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How to explore Athlone and the Old Rail Greenway without a car
Capture special moments in Athlone.
Nicola BradyNicola Brady is a travel writer based in Dublin. She writes regularly for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Condé Nast Traveller, and has contributed to books on Dublin and Ireland for DK Eyewitness.
Athlone might be the Midlands’ largest town, but you can still catch all the sights without needing a car. This historic town is as walkable as it is easy on the eye, with pretty stone bridges stretching over the River Shannon, tilted buildings on narrow streets and an ancient castle right at its heart. And part of the joy is wandering around and seeing what you find, whether it’s wildflowers on a riverside stroll or a coffee shop tucked away down a side street.

Here's how to spend a day exploring Athlone and its surrounds, all without getting behind the wheel.

Photo credit: @life.of.gerk

Start your day in Athlone

Want to check off all the sights in one fell swoop? Head off on a historical walk of the city with Athlone Guided Tours, led by a passionate local guide. These group tours run on Thursdays and Sundays, and cover everything from local history (the Siege of Athlone in 1691 looms large, and there’s a lovely exploration of the old city walls) to tales of notable Athlonians – like Eugene Daly, a Titanic survivor whose account is the most detailed record we have of its last hours.

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of Athlone’s rich and battle-riddled history, then a visit to Athlone Castle is a must. You can’t miss it: the riverside 12th century fortress dominates the middle of town and makes for a handsome landmark.

Athlone Castle in Westmeath on a sunny day.
Travel back in time at Athlone Castle.

If you’re the kind of person whose eyes glaze over when presented with lists of dates and facts, don’t fret – the interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations bring the stories to life in a slick, tangible way. You can test your strength picking up cannonballs and swords or scroll a touchscreen to see how the military uniforms have changed over the years, from the billowing pantaloons of 1645 to the fringed epaulets used at Waterloo in 1815.

But it’s the story of the Great Siege of Athlone that’s the most immersive. Multiple screens depict the events of the town’s defining battle in a panoramic display accompanied by a soundtrack of loud cannon fire and shouts.

Mannequins wearing armour in Athlone Castle, Westmeath.
Compare the different military uniforms on display.

Before you leave, don’t miss the views of the town from the defensive walls, where the flagpole stands. And if you’re in the mood for a game of chess, head up to the battlement where there’s a giant, Harry Potter-esque chessboard that you’re free to use.

Just over the road, the views from the Luan Gallery are as enthralling as the artwork. Set right on the banks of the river, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows give you a great vantage point of the water, where you’ll see gliding swans and passing boats. The gallery may be small, but the rotation of exhibitions is stellar – expect to see installations with reflective vinyl covering the floor, or giant cartoon-like felt pieces that look like they’re dripping onto the ground.

Where to eat in Athlone

If you’re in the mood for something virtuous, the health food café Bastion Foods is a great shout. Their breakfast menu is particularly good, with dishes like poached eggs with peanut Rayu and the classic avocado toast. But they also serve lunch dishes like falafel wraps or thick sausage sandwiches to eat in or takeaway – ideal if you’re heading off on a boat trip to Lough Ree or Clonmacnoise, as the dock for both River Run and Viking Tours are just a couple of minutes’ walk away.

Two plates of colourful food from Bastion Kitchen in Westmeath

Photo credit: @twophatcows

Grab a yummy bite to eat at Bastion Foods.

The folks at Fine take their coffee seriously – they even hold barista and home espresso workshops for people who love their caffeine. But it’s their sandwiches that bring in the lunch crowd, like the gooey farmhouse cheese and chorizo toastie or the vegan no-meatball sub. You can also pop in for a glass of wine and some artisanal cheese from their counter, for a chic afternoon treat.

An afternoon cycle on the Old Rail Trail

There’s no simpler bike ride than one along a Greenway. Once you’re at the trailhead, there’s no directions to remember – all you have to do is follow the path that runs along the disused train tracks. The Old Rail Trail Greenway starts in the middle of Athlone and heads out all the way to Mullingar on a flat, traffic-free route shared by dog walkers, joggers and cyclists.

Now, as the full route is 43km long, you probably won’t want to bike the whole way. But the stretch from Athlone to Moate and back (30km, two hours) is the ideal distance for an afternoon spin. You can hire a bike for the day from Buckley Cycles, or pick up one of the handy Moby bikes dotted throughout the town, which you can rent by the hour through their app. Bear in mind that you can only park and finish a Moby ride back in Athlone, so you must stay with the bike until you return.  

