11 Unmissable Experiences on the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal, Ireland
Top experiences along the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal, Ireland that you must not miss and how to make the most of the Wild Atlantic Way route through Donegal. If you are planning a trip to the northernmost county in Ireland, check out my recommendations for the best things to do in Donegal, including where to stay, where to eat and the best Donegal tourist attractions!
Table of Contents
- 1 Discovering the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal
- 2 Step into the O’Donnell Clan’s legacy at Donegal Castle
- 3 Get blown away by Slieve League’s majestic sea cliffs
- 4 Step back in time at the Glencolmcille Folk Village
- 5 Drive through the breathtaking Glengesh Pass
- 6 Discover the sand dunes, caves and waterfalls at Maghera Strand
- 7 Meet one of the last masters of Donegal tweed
- 8 Learn about the dark history behind Glenveagh Castle
- 9 Explore Glenveagh National Park on two wheels
- 10 Saddle up on the magnificent Dunfanaghy Beach
- 11 Feel the ancient legends of Grianan of Aileach
- 12 Visit a galaxy far, far away at Malin Head
- 13 Places to eat along the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal
- 14 Wild Atlantic Way Accommodation in Donegal
- 15 Wild Atlantic Way Map of Donegal
- 16 Getting to Donegal and around
- 17 Like this post? Pin and save for later
Discovering the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal
Ireland repeatedly comes up in surveys as one of the world’s friendliest countries, and anyone who has visited the Emerald Isle will understand why. They call it craic, the art of enjoyable conversation, fun and entertainment, an intrinsic part of the Irish culture and social life. This craic, together with Ireland’s natural wonders and mystical legends, attract increasing numbers of visitors every year. But despite this, there are areas of the country that are completely unexplored.
Donegal is one of those areas. It’s where the Wild Atlantic Way, the longest defined coastal touring route in the world, starts. The Wild Atlantic Way route stretches from Inishowen in Donegal to Kinsale in West Cork and it takes you through one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. The rugged coast, the blue flag beaches and the remote offshore islands are some of the treats that the Wild Atlantic Way has in store.
Donegal is Ireland’s northernmost region – untouched, with a vibrant sense of community and spectacular nature that includes some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs. It is pretty wild and remote, and these are many of the reasons why National Geographic has named it the ‘Coolest Place in the Planet for 2017’.
So here is a guide with eleven unmissable things to do to make the most of your Wild Atlantic Way itinerary through Donegal, starting in Donegal town.
Step into the O’Donnell Clan’s legacy at Donegal Castle
A visit to Donegal Castle is one of the top things to do in Donegal town. It was built by the famous O’Donnell Chieftains in the 15thcentury, and was once the seat of their power from where they ruled the area until they were defeated by the English at the Battle of Kinsale 200 years later. From that point onward, it was given to an English Captain, Basil Brooke, who rebuilt the medieval castle and turned it into a more comfortable residence with a fortified tower, a Jacobean manor house and a curtain wall.
You can visit the carefully restored tower and see the different styles of the two previous owners.
Donegal Castle is open daily between Easter and Mid September from 10h to 18h, and between Mid September and Easter it is open Thursday to Monday from 9.30h to 16.30h. Admission is 4 Euros (~ 5 USD).
Get blown away by Slieve League’s majestic sea cliffs
Slieve League, or Sliabh Liag in Gaelic, are the highest sea cliffs in Ireland and some of the highest in Europe, rising 601 metres above the Atlantic. They are five times higher than the more famous Cliffs of Moher and they’re fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland.
To make the most of this dramatic landscape, leave the car in the car park and walk a few kilometers to the summit. The 360-degree views are breathtaking. If the weather is good and you are feeling brave, you can continue on along ‘One Man’s Path’, an exhilarating trek that will test your nerves. It’s a path along the ridge of the Slieve League with a sheer drop on both sides – certainly not for the faint-hearted! The recommendation is to only attempt this path in fair weather.
The weather here rules – you may get literally blown away. It was extremely windy when I was there, so I had to skip the ‘One Man’s Path’ walk. But I was still able to walk up to the summit without taking unnecessary risks. The key to dealing with the challenges that the weather throws at you in Ireland is to check the forecast ahead and to be prepared with boots, rain gear and maps.
Step back in time at the Glencolmcille Folk Village
Glencolmcille Folk Village, also known as Father McDyer’s Folk Museum Village, is a thatch-roofed replica of a rural village in Donegal that offers a fascinating insight into traditional rural life through the ages.
Father James McDyer was a charismatic priest that brought the local community together and developed local enterprises in the area. Built by local volunteers in the 60s, one of those enterprises was the Folk Village – a cluster of small cottages, called a ‘clachan’, perched on a hillside and overlooking Glen Bay Beach.
