There is no doubt that Derry has a troubled past and a history of conflict and while it will always remain a strong part of its identity, there is much more to learn about this beautiful walled city.
The first thing that hits you is the warmth of the people. There is such a strong sense of community here and family means everything. Everybody knows everybody, but in a good way. Derry is a testament to what positive community relations can do for a place that has such a troubled history. Things have changed at such a rapid pace in Derry and it has grown into a city that symbolises hope and is not afraid to be a voice for all injustices throughout the world. In fact, local artists often paint murals over the famous “You are now entering Free Derry” mural to show support and a sense of hope to other causes or areas of conflict.
What’s in a name?
Derry or Londonderry has been known by many names. Derry, Londonderry, Stroke City, Doire or, the local’s favourite, Legenderry have all been used. This can be very confusing for tourists. Londonderry is the official legal name of the city, but you certainly won’t get into any trouble by using its other synonyms throughout the city.
A mural in the Bogside in Derry symbolising Peace and the oak tree from which the city originally got its name
Why visit Derry?
Derry might not be as popular as Belfast or the Giants Causeway, but it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked on a visit to Northern Ireland. Although smaller than Belfast, Derry is rich in history, culture and possesses bucketloads of charm. There is a reason that it was named the first UK City of Culture in 2013.
There is so much to see and do in the city that it is appropriately nicknamed ‘Legenderry’ and it is a food lovers paradise! A city that combines quaint Georgian architecture and a vibrant cultural scene, it is just calling out to be discovered. In my opinion, Derry is Northern Ireland’s hidden gem.
Things to do in Derry:
1.Walk the walls
Derry is the only city in Ireland that can claim the accolade of being Ireland’s only remaining completely walled city. Originally built in 1614 and finished in 1618 the city is celebrating 400 years since the completion of these historic walls.
The walls form a historic walkway of 1.5km around the city and offer the most breathtaking views over the surrounding area. This walkway provides a unique promenade to view the original layout of the city which still retains its Renaissance Style-street plan to this day. Original canons that took part in two 17th century sieges can also be found dotted along the way. Along the walls are also the four original gates of the city — Bishop’s Gate, Shipquay Gate, Ferryquay Gate and Butcher Gate. Three additional gates, Castle Gate, New Gate and Magazine Gate. were added in the 1800’s.
Canons from 17th-century sieges line the walkway
During the troubles the walls segregated the Protestant and Catholic communities. The walls earned their immortal place in Irish history through the defiance of Derry’s Protestant Apprentice Boys, whose slamming of the gates in the face of an approaching Catholic army made the Walls of Derry an iconic emblem of Loyalism and Unionism. Having been closed to the public for decades, mainly due to them being an ideal vantage point for snipers and the odd stone-thrower, the peace process has allowed them to become Derry’s most visited attraction.
Protestant Church beside the home of the Appentice Boys.
The best way to visit the walls is by guided tour. Martin McCrossan Guided Tours are highly recommended and you will not meet a tour guide more passionate about his beloved city than our guide, Garvin. He even reduced me to tears at one point with his ability to tell heartwarming stories about the walls’ troubled past. Taking a stroll into Irish history was certainly a highlight of my visit to Derry.
Views of the bogside from the walls of Derry.
The gates of the walls of Derry.
2. The Guildhall
The Guildhall is one of Derry’s most recognisable landmarks. Overlooking the River Foyle, it now houses the Mayor’s parlour and the Council Chambers. It is an impressive building both inside and out with beautiful stained windows and large doorways. It is open daily with free entry and a permanent exhibition on the Plantation of Ulster can be found here.
Views of The Guildhall from the Foyle river bank.
3. Museum of Free Derry
Visiting the museum of Free Derry is a sobering experience. The museum is run mostly by relatives of those who lost their lives in the horrific events that took place on Bloody Sunday and each had a personal story to tell.
