All the best things to do in Donegal town by a local
It’s different up here
Donegal County is located in northwest Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way. In Gaelic, Dun na nGall means Fort of the Foreigner. Donegal Town sits to the south end of Donegal at the mouth of the River Eske, with views of the Bluestack Mountains on one side and Donegal Bay on the other. “What to do in Donegal Town” is a question I get asked a lot so here are the best things to do in Donegal town.
The most frequently asked question is Donegal in Ireland or Northern Ireland. Donegal is the furthest north country in Ireland in fact it is even further north than Northern Ireland.
Depending on which direction you are driving to Donegal Town try to take the N15 and follow the route through the stunning Barnesmore Gap, which had a notorious reputation until the 1800s. The Gap as it is known locally was the haunt of highwaymen and brigands robbing and murdering travellers on the road.
I’ve been asked many times “is Donegal town worth visiting?” Obviously I am somewhat biased but there are plenty of things to see in Donegal town, great restaurants and the welcomes are warm and the craic is mighty.
- All the best things to do in Donegal town by a local
- Donegal Town tourist attractions
- Barnesmore Gap
- Pubs to visit in Donegal Town
- Where to eat in Donegal Town
- Blazers Burger Bar & Grill
- Where to stay in Donegal Town
- Mountcharles, Donegal
History of Donegal Town
Situated in the northern heart of the Wild Atlantic Way, Donegal was settled by the Gauls back in the 9th century. The Danes most likely settled Donegal Town itself as there is a record of a Danish fort being destroyed by Murtagh Mac Lochlainn, High King of Ireland in 1159.
Red Hugh O’Donnell and his mother the Lady Nuala who also brought the monks to the area built the Castle ruins in the centre of town. It is believed that the castle was built in 1474 at the same time the Abbey was built.
Donegal Town is the ideal place to stay for a few days when visiting the area. It is a central location and gives you access to many Neolithic sites the grandeur and fury of the Atlantic Ocean, and famous Irish Islands like Tory and Arranmore, not to mention thousands of years of Irish history it is a not to be missed area.
You will need to have a car to travel around Donegal. The bus and local transport system are pretty bad although you can get a bus to Dublin from here. There are no local buses or trains to get around Donegal and either small local tour operators or large coach tours do most touring. If you really want to see, the area rent a car.
Donegal is the coolest place on earth, as decided by National Geographic. Not only that but its charms are being discovered by several celebrities. Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City) has been visiting here for years with hubs Matthew (Ferris Bueller’s Day off) whose family has owned a holiday home here for over 30 years. Christine Baranski from Mama Mia and the Good Wife has also bought a home here.
Donegal Town tourist attractions
Donegal city centre or rather town centre is called the Diamond and markets were held here until the mid 60’s. In the centre of the Diamond stands an obelisk commemorating four Franciscan Friars in the early 17th century who feared that the arrival of the English meant the end of Celtic Culture. They chronicled Celetic history and mythology starting from 40 years before the flood through to 1618AD. The Annals of the Four Masters is one of the most important sources of early Irish history.
Many folks in Donegal speak the Irish language – Gaelic but it is not as common as it once used to be. There are several areas of Donegal that are Gaeltacht such as Gweedore and Derrybeg where you will hear Gaelic spoken.
The Barnesmore Gap is that big opening between Croaghconnelagh (Conall Cullban of Tirchonaill’s mountain) and Croaghonagh (Owen’s mountain), it is the most outstanding feature of the Blue Stack landscape.
For centuries the Gap has been a strategic gateway between the Northern and Southern parts of County Donegal. But Barnesmore was also, in other days, a place of sinister repute. Up to about 1800, it was the notorious haunt of brigands, highwaymen and rapparees who waylaid, robbed and murdered travellers. It became so perilous that from the mid-1700s a garrison of Red Coats was stationed at the Ballybofey end of the Gap to ensure the safety of travellers. The authorities also erected gallows in the Gap to deter these people.
Walks in Donegal town
There are some brilliant walking tours of Donegal Town and beyond by John who takes you on a 1.5-hour walk of the town for only €5 per person. The tours are in English and are wheelchair friendly – and they do provide umbrellas for a rainy days. Now how can you resist? The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and will give you a real sense of the town and its history. Highly recommended.
Other walks and tours include the Bluestack Walks, Slieve League and Mount Errigal. These tours include a guide, accommodation and transportation if required.
Donegal Castle was built by the first Red Hugh and his mother Nuala in the 1400s. In the 1600s, the Castle was burnt to the ground after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, where they were badly defeated, to prevent the British from using it.
