Letterkenny is the largest town in County Donegal, with a population of 19,274 in 2016. It's a workaday place, frankly not scenic, but with lots of accommodation and other visitor amenities. It's the county transport hub and a good base for exploring the rest of Donegal, especially the north coast.
Glaciers carved out deep valleys around the coast of Donegal, which flooded to become fjords during the post-glacial rise of the sea. The largest were Lough Foyle (now by Derry city) and at Lough Swilly by Letterkenny, with Inishowen peninsula between. Their deep sea channels assisted transport of people and goods in an era when overland roads were muddy tracks in fair weather and morasses at other times. The Vikings (who enjoyed sailing into fjords) are the first documented outsiders, but there were many others including the Celts / Gaels to give Donegal its name Dún na nGall, fort of the foreigners.
The Irish ousted the Vikings but from the 12th century came under attack by the Normans. Those incursions never got far in northwest Ireland, so it was only from the 16th century that the English Tudors could resume their land-grab. Stiff resistance from the chieftains of Tyrconnell (Donegal) and Tyrone was only broken in 1603 by the Nine Years' War; the chieftains fled to Europe and their land was seized for "plantation" by English and Scottish colonists, laying the seeds for the partition of Ireland. The local tracts were granted in 1611 to Patrick Crawford from Scotland: he and his successors developed a town north of the River Foyle, eclipsing the original Irish settlement on the south bank.
In Irish Leitir means a hillside littered with stones, and Letterkenny is the stony hillside of the O'Cannon tribe. Until the 17th century it was a seaport, but vessels grew larger while the Swilly estuary silted up. The harbour at Ballyraine stayed in business into the 19th century, importing salt and grain, while Donegal's people drained out - some to North America, but a large contingent went to Glasgow. The last act of the 1798 rebellion of United Irishmen was played out here: the main uprising in County Wexford was already crushed when the French invasion forces arrived, too little too late. The French landing in County Mayo caught the government off-guard and they campaigned almost unopposed for 11 days before being encircled. The final sortie brought the rebellion's leader Theobald Wolfe Tone into Lough Swilly, but they were captured by the Royal Navy. Wolfe Tone was brought ashore at Letterkenny, carted off to Dublin for trial, sentenced to hang but committed suicide in prison.
The 1921 partition of Ireland bore especially hard upon the northwest, as towns such as Lettekenny lost their traditional links to both Dublin and Belfast. The manufacturing economy has always been small, though a service sector has grown and made the town into the largest in the county. Revival came with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which enshrined an open border and end to hostilities, so you can hop on a bus in Derry and come here with no border checks. As elsewhere in Ulster, the big question is the long-term effect of Brexit on this.
1 The Tourist Office is at Port Bridge Roundabout as N14 enters town. It's not open in 2021. On the roundabout is "Polestar", a public sculpture that's supposed to commemorate the town's transport history. Mmm, maybe a boat's timbers, or the innards of a locomotive, or a tourist driver unsure of the correct roundabout exit through inability to navigate by the Pole Star?
The nearest airport is City of Derry (LDY IATA), with flights from London Stansted, Liverpool and Glasgow. You might also fly into one of the Belfast airports or Donegal Airport on the west coast, or even Dublin. They all have car hire.
By road from Belfast follow M2 / A6 to Derry then N13. From Dublin follow M3 / A3 to Cavan, A5 through Omagh to Strabane, then N14. From Sligo follow N15 via Donegal Town to Ballybofey then N13.
The nearest railway station is Derry, with hourly trains from Belfast, taking two hours via Antrim, Ballymena and Coleraine.
By bus Expressway 32 runs every couple of hours from Dublin Busáras, taking 4 hours via Dublin Airport, Ardee, Carrickmacross, Monaghan, Omagh, Newtonstewart, Strabane and Lifford, with the last bus starting at 23:00. An adult single might be €23. John McGinley Bus 932 shares this route.
Expressway 64 runs every two hours from Derry to Letterkenny (30 min) and continues to Ballybofey, Donegal Town, Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Sligo, Charlestown, Knock airport and village, Claremorris, Ballyhaunis, Tuam and Galway. Bus Feda 964 shares this route.
Bus 953 runs from Moville on the Foyle coast, taking an hour via Muff and Bridgend, with three M-Sa and one on Sunday.
