I recently visited Derry for the first time and it’s a city that leaves a lasting impression. The combination of a fascinating and complex history, a rich culture heritage, stunning architecture, dining options to delight any foodie and welcoming, friendly locals make you want to visit. The sense that this is just the start of the journey and Derry has a lot more to offer, will make you want to return.
In 2013, Derry was the first UK City of Culture, a title that helped to put it on the tourist trail. More recently, the TV series Derry Girls has brought the city to the attention of the world – if you haven’t watched it already, you should definitely check it out! Not so long ago the idea of a comedy set during the Troubles would have been unthinkable. However things have changed a lot in Derry (and throughout Northern Ireland) since decades of conflict formally ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998. There’s a sense of optimism and opportunity in the city and a determination to create a new chapter in it’s history.
Things to do in Derry
Derry is a beautiful city, which is easy to explore on foot (though it is pretty hilly in parts!) making it perfect for a weekend getaway. I visited with my parents and it was my mum’s first visit too. My dad had been to Derry before but that was some fifty years ago so he had a lot of catching up to do!
The city is small and compact, so it is possible to see a lot in just one day but if you have more time, there are plenty of things to do in Derry to fill a weekend or more. I’ve put together a list of the best to help you get planning.
Walk the Walls of Derry
Derry is the only completely intact walled city in Ireland and it’s also considered to be one of the finest in Europe. Built in the 17th century, the walls are now 400 years old and very impressive.
The best way to start your trip to Derry is to take a walk along the walls. There are information panels all along so you can take your time and soak up the information and views at your leisure. Alternatively, you can take a tour to help bring the history to life and then continue on your own afterwards.
We took a walking tour with Martin McCrossan City Tours. The company have been running tours for over twenty years and our guide John, was excellent. He took us along the city walls, outlining the history of the city and pointing out buildings and places of interest as we went. Our tour lasted for just over an hour and included free tea or coffee at Java Cafe afterwards, which was the perfect way to warm up. FYI, the scones are good too!
The tours leave from Carlisle Road, just outside the entrance to Foyleside Shopping Centre. There’s no need to book, you can just turn up at for one of the tour times (currently at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm) and join in. A large banner marks the meeting area. At only £4 per person, it’s great value and it was the perfect introduction to the city. I highly recommend it, as do plenty of others on Tripadvisor!
Explore the Bogside
After the tour we headed to the Bogside, a nationalist neighbourhood just outside the city walls. The road leading down from the walls will bring you to the historic Free Derry Corner. In 1969, the slogan “You are now entering Free Derry” was first painted on the gable wall of a block of terraced houses. Though the houses are long gone, the wall remains.
Museum of Free Derry
For insight into the Free Derry story and what happened in the city during 1968 and 1972 and beyond, a visit to the nearby Museum of Free Derry is a must. The award-winning museum is just a few minutes walk from Free Derry corner. It has an incredible archive of items related to the history of the Bogside area and most have been donated by local residents. The museum tells the story of the struggle for civil rights, the Battle of the Bogside and the events and aftermath of Bloody Sunday.
You can also book a tour at the museum. Our guide (another John!) took us on a short walk around the Bogside to some of the murals close to the museum and to the Bloody Sunday memorial. He shared his own experiences of growing up in the Bogside during the Troubles and revealed that his brother was one the victims killed on Bloody Sunday. It was surreal and heartbreaking hearing John talk about the events of that day, while standing on the very streets where they took place.
The People’s Gallery
The large murals found on the gable walls along Rossville Street in the Bogside are collectively called The People’s Gallery. They depict events that happened during the Troubles and have become one of the city’s main tourist attractions. These iconic images were painted by three artists known as the Bogside Artists and are now famous throughout the world.
Visit the Guildhall
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Derry, you’ll no doubt have noticed the Guildhall. Built in 1887, this magnificent neo-gothic building is pretty hard to miss. Located just outside the city walls near the Peace Bridge, it’s well worth visiting.
Entry to the Guildhall is free and there is an interesting exhibition about the Plantation of Ulster downstairs. The amazing stained glass windows in the building are thought to be some of the finest in Great Britain. The main hall upstairs is impressive and includes a very large and splendid organ. The building’s large clock tower was modelled on London’s Big Ben.
The River Foyle divides the city of Derry. The nationalist Cityside, which includes the old walled city lies on the west bank of the river. On the east bank is the unionist Waterside area. The Peace Bridge, which was opened in 2011, was designed to connect the two communities. The elegant S-shape of the bridge represents a symbolic handshake extending across the river.
