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Northern Headlands Touring Route: 5 Day

The intrepid explorers among you will be both intrigued and enchanted by the Northern Headlands; the Wild Atlantic Way’s most remote region, which recently took first place in the National Geographic’s ‘Cool List for 2017’. Tracing from the very top of the country around the jagged, sea-sculpted coast of Donegal, this is an idyllic place full of haunting beauty, soaring hills and untouched terrain. During this five-day itinerary, you’ll immerse yourself in a host of exhilarating activities; travelling to the wild and windswept northern tip of Ireland, meeting talented craftspeople and visiting an iconic lighthouse. You’ll also experience the Wild Atlantic Way of life as you mingle with locals, both in villages on the mainland and in a close-knit island community where Irish culture and language thrives.  


Day 1


Stage 1: Buncrana to Malin Head (57.3km via Coast Road, R238 and R242)

Your Donegal adventure begins in the northern seaside town of Buncrana, from where you’ll head north, hugging the Inishowen Peninsula as you travel towards Malin Head (1hr 15mins). On the way, make sure you drive through the Mamore Gap, a winding narrow road that runs along the side of the Urris Hills – you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the vast and sprawling countryside. Fort Dunree Military Museum in Buncrana is your first port of call, from its scenic setting on the peninsula, this museum offers a glimpse into the region’s rich military history. Next up is Glenevin Waterfall near the historic village of Clonmany. At 40ft tall and set in pretty woodland, it’s one of the area’s most spectacular attractions. You’ll no doubt have worked up a hunger at this stage, so make a stop-off at Nancy’s Barn a warm and inviting converted cottage in Ballyliffin, for tea and scones. Afterwards, opt for a brisk walk along striking Pollan Bay – a two-mile stretch of sandy beach just outside Ballyliffin village – before hopping back in the car and continuing hopping back in the car and continuing to Doagh Famine Village to learn about Irish traditions such as food, cures and the 'Irish Wake'. From here travel along the coast road to Malin Head. You’re in for a treat when you arrive, as this secluded and elemental location really does feel like the edge of the world! The area around ‘Banba’s Crown’ (named after an ancient Irish queen) is a place of both great beauty and historical significance; you’ll pass the old radio station which dates back to 1910, and once exchanged wireless messages with the ill-fated Titanic before it sank in 1912.


Stage 2: Malin Head to Culdaff (17.8km via R242)

Nearby Caffé Banba provides an incredibly unique (not to mention absolutely gorgeous!) setting for lunch, so relax and soak in the raw beauty of Malin Head over some tasty food and coffee. When you’re finished, drive on into Carndonagh (27mins) where you’ll find artist Sharon McDaid’s gallery and studio, Silver Birch. Unsurprisingly, Sharon is inspired by the diverse, mystical landscape around her, and you’ll see echoes of Donegal in the gallery’s many pieces. History buffs will be delighted to learn that the area around Culdaff is home to some fascinating ancient sites. The megalithic standing stones at Bocan and sixth-century Church of Cloncha are a five and 10-minute drive from the town respectively, while the Carrowmore and Donagh high crosses are both just over 10 minutes away. Amazingly, the swirling Celtic design on the Donagh cross is still clear to this day, despite dating back to the seventh century. Finally, settle down for a hearty seafood or steak dinner at the Front Room restaurant at McGrory’s in Culdaff, before spending the night in a local hotel or B&B.


Day 2


Boat on beach at Greencastle County Donegal
Boat on beach at Greencastle


Stage 1: Culdaff to Greencastle to Inishowen (24.9km via R238 and R241)

Begin day two with a drive towards the small fishing village of Greencastle (37mins) making sure to take in the fantastic panoramic views of the village at Magilligan Point View en route. Kinnagoe Bay is also well worth a stop-off; this small, secluded stretch of beach is a real hidden gem. When you arrive in Greencastle, visit the Inishowen Maritime Museum & Planetarium, located on the banks of beautiful Lough Foyle, overlooking Greencastle Harbour. Take in a mesmerising show at their state-of-the-art Planetarium after enjoying a tour of the Maritime Centre.