Our guide told the story of his grandfather Patrick Doherty who was shot in the back while crawling on his hands and knees to try to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, during, what had begun as, a peaceful civil rights march.
Patrick was 31, had 6 children and was unarmed. He was shot by Soldier F, an alphabet soldier who was given anonymity to protect him. It later transpired that soldier F shot 8 of the 14 victims that day at close range with high velocity 7.62 calibre bullets that could kill targets up to 1km away. None of the victims were armed or posed a threat to the British Army. The families of the victims finally got justice in June 2015 and this museum is an emotional journey through this turbulent time.
Martin McGuinness in the centre.
4. The Peace Bridge
If the walls are a symbol of past segregation, the peace bridge is a wonderful symbol of unity. Spanning the River Foyle, the Peace Bridge quite literally bridges the gap between the largely-Protestant community living on the waterside and the largely-Catholic community living on the city side. The Bridge is built in an ‘S’ shape to signify that the path to peace rarely runs smoothly.
At first there was worry that nobody would use the bridge — why would you want to visit the ‘other side’? — but these fears were proven wrong which, again, is testimony to the positive attitude of both communities. The bridge stretches from Guildhall Square to the recently regenerated Ebrington Square which was the site of the British Army Barracks until 2002.
5. Derry Craft Village
The hidden jewel in Derry City is most certainly Derry Craft Village. Like something straight out of a Dickens’ novel, it is a cultural oasis in the heart of a vibrant city.
A reconstruction of an 18th Century Street and 19th Century Square, the Craft Village provides an eclectic mix of artisan craft shops, balconied apartments, licensed restaurant and coffee shops. It is the perfect place to pick up a gift or a souvenir.
6. Halloween in Derry
There is no better place in the world to celebrate Halloween other than Derry. A festivity originating in Ireland, Derry has well and truly brought Halloween home, and established itself as the best Halloween destination in the world, according to USA Today.
Every effort is put into having the perfect Halloween costume.
The Halloween festival had humble beginnings over 32 years ago. A local pub held a fancy dress party every Halloween. One year during the Troubles there was a bomb scare and, instead of all going home like they were advised to do, the people of Derry took the party to the streets. The festival slowly grew over the years to what it is now, a week of events leading up to the big finale of Halloween night.
1.The Awakening of the walls
For the three nights leading up to Halloween locals party with the supernatural to banish the dark on an illuminated animation trail throughout the historic city walls. Here you will find plays, ghost stories, fires, illuminations, acrobats and storytellers around the mile-long circuit.
Performers at the Awakenings of the Walls
Discover frights and delights along the way, as the weird and wonderful come out to play. A haunting experience as the ancient spirits return and pass through!
2. Le Bal des Luminéoles
Illuminated floating creations from the French arts company Porté Par le Vent, which were seen dancing above St Columbs Cathedral on the city walls.
3. Museum of the moon
The Guildhall was the setting for Luke Jerram’s museum of the moon. A huge, large scale model of this heavenly body sits in the centre of the main hall, lighting up the wood panelling and stained glass windows surrounding it. A relaxing soundtrack picked specifically by the artist ensures that this is the most magical experience.
4. The Halloween Parade and fireworks display
The grand finale is without a doubt the Halloween parade. Over a 100,000 people descend on Derry, most in extravagant costumes, to witness this special event. As the division between this world and the other world is at its thinnest and supernatural beings and the souls of the dead flood the city, it is the perfect time to let your imagination run wild. The parade finishes with the most spectacular fireworks display as the sky alights with colour over the River Foyle.
Tourism in Derry is growing. Thirty years ago it would be so rare to see a tourist that it would be the talk of the town. Tourists are not such a rare sight these days, however. But Derry still often gets overlooked in favour of Belfast and in my opinion has just as much, if not more, to offer than the capital of the North. But come Halloween, Derry leaves Belfast truly in the shade as thousands of tourists come from far and wide to what is the biggest Halloween party around. Derry city really is the hidden gem of Northern Ireland.
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