There are seating areas along the bridge so you can relax and take in the views of the city and waterfront, or just enjoy some people watching! It only takes a few minutes to cross from one side of the river to the other.
Crossing the Peace Bridge to the Waterside, you will arrive at Ebrington Square. This is the newest public space in the city and is on the former army parade ground at Ebrington Barracks. Development of the square appears to be ongoing and a large section was fenced off when we visited. The square is the largest public space in Ireland and is bigger than London’s Trafalgar Square.
Close to Ebrington Square and the Peace Bridge is an art installation called Mute Meadow. It is made up of 40 pairs of columns and looks best at night when lit up. The colours are inspired by the stained-glass windows of the Guildhall. Next to the square is St Columb’s Park, which contains the ruins of St. Brecans Church dating back to the 16th century.
Unfortunately the Walled City Brewery, which is on the Square was not open early in the week so there wasn’t much going on in the area. I can imagine it’s a popular and busy spot on long summer evenings though.
The Tower Museum is located just inside the city walls at Union Hall Place, close to the Guildhall. Inside an imposing tower building with a modern twist, the museum has permanent exhibitions on the Story of Derry and an Armada Shipwreck. Unfortunately I’ll have to wait till my next visit to check it out as we couldn’t quite fit everything in this time round. On the top floor is an open air viewing platform with panoramic views of the city and the River Foyle.
The Siege Museum
The Siege Museum is located on Society Street and tells the story of the Siege of Derry in 1689, which lasted for 105 days. The museum also provides insight into the history and traditions of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. It’s next to the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall and you can also view some of the meeting rooms used by the ‘Loyal Orders’.
Derry Craft Village
Accessed through a laneway from Shipquay Street, it’s easy to pass this Craft Village without noticing. It’s a quaint reconstruction of an 18th Century Street and 19th Century Square with craft shops, a coffee shop, restaurant and even a thatched cottage. Check it out if you’re on the hunt for some unique gifts or souvenirs.
The restaurant, Soda & Starch, is one that I was keen to try but unfortunately it was another that was closed when we visited. The downside of travelling mid week and off season! Thankfully Derry is not short on great places to eat though.
The Yellow Yard
The Yellow Yard on Palace Street is another unique place for some shopping in Derry, particularly for anyone looking for vintage or retro finds. The indoor market has a record shop as well books, vintage clothing, crafts and other items for sale. It’s the kind of place you can wander into for a quick peek and lose a few hours before you know it!
St Columb’s Cathedral
Located within the city walls, St Columb’s Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the city. You can access the Cathedral for free, though a £2 donation is suggested. Photography inside is not permitted unless you purchase a pass. There is a small museum, which includes artefacts from the Siege of Derry.
Where To Eat and Drink
We had brunch at Cow Bog and enjoyed the yummiest vegetarian breakfast, including veggie sausage on sourdough with fried potatoes, beans and eggs. The vegetarian sausage was so good and the portion sizes were just right. I’m veggie and my mum isn’t a big meat eater but I was impressed that the breakfast got a solid thumbs up from my dad who is very fond of a regular full Irish! Really delicious food. There is also a vegan breakfast option. Breakfast is served till 12 and then the lunch menu kicks in, which looked pretty fab too.
The Sooty Olive
The Sooty Olive restaurant on the Waterside was close to our accommodation and was recommended to us when we checked in. We were very casually dressed, having walked around the city all day and I did feel a little underdressed at first. However, the atmosphere was very relaxed and the staff were so welcoming, I soon forgot about it! The food, which is locally sourced, was really good and beautifully presented. There were a couple of veggie options on the menu but a seperate vegetarian/vegan menu is available with plenty of options to choose from, which was a welcome bonus. The vegetarian Thai red curry was delish!
Walled City Brewery
I was looking forward to trying out the pintxos and craft beers at Walled City Brewery but unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity as it was closed for the duration of our stay. Located in Ebrington Square, the Walled City Brewery is an easy walk from the city centre via the Peace Bridge. Another place for the next visit. Check it out and let me know the verdict!
We initially dropped into the Gweedore Bar for a drink but it cleared out early so we took our drinks into Peadar O’Donnells which is the adjoining bar and seemed to be where the craic was at! We got chatting to some lovely locals at the table next to us and it wasn’t long before the live music started up and the tunes were flowing! Even though it was a Tuesday night there was a great crowd in.