Donegal has some of the most awe inspiring scenery in all of Ireland. Carved out of cliffs and mountains, this rugged landscape has captured the heart of many of Ireland’s greatest literary writers.
During your cottage holiday in Donegal, you may choose to visit some of these beautiful locations and you can find more information including a five day itinerary taking in the best beauty spots in county Donegal.Malin Head
Although the biggest of Ireland’s counties, you will never been too far from somewhere to visit on your cottage holiday. One of these locations is the world famous Malin head, which is Ireland’s most northerly point. The Atlantic has carved this rugged headland out of the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula and it makes for a worthwhile trek to see chasms such as Hell’s Hole where the power of the Atlantic Ocean can truly be appreciated.
There is a flurry of wildlife and birds at Malin Head, many of them carried in by the winds from Iceland, North America and Greenland, this is perhaps a bird spotters paradise. Birds include skuas, auks, gannets, sheawaters and even the elusive corncrake has been known to frequent these parts.
If you are looking for scenery and some historical connections you may want to travel the 10 miles from Malin village to Banba’s Crown. This location offers not only panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Donegal coastline but it the location where thousands of families waved goodbye to loved ones as they set off for a new life in America, knowing that they may never see each other again.
Things to know about Malin Head
- You can see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) around Inishowen
- You can reach Malin Head from Belfast in 2 hours by car, however it will take approximately 4 hours from both Dublin and Shannon
- From Banba’s Crown it is 1 mile to Malin Head itself which provides a beautiful coastal walk with stunning views
- To the east, a headland walk leads to the Wee House of Malin, a hermit’s cave in the cliff face
Perhaps known as one of the most romantic headlands in Donegal, Fanad Head is the most northerly point of the Fanad Peninsula. The entire location is wildly exposed to all the elements and its scenary and beautiful beaches stir the soul and bring you back to a time gone by.
Known primarily for the iconic Fanad Head Lighthouse, the area also boasts some of the cleanest and biggest beaches in the county.
This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and plays host to wildlife both on shor and off. You may be lucky enough to spot a breaching whale or grey seals bobbing off the coastline, but whatever your reason to come to Fanad Head, you will not be disappointed with the scenery.
Things to know about Fanad Head
- Driving in this area can be difficult as roads are narrow and winding so take your time, sit back and enjoy the views
- You can reach Fanad Head from Belfast in around 2 hours and 40 minutes, the location is around 3 hours and 50 minutes from Dublin airport.
- Fanad Head Lighthouse is closed to the public, but the spectacular photos it provides are still a reason to see it.
- The Fanad Scenic Route is well worth the drive and is around 45 miles long. The route is well sign posted and offers a real chance to see Donegal at its best.
- Donegal provides some of the biggest and cleanest beaches in Ireland, one of the ‘must be visited’ beaches is Ballymastocker Beach but others on the list include Drumnacraig, Doaghbeg, Portsalon (Blue Flag) and Ballyhiernan.
The famous Slieve League coastline is said to be the most beautiful in Europe with high reaching cliffs and dramatic rocky coastline.
Slieve League is not for the faint hearted so be prepared to abandon your car and walk the few miles to the cliffs to truly appreciate this outstanding area.
The view from Slieve League takes in the Atlantic Ocean, the sweeping Donegal Bay and the Sligo Mountains. Leave your holiday cottage behind and be prepared for the cliff face of Bunglas which rises over 600 metres and will reflect the sheer power of the Atlantic Ocean on this corner of the world.
If you are an experienced hiker, you may want to venture a little further than most and Slieve League will challenge the most enthusiastic of walkers! There is a viewing point onto One Man’s Pass, which loops around onto Pilgrim’s Path which is well worth the visit and you will come to understand why Christian pilgrims have flocked to this area for over 1,000 years
Slieve League Cultural Centre is also well worth the visit and will provide a haven of rest at the end of a long walk. The centre is award winning and will provide you with more information on pilgrimages to the area over the last millennia well as local culture and crafts.
Things to know about Slieve League
- Road access in Slieve League can be tricky so please be aware of oncoming cars and take your time
- Slieve League is around 2 and a half hours from Knock airport and just over 3 hours from Belfast airport
- The Slieve League Cultural centre is open daily from March to November 10.30am – 5.30pm however will be closed during the winter months so plan your trip accordingly
- There is no admission fee to view the beautiful Slieve League cliffs
- A bus is available during the high season to take you to the viewing point
5 day itinerary taking in the best of Donegal on your cottage holiday
Donegal is an expansive county and has lots to see and do from its most northernly coastal scenery to its maritime history and challenging golf courses.
The below itinerary weaves its way around the border at Muff, through the wilderness of the Inishowen Peninsula to the cultural hub of Letterkenny town before reaching the Wild Atlantic Way to the northwest. It will take in the best of what Donegal has to offer you on your cottage break from coastal walks, golfing, isolated islands and bird watching.
While this route can be completed over the 5 days, we would suggest taking your time and staying at some unique holiday cottages along the way to get the best out of this most laid back of Irish counties.
Muff to Buncrana (97 miles / 157.5km) – Around 3 hours and 8 minutes at 50km/h
Head out from the historic city of Derry-Londonderry by crossing the River Foyle and drive Northwest towards Muff. The scenery in this area is truly unique and you will find something to see at every turn in the road. The tranquil Lough Swilly will be on your horizon where you can stop for a stretch of the legs and take in the view. Head into Moville town and meet Donegal chef Brian McDermott (of No Salt Chef fame) at his local cookery school and sample some culinary delights while you are there.
While in the area take your time and visit the Five Finger Strand, the Doagh Famine Village (a must for anyone who had family leave Ireland during this period) and the beautiful Glenevin Waterfall. At certain times of the year (and on a clear Irish night) you can spot the Aurora Borealis / Northern Lights over the Mamore Gap which is well worth bracing the chillier Irish nights to see.
From there head South towards Fort Dunree before reaching the town of Buncrana where you are sure to find the legendary Irish welcome is still very much alive.
There is a large number of holiday cottages in the Buncrana area which make it the perfect stop on your trip along the Wild Atlantic Way. You can uncover more about your family history at Clonmany Genealogy or by contacting the Ulster Historical Foundation who can pinpoint unique locations for you to visit that are connect with your family history.
Located on the northernmost tip of Ireland this rugged headline is steeped in ancient history with a Signal Tower from Napoleonic times and lookout posts from the second World War just two of the sites to keep an eye out for.
Donegal is rich in maritime history and its people share a unique bond with the coast and sea that surround them. The Inishowen Maritime Museum is a must see on your list of places to visit with information on everything from wildlife, ships to B17 bombers there is something to occupy everyone in the family.
Buncrana to Letterkenny (28 miles / 45.5km – Around 55 minutes at 50km/h
Donegal is famous for its rolling golf links and upon leaving Buncrana you can try your hand at one of the counties most beautiful golf courses at the North West Golf Club before taking in the wildlife at the Ince Wildfowl Reserve at Lough Swilly.
The road continues out of Inishowen will bring you through some 3,000 acres of land reclaimed from the sea at Burt. The area is a great spot for wildlife and bird watching and has been called Ireland’s largest farm!
A myriad of historical sights awaits you further up the road with the ancient Grianan of Aileach just off the main route. This prehistoric circular fort was mentioned by Ptolemy in his 2nd century map of the world and allows a glimpse into Ireland’s ancient past. If you rejoin the Wild Atlantic Way route at the foot of the hill you can visit the Church of St Aengus which was inspired by the Grianan of Aileach.
Your day of Ireland’s ancient sights will come to an end in the bustling town of Letterkenny. The town boasts stained glass windows by Irish artists Harry Clarke and Michael Healy in the beautiful St Eunan’s Cathedral and sculptures by none other than Michael Pearse who was executed for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Letterkenny has a vibrant arts scene and theatre lovers can partake in the An Grianan Theatre which also has local events and exhibitions. One opportunity not to be missed is the Celtic stone carving classes at Redmond Herrity’s sculpture centre which will give you a new appreciation for Ireland’s ancient artists.
Heading out of town towards Gartan you will find the birthplace of one of Ireland’s most famous saints, Colmcille. Legends and myths have sprung up about this greatest of Irish saints and a visit to the Colmcille Heritage Centre will help to dispel some of them but might leave others in its place!
