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Discovering The Top 5 Things To Do In Donegal, Ireland

We found the Top 5 things to do in Donegal, Ireland including a great Castle, a cruise on Donegal Bay, and a day trip to the cliffs of Slieve League.


There are so many things to do in Ireland, that we’ve ended up making multiple trips. Everywhere you turn, there are wonderful sights from picturesque towns, castles, soaring cliffs, the greenest green landscapes, boat trips to rugged islands, great restaurants, fun pubs, and wonderful people.

We’ve learned to focus each trip on a specific region, and for this trip we headed straight to the west coast and made our way from south to north along the Wild Atlantic Way. On our first stop we took a boat to amazing Skellig Michael and we ended in the north where we found the top 5 things to do in Donegal.

Donegal is next door to Northern Ireland where there are more not-to-be-missed sights. Two of our favorites are the Hexagonal Stone’s of the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic Experience in Belfast. The Giant’s Causeway is also a World Heritage site; the Titanic Experience really brings the tragic yet remarkable story to life.

This article covers the following things to do in County Donegal and Donegal Town, all part of your Ireland planning:

The 600-meter high cliffs of Slieve League rise above the wild Atlantic in County Donegal Ireland.
It takes a bit of effort to get to the cliffs of Slieve League, but they are truly worth it.

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Where is Donegal?

Donegal County is the northernmost part of the Republic of Ireland. Bounded on its north and west sides by the North Atlantic Ocean, it’s rugged, remote, sparsely populated, pristine, and beautiful. It’s little wonder that National Geographic Traveler declared it the #1 coolest place to visit in 2017 .

County Donegal Ireland Map

Click the map image to link to the expandable Google Map. Click the pins for brief details:

Donegal Ireland interactive map.
Click the map to open in Google Maps.
A narrow road winds through gorgeous green hills sprinkled with lovely white houses in County Donegal.
There’s no green like Ireland.

Slieve League Cliffs, Beaches, and More

The roads in Donegal County are narrow and winding; it takes time to get around, but it’s worth the effort. There are remote beaches, romantic lighthouses, colossal cliffs, hiking trails, and, for us animal-loving photographers, lots of great sheep shots.

A very woolly sheep at Slieve League in Donegal County
No trip to Ireland is complete without a few Sheep Shots — like this mammoth woolly at Slieve League.

Slieve League

Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) is not-to-be missed. It’s a mountain with 600-meter high cliffs plunging into the wild Atlantic. Signage at the sight claims these are the highest cliffs in Ireland.

Unless you’re looking for a hardy hike, don’t park at the first gate you encounter — open the gate and go through. The gate isn’t there to keep people out; it’s there to keep the sheep in. A second parking lot is located further up the road and much closer to the cliffs.

A striking dolmen with a huge cap stone located in a pasture behind St. Conal’s Church in Kilclooney More in County Donegal.
This remarkable dolmen (megalithic tomb) sits in a pasture behind St. Conal’s Church in the Townland of Kilclooney More.

Dolmen in Kilclooney More

This remarkable dolmen (megalithic tomb) is behind St. Conal’s Church in the Townland of Kilclooney More. It’s in a fenced pasture, but there are convenient steps that make it easy to get up and over the fence.

When we visited, there were several donkeys in the pasture; but they didn’t seem to mind us wandering in. It was late June and the pasture was dry enough to wear regular walking shoes, but if it’s been rainy, rubber boots would be better.

We ran out of time and did not visit the nearby Dolmen Center. According to Discover Ireland, the center has information about the Kilclooney Dolmen and serves visitors, but it’s also a center for the community. It has a children’s playground, food, and restrooms.

One the many beautiful beaches we found along the Atlantic in County Donegal.
One the many beautiful beaches we found along the Atlantic in County Donegal.

Beaches and Assaranca Waterfall

While driving around Donegal County, we also visited beautiful crescent beaches, and stopped by the impressive Assaranca Waterfall.

Donegal Town, a Must-See in Ireland

Donegal Town is at the southern end of Donegal County where the River Eske flows into Donegal Bay. It’s a small town (about 2,600 residents), but it has ample lodging, good restaurants, and plenty of friendly pubs.  The town is perfect for day-tripping to other parts of the county.

You can easily spend a full day in Donegal Town and the hotels, restaurants, pubs and major sights are within easy walking distance of each other. The major sights in Donegal Town are: the Donegal Bay Waterbus, Castle, Friary, and the Bank Walk.

