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Best Things to Do in Donegal Town, Ireland: The Ultimate Travel Guide

Here are the best things to do in Donegal Town, Ireland. There are so many wonderful sights and natural attractions in County Donegal, and Donegal Town is the perfect home base for your adventures. It’s such a charming town to explore on the west coast of Ireland.

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After spending the night at the nearby Lough Eske Castle, just outside of Donegal Town, we got up bright and early to explore. Donegal Town was my first stop of the day, and I highly recommend visiting in the early morning. I wandered around, even before sipping my first cup of coffee. Perhaps my favourite part of this visit was watching a sleepy town awaken from its slumbers.

Things to do in Donegal Town

Getting There

When we traveled to Ireland, we rented a car to have the freedom to explore at our own pace. I highly suggest renting a car in Ireland, even if you’re not familiar with driving on the left. Donegal Town and Donegal County was a fantastic stop on my three week road trip of Ireland (and the Wild Atlantic Way!). We picked our rental car up at the Dublin airport, though you can pick up a rental car from many places around the country.

When you’re looking for a rental car, I recommend comparing the prices online to find the best rate. I use Discover Cars to book my car rentals. You can compare the rates between the various companies and choose the one that’s best suited to me. This is how to find the best deal online!

If you don’t have a rental car and you’re interested in exploring the region, check out this Highlights of Donegal day tour. There are pickup points in Donegal and Derry, and you’ll be able to see all of the best things to do in Donegal in a day.

Where to Stay in Donegal: Lough Eske Castle

Lough Eske Castle

Have you ever spent the night in a castle? When you travel to Ireland, this is something you need to do at least once. Lough Eske Castle is an amazing place to stay that’s an attraction in itself. You need to add Solis Lough Eske Castle hotel to your Donegal itinerary.

Sculpture at Lough Eske Castle

It’s located about five minutes from Donegal Town, and it’s a great place to stay when you’re taking a road trip around County Donegal. When you stay at this property, you can enjoy the on-site spa and pool, its restaurant, and the stunning lake itself.

Lough Eske
Lough Eske

Go for a wander on the trails surrounding the lake and admire the scenery from several vantage points. I highly recommend spending the night here, as it will be one of the most memorable places you stay in Ireland.

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A Brief History of Donegal Town

Things to do in Donegal Town Ireland

Donegal Town lies at the mouth of the River Eske where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the main towns in County Donegal, a northern Irish county to the west of Northern Ireland. The town was an important trading location since the arrival of the Gauls around the 9th century.

Donegal Town and the River Eske

Donegal Castle and Donegal Abbey were built in 1474 by the O’Donnell Clan. This was the most powerful and wealthy clan from 1200-1607 AD. In total, they owned 42 castles and nine monasteries. Throughout the 17th century, they played an important role to oppose the colonization of Ireland by England.

In 1601, the Siege of Donegal took place during the Nine Years’ War. Following the Flight of the Earls in September 1607, Donegal Castle and its lands were seized by the English and given to Captain Basil Brooke, an Englishman. Brooke carried out major renovations to the castle. He also designed the layout of the town itself, including the town square known as “The Diamond”.

County Donegal is home to lots of ancient sites, stone forts, and beautiful lighthouses. Donegal Town can be your starting point to exploring this northernmost section of Ireland.

Things to Do in Donegal Town: Donegal Abbey Ruins

Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary

We parked our car along the River Eske and walked across the street to the ruins of the Franciscan Friary. There is a big parking lot there, which might be preferable to leaving your car in town.

Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary

Known as the Donegal Friary or Donegal Abbey, it was founded in 1474 by the O’Donnell Dynasty. In 1601, it was badly damaged during the Nine Years War, and only fragments of the church and the cloister arcade remain today.

Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary

The Friary followed the usual Franciscan layout of the church on the south side. The cloisters and other buildings were constructed on the north side. This site was once richly endowed by the wives of successive O’Donnell chieftains, Lady Nuala O’Connor and the Lady Nuala O’Brien.

Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary
Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary
Abbey Ruins - Donegal Abbey - Donegal Friary

I meandered around the ruins and graveyard with no other visitors in sight. The surroundings was so picturesque, and the setting was so peaceful. Time quickly passed as I was enamored with this former abbey. This is one of the most unique things to do in Donegal Town.

Go For a Walk Around Donegal Town

The Diamond - main square

From the Abbey, walk along the River Eske towards the main downtown area. Walking along the River Eske, you might be able to spot wildlife. Donegal Bay is home to a seal colony, and both cormorants and cranes live there, too. I was able to spot some birds when I visited, and the river looked especially beautiful with the fall colours.

The middle of town is quite cute, with colourful and old stone buildings lining the streets. The center of all the action is The Diamond, the main square. I stopped for a coffee in town and explored the main town square and surrounding streets. Some recommended coffee shops in Donegal: Coffee on Sene, The Mustard Seed, The Blueberry Cafe, or even the Spar if you’re in a pinch.

The Olde Castle Bar

If you’re here a little later in the day, pop by some of the shops, restaurants, and pubs. The Olde Castle Bar is a favourite pub that’s frequented by locals and tourists alike. You can hear traditional music at many of the pubs in town. Also, there are many independent shops with cute souvenirs and gifts.

