Ballyshannon is said to be the oldest town Ireland and it’s a nice base to explore south Donegal and a chunk of Sligo from.
Finely plonked on the banks of the River Erne, Ballyshannon tends to get overlooked by many visiting the area, with some tourists stopping off in nearby Bundoran instead while en route to Donegal.
However, this ancient town has an awful lot going for it, once you take the time to look!
In the guide below, you’ll find everything from things to do in Ballyshannon to where to eat, sleep and drink while you’re there.
Some quick need-to-knows about Ballyshannon
Although a visit to Ballyshannon is fairly straightforward, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.
2. A nice alternative to Donegal town
Being just 20 minutes south of Donegal town, a stay in Ballyshannon is a nice alternative from the hustle and bustle and it offers a more peaceful setting on the riverbanks.
3. A great base to explore from
So, you’ve the delights of Donegal up along the coast to the north (Slieve League, Glengesh Pass, Malin Beg, etc.) and you’ve many of Sligo’s top attractions (Classiebawn Castle, Benbulben, Rosses Point, etc.) to the south.
Ballyshannon is said to be Ireland’s oldest town, with an incredible architectural heritage and plenty of character in its historical old streets.
Ballyshannon means “the mouth of Seannach’s ford”, which was named after a 5th century warrior by the name of Seannach who is said to have been slain there at the mouth of the river.
The first settlements
There have been some archaeological remains dating back to as far as the Neolithic period showing settlement and ritual activity in the very early days in Ballyshannon.
Some of the earliest settlers in Ireland, the Parthalonians, are known to have been nearby at Inis Saimer Island. There have also been other finds from the Bronze Age, a cemetery dating back to 1100 and artefacts from the reign of Henry III and Edward I.
Ireland’s first official town
In March 1613, Ballyshannon was officially incorporated as a borough by James I. It was always praised for its natural beauty, with the English aristocrat Richard Twiss writing about Ballyshannon in his book, “A Tour of Ireland” in 1775.
You can admire the rich culture and history of the town just wandering through the streets. Along the main street, with the old churches and statues, it’s a wonderful place to take in the stunning heritage buildings.
Things to do in Ballyshannon
There’s a handful of things to do in Ballyshannon and you’ll find many of the best things to do in Donegal a short spin away.
Below, you’ll find everything from hikes and walks to beautiful beaches, castles and much more.
1. Kick start your visit with coffee from Tête-à-Tête
Before you do anything in Ballyshannon, you’ll want to head to this café on Castle Street in the middle of town. Open every day except Sunday, it’s the best spot to grab a fresh cup of coffee before you continue your tour of the town.
Tête-à-Tête is a wonderful French brasserie with seasonal meals and delicious cakes and sweets. With relaxed dining, you can either eat in or take away your coffee as you continue your morning walk.
2. Then tackle the Heritage Trail
If it’s the local history and culture that you’re interested in, then a walk along the town Heritage Trail is a must. The 4km loop includes 10 stops with information boards. It starts at the site of O’Donnell’s Castle by the bus station.
Stops include the Ballyhanna Medieval Graveyard, Ballyshannon Workhouse, Assaroe Waterfall and Old Distillery and Old Barracks. You’ll learn about the ancient past, Famine Times and the story of the Green Lady.
3. Plan a visit around the Rory Gallagher International Festival
Arguably one of the most popular things to do in Ballyshannon is to visit on the June Bank Holiday weekend for the Rory Gallagher International Festival. Known as the largest tribute to the greatest ever Blues Rock guitarist, Rory Gallagher, it attracts 8,000 music lovers from all over Europe.
It features four days of non-stop live music with street gigs, buskers, pus sessions and headline concerts. It’s undoubtedly the most vibrant time of the year to be in Ballyshannon.
4. Spend a morning in Bundoran
Just a short drive down the coast from Ballyshannon is the small town of Bundoran. The seaside resort is a great place to spend the morning. You can either head into town to the main beach and amusement park, or head out to Tullan Strand, an expansive strip of white sand and great surf.
Just between Bundoran and Tullan Strand, the Fairy Bridges and Wishing Chair are a must-see attraction. The natural arch and blow hole in the cliffs date back to the 1700s and are a really unique feature of the coastline.
You can easily take in all the coastal beauty here by walking along the Rougey Cliff Walk from Bundoran out to Tullan Strand. See our guide on things to do in Bundoran for more.
5. And an afternoon sauntering along Rossnowlagh
Just a 15-minute drive north of Ballyshannon is the stunning Rossnowlagh Beach. Stretching from the cliffs of Coolmore to the rocky outcrop of Carrickfad, you’ll find a long stretch of golden sand for the perfect afternoon stroll.
The beach is also well known as a popular surf spot with several surf schools operating in the area. If you’d rather keep your toes dry, head for a saunter along its golden sand or kick-back with a pint with a view at Smugglers Creek Inn.
