Northwest Ireland is sadly passed over for its southern cousin. Most people skip County Donegal, Mayo and Sligo and take a bee-line from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher in Southern Ireland, bypassing this part of the country entirely.
I’m here to tell you that Northwest Ireland is a must-see. Thanks to the expert vacation planning of my husband, I was able to discover a charming and grossly underappreciated corner of Ireland. The rugged northwest may be known as Ireland’s no-man’s-land, but after setting foot in the region I soon realized this is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.
And the best part?
No hordes of tourists.
So where is Northwest Ireland exactly?
Northwest Ireland is literally off-the-beaten path. It’s the farthest destination from Dublin and, unless you pass through Northern Ireland and do other sightseeing like we did, is quite a long drive from the capital.
Still, it was worth the journey and–believe it or not–I want to visit the north again, it was that great. Plus, if you plan on doing Ireland’s famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ road-trip along the western coast, County Donegal is your starting point.
So if you find yourself in Northwest Ireland, just where should you go exactly?
Glenveagh National Park (County Donegal)
Glenveagh is like walking into a fairy tale. I could just imagine a prince dashing across the misty moors on his trusty white steed, whizzing by pristine lakes and evergreen forests, his eyes set on his final destination:
The castle at the end of the trail, of course.
Glenveagh Castle is not only beautiful inside and out, but also has a fantastic (and free!) garden for visitors. Also, don’t miss the cute, cottage coffee shop inside the garden–the cake is to die for.
All in all, Glenveagh is a stunning half-day hike that is enjoyable in rain or shine (and it’s free!). We visited with light showers and it was anything but a downer–actually, it made the trip even more mystical and magical. We ate a packed lunch near the castle lake in blissful silence. The soundtrack to our lunch was the gentle lap of the waves on the lakeshore.
Slieve League (County Donegal)
We heard the Cliffs of Moher were overrated and crowded and that Slieve League was a good substitute. Since it was only a short ride away from Glenveagh, we made the drive to the edge of County Donegal to take a peek.
Slieve League is famous for being the ‘tallest cliffs in Europe.’ Although it’s hard to tell from the photos, these cliffs were actually pretty damn tall (and epic!). We parked at the entrance parking lot, took a really photogenic 30 minute hike up to the cliffs (you can bypass the hike and drive up to the second parking lot if you’re tired), and viola, we were greeted by this.
You can actually hike all the way to the farthest point to the ocean by following the trail along the top, but we opted to only go halfway and enjoy some summit views instead. The views were gorgeous, the scenery stunning and most of all—cute sheep!
Slieve League is also a half-day activity that combines gentle hikes and epic elevation. Definitely worth visiting.
Downpatrick Head (County Mayo)
County Mayo’s slogan is “a secret no longer.”
In other words: HOLY CRAP THIS PLACE IS WAY OUT THERE.
Due to time constraints, husband and I were hesitant about visiting Downpatrick Head (yet another must-see on the Wild Atlantic Way). It was not only a 3 hour drive from Donegal, but it’s literally in one of the most remote parts of Ireland.
But oh man, I’m so glad we went because… Downpatrick Head is SUPER EPIC!!
This is another ‘photos don’t do the place justice’ kind of destination. The sheer drop of these cliffs is dizzying (one wrong step and it’s over) and the geological foundations are dazzling. Legend has it that Saint Patrick chased the all the snakes out of Ireland onto that small ledge and then severed the cliff with his staff.
My guess is it probably had more to do with tectonic plates and other geological formations rather than a British guy with saintly powers–but hey, that’s just my hunch!
Gleniff Horseshoe (County Sligo)
This place is insanely remote and hardly mentioned in any guidebooks. In fact, we were the only car driving around this area.
There’s no back story or history here. It’s just a magical, green hideaway of peace and quiet. We were the only people there. Period. Our only companions were the sheep grazing nearby. The vastness of it all was extremely humbling. I felt as if fairies were going to pop out at any moment.
Gleniff Horseshoe also winds around the famous Yeats’ Country road. The writer Yeats loved County Sligo so much, he lived out his final years here .
Lough Eske Castle (County Donegal)
Finally, if you’re going to Ireland then you have to stay in a castle. Period. I don’t want to hear any excuses. Just do it.
I am not being paid to write this, but Lough Eske Castle was such a phenomenal place I just have to give it a shout out. Lough Eske Castle was our favorite castle stay in Ireland. Staff are unbelievably friendly and welcoming, the room amenities went above and beyond a typical brand-name five-star hotel, and the renovations to the castle were unbelievable. I truly felt like a princess in a fairy tale.
Plus, Lough Eske is one of the more affordable castles in Ireland. We won’t name names, but it was a way better stay than a more expensive castle we stayed at down south. This castle alone is worth the drive up north.
In the end, Northwest Ireland charmed me more than anywhere else.
Northwest Ireland is cozy, rustic, calm, quiet, peaceful. My husband called it the “Montana of Ireland” and, oddly, the description fits in the best way possible. Originally I had no desire to see Northern Ireland because my ancestors are from the South, but I’m so grateful my husband introduced me to the beauty that is Donegal, Mayo and Sligo.
It’s the perfect place to go to just get away from it all–and really, isn’t that why we travel in the first place?
Have you ever gone off the beaten path and been pleasantly surprised?