It only took us 20 years, but we finally made it to Donegal. While I’m happy we finally got there, I’m wishing Amber and I had visited sooner. Why? Because Donegal is absolutely stunning. From towering cliffs to miles of unspoiled beaches, Co. Donegal needs to be at the top of any must-see list for Ireland. In this post, we will explore some of the top things to do in Donegal, as well as where to stay and of course where to eat.
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County Donegal Ireland
Located in the northwest corner of Ireland, Co. Donegal is the 4th largest county in the Republic of Ireland. And with a population of only 160,000 residents, it can sometimes feel like you have County Donegal all to yourself. That’s not entirely a bad thing because Donegal is easily one of the most beautiful counties in all of Ireland.
From Dublin, Donegal town is approximately a three and a half hours drive. Bus services are available but only to towns like Letterkenny and Donegal. To explore around, you are going to need a car or hire a tour guide.
Alternatively, if you are short on time, it’s possible to fly from Dublin to Donegal. Donegal Airport is often considered to have one of the most beautiful approaches in the world, The airport is situated between the stunning blue waters of Gweedore Bay and a tidal estuary. Landing there is certainly a great way to start a trip to County Donegal.
With miles of scenic coastline, it should come as no surprise that Donegal is known for its mouthwatering Irish seafood. As I’ll share later on, the county is packed with outstanding seafood restaurants. For sports fans, Donegal is one of the best Irish counties to watch Gaelic football. This traditional and very physical Irish sport will make you cringe with excitement, especially when watched live.
No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit or two to a castle. Thankfully, Donegal is known for having some of the best in Ireland. The county is littered with dozens of castles to explore. Some of the best castles in Donegal visit are Glenveagh Castel, Lough Eske Castle, and Raphoe Castle.
5 Things To Do In Donegal
If you love the great outdoors then you are going to love Donegal. From towering cliffs to miles of greenways and hiking trails, it’s a nature-lovers paradise. Just make sure you’ve included a good pair of walking shoes when packing for your trip.
If history and culture are more your things, fear not, Donegal has you covered. Home to ancient Irish clans and at the crossroads of numerous events in Irish history, Donegal is perfect for history buffs. In terms of cultural events, the County hosts numerous music and art festivals throughout the year, including the annual Earagail Art Festival. With lots to choose from, here’s a look at five things to do around Donegal.
Slieve League Cliffs
Known in Gaelic as “Sliabh Liag” they are among the highest cliffs in all of Ireland. Less popular than the famous Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare, Slieve League towers over their southern cousins. Reaching over 1,900 feet tall, Slieve League is nearly three times as tall as the Cliffs of Moher.
To reach Slieve League, visitors can park at the Slieve League Visitors Center where a shuttle bus will drive you to the viewpoint. The bus costs 5€ roundtrip and includes a few facts about Slieve League from the driver.
Alternatively, visitors can drive past the Visitors Center to a lower, paid parking lot. From here, it’s approximately a mile walk, to the cliffs. The parking lot isn’t very big so you may have to wait for a spot to open up. Also, there is some uphill walking from the parking lot to the cliffs.
If you want to get up close to the cliffs, you can book a Slieve League sea cruise from out of Killybegs. Lasting two and a half hours, the cruise passes several natural and man-made sights along the way. The gem of the cruise is sailing along the base tower Slieve League cliffs.
Driving on the “other side of the road” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Believe me, I know. The first time I drove in Ireland, I felt like on was on another planet. Different road signs, traffic circles, and remembering which side of the road I was supposed to be on was a bit stressful. But I’m glad I did it.
The Inishowen 100 is one of those scenic drives that makes the stress of driving on the Irish side of the road completely worth it. Following the outline of the Inishowen Peninsula, the Inishowen 100, you guessed it, is approximately 100 miles long. Beginning in Bridgend, the circuit passes through dozen of towns and villages including Muff, Redcastle, and Moville.
Along the scenic drive, there are several viewpoints, secluded beaches, and harbors. The crown jewel in the Inishowen 100 is Malin Head. Situated on the Wild Atlantic Way, Malin Head is Ireland’s most northerly point. Its jagged coastline and crashing waves are a sight to be seen. On a clear day, views of Scotland and miles of the Donegal coast are visible.
For those who want to sit back and enjoy the stunning views of the Inishowen Peninsula, there are plenty of options when it comes to guided tours. Companies like Viator offer a wide range of tours around the Inishowen Peninsula include private tours. Click here to learn more.
Beaches in Donegal
Yes, that’s right, make sure to get to a beach in Donegal. It feels strange writing that, but trust me. Our experience with Irish beaches has been limited to the beach in Kilkee, Co. Clare. A perfectly nice beach but nothing compared to the beaches in Donegal.
One of the best beaches in Donegal is Five Finger Strand. Located on the Inishowen Peninsula, Five Finger Strand is nestled alongside Trawbreaga Bay. The area gets its name from five distinctive rock formations protruding from the sea. Five Finger Strand is home to some of the tallest sand dunes in all of Europe, measuring over 30 meters (100 feet) in height.