Stage 2: Inishowen to Moville (2.8km via R241)

On the way to your next destination in Moville, be sure to stop off at the Wild Atlantic Way Discovery Point of Inishowen Head. It boasts open coastal views of Lough Foyle right back across to Magilligan Point, and you also have easy access to a sandy beach. Onwards to Moville, and Moville Pottery, a studio that’s been producing iconic pottery for nearly 40 years. Browse its pretty collection at your leisure; these delicate pieces make great gifts for friends and family. Pop into the nearby Cosy Cottage Café for lunch afterwards. 


Stage 3: Moville to Letterkenny (58.7km via R238, R239 and N13)

The next leg of the journey takes you from Moville to Letterkenny (53mins), but there are lots of recommended stops along the way. In fact, a gentle guided cycle is a great way to see all the glorious Inishowen peninsula has to offer. The team at Cycle Inishowen bring visitors for a spin around Inch Wildfowl Reserve, following the lagoon of Lough Swilly. Your guide will fill you in on local history while pointing out birds, wildlife, flora and fauna native to the area. Next up, make the drive to the magnificent stone fort of Grianán an Áileach, near Burt. Rising 250m above sea level, this impressive monument is thought to date back to the Iron Age and is associated with the ancient kings of Ireland. From its top, you’ll be afforded unbelievable views of neighbouring counties, glistening Lough Foyle and indeed, the entire peninsula. When you’ve finished exploring, drive into the market town of Letterkenny, where you’ll find a whole host of delicious dinner options. Spend the night locally, as you’ll be setting off from here to Fanad in the morning.


Day 3


Stage 1: Letterkenny to Fanad (54.4km via R245, R268 and R246)

The coastal drive from Letterkenny to iconic Fanad Head (1hr 13mins) is another beauty. If you’ve time, stop to stretch your legs in the Georgian town of Ramelton; its elegant, tree-lined riverbanks are perfect for a stroll. Another recommended stop-off is Ballymastocker Strand, one of the most picturesque beaches in the whole country. From its secluded viewpoint, you’ve got exceptional views of Donegal’s unique landscape, including Murren Hill and Fanad Peninsula. If you fancy takeing on the waves at Ballyhiernan Bay stop in at Adventure One where you can learn all there is to know about surfing. When you arrive at epic Fanad Head, take a guided tour of the famous Fanad lighthouse, that first shone its light on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), 1817. As you gaze out to sea towards Tory Island, you’ll learn what life was like for the lone keeper who once manned this impressive structure through all kinds of dramatic weather.

Grianán an Áileach fort in County Donegal
The ancient Grianán an Áileach fort


Stage 2: Fanad to Downings (22.9km via R248)       

Continue your journey to Downings (29mins) across the impressive Harry Blaney Bridge, which links the Fanad and Rosguill peninsulas, and offers incredible views of Mulroy Bay. Stop for lunch at Cáife na Sráide in Carrigart, before making your way to Trá na Rossan beach; a real Wild Atlantic Way hidden gem. The best way to appreciate Rosguill’s local splendour though is to drive, cycle or even walk the 15 kilometres looped Atlantic Drive. It winds along the peninsula’s minor roads, and passes the Rosguill Peninsula Discovery Point. Pause here to gaze out at the wild, hypnotic Atlantic as it crashes dramatically against Donegal’s spectacular coast. Finish your third day off with dinner at the Singing Pub in Downings, before staying locally.

Day 4


Stage 1: Downings to Ards Forest Park (27.5 km via R245)

Your fourth day exploring this awe-inspiring region kicks off at Ards Forest Park (30mins from Downings). Again, the route there from Downings is simply spellbinding, so be sure to stop off at the Doe Castle to soak up it’s historic past. When you arrive at Ard Forest, pick a trail to follow (there are plenty of options) through what’s arguably the most diverse forest park in Ireland. You’ll easily spend hours traversing its 480 hectares of beach, rivers, viewing points, nature walks, picnic and play areas. If you’d rather a more exhilarating adventure, why not try your hand at surfing on the Blue Flag beach, Marble Hill Strand? Narosa Life Surf School caters to all levels of ability and experience, and will show you the basics on dry land before you head out into the sea. Just be sure to book your lesson in advance.

