Discovering Donegal — The Secret Is Out
Our Ireland trip was a real mix of adventure, road trip, and family time. Our entire family travels in some form or another, and going to Ireland we were planning on meeting up with both daughters, Jim’s sister and step-mother.
There are so many things to do in Ireland, it is important to plan out and focus on a region. For this trip we were excited to make our way along the Wild Atlantic Way. After meeting our family at the airport, we started our road trip right away and our first stop was our amazing time on Skellig Michael.
Finding the Best Things to do in Donegal County
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 .
The county is also the northernmost section of Ireland’s new tourism route called the Wild Atlantic Way. When it officially launched in 2014, Ireland’s Minister of Tourism called the Wild Atlantic Way the “journey of a lifetime.” It winds for 2,600 km along Ireland’s Atlantic Coast from Kinsale in County Cork to the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal.
We rented a car and drove a good portion of the Wild Atlantic Way, what fun!
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.
While driving around Donegal County, we visited beautiful crescent beaches, stopped by Assaranca Waterfall, and found a stunning dolman in a sheep pasture behind St. Conal’s Church in the Townland of Kilclooney More.
A Must-See in Ireland – Donegal Town
Donegal Town is at the southern end of Donegal County where the River Eske flows into Donegal Bay. It’s a small town (about 2,400 residents), but there is ample lodging, good restaurants, and plenty of friendly pubs.
It’s perfect for day-tripping to other parts of the county, and it has a full day’s worth of sights including the Donegal Bay Waterbus, Donegal Castle, the Friary, and 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.
One of Ireland’s Top Attractions – Donegal Castle
Take time to tour the fully restored Donegal Castle located in the center of town on the bank of the Eske River. It was built in the 15th century by the chieftain of the O’Donnell clan, Red Hugh I. Guided tours are offered hourly, or you can wander through the castle on your own.
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.
Bank Walk in Donegal
The Bank Walk is a 1.6km 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.
Practical Information for Your Visit to Donegal
Getting To And Around Donegal
Without a car, there’s no easy, convenient way to travel around Donegal County and visit sights like Slieve League. There’s an airport about an hour north of Donegal Town with flights from Dublin, but typically visitors fly into Belfast or Dublin, rent a car and drive. Donegal town is 177km from Belfast and 225 km from Dublin.
Map of Donegal Highlights
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.
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!
Pin Discovering Donegal for later!