Derry is a city and county in Northern Ireland with centuries of history to tell. Dating back to the 6th century, when a monastery was founded there, Derry was renamed ‘Londonderry’ in 1613 when King James I of England granted the city a royal charter.
The city’s name remains the subject of debate, with Irish nationalists and many locals typically favouring ‘Derry’ and some unionists – as well as the British government – using ‘Londonderry’ in formal contexts.
From the 1688 Siege of Derry to the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the city has seen more than its fair share of conflict and unrest. Yet Derry boasts an array of insightful and important heritage sites which strive to preserve the city’s past.
Here are 8 of the best historic sites in Derry.
1. Derry City Walls
The Derry City Walls are a set of early 17th century defensive walls in Derry, and the only complete ones of their kind in Ireland. Built between 1613 and 1618, the purpose of the Derry City Walls was to protect the new English and Scottish settlers from attack, having moved to Ulster as part of the Plantation of Ulster. The English had taken Derry in 1600, thereafter calling it Londonderry, and were forced to begin fortifying it following the destruction of the town in 1608 during O’Doherty’s rebellion.
Today, visitors can embark on a tour of the Derry City Walls, and they are a great way to see the city and learn about its history. Along the walls, there are 22 restored cannons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, including the famous ‘Roaring Meg’, used during the 1689 Siege of Derry.
2. Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne
Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple are part of the 18th century estate that once belonged to the eccentric Earl-Bishop Frederick Hervey, overlooking the coast of County Derry, Northern Ireland. The house and temple overlook the picturesque Downhill and Benone Strands on the coast, and together they’re estimated to have cost £80,000 to build in the 1770s and 1780s. They were designed by the architect Michael Shanahan.
The grounds and temple are owned by the National Trust today – there are some gorgeous coastal trails, and Mussenden Temple remains an iconic beauty spot. Look out for the 17th century Hezlett House on the grounds: reportedly one of the oldest buildings in Northern Ireland, it gives a glimpse into the somewhat bleak realities of rural life. The coastal location can bring strong winds and adverse weather conditions, but there’s a café on-site to warm up.
3. Derry Guildhall
The current rendition of the Derry Guildhall was completed in 1890, after its 17th-century predecessor was destroyed in the 1689 Siege of Derry. The glorious, grade A listed building was designed by John Guy Ferguson, while the clock tower was inspired by London’s Elizabeth Tower.
Today, the Guildhall houses meetings of the Derry City and Strabane District Council. It’s also open to the public: visitors can join guided tours of the historic structure. Don’t miss the organ, the great hall and the dazzling stained glass windows.
4. Tower Museum
The Tower Museum in Derry is an institution dedicated to preserving and sharing the local history of Derry and the surrounding area. Situated within Union Hall Place, just inside the old city walls, the Tower Museum has two permanent exhibits: The Story of Derry (detailing the city’s turbulent history) and An Armada Shipwreck – La Trinidad Valencera) exploring the story of a local Spanish Armada shipwreck.
Be sure to visit the viewing platform at the top of the tower for views across the city.
5. St Columb's Cathedral
Situated within the old city walls of Derry, St Columb’s Cathedral is a Church of Ireland structure built in the first half of the 17th century. Its 16th-century predecessor, which sat at the same site, was destroyed during the Nine Years’ War.
Consecrated in 1633, St Columb’s is designed in the Gothic style, while its construction was overseen by Londoner William Parratt. It remains an active place of worship to this day.
6. Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall
The Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall was opened in 1877, in memory of the 13 apprentice boys who closed Derry’s city gates in 1688 to shut out roughly 12,000 Jacobite soldiers during the Siege of Derry. The building was expanded in 1937, with the new quarters crowned in memory of those who died during World War One.
The hall now serves as the official headquarters of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a fraternal Protestant society centred in the city but with roughly 10,000 members worldwide. It’s also home to the Siege Museum and Exhibition, which details the 1688 siege.
7. Museum of Free Derry
The Museum of Free Derry was opened in 2007 to document the ‘Free Derry’ years – 1968-1972 – when Irish nationalists declared portions of the city autonomous as a way of avoiding discrimination from the largely Protestant, unionist government and police force.
The museum documents the community’s struggle for rights, and is housed in a former housing estate in Glenfada Park. In 1972, that very estate bore witness to the Bloody Sunday – or Bogside – massacre, in which British paratroopers shot and killed 14 unarmed civilians.
8. Bloody Sunday Memorial
The Bloody Sunday Memorial in Derry is an obelisk constructed in memory of the 14 civilians who were shot and killed by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. In total, 26 unarmed civilians were shot during a protest march in the Bogside area of the city.
The memorial, a simple obelisk adorned with the names of the victims, was erected two years later, on 26 January 1974.