View MapView Map
HomeDestinationsDonegalGo car-free in Letterkenn ...
How to explore Letterkenny and Glenveagh National Park without a car
Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Glenveagh National Park.
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.
Donegal’s coastline is impressive, but its inland landscapes are just as captivating. In the heart of the county, Glenveagh National Park encompasses all the elements that make this corner of Ireland so striking, from the mountains covered in heather to the flat lakes surrounded by ancient forests. And if you think the only way to explore this remote region is by car, think again.

It’s easy to take a day trip to Glenveagh National Park using public transport, where you can hike the trails, cycle around the lake and visit its 19th century castle. Here’s how to do it.

Photo credit: @0donner

Take to the trails at Glenveagh

The TFI Local Link 271 bus goes from Letterkenny to Glenveagh National Park, stopping right at the entrance to the visitor’s centre (40 minutes, three times a day). It’s a beautiful drive, too – soon after leaving Letterkenny the road skirts alongside rolling green hills, which turn into mountains the closer you get to Glenveagh. As the road rises you get a great view of Lough Akabbon and Lough Gartan to the left, the bus going right by the edges of the water at one point.

Glenveagh National Park in Letterkenny, County Donegal
Take the bus to Glenveagh National Park.

If you catch the first and last buses of the day, you’ll get a solid 5.5 hours to enjoy the park – more than enough time to see the castle, the grounds and hike a few trails. When you arrive at the park, call into the visitor’s centre to pick up a copy of the walking trail map – there are signs throughout, but it’s handy to keep a physical guide in your pocket.

The main hub of the park is Glenveagh Castle, and there are a few different ways to get there from the entrance. A shuttle bus travels back and forth between the visitor’s centre and the castle throughout the day, taking you on a scenic little road that meanders around the edge of the lake.

You can also rent a bike (or an e-bike) from Grass Routes, right by the shuttle bus stop. It’s an easy cycle to the castle (3.5km, 20 minutes), following the same path taken by those travelling on foot, so you won’t meet any traffic. You can park the bike up at the castle and explore, or head out and cycle some of the local trails.

If you want to soak up the scenery at a slower pace, follow the Lakeside Walk (3.5km, 50 minutes) that leads from the visitor’s centre to the castle. The footpath takes you along the water’s edge, and there are benches placed at the most scenic spots – it’s not a strenuous walk, but these are beautiful places to pause and take in the view.

Two people walking the trails at Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal.
Explore the trails at Glenveagh.

One such spot is right by the start of the trail, where the path meets the northernmost tip of Lough Veagh. The mountains rise behind the flat, calm lake as the clear water laps against the shore – you can veer off the path for a few minutes and sit on the little pebbly beach for a moment of calm.

From there, the pathway follows the outskirts of the lake, taking you past slopes thick with heather, gorse and wildflowers, and towering sheets of rock where the water trickles through clumps of moss.

If you want to keep the hike going, there are several other trails to choose from. One of the best is the Viewpoint Trail (1km, 45 minutes), which starts at the back of the castle. What it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in effort, the steep path zig zagging up the side of the mountain until you reach the viewpoint itself. But the climb pays off when you get to the top – stand on the lookout spot and you’ll get a panoramic view of the castle, the lake and the mountains.

Where to eat in Glenveagh

Nothing builds an appetite like a day of hiking, so it’s just as well there are two branches of the Synge and Byrne café where you can refuel. The first is at the visitor’s centre, a huge circular room with a grass roof, which feels like a modern take on a fairy tale hut hidden in the Irish forest. If you’re peckish when you arrive, call in for breakfast – they make a mean stack of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, or thick soda bread topped with sausages and egg.

The other branch is the tea room at the castle, with tables inside and out in the pretty courtyard, where you can sit on a cast iron chair among the creeping ivy and giant terracotta flowerpots. There are loads of different sandwiches, like chicken and bacon in a ciabatta roll or the classic ham and mature cheddar on sourdough, both served with salads. If you need a little pick me up, their thick slices of carrot cake go down a treat, and for a quick caffeine boost on-the-go, pick up a coffee from the truck outside. 

A salad from Synge and Byrne at Glenveagh National Park in Letterkenny, County Donegal.