You can get a guided tour of one of Ireland’s best living-history museums and learn about the local way of life through the 18th, 19thand 20th century. Each cottage represents a different era and is equipped with furniture and artifacts of the time.
Glencolmcille Folk Village is open from 10h to 18h from Easter to 30thSeptember, and from 11h to 16.30h during October. The rest of year it stays closed. If you are visiting towards the end of October, ring ahead to confirm if it is open, as it will sometimes close for the winter before the end of the month. The price of admission is 6 Euros (~ 7 USD).
Drive through the breathtaking Glengesh Pass
Glengesh, between Glencolmcille and Ardara, is a wild and picturesque glacial valley that meanders through the Glengesh and Mulmosog Mountains offering views of farmland, desolate moorland and a tranquil setting. And the Glengesh Pass (or Glen of the Swans), with its snaking switchbacks, is one of the most spectacular scenic drives in Donegal.
It doesn’t get a huge amount of traffic, so it’s easy to negotiate the hairpin bends. However, as tempting as it will be to enjoy the dramatic scenery, remember to keep an eye on the road!
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Discover the sand dunes, caves and waterfalls at Maghera Strand
About 8.5 kms west from the town of Ardara, you will find Maghera Strand, a white sandy beach full of folklore stories and with incredible sweeping views of the bay. The beach is protected by a substantial system of sand dunes with marked paths along which you can walk.
But Maghera Strand is more famous for its caves, which only reveal themselves in low tide. There are over 20 caves, 8 arches and 5 tunnels, some of which can be visited by kayak or small boat in good weather. When the tide is out, you can walk in some of the caves, which are famous for the folk story about a massacre, where local people were hiding from Cromwellian attackers. The truth is that Cromwell’s men never came this far north, so it’s likely that the story dates back from Viking times.
Maghera Strand has very strong tides and currents, so please take care and always check tide times locally.
I didn’t have the best weather when I visited, in fact, I got completely soaked, but it was still worth walking through the dunes and taking in the expansive beach – even if I didn’t get to the caves. I guess I’ll just have to come back!
To get there, follow the signs to the beach and you will reach a car park. From here you will need to walk about 200 metres to reach the caves.
On the road to Ardara, not far from the beach, you will come across the enchanting Assaranca Waterfall, a great place to stop to admire its beauty and power. A great photo spot too!
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Meet one of the last masters of Donegal tweed
Hand-woven tweed is unfortunately, a craft that is dying, being replaced by mass-produced synthetic tweed. The reasons why are obvious – cost, productivity… the usual.
But there are still a few people in Ardara, the cradle of the tweed industry in Ireland, that are keeping this centuries-old hand-weaving tradition alive. One of them is a man called Eddie Doherty, one of a dying breed, as he likes to refer to himself.
You can visit Eddie’s shop, located in Front Street, where he produces a wide range of traditional handcrafted products including rugs, throws, scarves, caps, waistcoats amongst other items. All of his products are produced from 100% Irish wool and are hand-woven in his workshop in Ardara.
He’s always very happy to give demonstrations to visitors, so take this opportunity to be amazed at how the tweed comes to life as he weaves on the traditional handloom.
Learn about the dark history behind Glenveagh Castle
More a castellated mansion than a castle, Glenveagh Castle stands atop a slight promontory overlooking Lough Veagh. Built on 1870, it was modelled on Balmoral Castle, the British Royal residence. It has passed through a number of hands, and many of the rooms inside still have the furnishings from the last private owner.
But one thing that really stuck with me about the castle was the high human cost attached to what, after all, was a vanity project.
The estate of Glenveagh was created by John George Adair after he purchased several local smallholdings. Adair didn’t waste any time in evicting 244 tenants from the smallholdings, throwing them out in the cold April of 1861. A lot of the dispossessed ended up making their way to Australia, while others were forced to move to the Workhouse or, the most fortunate ones, with other relatives.
Don’t miss out on visiting the charming gardens. Its rich collection of exotic trees and shrubs from around the world are a real contrast to the austere mountains that surround it.
Glenveagh Castle is open to the public from mid March to the end of October. Tours can only be booked on arrival at the Castle, and during the summer they fill up really quickly, so I’d recommend arriving early. The price of admission to the castle is 7 Euros (~ 8 USD).
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Explore Glenveagh National Park on two wheels
Glenveagh National Park lies in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains and it includes most of the Derryveaghs, the Poisoned Glen and part of Errigal Mountain. A remote wilderness of rugged mountains and pristine lakes, it’s one of the must places to visit in Donegal and a beautiful place for outdoor activities such as hiking and cycling.