Letterkenny to Bunbeg (106 miles / 171km – Around 3 hours and 25 minutes at 50km/
Just of the main Wild Atlantic Way is a Donegal treasure which we simply couldn’t leave out of this article – the Glenveagh National Park which is located about 24 km from Letterkenny town. The magnificent gardens are only surpassed by a castle which was built 1869 amongst 16,000 sprawling acres of prime national park. One unique aspect of this park is the chance to see the elusive Golden Eagle, previously extinct in Ireland but reintroduced in 2000 to the park.
Back on trail of the Wild Atlantic Way and journeying north from Letterkenny are two entirely unique Irish villages. The small village of Ramelton is home to a grand example of a Georgian Mill which overlooks the river Lennon amongst a variety of picturesque building and the historic village of Rathmullan is home to a sculpture by artist John Behan which commemorates the 1607 Flight of the Earls, marking the end of the ancient Gaelic order in Ireland.
Take the Knockalla Coast road out of Rathmullan which will take you down the famous Fanad Peninsula and its endless beaches. The first up is Ballymastocker beach which has been described as one of the world’s finest by the Observer. The road will take you to the end of the peninsula and to the Fanad Lighthouse, a must see for photographers and scenery lovers alike – this area boasts the Great Arch, a natural formation in the coast and one which is likely to make anyone jealous who sees your photos.
Head back southbound along the stunning coastline of Fanad before reaching the village of Dunfanaghy. This busy little village offers an opportunity to introduce yourself to the locals whilst enjoying a pint in one of the local pubs. For those not eager to slow down there is a chance to view the local wildlife of guillemots, gulls and puffins on a 200m rock ledge.
One of Ireland’s most famous islands lies just of the coast of Donegal and even boasts its own king! The Tory Island Ferry service runs day trips to the island during peak season and it is a thriving example of Irelands old customs and traditions. Upon arrival on the island you will be greeted in person by the ‘king’ – no other than artist and musician Patsy Dan Rodgers, a local legend and quite a character!
Back on the mainland you will continue to head west through the Donegal Gaeltacht area where you will find the signposts in Irish (Gaelic) and the locals conversing in their native tongue. A round of golf is advisable in this area with the Gweedore Golf Club just a short drive away and a traditional music session in local bar Teac Jack for when you have finished.
If traditional music is something you are searching for on your cottage holiday then head for Teach Hiudai Beag in Bunbeg which is renowned in the area for its traditional music nights but be prepared to stay late into the evening where the craic is mighty and the music never seems to stop!
If you got a taste of island life at Tory you can build on this with visits to Gola and Innishinny both of which offer spectacular views back to the mainland
Bunbeg to Ardara (44 miles / 72km – Around 1 hour and 26 minutes at 50km/h
Bungbeg to Dungloe
As you leave Bunbeg southbound there will be a chance to partake in some of Ireland’s best fishing rivers for brown trout, salmon and sea trout along the Loughanure River between May and September. Be sure to call into the town to pick up your licence before you start to fish!
Continue along the road southbound until you reach Dungloe.
Those who are fans of Daniel O’Donnell (one of Irelands most famous and successful entertainers) will want to take the opportunity to visit the Daniel O’Donnell Visitor Centre on the town’s main street. Those in the local area who have been lucky enough to meet this most gently spoken of men would highly recommend a trip to the centre to find out more about one of the longest running acts in Ireland’s history.
Following this a hearty meal can be found at Doherty’s restaurant which serves home cooked food and includes fresh local seafood which is something not to be missed on this part of the island. If you decide to spend some time in the town you can sample a live music session at Beedy’s bar which can be found on main street.
Using Dungloe as your base for this part of the Wild Atlantic Way you will be welcomed at the beautiful Cloughglass Beach at Burtonpoint with stunning scenery and crystal waters or you could take another island hopping trip to Arranmore Island on the ferry. There are various chartered boats in the area which can be hired to take you to the island at your leisure such as Inishfree Charters.
For those who are wanting to keep up with their fitness regime whilst on holiday, arrive at the start of May where you will find the Dungloe Walking Weekend taking place with guided walks for all levels of participants.
The small town of Glenties can be found in between two glens and between two rivers. It’s a mecca for fishermen with well stocked rivers and great local fishing knowledge. The local museum also houses artefacts relating to the Great Famine and is a great place to find out more about your family history in Donegal.