Bus 300 runs from Ballylar on the Fanad peninsula, taking 70 min via Kerrykeel, Rathmullen and Ramelton, with three Su-Th and five F Sa.
Letterkenny 1 bus station is northeast side of town at the top of Port Road. Some local buses start from the nearby streets.
Walk around town, but you need wheels for outlying sights such as Newmills and Glenveagh.
Enterprise have a car hire base in Letterkenny (+353 74 910 3202) but it's usually more convenient to hire from the airport. There's no bike hire shop.
By bus: Letterkenny is the hub for local buses around the north end of the county, but they're too sparse for sight-seeing. As well as those above, Local Link Bus 989 from Carrigans (on the south edge of Derry) orbits Letterkenny via the college and hospital, with three M-Th and five F Sa.
Taxis wait on Market St and by the bus station. Operators include Letterkenny Taxis (+353 87 952 5124), Swilly Cabs (+353 74 912 1666), Paddy's (+353 86 874 2961) and Star Cabs (+353 85 118 0600).
Fares are nationally regulated and taxis must use the meter. As of March 2021, fares M-Sa 08:00 to 20:00 are €3.60 flagfall then €1.10-1.50 per km, 20:00 to 08:00 and Sunday €4.00 flagfall then €1.40-1.80 per km. In slow traffic or if asked to wait they charge by the minute, 40-50 cents. Fares are negotiable for longer out of town trips.
- "There is a town called Letterkenny which hath a market every Friday and two fairs in the year with a fair Church and a bridge at the east end over the River Swilly" - survey of 1652-56
- Main Street (one way traffic south) is a mix of 19th century and modern low rise. Market Square is a little green space, with a statue commemorating its Hiring Fairs: bring any spare members of your family along and hope to hire them out for the season to local farmers. Especially your children - that's money in your pocket, fewer mouths to feed, and their education taken care of; it's just like Montessori only with cuffs to the earlugs instead of violin lessons.
- Town Park is a pleasant green area north end of High Road by the hospital.
- St Eunan's Cathedral (RC) on Castle St was built in the 1890s and is open daily 07:00-21:00. The Adoration Chapel adjacent within the Loretto Convent is also usually open similar hours but is closed in 2021.
- Cathedral Square outside has a tall Celtic Cross, erected in 2006.
- Conwal Parish Church (C of I) across the square is from 17th century, with an interesting interior and graveyard.
- County Museum, High Rd, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 10:00-16:30, Sa 13:00-16:30. Local history and exhibitions in the 19th century Workhouse. Free.
- 1 Newmills Corn and Flax Mills, Churchill Rd F92 F205 (5 km west of town on R250), ☏ . May-Sept daily 10:00-18:00. The oldest parts are 400 years old, but these are mostly 19th century mills powered by a 1 km millrace and two large waterwheels: one for corn (still operational), the other for flax. The enterprise kept going in the 20th century when Irish flax was subsdised. A farming and mill village also grew up, supplying produce to the Lipton grocery empire based in Glasgow. Free.
- 2 Glebe House & Gallery, Tullymore, Church Hill, ☏ . Apr-Oct daily 11:00-18:00. Charming Regency house of 1828, formerly a rectory then a hotel, then the home of painter Derek Hill (1916-2000). It's decorated with Arts & Crafts textiles, Islamic and Japanese art, and many 20th century big names. Plus extensive gardens. Adult €5, conc €4, child €3, Heritage Card free.
- 3 Glenveagh National Park, Church Hill, ☏ . Daily 09:00-17:00 but castle closed. Extensive gardens and woodland grounds of Glenveagh Castle, a Scottish baronial mansion built in 1870. The owner Captain John Adair was notorious for his evictions and other cruelty to his tenants.
- 4 Doon Well is up a very narrow lane above the village of Termon. It was a prehistoric religious site then became a Christian site from the 1670s.
- 5 Beltany Stone Circle is 14 km southeast near Raphoe village. It has suffered pillaging of its stones but remains a clear circle of 64, with a central platform. It was adopted for Celtic ritual such as Beltane (1 May) but is much earlier, probably late Stone Age / early Iron Age circa 1000 BC. It's free to stroll any time.
- What's on? Listen to Highland Radio on 103.3 MHz or read Donegal News, Donegal Live or Donegal Daily.
