The landscape outside my bus window was changing from urban to the countryside in spring. Rolling green fields edged with stone fences enclosed sheep and adorable spring lambs. Other pastures had dairy cows with new calves or horses and gangly colts. The green scenery was a welcome change from the cityscapes of Dublin. I knew I’d made the right choice to spend a week living like a local in a small Irish village.
Few visitors to Ireland go as far north as County Donegal, and even fewer make it to Donegal Town. Located on the Wild Atlantic Way, County Donegal has some of Ireland’s most rugged coastline and mountains. Home to man since prehistoric times, Donegal’s culture has deep roots.
Donegal Town, also called Donegal, is located on Donegal Bay at the mouth of River Eske. The fjord-like coastline is rugged, wild, and spectacular. Outdoor adventure draws folks from around the globe to hike, bike, and kayak. Donegal is a charming Irish village and market town. Built around the “Diamond” (a three-sided town center and plaza), shops, eateries, and pubs offer locally-made products, food, and libations. Donegal Castle dominates the village, divided by River Eske with its beautiful bridges.
Donegal has history, nature, outstanding food, and the friendliest people you are likely to meet. Enjoy these amazing experiences when you visit Donegal.
1. Get Your Hannah Hat
The very first thing to do in Donegal is to get a hat. Not just any hat, a Hanna hat. Hannah Hats is the last traditional Irish headwear workshop in Ireland. Made from wool and Donegal tweed, the styles have been worn in northwest Ireland’s cool, wet weather for hundreds of years. You’ll be glad you have one should a sudden shower or heavy mist arrive while you are out enjoying the countryside.
Visit the factory to see the quality work done by 21 locals, each with a unique skill for designing, cutting, sewing, or pressing each style. If you are lucky, Eleanor Hanna will lead your tour. She’s the general manager and the third generation Hannah to sit at the helm. Eleanor is proud of her company, the hats, and her community. She has some great tips on where to go. Located on Tirconaill Street in Donegal Town.
2. Find Some Donegal Tweed
Donegal tweed is a woven fabric made in County Donegal, Ireland. While you will find Donegal tweeds woven in the herringbone and check patterns, Donegal’s most popular tweed is a plain weave of two different colored yarns with small multi-colored pieces woven in randomly. The sturdy but soft fabric is used for hats, jackets, suits, and vests.
Donegal is home to Magee of Donegal Town, established in 1866. The tweed fabric woven here is used worldwide to create quality garments that last a lifetime. Magee also makes tweed garments of all types. Factory tours are sometimes available. Check the website for dates and times. The mill is located at Newrow Milltown, Donegal Town.
Pro Tip: For great tweed bargains, check out the factory outlet in the Magee store on the Diamond, in Donegal Town, or at the online outlet.
3. Donegal Castle
Built by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1474, it was long considered the most prominent and strongest castle in Ireland. Occupied by other families after O’Donnell, the fortress was renovated and added to by each new owner. Allowed to fall into ruin for 2 centuries, most buildings were restored in the 1990s. Several halls and rooms are staged with period-appropriate furnishings, art, and tapestries. In addition, the history is retold with panels and exhibits. Donegal Castle is open daily. There is a small admission fee for a self-guided tour and the castle is easy to find — it’s a massive building on the river.
4. Walk Along The River Eske
The Bank Walk is a paved trail along the River Eske entering Donegal Bay. The nature trail skirts the river, waterways, and wetlands. If you are a birder, this will be your happy place. The woodlands through which the Bank Walk passes are home to birds of many species, both migratory and permanent residents. Native trees (most are labeled), wildflowers, ferns, and mosses thrive in the damp of the river.
Keep an eye out for fairy houses. Their small bright-colored doors can be seen on tree trunks high and low. Take a close look at the photo above; you’ll see a fairy house door in one of the trees.
The trail is open year-round from sunup to sundown and admission is free. The flat-paved trail is friendly to all feet and wheels. You’ll find daydreaming benches along the way and places to have a picnic.
5. Explore A 15th-Century Abbey
Donegal Abbey (also called the Donegal Friary) is a Franciscan Friary in ruins at the mouth of River Eske in Donegal Town founded in 1474 by the O’Donnell family. In 1601, when the military used the abbey, gunpowder exploded, and the buildings were mostly destroyed. It has not been rebuilt but has remained a cemetery for local families. It’s especially popular with those doing genealogy searches.
The abbey and cemetery are located past the Discover Ireland Visitor Center parking lot. There is a path leading through a gate that meanders through the ruins and gravestones. This area is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.
6. All Aboard
When you visit the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, you’ll learn how essential trains were to developing business and trade in Ireland. The museum is located in the old Donegal train station. Inside are relics from a bygone era of train travel. There is a model train running along tracks near the ceiling. Be sure to sit and enjoy a movie in stations along the Donegal line. There is also a collection of train art that fills the walls in every room.
Outside are restored steam and coal trains to explore. Enjoy a picnic in the “train yard” or try a beverage from the little coffee stand on the property. The center is open every day. Check the website for seasonal hours.
7. Find A Local Pub
No matter where you visit in Ireland, you’ll find pubs — those warm and welcoming places where friends, family, and visitors gather. So even if you only stay for a day, you need to find a local pub. In Donegal, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Around the Diamond and up and down side streets, pubs are everywhere. No matter which one you choose, you can’t go wrong. Step in, say hello, order at the bar, then find a seat. Pubs are where you meet locals and find out where they suggest you eat, shop, or sightsee. I enjoyed two local pubs during my time in Donegal.
The Forge is one of the oldest pubs in town. The tiny room where you first enter was a shop. The second small room was the pub, then a forge beyond that. Today, the shop and forge are gone, and the entire building is a pub. The coal fire is ideal for chasing the chill on a damp Donegal night. Unfortunately, the Forge does not serve food.
The Reel Inn is Donegal’s most famous pub, having been named one of Ireland’s best pubs for traditional music several times. Traditional Irish music is offered seven nights a week. There’s indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the river and the front bar has a lovely coal fire. When the music starts around 9 p.m., it can get pretty crowded; however, I enjoyed stopping in for an Irish coffee in the afternoon.
8. Foodie Town
Hands down, Donegal had the best food I ate in Ireland. This agricultural area produces meat, fruit, and vegetables. Additionally, fresh and saltwater fish are plentiful. Donegal Town has many restaurants. Some of our favorite restaurants are listed below.
Olde Castle Bar and Seafood Restaurant
Serving food and drink since the 1700s, hospitality is in the stones of this beautiful old building. Seafood here is exceptional. But don’t miss the Irish Beef, it’s unforgettable. My favorite dish was venison pie. The puff pastry top was golden flaky and made a big mess — it was perfect. There is also a full bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails. Located along Castle Street on the Diamond, Olde Castle Bar is open 7 days a week, serving lunch and dinner.
Blueberry Tea Rooms And Restaurant
This tea room and restaurant will steal your heart the minute you walk in and see the pastries case at the front counter. Scones, cakes, and pastries are the specialty of the small cafe. But everything on the menu is house-made and some of the best food in the county. I had the best cheeseburger of my life here. My companion dreamed about the vegetable soup and house-roasted turkey sandwich for days. Blueberry serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s also located at Castle Street on the Diamond.
Pro Tip: Get there before the lunch or dinner rush. There is often a line out the door. Inside and outside seating are available Monday through Saturday.
9. Live Like A Local
We shopped daily for local food to cook at our vacation rental. There are several markets, including a large supermarket. Our favorite was a green grocer just outside the Aldi parking lot and the fish monger across the way from the veggie guy. The veggie stand is open daily, but the fish stand only opens on Friday.
The large Aldi market has a wide selection of food, alcohol, and household necessities. Be sure to have a one Euro coin with you if you want to use a shopping cart. It will be returned when you return the cart.
10. Stay In A Castle
Have you always dreamed of staying in a castle? Donegal’s Lough Eske Castle is just the place to make your dream come true. This country estate was built in its current form in 1861. Remarkable amenities include a spa, swimming pool, gardens, lake fishing, complimentary cycles, restaurants, tea room, lounge and bar, wedding and meeting rooms, a history tour, and even a helipad.
Art and sculptures are everywhere inside and out, both modern and traditional. My favorite was the extensive photo gallery in Father Browne Bar. It’s the life work of Irish priest Father Browne.
The castle is an escape pod where you can indulge yourself in old-world service and surroundings. In addition, special packages are available focusing on different interests, such as gourmet, spa, romance, or lake fishing packages.
Getting To Donegal
Donegal Town is in northwest Ireland with the closest airport in Belfast. You can drive from the airport, or do as I did and take an Eireann Bus from Dublin International Airport. It takes about 2 hours and costs less than $20. Once there, a car isn’t necessary; Donegal Town is a tiny and walkable village. It’s served by several major bus routes.
For more information while in Donegal, go to the Donegal Visitor Center on Quay Street by the River Eske.