There are some places that for no apparent reason, you make an instant connection with, and as we drove over the River Foyle and I caught my first glimpse of the stunning city walls, I began to feel that magic. Even though it’s a city that’s etched into the consciousness of most people that know anything about The Troubles, Derry is not a particularly well known tourist destination. As a result we had very little idea of what to expect from it before we arrived, but left with a deeper understanding of its fascinating history as well as an appreciation for the incredible city that it is today.
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**Just before we get going, I’m going to take a moment to address something that may be confusing to many people who aren’t familiar with this city, and a point of contention for those who are. You see, it’s known by two names, Derry and Londonderry, each with different connotations attached and distinct histories which I won’t go into here, but a quick internet search will provide you with plenty of info. This is not a political blog, it’s a travel blog, but I will say that having visited Derry, I didn’t hear a single resident refer to it as Londonderry whether Catholic or Protestant. So if you want to take issue with me calling it Derry, that's your choice.**
What Not to Miss in Derry
Museum of Free Derry
We visited the Museum of Free Derry on the very first week of its reopening since having undergone a multi million pound refurbishment and extension. Though it’s still quite a small building, the amount of information contained within its walls is unbelievable. The Museum of Free Derry is poignantly located in the very heart of the Bogside area where the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre took place.
It focusses on the story of the struggle for civil rights in Ireland between the years of 1968 and 1972 and the central role that Derry played in it, but starts at the very beginning stages of the city of Derry. The imaginative use of film, sound and thousands of original artefacts give you a sense of the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the events leading up to it. In order to understand this city and the troubles it has faced, this is really a must-visit, and at only £3 entrance is well worth it.
The Free Derry Bogside Tour
Following our visit to the Museum of Free Derry, we booked to go on the Bogside Tour which starts just outside and can be booked when you pay your entrance to the museum. The tour combines walking around the very streets where Bloody Sunday took place with a look at the various political murals that decorate the surrounding houses. The most famous mural is the iconic “You are now entering free Derry” slogan which became a symbol of the struggle, but is now regularly temporarily painted over in support of various civil rights movements throughout the world.
Our guide John McKinney was extremely knowledgeable on the local area and the Bloody Sunday killings and this local input made the tour especially fascinating. It wasn’t until the very end that we discovered that his brother Gerard McKinney was one of the innocent victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre, which really brought home the lasting and devastating effect it had on normal people.
Walk The City Walls
We've seen a few walled cities on our travels but Derry’s is undoubtedly one of the most impressive. It’s the only city in Ireland to still have its walls completely in tact, and when you consider they were built over 400 years ago that’s some feat. The walls are just under a mile round and are an incredible way to get an alternative view of the city, both within and outside of the historic boundaries. There’s a lot of impressive architecture in the old city as well as dozens of original cannons pointing outwards from its walls over the newer parts of Derry. It’s a short walk and absolutely free to do.
Cross over the Peace Bridge
There are three bridges in Derry that span the River Foyle, the pedestrianised Peace Bridge is the most impressive and newest of them all having opened in 2011. The idea behind it was to connect the two communities that lie on the opposing banks in Waterside and Cityside, and though there was local opposition to it at first, it’s now an established part of Derry’s landscape. It’s got an unusual S-shaped design that winds its way across the river and looks great lit up at night. It also provides impressive views from the bridge back towards the walled city.
Visit the Craft Village for Souvenirs
The craft village is a quaint little collection of shops housed in ancient, tiny cottages. We’re not really souvenir collectors (can’t fit many into a carry on anyway!), but we did enjoy looking around at the pretty houses and thatched buildings as well as the local goods on offer. It’s definitely the place to go if you want a keepsake, but nice to visit even just for a look.
A Night Out in Derry
The craic in Derry is good, and like the rest of Ireland we found people to be extremely friendly. Undoubtedly the best place to head for a good night out is Waterloo Street which runs alongside the city walls. This street is packed with a number of brilliant pubs that run virtually the length of the street starting at Butcher Gate and heading down the gentle slope towards the river. We got told that if we were heading out for a few drinks then that’s the way to do it as well, start at the top and make your way down, stopping at each establishment for a pint.
Makes perfect sense to be walking downhill when you think of it (walking uphill is much harder after a pint or two), and this pub crawl even has a name, the Waterloo Challenge. There was live music in all of the places we visited, our favourite was The Gweedore Bar which had a traditional band playing and an amazing atmosphere, despite it being a school night!
Where to Stay
We stayed at a cracking hostel called Hostel Connect which is in the perfect location being a street back from the river, and just a five or ten minute walk from all of the attractions we’ve mentioned above. We got the most amazing introduction to the city by the guys who run it and they sorted us out with a great itinerary for the time that we were there.
There are a mixture of dorms and private rooms, and they’ve got cool music themed names - we stayed in the Purple Rain room, which as a Prince fan was quite exciting. The room was bright with high ceilings and huge windows and was exceptionally clean and comfortable. There is a large common area to chill out on the sofas and meet people in and a great free continental style breakfast provided with loads of bagels, cereals, cheeses, spreads and stuff to choose from. This place comes highly recommended from us!
Derry was an absolute blast, and somewhere we would love to go back to as we’re well aware that there is plenty of stuff that we didn’t manage to do. It’s a complicated city, and though it wears its recent history on its sleeve, doesn’t dwell on it, allowing you to appreciate its picturesque beauty and exciting modern development.
Have you ever visited Derry? What place have you been to that surpassed all of your expectations? Drop us a comment below and let us know!