- Walk: a footpath follows the north bank of the Swilly until you loop onto Ramelton Rd or return the same way.
- An Grianán Theatre, Port Road F92 RV1F (near bus station), ☏ . This stages drama and music in a modern building with a 383-seat auditorium.
- Regional Cultural Centre behind the theatre has an auditorium, film theatre and exhibition space. There isn't a permanent art collection.
- Century Cinema, Paddy Harte Rd F92 DA02, ☏ . Mainstream film releases.
- Aura Leisure Centre, O'Donnell Park (off R250 near GAA grounds), ☏ . M-F 07:00-21:00, Sa 09:00-18:00, Su 09:00-16:00. Gym, fitness classes and swimming pool. You can sign up or pay as you go.
- Arena7 is a family entertainment complex on Ramelton Rd, R245 near the junction with the ring road. They have bowling lanes, laser arcades, party rooms, a bar and restaurant. They're open daily 14:00-21:30, so not a late spot, but their packages include passes for the town's nightclubs. So edgy and off-the-way is the Arena, it even caters for First Communion and Confirmation celebrations.
- Zoo: Tropical World at Hazelwood House near the golf course is open M-Sa 10:00-16:30, Su 13:00-16:30.
- Coral Island is a casino and amusement arcade on Ballyraine Retail Park, open daily 09:00-03:00.
- Gaelic games: Donegal GAA play football and hurling at Sean Mac Cumhaill Park in Ballybofey / Stranorlar.
- Golf: Letterkenny Golf Club is 3 km east of town on R245 at Barnhill. Blue tees 6428 yards, par 72, GUI members round €35, non-members €75.
- Go-karting: LK Activity Centre is 5 km north of town on R245 Ramelton road.
- Gartan Adventure Centre, Churchill F92 T853 (off R251), ☏ . Outdoor education centre, with training and organised activities. Their base is on Lough Gartan towards Glebe House (see above) 20 km west of town, but activities are at various sites on land and off the coast.
- Donegal International Rally is an on-road car rally over 3 days in June, based in Letterkenny but touring the county. It was cancelled in 2020 and 2021; dates and routes for 2022 are tba.
- Letterkenny Shopping Centre is next to the bus station.
- The Courtyard is in Market Square.
- Forte Shopping Centre is opposite the Radisson on the link road.
- For local shopping and giftware look along Main St. There are several ATMs and banks along here.
- Farmers Market and the car-boot sale is on the gap-site on Port Rd on Saturday 09:00-13:00.
- Fast food outlets include McDonald's, KFC, Domino's Pizzas and Subway. Clustered around the bus station are Four Star Pizza, Mr Chippie, Bamboo Court, Abrakebabra, Fry Dayz, Kiki's Kitchen, Apache Pizza, Four Lanterns and Burrito Loco.
- Pat's on the Square at 9 Market Square serves pizza W-Su 17:00-21:00. They've another outlet at 84 Upper Main St.
- Friar's Rest, Glencar Shopping Centre, ☏ . Daily 10:00-22:00. Good value Irish breakfasts, served till noon.
- Charley's Cafe, Pearse Rd, ☏ . Tu-Sa 12:00-20:00. Long-established fish and chips cafe, portions small.
- 1 Shapla, Port Road, ☏ . Daily 17:00-23:00. Bangladeshi restaurant, uneven quality.
- Tin Tai, Lower Main St, ☏ . Th-Su 16:30-20:30. Thai and Chinese food, mostly good reviews.
- China Town, 24 Port Road, ☏ . Daily 16:30-00:00. Food okay, delivery service unreliable.
- Money Tree, 22 Upper Main Street F92 W744, ☏ . Daily 16:00-23:00. Chinese restaurant, usually reliable.
- The Quiet Moment, 94 Upper Main St F92 E792, ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-18:00, Su 10:00-16:00. Tearooms for cuppas and light bites.
- Mac's Deli, High Road F92 K4WP, ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-18:00, Su 09:00-15:00. Small friendly deli cafe.
- 2 Orchard Inn, High Road, ☏ . Sa Su 15:00-21:00. Serves bar food all day, with a buffet lunch at weekdays.
- Brewery Bar and Restaurant, Market Square, ☏ . Good pub ambience and food, no booking, first come first served. It's not a brewery though.
