A beautiful city with a tumultuous history, even Derry’s name is a bone of contention.
The official name is Londonderry, but for obvious reasons Derry was always preferred by the city’s Republican communities, and is used more often today.
One flashpoint in Derry’s past was the Siege of 1689 by the Jacobites against the Williamites, which put the 1.6-kilometre wall system to the test.
These defences held strong, and remain in excellent condition today.
Derry had long been a divided city with a protestant minority, and in the face of discrimination by the Unionist government the Catholic community in Derry came to symbolise the civil rights movement.
It was here that the infamous Bloody Sunday took place in 1972, and the healing process continues today.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Derry:
1. Walls of Derry
As Ireland’s first planned city Derry was given a set of diamond-shaped defensive walls in the 1610s to protect its newly-arrived English and Scottish colonists (planters). The Walls of Derry have the distinction of never being breached, and stood up to a 105-day siege in 1689 during the Williamite War.
Derry is an outstanding example of a walled city and was also the very last city in Europe to be given defences.
They measure 1.6 kilometres in total, and you can walk along the ramparts to view the countryside from the gun embrasures and check out the Inner City, which still has its Renaissance grid layout.
Those gun positions are armed with 24 cannons, many of which were fired during the 17th century and are all traceable to their foundries.
The most storied of these is the newly restored “Roaring Meg”.
Completed in 1890 the Guildhall was commissioned by the Honourable Irish Society and has neo-Gothic and Tudor Revival architecture.
The Derry and Strabane District Council sits in this red sandstone monument, easy to identify for its traceried windows and clock tower with carved jambs and archivolts on its portal.
The first stages of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday took place in the Guildhall in the early 2000s and the building doubles as a cultural venue and sight for tourists.
Go in to view the stained glass, including one work commemorating Bloody Sunday, and to see an exhibition about the history of the city going back to colonisation during the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster.
3. Bogside Murals
A poignant reminder of Derry and Northern Ireland’s difficult recent past, the Bogside Murals are 12 large paintings in the Bogside neighbourhood.
It was in this part of the city that Bloody Sunday took place, and in 1993 two brothers Tom and William Kelly, and their friend Kevin Gasson, collaborated to record this events, champion civil rights and express their hope for peace.
Together the works are known as the People’s Gallery, and depict the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, the 14 victims of Bloody Sunday, Operation Motorman in 1972, a dove of peace and an anti-sectarian message from 2004. For added context you can take a guided tour around the Bogside.
4. St Columb’s Cathedral
In a Northern Irish style known as Planter Gothic, St Columb’s Cathedral was built within the walls for the Honourable Irish Society in the early-1630s.
The nave and tower are from the earliest phase of construction, making this the oldest standing monument in Derry, while the chancel, spire and chapter house came in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the porch is a foundation stone that originates from the earlier Big Church dating to the 1100s and town down to build Derry’s ramparts.
Here there’s an inscription from the new church’s dedication in the 17th century.
Within are portraits of William of Orange, Derry’s city keys and a number of artefacts from the siege of 1689.
5. Tower Museum
In a historic tower in Derry’s City Walls, this museum goes into depth on the history of the city.
The award-winning exhibition begins in prehistory a takes you up to the 1960s.
In a separate gallery you can see artefacts from La Trinidad Valencera, a Spanish Armada ship that was wrecked off the Donegal coast in 1588. You’ll then continue the journey through the eventful second half of the 20th century at the cinema, explaining the story, causes and outcome of the Troubles.
At Level 5 the tower also has the best vantage point of Derry’s Inner City and the River Foyle.
6. Peace Bridge
A 21st-century landmark for Derry, the Peace Bridge spans the Foyle River between Ebrington Square and the remainder of the city centre.
The location is more than symbolic as the crossing is a literal bridge between the Waterside and Cityside communities, which are generally Unionist and Nationalist respectively.
Completed in 2011 the serpentine pedestrian bridge is 235 metres long and was a collaboration between AECOM and Wilkinson Eyre Architects, the firm behind the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
Derry has taken the Peace Bridge to heart and it sets the scene for the celebrations at New Year.
7. Free Derry Museum
Derry’s turbulent years from the 60s to the 90s are neatly summed up at this museum that opened in 2006. The Free Derry Museum tells you everything you need to know about the Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday and Operation Motorman, complementing its exhibitions with more than 25,000 artefacts.
Along with letters, posters and personal effects there are also photographs and archive footage.