A Moby rental bike on the Old Rail Greenway in Athlone, County Westmeath.
Hop on a Moby bike and get cycling.

The whole route is pretty much car-free (bar one or two crossings over quiet country roads, which are well signposted). The only other traffic you might encounter is of the animal variety – there are a few cattle crossing points along the way where you might spot a friendly herd moving fields.

As you leave Athlone, tall trees flank the path, with the occasional cat sunbathing in the grass or wild rabbit hopping across the trail. The old train tracks are a constant companion along the way, sometimes obscured by brambles, thistles and dog daisies, or hidden under a thicket of buttercups and wild strawberries. Arched stone bridges punctuate the trail, with fronds of ivy dripping over the sides like Spanish moss.

A person on a bike on the Old Trail Greenway in Westmeath.

Photo credit: @life.of.gerk

Pedal along the tree-lined trail.

There are also informative panels along the way, which tell you what plant and wildlife you might see on the trail and give a bit of history on the old stations and signal houses. When the trail cuts across the Crosswood Bog, keep an eye on the surface of the path – the terrain changes to conserve and protect the sensitive bogland, with the Greenway slightly raised and covered in a permeable, geotextile layer.

When you get to Moate, you’re just a few minutes away from the Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, which is well worth a visit. Lock up your bike, pick up a coffee at Lillymay’s Café (right by the entrance) and set off to explore the grounds. Start off at the Amenity Park, where a giant sculpture of Gráinne Óg overlooks the walking trails that weave through the native woodland and arboretum. Follow the paths down to the wetland and you’ll reach the turlough, a disappearing lake that is full in the winter and emptier in the summer. You can walk right over the water on a cool wooden boardwalk or check out the local bird life in the waterside hide.

There’s a more historic vibe at the Heritage Park, where you can step back in time and see what Irish life was like over 100 years ago. Walk around the park and you’ll find a reconstructed farmhouse, a fisherman’s cottage and a blacksmith’s forge, before going even further back with a prehistoric ring fort and a reconstructed megalithic tomb. Behind the Neolithic stone circle, a giant sculpture of the mythological god Lugh emerges from the hill with his bog oak spear and a luscious mop of green leaves for hair.   

Sculpture of God Lugh in the Dú na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park in Westmeath

Photo credit: @life.of.gerk

Admire the stunning sculptures at Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park.

When you’re ready to leave, make your way back to the Greenway and it’s an easy ride back into Athlone.

Fancy swapping one saddle for another? The Athlone Equestrian Centre is about 6km out of the city, and you can get there by taking the exit off the Greenway by the Athlone Training Centre. Whether you’re a complete beginner or an expert rider, you can head off for a trot around on a horse-riding lesson or a trek through the forest. 

Where to grab dinner in Athlone

When the sun is shining and the air is warm, a cold beer and spicy chicken wings are just the ticket. You’ll find both at the craft brewery Dead Centre Brewing, with waterside tables perched over the Shannon right in the middle of Athlone. You could spend ages reading their lengthy beer menu, or just have a chat with one of the friendly waitstaff who will tell you which of their ales pair best with a wood fired pizza or extra crispy buffalo wings. You can take a tour of the brewery at the weekend, too.

A pint and a bowl of wings on a table at the Dead Centre Brewing in Athlone, County Westmeath.
Pair the perfect ale with some tasty wings at Dead Centre Brewing.

From the outside, the Fatted Calf doesn’t look like much to sing about. But inside, this swish restaurant has the feel of a classic New York bistro, with red leather banquettes and copper lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. The focus is on meat, with dishes like thick local steaks dripping with pink peppercorn jus, or crispy roasted chicken with garlic butter French beans. Save room for dessert – their signature lime and star anise crème brulée is top notch.

Want something a little special? Thyme Restaurant is a luxurious spot in the middle of town, where you can get an elegant five-course tasting menu – think terrine of wild rabbit, or wild seabass with a seaweed beurre blanc. Their Sunday lunch is a cracker, with striploin and towering Yorkshire puddings, or cod with pickled mussels.

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You’re never too far from the water in Athlone – after all, the River Shannon cuts right through the middle of town. But make your way just a few kilometres north and you’ll find Lough Ree, a vast lake dotted with 52 islands, a smattering of sailboats and a shoreline of jetties and swaying rushes. Head in the other direction and you’ll find the ancient stone ruins of Clonmacnoise, right on the shores of the Shannon.

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