In Ireland’s far north Ulster province, sweeping visual splendor is the norm across County Donegal’s nearly 2,000 square miles. It is a pastiche of lush fields, stone cottages, peaks and jagged sea cliffs. There are towns where Gaeilge (Gaelic) is still spoken and black-face, horned sheep roam like wooly blimps across the countryside.
Explore the County’s peaks and shores
Lovers of drive vacations need look no further than the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal road that serpentines up Europe’s western edge for 1,500 miles, from County Cork through County Donegal to its northernmost point.
To drive any section of this coast is to be immersed in nature’s dramatic extremes. Slieve League, or Sliabh Liag in Irish, in southern County Donegal is among the highest marine cliffs in Europe and a Signature Discovery Point along the Way. It is accessed via a moderate uphill trek — possibly through fog or freezing rain, even in July — to striking panoramas of the coastline. As you walk, look for the old watch tower, on a hill that juts into the sea.
Before or after conquering Slieve League, stop in the town of Ardara for tea and fresh-baked scones at The Courthouse Restaurant and Home Bakery and to buy traditional woolens at Triona, where a small exhibit illustrates Donegal’s weaving history. One excellent buy: hiking socks.
Farther north, the wide beaches of Bunbeg offer a gentler seascape. Trails with tiny, scuttling crabs crisscross the dunes to stretches of sand, where you might not see another soul. On Magheraclogher Beach, the skeleton of a wrecked fishing boat that washed up in the 1970s sits forlorn, an iconic image made famous in photographs.
County Donegal’s interior offers a range of trails and walks. At almost 2,500 feet, Mount Errigal in the Derryveagh Mountains is Donegal’s highest peak. It can be hiked year-round, but winter cloaks it in snow. The path to the summit crosses dirt, footbridges and scree, alongside ditches, bogs and blooming wildflowers. It’s three miles up and back, with an elevation gain of more than 1,600 feet. Good hiking shoes, ideally waterproof, are more than a suggestion. The trail starts off the road between the towns of Letterkenny and Gweedore (shown as Gaoth Dobhair on road signs).
Glenveagh National Park
Nature’s eclectic artistry is on full display in Glenveagh National Park, preserving 41,000 acres of remote glens, mountains, oak woodlands and lakes. It also preserves a 19th century castle and its tangled history, beginning with the ruthless builder evicting hundreds of tenants from the land. Glenveagh Castle was last privately owned by Henry McIlhenny of Philadelphia, an Irish-American whose grandfather grew up nearby. The castle’s magnificent grounds are the highlight. A 2.1-mile walk from the visitor center, past the lake to the castle, reveals glimpses of Glenveagh’s wild beauty, but shuttles are available. Visitor center exhibits tell the national park’s many stories.
The hills are alive with music
County Donegal’s riveting vistas are reason enough to visit, but its prominence as a center for traditional Irish music is equally compelling. While many pubs across the County Donegal have “trad sessions,” or evenings when musicians show up with their instruments to play and pass on traditional Irish tunes, there are three that stand out.
Tabhairne Leo (Leo’s Tavern), in tiny Meenaleck, is owned by the family of Irish singer Enya. She and her talented siblings are said to occasionally join sessions. The tavern has inviting public rooms and a full menu. This tavern gets my vote for best fish and chips in the north of Ireland. I ordered it twice to be sure.
Teach Hiúdaí Beag
In Bunbeg, manager/owner and musician Hugh Gallagher oversees twice weekly sessions at his pub, Teach Hiúdaí Beag, which has long been devoted to promoting and preserving Irish heritage and music. Sessions attract a convivial mix of locals and visitors. For an easy walk home, book a room above the pub.
The Olde Glen Bar
The Olde Glen Bar, near The Downings, is my favorite. A portal into the past, with its hodgepodge of cozy rooms, low ceilings, weathered wood and ancient floors, this bar affirms authenticity and exudes a palpable sense of countless pints and whiskeys downed over the centuries. Opened in 1768, the bar retains its historic ethos but has evolved. Adjacent Clara’s Cots offers five nicely appointed guest rooms that include a fantastic breakfast.
At the back of the pub, an airy, contemporary restaurant welcomes diners to an exquisite, four-course meal and stellar wine list. It’s served up by the team of Chef Ciaran Sweeney, Food & Wine’s Best Chef Ulster 2022. This was hands down the best meal of my journey. Sorry, fish and chips.
County Donegal is a place where dramatic landscapes are backdrop for traditional culture and heritage, where bewilderingly unpronounceable road signs are the norm, peat is still cut to heat homes, and Irish music is at the beating heart of life. Perhaps most profoundly, Donegal is a place to disconnect from the relentless pace of modern life and tap into something more valuable: nature’s enduring legacy and Ireland’s deeply rooted traditions.
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