A trio of islands off of Ireland’s west coast, the Aran Islands harken back to an earlier way of life. These picturesque isles feature windswept cliffs, an abundance of sheep, and green pastures separated by meandering stone fences.
Or, at least that’s how I remember the Aran Islands from when I visited 15 years ago.
In 2007, I spent a couple of magical days on the largest island – Inis Mór (Inishmore). During my visit, I got to explore the stunning prehistoric Dun Aengus fort and experience island life at its finest.
I have fond memories of riding a bicycle on narrow country lanes and drinking Guinness in tiny pubs (where the locals frowned at my tendency to order pints instead of ordering by the glass like a lady).
These are such happy memories, in fact, that I was eager to share the experience with my husband Daniel. So, during our recent visit to Ireland, we booked a day trip to the Aran Islands from Galway.
Would the Inis mor day trip live up to my expectations?
Well, we were about to find out.
How to Get to the Aran Islands from Galway
Our first order of business was getting to the islands. At the time, we were staying for a few days in the bustling town of Galway – a charming city which seemed to be filled with partying college students.
So we decided to take a ferry for our day trip to the Aran Islands from Galway. The Aran Islands Ferries company operates several boats which travel to each of the islands: Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr.
Since it’s not possible to visit all of the islands in the same day, we next had to choose which one to visit. We settled on Inis Mór because it’s the largest island and features the Dun Aengus stone fort.
The only ferry to Inis Mór used to depart from the nearby city of Rossaveel. Passengers would take a shuttle bus (or drive) for an hour from Galway to the ferry dock. The ferry crossing from Rossaveel takes approximately 40 minutes and departs several times a day.
We decided to take a ferry directly to Inis Mór from Galway, however. This is a new service that is offered only in the summer months. The ferry is 90 minutes long and eliminates the need to take a shuttle bus.
The best part about the new Galway ferry service is that the boat drives by the Cliffs of Moher on the way back!
Another option for traveling to the Aran Islands is the The Doolin Ferry Company. These boats depart from the charming little village of Doolin which is located a few miles from the Cliffs of Moher.
How to Get Around on an Aran Islands Day Trip
An important consideration for visiting the Aran Islands is transportation.
I recall from my previous visit that there are no rental cars or taxis on the island. And to be honest, this lack of traffic is one of many reasons why the island is so charming!
But it also adds a level of complexity when you only have four hours to see an entire island.
While I typically enjoy exploring on foot, it’s not feasible to walk across the whole island on a day trip. It’s a 8.3 km (5 mile) journey one-way from the ferry terminal to Dun Aengus on the opposite side. And then additional walking is required to visit the fort and surrounding area.
One of the most popular transportation options is to explore the island by bike. There are several bike rental companies near the ferry terminal to choose from.
The advantage of riding a bike is that you can go at your own speed and see what you want. But there are drawbacks to cycling on the island which I’ll describe later in the article.
You can also hire a trap and pony (horse carriage) to drive you around the island or take a minibus tour. They are all over the place once you arrive on island and can be easily obtained after arrival.
Our Experience on an Aran Islands Day Trip from Galway
Daniel and I arrived at the ferry terminal at 9:00 am for our day trip to the Aran Islands from Galway. We had been watching the weather forecast all week and chose what we hoped to be the sunniest day of the week.
Well, it wasn’t to be. Despite the sunny weather forecast, the day started gray and rainy.
We walked to the ferry terminal in a torrential downpour and were completely soaked by the time we arrived (despite our raincoats and umbrellas). All the passengers crammed into a tiny space below deck due to the inclement weather.
Thankfully, the weather soon improved. Before long, the sun was shining and most passengers migrated to the open-air decks above.
Lucky for us, the sunny weather persisted and we enjoyed sunshine for the rest of the day.
So let that be a lesson to you – always be prepared for rain in Ireland no matter what the forecast says! I wish I had brought extra socks because my feet were wet the entire rest of the day.
The Aran Islands Mini Bus Tour
When our ferry arrived in Inis Mor, we found ourselves on a long pier in the Kilronan harbor. A mini bus stood waiting for passengers on right on the end of the ferry dock.
We weren’t sure what other options would be available after this point, so we decided to go for it. The mini bus tour cost approximately €20 per person and included stops at the island’s major tourist attractions.
Soon we found ourselves driving through Kilronan, a the island’s largest town (which was in fact a very small village). The area was packed with tourists from various ferry boats who spilled out of the stores and clogged the streets.
I was really glad we hadn’t tried to rent bikes because the lines were absolutely insane! We would have spent half the day just waiting to rent a bike and then return it again later.
We passed several horse carriages and other mini buses for hire in this area too. There seemed to be plenty of options for transportation around the island.
Our bus driver was a local guy who regaled us with colorful stories about life on the island. He was a real character who enjoyed making incomprehensible jokes as he sped around from place to place.
The streets were narrow and we had to share the road with tourists on bicycles who weren’t paying attention to their surroundings.
I was continuously surprised that there weren’t any accidents given the mayhem on the road! (Actually our driver did knock over a few parked bikes once but they weren’t damaged and everyone was fine.)
Soon we arrived at Dun Aengus and disembarked. Our driver been been determined to arrive as quickly as possible so we would miss the crowds.
