Good day everyone, and welcome to Part 2 of my Ireland Travel series! 😃☘️
Athlone is the largest town of the Midlands Region in central Ireland, with a population of 21,349 inhabitants in 2016. It lies within County Westmeath, and the Shannon, Ireland’s longest river (360.5 km or 224 miles), flows right through here.
Things to See and Do
Athlone Castle. This popular attraction was completed in 1210 by Bishop John De Gray of Norwich for King John of England during the Norman Invasion of Ireland. In 1691, the castle was the staging ground for The Great Siege of Athlone, also called “The War of the Kings” between the Williamites (under King William) and Jacobites (under King James II). As a result of this battle, 12,000 cannon balls were fired, and 1,500 men were killed.
Another major event happened in 1697, when 260 barrels of gunpowder suddenly exploded because of a lightning strike, and afterwards, most of the town was destroyed.
Today, there’s a visitor centre and museum with eight exhibitions. It tells the story of the town of Athlone and its castle with the help of modern displays, interactives, games, and authentic and replica artifacts. Visitors can even dress up in historic costumes, so it’s a fun experience for the whole family! It’s open all year, and the admission cost is 10 EUR for adults, and 5 EUR for children under 15 years.
Unfortunately, we only saw the castle from the outside this time, but here’s a video to give you an idea of this experience, published by the Athlone Castle Visitor Centre:
Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Right across the street from Athlone Castle, this eye-catching landmark is impossible to miss. While this neoclassical church is much younger than many other churches in Ireland (completed by Ralph Byrne in 1939), we think that it doesn’t need to hide behind its older siblings! It looks very impressive from the outside, and inside, you can look at its colourful stained glass windows, that were painted by Richard King (1907-1974). He was Harry Clarke’s (1889-1931) apprentice, who was one of the leaders of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.
Then walk along the charming and winding streets of Athlone, and admire houses painted in various colours! You may even find some unexpected gems at one of the cute independent shops in the town centre.
Such as The Bastion Gallery (6 Bastion St), that has books, tea towels, glass shamrocks, artist prints, stuffed animals, cards, jewelry, and more. They were either designed or handmade in Ireland, and/or Fairtrade. Or buy one of their hand painted Ogham gifts, which is the first written proof of the Gaelic language. My Mom (who’s joining me on this trip, by the way 😉) is buying a painted print by local artist S. Walsh, that shows many of Athlone’s cool attractions.
Athlone also has two shopping malls: Golden Island Shopping Centre, that was opened in 1997, has 45 stores, for clothing, phone providers, Tesco, coffee shops, and a movie theatre. Athlone Towncentre was opened in 2007, and has 60+ retail stores, like H&M, ZARA, eason books, TK Maxx, and Sketchers.
If you have time, I highly recommend visiting Strokestown Park near Strokestown, in Co. Roscommon, that is 46 km (28 miles) north of Athlone. This estate was owned by the aristocratic landlords, the Mahon Family, led by the Major, Denis Mahon. Their tenants (mostly poor peasant families) leased some of it during the Great Irish Famine in the mid-1800’s.
The landlords lived at Strokestown Park House (Palladian House), which King Charles II. gave to Nicholas Mahon, to thank him for his help during the English Civil War (1642-1651). This estate was owned by the Mahon Family until it was sold in 1979.
Visitors can book a guided tour, and look at a kitchen with an oven from 1740, a school room, and a toy room with 19th century toys.
Until December 23, 2022, you can book their Victorian Christmas Experience, which includes meeting Santa Clause and other festive figures! There are fun games and surprises, too, and the cost is 35 EUR per child and 15 EUR per adult.
Now it’s time to enter the National Famine Museum, which is right next door. In the mid 1800th century, the majority of the growing population in Ireland was struggling hard to survive. They were only allowed to lease tiny pieces of land from their wealthy landlords at a high cost.
Besides, visitors learn that the only food option for a third of the eight million Irish people were Lumper potatoes. They could be grown pretty much everywhere, because of the boggy, wet, or thin lands that Ireland has. But in 1845, the greatest crisis in Irish history started when blight, a fungal disease, infested the potato leaves and tubers while they were growing in the ground.
As a result, they were rotten on the inside, so the potatoes were inedible. Within seven years, a million Irish people had died from starvation. Things got even worse when many peasants were evicted from their houses by their cruel landlords, because they couldn’t pay their rent anymore.
Moreover, from 1845 to 1855, two million Irish people were forced to flee overseas, with hopes for a better future, mostly to Canada and the USA. But the ships were often crowded, and the conditions were catastrophic due to a lack of food and water, and no hygiene. So many people got sick or even died on the way. That’s why these ships were often called “coffin ships”.
Although other European countries were affected by blight as well, they had more food options, and the disease spread best in the mild and damp Irish climate. Also, the governments reacted faster and better to this tragedy, which didn’t happen in Ireland, so it was hit the hardest.
The tenants living and working at Strokestown Park were no exception to this. For example, Denis Mahon decided to evict his starving tenants unable to pay their rent anymore, and organized boats to North America, to get rid of them. So, it’s not surprising that he was shot by three of his tenants in 1847. The gun used is displayed in the National Famine Museum.
There are also 50,000 documents written during the Great Famine, and you can listen to recordings of contemporary witnesses talking about their suffering, which makes this exhibit even more moving than it already is.