The Donegal Bay Waterbus harbour tour is the top attraction in Donegal Town.
The Waterbus tour on Donegal Bay is both interesting and entertaining.

Don’t Miss the Donegal Waterbus

The 75-minute boat tour of Donegal Bay is the most popular sightseeing opportunity in Donegal Town. The informative commentary points out features around the bay, provides historical insights, and is laced with Irish humor and spirited song.

On the Donegal Bay Waterbus Tour, we pass by a group of harbour seals lounging on a sandbar.
Harbour seals watching us as we cruise by on the Donegal Bay Waterbus.

Donegal Harbour is home to a colony of Harbour seals, and, if the tide is right, you’ll see groups of them lounging on the sandbars around Seal Island.

Looking out over Donegal Harbor on a calm morning.Looking out over Donegal Harbor on a calm morning.
Looking out over Donegal Harbor on a calm morning. (Photo credit: Ron Vail)

The Dún Na nGall is a comfortable, 160-passenger boat which provides a smooth ride on the bay and is equipped with a full bar and restrooms. There are 2-3 tours a day, but the schedule changes with the tide. Visit the Donegal Bay Waterbus website or visit their office on Quay Street for the schedule, tickets, and more information.

The boat’s name, Dún na nGall, is the true Irish name for Donegal. It means Fort of the Foreigner.

Built in the 15th century, Donegal Castle is fully restored and is among the best things to see in Ireland.
Take a Donegal Castle tour or wander through on your own.

Donegal Castle, One of Ireland’s Top Attractions

Take time to tour the fully restored Donegal Castle. It’s located in the center of town on the bank of the Eske River. Guided tours are offered, or opt for the self-guided tour and wander through the castle on your own.

Fireplace and dining table in the Great Hall in Donegal Castle.
Fireplace and dining table in the Great Hall in Donegal Castle.

Donegal Castle was built in the 15th century by Red Hugh O’Donnell, the chieftain of the O’Donnell clan, a powerful Gaelic family.

The Donegal Friary sits in ruin on the bank of Donegal Harbour; it’s Celtic crosses are popular with photographers.
The Friary ruin and Celtic crosses are a popular photo op.

Donegal Friary

According to the Friary’s signage, “Donegal Friary was founded for the Franciscan Friars in 1474 by the first Red Hugh O’Donnell and his wife.” It was repeatedly attacked and taken over by the English.

The Friary’s claim to fame is that Monks, who fled the Friary, are credited with compiling the ancient annals of Ireland into the Annals of the Four Masters — a major source of Irish history. The Friary is now a ruin enmeshed in a cemetery, but it’s certainly worth wandering through and offers some nice photo opportunities — especially of Celtic crosses.

View of the Bank Walk path along the River Eske and Donegal Harbour in Donegal Town, Ireland.
The Bank Walk is a 1.6 km path along the River Eske and Donegal Harbour.

Take the Bank Walk

The Bank Walk is a 1.6 km trail that begins at the River Eske Bridge and follows along the riverbank and the edge of Donegal Bay. There are views of the harbour and the Friary, benches to sit and commune with nature, birdhouses in the trees, and even a whimsical Post Box for Fairies. It’s an easy, pleasant walk.

The Wild Atlantic Way

County Donegal is the northernmost section of Ireland’s tourism route called the Wild Atlantic Way. When it officially launched in 2014, Ireland’s Minister of Tourism called it the “journey of a lifetime.” The route winds for 2,500 km along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic Coast from Kinsale in County Cork to the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal.

You could easily spend 2-3 weeks traveling the Wild Atlantic Way, and it would be an amazing trip. Among the major sights along the route are the Ring of Kerry, Dingle Peninsula, the Cliffs of Mohr, Galway, Connemara, Donegal Town, and Slieve League.

Road along Donegal Bay.
Road along Donegal Bay.

Practical Information for Your Visit to Donegal

Getting to and Around Donegal Town and County

Without a car, there’s no easy, convenient way to travel around Donegal County and visit sights like the cliffs at Slieve League. Typically, visitors fly into Belfast or Dublin, rent a car and drive. Donegal Town is 177 km from Belfast and 225 km from Dublin.

While a car is necessary for greater Donegal County, you can certainly visit Donegal Town using train and bus services. I’ve done this twice and it was very pleasant. Just kick back on the bus or train and enjoy the scenery.

