Rated Ireland’s “tidiest town” in 2015, Letterkenny is a bonny market town, close to where the River Swilly widens into a fjord on the northwest coast.
Lough Swilly and the Fanad Peninsula are on Ireland’s fabled Wild Atlantic Way, for scenic drives to mountains, rugged promontories, Neolithic dolmens, early medieval hill-forts and martello towers armed with long-range guns.
This is the land that gave the world figures like St Columba, who took Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century.
Letterkenny is also a stepping stone for the Glenveagh National Park, on the lands of a romantic 19th-century castle and exotic gardens.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Letterkenny:
1. Glenveagh National Park
Ireland’s second largest national park is an easy 15 kilometres west of Letterkenny.
The park unfolds across 16,500 hectares of heathland, forest and bare mountain slopes around the glorious Lough Veagh.
All this was once part of the estate of Glenveagh Castle, and has the largest herd of red deer in Ireland, as well as a healthy count of golden eagles, previously extinct in this part of the country but reintroduced in 2000. A first step is the Glenveagh Visitor Centre on the north shore of the lough, blending with the heathland thanks to its heather roof.
There you can get the lowdown on Glenveagh’s nature and human history, and choose from six signposted point-to-point and looped walking paths.
The best short path is the one-kilometre View Point Trail, leading you up to the ridge above Glenveagh Castle for a supreme perspective of the lake.
2. Glenveagh Castle
The centre of attention on the estate is the Scottish Baronial-style Glenveagh Castle, built from granite for Captain John George Adair at the start of the 1870s.
Adair picked an epic lakeside location for his home, and went as far as evicting 244 tenants to get some solitude.
The gardens around the house were planted in a free-flowing style with exotic species from Tasmania, Madeira and Chile, buffered from the wind by large pine groves and rhododendrons.
You can catch a shuttle bus from the national park’s visitor centre to the castle, or walk in a matter of minutes.
The castle can be seen by guided tour only, lasting 45 minutes, on which you’ll hear about the previous owners, like a Harvard Professor who mysteriously disappeared off the west coast of Ireland in 1933.
3. Mount Errigal
One of Ireland’s most beguiling mountains towers over the western boundary of the Glenveagh National Park.
Mount Errigal is 751 metres high and is the southernmost and tallest of the Seven Sisters range.
The striking, conical shape comes from the mountain’s quartzite geology, which has resisted erosion.
That stone takes on a mesmerising pinkish tone when it’s caught by the setting sun.
To look at Errigal you might think it’s a climb for mountaineers only, but you won’t need more than a good pair of hiking shoes and a little experience.
Once you hit the peak you can fight the winds on the narrow and spectacular “One Man’s Pass” to Errigal’s lower sister summit.
4. Cathedral of St. Eunan and St. Columba
In an elevated position looking down on the town, Letterkenny’s cathedral was built during the 1890s and was consecrated in 1901. The architecture is neo-Gothic and was planned by William Hague, responsible for numerous religious monuments in Ireland in Victorian times.
A curious snippet about the cathedral is that it is made from white sandstone quarried some way around the northwest coast at Mountcharles.
The material was shipped along Lough Swilly and carried by the townsfolk up to this lofty perch.
The cathedral’s fantastic stained glass windows were produced by the An Túr Gloine studio and Harry Clarke, while the Great Arch is decorated with images from the lives of St Eunan and St Columba, active in Ireland and Scotland in the 6th and 7th centuries.
5. Lough Swilly
A glacial fjord, Lough Swilly cuts a serpentine path from Letterkenny to the Atlantic Ocean some 40 kilometres to the north.
The Wild Atlantic Way hugs the waterfront all the way around the lough, and for a round of golf in a location you won’t forget there are courses just outside the town at Letterkenny and further north in Portsalon.
During the Napoleonic Wars a system of martello towers (small circular forts) was set up to defend Londonderry to the east.
These were revamped at the start of the First World War, and can still be found in eight scenic spots around Lough Swilly.
Across the water from Portsalon, Fort Dunree has a majestic setting, on a headland and hosts a military museum and restored BL 6-inch Mk VII naval guns from the First World War.
6. Glebe House and Gallery
The English painter Derek Hill lived and worked at this house on Lough Gartan from 1954 until he donated it, along with a top-notch art collection, to the Irish state in 1981. Hill gathered works by leading 20th-century artists like Renoir, Braque, Picasso and Oskar Kokoshka, as well as an array of Islamic and Oriental art and William Morris textiles.
The house and its sublime art can only be visited on guided tours at Easter and then from May to September, when you can also grab coffee and a light snack at the tea rooms.
The woodland gardens around the house stay open all year.
7. Donegal County Museum
The very location of the Donegal County Museum is charged with history: The venue is the old Warden’s House of the Letterkenny Workhouse, a stern stone building completed in 1845 during the Great Famine.
The galleries inside are multifaceted, presenting the folklore, social history, agriculture and archaeology of County Donegal.
