Donegal is known as the wild child of Ireland. A distinctly beautiful and accurate description for the rugged intensity and whipping winds at the top of the Wild Atlantic Way. Home to some of the most exceptional landscapes and vast expanses with a deep history in myth, legend and pilgrimage, Donegal is a truly extraordinary land. There is no end to the vast scenery to explore, tourist attractions to visit and things to do in Donegal. It stretches across 300 miles of coastline with powerful scenery, long winding roads, enigmatic castles, and craggy highlands. Our list of things to do is by no means exhaustive and you are guaranteed to stumble across more history, picturesque surroundings, and mystery as Donegal unfolds itself to you.
We’ve gathered together some of what we consider are the best things to do in Donegal. Those places you simply have to discover, experience, and appreciate. Those places which will take your breath away – literally and figuratively – and leave a lasting mark on you. Those places which come with not only a deep splendour, but also a warmth and charm and a gracious welcome from locals. Donegal offers the land, the sea, and the Northern Lights. In fact, Donegal has it all, with a bit of rain, a strong wind, and a huge heart.
St Patricks Purgatory
The roar of the Donegal weather is balanced with the peace and tranquillity which comes from exploring the unique St Patricks Purgatory which can be found on Station Island amid the waters of Lough Derg. St Patricks Purgatory has long been a place of Christian pilgrimage dating back to the 5th century and is the perfect spot to pause in our search for something deeper. Surrounded by the calm waters of Lough Derg, and encircled by quiet and stunning surroundings, St Patricks Purgatory offers an opportunity to search for our authentic self which we can so easily lose in our modern fast paced lives. https://www.loughderg.org/
Visitors – solo travellers and groups alike – will find a peace here like no other as they walk in the footsteps of St Patrick. When visiting Donegal and looking for things to do, a day trip to Lough Derg and St Patricks Purgatory will begin your travels in an interesting way encouraging you to relax and possibly uncover some truths about yourself. If nothing else, you will experience this part of Donegal with an open heart and mind in one of the most spiritual and beautiful spots our island has to offer.
Please note that the island remains closed currently due to COVID 19.
They say Sliabh Liag is a place “where time stands still.” We have to agree! Saying this is not some poetic tourist calling but rather the perfect way to encapsulate the momentous grasp Sliabh Liag will hold over you as you take in the views from the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Standing at an incredible 600 metres, Sliabh Liag will take your breath away, quite literally as the winds are known to whistle heavily here. But the vast expanse you witness as you stand atop the cliffs can be a shock to the senses along with the sound of the crashing waves below. You will momentarily forget everything, and the world will seem to stop spinning. http://www.sliabhliag.com/
Located on the south west coast of Donegal, you are guaranteed to experience nature at its absolute finest with the world stretching out before you. To truly experience the beauty and intense magnificence of Sliabh Liag, you need to stand “on the edge” by taking yourself to the cliffs so you can embrace the world around you. But first, a stop off at the Sliabh Liag Visitor Centre, which opened in 2019, is a must. The visitor centre takes you through the intriguing history of the cliffs which capture pilgrimage, culture, myths, and legends, and is a haven of information and support to guide you on your hike. And if hiking is not your thing, or the weather isn’t playing ball, as heavy mist can settle on the cliffs, you also have the opportunity to view Sliabh Liag from the sea on a boat tour.
A life off the northern tip of Ireland, embraced by the Wild Atlantic, is often considered a destiny. But to understand the inhabitants of Tory Island, or rather Toraigh, and their remote living, you must pay the island a visit. There is no shortage of history and mystery on Tory Island as rural traditions are preserved and endured by the residents. This is an Ireland like you have never experienced before. While the island is small, a mere 6km by 2km, it is rich and abundant as the islanders embrace their own unique creativity and crafts, while also exploring their ancient customs, history, and landscape. http://www.oileanthorai.com/
Sitting 12km off the coast of north Donegal, Tory Island is the most remote of our inhabited islands which may seem a mystery in and off itself considering the harsh realities of living amongst the winter weather so far north. But as the winter may be harsh, the summers can be enduringly beautiful. Islanders have embraced their solitude from the mainland nurturing the Gaelic culture and way of living with music, song and stories playing a big part in their customs. And although small, there remains plenty to do and see on Tory Island. From the round tower with a deep history of Viking raids, to St Colmcilles 6th century monastery, not to mention the landscape and many archaeological sites. And of course what island would be without angling, fishing, diving, and whale watching. But most of all, when visiting Tory Island be sure to connect with the locals (and their King! Yes, they have an appointed King) and cherish the timelessness of the people and the surroundings.
Glenveagh National Park
Donegal, blessed with its rugged, unstructured natural architecture, is home to one of Ireland’s six national parks. It may be the most exquisite of the parks due to its hauntingly powerful vistas amid the vast Derryveagh mountains and shinining Lough Veagh.
Glenveagh National Park is the most northern of Ireland’s national parks with powerful landscapes holding mountains, lakes, waterfalls, oak woods, and even a picturesque castle which cannot be missed. Considered to be a piece of heaven on earth, Glenveagh National Park exudes a peace and charm as the natural world simply unfolds itself for its visitors. Between hikes, walks, castle tours, and woodland castle gardens situated in the stunning Gleann Bheithe, or Valley of the Birch, Glenveagh National Park is one of the most exquisite spots on this island. https://www.glenveaghnationalpark.ie/
The Park has a keen focus on conservation, aiming to protect the local biodiversity of flora and fauna. With 16,000 hectares to protect, preserve and conserve it is no mean feat while also allowing us to appreciate and explore the area. With an abundance of walking trails to explore, fishing, cycling and photo opportunities, Glenveagh National Park opens its mountainous arms and welcomes you to experience its robust and remote wilderness.
Sitting at the highest point in Donegal is Mount Errigal. A rugged landscape of sheer intensity. It is, without a doubt, one of Irelands most incredible backdrops. Standing at a wondrous 751 metres high, Mount Errigal is the tallest mountain in Donegal and is part of the mountain chain known as The Seven Sisters which comprises of Errigal herself, Muckish, Mackoght, Aghla More, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla Beg, and Crocknalaragagh.
Hiking this iconic mountain is an essential thing to do on the lists of keen hikers and hillwalkers and is considered to be one of the best hikes in all of Ireland. It is not necessarily an easy hike of course as the mountain path can offer difficult terrain but the climb to the summit which at its shortest is approximately 3km can be traversed quickly enough. The view when you reach the top is by far one of the most rewarding. https://www.discoverireland.ie/donegal/errigal
Preparing for your hike up Mount Errigal is essential to know the terrain to expect, the equipment you may need, and the routes available. A good walking guide can bring you to the summit and back in approximately 5 hours. And if the full hike to the summit seems too daunting, Mount Errigal offers stunning landscape vistas throughout its wild mountain, and the lower boglands which are ablaze with heather and gorse bushes. A stunning example of mother nature at every step.
Cycling Through Donegal
Donegal has some of the most spectacular roads with tantalising views, breath-taking landscapes, and effortless cruising. These long driving roads make for a fantastic Sunday drive or, even better, take to the Donegal tarmacadam and explore the many glorious cycle routes through some of Donegal’s most amazing scenery.
With so many great cycling routes on offer, Donegal is a cyclist’s paradise with long trails for the more experienced rider and shorter looped cycles for the relaxed biker. The North West Cycle Trail ventures through 326km taking in Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Leitrim, and Sligo. An adventure like no other if you ask us. This more extreme cycle can be spread out over stages with shorter routes offering the same challenge in mini bite sizes. The Donegal Cycle Route spans 200km of scenic heaven and can be broken down into various stages to make the challenge a little more bearable. From the Inis Eoghain Cycleway, a 55km looped route, to the Dooey Loop in Leitirmacaward, a short 12km loop, The Maghery Loop in Dungloe, crossing 17km, and The Bunlin Way Loop at Milford, every cyclist is spoilt for choice in exploring Donegal and its many things to do.
There are, in fact, far too many Donegal cycle routes for us to explore here but know that wherever you bring your wheels in Donegal you will be guaranteed views of mountains, coasts, rolling hills, lakes, and islands.
An Ghrianan an Aileach
One of Ireland’s most distinctive megalithic sites, the stone ringfort at an Ghrianan an Aileach is located in Inishowen, on the summit of Mount Greenan in Donegal. For those interested in archaeology, you really can’t get any better than a visit to this stone fort which is believed to have been constructed during the 8th or 9th century and is connected with the ancient seat of Cenél nEógain, rulers of the ancient kingdom of Aileach. An incredible feat of engineering, the fort shows evidence of bronze or iron age ramparts which can be seen below the fort providing evidence of its ancient origins. It’s believed the site was initially developed as a burial monument to the dead son of Dagda, the good god. https://www.govisitinishowen.com/directory/an-grianan-of-aileach/
The hilltop structure is incredibly well preserved and offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Its beauty must be seen to be believed. Sitting 250 metres above sea level, visitors can capture the glittering waters of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle below and the garish ruggedness of the Donegal landscape which sweeps around you.
Voted one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the world, Fanad Lighthouse is one of those must do experiences when in Donegal. This iconic working lighthouse sits on the glacial fjord of Lough Swilly known as “the lake of shadows.” An area of exceptional natural beauty on the wild coast of the Atlantic in Letterkenny, a trip to Fanad Lighthouse opens you to many more experiences in the area. https://fanadlighthouse.com/
Open to the public since 2016, Fanad lighthouse has been in use since 1817 and now offers overnight accommodation in the beautifully restored lightkeepers cottages. Not only that, but a couple looking for a bespoke wedding can also get married at Fanad lighthouse, making for a truly memorable ceremony.
With guided tours bringing you through the history of the lighthouse, a trip to Fanad lighthouse is a must on your list of things to do. It will bring you to the wilds of Donegal, the waters of Lough Swilly mounted by a dazzling and varied coastline, and the open landscape offering hiking trails, walking routes, secluded sandy beaches, and picturesque photography hotspots.
For those looking to escape into idyllic countryside with perfection and ease, a drive through Glengesh Pass is exactly what you need. While Donegal is home to immense adventure and exploration, passionate pilgrimage and insight, and diverse ancient histories, it is also one of the most scenic parts of our land. Travelling through the rural isolation of Donegal lends itself to untapped and unspoiled landscapes to marvel out. The Glengesh Pass is a wonderfully winding section of road through shadowed and bright hills, verging mountains, quiet open countryside and bordered by the deep beauty nature offers.
Along the drive on Glengesh Pass, there are plenty of places to stop off and enjoy the scenery. And while you are there, the Assaranca waterfall is a detour to be marvelled at, along with Maghera beach and Malin Beg. http://ardara.ie/glengesh-pass/
A visit to Donegal is not complete without a trip to Malin Head, whether you are a Star Wars fan or not! Renowned for its dramatic landscape, (and for being the landing spot for the Millennium Falcon!) Malin Head is Donegal’s most northerly point. With the largest sand dunes in Europe, the wildest and most treacherous seas, and the best vantage points to fall into the allure of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, Malin Head offers so many things to do and sights to behold.
When visiting Malin Head be sure to explore the area from the signal station on Tower Hill known as Banba Crown, pay a visit to Hells Hole Cavern along the coastline and be sure not to forget the Five Fingers Strand which is home to the world’s largest sand dunes. Malin Head is perhaps one of the most spectacular of all things to do in Donegal and certainly not to be missed as you escape into Ireland’s “Forgotten County” which is perhaps the most memorable.
Main Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash