Derry, Londonderry, the Maiden City, the Walled City, Stroke City, LegenDerry: there are a lot of different names for the 2nd biggest city in Northern Ireland!
Whatever you call it, if you come to Northern Ireland you owe it to yourself to pay a visit. Wonder why? By all means, read on!
The history of Derry/Londonderry
To fully appreciate a visit to Derry you need to understand a little bit about its troubled history. Thousands of pages have been written about the subject, but don’t worry, I’ll keep it concise!
In the early 1600’s the Protestant King James I was on a mission to settle English protestants in Northern Ireland. He called the most important town Londonderry. It was to have 200 houses and a population of about 1000. In the years 1613-1618 walls were built around the city as a defence, which
turned out to be a good idea; during the second half of the 17th century Londonderry was besieged several times. The most famous siege took place in 1688-1689 when the Catholic army of James II attempted to enter the city. For more than 100 days up to 30.000 people stood up against it and the walls of Derry were never breached!
That wasn’t the end of the suffering for the city however. Clashes between the Protestant and Catholic population continued well into the 20th century and were at their worst during a time euphemistically called “The Troubles”. From the late 1960’s Northern Ireland was involved in what can only be described as a civil war. Tension between Protestants (loyalists) and Catholics (republicans) had been building up for some time and eventually erupted into violence. In 1969, the “Battle of the Bogside” (the area of Derry where a majority of Catholics live) resulted into 3 days of rioting and in 1972 “Bloody Sunday” was the day on which 14 people got killed during a Civil Rights march.
With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the fragile peace in Northern Ireland has been restored and Derry is nowadays a flourishing city and one you can’t afford to miss on your trip to Northern Ireland!
The 10 best things to do in Derry / Londonderry
1. Hands across the divide
The first thing you’ll see crossing the bridge from the railway station into town is the statue of two people reaching out to each other across a clearly visible trench. The statue represents the loyalist and republican communities and is a symbol for reconciliation and hope for the future.
2. Walk the walls
400 years old, up to 8 metres high and a length of approximately 1 mile, the walls of Derry are THE highlight of the city. They were built between 1613-1618 and have never been breached, not even during the Siege of 1689. Walking the whole length you will come across various gates, bastions and some beautiful viewpoints. The best panorama is from the Grand Parade which offers far-reaching views over the Bogside and the murals.
3. The Guildhall
Originally built in 1890, the Guildhall is one of Derry’s most recognizable landmarks. It’s situated right outside the city walls, in the heart of the city. Home to the council, the Guildhall is also of interest to visitors. The architecture of the building is stunning and inside you can admire the beautiful stained glass windows or learn all about the Plantation of Ulster and other parts of Derry’s history. There’s a café if you’re after some refreshments as well.
4. The Tower Museum
Located within the city walls, the Tower Museum tells the history of Derry from prehistoric times to the present. A second exhibition guides you through the story of one of the biggest ships of the Spanish Armada, the “Trinidad Valencera”, which sank off the coast of county Donegal.
Really interesting! It takes about 60-90 minutes to see both exhibitions.
5. The People’s Gallery and Free Derry corner
The Bogside is a majority Catholic/Republican area just outside the city walls. It’s synonym with the huge 12 political murals that decorate the houses along Rossville Street, aka “the People’s Gallery”. The murals represent key moments of Derry’s troubled history and were painted between 1997-2001. You can get a good overview by standing on the Grand Parade, on the city walls, but it’s definitely worth getting a closer look. “The Petrol Bomber” depicts a young boy wearing a gas mask, holding a hand granate. “The Death of Innocence” shows the picture of a 14-year old school girl, killed in 1971 and said to be the 100th victim of the Troubles. Very evocative!
A symbol of optimism is the Peace Mural, combining a dove and an oak leaf, two symbols of Derry. The colours represent the bright future that awaits the city.
On the western side of Rossville Street stands the white wall of Free Derry, a self-declared autonomous nationalist area of the city that existed between 1969 to 1972. It is regularly painted over with current events. (e.g. a Palestine flag or repainted pink for Gay Pride)
6. Museum of Free Derry
Also situated in the Bogside area, next to the People’s Gallery is the Free Derry Museum. It narrates the story of key events that happened in this very same area, like the “Battle of the Bogside” and “Bloody Sunday”. The story is told from the point of view of the inhabitants who were involved in and affected by these events, hence it might feel rather biased to some people. It is still unmissable if you want to learn about that part of Derry’s history!
7. The Siege Museum
If you want to learn about a part of Derry’s history from a loyalist (protestant) point of view, head over to the Siege Museum. It is dedicated to the story of the 1689 Siege of Derry, when 13 Apprentice Boys (a Protestant fraternal society) shut the gates of the walls in the faces of the Catholic army of King James II. Regardless of political persuasion the exhibition is highly informative.
8. The Peace Bridge
By now you must have had enough of the conflict and history of the city, so it’s time to venture to the other side of the river Foyle, across the Peace Bridge. The cycle and foot bridge has only been opened since 2011
and is intended to improve connections between the largely unionist Waterside area and the largely nationalist Cityside area. Meandering across the S-shaped bridge, you are rewarded with nice views over the river Foyle.
9. The Walled City Brewery
Half-restaurant, half-brewery, the Walled City Brewery represents a new wind blowing over Derry. It is situated on Ebrington Square, a place once home to the barracks of the British Army during the Troubles.
The brewery aims to provide people a taste of the area through crafting local, premium quality beer and food. And they succeed! The food is really tasty and the quirky named beers are a perfect addition to it!
It’s the ideal place to take in all the impressions of your visit to the city!
10. “Derry Girls” location tour
This one might seem odd for non-UK readers but “Derry Girls” is a very popular and hilarious Northern-Irish TV series about the life of five Catholic teenagers in Derry during the Troubles. The humour is typically Northern-Irish, so if you’re looking for some local culture, head over to Netflix and binge-watch the first season!
The tourism department of the city has jumped on the bandwagon and Derry is now home to a proper “Derry Girls” mural! You can also do a “Derry Girls location tour” and visit some of the places where the series was filmed.
It’s safe to say Derry is on a revival. What was once a no-go-zone has developed into a city where history meets regeneration. It’s a place of change and hope, and after having explored the Northern Irish capital, Belfast, it’s a place that should be added to every itinerary around Northern Ireland!