Photo credit: @syngebyrne

Savour the delicious dishes on offer at Synge & Byrne.

See the castle

Glenveagh Castle is the heart of the national park, and while it’s an impressive structure from the outside, it’s well worth either taking a self-guided tour of the interior or opting for the 45-minute paid guided tour  for the inside scoop on its chequered history. Walk through the various drawing rooms and boudoirs and you’ll learn of owners who disappeared into thin air, ruthless landowners who wreaked havoc and one tale that ends in a murder. 

But the stories aren’t all grizzly. Over the years, plenty of famous guests have stayed in the castle, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. As you pass from room to room, you can see why it was such a good spot for entertaining. There’s a circular, tartan-clad music room with a harp and a baby grand piano, and a drawing room where guests would convene for post-dinner brandies around the fire. You’ll see some cool design touches around the place, too – there are painted mussel and periwinkle shells on the walls of the entrance hall, all collected from local beaches.

One of the castle’s most impressive features is down on the edge of the lake. Beneath one of the towers there’s an outdoor swimming pool, which wouldn’t look out of place in a villa on the Italian lakes. Back in the day, this was the setting for many a rambunctious party – if it were in action today it would be a contender for one of the most scenic swimming pools in the country.

Exterior image of Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal.
Wander around the incredible Glenveagh Castle.

On the other side of the pool, there’s a quiet trail that leads behind the castle and down to the water, with a grand stone bench overlooking the lake. Continue on this pathway and you’ll get to the Glenveagh Castle Gardens, which date back to the late 1880s. Stand in the Walled Gardens and you’ll get one of the best viewpoints of the castle, the battlements and tower rising behind the glasshouse and orangery, surrounded by flowering bushes and apple trees.

Things are a little less floral in the Pleasure Gardens, where you’ll find giant, elaborately carved sculptures, native trees and little bamboo forests around the edge of the lawn. This is also where the Lakeside Trail begins, which will lead you back to the visitor’s centre if you’re walking. But you can always catch a shuttle bus if you’d prefer, before hopping on the bus back to Letterkenny at the end of the day.

Where to eat in Letterkenny

You mightn’t expect to find world class barbecue in an industrial estate outside Letterkenny. But that’s just what you’ll get at Kinnegar Brewing. Every weekend, The Dirty Souls food truck parks up outside the brewery’s tap room, slinging out spicy Nashville fried chicken, pulled pork and brisket, which is smoked onsite. Don’t let the 30-minute walk put you off – this is authentic Texan barbecue that’s on a par with anything you’d find in the Lone Star State.

If you’re on the hunt for an eating experience that stands out from the crowd, the Lemon Tree fits the bill. A Michelin guide restaurant, expect cocktails served in a plume of smoke, incredible dishes like house smoked salmon with zingy yuzu or their blushing pink Donegal lamb with spring peas and pine nuts, all creatively presented on plates with artsy swirls and micro herbs.

A dish of gourmet food from the Lemon Tree restaurant in Letterkenny in County Donegal.

Photo credit: @janeeatsfood

Enjoy a unique dining experience at the Lemon Tree.

Things are a little more homely at Yellow Pepper, where you’ll get hearty grub like lasagne, herby roast chicken and steaks, alongside a lengthy vegan menu. There’s plenty of seating inside but if the weather’s fine, the little patio at the side is the place to be, with wicker seats and comfy armchairs. If you’re a gin drinker, you’ll find plenty of artisan brands behind the bar, like the local An Dúlamán Maritime Gin, made with five different seaweeds.

Explore more of the country car-free

Discover more of Donegal and beyond car-free

More to discover
Car-free travelEnjoy a car-free day in Dunfanaghy

When it comes to seaside resorts in Donegal, Dunfanaghy has long played second fiddle to places like Buncrana and Bundoran. But this spot on the northern tip of the country has it all – white sand beaches, an impressive mountain backdrop and a food scene that’s on the up. And it’s an easy bus ride from Letterkenny, making it an ideal destination for a hassle-free day trip.

Coastal escapesSee the sights in Fanad and Rathmullan without a car

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.

Mail Icon SVG

Subscribe now to receive destination inspiration, travel tips, upcoming events and all the best things to do around Ireland.