Key to understanding these events is learning about the oppression of this working class community and the internment that helped raise tensions.
The museum strikes a conciliatory note, establishing the concept of Free Derry as a universal push for civil rights and equality.
8. Free Derry Corner
Back in the Bogside neighbourhood there’s a monument at the junction of Rossville Street, Lecky Road and Fahan Street.
The message “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” was painted in 1969 by a local activist and marks the entrance to what was a self-declared autonomous Nationalist part of the city in the early stages of the Troubles.
Initially this was part of a row of terrace houses, but those have been demolished, leaving a single standing wall in the central reservation of Lecky Road, which is today a dual carriageway.
On the green beside the gable wall is a memorial to those who died in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, and a monument for the members of the IRA’s Derry Brigade that died fighting in the Troubles.
9. St Columb’s Park
At Waterside on the right bank of the River Foyle is a rolling park that was once a noble estate before being bought for the people of Derry by the Londonderry Corporation in 1845. Tucked into the riverbend, it’s a serene place to stroll or go for a summer picnic, and can be visited on a river walk after crossing the Peace Bridge.
The manor house at St Columb’s Park House was built in the 18th century and is today used for accommodation and as a conference centre, with a cafe on the ground floor.
10. Siege Museum
In 2016 an extension to the Apprentice Boys of Derry Memorial Hall was completed with a new exhibition about the 1688 Siege of Derry.
There are artefacts and firsthand accounts from within the city during the siege, as well as details of archaeological digs around the city which have brought to light tools, ceramics and weapons.
You can also catch up on the history of the Associated Clubs of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and on a guided tour you’ll be shown around the meeting room for this order, as well as the Orange Order, Women’s Orange and the Royal Black Institution.
11. St Eugene’s Cathedral
The seat for Derry’s Roman Catholic Diocese, St Eugene’s Cathedral is was built in the Gothic Revival style in the second half of the 19th century.
You’ll see the tower in the northwest of the city on the edge of Brooke Park and with clusters of Georgian houses at its foot.
The architect was James Joseph McCarthy, and funding was raised both in Derry and Ireland, but also in America.
In a niche in the bell-tower, above the portal is a statue of St Eugene dating to 1873, while the sanctuary floor is laid with Sardinian granite and the altar is fashioned from Carrara marble.
12. Ness Country Park
Derry’s a pocket-sized city, and in a matter of seconds you’ll be out in the countryside.
A lovely spot for a wander is Ness Country Park, 55 hectares of woodland and meadows on the Banks of the Burntollet River.
You can explore seven kilometres of forest and riverside walks, leading you to the delightful Ness Waterfall and a set of rapids.
If there’s an ideal time to come it’s early spring when the bluebells and wood anemone’s carpet the mossy forest floor with colour.
13. Craft Village
In the old centre of Derry a street and square from the 18th and 19th centuries have rediscovered their old-time charm.
This small quarter deserves a wander for its artisan craft shops, cafes and restaurants.
There are quaint Georgian houses, staircases, gas lamps and wrought-iron footbridges, and a host of businesses within a couple of minutes on foot.
These specialise in Irish dancing costumes, glassware, knitwear, candles, crystal home designed and more besides.
The focal point is the Canopy and large iron and glass structure sheltering an outdoor stage for live music.
14. Derry-Coleraine Railway
The 50-kilometre train ride east to Coleraine has been described by comedian/travel writer Michael Palin as one of the most beautiful in the world.
It’s a justified claim, because the railway weaves through a green landscape of dry-stone walls and forbidding basalt hills before hitting the coast at the endless golden sands of Benone Strand.
Soon after you’ll be at Castlerock, which has its original station from 1873 from there you’ll enter the two longest railway tunnels in Ireland, both dug in the 1850s.
After arriving in Coleraine you’ll have the Causeway Coast at your fingertips, named after the world-famous UNESCO site and with several Game of Thrones filming locations close by.
15. Prehen House
A couple of miles upriver from the centre of Derry you’ll find this Irish Georgian country house constructed in 1740 for the MP for Donegal Andrew Knox.
Prehen House is tied to the tale of Mary Ann Knox.
She was accidentally killed during an attempted abduction and elopement (common in the day), by the landowner John MacNaghten, who was subsequently hanged for the crime.
His execution had to be carried out twice as he broke the rope by hurling himself from the gallows the first time.
Prehen House is still privately owned, but opens up for tours, during which you’ll hear about this tale and admire the magnificent views of Derry and the Foyle River.