Donegal top attractions
The Wild Atlantic Way Donegal route is my favourite part of the world. This is the real wild west of Ireland. The Donegal coastline of the Wild Atlantic Way has everything for the visitor from lighthouses to cliffs to Star Wars filming locations and beautiful beaches. There are so many things to do in Donegal you could visit for months.
If you visit Ireland Donegal is a must-see and you will forever be changed by a visit to Donegal where they say “it’s different up here. People ask what is the best Donegal has to offer? I always reply that it is the most rugged and wild place in Ireland and you should take the time to visit here.
You may hear Donegal referred to as “the forgotten county.” The most northerly county on the island, it’s not in Northern Ireland. It is a place ignored by the rest of the country for the most part and the politicians in Dublin do tend to forget it exists – which to be honest makes most Donegalers very happy.
I see some folks still are not sure where Donegal actually is. So where is Donegal? It is the most northern part of the Republic of Ireland, in fact, it is further north than Northern Ireland. Here is a great map of Donegal and its location from the Go Visit Donegal site – which I may add has some brilliant resources if you plan a visit.
Map of Donegal
There’s a link to a downloadable version of the map as well.
How to get to Donegal
To get to County Donegal from Dublin the drive is around 3 hours and you will nip in and out of the North on your way. From Shannon Airport the drive is just over 3 hours as well. If you really want to do an Irish road Trip to Donegal I would highly recommend renting a car in Ireland, particularly if you want to visit this part of Ireland. Donegal is pretty remote but that is what makes it so special.
Don’t forget Donegal was a major part of the filming for Star Wars and there is an amazing May the 4th Be With You Festival that you shouldn’t miss if you are a Star Wars fan.
Tours of Donegal
Donegal is best seen by renting a car, it’s about 3 hours from Dublin or 4 if you take the bus. Donegal is where you should get lost and enjoy all the hidden sites, beaches, and pubs. But there are tours to the North West of Ireland that will include Donegal.
The stupendous cliffs at the Slieve League, stunning wild vistas and surfing beaches, pastoral landscapes strewn with rocks, and let’s not forget the mountains from Muckriss to snowcapped Errigal.
These top things to do Donegal are just a taste of what Donegal offers, you could spend a lifetime exploring the area
Where to stay in Donegal
Fancy staying in a thatched cottage that is self-catering perhaps Teac Chondai in Annagry is for you. This is a self-catering cottage near the beach and it is a traditional thatched cottage. Loughanure, Annagry.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Donegal?
The best time to visit Donegal I think is between the months of April through to June for the less touristed season and July through August if you only have a summer break. I also love September through November as they are cheaper months to visit and much less tourist. The only difficulty is that many of the sites you may want to see are not open or rather close around October.
Getting Around Donegal
To really see Donegal you need to rent a car. Don’t be afraid of the narrow roads out here, Donegal traffic is pretty sparse and you should have no problems with driving and a Donegal road trip will give you an unforgettable vacation.
There are wild camping areas in Donegal and if you chose to hire a camper van you can camp throughout the County. However, my warning would be that many roads here are just too narrow to get a camper down so be prepared for a lot of walking.
For more info, check out: Hiring A Campervan In Ireland – Everything You Need To Know
Things to do in Donegal
In my personal opinion, these are the top 23 things to do in Donegal and you really need at least 3 days to take in all Donegal has to offer. The list includes megalithic sites, pubs, natural wonders, beaches, ruins and everything that makes it “different up here”. If you don’t have access to your own form of transport, then you can use tours to get across to the best tourist attractions Donegal has to offer.
It is all these things to do in Donegal that we chose to live here. We have beautiful clean air, great Sunday drives, the tourist season is not overwhelming all the things that make Donegal “the coolest place on earth”.
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Where to stay in Donegal
There are a host of places to stay in Donegal depending on where you want to spend your time. I would recommend staying in Donegal Town in the southwest corner of Donegal which will allow you to explore most of the county and see the highlights.
The best things to do in Donegal
1 St. John’s Point
To visit St. John’s Point you will have to drive quite a ways until you see Coral Beach which is small but perfect near to the end of the point. Drive pass by the beach and enter the gate that says Private Property, you don’t have to worry trespassing is not an issue here, from the beach you will drive down a very small trail road to the lighthouse itself and you can park on the side and walk down to the diving point. You cannot access the lighthouse as it is private property.
The views from the end of the point are spectacular, looking across Donegal Bay to the distinctive outline of Benbulben mountain in County Sligo, and to the nearby fishing port of Killybegs to one side and Bundoran on the other side.