Fully restored in the ’90s the Castle sits near the centre of Donegal Town just down from the Diamond (which N. Americans would call the town square).
The Castle was rebuilt in Jacobean style in the 16th Century by Sir Basil Brooke after Hugh O’Donnell burnt it down. In the 1990s the Castle was extensively restored. There are guided tours of the castle and there are information panels situated throughout. The cost of a visit to the castle is €4.
The Friary or Abbey sits at the mouth of the bay and is now in ruins in the middle of a graveyard. There are stories of miracles taking place within the Friary and some monks are reputed to have produced fish from weirs with no fish in them, cured cattle and people of their ills with holy water and prayer.
The first Red Hugh and his mother Nuala, who were devout Catholics, brought the Franciscans to Donegal Town and the Friary (which they call the Abbey in Donegal town) in 1474. The Abbey was attacked several times and taken over by the English in the 1600s. The monks that fled from the priory at that time were credited with compiling the ancient Annals of the Four Masters, which is a major source of Irish History.
Donegal Craft Village
The Craft Village is located on the outskirts of town, simply head out past the Gardai station and Supervalu and you will see the signs. The Village has 7 studios that contain a variety of local artists. From painting, jewellery and metal sculpture to hand weaving, felting, glasswork and more.
There is a lovely little award-winning cafe on the premises where you can enjoy a lovely cuppa and a fresh scone. The perfect place to shop for something handmade in Donegal.
Bank Walk in Donegal
The bank walk takes you on a 1.6 km walk around the Eske Riverbank and along the edge of Donegal Bay. There are stunning views of the harbour passing a Fairy Mailbox and little birdhouses in the trees.
Famine Graveyard Donegal
The graveyard is to be found a short walk up from the Church in Donegal Town. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the graveyard was repaired and a commemoration headstone put into place.
As you walk into the graveyard, you will spot one of the huge iron pots that soup was cooked in for the starving. The actual Famine Workhouse was torn down and now a housing estate sits on the spot. The plaques commemorating the lost include a tribute to the Choctaw First Nations people who donated money to the starving in Ireland.
Donegal Harbour and Waterbus
This tour is great craic a 75-minute boat tour of the harbour and if you are lucky, you may see some seals popping in and out. The tours take place around 2-3 times a day depending on the weather and the boat is a very comfortable 160 seater and is fully equipped with a bar and facilities and it is wheelchair accessible cost is around €20 Euros per adult.
Donegal Railway Heritage Centre
Located in the old Station house built in 1889 and it is full of artefacts and memorabilia. If you know a train buff, you need to bring them here. The restored carriages are used for events, vintage tea parties, workshops and seasonal activities.
There is a little shop in the museum and a tiny garden where you can enjoy a cup of tea. Admission is pay what you can and the Centre does have seasonal hours so isn’t open on Sundays from March to October.
Here is Donegal Town the heart of the town is known as The Diamond. This is where all the shops are pubs, restaurants and everything you could need runs off the Diamond.
On weekends and during the summer “tourist” months the Diamond will be packed in the late evening as the pubs and bars let out. There are very few taxis in Donegal Town although it has increased from 4 to around 8 in the past 10 years (kidding).
Surrounding the Diamond, you will see some of Donegal Town’s best gift shops and some fabulous restaurants. Check out the world-famous Magees Donegal Tweed shop where they have been weaving Donegal tweed for over 150 years.
Pubs to visit in Donegal Town
No visit to Donegal is complete without checking out some of the pubs. The locals are incredibly friendly and in some pubs, you will be treated to some traditional music and song there are also some great restaurants in town.
The Reel Inn – live music Donegal Town
The Reel Inn can be found just off the Diamond on Bridge Street, sitting right beside the Bank Walk and the River. The Reel is the place to be for live bands on Saturday and Sunday. They also have music on weekdays from Tuesday thru Friday during the summer months
Olde Castle Bar
One of the best seafood places around the Castle Bar is a traditional Irish bar, frequented by many locals; it sits in the shadow of the Castle and is recommended highly for both its food and drink.
They have an amazing selection of Whiskey’s, fantastic service and the finest, freshest seafood cooked and served perfectly. They have won numerous awards and I personally can’t wait to go back for more.
On the other side of the Diamond from the Abbey, you will spot McCafferty’s. A brilliant music venue and very traditional quirky pub it showcases music from “trad” to Irish folk you won’t want to miss a pint of the black stuff in this great for the craic bar.
The Forge Pub
This tiny little pub hosts live music on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and not just the “diddly I di” stuff but good local musicians.
