For me, Donegal Town in the northwest of Ireland is like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. So much so that I am moving there full-time so I can have a European base! I have been visiting Donegal for over 15 years and love every inch of it. Here I will write about the top things to do in Donegal town and why YOU need to visit!
Donegal, or in Gaelic “Dun na nGall” (Fort of the Foreigner), sits at the mouth of the River Eske, in northwest Ireland. Donegal is the most northern part of the whole island even further north than Northern Ireland. Its sits within the majestic shadows of the Blue Stack Mountains on one side and Donegal bay on the other. This is an area where the craic is legendary and the people welcoming and friendly.
Situated in the northern heart of the Wild Atlantic Way, Donegal was settled by the Gauls back in the 9th century. They built several earthen forts, which can be seen around the area today. The Castle in the town was built by Red Hugh O’Donnell and his wife the Lady Nuala who also brought the monks to the area. It is believed that the castle was built in 1474 the same time the Abbey was built.
Donegal Town is the ideal place to stay for a few days when visiting the area. It is a central location and gives you access to many Neolithic sites the grandeur and fury of the Atlantic Ocean, famous Irish Islands like Tory and Arranmore, not to mention thousands of years of Irish history it is a not to be missed area. Besides National Geographic decided that Donegal was the coolest place in the world to visit.
You will need to have a car to travel around Donegal as unfortunately the local transport system is pretty bad. There are no local buses or trains to get around Donegal and most touring is done either by small local tourist operators or large coach tours. If you really want to see the area, rent a car!!
Things To Do in Donegal Town
Fully restored in the 90’s the Castle sits near the centre of Donegal Town. Built by the O’Donnell chieftains in the 15th Century, beside the river Eske in Donegal Town, Donegal Castle was rebuilt in Jacobean style in the 16th Century by Sir Basil Brooke, after Hugh O’Donnell burnt it to the ground rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Information panels chronicle the history of the castle and guided tours are available. The cost for a visit to the castle is €4 – making it one of the cheapest things to do in Donegal Town! One of the many ancient castles in Ireland, it’s well worth a quick visit.
The Friary (which they call the Abbey in Donegal town) was founded in 174 by Red Hugh O’Donnell the Abbey was attacked several times and taken over by the English. The monks that fled from the priory were credited with compiling the ancient Annals of the Four Masters, which is a major source of Irish History.
The Abbey is now in ruins in the middle of a graveyard. It feels very peaceful here on the banks of the Bay and you can see some lovely Celtic crosses marking some of the graves.
Bank Walk in Donegal
A beautiful 1.6km trail walk around the Eske Riverbank and along the edges of Donegal Bay. Great views of the harbour the walks takes you by the Friary and there are birdhouses in the trees and even a Fairy Post box.
A little tricky to find the Famine Graveyard is behind a housing estate that you drive into and you will find the entrance. In the late 90’s the graveyard was repaired and a headstone was placed in commemoration of the people who died during the famine. The old Famine workhouse was torn down years ago and now row housing sits on top of the site.
Donegal Harbour and Waterbus
A lovely way to see the town from the Bay this 75 odd minute boat tour incorporates singing and storytelling in typical Donegal fashion. You may even get to see the harbour seal colonies if the tide is right. The tours take place around 2-3 times a day depending on the weather and the boar is a very comfortable 160 seater and is fully equipped with a bar and facilities.
The Diamond is the heart of Donegal Town. This is where all the shops are the pubs, restaurants and everything you could need runs off the Diamond. On a Friday or a Saturday night, the crowds spill out from the local pubs and bars and hang around the Diamond waiting for one of Donegal’s six taxis. No one gets stupid (although there are many drunks..lol..) and everyone is enjoying the craic as they say.
On the Diamond, you will see some of Donegal’s best shops for gifts but do check out the world-famous Magees Donegal Tweed shop where they have been weaving Donegal tweed for over 150 years.
Pubs, Pubs, Pubs
No visit to Donegal is complete without checking out some of the pubs. The locals are incredibly friendly and in some pubs, you will be treated to some traditional music and song.
This is my favourite pub in Donegal mainly because it’s the size of a living room and crowded with Donegal regulars (all 6 of them). The age range is from 16 to 90 and it just may happen that someone will break out in song, but more than likely you will find that the locals will simply enjoy taking the piss and having some craic with anyone who dares to wander in. It is just up the street from the Diamond.
The Castle Bar
A traditional Irish bar, frequented by many locals, it sits in the shadow of the Castle and is recommended highly for both its food and drink.
The Forge Pub
A great favourite with the locals this tiny little pub that hosts live music on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It truly is a hidden gem in Donegal. It sits just the other side of the river to the church and the castle. It is said to be the oldest pub in the area but take note it doesn’t have a Sunday license so it won’t be open.
