Uncovering Athlone

Athlone, County Westmeath

Dip into the riverside town of Athlone and discover a beguiling mix of ancient history, buzzing restaurants and incredible landscapes

In the fading light of dusk, as the fire crackles, as pints of Guinness settle and the smoky scent of turf tickles your nose, Sean’s Bar feels like the most perfect place in the world. Cocooned within this incredible pub, with its picture-lined walls, sawdust-strewn floors and low ceiling, is an astonishing 1,000 years of history. Sean’s is one of the oldest bars on the planet, and it seems natural that its sits in Athlone – a town that can trace its history right back to the Bronze Age. 

All about Athlone

Located right in the centre of Ireland and built on the banks of the mighty River Shannon, it’s natural that Athlone has piqued the interest of everyone from saints to sergeants through the centuries. Walking around town, it feels like every building has a story, from the 12th century castle, to the 17th century barracks, to the 19th century workhouse, a remnant from Famine-era Ireland.

But this buzzy Midlands spot is far from just a historical timepiece. Artisan produce, local chatter and a warm welcome infuse bohemian cafes such as Lowe & Co. The pubs, from Sean’s to Seery’s to Gertie Browne's, are among the best on the island. And with the pleasure lake of Lough Ree just a short hop away and the River Shannon running right through town, it’s a natural playground for walkers, cyclists and watersports enthusiasts. 

Things to see and do

One thing’s for sure, Athlone boasts a backstory that’s packed full of drama. Here, battles have raged, Vikings have plundered and two brutal sieges ravaged the town in the 1690s, with one survivor describing it as “hell on earth”. This history gets a 21st century reworking in the excellent Athlone Castle on the banks of the River Shannon. Dating back to 1129, the castle boasts an interactive and engaging exhibition that whisks you through some 5,000 years.

A fantastic visitor experience...telling the tragic tale of war and conquest in an engaging and thought-provoking style.

BridgetHG, TripAdvisor

Directly across from here is a building that feels lightyears away from the 12th century stone battlements opposite. Flooded with light and boasting panoramic views over the water, the Luan Gallery is a showcase for local and international art and makes an incredible architectural counterpoint to the structures that surround it.

Afterwards, drop into Athlone’s main church to see the dazzling Harry Clarke Studios stained glass windows, take a walk along the Shannon Banks, or head to the “left bank” of town with a cluster of great restaurants, pubs and quirky shops set amongst ancient streets and alleys. 

Riverside wonders at Clonmacnoise

Famed for being at the heart of Ireland, part of the pleasure of a trip to Athlone is that you’re literally right in the middle of things, with some of the island’s most exceptional sights easily accessible. The monumental 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise sits a short distance down river, and serves up an impressive collection of high crosses, round towers and a church, set against the grey-blue waters of the Shannon. While it's an easy drive from Athlone, there’s nothing quite like arriving by boat on one of the Viking Tours Ireland cruises that depart from just beside the castle.

Go beyond the town

Just beyond Athlone, you’ll find that urban life melts away into a countryside dominated by water and vast swathes of green. Walking in this part of the island brings a real sense of tranquillity whether you’re exploring the abandoned Rindoon Medieval Town on the western shores of Lough Ree, or enjoying the sun-dappled wooded glades and lake views on the Portlick Millennium Forest Walk. Fancy a two-wheeled adventure? Hire a bike from town and take to the off-road Old Rail Trail, a 40km stretch of Greenway linking Mullingar and Athlone. You can tackle the whole stretch, but a good option is to cycle the 8km or so section between Athlone and Moate, taking in a visit to the Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park.

Day trips abound, too, so make sure you leave time to discover the Lough Key Forest Park, a gorgeous adventure playground in County Roscommon; Belvedere House, Gardens and Park, with its follies and woodland walks; and the wonderfully quirky Derryglad Folk Museum.

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