2 Killaghtee Cross
Dunkineely a typical Irish village with its small shops and at the edge of the village on the Killybegs side there is an old church and graveyard at Killaghtee. In the graveyard, there is the Killaghtee Cross which is one of the oldest Celtic crosses in Ireland, dating from 650 AD. The Killaghtee Cross is a significant piece of Ireland’s Celtic heritage. This early Irish Celtic cross was a precursor to the elaborately crafted Celtic High Crosses, for which Ireland became famous with the adoption of Celtic Christianity.
It is believed to mark the grave of Saint Aédh who was an early Irish Christian Bishop and reputed miracle worker. It is said that he is descended from the Celtic High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages.
The name ‘Killaghtee‘ comes from ‘Cill Leacht Aédh’, it means ‘church and tomb of Aédh’, in Gaelic. The Cross is inscribed with a large Maltese style cross and just beneath the cross (although you can’t make it out very well is a Celtic trinity knot, which is associated with Saint Brigid.
3 Megalithic Triple Wedge Tomb
Wedge tombs are believed to date from the Late Neolithic to mid-Bronze Age and are approximately 4,000 to 4,500 years old. This wedge tomb can be found by driving into Dunkineely village and then taking the only right-hand turn in the village, you will see a small pine forest with a parking lot, take the path through the trees for a short walk and you will see the tombs. The parking lot is on the right-hand side of the road and looks like it leads into a pine forest.
This kind of tomb apparently contains only one burial chamber, but the Dunkineely tomb has three which is unique to Ireland. The tomb was originally covered by a mound of stones called a ‘cairn’. Several of the cairn’s kerbstones are still in place.
4 Beltany Stone Circle
Near Raphoe you will find the Beltany, Stone Circle, to get to the circle you park your car at the Potato Centre of the Department of Agriculture and take a walk up a horse-path. Wear your wellies or good walking shoes as the path can get quite muddy and in the field, you are headed to there is lots of sheep poop. The stone circle sits on top of a small hill with superb views of the surrounding countryside. It has around 64 stones with a height of about 1.8 m and in the centre is what might have been a burial cairn.
The monument takes its name from the spring festival of Beltane, which has been celebrated by the lighting of fires on hilltops to symbolize a rekindling of the sun and a move into summer. The circle probably dates to the Late Bronze Age, about 1400 to 800 BC. This area has been a place of ritual worship for thousands of years.
5 The Slieve League cliffs
These Cliffs are believed to be the highest in Europe and offer absolutely spectacular views and the rough and rugged landscape is a sight you must see before leaving Donegal. There are several ways up the mountain. In season there is a shuttle bus to take you to the top viewing point, but during quieter seasons you pass the second parking lot and enter the trail by car through the gate, simply close the gate behind you and drive up to the viewing point.
The walk up from the second parking lot is around a kilometre and a half and is uphill all the way. There are no instructions anywhere but you are allowed to drive up beyond the gate which keeps the sheep in.
Further up the coast, you will find the Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileach which sits on a hilltop in Inishowen. The view from here is simply breathtaking. Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly can be seen as well as the entire peninsula. The sparkling waters of the Loughs in the distance and the breezes blowing through the Fort transport you and you can easily believe that this place has witnessed much of Ireland’s history.
6 An Grianan Fort
Donegal is famous throughout Ireland for Grianán Ailigh. The origins of the Fort date back to around 1700 BC. It has always been connected to the Tuatha de Danann who invaded Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills. They worshipped Dagda (the Good God) and he too is associated with the origins of Aileach.
The Fort itself was built completely without mortar, the inside of the Fort has three terraces and it is believed that wooden structures were built around these to provide living areas. Legend has it that the Giants of Inishowen lie sleeping below the fort and that when the sacred sword is removed they will come back to life and reclaim their ancient lands.
7 Donegal Castle
Fully restored in the ’90s the 15th Century Donegal Castle sits near the centre of Donegal Town. Built by the O’Donnell chieftains in the 15th Century, beside the river Eske in Donegal Town, Donegal Castle was rebuilt in Jacobean style in the 16th Century by Sir Basil Brooke, after Hugh O’Donnell burnt it to the ground rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Information panels chronicle the history of the castle and guided tours are available. The cost of a visit to the castle is €4.
8. Solis Lough Eske Castle Hotel
Enjoy a fabulous 5-star hotel stay in the restored Lough Eske Castle that was a vacant ruin about 15 years ago.
9 The Forge Pub Donegal Town
A great favourite with the locals this tiny little pub that hosts live music on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It truly is a hidden gem in Donegal.
This is a great read on the 5 top things you can do in Donegal Town by Corinne and Jim of Reflectionsenroute.
