Ten Things to See in the Northwest of Ireland

The scenery in the northwest of Ireland is wild, rugged and unlike anything in the rest of the country. Explore the dramatic headlands of Donegal, which stretch into the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, hike through Glenveagh National Park to spot eagles or red deer, or spend time in County Sligo, with its iconic mountain backdrops, lakes and waterfalls. This part of Ireland’s northwest inspired the poet William Butler Yeats, who spent much of his childhood in the area.

Take a leisurely day trip (or a couple of days) to drive around Inishowen, the largest of Donegal’s peninsulas and enjoy the rugged scenery, with remote beaches, stone forts, castle ruins and a military museum at Dunree Head to explore. The total drive is 157km (98 miles) and you’ll find plenty of villages, cafes and pubs to stop at for food and refreshments along the way.

You’ll have the most dramatic views on your way to Malin Head at the tip—be sure to stop at the Gap of Mamore, 820 feet above sea level, for panoramic vistas of Lough Swilly and the Fanad Peninsula. Along the way you’ll also see lots of long, golden beaches and coves, sheep-filled fields, traditional cottages, and villages to stop by for lunch or refreshments. Inishowen is also home to some of Ireland’s most fascinating Christian and Gaelic sites, such as Grianan of Aileach (Grianán Ailigh in Irish), a ring fort dating back to the 6th century C.E.
Sligo, Ireland
As a child, William Butler Yeats spent his summer holidays in County Sligo, and the lakes and hills inspired many of his most famous poems, such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Take a leisurely day and follow the Yeats Trail around the locations in the area that he loved, taking in Glencar Lough, the Isle of Innisfree, Rosses Point, Benbulben, Lissadell House, and finally the churchyard at Drumcliffe Parish Church, where Yeats is buried.
Formoyle, Glencar, Co. Leitrim, Ireland
Definitely worth a visit when in Sligo. An easy drive down the N16 - it is a beautiful drive. The waterfall is an easy walk from the parking lot. There is also a hike up the mountain, but I didn’t have time to check it out. If driving back to Sligo, try to go via 286 on the east side of Lough Gill, which is also pretty.
Church Hill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Glenveagh National Park is one of the highlights of the northwest of Ireland. A number of walking trails traverse the 62 square miles of rugged mountains, lakes, remote bogs, and woodlands, where wildlife such as red deer and golden eagles roam. The centrepiece is Glenveagh Castle (you can take a guided tour or just drop into the tea rooms) and its formal Italianate and rose gardens. There’s a shuttle bus from the car park to the castle but the walk is worth doing if the weather is suitable, to really experience the magnificent surroundings.
Slieve League, Shanbally, Co. Donegal, Ireland
You will need a head for heights to visit Slieve League; at 600 meters (2,000 feet), these are the fifth-tallest sea cliffs in Europe. What makes them so special is that they are also some of the most accessible ones. Nearly three times higher than the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, they offer gasp-worthy views of the swirling waters of the Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day you can see as far as County Sligo or the coast of County Mayo. Only experienced walkers should tackle One Man’s Pass, a narrow trail that reaches the highest point, but there is a network of easier trails for visitors of any ability to enjoy.
A drive through the magnificent Glengesh Pass will bring you to Glencolmcille (Geann Cholm Cille in Irish), a small village on one of the most westerly points of Donegal, which was hard hit by emigration in the 1950s. It feels like one of the most remote villages in Ireland. At the Folk Village Museum, you can wander around the cottages and get a taste of what life was like in the Ireland of the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.
Horn Head, Largatreany, Co. Donegal, Ireland
This short 13km drive is worth taking for the panoramic views of the northwest coast, stretching from the Rosguill Peninsula to the Bloody Foreland, and out to Tory Island to the north. There’s plenty of seabird life on the cliff ledges, with puffins, storm petrels, gulls and guillemots. When you get to the tip of Horn Head, walk to the viewpoint at Faugher, for views of the cliffs and the ruins of a signal tower from the 17th century.
Main St, Magheracar, Bundoran, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Drive down a country road in County Donegal toward the sea, and you’re likely to find miles of unspoiled golden beach – and if there are waves, the water might be filled with surfers. Pounded by the big swells of the Atlantic Ocean, the northwest of Ireland is one of the best surfing spots in Europe and surfers take to the waves year round, with the biggest swells during winter. The unofficial surf capital is Bundoran in south Donegal. Tullan Strand is a popular beginner spot – you can rent boards or take lessons from one of the town’s four surf schools – while the reef break at The Peak is for more advanced waveriders. The 3km beach at Rossnowlagh, 20km up the coast, is reliable for regular waves and home to one of the country’s first surf clubs. Further north in the county, there are more challenging surf spots at Dungloe, Dunfanaghy, Inishowen and Fanad Head. The Bridge Bar in Bundoran town is the ideal post-surfing recovery spot for bowls of creamy seafood chowder, pints of Guinness and a surf cam so you don’t miss any of the action on The Peak, or walk up the cliff road from Rossnowlagh beach to the Smuggler’s Inn for reviving post-surf refreshments.
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