My top 10 places to visit in Inishowen

Being an ‘Inishowen-ian’, I know there are many, many more places here that are extremely beautiful to visit. But, I’ve listed those that came to mind immediately.

Although we are absolutely blessed with action-packed adventure options - from horse riding on the beach to a wild animal sanctuary, walking with alpacas, to historical tours - I’ve made this list from places closest to my own family’s preferences of how we can spend our time together out and about, in the fresh air, for free.

These places are all suitable for families and have different levels of walking routes which give a wonderful flavour to the natural beauty of this unique peninsula.

All of the places listed are also perfect for sketching, en plein air painting and photography work. Enjoy!

  1. Bochan Stone Circle
  2. Malin Head
  3. Ballyliffin Beach
  4. Cnoc na Coille Daire
  5. Knock-a-many-bends
  6. Greencastle Harbour
  7. Lough Naminn
  8. Isle of Doagh
  9. The Urris Hills
  10. Inch Island

Bochan Stone Circle

Not far from Culdaff beach and the carved crosses of Cloncha, I absolutely love this place in Summer when the ground is dry and the air smells of whin, or in Winter with a light dusting of snow and the stones stand dramatically against a storm grey sky.

Actually anytime at all is great to visit this ancient celtic place, with wellington boots on a rainy day the stones reflect the colours of the sky and surrounding countryside.

The Bochan stone circle would have been a very important pre-christian site and it’s landscape reaches into adjoining fields, with the Temple of Dean across the main Culdaff road and down a wee lane.

Please ask permission before you enter any fields, or if you cannot find anyone, only enter if there are no animals, strictly keeping to the countryside code (leave no trace) and at your own risk.

A great option for lunch is McGrory’s Bar and Restaurant with excellent live music here and at McGuiness’s Bar in Culdaff town.

Malin Head

There are many spectacular sights along this coastline, from the Devil’s Hole, Banba’s Crown (the most northernly point in Ireland) the pier and the views of Inishstrahull island, especially if you are interested in whale watching or spotting pods of dolphins, basking sharks and the odd seal.

Looking west from Banba's Crown

But my favourite is from ‘the wee house of Malin’ which has a history of hiding places for Robert the Bruce to the ruins of an old church where fishermen prayed for protection before their voyages.

There are some semi-precious stones to be found among the rocks and the jagged teeth of seastacks and altantic cliff faces are quite dramatic.

Visiting here in the evening at sunset can give the pleasure of witnessing exceptional sunsets and the guiding light of Inishtrahull lighthouse can be seen against the darkening sky. In winter you may also have the opportunity to see and photograph the Northern Lights.

It can be a little breezy so warm hats would be advised. If the day turns to rain there’s always a warm welcome at Farren’s Bar for a bite to eat, a game of pool and a chat about the filming of Star Wars here. On a fine day you can see the Scottish Isles which have a strong connection with the people here.

Ballyliffin Beach

Pollen Bay and Glashedy Island are along the Wild Atlantic Way and a popular site for wedding photographs. Once you visit you will understand why.

To the right there is a walk curving along the top of the beach all the way to Carrickabraghy castle at the tip of Doagh Isle if you are feeling energetic.

At a full moon tide the waves attract surfers from near and far. Glashedy comes from two Irish words for ‘green’ and ‘cloth’ and in a strong beam of light the thin green covering on top of the island looks like a tablecloth.

To the left there are many rockpools. Our favourite is a large rock pool where throwing stones and making the deepest sounds can become a competitive sport, which our dog Rowan really enjoys.

Lunch can be had at any of the three hotel’s or at Nancy’s Barn, famous for their Chowder. It is also near to Ballylifffin Golf Club which is world renowned. The Lodge Hotel has a wonderful spa and swimming pool with fitness lounge for those who wish to indulge.

Cnoc na Coille Daire

Outside my hometown of Carndonagh an ancient woodland still exists. Translated directly as Hill of the Oak wood, it is home to some of the oldest Oak Trees in Inishowen as well as Birch, Holly and native bilberries.

Nestled amidst these ancient trees stands a marker to the mass rock which used to serve as a place of worship for faithful Catholics during penal times.