Stage 2: Ards Forest Park to Dunfanaghy (12.3km via N56)

Next up is the homely, seaside village of Dunfanaghy (22 minutes from Ards Forest Park). Here you can immerse yourself in some thought-provoking Irish history, as the area is home to Dunfanaghy Workhouse. Though it’s now a heritage centre, the Workhouse once offered respite to Donegal’s poor during the Great Famine (1845 – 1849). Inside, you can visit a number of exhibitions including ‘Wee Hannah’, which details the true story of Hannah Herrity, a young Donegal girl who resided in the Workhouse during this dark chapter in the nation’s history. Another building with an equally compelling past is The Gallery Dunfanaghy. Originally built as the fever hospital for the Workhouse, today this charming, family-run space exhibits a large selection of traditional and contemporary oil and watercolour paintings. When you’ve perused its many works of art, sample Dunfanaghy’s fresh, local produce in one of its restaurants before settling down for the night.


Day 5


Stage 1: Dunfanaghy to Burtonport (63.7km via R257, N56 and R259) to Arranmore Island (3 nautical miles)

Today’s final destination is Árainn Mhór (Arranmore) Island, via Burtonport (1hr 27mins), though traditional Irish music fans will particularly enjoy the first stop-off! Travelling along the Bloody Foreland, you’ll arrive at the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) village of Crolly, home of esteemed musicians Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan. Lively Leo’s Tavern is actually the Brennans’ family pub, and you’ll see gold platinum discs, band photos and memorabilia adorning its colourful walls. Back on the road, continue to Burtonport, and board a car ferry for Donegal’s largest inhabited island; Arranmore. It’s home to an Irish-speaking community who represent an old, rural way of life – soak it all in with walks around the coast, chats with islanders on its winding roads, and food and music in its welcoming pubs.  


Rural cottage on the Bloody Foreland in County Donegal
Rural cottage on the Bloody Foreland in County Donegal


Stage 2: Burtonport to Ardara (39.7km via N56 and R261)

When you’ve explored all this magical island has to offer, board the ferry once again and return to the mainland. Continue heading south towards the inviting heritage town of Ardara (46mins), with a stop-off at the Blue Flag beach of Narin Portnoo. It’s set in a sheltered cove and boasts a designated natural heritage area. Next, it’s time to sample Donegal’s rich craft and design heritage, and you’ve got a couple of options to choose from. Donegal Design Makers is a collective of artists from around the county, and you’ll find their diverse range of ceramics, fashion, textiles, jewellery, metalwork, batik, print and paintings in a pop-up show in Ardara. Another option in the town is to visit John Molloy’s Woolen Mills. Avail of a free guided tour of the factory, where you’ll learn about the changing methods of manufacture over the years, from hand-knitting and looming to the electronic knitting of today. Finally, if you’re a fan of seafood, you’ll love Nancy’s Bar, a cosy pub that’s been in the same family for an amazing seven generations. Be sure to sample their oysters, mussels and fresh Atlantic prawns.  


Related activities

  • An adrenalin rush is guaranteed when sea stack climbing the rugged ocean cliffs

  • SUP (stand-up paddle-boarding) is a great way to explore the Donegal coast


Nearby highlights

Northern Headlands Signature Points


Rugged Malin Head in Donegal is the country’s most northerly point. Enjoy the region’s wildlife, geology and history as you explore the watchtower at Banba’s Crown, named after a mythical Irish queen.


Fanad Head in Donegal is home to numerous secluded sandy beaches, with vigorous waves and a majestic lighthouse waiting to welcome you. Nearby Ballymastocker Bay was voted the second most beautiful beach in the world by Observer magazine.


Home to some of the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe, the Sliabh Liag range in Donegal is one of the most gorgeous places in Ireland to visit, providing one of the finest views from the Wild Atlantic Way out across the wide expanse of the ocean.  


Visitors to the Northern Headlands can also check out our shorter three-day touring route [LINK], which takes in the impressive cliffs at Sliabh Liag. There are five more stunning regions along the Wild Atlantic Way too, each with their own unique charm, character and landscape! Whether you’re looking for a rejuvenating break or a wild adventure, we’ve got the itinerary for you.