Phew, after learning about the darkest, and most devastating era of Ireland’s past, that changed history forever, we’re relieved to go outside for a walk inside the Walled Gardens (that belonged to the landlords). We also wander along the woodland trails, and all the trees, tranquility, and stunning green areas help lift our spirits again.
The Famine Museum is open all year, and the admission cost is 12 EUR for adults, and 6 EUR for children, although I wouldn’t recommend visiting this place with young children, due to its severity.
Here are a few more things in Athlone we didn’t have time to do, that sound pretty awesome:
Joining a river cruise with Viking Tours Ireland. It starts on the Shannon next to Athlone Castle, and ends on Lough Ree (Lake of the Kings) north of town (75 mins), or the Clonmacnoise Monastery (90 minutes), south of Athlone, which was built in the 6th century. You’ll sail on their 21-meter-long replica of a Viking ship, and travel back in time 1,200 years, and learn about the Viking history, battles, and kings of this area, all while looking at the beautiful scenery. You may even meet some local wildlife!
Their season runs from Easter to Halloween each year, and group bookings for wedding parties and school groups are available as well. Lastly, they hosted the first LGBTIQ+ cruise of the Midlands last September!
Luan Gallery. This free art gallery is right across from Athlone Castle, and displays stunning artwork exhibits by top Irish and international artists, and changes every two months. The artwork includes paintings, sculptures, multimedia, and textiles, and the large windows offer a great view of the Shannon as well. The older part of the building used to be a public library, that was opened in 1897.
Shannon Banks Walk & Nature Trail. This easy 5 km (3.1 miles) looped walking trail starts at Athlone Castle, and takes you along the riverbank of the Shannon, and the Old Canal Bank. There are tons of signposts telling you about the local flora and fauna along the way.
Where to Eat & Drink
We’re having dinner at Pavarotti’s Italian Restaurant (High Street) in the heart of Athlone. We like the dark blue coloured outside building, and the simple, but pretty interior design, with dark brown tables, light green and beige-coloured walls, and flowers on the tables!
The menu has many items you’d expect to find at an Italian restaurant, like pizza, calzone, crostini bread, bruschetta, fish, steak, and chicken dishes, and pasta options (Spaghetti Carbonara, Lasagne al forno, Cannelloni, Spaghetti Bolognese, etc). Vegetarian meals can be ordered as well.
We’re both having the Tagliatelle al Funghi e Spinachi, a pasta dish with spinach, mushrooms, and red pepper in a creamy sauce. Although it looks very appealing, it’s a bit bland for our taste, but of course, salt and pepper shakers are available. So I’d give this restaurant a second chance. 😉
If you’re in the mood for a pint and some ‘caint, ceol, agus craic’ (chat, music and craic) after a day of exploring Athlone, head right to Sean’s Bar (13 Main St)! It was opened in 900 AD, and is Ireland’s Oldest Pub, as listed in the Guinness Book of World Records! It’s a cozy and dimly lit authentic Irish pub next to the west bank of the Shannon, and “when you walk in, you can feel the history and the romance straight away,” as per their website.
Besides, the awesome interior design (e.g. license plates and pictures on the walls, open turf fireplace, vintage wooden and checkerboard pattern floors, piano, and rustic-style bar) will surely leave a lasting impression on you! You can listen to traditional Irish live music, buy some cool merch, or even try their homemade Sean’s Whiskey!
Sean’s Bar from the outside, partial areas of the inside of the pub (both photo courtesy of Sean’s Bar), and enjoying some Guinness 🍻
There are many other restaurants (e.g. Indian, Asian, Mediterranean, and Lebanese cuisine), fast food places, Irish pubs, coffee shops, and bars in Athlone. For example, we’re having donuts from The Best Flavours of Portugal (27 Church St), and they are to die for! Many of these places are either east or west of the Shannon River, and with such a diverse food scene, there’s something for everyone!
Where to Stay
Despite its size, Athlone has a variety of B&B’s and hotels to offer, but unfortunately, there are no hostels. Many accommodations are right in town, but if you like it quiet, and close to town, the Burren Lodge B&B is a great choice. We’re staying in a two bedroom, and Mary, our friendly hostess, gives us great tips on how to spend the rest of the day in Athlone.
Our room is very clean and cozy, with a nice garden view. The continental breakfast (cereal, toast, scrambled eggs, yoghurt, and fruit) is very tasty, too! The B&B is right next to the N62 motorway, but we couldn’t hear any noise at night.
Our two bedroom at Burren Lodge B&B.
How to Get to and Around Athlone
Athlone is halfway between Dublin and Galway.
From Dublin, it’s a 125 km (77 miles) drive west on the M4 and M6 motorway. From Galway, it’s 85 km (52 miles) eastbound on the M6 motorway.
The closest international airport to Athlone is Dublin (DUB) and the Ireland West Airport Knock (NOC) in Co. Mayo offers flights to/from some European destinations, like London, Cologne, Malaga, and Milan.
There are also a few local buses in Athlone, and the town centre is very walkable as well.
So that’s a wrap on the charming town of Athlone!
To learn about other Ireland destinations, please check out these blog posts:
Cheers and see you next time 😉
This post was last updated December 3, 2022.
Disclosure: I only recommend products that I’ve used in the past, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own. This post contains affiliate links. If you use one of the links throughout the page to buy something, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks.