Portsalon is arguably one of the most beautiful coastal towns in Donegal.
Home to the breath-taking Ballymastocker Bay and the hugely popular Portsalon Golf Club, this is a fine base for a weekend away.
In the guide below, you’ll find everything from things to do in Portsalon to where to eat, sleep and drink while you’re there.
Some quick need-to-knows about Portsalon
Although a visit to Portsalon is fairly straightforward, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.
Gloriously situated on the shores of scenic Lough Swilly, Portsalon (Port an tSalainn in Irish) is located on the extreme north coast of County Donegal. It’s a 15-minute drive from Rathmullan, a 25-minute drive from Downings and a 35-minute drive from Letterkenny.
2. Home to Donegal’s finest beach
What put Portsalon on the map after centuries of obscurity was its spectacular sandy beach, commonly known as Ballymastocker Beach or Portsalon Beach. With its clean Blue Flag waters, this crescent shaped golden sandy beach was listed by the Observer newspaper as the “second most beautiful beach in the world”.
3. A scenic base to kick-back for a few days
Although there aren’t many things to do in Portsalon, it’s a stunning base to tackle many of the best things to do in Donegal from. You’ve everywhere from Glenveagh National Park to Fanad Lighthouse a short drive away (more below).
Portsalon is a peaceful community basking in the glorious scenery of the remote Fanad Peninsula. Lush green hills slope gently down to the deep sea inlet of Lough Swilly which is bordered by pockets of golden sand lapped by clear Blue Flag waters.
Facing east, Portsalon is sheltered from prevailing westerly winds but occasionally catches fierce easterly winds blowing across the Lough. Ballymastocker Beach at Portsalon is a sheltered sweep of sand facing east that’s widely regarded as one of the best beaches in Donegal.
In fact, its stunning setting has earned it a spot on many listings of “Top Beaches of the World”. There is parking and a lifeguard service in summer. The beach has a cafe, bar and shop near the stone pier along with a golf club.
The local convenience store in Portsalon is the chance to turn back time and experience the local spirit-grocers which sells provisions at one end and alcoholic beverages in the bar at the other end.
Things to do in Portsalon and nearby
There’s a handful of things to do in Portsalon 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. Saunter along the stunning Portsalon Beach
Head for a stroll along Portsalon Beach and enjoy the sheltered east-facing location. Access to the beach is via a walkway that runs from the golf links which are parallel to the beach.
Located between Fanad Head and Rathmullen, Portsalon Beach looks across the sea lough to the Inishowen Peninsula. The surrounding area is a scenic Natural Habitat Area.
The bay offers moorings and anchorage and dinghies can easily land on the sloping sandy beach.
2. Then admire it from above
The best views of Ballymastocker Bay can be found as you drive northwest from Rathmullan around Saldanha Head. The pristine golden sands and Blue Flag waters stretch north towards the tiny stone harbour at Portsalon offering an idyllic sight on a sunny day.
There’s a handy lay-by where you can pull off the road and take in the view and it’s absolutely stunning on a clear day. Here’s the point to look out for on Google Maps.
3. Hit the water with Adventure One Surf School
Just a 10-minute drive from Portsalon, Adventure One Surf School is located on beautiful Ballyheirnan Bay. It’s the leading ISA approved surf school on the north coast of Donegal.
The owner, Iain Gilmour, has 25 years surfing experience including competing in the national finals. You’ll get the best surf tuition from fully qualified coaches and lifeguards.
Two hour lessons cover board basics, water safety, how to catch a wave prone and then standing on the board.
4. Or take a spin over to Downings and do The Atlantic Drive
Drive 25 minutes through the stunning countryside to Downings where you can pick up the Atlantic Drive. Facing the Atlantic Ocean the 12km route can be walked in half a day or cycled.
The breathtaking drive takes you around Rosguill Peninsula and along Sheephaven Bay with views towards Muckish Mountains and dramatic Horn Head.
