When the signs change into Gaelic, the landscape opens up into great sweeping views of rocky hills and barren shores, and a freezing mist blows off the sea, you know you’ve reached Donegal. The austere beauty of this county can be almost too bleak, but it is also unforgettable. On a clear day, you can stand at the edge of the sea at Malin Head, and, despite the sun, the sea spray will blow a chill right through you. It feels as if you’re standing at the edge of the world.
County Donegal’s natural wonders include the magnificent Slieve League cliffs and remote beaches tucked into the bays and inlets of its sharply indented coast. Few tourists make it this far, however. The towns of Donegal are perhaps the least developed for tourism in Ireland; the county has some truly fantastic places to stay, but they tend to be hidden away amid mountainous roads and tiny seaside towns. Buildings are made of cold stone and villages perch on the slopes of precipitous hillsides; road signs vary from cryptic to nonexistent. When you stop to take a wander, you can’t help but worry whether the car’s brakes will hold. But take the chance. You will spend half your time lost, but wherever you’re headed, you’ll get there eventually, most likely with a few adventures along the way. And the people in Donegal are as nice as can be—meeting them is worth the trip in itself.
222km (138 miles) NW of Dublin, 283km (176 miles) NE of Shannon Airport, 66km (41 miles) NE of Sligo, 69km (43 miles) SW of Derry, 180km (112 miles) W of Belfast, 205km (127 miles) NE of Galway, 403km (250 miles) N of Cork, 407km (253 miles) NE of Killarney
Overseen by a low, gloomy castle at the edge of the picturesque estuary of the River Eske on Donegal Bay, Donegal Town is a tiny burg, with just 2,500 residents. As recently as the 1940s, the town’s triangular central mall (called “the Diamond”), set at the meeting point of roads from Killybegs, Ballyshannon, and Ballybofey, was used as a market for trading livestock and goods. Today the marketing takes the form of tweeds and tourist goods, as the Diamond is surrounded by little crafts shops and small hotels of variable quality. In the center stands an obelisk erected in memory of four 17th-century Irish clerics from the local abbey who wrote The Annals of the Four Masters, the first recorded history of Gaelic Ireland.