The most beautiful place in Ireland: South West Donegal

In a country of jaw dropping landscapes and stunning locations, its quite a declaration to push this particular place to the top of that list. Wild, bleak, windswept, remote… not exactly words to entice, but put them all together and pray for a bit of sunshine – and you cannot beat it. There’s good news and the bad news – more and more visitors are discovering this region so the secret is out. Good for the local economy, bad for everyone who wants to keep the place away from the main tourist trail. Once identified as part of the Wild Atlantic Way, it was always going to be just a matter of time before the visitors arrived.

County Donegal is tucked right up in the corner in the north west. From this map, you can see that it is bordered by 3 Northern Ireland counties ( Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh) and also Leitrim to the south.

We’ll be exploring the area from Donegal town out along by Donegal Bay to Malin Mór and beyond – with lots of side roads and dead ends to enjoy en route. We’ll hug the coast for as long as we can, but sometimes the road brings us inland for a while through stunning bogscapes before hitting the ocean again.

Trivia Moment

Donegal comes from Dún na nGallFort of the Foreigners – referring to the Vikings who arrived here in the 8th century.

Donegal Town

Tucked into the corner of the bay, the town serves as a good base for the area (but it isn’t the only option). Its not a big place but there’s enough here to pass a few hours or a half day with its abbey, castle, craft village, bay cruises and river walks. (I’ll visit Donegal Town in a separate post).

 

Killybegs

We all know Killybegs from our geography books, it being the main fishing port in the country. Although the trade is not what it one was, fish processing is still hugely important here. Killybegs comes from Na Cealla Beaga – meaning ‘little cells‘ – referring to early monastic settlements. You won’t linger here for long but its nice to walk around the harbour.

Timing is everything! It was our mission to arrive in Killybegs from Dublin by lunchtime so we could try out Seafood Shack which has been gleaning such attention recently. Perfect timing – though I say so myself! Second in the queue at 12.28pm…. 2 minutes before opening and just in time to watch staff arrive with the freshly prepared fish. We ordered the seafood selection box and headed down the pier for 10 minutes. By the time we returned to collect our lunch, the staff were flat out cooking and serving a queue that materialised from nowhere!. The low harbour wall made for a perfect table. Verdict – lovely fresh fish perfectly prepared and cooked (but not mad about the chips).

Leaving town, we’re heading into a Gaeltacht area. Irish was once the main language here but you won’t hear much of it spoken nowadays. However, you will notice road signs and shop signs, etc. in Irish….

Fintra Beach

Donegal has the longest coastline in the country so be prepared for lovely unspoiled strands along the way. Beaches such as Fintra are rarely crowded and offer fabulous views as well as great sand dunes to explore….

I’m not going to describe every bend in the road – just enjoy the ride…..

Roads get a bit narrow in places…

The land around here is unforgiving – People in the past largely depended on fishing for their livelihoods….

Celeb Trivia – Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick have a house along here…

Muckross Head

Just look at this place – on a clear day, you can see Ben Bulben in County Sligo…. The headland has great overhangs which make it a very popular spot for rock climbing.

On we go towards the village of Kilcar….

Kilcar playing field must be one of the most scenic in the country!!!

Teelin Bay

That’s Slieve League over there …. we’re heading to the back of it…..

The Glen River flows into the sea at Teelin. This particular spot is called the Salmon Leap … for obvious reasons! An entrepreneur is tempting the Slieve League traffic with coffee – and doing great business!

On the hill above the pier are the remains of the old Coastguard Station, attacked by the IRA in 1920 and subsequently burned.

Slieve League

Prepare yourself for one of Ireland’s gems…

The cliffs here are among the highest in Europe and about 3 times the height of the Cliffs of Moher (and free!!) You can drive up for a quick photo opportunity but you should allow enough time to drop in at the visitor’s centre and enjoy a leisurely cliff walk ….

Its possible to drive up but its actually worth walking from the carpark if you can. It’ll take about 30 minutes and you’ll enjoy all the more the unfolding scenery around you….

This is one of fourteen giant stone markers laid out along the Donegal coast during WW11. They served as navigation signs for American pilots but also the word ÉIRE (Ireland) was a warning to bomber pilots that they were flying over a neutral country!

First sighting of cliffs

There were 80 of these Signal Towers built around the coast in 1805 to protect us against a Napoleonic invasion.

The cliffs are amazing from the sea…….

….and from the top……

There are paths across the mountain – if you are brave enough to face the One Man’s Pass!

As we leave Teelin Bay and continue west, the landscape becomes boggy but truly stunning in its bleakness….

Not much grows here but there are a few patches of forestry….

Apparently one sixth of Ireland is covered by bog! Turf – dried peat – is still extensively used for domestic fuel.

Uncut bogs are quickly taken over by heather….

Nowadays, most turf is cut by machine….. but still requires good weather. Stacks of turf along the roadside are awaiting transport by tractor to sheds and byres for winter.

There are many isolated residences but few enough have thatched roofs now – its a dying skill…..

Malin Mór

You wouldn’t expect to find a megalithic tomb here but there are several scattered in the area. This is a Court Tomb which is found in the northern half of the country. A Court Tomb was constructed for a ritual or social event. The court refers to a courtyard or open area, probably surrounded by a drystone wall. The tomb – an artificial cave – is divided into chambers with a stone roof.

Malin Beg

We’re really in the wilds now. That lighthouse out on Rathlin O Birne island marks the most westerly point in Donegal. There’s a beautiful little beach here – Silver Strand – tucked in a perfect horseshoe bay.

Across the fields stands a Signal Tower like the one on Slieve League. They were mostly built on high ground with a clear view of the sea and in view of neighbouring towers.

Glen Head appearing in the mist – with another signal tower…..

Glencolmcille

This remote village was called after Saint Colmcille (521AD – 597AD) (who is actually one of our 3 patron saints along with Patrick and Brigid). It is believed he spent a few years in this area.

The village is famous for the Turus (journey) – a 3 mile long pilgrimage visiting 15 stations (stops along the way for prayer and devotion). The stops are an interesting mix of megalithic tombs, natural features, standing stones and crosses. While you can do the Turas at any time, the ‘official’ Turas takes place on June 9th – St Colmcille’s feast day – many still do it barefooted.

Glen Folk Village offers visitors a glimpse into the everyday life of the Irish in times past.

An Chistin (The Kitchen) is a popular spot for lunch….

Port

Now we’re really headed towards the back end of nowhere. About 15km from Glencolmcille lies the empty hamlet of Port. Known as the ‘Ghost Village’ or the ‘Deserted Village’ it is thought that all its inhabitants left during The Famine (1845 – 1852). While many people left Donegal at the time, its unusual for a whole community to be without survivors.

This is way off the main road – one road in and out …..

That looks like our destination…..

What a wonderful approach….

Can you believe this place!

There’s the village up above the beach. The houses were made from local stone…..

There’s a pathway on the hill facing the village…….

You can hike from here, back over the mountain to Glencolmkille. It’ll take a couple of hours but must be stunning…..

Glengesh

Once back on the main road, you will drive through the fabulous glaciated valley of Glengesh. The winding pass through steep mountains offers great scenery. There are a few hairpin bends at one point but never much traffic so easy enough to negotiate….

Small Stuff

Getting There:

Donegal Town is about a 3 hour drive from Dublin and 2 hours from Belfast. The town is served by bus routes from Dublin. Belfast and Derry.

Getting Around:

The region is best enjoyed by car. Distances aren’t huge – Donegal Town to Malin Beg is about 60km directly (but you will detour to Slieve League etc).

Length of Stay?

You could see it all in a full day (2 nights) but you need time at Slieve League and Glencolmcille.

Where to Stay:

There are plenty of hotel options in Donegal Town and Killybegs. Beyond that, you can choose Bed and Breakfast accommodation or Airbnb in the smaller towns and villages.

Before you go….

Our recent trip to Donegal was not blessed with sunshine! But I want to leave you with a few photos from previous trips to the area – just to prove that this place can be paradise!

25 thoughts on “The most beautiful place in Ireland: South West Donegal

  1. I remember visiting all these places, not easy to have good weather, to the point that the blue sky seems incongruous. The further north you go in Donegal, the easier it becomes to understand why the Irish emigrated and didn’t come back, these are lands of misery. The Inishowen Peninsula is probably the most ungrateful land.
    Though the photographer finds these ruins and desolation oddly attractive to capture.

    1. Both my parents actually came from this region so there’s a lot of emigration on both sides of my family…. We actually got to Inishowen on this last trip – first time in years…. ungrateful is a good word!!!

    1. Its a fabulous coastline isn’t it. Being Irish we’re used to sheep but these must have been the most stupid we ever encountered…they’re either deaf and blind or else have a collective death wish… we had to stop several times and patiently wait for them to clear the road – on their terms!

  2. I love every single place listed on your post, especially Killybegs and the Slieve League cliffs. Over the years, we’ve made countless return trips to the southwest Donegal and always found something new and exciting to see and do. Glencolmcille has to be the most fascinating places to explore. I would love to go back again and visit the Folk Village Museum. Thanks for sharing such beautiful photos from Donegal and have a good weekend. The sun is shining in Sligo and there’s no a cloud in sight. Hugs and kisses 🤗 Aiva

    1. I know you’ve written about the area…. did you always have the camper van? …… some pretty narrow roads in places. You could easily spend a few days in Glenclomcille alone. Next time I’m going to do the full Turas – not on my knees of course!!!
      Nice here in Dublin although a gloom hanging over us tonight with the new restrictions. I’m so glad we got to Kerry and Donegal when we did ….
      Enjoy that sunshine – I hope school is working out well!

      1. Glenclomcille region and southwest Donegal is one of the places we’ve visited the most. Once you pass Slieve League cliffs, you’ll see more sheep than people and that’s what I love about it. We bought a campervan two and a half years ago. We moved from Dublin to Sligo and knowing how much we love exploring Ireland it made sense.

        I was just catching up with the new about the new restrictions in Dublin. We are advised not to travel to Dublin too. Just when I thought I could go and finally visit my sister who lives in Dublin suburbs.

        School is working out very well. It’s Ericeiras second year at preschool with the same teachers who actually live in our neighbourhood. Who knows what’s gonna happen when the flue seasons arrives! Have a good weekend, Marie! xxx

  3. I’m not going to argue with this! There is much beauty in desolation such as this and knowing its history lends it something else as well. Lovely post. Ever thought of getting a job with the tourist board?!

  4. Wunderbar!!! Though it’s great to see that not all Donegal’s secrets are out……you drove by the now not-so-secret waterfall and drove down the road where another huge Donegal fan, one Sarah Jessica Parker, has a holiday home. And Port in it’s day hosted the American artist Rockwell Kent and the Welsh poet laureate Dylan Thomas. Some of the very best of their respective collections were from their sojourns in Port. Truly! I’m glad you enjoyed my Donegal. Perhaps I will now post a photo of our secret waterfall on my Twitter account @lovlyoldfintown.

    1. Is that the one near Ardara – I don’t know that area. I did mention SJP – my dad was a Muckross man so she almost overlooks his homeplace. I saw a mention of Dylan Thomas all right – maybe in Malin Beg – and meant to include it when I got to the bit about Port. That was my first time in Port. Loved it. XXXMarie

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