It is located just the other side of the river to the church and the castle and you can see it from the bridge beside the Reel Inn. It is said to be the oldest pub in the area but take note it doesn’t have a Sunday license so it won’t be open.
The Reveller Bar
Within walking distance of all the other pubs on the Diamond, The Reveller Bar features great live bands on Saturday and Sunday. During the summer months, there is live music from Tuesdays through to Sundays.
Just re-opened on Bridge Street the Scotsman has great live music often with musicians just dropping in to play. A lively atmosphere, great crowd and good service. You couldn’t ask for more.
Speaking of pubs you may just want to do a pub crawl and the perfect guides for that are Donegal Pub tours they work with all sizes of groups and can often find a tour that you will fit into perfectly. Don’t forget you wanted to meet the locals so this is the perfect way to do it. There’s also a Slieve League pub tour where you get to visit the Cliffs and local pubs in the are and other great pub towns along the way.
Where to eat in Donegal Town
A little sweet cafe and restaurant that serves great coffee and lovely lunches. At the top of the staircase in Magees this is a perfect place to stop when you are finished buying all your tweeds.
One of my favourite places in Donegal Town, friendly, great service and even better food. Huge portions of both mains and sandwiches and the scones well you need to try them for yourself.
On the edge of town by the roundabout at the Gateway Lodge,
Blas is a modern restaurant that creates great food from local ingredients and serves a great pint of Donegal Blonde.
Oh, and the staff are awesome as well.
Who would have thunk it that you can find fabulous authentic Mexican in Donegal Ireland? Certainly not me! Trust me I spent a year in Mexico with the real thing. These boys are direct from Puerto Vallarta and have some of the best Mexican food I have tried in years.
Handmade tortillas from masa not that flour wrap stuff. Empanadas the size of your head. Fresh flavourful and truly original this place serves some great Mexican flavours and they have margaritas what more could you ask for?
Up from the Diamond a little bit but easy to find. What’s not to like. Great food, good prices and great value for money. Good home-cooked food from burgers to sarnies and some real “American” style milkshakes and diner options.
A really nice quiet little restaurant just up the road from the Diamond. Serving lunch and dinner, they have a really pretty courtyard for the nicer weather days.
The perfect little spot for a huge Full Irish a nice lunch or dinner, Marina’s is just up from the Diamond and it opens at 10 am. Their tuna melts and fish pie are legendary (well in my house anyway).
The Salmon Inn is actually in Laghey, which is a quick drive from Donegal Town, and it has perfect bay views. The food is great, the service is excellent and the mussels are apparently the best around. Specializing in seafood at very reasonable prices and a great Sunday roast lunch the Salmon Inn deserves a stop in.
Five-star luxury castle hotel the Castle is a lovely retreat from the humdrum. A beautiful restaurant with fine foods based on locally sourced ingredients and a bar with fantastic bar food. The restaurant is quite pricey but the bar is a little bit less expensive and just as good.
Located on the Diamond in the Central Bar friends tell me this new burger bar is the bomb. The burgers they say are the best they have ever tasted. All the beef is Aubrac (superior quality) and sourced locally. They serve hand-cut chips, great steaks they also have Turkey Burgers, sweet potato fries and some awesome cocktails.
When Chandpur first opened in Donegal Town over 15 years ago, it was the first Indian restaurant in the whole region. It has gone from strength to strength-winning awards virtually every year.
Superb Indian food with an extensive menu they even have a buffet serving on Sundays, which is a great value.
When you finished your great meal, head to Little Mamma’s for some fabulous coffee and off the charts delicious ice cream. They do crepes and waffles as well but you have to try some of the outstanding flavours the Pistachio, Rum n Raisin, Brown Bread and some Whiskey infused gelatos will send your palate soaring into the stratosphere.
Little Mammas now has a place in Letterkenny and an awesome icecream truck on the side of the road as you come into Donegal through the Barnsmore Gap. We had a strawberry cone and can I just say I HATED strawberry until I had this – fresh full of strawberry flavour it was a revelation.
There are so many places to eat in Donegal Town you won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay in Donegal Town
Blue Stack Hostel
The Blue Stack Hostel is located in the Blue Stack Centre and has 28 rooms including wheelchair accessible, en-suite, dormitory-style and private rooms. The Hostel belongs to the Irish Youth Hostel Association. There’s free wifi, a fully supplied self-catering kitchen, a children’s playground, laundry and towel services are available. A standard double bed private room costs about €40 Euros a night great value for money and in a simply stunning location
The cottage effectively has the best of both worlds – a peaceful setting yet with all the amenities of a top tourist town within walking distance.
