We recently visited Athlone and stayed a couple of nights. To be honest, I didn't have any huge expectations and I really just wanted a cheap break away from home but I had a lovely time and found Athlone so pleasant, with lots to do. We stayed in the Radisson Blu hotel which was very comfortable, with friendly and helpful staff and it's perfectly situated for walking around Athlone itself.
On the first day we visited Athlone Castle - it's €10 per person entry and you follow through the exhibition rooms, with an audio guide if you want one. I've been to lots of castles because I love the history and the architecture but this was one of the most enjoyable visits I've had. The castle doesn't have the elegant charm of other places I've been, like Cahir Castle, for example, but I thought the exhibition was really well put together. There are lots of nice visuals and audio that keep it interesting and I learnt loads about Athlone, including the fact that Oliver Goldsmith was educated there for a time. There's also a little section dedicated to John McCormack, who was born in Athlone. I didn't know a huge amount about him so I found that part quite absorbing and stayed for a while in that section, happily reading away, with his music on in the background. In the outer courtyard there's a room full of implements from domestic life and town industry. I was particularly fascinated with the bottles for sparkling water, which were a conical shape. In my mind, sparkling water was a new invention - not sure why I thought that!
We then took a look at the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which is opposite the castle. The building, on first view, didn't look to me like a church at all, more like a town hall or similar. It's notable for it's stained glass windows, which are from the Harry Clarke studios. It was designed in Baroque style by the architect Ralph Byrne, who also designed the Church of the Four Masters in Donegal town. The stained glass windows are really worth a look, full of rich detail and in the vibrant colours associated with Harry Clarke.
On the other side of the road from the church, Luan Art Gallery is situated in a beautiful bright airy building, right on the river shannon. We popped in there for a quick look - entry is free and we spent a bit of time browsing the current exhibition.
Then we went into Fine Café which had really good coffee and little pastries, as well as a small range of retail products, like coffee makers and gourmet foods.
Dinner was courtesy of Il Colosseo restaurant which is very central (and close to the hotel). Absolutely delicious Italian food, would definitely recommend!
The following day we went a little bit outside Athlone to Portlick Millenium Forest - this is a gorgous spot for walks, with different trails and it's right beside Lough Ree. We just did a shorter walk as unfortunately the weather wasn't the best, but it's lovely there. Even in Winter it was green and mossy, with beautiful tones from fallen leaves.
There's lots more to do, and the beauty of Athlone is its centrality, so it's easy to drive a little way in any direction and find nice places to visit. I also loved the general atmosphere - I think towns with rivers always have a nice ambiance and there was a nice feel to the place. In better weather, lots more would be possible of course, but the benefit of visiting anywhere in the Winter, is that it's quieter - which is always a plus for me!