Set out from Letterkenny
Letterkenny is a great starting point for a tour of the county. Take in the heathery mountains, clear waterfalls and lakes, ancient trees and protected wildlife of nearby Glenveagh National Park. Here you can tour the Victorian gardens of Glenveagh Castle on Lough Veagh, or hit one of the many trails criss-crossing the park. Plenty of famous guests have stayed here over the years, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.
On Lough Gartan south of the park, Glebe House and Gallery is a haven for art lovers. The 1828 Regency-style rectory set in woodland gardens was home to portrait artist Derek Hill, whose close association with Tory Island resulted in a whole style of art known as the ‘Tory School.’ His home is now a well-respected gallery that is home to Hill’s 1500-strong collection of art pieces, including works by Picasso, Renoir and George Braque, as well as his own paintings. (The House and Gallery are only open in the summer season, though the Garden is open year-round).
If outdoor adventures are more your speed, book in for an experience with Eco Atlantic Adventures. Based in nearby Cranford, they’ll bring you kayaking, hill walking, rock climbing, coasteering or gorge walking through the Donegal landscapes. You can explore the caves of Portsalon with an experienced instructor by your side, or drift along Mulroy Bay on a full moon kayak tour.
With its coved beaches and coastal scenery, the village of Dunfanaghy, 23km north of Letterkenny along the N56, is a great spot to take in the sea. Walk, swim or surf Marble Hill Beach, or keep your ear to the ground for the sound of the nearly-extinct corncrake while walking Killahoey Beach. Whether you're a first-time surfer or an experienced shredder, Narosa Surf School provides surfing lessons, board and wetsuit rental. If you fancy taking to the water in different way, Jaws Watersports offers kayaking, surfing, windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding.
Rather take in the sea views while staying dry and firmly on land? Play a round of golf at the seaside Dunfanaghy Golf Club on the glorious western shores of Sheephaven Bay, where the young Paul McGinley learnt to play.
Where to eat and stay in Letterkenny and Dunfanaghy
For dinner in Letterkenny, head to the Michelin-recommended Lemon Tree on the main street, where you’ll find seasonal dishes of locally-sourced and sustainable produce alongside Donegal brews from Kinnegar Brewing. Equally local are the organic herbs and produce served at nearby Yellow Pepper, which are grown in their own garden. You can also dine in the Olde Glen Bar, one of Donegal’s oldest bars, in the tiny village of Glen, between Letterkenny and Dunfanaghy.
If you’re spending the night, the historic Georgian Rockhill House Estate is set in 100 acres of woodlands just a mile from Letterkenny. A short journey in the other direction is the tranquil Castle Grove Country House, where you can sleep in cosy four-poster beds.
Dunfanaghy has a spread of dining options, from the casual and comforting Lizzie’s Diner on the main street to the Oyster Bar next door, where you can bop into the wee small hours. Neighbouring Arnou Cáfe serves breakfast and lunch and transforms into a burger bar in the evenings.
If you want to overnight here, the fourth-generation family owned and operated Arnold's Hotel in the heart of the village offers views over Sheephaven Bay. Or you can check into the modern retreat of Breac House on majestic Horn Head, with its dramatic cliffs views out to sea. Designed by award-winning local architects, the house is built to blend into its surroundings. If you prefer a resort vibe, the Shandon Hotel and Spa in nearby Marble Hill has a full spa and tennis court for unwinding after a day’s sightseeing.
Take the path of adventure in Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille)
On the other side of the county in South Donegal, the Gaeltacht area of Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille) offers some of the county's most striking scenery.
The area began as a settlement for Neolithic peoples and is full of their remnants. History buffs can find out what life was like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries at the Glencolmcille Folk Village. Or explore the real deal at Cloghanmore, a megalithic chamber tomb outside Glencolmcille. The court cairn has two examples of megalithic art within its huge court and is a lovely spot to explore the surrounding moorland.