There are myths of tunnels and hidden treasures but the real treasures here are the dappled light through trees, mossy green ferns which grow along overhead branches, the rich woodland air and the smell of the earth. If it’s been raining I’d advise a pair of boots as the ground can get quite muddy.

Wandering further up the hill towards the open heather can be rewarded with views over the town of Carndonagh and Trawbreaga Bay (the lying strand) with signs of wild deer or glimpses if you are quiet and lucky… watch where you step and do so at your own risk.

A hot chocolate and cake or light lunch can be had at ‘Banba’ Coffee co., The Diamond Café or Baker Street, while a tasty lunch from The Butterbean or Simpson’s Bar (further out the road) would be a perfect addition to your adventure.

While in Carndonagh, a walk to The Donagh Cross is a recommended (the oldest free-standing Celtic cross in Europe) and a visit to the graveyard of the church beside, where, almost directly behind the cross, stands the Marigold Stone almost as intricate but more intriguing.

Knock-a-many-bends

Knock-a-many-bends is a name that fits the place. The many twists and bends on the road, along the Inishowen 100, reveal breath-taking views at every turn.

My uncle used to say there were too many stubborn cows lying in the way so they built the road around them, now I know it’s more to do with the underlying rock. The road is narrow but locals are considerate and passing places for cars have been made along the route.

The parking area and view point overlook Lagg beach with The Five Fingers, the Isle of Doagh, Fanad Head and on towards the west coast of Donegal in the distance. Home to some of the tallest marine sand dunes in Europe, a sunken ship, sand spits and a tidal neck where the sea can come in surprisingly fast on a strong current. If you only had half an hour in Inishowen this is where to spend it.

The writer Joseph O’Connor ends his novel, which is called ‘Inishowen’ in the graveyard of the little whitewashed church at the foot of the cliff here. The remains of a giant’s fingers sticking out of the sea and turned to stone form the sea stacks which give the area its name.

This really is an incredibly stunning place and even more beautiful at a dry Spring sunset, when changing light picks up greens you never knew existed, from new growth on the land.

Greencastle Harbour

This is a working Harbour for small fishing boats and a Ferry port for Magilligan Point which guards the mouth of the Foyle to the East coast of Inishowen. Between Moville; a seaside town with a large green to the sea and home to Inish Adventures water-sports; and Stroove (or Shroove) lighthouse and beach, Greencastle harks back to a time of castles.

This is a perfect place to sketch or take notes and to figure draw as folk fix their boats and nets, or wander up near the castle for views across the Foyle.

Across from you lies Binevenagh mountain, the western extent of the Antrim Plateau formed around 60 million years ago by molten lava.

Even on a wet day, the changing light, colours and activity here can make you wish you’d taken your sketch book…so please do.

Lough Naminn

On the Buncrana Road from Carndonagh; known as the Mountain Road locally; before The North Pole (a pub) and the Sliabh Sneacht Centre, lie two fresh water lakes, one on each side of the road.

Facing towards Buncrana, the one on your left is called Lough Naminn and has two small islands. The lake to your right is called Lough Fad and my father tells me its small island was a crannóg – an artificial manmade island possibly from the iron age and built in the middle of the lake for protection.

On Lough Naminn, the first Island can be reached by a turf track, but I wouldn’t take your car up there as it’s likely to get stuck… I know this from personal experience. Closer to this island you can cross on stones to the pine trees and Bilberry bushes which cover most of the island. Taking a picnic and a book on a sunny day is recommended but please remember to bring everything off the island again. A feast of berries awaits in August if the sheep haven’t beaten you to it.

Walks up the hill towards rocky outcrops resembling crowns, can be invigorating but steep. These are Barnan Mór and Barnan Beag, “The King and Queen of the Mintiaghs”.

They lie adjacent to Sliabh Sneacht (snow mountain but backwards) standing 615 metres tall, making it Inishowen’s highest peak. Sliabh Sneacht is traditionally a place of pilgrimage and there is a well-known holy well on top; Tobar na Súil (well of the eyes).

Isle of Doagh

When I was a child, we camped here during the summer holidays. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible. The Isle has a scattering of standing and carved stones, mostly with cup and ring designs and a few prehistoric settlements, worthy of a good wander. Check the Ordinance survey maps for their positions.

