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. Like many Americans, we have Irish relatives, and we love trying to connect with them even if by just seeing the land.
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 iconic Wild Atlantic Way itinerary. 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:
- View a map of County Donegal with locations pinned
- Take a Donegal County Day trip to Slieve League, Kilclooney Dolmen, and More
- Tour Donegal Bay on the Donegal Waterbus
- Visit Donegal Castle
- Wander through the Donegal Friary ruins
- Take the Bank Walk along the River Eske and Harbour
- Get a bit more detail about the Wild Atlantic Way
- Get Practical Information: Getting there and getting around, where to stay, and where to eat
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Donegal Castle was built in the 15th century by Red Hugh O’Donnell, the chieftain of the O’Donnell clan, a powerful Gaelic family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our Favorite Donegal Town Restaurants
- Market House Restaurant in the Abbey Hotel – one of the best places to try the amazing Irish sourdough soda bread.
- Old Castle Bar
As often happens when traveling, we ran out of time before running out of things to see, especially according to 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 45 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 to visit them.
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