Ask an Irishman to recommend his favorite Irish city, and you're likely to hear, «Without a doubt, Galway.» As one of Europe's fastest-growing cities, with a population of 61,000, Galway is a major city by Irish standards, yet it still manages to retain much of the accessibility and congeniality of a small town. Galway is perhaps the most prosperous city in Ireland and arguably the most immediately appealing. As the home to many artists, writers, and artisans, and because it has a proliferation of art galleries and is the home to a lively arts scene, Galway has earned the reputation of the unofficial arts capital of Ireland. The excellent Galway Arts Festival, held every summer, is perhaps the most accessible and friendly culture fest in Europe. But while Galway attracts droves of outsiders, it does so without alienating its long-standing population. The result is a city that feels lived-in--a real place that, at the same time, accommodates (and charms) masses of visitors. Galway City is billed as the «Gateway to the west,» and that's exactly what it is--a welcoming, colorful doorway through which you pass on your way to the gigantic, melancholy solitude of Connemara and the western Gaeltacht. The city has a blessed location, tucked between the Atlantic and the grand expanse of Lough Corrib, which spreads out over 176 sq. km (68 sq. miles) and holds some of the world's best fishing. With 365 islands, the lake is said to have an island for every day of the year. Like most ancient cities, Galway was founded because of its strategic access to water. It began as a fishing village, but after an invasion by the Anglo-Norman forces of Richard de Burgo in the early 13th century, Galway developed into a walled town. Elevation to city status followed with the granting of a royal charter by Richard III in 1484. Around this time, 14 wealthy merchant families ruled the city, giving Galway the nickname it still bears today--«City of Tribes.» These families, mostly of Welsh and Norman origin, ruled the town as an oligarchy, and you still see storefronts and businesses bearing these names today: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, Font, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris, and Skerret. By far the most important name in medieval times was Lynch, whose clan gave the city not only its first mayor, in 1484, but 83 other mayors during the next 169 years. In the center of town, on Shop Street, is Lynch's Castle, dating from 1490 and renovated in the 19th century. It's the oldest Irish medieval town house used daily for commercial purposes (it's now a branch of the Allied Irish Bank). The exterior is full of carved gargoyles, impressive coats of arms, and other decorative stonework. Walk northwest 1 block to Market Street, and you'll see the Lynch Memorial Window embedded in a wall above a built-up Gothic doorway. It commemorates the 16th-century Mayor James Lynch FitzStephen, who condemned his son to death for the murder of a Spanish merchant. After finding no one to carry out the deed, he acted as executioner. He later retreated into seclusion, brokenhearted. During the 170-year heyday of the tribes, Galway grew wealthy and cosmopolitan, with particularly strong trade links to Spain. Close to the city docks, you can still see the area where Spanish merchants unloaded cargo from their galleons. The Spanish Arch was one of four arches built in 1594, and the Spanish Parade is a small open square where visitors strolled in the evening. Local legend has it that Christopher Columbus attended mass at Galway's St. Nicholas Collegiate Church before setting sail for the New World in 1477. Originally built in 1320, the church has been enlarged, rebuilt, and embellished over the years. It has also changed denominations at least four times. The hub of the city is a pedestrian park at Eyre Square (pronounced Air Square), officially called the John F. Kennedy Park in commemoration of his visit here in June 1963, just months before his assassination. A bust of JFK shares space in the park with a statue of a man sitting on a limestone wall--a depiction of Galway-born local hero Padraig O'Conaire, a pioneer in the Irish literary revival of the early 20th century and the epitome of a Galway Renaissance man. From Eyre Square, it's a minute's walk to the medieval quarter and its festive, Left Bank atmosphere. What makes Galway particularly engaging is that this bohemian facet coexists so infectiously with the city's history. Despite Galway's population boom, the city core remains astonishingly similar to how it was in the Middle Ages. In fact, a street map from the 1700s would still get you around today! All in all, Galway is a city bursting with life. Music is everywhere--wafting from pub entryways, lilting from the street musicians on seemingly every corner, and humming from milkmen on their rounds (yes, bottled milk is still delivered door-to-door here). Chances are that your only regret in visiting Galway will be not being able to stay longer.