For whistle-stop tour through thousands of years of local history, head for the first floor where there’s a timeline beginning in the Neolithic Period and bringing you up to the 21st century.
Historians can really immerse themselves in Donegal’s past, investigating the Donegal Islands Film and Radio archive and the Northwest Film Archive.
8. Newmills Corn and Flax Mill
Ten minutes up the Swilly in Milltown is a state-owned piece of industrial heritage, in superb condition and dating to the beginning of the 19th century.
What makes this such an interesting place is that combined corn and flax mills can only be found in Ulster and Northwest Ireland.
Water is conducted to the complex from the Swilly along a one-kilometre mill race.
This drives two separate mills, one for flax to make linen, and the other for barley and oats, powered by one of the largest functioning mill wheels in Ireland.
That was installed in 1907, and operated right up to 1980. In summer you can go in to see how flax fibre was separated (scutched) from its outer straw, and see the wacky network of hoists, pulleys and elevators at the corn mill.
9. Oakfield Park
On land belonging to a deanery that became a stately manor in the 19th century, Oakfield Park is an exquisite outdoor attraction where you can spend a classy day wandering through woods and formal gardens and next to lakes.
A special attraction at Oakfield Par is the steam-powered narrow-gauge railway, with views of Croaghan Hill to the south.
The 4.5-kilometre line trundles through meadows, forest, over streams and through a wooden causeway.
Amateur horticulturalists will be in heaven in the grounds, which are sprinkled with follies and sculptures, and feature a parterre, historic walled garden and venerable heritage trees.
For refreshment Oakfield Park’s tea rooms have homemade cakes and craft beers brewed in Donegal.
10. Fanad Peninsula
Heading north from Letterkenny you could go on a magical drive on the Wild Atlantic Way with the waters and surrounding hills of Lough Swilly on your shoulder.
Before long you’ll be on the Fanad Peninsula, graced by some of Northwest Ireland’s most dramatic scenery.
It’s a world of dry-stone walls, heather and lush meadows flecked with cattle.
At the centre are bold peaks like the 363 Knockalla, a quartzite hill.
On your drive you can pause at boundless Atlantic beaches like Ballymastocker Bay, or step out to investigate prehistoric dolmens at Saltpans and Gortnavern.
Near the northernmost point is the craggy Fanad Head, where the namesake lighthouse from 1886 is on a narrow promontory lashed by the waves.
11. Tropical World
By Letterkenny Golf Club on the town’s eastern fringe is a small zoo dedicated to species from the tropics.
There are lorikeets and turacos with colourful plumage, as well as lizards, snakes, turtles, meerkats, yellow mongooses and all sorts of miniature monkeys.
Best of all though is the butterfly house, with butterflies big and small in a kaleidoscope of colours . The zoo is attached to a garden centre, and has a play area, picnic benches and a cafe.
12. Lurgybrack Open Farm
One of a few days out for people holidaying with younger children, the Lurgybrack Open Farm is a place where kids can come into contact with tame and friendly animals.
The farm has highland cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, draft horses, turkeys, exotic birds, chinchillas and rabbits.
Under the supervision of the staff, kids can feed and handle many of these animals and pick up some fun facts about them.
Also on the farm is a soft play area, an adventure playground with zip-line, sunken trampoline and a barrel train.
13. Letterkenny Town Park
If you have time to spare in Letterkenny, the four-hectare town park is just the ticket for a sunny day.
Plotted in 1999, the park is on a patch of 18th-century forest and has a recently upgraded playground for youngsters.
There’s a tea room here, as well as an orchard, flowerbeds, mature trees and a herb garden.
At the end of August the family-oriented Party in the Car Park takes place here, organising music, arts, food, bouncy castles and games for kids.
14. Colmcille Heritage Centre
Fifteen minutes west of Letterkenny next to the Gartan Lough is a small museum about St Columba (Colmcille in Irish), who helped spread Christianity in Ireland in the 6th century.
The Colmcille Heritage Centre is near where the saint was born, and casts some light on this intriguing figure.
One of the most interesting chapters in his life came after he spent a year copying a manuscript of the Book of Psalms.
In essence he was found guilty of copyright theft for this act and was banished to Scotland, which he introduced to Christianity for the first time.
The heritage centre has well-presented information panels, a wax figure of Columba and replica artefacts showing the instruments and dyes Columba used for his manuscript.
15. Killydonnell Friary
A little way along Lough Swilly you’ll come to an abandoned 15th century friary, in the grounds of a cemetery that is still in use today.
Killydonnell Friary is a remarkably peaceful spot, overlooking the fjord.
The Franciscan friary was begun in 1471 by the O’Donnell clan, and was built on the site of an older church from the 900s.
Little more than a century later, in 1603, the friary was closed down in the Plantation of Ulster.
What remains is a church with a nave and chancel, clad with ivy, and the vestiges of monastic buildings to the north.
These have vaults and partly been adapted as the family tomb of the Stewarts of Fort Stewart.