10 The Castle Bar Donegal Town
A traditional Irish bar, frequented by many locals, it sits in the shadow of the Castle and is recommended by many of the locals. If you want to stay in Donegal town and explore the area further this article may be of help. It details all kinds of things to do in Donegal Town, where to stay, what restaurants to eat at and much more.
11 Glenveagh National Park
The Park is the second largest National Park in Ireland with over 170 square kilometres of the hillside above Glenveagh Castle on the shore of Lough Veagh. It is a drive of just under 50 minutes from Letterkenny. It has a dark history, red deer, bald eagles, fabulous hikes and scenery that will knock your socks off.
Glencolmcille is such a remote location that it suffered tremendously from the famine and the resulting mass emigration over the next 100 years all but made a ghost town of the place. In the 1950s however, it became a beacon of hope for other emigration-drained areas of Ireland. This tiny community managed to come back from the brink and create a community that valued both innovation and its traditions.
13 Atlantic Way Beaches of Donegal
There are literally hundreds of hidden beaches and coves along the Donegal shoreline. From surfing at Rossnowlagh to climbing ancient rock formations at Muckross to undiscovered hideaways like Inver beach Donegal will surprise you with its beaches and coastal adventures. The following is a very small list of some of Donegal’s best beaches some of which have won the blue flag beach honour.
- Rossnowlagh Beach
- Silver Strand Beach
- Bundoran Beach
- Killahoey Beach
- Carrickfinn Beach
- Stroove Beach
- PortSalon Beach
- Murder Hole Beach
- Fintra Beach
- Bundoran Beach
- Portnoo Beach
Visiting the Best Beaches in Donegal
14 Take A Boat To Tory Island
Tory Island is one of the magical places in Donegal to visit. You can take a day trip over to the island or stay overnight if you wish.
Just off the coast of County Donegal near Dunganghy lies Tory Island. A place steeped in myth and majestic landscapes. If you’re planning a trip to this magical island, be aware that ferries travel daily from the mainland between April and October, and five times a week during the rest of the year. You can catch the ferry from Magheraroarty Pier just off the N56 to find the ferry times they have a very handy app for iPhone and androids.
Tory Island has a population of 130 thereabouts and they have a King who is elected to rule the Island. The language of Tory Island is Gaelic and it is considered part of the Gaeltacht. Sadly the King of Tory died in 2018 and a new one hasn’t been elected yet.
There are daily ferries across to the island and it is a mecca for hikers and walkers.
15. Errigal and the Poisoned Glen
It’s not Mount Errigal but simply Errigal and it’s close by the Poisoned Glen, Errigal and surrounding areas are within Glenveagh boundaries, and the main entrance lies a 10-minute drive from the Errigal Car Park. The Poisoned Glen lies at the foot of Errigal. The views here are probably some of the most photographed in Ireland. From Lough Dunlewey and the old Church is a photographers dream.
16. Discover Kinnagoe Bay
Kinnagoe Bay is where the Spanish ship La Trinidad Valencera was sunk in 1588. Part of the Spanish Armada many of Donegal’s citizens trace their ancestry back to the sailors that were saved by the locals. Kinnagoe is one of Donegal’s most beautiful secluded bays and it is near the town of Inishowen.
17. Malin Head
The furthest north you can go in Ireland Malin Head is absolutely worth a visit. The landscapes are stunning and if you walk or hike you will be in heaven. When visiting Malin Head you will spot the white stone word “Eire” written on the grass. Recently uncovered these stones date back to WWII so that it was a beacon for the N. American planes flying supplies into N. Ireland.
Malin head is also the best place to photograph the Northern Lights from in Ireland. Clear skies, lack of light pollution and the skies present a performance like no other. If you are useless like me at photography then you need to know how to photograph the Northern Lights and make sure you capture those essential shots.
18. Visit Fanad Head And Lighthouse
Fanad Head and the lighthouse that marks the head is a photographers dream. If you want to you can also stay in one of the 3 lightkeepers cottages beside the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse tour itself costs around €10 euros and it’s a climb to the top of 76 stairs but provides stunning views. These tours are all conducted by locals who will give you insight into the people of Donegal and the culture.
19. Explore Doe Castle
Located near the absolutely stunning Sheepshead Bay this is one of Ireland’s few remaining, fortified, Gaelic tower houses. Dating back to the 1420’s Doe was home to the McSweeney Clan for nearly 200 years. Admission to the grounds is free and for €3 euro, you can take a guided tour. If you need a break there is a little cafe on the grounds as well.
20. Visit Doagh Famine Village
A replica of a picturesque Irish Village Doagh Famine Village is around an hour north of Letterkenny and costs €10 per adult. I have to admit I’ve been a few times and it is a beautiful location. The village is somewhat cheesy with tatty dummies used to highlight different areas.
What we did enjoy was the guided tour which is included with your ticket price. Well worth it and you will learn a lot about the famine and its consequences. What was great fun as well was trying some locally brewed poitin – this hard liquor is NOT for the faint-hearted and is available to purchase.
The Village is wheelchair accessible and has a nice little cafe with some great views and really good coffee.
21. Seaside Resort Of Bundoran
Bundoran is a relatively typical seaside town, full of penny arcade games, a Ferris wheel and various other attractions for the kids. It also has a great movie house and the local cafes serve some terrific fish and chips.
22. Tullan Strand and the Fairy Bridges
You can reach Tullan Strand from Bundoran on foot and it is a well-loved place by locals for swimming and water sports like surfing.
The big attractions at Tullan Strand though are the fairy bridges and the Wishing Chair. There is also a lovely memorial to the Canadian airmen who were killed when their plane went down in the sea here.
23. Walk-in St. Patrick’s footsteps at Lough Derg
Lough Derg is an ancient sanctuary of St. Patrick and it is a pilgrimage site set on an island in the middle of the Loch. It welcomes pilgrims and you can spend the day or three days and walk in the footsteps of St. Patrick.
According to the sanctuary over the past 150 years over 2 million people have spent time on the Island in prayer and contemplation.
National Geographic voted Donegal the coolest place on the planet in 2017, so there is lots more to come.
What to pack when you visit Donegal
When you visit Ireland you may want to know what to pack personal experience tells me that I need a carryon bag with those twisty wheels that go in all directions and has both carrying handles and a pull-out drag bar thingy. I want sturdy fabric, preferably in a day-glow colour so I can see the damn thing if I do have to check it. I also want soft sides that give a little – just in case. My recommended one? Well, I pick the azure blue TravelproTravelpro Maxlite 5 19″ Expandable International Carry-On Spinner. I know it’s a mouthful but a great case.
Now this one may seem a little odd but I see a lot of N. Americans complaining on the Irish forums that most hotels and B&B’s don’t have washcloths. Well, that’s true I mean after all who wants to use a used washcloth. Take your own these are great quick-drying washcloths that are reusable and environmentally friendly.
Now if you are really concerned about the whole liquid issue why not take solid shampoo bars and body wash bars. These products are paraben and SLS free, TSA approved (so to speak) perfume-free and chemical-free. That makes them very environmentally friendly and they are so easy to use.
I love a multipurpose jacket Craghoppers 3 in 1 jacket. It’s windproof, waterproof and breathable and has a drawcord at the waist which helps me look like I have one. It’s not bulky and looks good even when not hiking.
Now you are going to need a 110v to 220v voltage converter so you can plug in hairdryers, phones, laptops or tablets and so on. My personal favourite and one that has lasted me 4 years is the Bestek Universal Travel Adapter.
Trust me on this one you will have more photos than you can store on either your phone or your camera and you don’t want to be deleting any to take more before you get home.
This Ultra Scandisk chip will work under adverse weather conditions (we get a lot of those here) and keep your photos or drone footage totally safe. A flash drive for your Smart Phone or Android will also come in very handy.
I’m not going to recommend cameras or other types of photographic equipment such as a drone because – well because I am a crap photographer who uses a good cell phone for most of my photos. Now I want a drone but I have to admit I haven’t bought one yet. So I was reading all kinds of reviews and know which one I want this a Holystone 1080P Drone.…sigh if only. This has a huge flying time of 26 minutes.
This little beauty is a Lipstick-Sized Portable Charger, which is an absolute, must-have when travelling. I keep mine charged and then bring it with me just in case. There is nothing worse than running out of juice when you are snapping some of the best views ever. You will never be out of power with this charger.
Here in Ireland a Windproof Umbrella will save your hair and clothes and is a requirement. I really like this small portable travel umbrella. It’s windproof, waterproof, and folds down super small and will fit into any purse or suitcase.
I never would have dreamed of bringing a flashlight with me to Ireland, but when it’s dark here man it’s freaking dark. So one night we wanted to go and see the Northern Lights up in Donegal but we didn’t have a torch. Shopping for one here in Ireland became a journey to 5 stores and each one more expensive than the last. This torch is perfect it has 5 modes, is rechargeable, super lightweight and waterproof you couldn’t ask for more.
To help you explore all the best things to do in Donegal and in Ireland you can download these 14 free travel apps to help you with your trip.
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