5. See the breath-taking Murder Hole Beach
The stunningly beautiful Murder Hole Beach is accessed via the hill at the end of Tra Na Rossan Beach or via a brand new trail that launched in 2022. This “hidden” beach is also known as Boyeeghter Bay, from the Irish Trá Bhá Íochtair which means “strand of the lower (or northern) bay”.
Although it’s a beauty of a beach, swimming is absolutely not allowed here due to the dangerous underwater currents. We’d recommend heading in via the new trail at Melmore – it takes about 15 minutes but note that it’s a tough climb to get there.
6. Visit the magnificent Glenveagh National Park
Take a 35-minute drive to the beautiful Glenveagh National Park, Ireland’s second largest. As well as acres of parkland, the park incorporates Glenveagh Castle and Gardens, Lough Veagh and the Derryveagh Mountains.
Start at the Visitor Centre, then tour the grand 19th century castle mansion built for John Adair. The gardens are brimming with colour and there are tea rooms.
If you fancy a more solitary visit, head out on one of the many marked walking trails. There’s a bus transporting hikers to various trailheads. Go fishing and climbing or try wildness camping with a permit.
7. Play a few rounds at Portsalon Golf Club
Portsalon has a well-respected golf club bordering the golden sandy beach. It’s a great way to enjoy the spectacular Fanad Peninsula scenery while playing a round. The links includes a river and natural undulating landscapes.
Founded in 1891, the course was lengthened and upgraded in 2000 to create the 18-hole championship course. Finish in the Clubhouse Bar and Restaurant overlooking the 18th green.
Places to stay in Portsalon
So, there isn’t much accommodation in Portsalon. However, what it does has to offer packs a fine aul punch. Check these places out:
1. Portsalon Glamping
If you’re looking to try glamping in Donegal, look no further than Portsalon Luxury Glamping which has five spacious Mongolian yurts. They are furnished with king-size beds, cosy soft furnishings, carpet and a woodburner stove. There’s a chest of drawers for storage and a lockable door.
2. Holiday homes galore
This stunning area naturally has a good choice of holiday homes available for rent, such as Duntinney House Portsalon. This 5 bedroom period beach house is enviably located on the Wild Atlantic Way and has breathtaking bay views. It sleeps 12 guests and includes a family room, farmhouse kitchen, walled garden and tennis court.
Pubs and restaurants in Portsalon
If you fancy a feed (or a pint!), you’re in luck – there’s some excellent pubs and restaurants in Portsalon. Here’s three to try:
1. The Stores ‘Olde’ World Bar
Visiting the Stores Olde World Bar in Portsalon takes you back in time to when one-stop store-bars were commonplace in rural Ireland. Overlooking Lough Swilly, this watering hole has two bars, sports TVs and live entertainment.
2. The Pier Restaurant
Specialising in fresh homemade food, the Pierside at Portsalon is a fabulous spot for a bite in the former Pier Restaurant building. Run by an experienced couple of self-confessed foodies with chef Sean Douglas manning the kitchen, it dishes up quality fish and chips, burgers and bites.
3. An Bonnan Bui Cafe & Bistro
Located in Rathmullen, the An Bonnan Bui Cafe & Bistro offers fresh, healthy, locally sourced cuisine for lunch and dinner. The cafe has comfy informal seating for breakfast, coffee and light bites while the bistro has a cosy atmosphere for enjoying soup, burgers, wraps and more.
FAQs about Portsalon in Donegal
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘Are there many things to do in Portsalon?’ to ‘Where’s good for food?’.
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.
What are some good things to do in Portsalon?
So, there aren’t many things to do in Portsalon aside from the beach and the viewpoint. The big draw this town has, aside from the beach, is that it makes a scenic base to explore from.
Is Portsalon worth visiting?
If you’re in the area, yes. The beach here is one of the most impressive in the county and, aside from during summer, it’s a quiet and charming little town for a night or two away.
Gillian Birch is a travel writer and published author. She has travelled the world and uses her personal journals and memories to write about her many travel experiences, particularly those that involved adventures in Ireland.