Things to See and Do
Abounding in activities, majestic landscapes, and historic sights, County Donegal offers everything for any type of traveler. Donegal Castle gives a glimpse into the history of the region, while the name alone of the Blue Stack Mountains brings about visions of a fairy-tale world. Revel in one of Ireland's best-kept secrets and enjoy the loughs, castles, and sylvan backdrop that make Donegal so decidedly special.
The word Donegal is an Irish transliteration of Dun na nGall, which actually means “fort of the foreigners.” Gall most likely refers to the Norse invaders who conquered the area before anyone else came along. The castle overlooks the River Eske. Explore this fun site with a guided or self-guided tour. When you first enter it, it seems drab. Climb the stairs, past the garderobe, or toilet, and behold an exquisite refabrication of times past. Located on Castle Street. Open March–October, daily, 10
Lough Eske and the Blue Stack Mountains
The wonderful Lough Eske, located just northeast of Donegal, used to be a happening fishing lake. Since the fishing is not what it once was, locals and tourists now use it as a wonderful picnic, walking, or cycling spot. While the lake is probably skipped for those excited about the Slieve League cliffs, you might consider spending a relaxing afternoon strolling around the area. The backdrop of the Blue Stack Mountains and the tree-lined road around the lough make it an appreciable half-day trip. If you have a bike, you can head out of Donegal Town that way. Lough Eske is only 7 km (4.5 miles) away.
While cycling or driving outside of town, follow signs for the N56 to Killybegs, followed by signs to Harvey's Point Country Hotel. Instead of stopping here, head straight down the small, tree-lined lane. The road runs along Lough Eske up into a minor back road. Ask the tourist office in Donegal Town if you are interested in going deeper into the Blue Stack Mountains on a guided or self-guided walk.
In the Lough Eske area, you will find the Wildwood Crafts Studio, displaying photos, crafts, and art from the area. You will also find the Rhu Gorse B&B and the Eas Dun Lodge B&B.
Venturing Through Donegal Bay
Donegal Bay encompasses everything that is Donegal. The Slieve League Mountains and the smaller towns and villages such as Glencolmcille embody Gaelic history, culture, and especially music. It is not until you visit that you truly appreciate what makes this area so extraordinary. One of the best ways to explore is by driving, although biking is also an excellent option. Rentals are available in both Donegal Town and in Ardara, which is a better point to start a cycling excursion. One of the prettiest roads to drive is the R263 to Glencolmcille, to Malin Beg and then up through the Glengesh Pass, in the middle of the peninsula, which connects to Ardara. If biking, consider the Stravally and Port roads. Port is a wonderfully empty farm village area with imposing views of the Atlantic. You can purchase the topographical OS Map #10 in the tourist office, which details the area.
Grianán of Aileach
An ancient ring fort supposedly constructed by the gods, Grianán of Aileach (Grianán Ailigh) stands almost as a portal to the Inishowen Peninsula. With prominent views of Lough Foyle and Swilly, the 77-feet-diameter circular fort was thought to be a place of worship before it was controlled by the royal O'Neill sept of Aileach. Murtogh O'Brien, king of Munster in the year 1101, tore down the fortification. Reconstruction of the fort began again in 1870, so historians are not quite sure if it looks the same as it once did. This, accompanied with the inviting church on the premises, makes it one of Donegal's most engaging monuments today. The fort is accessible 19km (12 miles) south of Buncrana off of the N13. Open daily, 10
Glenveagh National Park and Castle
John George Adair from County Laois was not popular after evicting 244 tenants off his land in 1861 so that he could have an unspoiled view of the surrounding valley. Following his death, the property switched hands a few times. What remains today are the 16,000 hectares that make up Glenveagh National Park (Páirc Naisiúnta Gleann Bheatha) and Glenveagh Castle with surrounding gardens and the dark, glacial Lough Veagh.
Getting to the Glenveagh National Park can be slightly tricky. If you are heading from the Gweedore or Derrybeg region, head south on the R257, taking the R258 back road (optional), followed by a right-hand turn on N56 toward Letterkenny. Look for a brown sign where the N56 and the R251 split.
Ample parking is available at the visitor center. The impressive center has a tearoom and restaurant if you would like to eat there. Food is reasonable, averaging 12 for a main dish.
For those wanting to visit the Glenveagh Castle, buy your bus ticket inside the visitor center. The bus leaves from just outside the visitor center and takes ten minutes to get to the castle. The park also encourages walking to the castle, which is 4 km (2.5 miles) away. There is a gravel path along the road overlooking the river, which is lovely to walk. Plenty of families push their toddlers hitched in strollers along this route.
Additionally, the park has other trails available for walking. The visitor center asks that all walkers report first before taking off. Routes vary in length, from forty-five minutes to more than two hours. During your walk, you might spot a herd of red deer or the reintroduced golden eagle, which was once extinct in Ireland. Since its return, it has begun to flourish.
Each marked way has its perks. Most are quite hilly at the start and then straighten out before returning back toward the visitor center or castle. Guided nature walks of various levels are available in the summer. A six-hour hill walk takes place each month and is offered six months of the year. Call 074 913 7090 to reserve ahead of time. Glenveagh Castle requires a guided tour in order to see it in its full glory. The tours take place at different intervals according to season, but they only take groups of twenty persons or less with each session. So, once you arrive on the minibus, pay the minimal entrance fee and get your name on the list. You might have to wait up to one hour. If you are required to wait, enjoy the tearoom and splendid exotic garden. The park is open daily year round. Visitor Centre open Febuary–November, daily, 10
Drive Inishowen Peninsula
The northernmost peninsula in Ireland is blessed with castles, staggering cliffs, and views of the sea that have to be experienced firsthand. The Inishowen Peninsula, which translates to “Island of Eoghain,” is named after one of the sons of the once high king of Ireland who was based at the fort temple of Grianán of Aileach, the ring fort described in the previous section. Driving times can vary on the peninsula, especially if it is a high-travel season or a weekend with nice weather. Either way, it is best to make it a day trip in order to see all the sights. The length of the tour is 160km to 200km (100+ miles), depending upon the various options listed.
Inishowen Tour Route
The route around the Inishowen Peninsula can actually start at the Grianán of Aileach and follow the R238 along the west side to Buncrana, known for its beaches and the rebuilt Buncrana Castle and O'Doherty's Keep. It was burned by the English then rebuilt and used as a manor.
Continue northwest on the back road toward Dunree Head, which displays the Dunree Fort, and onward to the Gap of Mamore, rendering wonderful views of the seascape of Lough Swilly.
After Dunaff Head, Ballyliffin on the R238 is the next destination before Doagh Isle. The small islet is home to the spine-chilling Ireland Haunted House and educational Doagh Famine Village (086 846 4749,
The northernmost point in Ireland is Malin Head, a cape off the In-ishowen Peninsula. Getting there is easy enough by following the R242 from Malin to Ballyhillin, which can be done during your day trip here.
Next, take the R242 to Malin Head. Here is a great spot for bird watching, photo snapping, and a coffee break. Following, head back on the R238 to Greencastle, a fishing port and natural gate to Lough Foyle, which was founded in 1305 by Richard de Burgo, who was often referred to as the Red Earl of Ulster because of his rosy cheeks. Then, the final leg of the journey continues on the R241 and R238 toward Muff.
This tour can also be done in the opposite direction. As a note, if you are driving alone, you might consider driving counterclockwise in order to get the best view out your own window.