6. Visit the magnificent Mullaghmore
In the other direction, Mullaghmore is 20 minutes’ drive to the south of Ballyshannon in County Sligo and it’s well worth dedicating a morning to.
7. Or tackle one of many nearby Sligo and Leitrim attractions
The handy location of Ballyshannon means that you can easily explore the many attractions of Sligo and Leitrim from town. Most of the two counties best attractions are within a short drive away, so you can tailor your own day trips.
Some of the must see spots, include:
- Fowleys Falls (20-minute drive)
- Eagles Rock (25-minute drive), Gleniff Horseshoe (30-minute drive away)
- Streedagh Beach (30-minute drive away)
- Rosses Point (40-minute drive)
- Glencar Waterfall (40-minute drive)
8. Take a tour of Donegal Castle
If you can take a short 20-minute drive up to Donegal town, a visit to Donegal Castle is a must. The fully restored castle dates back to the 15th and 17th centuries and is one of the most beautiful castles in Donegal.
While it was built by Red Hugh O’Donnell as a personal fortress during the 15th century, he also set it alight, to save it from being taken by English forces.
Donegal Castle has now been restored almost to its former glory and the tour offers an immersive insight into the area’s past.
9. Or road trip up the coast to see Slieve League
The breathtaking coastal cliffs at Slieve League are some of the most striking features of Donegal’s coastline. Standing at 600 metres high, the cliffs are nearly three times higher than the Cliffs of Moher in Clare.
You can park at the end of the hill leading to them and walk the 40 minutes or so to reach them or you can drive all the way up to the viewing point. The scenery here on a clear day is out of this world.
Hotels in Ballyshannon
There’s a handful of B&Bs and hotels in Ballyshannon for those of you that fancy basing yourselves in the town. Here are our favourites:
1. Dorrians Imperial Hotel
One of the most popular places to stay in Ballyshannon, Dorrians Imperial Hotel is the perfect spot right in the middle of the main street. Like the rest of the town, it has a long history, dating back to 1781. The family-run hotel has traditional rooms and a nice restaurant and bar serving Irish cuisine and a full breakfast to start your day.
2. Assaroe Falls
Located in the Mall in Ballyshannon, these apartments are available to rent, with one, two and three bedroom options for larger groups. The self-contained apartments have river views from the balcony, fully equipped kitchen and laundry. Just off the main street, it’s a peaceful spot for a family holiday, within walking distance of the town’s attractions.
3. Assaroe House
Just off the N15, Assaroe House is a wonderful bed and breakfast to stay for the weekend in Ballyshannon. With comfortable double and family rooms, it’s perfect for couples or families, with some offering private kitchens and mountain views as well.
Pubs in Ballyshannon
You’re not exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to pubs in Ballyshannon, however, the ones that call the village home pack a punch. Make sure to drop into:
1. The Thatch Bar
The Thatch Bar is arguably one of the most beautiful looking pubs in Donegal. It’s more like someones home than it is a pub and its whitewashed walls, thatch roof and live music sessions will make you wish this pub was an awful lot closer to home. A beaut of a bar.
2. Dicey Reilly’s Pub
Probably the most popular place for a drink in Ballyshannon, Dicey Reilly’s is a pub and offlicence store on the main Market Street. The lively pub is the perfect spot to kick-back after a day of exploring. The atmosphere is a highlight, with a range of music playing most nights of the week.
3. Sean Og’s
Sean Og’s on Market Street is another cosy little pub that’s worth nipping into. This spot has a very local buzz about it and you’ll find live music sessions taking place most Saturday nights.
Restaurants in Ballyshannon
If you’re in need of a feed, there’s several restaurants in Ballyshannon that you can nip into for a post-adventure bite-to-eat. Here are our favourites:
1. Nirvana Restaurant
Located in the Mall, Nirvana has a bit of something to tickle most fancies, from seafood chowder and duck confeit to baked fillet of cod and plenty more.
2. Shannons Corner Restaurant
At the end of the Upper Main Street, Shannons Corner is a cosy place that dishes-up home cooked meals. It’s a particularly popular spot for breakfast, but they’re open all day from 9am to 5pm. They also offer a range of vegetarian options.
3. Golden Dragon Restaurant
Located right on Market Street, this popular Chinese restaurant is another good dinner option. You’ll find all the old favourites on the menu here, along with a welcoming family-run vibe.
FAQs about Ballyshannon in Donegal
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘Where’s good for a pint?’ to ‘What is there to do?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Are there many things to do in Ballyshannon?
The Heritage Trail and the Rory Gallagher International Festival are arguably two of the biggest attractions. However, this town makes a great base to explore Donegal and Sligo from.
Is Ballyshannon worth visiting?
Ballyshannon’s biggest draw is that it makes an excellent base to explore from. The fact that you’ve some lively pubs in the town only adds to this!
Elisha is a freelance writer, content creator and blogger and her work can be read in Lonely Planet, Remote Lands and Matador Network. You’ll usually find her travelling in offbeat places or hiking wherever there are mountains; always with a camera in hand.