Right in the middle of Ireland you will find a vibrant town full of things to do and see. Athlone could be a great starting point to explore Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, but it is also worth a visit on its own. Stay a night or two and find out about this historic place that combine heritage with adventure.
Something that you simply cannot miss, also cause it’s so prominent in the town, is Athlone Castle. Built right at the Shannon to defend the crossing point at the river, the castle dates back to 1210. It is one of the oldest in Ireland and it is also the place where Cromwell’s plantation policy was administered. The castle was redesigned as a museum and gives you detailed background on the historical settlements in the region and the battles that were fought, as well as the famous siege in the 17th century. If you want to have a proper tour of the castle you can take a look at the newly designed exhibition spaces including a 360 degree audio-visual experience. The entry costs €4.50. After a bit of sightseeing you might also enjoy exploring the local shops. Athlone has loads of arts and craft shops, as well as lovely galleries. Luan Gallery, for example, is located just opposite Athlone Castle. Admission is free and every other month the art exhibited in there changes. Another plus, you get beautiful views across the Shannon from the big windows.
Walking & Cycling
The lush nature and proximity of the river bank being present at all times gives it the perfect premise for lovely walks. The Shannon Banks Nature Trail, for example, leads you along the west-bank and the old Athlone Canal. Or you rent a bike and hit the Old Rail Trail that stretches from to Garrycastle in Athlone for 40km on to Mullingar. The path is only allowed to use for pedestrians or cyclists and will give you a great idea about the surrounding area. Another great hike would also be following the route to Moate, where you find the famous Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, with its gigantic sculpture of the Irish God Lugh created out of bog oak. The heritage park is also a popular destination for families. One very specific walk combines the joys of walking with the “water of life”: The Whiskey Walking Tour departs every Friday and Saturday and explores Athlone’s glorious past in relation to whiskey production and how it used to be one of the most important ones in Ireland. The tour takes about 90 minutes and you can taste 4 local whiskeys.
Kayaking & Boat Trips
Athlone is located at the mouth of Lough Ree where the Shannon rushes into two counties at the same time – Westmeath and Roscommon (and further up also Longford). Despite being in the middle of Ireland you are surrounded by water. Needless to say, therefore Athlone makes a great starting point for kayaking and boat trips along the river and lake. Getting in to your kayak in Athlone town will give you a great change of perspective. The cruise will be relaxed and easy even for beginners. If you like a bit of an adrenaline rush then you could travel a bit further up north and kayak on Lough Inny to speed through the white waters. There are numerous tours that you can book that will take you on the Shannon and/or into Lough Ree. If you love history then try out the Viking Tour cruise where you will embark a replica of an old Viking ship. The tour guide will provide you with thrilling stories from the Viking history. This tour is especially appealing for kids and leaves just from the quayside in front of the castle. Another option and a great way to combine the trip with a culinary highlight is the Romaris Boat Trip. The vintage motor yacht includes three to six hours dinner cruises and even goes as far as Clonmacnoise and its monastery.
Food & Pubs
A really wonderful way to start your day is with a delicious breakfast at Lowe & Co.. Set right next to the Castle you can look forward to a fresh and organic energy kick in a super cosy atmosphere – also the coffees there is amazing! For lunch I’d recommend Savoury Fare. The quirky interiors and tasty homemade food make this place ideal for an uncomplicated lunch break. They serve a hot lunch menu from midday onward but you get salads, paninis, and rolls all day long. For your dinner try out Thyme Athlone, an exquisite dining experience. The restaurant is run by John and Tara Coffey who focus on highlighting Ireland’s heart of produce, using only locally sourced veg and meat from the midlands, giving traditional Irish cuisine a modern twist. The restaurant has won numerous awards, so it’s a safe bet. They offer a Value Menu Saturday night for €28 for 2 courses. For drinks after visit Sean’s Bar, arguable the oldest pub in the world dating back to the 1st century. You can even take part in a historic tour of the pub to find out about its past. The place today hosts great music sessions (Thursday to Sunday nights) and serves fantastic beer and whiskey. It’s the ideal place for a good-bye drink in Athlone.
Plan your adventure in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands
As you can see, Athlone is the perfect base for your next trip to Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. You’ve got almost endless stretches of waterways, idyllic lakes and cycling paths within easy reach, and that’s on top of the great dining, cosy bars and quaint markets that await you in the town. If you want to take a break from your busy routine, be sure to check out the best hotel and Airbnb deals in Athlone below – or have a wee browse of my most recent staycation deals in Ireland’s Ancient East!