- Lemon Tree, Unit 32/34, Courtyard Shopping Centre, Lower Main Street F92 EK13, ☏ . M-Sa 17:00-21:00, Su 13:00-14:30, 17:00-20:00. A pleasant, mid-priced place to eat.
- Yellow Pepper, 36 Lower Main Street F92 K125, ☏ . M-F 15:00-22:00, Sa Su 13:00-22:00. Modern Irish cuisine, mostly favourable reviews.
- Nothing outstanding in town, but see Sleep for the hotel restaurants - Rathmullen House gets rave reviews.
- Sister Sara's, Port Road, ☏ . M-Th 14:00-23:00, Sa 12:00-01:30, F Su 12:00-00:00. Pub and entertainment venue on 3 floors with food, live shows, TV sport and Saturday nightclub.
- Glencar Inn, Glencar Shopping Centre, Circular Rd, ☏ . Tu-Th 10:30-23:30, F Sa 10:30-00:30, Su M 12:00-00:00. Well-run modern place with decent food.
- Tír Na nÓg, Ballymacool, ☏ . Out of the way in a residential area near the GAA, and remains closed in 2021.
- Central Bar, 58 Upper Main St F92 T2C5, ☏ . Daily 12:00-02:20. Comfy sports bar established 1808, with pleasant whitewashed courtyard. Occasional music gigs and nightclub.
- Blake's Bar, 50 Upper Main St F92 XKN5, ☏ . Daily 10:30-23:30. A grand lively bar, founded in 1842, with TV sport, live music and beer-garden.
- Cottage Bar, 49 Upper Main St F92 T9EK, ☏ . 24 hours. Traditional bar, built to look like an old Irish cottage, with an open turf fire.
- McGinleys Bar, 25-27 Lower Main St F92 EN8X, ☏ . Daily 11:00-01:00. Atmospheric old-style pub with open turf fire and live music most nights.
- Pulse, 55 Port Rd, ☏ . W, Sa 23:00-02:30. Late-night entertainment venue.
- Kinnegar Brewing, Ballyraine Industrial Estate F92 R263, ☏ . M-F 11:00-17:00. Microbrewery producing a range of ales and lagers, tours available. Try the Scraggy Bay IPA.
- There is no regular camping or caravan site. There's a pop-up site at St Eunan's GAA on R250 west edge of town, but it's only open for the rally in June.
- 1 Apple Hotel (formerly Port Hostel), Port Road F92 NFX9, ☏ . Clean well-run hostel close to town centre.
- Pennsylvania House B&B, Curraghleas F92 KN12, ☏ . This didn't open in 2021. B&B double €100.
- Pearse Road Guesthouse, ☏ . This didn't open in 2021.
- McGettigan's Hotel (formerly Gallagher's), 100 Upper Main St F92 NFX9, ☏ . Glass-fronted place at the top of Main St, friendly and efficient. It's partnered with Clanree and shares facilities. B&B double €80.
- Clanree Hotel. This was closed in 2021.
- Dillon's Hotel, 29-43 Upper Main St F92 F9DX, ☏ . Slick welcoming central hotel with popular bar and grill. B&B double €90.
- Station House Hotel, Lower Main St F92 ERV1, ☏ . Modern comfy central hotel. B&B double €90.
- Radisson Blu Hotel, Paddy Harte Rd F92 FK15 (in retail park), ☏ . Modern central place with pool. No air con so rooms were stuffy in the heatwave of July 2021. Food is so-so. B&B double €110.
- 2 Mount Errigal Hotel, Ramelton Rd F92 FKX6, ☏ . Clean modern place with 139 rooms, some older, and those at the front get traffic noise. With pool. B&B double €85.
- 3 Castle Grove Hotel, Ramelton Rd, Ballymaleel F92 A462, ☏ . Grand Georgian mansion on lakeside with top scores for comfort, service and cuisine. B&B double from €180.
- See Fanad Peninsula for Frewin House and Rathmullan House.
As of Aug 2021, Letterkenny has 5G from Eir and Three, and 4G from Vodafone.
- The Ulster American Folk Park on the road to Omagh depicts the Irish emigrant experience in this region.
- Donegal Town's abbey and castle won't take you long, but nearby are fine Atlantic beaches such as Rossnowlagh.
- Arranmore and Tory Island have ferries and accommodation.
- Derry is a fascinating walled city.