You won't have to look far to find Athlone's main attraction: Its castle—dating from the 1200s—squats alongside the River Shannon right in the middle of this Irish town 70 mi/115 km west of Dublin, guarding a strategic crossing. The tourist information office is housed in the gatehouse. The castle ramparts offer nice views of the river and of the old, twisting streets that lie along the west bank of the Shannon. Several restaurants and pubs can be found there, including a pub named Sean's, said to be the oldest in Ireland. Also worth visiting are St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church on Market Square, and the Luan Gallery, which features exhibitions of local Midlands artists.

Some of the nearby towns are worth a look as well. We enjoyed visiting the pretty farm and market town of Tullamore (where you can rent a boat for touring the Grand Canal) and the ancient monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise.

In the surrounding area, note the vast brown bogs. The peat bogs—ancient carbonized vegetation on its way to becoming coal—are dug up and dried by the Bord na Mona semistate company, and burned as fuel.

Several companies offer day cruises from Athlone to Lough Ree, offering views of early monastic ruins and flocks of migratory birds. It's a pleasant way to see a bit more of the area. Check the timetables in the tourist office (on the castle grounds).

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