Bordering the counties of Westmeath and Roscommon, on the banks of the swirling River Shannon, the town of Athlone is one of the largest and most vibrant in a part of the island known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Culture, craic, history and heritage are all here, against a backdrop of everyday hustle and bustle.
Strolling the streets, you get a sense of old Ireland, of the days before out-of-town retail parks and soulless shopping centres. Instead, Athlone is a salt-of-the-earth destination filled with downhome cafés and traditional pubs, bustling bookshops and little boutiques, making it a pleasure to explore.
“Athlone is possibly one of the best towns in the whole of Ireland,” according to Timmy Donovan of Sean’s Bar. And after a weekend spent here, you’ll probably agree.
Curving medieval streets, the hypnotic ebb of the broad River Shannon, and the promise of a good time make it an easy place to enjoy, but there’s also a great array of things to do beyond Athlone itself. In this green and lush part of the island, you can step into the world of 6th century monks at Clonmacnoise, cycle the Old Rail Trail Greenway along a disused train track, and walk alongside the placid waters of Lough Ree.
Athlone Town Bridge
© Tourism Ireland
Translated from the Irish Ath Luain, Athlone means the Ford of Luain, named for its location on a ford. Although one story goes that the ford was a place of pagan lunar worship, the more common version is that Luan, the son of Lewy, owned an inn on the ford and guided ships across the rapid torrent.
Dating back to 900AD, that very inn is Sean’s Bar, the oldest pub in Ireland according to the Guinness World Records, and it’s a great place to kick off a visit to town.
Brendan Nugent, Sean’s Bar
Drop in on a quiet afternoon, where the crackle of the fire and the pour of a pint are the only sounds, and it feels like the past is seeping through the walls… And in fact, it literally is – a section of the original 9th century “wicker and wattle” walls is visible just beside the fireplace.
The low ceilings, warm atmosphere and a fantastic snug offer peak cosiness, but the real welcome comes from the people. In addition to nightly live music, the pub has its own whiskey, too – a nod to the spirit’s centuries-old connection to the area, when monks at Clonmacnoise distilled the drink.
More live music can be enjoyed at The Snug Bar nearby, or head to Gertie Browne’s – a place almost as old as Sean’s. This 1,000-or-so-year-old spot has the inimitable soul of an Irish pub. You could spend an entire afternoon examining the many objects that hang on the wood-paneled walls. On warmer days, in nearby Peddler Mac’s live music spills onto the street – it’s a fun spot for an outside pint on a long summer evening.
Just across the river, the imposing grey stone of Athlone Castle looms over the Shannon, housing an exhibition that details the town’s history and culminates in an impressive 360-degree cinematic experience of the famous 1691 siege.
In view of the castle is St Peter and Paul’s Church, famous for its stained-glass windows produced in the Harry Clarke Studio, while more art can be enjoyed across the street at the stunning Luan Gallery, a modern art gallery overlooking the Shannon.
The former 19th century library here was transformed by architect Keith Williams into what is now a spectacular contemporary space for the visual arts, with the addition of a sleek modern wing to facilitate numerous gallery spaces. The view from the windowed linear gallery over the Shannon alone is worth the visit.
Stained glass at St Peter and Paul's Church
St Peter and Paul's Church
For more art, head to Athlone Art Gallery, a small gallery space in the Village at Burgess, showcasing a rotating roster of Irish artists. Or try the Carmel Rooney Gallery, with a mix of Rooney’s own paintings and prints, many of which feature local pubs and landmarks. The artist herself is in residence most days and teaches art classes in the space in the evenings.
No matter your palette or purse size, there’s somewhere great to eat in Athlone. The Left Bank Bistro marries Mediterranean and Asian-inspired food in a tasteful, unfussy setting. It’s fun to sit by the kitchen and watch the impressively plated dishes come out – on your way out, pick up a bottle of the restaurant's famous house dressing.
Feargal O’Donnell, The Fatted Calf
The Fatted Calf
Local and seasonal ingredients are used to their best at the Fatted Calf, one of Athlone’s fine-dining favourites. Owners Feargal and Fiona O’Donnell moved the award-winning restaurant from nearby Glasson village in 2015, transforming it from one of Ireland’s first gastropubs to a food destination right in the centre of Athlone, where its clientele has developed as well.
“It’s a very vibrant mixed community,” Feargal says. “There’s a strong boating connection, with the River Shannon running right through town and we have an eclectic mix of French, German, Swiss and Italian people coming by boat. Now, with the Greenway you have a huge amount of cyclists coming through.”
Down the street, there’s more fine dining at Thyme, where the restaurant’s modern Irish cuisine has garnered a Michelin Bib Gourmand award. Across the way is The Cellar Bistro, previously known as Hatter’s Lane. Owner Peter Scully has overhauled the restaurant, and the old Hollywood theme has been replaced with a more pared-back, elegant environment, with mahogany panelling and old-timey tin ceilings. “I think less is more sometimes,” he says of the décor.
Dead Centre Brewing Company and Bacchus are a stone’s throw from here, showing just how compact and walkable Athlone really is. “You don’t have to get into your car here.” says Scully. “The main street is being redeveloped with a new streetscape and it’s keeping everything within walking distance as much as possible.”
For more casual, daytime fare, Corner House Bistro is a solid spot for breakfast and lunch, where you can also pick up gourmet locally made condiments, treats and artisanal souvenirs. At Fine, a café/wine bar, you’ll find healthful comfort foods like grain bowls, salads, soups and sandwiches.
Lynda McFarland, Lowe and Co.
Athlone is hands down the best town in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands for shopping with international high-street stores, Irish chains and independent retailers. Eason’s bookstore has been a fixture in the town for decades, and there’s The Athlone Bookshop, too. John’s Bookshop is a treasure trove of rare and antiquarian books, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for among the 9,000 on the shelves, owner John Donohue has 20,000 more in storage.
Pop by Lowe and Co. Farm Shop & Smallholding on Athlone’s Left Bank for ethical, organic and community garden fare, some of which is grown by the owners. The grocery store periodically offers classes such as natural winemaking and soap-making and in recent years, the store founders have embarked on a mission to plant apple trees all over town.
Lowe and Co.
“When we set up Athlone Apples, our tagline was ‘at the core of Ireland’, because the town is right in the middle,” says Lynda McFarland. “Anyone who comes to visit loves that this side of the town is all independent shops – there’s no Starbucks or Burger King. People are surprised at how nice Athlone is.
“There are already quite a few apple trees planted and we will be adding to those in the coming years,” she adds.
Athlone has fantastic antiques stores, including Left Bank Antiques which focuses on Georgian to Edwardian period pieces, and Treasures, where you’ll want to set aside an hour or two to absorb the massive selection of bits and bobs, plus an entire floor upstairs selling both antique and contemporary art.
Viking Adventure Cruise
Part of the pleasure of visiting Athlone is exploring some of the land- and waterscapes that surround it. Although the sight of a Viking ship on the Shannon may have once caused panic, today Clonmacnoise is accessible by a more friendly, brightly-coloured Viking vessel from right in front of Athlone Castle.
The Viking Adventure Cruise is a fun way to roll up to the 6th century monastic site, with Captain Mick regaling passengers with tales of plundering Vikings and dramatic battles.
The waters of Lough Ree are also accessible from the Viking Adventure Cruise. The lough is a peaceful place and has been designated a protected area thanks to its many wildlife species, including cormorant and heron, foxes and otters.
Head off on the Lough Ree Park Walking Trail, a family-friendly, well-maintained path, encompassing both the waterside and woodlands. Or try the 5km Portlick Millennium Forest Walk on the Whinning Peninsula. Running along the lakeside, you will come across the medieval Portlick Castle and if your timing is right, a blanket of bluebells in early summer.
Athlone’s waterways and Lough Ree have long offered a myriad of activities such as rowing, fishing and sailing, and the town is now also a major hub for cyclists thanks to the Old Rail Trail. Currently stretching 42km from Mullingar to Athlone, the greenway winds beneath many of Ireland’s old railway bridges, along mostly flat, tranquil terrain that was once the route of the Midlands Great Western Railway.
The trail is a leisurely way to take in the natural beauty of Ireland’s peat boglands, which have conserved many ancient artifacts and even perfectly intact human remains dating as far back as 2000BC, currently on view at the National Museum of Ireland.
Restored station houses and stone bridges abound – the three arched bridges at Streamstown are particularly picturesque. A new pedestrian bridge opened in 2023 and its addition has been of monumental significance for the town, as it connects the greenway to the west of Ireland.
Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park
© Tourism Ireland
A worthy stop on the Old Rail Trail is Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park in Moate, a pleasant wander taking in many elements of old Irish living, including cottage homes, a hedge school and a ring fort. While the heritage park is closed during the winter months, the focus shifts to the amenity park, where a grassland transforms into a lake during the wettest time of year and disappears again in late spring.
Derryglad Folk & Heritage Museum
Derryglad Folk & Heritage Museum
Museums and parks dedicated to Irish living can be found all over Ireland, but few, if any, boast the detail of another museum in the Athlone area: Derryglad Folk & Heritage Museum. A welder by trade, museum owner Charlie Finneran started restoring and collecting Irish heritage pieces 40 years ago, and amassed such a vast collection that he and wife Bridie opened their own museum in 1998. “I was at every car boot sale, auction, farm sale, shop and pub,” says Finneran, adding “People donate bits, now that we are well-established.”
Launching with 1,400 pieces, the museum now proudly exhibits over 8,500 items, some displayed as they were all those years ago, in recreated store fronts, a schoolroom, grocery store and more.
© Tourism Ireland