True Story

Several years ago, my husband and I were trekking around Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland taking whatever public transit we could find. Between trains, ferries, buses, and taxis, we managed quite well.

We planned to get to Donegal and then, after a short visit, take a train from Donegal to Dublin. We got to Londonderry by train, transferred to Derry on the opposite side of River Foyle and got a bus to Donegal. Then we discovered that the Donegal Railway Station was actually the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, and the last train to Donegal was in 1959. Oops!

No worries though, we took a bus to Sligo where we had a great evening in a really fun pub. The next day, we took the train from Sligo to Dublin. We missed staying in Donegal, but it only meant that we needed to return on a future trip. And we did, twice.

Places to Stay

You won’t go wrong with the Abbey Hotel right smack in the center of Donegal Town. This beautiful stone faced hotel has rooms with bay views and an excellent restaurant. Rooms are very comfortable and offer good value for the price. Check out the Abbey Hotel in Donegal!

There are plenty of places to stay, though, and you can compare Donegal hotel prices here.

The Olde Castle Bar is a favorite restaurant and bar in Donegal Town, Ireland.
The Olde Castle Bar is our favorite place to eat (and drink) in Donegal.

Our Favorite Donegal Town Restaurants

  • Market House Restaurant in the Abbey Hotel
  • Old Castle Bar

Conclusion

As often happens when traveling, we ran out of time before running out of things to see, especially according the Best Ireland Itinerary.  With one more day, we would have gone to Glenveagh National Park and castle, and Mount Errigal. Now we have a good reason to come back (as if we needed a reason).

Author bio: Ginny Vail is a travel writer, who loves sightseeing, photography, and videography. She’s been to 43 countries across six continents and traveled by air, car, bus, train, boat, and ship. Her articles can help you discover places to go, sights to see, and details about when and how visit them.

Pin Discovering Donegal for later!

Donegal County, Ireland - a magical destination!
Exploring Donegal at Slieve League, one of Irelands famous cliffs.
Heading to Ireland? You will want to make sure Donegal is on your itinerary! Check out our Top 5 Attractions.

Chris S.

Saturday 7th of September 2019

Thanks so much for your article. We are headed to Northern Ireland , including Donegal, next week. Slieve League is on our list. How much time would you suggest we spend our there? A few hours? All day?

Corinne Vail

Thursday 19th of September 2019

Chris, It depends on how much walking/hiking you want to do. It is a gorgeous spot! I'd say minimum 1 or 2 hours.

Gorretti Woods

Tuesday 30th of July 2019

Hi it was a pleasure reading your article.im from Leitrim and I have a Restaurant and B/B in cleignamore ballinaglera co Leitrim.its right on Lough Allen shores.its called the Gables.next time you visit Ireland come stay with us.your more than welcome.

Ginny Vail

Friday 2nd of August 2019

Gorretti, Thank you for reading my post and your invitation to visit County Leitrim. If I'm fortunate to visit Ireland again, I'll certainly visit Lough Allen and visit your Restaurant and B/B.

RobRob @TravelLatte(.net)

Saturday 16th of September 2017

How gorgeous is Denegal?!? We'll be on the southern end of Ireland shortly, and it's killing us that we won't have the time to explore more of the Wild Atlantic Way and the northern half of the country. We're just going to have to plan a return trip...before we've even left on the first one! ;) Thanks for sharing Donegal with us - it really reinforces our desire to see the area.

Corinne Vail

Sunday 17th of September 2017

Rob, I always feel that way about a trip as well. There's always too much to do and not enough time.

shere

Friday 8th of September 2017

it's been a long long time I've been to Ireland. I just thought I had visit donegal castle, but I didn't (it seemed similar to another I did visit). The cliffs look amazing and worth a visit.

Corinne Vail

Sunday 10th of September 2017

Shere, There are so many wonderful castles in Ireland...and we loved Donegal.

Bryna | Dotted Line Travels

Thursday 31st of August 2017

I love this post! Ireland has been a bucket list item for me since I was a teen and I'm hoping to make a trip out in the next year - fingers crossed! I'd love to check out the Wild Atlantic Way. I'd definitely want to stop at Donegal Castle and spot some harbour seals at Donegal Harbour!

Corinne Vail

Thursday 31st of August 2017

Bryna, I hope you make to Ireland as well. There is tons to do and see...all fun.