but don’t miss lunch favourites, too, including fresh Inis Oírr mackerel, homegrown vegetable soup and hens’ egg salad.

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The Plassey, Inis Oírr

An unusual attraction

Travel past Loch Mór, Inis Oírr's only freshwater lake, and you'll find something quite unexpected on the island's stony shore – an almost alien-like rusty hulk of the Plassey, a cargo vessel that was wrecked during a wild Atlantic storm in 1960. The story of the crew's rescue by islanders has become a local legend and the wreck itself is now a much-loved island attraction. Fans of Father Ted might even recognise it from the opening credits of the surreal comedy.

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME

Follow the coast around to the island's southernmost point and you'll come to the Inis Oírr lighthouse. It's not open to the public but it does boast spectacular views of the Cliffs of Moher, back on the mainland.

Inis Meáin

On the middle island is a landscape you could gaze at for hours: ash-coloured rock etched with delicate flowers, green fields bordered with dry-stone walls, and the Atlantic Ocean crashing in the distance.

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Inis Meáin, County Galway

Solitude and splendor

Inis Meáin is the least visited of all the Aran Islands, and you can often find yourself almost alone here – on the dramatic cliffs, on deserted beaches, and along car-free country lanes. Windswept days spent scampering over rocks, exploring ancient stone forts and wild Atlantic lookouts are tempered by musical nights amidst the warm glow of the local pub and friendly islanders. 

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME

Step into the tiny church – Teampall na Seacht Mac Ri – to see the magnificent stained-glass windows created by the esteemed Harry Clarke Studios in Dublin.

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Inis Meáin Suites, Inis Meáin

Luxury and feasts amidst the wildness of island life

As Inis Meáin is the least developed of the three Aran Islands, accommodation is a little less plentiful than on other islands, but you will still come across great B&Bs including Tigh Congaile and An Dún B&B. For an accommodation experience beyond the ordinary, though, check into the Inis Meáin Suites with stunning views and minimalist luxury.

A TASTE OF THE ISLAND

The Restaurant at Inis Meáin Suites is a real delight – a riot of creative fine-dining using the very best local ingredients. You’ll get a great taste of local home cooking in the restaurant at An Dún B&B offering seasonal, organic, local or wild produce, or go low-key with a toasted sandwich and a creamy pint in Teach Ósta, the island’s only pub.

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Inish Meáin Knitting Company, Inis Meáin

Don't forget your sweater!

When on the Aran Islands, it would be crazy to miss out on the story of the Aran Sweater. Inis Meáin Knitting Company was founded on the island in 1976 by Tarlach de Blácam and Áine Ní Chonghaile, inspired by the unique spirit, environment and heritage of the place.

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The writer John Millington Synge, who came to Inis Meáin in the 1920s said: “This is the last outpost of ancient Europe; I am privileged to see it before it disappears forever.” You can get a sense of how Synge lived here when you visit Teach Synge, a 300-year-old cottage turned museum.

Inis Mór

Despite being the biggest of the Aran Islands, with a population of 800, Inis Mór still manages to retain a diminutive feel at only 12km long.

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Inis Mór, County Galway

The power of nature

The landscape of stone walls and fissured limestone stretches out to massive cliffs on the western side of the island, as well as a sheltered sandy beach at Cill Mhuirbhigh. Nature has provided a wave-sculpted coastline, a thriving seal colony, wild swans, ducks and rare birds, all complementing the ancient ruins, buzzing nightlife and convivial local cafés and restaurants that this island is famed for. Gentle walks along the pier at Kilronan village are a great way to see traditional currachs and Galway Hooker boats bobbing gently in the harbour.

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME

Traditional crafts from this part of the world are something truly unique in this age of modern conveniences. Hand-knits, carved stonework and local arts and crafts are on display at the Kilmurvey Craft Village and the Man of Aran Gift Shop. Far better than any souvenir keychain!

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The Black Fort, Inis Mór

An isolated wonder

The Black Fort, a spectacular cliff-edge fort, is one of Inis Mór's hidden gems. Less accessible and consequently less famous than Dún Aonghasa, it nevertheless boasts breathtaking views. If you're looking for true solitude, this is the place for you. The fort gets its rather ominous name from the dark colour of the limestone that characterises this part of the island.

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME

White-painted stone walls, flagstone floors and lace-curtained windows – it doesn’t get more charming than Teach Nan Phaidi. This little thatched-cottage café is pretty as a picture with great local salads, stews and home baking.

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Dún Aonghasa, Inis Mór

Clinging to the cliffs

For many, Dún Aonghasa, an ancient fort perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, is the showstopper. It’s a mind-blowing site with evidence of human habitation that dates back to 1500BC. The ideal way to journey to it: well, by bike down stone-walled boreens (little roads), of course.

WHERE TO STAY

Whether it’s glamping at Aran Camping & Glamping, or a balcony room with spectacular views at Aran Islands Hotel, accommodation on Inis Mór is varied and good quality. You’ll find lots of charming B&Bs with cosy rooms and great breakfasts, too.

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