Venture slightly further to uncover the village of Port, nestled in a dramatic cove that features sheer cliffs, sea stacks and glorious walks. Take in the coastal and mountainous landscape by walking the Slí Cholmcille, a 65km looped section of the longer 280km Slí Dhún na nGall that connects the area’s main towns and villages of Glencolmcille, Kilcar, Carrick and Ardara.
Further along the coast from Glencolmcille town, at the edge of Málainn Bhig (Malinbeg) village, is a secluded bay surrounded by high cliffs. From here you can head down a long and winding path of steps to the spectacular Silver Strand with its views of the Atlantic and the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (Slieve League).
Hike Sliabh Liag (Slieve League)
Travel further south from Malinbeg and you’ll meet the sea cliffs of Slieve League. Rising 600m above the sea, they’re some of the highest cliffs in Europe, with several stunning viewpoints available to hikers looking to go the distance. The popular 3km Pilgrim's Pass is a great introduction to the cliffs, or you can test your nerve for heights on the narrow ridge of One Man's Pass. The Glencolmcille Loop between Slieve League and Slieve Tuaidh is also packed with megalithic tombs and is a perfect route for experienced walkers.
Where to eat and stay in Glencolmcille and Slieve League
If you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the popular John Eoinin’s Bar in the town of Glencolmcille. Their lunch menu often includes a Donegal specialty – a pudding made with Carragheen Moss. You’ll also find some of the best seafood chowder around at nearby Café Blasta.
Slieve League Lodge is just 6km from the cliffs in the village of Carrick. They offer a full menu in summer, and homemade soup and sandwiches all year round in a cosy pub atmosphere with live music in the evenings. You’ll also find locally-caught fish, a full Irish breakfast and a place to lie your head at The Rusty Mackerel, a bar, restaurant and inn nearby.
Explore Donegal town
Head further south along the coast and reach the historical town of Donegal, where the River Eske flows into Donegal Bay. The top attraction here is Donegal Castle, the ancestral home of the O’Donnell chieftains who ruled over Donegal in the 14th century. Keep your eyes peeled for the castle's hidden tunnels – according to locals, they still run to the nearby abbey.
A few minutes’ walk down Quay Street and you can hop onboard the Donegal Bay Waterbus. Cruise past the Hassans, from which coffin ships left during Famine times, and the colony of roughly 200 Harbour seals and Atlantic seals that call this bay home.
Stretch your legs in Bundoran
The epicentre of Donegal’s tourism industry is the seaside town of Bundoran, on the county’s southwestern coast. Besides the traditional attractions of the seaside resort, Bundoran has plenty of options if you fancy some surfing, golf or a coastal walk. You’ll get a taste of all three along the dramatic Rougey Walk, which starts from the tourist office on Bundoran’s main street. It follows the promenade skirting Bundoran Beach and curves around the headland with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Bundoran Golf Club on the other, before finishing at the Fairy Bridges and Wishing Chair. These unique formations carved by the waves offer a bit of local folklore and a great place to stop and take in the view.
If you're ready to get in the water and join the crew shredding waves, you can rent a wetsuit and a board or book a lesson with Bundoran Surf Co.
Where to eat and stay in Donegal town and Bundoran
The award-winning Olde Castle Bar in Donegal town is a good spot to take a break after a tour of Donegal Castle, which sits just opposite. It has been welcoming guests since the 1700s and is famous for its seafood. The nearby waterside Quay West Restaurant serves chargrilled Aubrac beef, Donegal mountain lamb and fresh Killybegs shellfish, alongside views of the pier and Donegal Bay. Or choose from comforting staples like steak and pizza at the Harbour Restaurant and Bar in the heart of town (they do seafood, too).
In Bundoran, watch surfers ride the waves at “The Peak” from Maddens Bridge Bar. If you’re staying overnight, the self-catering Atlantic Apartotel near the beach offer a lot of flexibility alongside traditional hotel amenities like an indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi.