Donegal – An Overlooked Gem of the Emerald Isle
You might be surprised to know that the northernmost point of the island of Ireland is not part of Northern Ireland…
Though it is, of course, in Ulster Province, it lies in Donegal, one of 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland. Historically the heart of the Gaelic world, Donegal’s name comes from the Irish “Dún na ngal”, meaning literally “the fort of the strangers”.
The county’s landscape is mainly characterised by the Blue Stack Mountains in the south and the Derryveagh Mountains to the north. The northern Inishowen peninsula showcases a spectacular hilly landscape and a rugged coastline which carves many bays leading up to the northernmost tip of the island.
Donegal is unlike the rest of Ireland, a fact partially due to the conflicts with the North. For this reason, the county is not as touristy as the rest of Ireland can be. Now, it’s not being a tourist hotspot means two things: on the one hand, it doesn’t have the most impressive infrastructure. However, it can be a welcome change to enjoy a holiday far from hordes of tourists.
Donegal is perfect for retreating into nature: take a hike up cliffs and mountains, or explore the awesome surfing spots along the coast. In this article, we’ll take you through the places you absolutely can’t miss.
Looking over Dongeal Bay and nestled at the foot of the Blue Stack Mountains, you will find the county’s namesake, Donegal Town. The town is a perfect starting point for many county-wide trips. We recommend driving the 25 kilometres to St John’s Point, where you can relax amon stunning orchids or on the sandy beach.
You will also find plenty to do in the town itself. It’s fun-sized, so perfect for exploring on foot. Walk from the ruins of the 15th century Abbey into the town centre and take a peek into every nook and cranny of this quaint place. Walking from the Abbey, it won’t be long until you come across Donegal Castle. Seat of the O’Donnell Clan in the 15th century, this restored castle is still a firm favourite in Ireland today. Be aware the inside of the great structure is only open to visitors between March and October. However, if you do happen to be here in winter, don’t fret! During the colder months, the castle is used to host various shows and events.
Donegal is also a fantastic place to get a taste of the local culture – literally. The town boasts many charming restaurants, as well as traditional Irish pubs. It won’t take you long to notice that Donegal is cheaper than the rest of Ireland. You can get a good meal from a snack bar for just a few euros. Some snack bars are even open till midnight, so you can always satisfy your cravings. Make sure to try the iconic fish and chips. For a few quid, it’s a real Irish experience you can’t afford to miss!
With 18,000 residents, Letterkenny is the largest city in Donegal. Founded in 17th century on Lough Swilly, Letterkenny has grown from a small village to one of the biggest cities in the country since industrialisation. It is also home to the only cathedral in the county. St Eunan’s Cathedral. In front the cathedral, you will find the biggest Celtic cross in Europe. Alongside the cathedral, the Main Street and old marketplace form the liveliest highlights of the city.
Letterkenny is particularly famous for its wild nightlife, with pubs dotting the city. You can also find numerous nightclubs in Letterkenny, which are favourites for stag dos. To fully indulge in the nightlife, we recommend you go to Milan on Upper Main Street. There’s a five-euro entrance fee, but the drinks are super cheap inside – just three euros each.
Away from the hustle and the bustle of the city, the city park with its herb gardens and flower beds offers a welcome break. Exploring Letterkenny’s nature is a fantastic idea, too. At Glenveagh National Park, you can wander to your heart’s content. Spanning a staggering 17 hectares, the park is located about 24 kilometres to the northwest of Letterkenny and is surrounded by numerous mountains, forests, and lakes. In the park, you can visit a stunning castle. A guided tour is included in the five-euro entry fee. Of course, you can always explore the outside for free if you’re on a budget!
Another spectacular destination nearby is The Rosses, a region stretching from Dungloe in the south to Crolly up north. As most settlements were located near the sea, the route along the coast is something else. The Rosses is filled with tiny lakes, which made it almost impossible to build settlements there.
Donegal is home to the largest peninsula in all of Ireland. Here, you’ll find Malin Head, the most northerly point of mainland Ireland. While the island of Inishtrahull is Ireland’s northernmost location, Malin Head has another pull factor. With a little bit of luck, you will be able to see the spellbinding northern lights illuminating the sky.
The north of Inishowen Island is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, while in the east and west you’ll find large lakes. The inland is abundant with medium-sized hills of medium heights, the tallest standing at around 600 metres. Nonetheless, they are perfect for getting a full view of the stunning landscape.
If you ask us, the best thing to do on the island is walking along the so-called “Inis Eoghain 100”. It is a street near the coast that goes through Inishowen. Just a heads-up, not all routes are well-signposted, and some streets are very narrow.
Inishowen’s largest city is Buncrana, which serves as a gateway to the rest of Donegal. Here you will find the beautiful Lough Swilly, as well as Castle Bridge. If you’re looking for a perfect Ireland Insta moment, you’ve found it here.
With breathtaking nature and wonderful cities, County Donegal should totally be on your bucket list. It is a perfect last stop in the Republic before journeying on to Northern Ireland, or vice versa. Alongside Donegal town and Letterkenny, the peninsula in the north of the county is also worth a visit. There you’ll find the “Inis Eoghein 100”, which runs along the coast and goes through some seriously interesting places. Try to time your trip to Malin Head and try catching the captivating northern lights – may the luck of the Irish be with you!