The Northern Headlands’ expansive terrain makes up the most north-westerly region of the Wild Atlantic Way, and covers nearly all of County Donegal. Haunting in its beauty, the area is home to some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, a host of hidden beaches, coves and inlets, and of course, the country’s most northerly point; Malin Head. It’s a remote and magical place, with a rich and compelling cultural and mythological history. It’s no wonder Donegal was named the ‘Coolest Place on the Planet for 2017’ by National Geographic Traveller.
You’ll pack plenty of excitement into two days, thanks to this handy itinerary. Our diverse tour will allow you to embrace the thrilling Wild Atlantic Way of life; you’ll explore the region’s dramatic, windswept headlands, visit an ancient site, and even take a trip on the high sea. You’ll also meet some of the county’s most esteemed craftspeople, who’ll be happy to show you how the unique Donegal landscape inspires their art.
Stage 1: Buncrana to Grianán of Áileach, Burt
(18.5km via R238)
Beginning in the idyllic seaside town of Buncrana, a mere 25-minute drive to Burt will take you to the first stop on this tour, the stone fort of Grianán an Áileach. This ancient, elemental site sits 250m above sea level on the jutting Inishowen Peninsula, and has been a silent witness to Ireland’s colourful history throughout the ages. Here, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the glistening waters of Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and indeed, the entire headland.
Stage 2: Grianán of Áileach to Greencastle
(40km via R238)
From there, make the 40-minute journey to Moville Pottery, a studio founded in 1976 by renowned designer and hand thrower Lowry Wasson. Browse the items on show there, and if you’re feeling creative, select a piece to decorate yourself. You can then walk to the nearby No Salt Chef, aka Brian McDermott’s unique cookery school. You’ll watch Brian prep a clean, natural meal, which of course you’ll tuck into afterwards! It’s just a seven-minute drive to the next stop in Greencastle, the Inishowen Maritime Centre and Planetarium, where a whole host of fascinating educational exhibitions and shows take place each day (allow 45 minutes).
Stage 3: Greencastle to Buncrana via Carndonagh
(96.1km via R238)
When you’ve learned all about the area’s rich maritime history, continue on to remote Malin Head (42 minutes away) at the very northern tip of the country. You’ll really embrace the Wild Atlantic Way (and blow away those cobwebs!) with a scenic walk around ‘Banba’s Crown’; locally named after a mythical Irish goddess. On this 30-minute circuit, you’ll pass the old Radio Station, built in 1910, as well as the Tower, a derelict signal station. Drive on to Ballyliffin next (28 minutes) for tea and scones at Nancy’s Barn, a charming old-style converted cottage in the heart of the village. Finally, it’s back to Buncrana (20 minutes) for a visit to Fort Dunree. This cultural gem houses a military museum, wildlife discovery room, and waterfront coffee shop. Enjoy dinner and captivating strand views at the Beach House Bar & Restaurant in Buncrana, before settling down for the night in one of the town’s many B&Bs and hotels.
Stage 1: Buncrana to Rathmullan
(62km via N13)
Heading from Buncrana next morning, make your way to the seaside village of Rathmullan. There, enjoy a brisk walk along its two miles of golden beach, before pausing for some local refreshments as you soak up the town’s relaxed atmosphere. Rathmullan is an important historical location, as it was the scene of the Flight of the Earls (an exile to Europe by two Gaelic lords and their followers) in 1607 – you can see this landmark moment in Irish history depicted by unique sculptures at the town’s shoreline.
Fanad Head Lighthouse
Stage 2: Rathmullan to Fanad Head
(29km via R268)
When you’ve eaten your fill, set your course for Fanad Head, approximately 40 minutes away. Don’t forget to stop at Ballymastocker Strand viewpoint though, which offers spectacular views of the second most beautiful beach in the world as voted by Observer magazine - and amazing views of the whole bay. Then, it’s on to Fanad Head, home of one of the Wild Atlantic Way’s most iconic lighthouses. Take a 45-minute guided tour to learn about the area’s seafaring heritage, and experience what life was like for the keepers who once lived alone there. Gazing out across the wild north Atlantic, you’ll see Tory Island, a magical place that’s home to legend, folklore and myth.
Stage 3: Fanad Head to Rosguill to Dunfanaghy
(54.1km via R248)
From Fanad, hop back in the car to make your way across the impressive Harry Blaney Bridge to Rosguill, 33 minutes away. Discover the pretty, secluded beach at Trá na Rossan, and be sure to pop into The Singing Pub (An Sibín Ceoil) afterwards. This beautiful old stone building with traditional thatched roof is renowned for its food, hospitality and craic! Next – drive, cycle or walk the scenic 15km looped Atlantic Drive, before making your way to Glenveagh National Park & Castle in Church Hill, Letterkenny. This 19th century castellated mansion was visited by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable during Hollywood's golden age. Outside on its extensive grounds, you’ll find an array of exotic plants, as well as a charming walled garden. Finally, settle down for a delicious dinner at one of the local hotels or eateries in picturesque Dunfanaghy, located just over a half hour’s drive from Glenveagh.
Glenveagh National Park, via Glenveagh Facebook
- If you’re in luck, you’ll get to watch in awe as the Northern Lights illuminate the Donegal landscape; a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience!
- Learn about the Great Famine at Doagh Famine Village (open up until the of October)
- Take a stroll along the stunning two-mile stretch of Pollan Bay
- Enjoy an idyllic guided cycle around Inch Wildfowl Reserve with Cycle Inishowen
- Take a ferry out to Tory Island, where you might be lucky enough to meet the King!
Northern Headlands Signature Points
The rugged Malin Head is your gateway to a world of wonder, with everything from ancient shipwrecks, old radio and signal stations, treasure hunting, refreshing cliff walks and some of the Europe’s largest sand dunes to take in at your leisure.
Nestled between Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay, Fanad Head hosts one of the world’s most striking lighthouses and offers up some seriously sensational panoramic views.
These colossal cliffs – just the 601 metres tall! – provide terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal Bay and the Sligo Mountains to name but three. The site of a Christian pilgrimage for over 1000 years, Sliabh Liag is indeed a most sacred place.
That’s still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the wild Northern Headlands. This 1-day tour takes in the towering Sliabh Liag cliffs, while this driving itinerary visits the charming town of Letterkenny. Moving south into the Surf Coast, more adventure awaits! Check out these handy one-day and two-day itineraries for this rugged, wave-crashed region.