For walkers, there are plenty of trails to choose from – from lakeside walks to hill treks. Some of the trails are looped, but for those that aren’t, you can take the Walkers Bus to the beginning of the trail and walk back to the visitor centre. The Walkers Bus runs Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays at 10am (weather permitting), and it costs 2-3 Euros (~2.5-3.5 USD).
For those wanting to explore on two wheels, Glenveagh National Park is ideal. I cycled along the bridleway that follows the contour of the lake all the way to the end of the lake and back. It was an incredibly scenic route going through gnarly and mossy woods, with views of the lake and the mountains and the view of a waterfall in the distance at the end.
You can rent a regular bike or an ebike from Grass Routes. You can find them in the car park near the visitor centre between 10am and 5pm during Easter, weekends in April, May and June, and daily in July and August. A 3-hour bike ride costs between 12 and 18 Euros (~ 14 – 21 USD).
Glenveagh is a protected area where golden eagles were re-introduced from Scotland in 2001. So you may even get lucky and spot one!
Saddle up on the magnificent Dunfanaghy Beach
The town of Dunfanaghy is a former fishing port that overlooks the beautiful shores of Sheephaven Bay. It is surrounded by some of Ireland’s most beautiful beaches, cliffs, headlands and scenery, but it’s the beaches I’d like to focus on here.
Imagine expansive white sand beaches that you can enjoy and explore on horseback. This is exactly what you can do here. After doing some hiking and cycling along the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal, why not try some horse riding too?
Dunfanaghy Stables are located at the back of Arnolds Hotel, which is right on the seafront. The Stables have a great variety of horses to suit people of all levels, so you won’t need to have had experience – there is a first time for everything after all. They are very close to the beach, and in order to reach it we had to cross the shallow bay, which was for me one of the highlights.
Dunfanaghy Stables are AIRE approved, which means that they have the highest standards of care for the horses and facilities. They operate by appointment only, so schedule time in your Wild Atlantic Way itinerary for one of the most fun of Donegal activities. You won’t regret it!
Read more: Adventure activities in Dublin
Feel the ancient legends of Grianan of Aileach
Ireland’s ancient past is present everywhere, and Donegal is no exception. One of the sites witness to Ireland’s history is Grianan of Aileach, a stone fort on top of a hill that has its origins back in 1700 BC. It’s linked to pre-Celtic invaders of Ireland, who built stone forts on top of strategic hills, and it was also the seat of the Kingdom of Aileach during Gaelic Ireland. And, like every ancient site in Ireland, there are folk tales around Grianan of Aileach. Legend says that the hill was associated with deities linked to the sun and that it must have been built by pagan sun worshipers of old.
It has been built and rebuilt over the years, and it was restored to its current form at the end of the 19thcentury by a doctor from Derry. Although it looks nothing like the original fort, it’s still an impressive sight. From the top of the fort the views are breathtaking – if you are lucky enough to get good weather. You can see the surrounding loughs, three counties and the shape of the entire peninsula of Inishowen. Although the weather was not in my favour when I visited and I was lucky to see the fort itself!
Visit a galaxy far, far away at Malin Head
Known locally as Banba’s Crown, Malin Head is the most northernly point in Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s an area of great scenic beauty with its rugged coast and the wild sea, and also an important historic, scientific and ecological site.
The Tower, a tall derelict building, was built in 1804 by the Admiralty and it was later used as a Lloyds Signal Station. During World War II, the small huts were built and used by Irish defence forces to keep a look out and protect Ireland’s neutrality. The panoramic views are stunning, and on a clear day you can even see the Scottish Hills.
But Malin Head has a little edge over any other sites in Donegal… It was the filming location of parts of the Star Wars Episode VIII. During filming, the actual Millenium Falcon was built onsite, no-fly zones were implemented and the whole village got caught up in it one way or another. For Star Wars fans visiting Malin Head is a must. Local photographer and tour guide Bren Whelan, who was very involved in the project, can give you a detailed tour of the scenes and the exact spots where they were shot.
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Places to eat along the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal
You will find plenty of places to stop for a tasty meal along the Wild Atlantic Way route in Donegal. Here are my top picks:
Nancy’s Bar, Ardara
A homely and welcoming pub, Nancy’s Bar is a traditional Irish pub that has been in the same family for seven generations now. It was named after the current owner’s great-great-grandmother, who was widowed at a young age and took on the management of the family pub. And it really feels like a grandmother’s living room, full of trinkets and an open fire. The food is great and honest pub food, and the atmosphere is unbeatable. And if you are lucky, you might stumble upon an Irish music session at Nancy’s!
Tea Rooms at Glenveagh Castle, Glenveagh National Park
Located in the castle courtyard, the Tea Rooms at Glenveagh Castle are the perfect place to replenish your energy after a day out walking or cycling through the National Park, or exploring the castle and gardens. It serves delicious homemade soups, breads and sandwiches, and scrumptious home baked scones and cakes.