It doesn’t take long to walk all over town as Donegal isn’t that big of a place. Going for a walk was one of my favourite things to do in Donegal Town, as it’s something I really enjoy doing in mostly every new city I visit.

Things to Do in Donegal Town: Visit Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle is one of the main tourist attractions in Donegal Town, and it’s right in the middle of town. For the 5 Euros admission fee (reduced costs for seniors, children, and families), you can take a self-guided tour of this partially restored castle.

Red Hugh O’Donnell built Donegal Castle as his own personal fortress. After the Battle of Kinsale, he departed for Spain to seek assistance. As he vowed to never let Donegal Castle fall into English hands, he set the castle on fire.

Donegal Castle

When the English seized the castle and handed it over to Sir Basil Brooke, Brooke made a number of improvements and renovations to the property. As the castle’s new lord, he commissioned the impressive chimney piece, and he also constructed a new tower house.

The castle underwent renovations in the 1990s after falling into disrepair over the years. After thoughtful renovations, you can walk around the castle and learn more about the property from information plaques. When you visit Donegal Castle, you can tour the interior of the castle, as well as the castle grounds.

Donegal Bay Waterbus

Things to do in Donegal - River Eske

Get out on the water with a tour from Donegal Bay Waterbus. There are daily tours aboard this luxury passenger boat. Enjoy live commentary on this sightseeing cruise of Donegal Town and Donegal Bay. The cruise lasts one hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes).

Things to do in Donegal Town - River Eske

This is one of the best ways to see the seal colony in Donegal. While seal sightings are not guaranteed, the Donegal Bay Waterbus passes by the seals on every tour. In addition to the seals, you’ll see the following Donegal points of interest: the burial place of Red Hugh O’Donnell, Ballyboyle Island, the booking office of the White Star Line (of Titanic fame), Rooneys Island, and much more.

Day Trips from Donegal Town

Things to do in Donegal town Ireland

Looking for more things to do in Donegal Town and the surrounding area? There are lots of things to do in Donegal beyond Donegal Town. Venture into County Donegal and beyond for some memorable day trips, while making Donegal your home base.

Malin Head

Malin Head

One of my favourite places in County Donegal is Ireland’s northernmost point, Malin Head. Malin Head is one of the most beautiful places, located on the Inishowen Peninsula. There’s a spectacular hiking trail along the coast with breathtaking views of the ocean. I visited Malin Head the day before my early morning in Donegal Town, after departing Derry in Northern Ireland.

Slieve League

Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) is home to the highest sea cliffs in Europe with some of the best views. It was a Christian pilgrimage site for over 1000 years and considered to be a holy mountain. There’s a viewing platform where you can enjoy remarkable views, or you can take a boat cruise to marvel at the cliffs. The Slieve League cliffs are not to be missed.

Glenveagh National Park

Glenveagh National Park is a wonderful place to go for a hike to be among nature and wildlife. It’s a massive park with beautiful scenery of mountains, lakes, and valleys. You can walk here or go for a bike ride, too. Don’t miss checking out Glenveagh Castle while you’re there.

Bog Safari in County Donegal

Irish bog

Have you ever taken a bog safari? This is an authentic guided hiking experience through the Irish bog or peatland. On the way, you’ll learn about this historic landscape, the bog formed, and all about traditional turf cutting. You’ll witness dramatic views, explore an ancient monastic site, and learn how the Irish bog helps combat climate change.

Visiting Sligo, Ireland

Sligo

While we didn’t make a day trip to Sligo, we ventured on to Sligo after visiting Donegal Town. Sligo is nestled between Donegal Town and Galway, and there are lots of things to do in Sligo. It’s easy to combine a day trip to Sligo with a visit to the Enniscrone Seaweed Baths and the Ceide Fields prehistoric site.

There are many more things to do in County Donegal and beyond. There’s the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, Fanad Head Lighthouse, and the Glencolmcille Folk Village. Even the Cliffs of Moher are a 3 and a half hour drive from Donegal, though I recommend slowly making your way down to this famous attraction, stopping many times along the way.

More Travel Guides for Ireland

If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, you don’t want to miss these insightful travel guides that will help you plan your trip. If you’re not able to visit Ireland right now, you might want to watch these amazing Irish movies.

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beverly samuelson

Thursday 20th of February 2020

Was there in August 2019, stayed at Lough Eske Castle, absolutely beautiful! Shopped in town and went to the wool shop and watched how wool is weaved upstairs, purchased beautiful sweaters. Looking forward to going back.

Lauren

Friday 21st of February 2020

That's great, Beverly! I am happy you had such a wonderful stay at Lough Eske Castle. It's so beautiful, I loved it, too!

Travel Lexx

Tuesday 13th of February 2018

Such a cute town! I have never been to Ireland but posts like yours are making me wonder why! Would love to explore Donegal and wander its pretty streets and explore its history. Fantastic photos!

Esther

Sunday 11th of February 2018

OMG, this looks stunning!! I just love Ireland, but haven't made it to Donegal (YET!). Your pics are stunning. #WeekendWanderlust

Agness of Fit Travelling

Friday 9th of February 2018

Donegal Town seems so exceptional and a perfect travel destination, Lauren! I fell in love with this place thanks to your post and pictures!

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