Where to eat in Donegal
For a great lunch or simply some incredible scones and a cuppa, the Blueberry can’t be beaten for service, really good homemade food and a fine cup of tea or coffee.
Just on, the outskirts of town at the Lodge, the Blas is a slightly more upmarket restaurant that serves a great pint of Donegal Blonde and some hearty lunches and suppers.
Harvey’s Point is the place to be for Sunday lunch. A superb buffet lunch that includes smoked salmon, roast beef, lamb and what the Irish call a carvery a multitude of salads and desserts practically everyone in town will end up here for a fantastic Sunday buffet. The views are also stunning from the dining room of the Lough.
Solis Lough Eske Castle Hotel
Fine dining at its best, the five-star Lough Eske Castle Hotel serves in both the restaurant and the bar. On the expensive side in the restaurant but very good food and if you want you can eat the same food in the bar for a slightly cheaper price. This is also one of Ireland’s top castle hotels – pure luxury in Ireland’s northwest!
Red Hugh Restaurant
Located in the Castle pub the restaurants serves local meats and produce and some fine fish and chips.
Chandpur Indian Restaurant
We first ate at this brilliant Indian restaurant over 15 years ago when it first opened in town. The only Indian restaurant for miles and miles the food was simply superb. These days the restaurant has grown into the finest Indian Restaurant winning awards and kudos from all over Ireland.
Where to stay in Donegal
Harveys Point Hotel
An absolutely lovely four-star hotel that really deserves five stars – but doesn’t have a pool so it doesn’t qualify Harvey’s Point is situated right on Lough Eske. With the Blue Stack mountains in the background and the mystical forests and landscape that surrounding it. Harvey’s Point has something for everyone. Check out their website for deals.
Lough Eske Castle
Solis Lough Eske isn’t exactly on the Lough and it can’t be seen from the hotel but this is one amazing restoration. Over 15 years ago this place was simply a ruined shell and the Solis Hotel Group have brought it back to life with a laser sharp eye for the details and all the luxury you could want.
Make sure you find the graveyard where General George White is buried. The General built the Castle and loved the place so much he asked to be buried here. The graveyard is surrounded by a wall and railings with double gates at the entrance that each has a plaque on them. One of them has the symbol of a pelican, which stands for mortality. The inscription says “Beware in Time”. The second has the inscription “Virtus Semper Vincit” which translates to Virtue Always Conquers. To book a room and sleep like a King, check their website.
Smack dab in the middle of the Diamond the Abbey Hotel is a great place to stay. They have a good restaurant and better yet a bar that is packed on the weekends with locals and tourists. The Eas Dun Bar has a 2-floor design with live music and all kinds of entertainment.
Lock ins are common (that means once the doors are locked you can still drink but not get back in when you leave – like a private party). At around 3 am the crowd spills onto the Diamond in an attempt to get one of Donegal’s taxis which are in short supply. Many a night we have sat in the Diamond with a wait of around 2 hours to get home.
Things To Do in Donegal Town Surrounds
In the graveyard, at Dunkineely there is the Killaghtee Cross, which is one of the oldest Celtic crosses in Ireland, dating from 650 AD. The Killaghtee Cross is a significant piece of Ireland’s Celtic heritage. This early Irish Celtic cross was a precursor to the elaborately crafted Celtic High Crosses, for which Ireland became famous with the adoption of Celtic Christianity. Take a drive from Donegal Town towards Killybegs and you will see the signs posted for Dunkineely which is around 20 minutes or less outside town.
If you love hiking and superb nature, walks you must head out to the Bluestack Mountains The Bluestack Mountains contain several high peaks. The scenery is magnificent and almost overwhelming from waterfalls to rushing streams the Bluestack Mountains are some of the best hikes in the area. Tumbling streams, waterfalls and rugged exhilarating scenery abound.
The Bluestack Centre has its own walking group The Bluestack Ramblers and you will also find a hostel attached to the centre.
Best Beaches in Donegal
Just 15 minutes from Donegal Town you will find a variety of fabulous beaches. Donegal is home to some of the finest in all of Ireland including some of the best surfing beaches in the world.
My personal favourite is Tullan Strand just down the road in Bundoran which is about a 15 minute drive from town. There is a magical wishing chair and fairy bridges along with one of the most glorious beaches you will see in Donegal.
From Stone Forts like An Grianan Fort to wedge tombs and a Saint’s sacred home in Glencolumcille Donegal is like no other place on earth. Wild, rugged and majestic it speaks to your heart and makes you want to see every corner. The smell of the sea and turf stays in your memory and brings you back to this rugged wildling county. No wonder they say in Donegal – it’s different up here. The beaches are a real highlight of this part of Ireland and one of the top things to do in Donegal Town and surrounds.
This was a guest post by Faith Coates from XYUandBEYOND|The Artful Marketer. You can contact her by email to info AT Xyuandbeyond DOT com. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter to see more of her excellent travel writing.
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