For those interested in the Irish traditional music scene, Leo’s tavern is a must see in Crolly. Legendary Irish singer Enya grew up here and developed her love of music and unique singing style. The walls of the tavern are strewn with her platinum albums and other famous visitors to the pub. The owners of this pub can often be found performing in the music sessions themselves but you will never be short of a pint from behind the bar.
If there is one town to visit in Donegal this would be our recommendation at Holiday Cottages Ireland. There is a local story that says that the beach inspector once began counting the beaches in Donegal only to give up after several hundred coves made the job impossible and this sleepy little town nestled under the majestic mountains and surrounded by secluded beaches is a prime example of this.
Traditional music sessions can be found in the Corner Bar or if you are in time for annual Cup O’Tae Festival then there will be no escaping the musicians on the street corners and performing in every bar in the town!
The Louis Armstrong sandwich in Nancy’s pub is a must have on your trip through the town and this unique little pub will embody everything about Ireland that you will want to take home! Owned by the McHugh family for several generations, the food and music are an experience in itself but the hospitality and warmth of the fire will warm your bones on a cold Irish night.
The Donegal Tweed centre is also located in the town where you can find some unique gifts to take back from Ireland. The town is also famous for its arts and crafts and a range of shops carry authentic Irish gifts that can be found no where else.
Just up the road at Portnoo and Narin strand is the Narin and Portnoo Golf Club, a round of golf here is worth braving the winds which will keep even the most experienced golfers on their toes!
Fishing is also a worthy pasttime here with the Aderry, Namanlagh Lakes and the River Gweebara all hailed as havens by local fishermen. Salmon and trout fishing can be found in plenty from April to September however remember to pick up your fishing licence for the day (available from local shops).
Heading out of Ardara towards Killybegs is a signpost for the Maghera caves. You will want to take this road! The beautiful Assaranca Waterfall is an unexpected sight and at the end of the road are the Maghera Caves which can be accessed at low tide. It is local legend that during the penal times, locals would hide here to avoid being captured and more recently local teenagers have followed the rite of passage of spending a night in the caves which are said by some to be haunted, so enter at your peril!
Ardara to Donegal Town (68 miles / 111km – Around 2 hours and 13 minutes at 50km/h
When you are ready to leave this sleepy little town be sure to call in to Glencolmcille – an ancient area of outstanding natural beauty it is home to ancient buildings and megalithic tombs. Examples of Celtic stonework can be found in the cross inscribed stones and you can find out more at the Glencolmcille Folk Village which will bring the story of the area to life.
This area is dotted with places to visit so you may want to build some time into your schedule to fit it all in! Silver Strand at Malin Beg is a great place to stretch your legs and a right turn in the nearby village of Carrick brings you to a whole new world!
The Slieve League cliffs at Teelin are one of the wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way and your cottage holiday would not be complete without at least a short dander along its stunning pathways. At almost 2000 feet they are twice the height of County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher and amongst the highest in Europe so be sure to leave time to take in the views!
Killybegs to Donegal Town
The road will take you to the thriving fishing port of Killybegs along a beautiful stretch of coastline which offers views over Donegal Bay across to the lighthouse at St John’s Point and beyond to Ben Bulben mountain in Sligo. The town of Killybegs is Irelands number one fishing port and its locals take their fishing very seriously! Tuna buyers have been known to pay over £30,000 for one fish that was hauled from the waters of this coastline and it is a mecca for those seeking the thrill of the hunt! Killybegs maritime history can be explored further at the Maritime and Heritage centre in the town.
A 200 year old farmhouse called Kitty Kelly’s should be your stop for lunch where locally sourced food is always on the menu. The seafood platter comes highly recommended and if you ask you may find out the secret to making the perfect Irish coffee!
Heading east you are now close to Donegal town located at the mouth of Donegal Bay. Dun na nGall (Irish) translates to “Fort of the Foreigners”, marking a time when Vikings made the town their stronghold.
There are historic treasures to be found everywhere in this vibrant town from Donegal Castle to the Franciscan Friary ruins and you can find local shops selling traditional crafts at all times of the year.
This is the final stop on your Donegal portion of the Wild Atlantic Way however before you leave this magnificent county we would recommend a trip on the Donegal Bay Waterbus which will give you stunning views of the Bluestack Mountains, Seal Island and Donegal Bay itself.
There is more to see on the Wild Atlantic Way including the Burren and Cliffs of Moher so be sure to return to shore to continue your journey!