Lough Eske Castle
The Old Schoolhouse
A spacious, bright, airy house with picturesque views and all the facilities for modern-day living, completely refurbished with care and attention to every detail.
This stunning detached, original stone building dates back to 1894 and the history of this building has been preserved, with some of the original furniture restored, and photographs and history from the school through the years are available to view.
Set on the beautiful Lough Eske Harvey’s Point is a luxurious 4-star hotel with huge rooms and some fabulous dining options. On Sunday you may well find everyone from Donegal town taking in the huge Sunday buffet with spectacular views across the Lough.
Places to see a short visit from Donegal Town
Mountcharles is a small village on the outskirts of Donegal Town and about a 5-minute drive. This little village contains a small corner store, a post office, a Doctor’s surgery, a lovely church and a couple of pubs along with a pharmacy.
Mountcharles is the birthplace of the Irish author and poet, Seumas MacManus (1869~1960), who wrote of Donegal “Under the ocean, off the coast of Donegal, lies a fairy paradise, Tir na’n Og, the Land of Perpetual Youth, which, on beautiful summer eves, is often seen by our fishermen, rising over the waters, afar off. It is a special province of heaven set apart by the good Lord for His favourites, the Irish …”.
Kitty Joe’s Mountcharles
Newly opened Kitty Joe’s serves up great coffee and a fine breakfast but they also do a good lunch. Packed to the roof with locals and the guys building new roads in the area you can’t find another place nearby that can beat this.
If you need a fantastic sandwich to munch in the car on the way to Slieve League head into the Londis shop where you can pick up a takeaway sarnie made with freshly cooked real ham or turkey for under €3. That’s a deal that is brilliant for a budget.
At the bottom of the hill in the village is a beautiful walk along the shoreline with views over the bay. There are two sandy beaches, one at the start of the walk and the other beside the pier. The views are incredible from Benbulben in Sligo to the Barnesmore Gap.
An adorable blue hut right across from Mountcharles Pier with great seating and views of the beaches and water. The Cabin serves some of the best coffees around and you can watch the animals play.
The little mini zoo at the back of the cabin has the most adorable pygmy goats, piglets, chickens, and peacocks and you can even walk the llamas.
One of the prettiest gardens to visit in Donegal is found at the Salthill Gardens just outside of Donegal Town. A beautiful walled garden to visit from the beginning of May until the end of September at €5 per person
Jane Powers describes the garden wonderfully in her book The Irish Garden: “The vernacular earthworks are an important part of this Donegal garden. There is a stone arch built onto the south-facing wall that backs one of the vegetable areas so that you can sit in the shallow alcove and admire the dark, sumptuous corduroy of the ridges on either side” (Frances Lincoln Publishers, 2015).
Killaghtee Cross – Dunkineely
In the graveyard, at Dunkineely 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. Take a drive from Donegal Town towards Killybegs and you will see the signs posted for Dunkineely, which is around 20 minutes or less outside town.
Donegal Bluestack Mountains
If you love hiking and superb nature, walks you must head out to the Bluestack Mountains. The Bluestack Mountains contain several high peaks and some incredible walking trails. The scenery is magnificent and almost overwhelming from waterfalls to rushing streams the Bluestack Mountains are some of the best hikes in the area. Tumbling streams, waterfalls and rugged exhilarating scenery abound.
The Bluestack Centre has its own walking group – The Bluestack Ramblers and you will also find a hostel attached to the centre.
Just 15 minutes from Donegal Town, you will find a variety of fabulous beaches. Donegal is home to some of the finest in all of Ireland including some of the best surfing beaches in the world and some of the best walks near Donegal Town.
My personal favourite is Tullan Strand just down the road in Bundoran, which is about a 15-minute drive from town. There is a magical wishing chair and fairy bridges along with one of the most glorious beaches you will see in Donegal.
From Stone Forts like An Grianan Fort to wedge tombs, gorgeous Glenveagh Castle and a Saint’s sacred home in Glencolumcille Donegal is like no other place on earth. Wild, rugged and majestic it speaks to your heart and makes you?
Remember this is a gorgeous country so let’s all be responsible tourists and mind our footprints. If you would like to read more on being a responsible tourist check out Shivani’s post on How to be a Responsible Tourist.
The smell of the sea and turf stays in your memory and brings you back to this rugged wildling county. No wonder they say in Donegal – it’s different up here. So there you have it I hope you enjoyed my what to do in Donegal Town answers. If you want to know what’s on Donegal Town tune into Donegal Online on FB to check out all the news.
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