The Olde Glen Bar, Glen
Celebrating its 250thanniversary, The Olde Glen Bar is the oldest pub in Donegal. Full of old charm and character, they have an open fire, live music and plenty of craic. They smoke organic salmon in-house, which is served with sourdough bread and salsa verde. The soup of the day when I visited was seafood chowder and was just what I needed after a morning horse riding on the beach. It was served with delicious homemade brown bread.
Read more: Foodie tour of Derry, Nothern Ireland
If you are looking for something a bit more upmarket, here are my recommendations:
Lakeside Restaurant at Harvey’s Point Hotel, Lough Eske
The Lakeside Restaurant exudes elegance and style and offers sweeping views of the shores of the Lough Eske. With a theatre style open kitchen, it gives you a view of the dishes being prepared. The menu changes with the seasons and includes the best local Irish produce. I would highly recommend the sea bass with ginger and lemongrass broth if you see it on the menu.
Cove Restaurant, Portnablagh
Overlooking the harbour and set within two former coastguard cottages, Cove Restaurant in Portnablagh is a bistro-style restaurant with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Run by Peter and Chef Siobhan, they will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. You can enjoy the views from the bar upstairs while you have a pre-dinner drink. The food here is spectacular, using fresh and local ingredients brought to you with a superb presentation. I loved the sushi for starters, the pork belly with Armagh cider for my main course, and the pear tarte tatin to finish off.
McGrory’s offers a unique dining experience with menus that reflect the local produce and the seasons. From fish landed in Greencastle, to meat farmed and butchered in Inishowen, Head Chef Gary McPeake prepares it and presents it with pride and creativity. The turbot with chorizo and lentils was particularly tasty, as was the dry-aged spring lamb – all locally sourced. In fact, the menu tells you exactly where each main ingredient comes from. Move to the bar after dinner for a fun traditional music session.
Wild Atlantic Way Accommodation in Donegal
Here is a selection of my recommendations for hotels in Donegal, Ireland.
Harvey’s Point Hotel, Lough Eske
The location of Harvey’s Point Hotel is second to none, right at the edge of Lough Eske, staying here is a real treat. The suites are rated as the biggest and most luxurious in Ireland. They offer a real sense of space, and the careful attention to detail is apparent. Request a lake view room for some spectacular and relaxing views. The property offers some lovely and relaxing walks around the lake too – just follow the trail markers to discover more of Harvey’s Point.
If you are looking for something a bit more affordable but do not want to compromise on views, location and service, Harvey’s Point offers accommodation at The Lodge, designed for both small groups and solo travellers and with 13 cruise ship cabin style rooms.
Nesbitt Arms Boutique Hotel, Ardara
The Nesbitt Arms is a charming boutique hotel located in the heart of the town of Ardara. It has recently been refurbished to a high standard, and its location means that it’s the perfect base to explore the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal. After getting soaked in Maghera Strand, I was welcomed with a hot whiskey made with whiskey, water, sugar, honey, lemon and cloves. Just what I needed to warm up!
Arnolds Hotel, Dunfanaghy
Arnolds Hotel is a family owned hotel that has been in the same family for four generations and is located in the picturesque village of Dunfanaghy. The hotel is overlooking the spectacular scenery of Sheephaven Bay and it’s ideal for both relaxing breaks or for those seeking adventure. There are opportunities to do activities such as horse riding, cycling and surfing on their doorstep. Make sure you request a room facing the see to make the most of the views.
McGrory’s of Culdaff Hotel, Culdaff
Another hotel owned and run by four generations of the same family, McGrory’s of Culdaff is a bit of an institution in the area. It’s a small hotel with 17 spacious rooms that have been decorated with locally produced materials. It offers a friendly and intimate environment to enjoy the local area as well as their award-winning bar (Irish Hotel Bar of the Year 2017 and Ulster Gastropub of the Year 2018). Try the best black and white puddings in Ireland for breakfast here.
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Wild Atlantic Way Map of Donegal
Getting to Donegal and around
The nearest international airports are Belfast International Airport, which is a couple of hours drive from Donegal, and Dublin Airport, 3 hours away by car. I research all my flights with Skyscanner. Book your flight to Ireland now.
To make the most of your visit to Donegal, I would recommend hiring a car. Public transport is limited and it will not reach a lot of the remote areas. But car hire can be expensive, use the Holiday Autos comparison site to get the best deal from 20+ providers.
So there you have it – my top picks to enjoy the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal to the full.
Let me know if I have included your favourite spots or if there are any that I’ve missed!
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Tourism Ireland, Failte Ireland and Vagabond Tours, who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own. This post also contains affiliate links, that earn me a small commission but come at no extra cost to you. Thanks as always for your support!