Down from the Famine Village and turning a sharp right, kids of all ages can have great fun in ‘sinky sand’ if the tide is out. You can sink a good two feet in some places - a fun place to follow the leader. Great for building sandcastles and moats.

On round the beach and the rocks display folded patterns, some resembling dinosaur bones. At a low tide there are often pools of warmed sea water on a sunny day and the odd cave to be discovered.

Not a safe place to swim in the sea but a beautiful place to walk with a panoramic view of the sand dunes across the bay at Lagg beach. This is where we used to gather driftwood and build a small stone fire to heat sea water in a pot for boiling potatoes… we called it ‘Donegal potatoes’ as the sea-salt would cake the potato skins, delicious with melted butter.

The Famine village are open for teas and scones etc. At the tip of the Isle lies Carrickabraghy castle and spectacular views across to Glasheady Island and Ballyliffin.

The Urris Hills

On your way here keep an eye to your left for signs to Glenevin Water fall, just after the ruins of a church (on the right – also interesting to visit).

The short walk here takes you upstream along the meandering stream. Along the way there are a few picnic areas and vantage points higher up, with stunning views of the surrounding coast and countryside. The waterfall stands 40ft tall and is an interesting subject to paint.

The Mamore Gap is a pass that takes you through the Urris Hills from Dunree in the south to Urris in the north. Best approached from the Dunree side. The road out of Clonmany curves after the bridge towards Tullagh Bay and Leenan, but take the road straight on and watch out for sheep.

The gap should be signposted on the right after the brow of the hill. It is not long, only about 2km but it is very steep. It is also home to Donegal's Magic Road. A ‘Magic Road' or ‘Gravity Hill' is an optical illusion. A slight downward slope appears to be sloping upward, due to the land surrounding it, and cars, left in neutral, will appear to roll uphill.

There is a straight steep climb to the top, which then gives way to the winding alpine descent on the southern side.

The route offers spectacular views over Urris and the Atlantic Ocean. Just over the summit on the southern side, you will find St. Eigne’s Well an ancient pilgrimage site. There is a car park here. The Gap quite often features in Ireland’s premier cycling event, The Rás, last appearing in a stage in 2017. The gap is described by cyclists as being one of Ireland’s most brutal climbs.

By Leenan Beach there are two excellent hill walking routes, the Butler’s Glen Loop Walk and the Mamore to Straid / Clonmany walk. With mountain top Lakes to visit, the wreckage site of a WWII bomber and views across to Fanad Head.

People on Leenan Beach, Inishowen, County Donegal
Leenan Beach

Leenan Bay is a stunning secluded unspoilt beach and well worth a visit. Every August our extended family organises a charity car treasure hunt which always ends at Leenan beach, where we meet for barbeques, sand building competitions, the inevitable awarding of the ‘trophy’ and the coveted honour of writing the next years hunt.

There is an award-winning restaurant and bar to be found at The Rusty Nail but check opening times before you land in.

Inch Island

A causeway road leads to a Wildfowl Sanctuary with car park and walk. Absolutely stunning in Winter as migrating swans and geese descend in high numbers.

There is a bird hide for shelter if it rains so another place to sketch, photograph the birds and contemplate dinner.

This Island will charm at every turn, from secluded beaches, ancient portal tomb and standing stones, the pier, tiny houses with yellow painted doors and a stranded boat called ‘Football Special’… I’ll leave you to find this one as the whole island is only about 5 miles squared and has a loop road so if you get lost, you’ll easily find your way back again.

Dusk at Inch Island with the sky reflecting on the sea
Dusk at Inch Island

On your way through Buncrana again, you can find several great places to eat, my favourites are The Fisherman’s Warf for a cuppa, sandwich and cake; always friendly, open to pets and has outdoor seating; and The Red Door Country House at Fahan with excellent afternoon teas or an evening meal if you feel like treating yourself.

If you are around Buncrana, there is Lisfannon Beach, Swan Park, Castle Bridge and O’Doherty’s Keep not to mention an excellent coastal walk to Fr. Hegarty’s Rock.