When you see the ghostly shapes of the Aran Islands floating 48km (30 miles) out at sea like misty Brigadoon, you instantly understand why these sea-battered and wind-whipped isles have been the subject of fable, song, and film for thousands of years.

All three islands—Inishmore (Inis Mor), Inishmaan (Inis Meain), and Inisheer (Inis Oirr)—are rather strange looking, with a ring of rocks around their outer edges and, inside, small farms surrounded by soft green grass and wildflowers. Life on the islands is deeply isolated. To this day, many of the 1,500 inhabitants maintain a traditional lifestyle, fishing from currachs (small crafts made of tarred canvas stretched over timber frames), living in stone cottages, relying on pony-drawn wagons to get around, and speaking Gaelic. They still wear the classic, creamy, handmade bainin sweaters that originated here, as there’s nothing better for keeping out the chill.

Inishmore is the largest island and the easiest to reach from Galway. Most visitors disembark from the ferries at Kilronan (Cill Rónáin), the island’s main town (though it’s only the size of a village). From there, it’s easy to arrange transportation around the island: Horse-drawn buggies can be hailed like taxis as you step off the boat, minivans stand at the ready, and bicycle-rental shops are within sight. Drop in at Oifig Fáilte (Aran Island Tourist Information) in Kilronan (099/61263) to pick up walking maps, ask questions, and generally get yourself going. It’s open daily, year-round, from around 9:30am to 5pm.

The islands have some excellent geological sights, including the magnificent Dún Aengus ★★ on Inishmore. A ruined 2,000-year-old stone fortress, on the edge of a cliff that drops 90m (295 ft.) to the sea, Dún Aengus is among the most dramatic ancient ruins in the west. Its original purpose is unknown—some think it had a military purpose, others say it was a ceremonial theater. From the top are spectacular views of Galway Bay, the Burren, and Connemara. Nearby, in what looks like an Irish country cottage, the charming cafe/restaurant Teach Nan Phaidi ★★ (099/20975) offers sandwiches, salads, excellent Irish stew, cakes, pies—comfort food, in other words, and incredibly welcome after a blustery day on the island.

Aran Island Ferries (www.aranislandferries.com; 091/568-903) runs daily service to Inishmore and Inishmaan. Boats leave from Ros a' Mhíl (Rossaveal) 37km (23 miles) west of Galway City. The crossing takes 40 minutes. There are usually three crossings a day, at 10:30am, 1pm, and 6:30pm from April to September, 10:30am and 6pm from October to March—but always call to check the schedule, and make sure you know the time of the return ferries on the day. The ticket office is at 4 Forster Street in Galway; a shuttle bus goes from nearby Queen’s Street to the ferry port (to take the shuttle, you must check in at the booking office least 90 minutes before sailing time). The round-trip crossing costs €25 adults, €20 seniors and students, €13 children. The shuttle bus costs €7 adults, €6 seniors and students, €4 children, round trip.

Although visiting the Aran Islands is a thoroughly doable day trip from Galway City, if you’re tempted to stay overnight, a handful of good B&Bs and restaurants are available.