Well, mission accomplished! There was hardly anyone else at the fort when we arrived.
Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa)
Dun Aengus is just one of those magical places that you have to experience for yourself.
This pre-historic fort is made of four concentric stone walls that form a semi-circle. These walls are positioned against a towering cliff so as to ward off any potential attacks or invaders.
What’s really amazing about the fort, however, is its age. While no one knows *exactly* how old it is, most historians today believe that the structure dates back to the Bronze Age and the Stone Age.
That’s over 3,000 years old! Wowza!
Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes when visiting Dun Aengus because accessing it requires a bit of a hike. The trail leading to the fortress is 1.3-miles (2 km) there-and-back.
There are also several flights of stairs to negotiate so it’s not a great place for a stroller either. We saw more than one abandoned along the route to the fort.
The views on the edge of the cliff are totally worth it, however!
Be aware that there is no fence along the cliff’s edge. Take extra care when approaching the cliff edge because there is a 330 feet (100 meter) drop straight to the ocean below!
Lunch at Teach Nan Phaidi
After hiking up to Dun Aengus, we had worked up quite an appetite. So, Daniel and I stopped at Teach Nan Phaidif for lunch.
Teach Nan Phaidif is a quaint little cottage with a thatched roof that serves up a variety of traditional local dishes. It’s also pretty much the only place serving food on this end of the island.
The place was packed when we arrived with tourists and mini buses and bikes and carriages all over the place. Given the crowd, I was doubtful that we’d get our food before the bus left for the next stop on the tour.
Well, I shouldn’t have worried. The staff managed to find us a table and feed us a filling lunch with remarkable speed.
Na Seacht dTeampaill (the Seven Churches)
Situated on the western end of Inis Mór, Seven Churches (Na Seacht dTeampaill) is one of Ireland’s oldest pilgrimage sites. The holy buildings in this location were apparently one of Ireland’s most important pilgrimage destinations in the Middle Ages.
Today, the crumbling ruins of two churches can be found on the site, as well as a number of graves – both new and old.
Given the fact that only two churches are located here, one has to wonder why it is called “Seven Churches”? Perhaps it is because seven buildings once stood here? Or maybe it is a reference to the pilgrimage circuit used during medieval times? No one knows for sure.
Regardless, it is a cool place to visit on an Inis Mor day trip.
The Seal Colony
On our return visit to Kilronan, we took the coastal road which traces the north shore of the island. This route provides nice views of the sea as well as the mainland in the distance.
It is also an extremely popular route with cyclists. There were even more bikes on this route than on the central road.
About halfway between Kilmurvey beach and Kilronan, we stopped at a scenic viewpoint. This is the location of the island’s resident seal colony.
Or at least, this is where the seals usually hang out. We only saw a few heads bobbing in the water on our visit. Apparently there can be quite a few seals hanging out here and bathing if the tide is favorable.
A lovely pond is also located nearby that is filled wild swans and various other birds.
Boat Tour of the Cliffs of Moher
At the conclusion of our minibus tour, Daniel and I headed straight back to the ferry boat. We wanted to get a good seat on the deck for the return trip and the Cliffs of Moher!
Most of the Aran Island ferries don’t normally go by the cliffs so I was excited to find one that did. It added an extra 30 minutes to our return trip but I didn’t mind.
Thankfully, the sunny weather held and we had a lovely boat ride to the cliffs and all the way back to Galway.
As promised, the boat drove up to the famous Cliffs of Moher and slowly passed them by. An audio narration informed us that the cliffs were used as a filming location in several movies including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Leap Year and The Princess Bride.
I perked up at the mention of The Princess Bride because it was one of my absolute favorite movies as a kid. I think I’ve seen that movie at least 100 times.
Remember the infamous and inconceivable Cliffs of Insanity? That’s the Cliffs of Moher!
To be honest, it was hard to get a good photo of the cliffs from the ferry boat as we didn’t get very close. I took a bus to the Cliffs Moher on a different day and got a better photo from the top of the cliffs.
Is a Day Trip to the Aran Islands from Galway Worth it?
So, did my day trip to the Aran Islands from Galway live up to my expectations?
Well, yes and no.
The island is just as lovely as I remembered it with windswept rolling hills and endless stone fences. It’s such a beautiful place and really encapsulates that feeling of a romantic Irish landscape with a simpler way of life.
But while the island hasn’t changed much in 15 years, the number of visitors has. The place was just packed with so many tourists that it made it difficult to feel the magic of the place.
So, like any place that suffers from over-tourism, come up with a game plan first.
Consider visiting in the off season. Or even better, stay for a few days. That way you can enjoy the island in the morning and evening when the day-trippers are gone.
Other Things to See on an Inis Mor Day Trip
If you have more time to spend on the Aran Islands, consider adding these locations to your Inis Mór itinerary!
- The Wormhole – a naturally-formed pool in the shape of a perfect rectangle (and the location of the Red Bull diving series)
- Ancient Forts – there are 3 other forts on the island to explore, including Dún Dúchathair (the Black fort) as well as Dún Eochla and Dún Eoghanachta
- Kilmurvey Beach – a lovely sandy beach not far from Dun Aengus that is great for swimming