Visit A Craft Beer Brewery
There’s been an explosion of great Irish craft beer in recent years. Not wanting to be left out, Donegal is home to two fantastic craft beer brewers worth checking out; Kinnegar Brewing and Donegal Brewing Company. Located in Letterkenny and Ballyshannon respectively, both feature a tasty lineup of independent Irish beers.
If you’re looking for Irish whiskey in Donegal you’re in luck. Sliabh Liag Distillers, the Crolly Distillery, and Irish Whitetail Distillery are all located in Donegal. In terms of visiting, it’s recommended to call ahead regarding opening times and tours.
Explore Donegal Town
One of our favorite things to do when traveling is to simply wander around a town or city. It gives you the can to uncover hidden gems, plus you never know who you’re going to meet. And this is true of Donegal town. An easy city to walk around, Donegal features something for everyone including Donegal Castle, the Donegal Railway Heritage Center, and the Donegal Waterbus for stunning views of the city from the water.
After Donegal, pop on over to Letterkenny. Known as the “Cathedral Town”, Letterkenny is home to several cathedrals including the Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba. The largest cathedral in the city, it dominates the skyline of the city. The Cathedral of St Eunan is just one of the many things to do in Letterkenny.
For natural lovers, Letterkenny is home to the Glenveagh Castle Gardens and Tropic World. Dating back to the 1880s, the Glenveagh Castle Gardens are part of Glenveagh National Park. A short drive from Letterkenny, the gardens are home to dozens of trees and shrubs species from the southern hemisphere. Tropic World, located in Letterkenny, is a great way to escape the Irish weather. Housing tropical plants, flowers, and birds, it’s a piece of the Amazon in the heart of Co. Donegal.
Where To Stay In Donegal
During our trip to Donegal, we elected to stay at a couple of different hotels. We were going to be in different parts of the county and felt it would be easier with our schedule. If you are looking for something other than a hotel you’re in luck. Throughout Donegal, in towns and rural areas alike, there are a variety of options available.
One of the more unique accommodation options available is renting a cottage in Donegal. There’s nothing more Irish than a thatched roof cottage. Their iconic straw roofs and peat-fueled fireplace give you a sense of Ireland’s past. With plenty of cottages for rent in Donegal, it’s an authentic Irish experience not to pass up. Most can be rented through sites like Booking.com.
Non-Hotel Accommodation Options
During our first trip to Ireland, we stayed at a variety of B&Bs. A smaller, more comfortable alternative to staying in a hotel, B&Bs are worth looking into during any trip to Ireland. B&Bs in Donegal can be found both in cities as well in more rural areas. Depending on the setup, you might have to share a bathroom with other guests. Generally less expensive than a hotel, a night in a B&B can average around $25-30 per person, per night.
For those who love the great outdoors, camping in Donegal has become increasingly popular and available. The number of caravan and campsites in Donegal has grown to around a dozen. Located throughout the county including several Donegal beach and lakeside locations, these sites provide all the amenities needed for a night under that star.
Finally, if you prefer your own space and privacy, Airbnb is available. Airbnb in Donegal works exactly the same way as it does in other locations. You will find listings for rooms in private homes as well as entire homes and apartments. You can also find listings for B&Bs in Donegal.
Here are a few hotel recommendations in Donegal.
- Red Castle Hotel Donegal is perfectly located in Moville to explore Innishowen Peninsula, including Malin Head. Onsite features include a 9 hole golf course, a leisure center with spa treatments, and top-class dining. Book Here
- Harvey’s Point Hotel in Tawnyvorgal. Overlooking Lough Eske, this 4 star hotel in Donegal boasts spacious rooms and award-winning dining. And let’s not forget those views of the lake. Book Here
- Lough Eske Castle is a stunning five star hotel in Donegal. It’s central location, makes it ideal to explore the entire county. Luxury accommodations and fine dining make it a worthwhile indulgence. Book Here
Where To Eat In Donegal
If you love seafood, then you’re going to love Donegal. Donegal is home to Ireland’s largest fishing port, Killybegs. This means you are going to enjoy some of the freshest seafood in the country. From fish to Dublin Bay prawns and lobster, the array of seafood that comes into Killybegs is mindblowing. While a good portion of the seafood is exported, it also ends up in restaurants around Donegal.
Donegal is also home to the Donegal Food Coast. The Donegal Food Coast is a partnership between food producers, restaurants, and hotels. Visitors to Donegal can follow a food trail around the county to sample local food products and drink. Other activities along the Donegal Food Coast include farm visits, brewery, and distillery tours, and our personal favorite food tours.
I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of where to eat in Donegal. That just means we have to keep going back. With that in mind, here are a few restaurants worth trying out.
- The Rusty Mackerel in Carrick. Five minutes from Slieve League, the Rusty Mackerel is a great gastropub known for big seafood platters. Fuel up here before visiting Slieve League or enjoy a proper pint of Guinness after. Either way, stopping in is a must.
- The Lemon Tree in Letterkenny. You can’t go to Donegal and not dine at this Michelin-recommended restaurant. Innovative contemporary dishes with a focus on using fresh, local, ingredients. With seasonal menus, the Lemon Tree will keep you coming back for more.