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How to explore Fanad Lighthouse and Rathmullan without a car
Go car-free and escape to the coast of Fanad and Rathmullan.
Nicola BradyNicola Brady is a travel writer based in Dublin. She writes regularly for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Condé Nast Traveller, and has contributed to books on Dublin and Ireland for DK Eyewitness.
At Donegal’s northernmost tip the land is divided into peninsulas, each jutting into the Atlantic lined with striking cliffs, white sand bays and rocky outcrops. The landscapes here are the very definition of wild – waves crash against sea stacks and isolated lighthouses mark the edge of the shore. But despite its feeling of remoteness, it’s surprisingly easy to get up there without a car.

Here’s how to spend the day exploring the Fanad peninsula and its pretty villages, all while using public transport.

Photo credit: @0donner

Follow the light to Fanad

The Local Link 300 bus travels from Letterkenny up to Fanad Lighthouse (1 hour 20 minutes, once daily), on a route that takes you along the edge of Lough Swilly, with great views over the mountains of the Inishowen Peninsula to your right and Mulroy Bay to the left.  

When you land at Fanad Lighthouse, you have an hour and 40 minutes before the bus comes back to collect you. This is ample time to explore – usually, a tour of the lighthouse starts about ten minutes after you arrive and lasts around 45 minutes.

As you walk up the slope to the entrance, you’ll get a great view of the lighthouse itself, whitewashed walls lining the road and craggy rocks rising out of the swirling sea below.

Aerial image of Fanad Lighthouse in County Donegal.
Make the trip out to Fanad Lighthouse.

The guided tour starts at the base of the lighthouse, in what was the living room. There’s a fireplace, bookcase and collection of ships in a bottle made by former lighthouse keepers. The exhibits give an insight into the quirks of this and other local lighthouses, and you will also see the different lighthouse bulbs used over the years – the newest are surprisingly small, roughly the size of a thumb, but cast a light that’s visible from 18 nautical miles away.

You’ll also learn about the shipwrecks that remain in the waters below and see pictures of 120-year-old cannons and tanks that lie at the bottom of the seabed. There are several shipwrecks from World War I and II nearby, which is why this bay is a well-known diving spot. The most popular dive site is the wreck of the SS Laurentic, and with good reason – when the ship sank in 1917, it was secretly transporting 3,211 gold bars to Canada. In the years following, thousands of dives took place to recover the treasure, but there are still 22 gold ingots missing from the site, estimated to be worth over €500 million today.

After the exhibition, the tour heads up the tower itself. The climb to the top of the lighthouse isn’t for the faint hearted, with a narrow spiral staircase leading up to the final ladder-like ascent, which you make while holding a brass handrail in one hand and a length of rope in the other. But the views from the top are spectacular, reaching out as far as Malin Head on a good day.

The spiral stairs in Fanad Lighthouse in County Donegal.
Ascend to the top of the lighthouse via the spiral stairs.

You’ll get a bird’s eye view of the nearby beaches and the rock below, as the water churns around the headland forming little whirlpools and fast-moving channels. There are binoculars for wildlife spotting, and a cool retro telephone painted the same turquoise as the inner walls.

Once you (carefully) scoot back down, you can take a walk around the long grasses on the shore and explore the rock pools and little beaches around the lighthouse. If you walk a little way back along the road, you might spot the local herd of Highland cows, with their long shaggy fur and huge curved horns.

Two Highland cows in Fanad in County Donegal.

Photo credit: @0donner

Spot the Highland cows grazing the fields of Fanad.

For the full castaway experience, you can even stay in what were the lighthouse keeper’s cottages. But otherwise, the same bus will pick you up from in front of the visitor’s centre.

Where to eat in Fanad

With its gable end made entirely of glass and a location right on the edge of the ocean, the Fanad Lighthouse Café might well have one of the best views in Donegal. It’s part craft shop, part coffee spot, so you can pick up both a sheep hand puppet and a cappuccino in one fell swoop. They also sell ice creams and traybakes like almond slices and brownies, for a morning sugar hit.

Soak up the coast of Rathmullan

While there’s only one service a day to Fanad Lighthouse, the 300 bus stops off at other spots on the way back to Letterkenny, which means you can spend some time in the villages of Ramelton or Rathmullan on the way back.

Take the bus from Fanad to Rathmullan (55 minutes, once daily) and you’ll follow the same picturesque route back down the peninsula, weaving past Portsalon Beach and Kerrykeel. 

The bus drops you right in the middle of Rathmullan, once named one of Ireland’s most charming villages by The Guardian. From there, it’s an easy stroll down to the beach, a gently curving stretch of sand with views of Lisfannon and Inch Island just across the bay. It’s a nice spot for a swim, the waters being clear and fairly calm, and there are lifeguards in the summer, too. You’ll often see sailboats in the water, as people head out to learn the ropes with the Rathmullan Sailing School.

Aerial image of boats sailing in Rathmullan in County Donegal.
Go for a swim in Rathmullan's clear blue waters.

There’s a buzz around the harbour area, with a coffee trucks and chipper vans, and the stone pier is a popular fishing spot. This is also where the charter boats depart, and where yachts will moor in the summer.

When you’re ready to head off, follow the coast road lined with townhouses to catch the late afternoon bus that runs back to Letterkenny – the bus stop is less than a 5 minute walk from the pier. If you want to stick around for dinner, there are later buses that run on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Where to eat in Rathmullan

In the summer, Pavilion Pizzas is the place to be, with a giant canvas tent set up on the lawn of Rathmullan House Hotel. Their wood-fired pizzas are excellent, the crust charred and chewy and the toppings inventive and packed with flavour – think wild mushrooms drizzled with wild garlic pesto, or braised brisket and beetroot. You can also get wine and beer, and homemade ice cream for dessert. If you’re stopping at Rathmullan House for lunch after visiting Fanad, you can ask the bus driver to drop you at their entrance, instead of in the village, to save you a 15-minute walk. There’s also a path at the back of the house that leads right down to the beach, so you can walk back to the village along the sands.

Tuck into a wood-fired pizza from Pavilion Pizzas.

Photo credit: @rathmullanhouse

Tuck into a wood-fired pizza from Pavilion Pizzas.

Just around the corner from the pier, the Beachcomber Bar is a popular pub that’s been on the go for years. Things are cosy and snug inside, but the best seat in the house is out in the beer garden, which has a great view over the water. This is the place to go for classic pub grub – picture crispy beer battered haddock, towering steak burgers and creamy seafood chowder. Whatever you go for, be sure to order a portion of their golden thick cut chips on the side.

Venture on a car-free trip

Continue on your car-free adventures and start planning your next short break around the country. 

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