Athlone – in the heart of Ireland

Last updated on May 16, 2024

When you think of Ireland, you quickly think of a tour along the wild west coast. But the heartlands of Ireland also have a lot to offer…

View from Athlone Castle over City and Shannon
View from Athlone Castle over City and Shannon (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)


At 370 kilometres in length, the River Shannon is not only the longest river in Ireland, but also the longest and most water-rich river in the British Isles. And it is the pulsating lifeline of the Irish interior, the Heartlands.

If you want to explore not only the beautiful coasts of Ireland, but also the interior of Ireland, then the River Shannon is a very good starting point.

The source of the Shannon, the Shannon Pot, lies in the north of Ireland, in County Cavan, a little to the east of the city of Sligo. And the estuary is near Limerick, in the south-west, where the Shannon merges into a long bay before releasing its waters into the Atlantic.

In between, roughly in the middle of the Shannon and also in the geographical centre of Ireland, lies the city of Athlone. So if the Shannon is the lifeline of the Heartlands, then Athlone is its centre – the heart of the Heartlands, so to speak.

Athlone Castle
Athlone Castle (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)

Houseboat drivers and other water sports enthusiasts on the Shannon know this, for them Athlone is one of the most important stops on their journey. You too can go on a houseboat trip on the Shannon, even without a boating licence. I have written several articles about this, which you can find via the menu. See for example:

But Athlone is not only a good stop for boat travellers, but also for land travellers.

The beautiful town is a pleasant size: it’s big enough to easily find accommodation, restaurants, cafés, shopping and some sights. But it is also small enough to be manageable and cosy – a nice and typical Irish small town.

For me, Athlone was a surprise find. I came through here on one of my motorbike tours and was immediately so taken with the beautiful location by the river that I “had” to explore the castle and the surrounding area first.

Incidentally, we live in Ireland as a second home (we come from Germany). At our location, south of Dublin, we run our motorbike rental business ( and our guest rooms during the summer months.

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Let’s take a closer look at the town of Athlone on the River Shannon:

Some background to Athlone

The name Athlone is derived from the Gaelic name Baile Átha Luain, which roughly means town of Luain or ford of Luain.

There was a shallow ford across the Shannon here long before there were bridges. According to legend, Luain was a man who led people across the river at this point.

In the year 900, he built an inn here for travellers. A settlement gradually developed at this strategically important crossing point of the land and waterways.

The oldest pub in Athlone, Sean’s Bar, is also the oldest pub in Ireland, if the Guinness Book of Records is to be believed. It is located at this crossroads and near the castle and is said to date back to the year 900. I wouldn’t have guessed the age of the inconspicuous pub in the row of houses, but apparently there used to be an older building here, namely “The Three Blackamoor Heads”, which was built in 1725. And there was probably a pub here before that, although the history is not fully documented back to the year 900.

Cruiser boats at the Shannon in Athlone
Cruiser boats at the Shannon in Athlone (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)

Athlone Castle opposite, on the other hand, is a real testament to its age. The stone Norman castle was built in 1210 for John Ohneland.

His real name was Jean Plantagenet and he was the youngest son of Henry II and brother of Richard the Lionheart and was King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Normandy from 1199 until his death in 2016 – as well as holding other titles and lands in France.

It was the time of the Anglo-Norman conquests in Ireland and the castle in Athlone was intended to guard the strategically important crossing over the River Shannon.
Its predecessor, the wooden castle, was built by an Irish king of Connacht, presumably around 1129, but the Irish clans were steadily displaced by the Anglo-Normans and their castles too.

Today you can visit Athlone Castle. I did and I really enjoyed it. The castle also houses Athlone’s tourist information centre. From the tower you have a very nice view of the Shannnon and the town.

You can also see the magnificent Church of Saints Peter and Paul directly opposite, which is also on the river. It was built in 1932 and is therefore much less historic than its neighbour, Athlone Castle. But the exterior façade with its twin towers is well worth seeing.

Athlone Castle and Church
Athlone Castle and Church Saints Peter & Paul (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)

Visiting Athlone

Regardless of the sights mentioned, it’s just nice to take a stroll along the Shannon and explore the city from the riverbank. You can do this beautifully on both sides of the river.

A little way downstream on the eastern bank of the river is Burgess Park, a beautiful park right on the river where you can also spend some time. The Golden Island Shopping Centre behind it offers plenty of parking – and of course shopping opportunities.

If you like boats, you can also take a walk up the river to Athlone Marina on the east bank. There is also another small park there.

Upstream on the western bank you will find the Golden Mile, a green riverside walk.

Church of Saints Peter & Paul in Athlone
Church of Saints Peter & Paul in Athlone (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)

What else you can see in the area

Here are a few nice tips for you on what else you can see and do near Athlone:

Lough Ree

Just outside Athlone is the large and beautiful Lough Ree, which you should definitely explore.

The medieval monastery of Clonmacnoise

A little further downstream is the medieval monastery of Clonmacnoise. Beautifully situated on the banks of the river, it boasts a number of ornate Celtic crosses, two round towers and several well-preserved buildings. I will write another article about this, which I will link here…


If you like Irish whiskey, you’ve come to the right place. In Tullamore you will find the Tullamore Dew Distillery Visitor Experience, see:

Athlone City Bridge over River Shannon
Athlone City Bridge over River Shannon (photo: Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg)

Mullingar, Belvedere House & Gardens

Mullingar is also a small town in the Heartlands. On your way to or from Dublin you might pass by here. There you will find Belvedere House with its large gardens and parks and decorative ruin, which is actually just a “fake”. See:

Birr Castle Demesne

Birr Castle, not far from Athlone, is known for its beautifully landscaped walled gardens, i.e. flower and herb gardens within the castle walls. The castle is also very pretty and can be visited as part of a guided tour. See:


On your way to the Wild Atlantic Way, or on the way back, you will probably pass through the Heartlands of Ireland at least once and cross the River Shannon. Don’t just rush through, but take some time to see at least one of the beautiful places in the heart of Ireland and explore one of the great lakes.

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Athlone is one such place. This lovely little Irish town is practically in the centre of Ireland and has plenty to offer for a short stopover or an overnight stay.

Another free tip: If you like Ireland but already know the coasts, you can take a Heartland tour along the Shannon – there’s lots to discover here too.

I wish you lots of fun in Athlone and on the Shannon!

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Picture credits cover picture: Atlone, photo by Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg (

Uli Written by:

Hello and welcome to my blog. Originating from Germany, my family and I now live in Ireland (at least part time). We have travelled this amazing isle many times and know many parts of it very well. In this blog, I would like to share valuabe tips and information for your next trip to Ireland with you. Enjoy the content, yours, Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg