ALadyofLeisure.com 48 hours in Derry Halloween fireworks cover2

A spookily moving 48 hours in Derry Northern Ireland

If it’s ghouls, ghosts and goblins you’re after, then you have to visit to Derry in Northern Ireland at the end of October for its epic Halloween festival. Derry was voted ‘Best Halloween destination in the world’ by American newspaper USA Today and the entire town goes Halloween-crazy for an entire week leading up to the big day itself.

But there are plenty of great reasons to visit Derry anytime in the other 364 days of the year and you can fit a lot into just 48 hours in Derry: its beautiful location for one: perched on the banks of the River Foyle and just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean and some stunning beaches. Derry is closer to Glasgow than Liverpool and visitors flying in from the British mainland will – weather permitting – get spectacular views of the Scottish coast including the Mull of Kintyre.

ALadyofLeisure.com 48 hours in Derry
The curving Peace Bridge which connects the two sides of Derry across the River Foyle
ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Derry is the only fully walled city in the whole of the island of Ireland and the walls are an integral part of the town centre

Then there is the sense of history, both ancient and more recent, which has shaped the character of the city. Derry is the only completely walled city in the island of Ireland and its 17th century walls – nine furlongs round, just over a mile – are a delight to walk, run or cycle around.Its more recent and turbulent history as a city torn apart by sectarian violence in the long and costly war between unionists and loyalists now forms a part of Derry’s more moving sites: the curving Peace Bridge crossing the river and symbolising hope for a once divided city, and the murals painted on the walls of the terraced houses in  Bogside, just outside the city walls and the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Murals on the side of houses in Derry’s Bogside, site of much conflict over the years but now a great symbol of the peace process

While the name Derry echoes down through history, the name itself is still a source of contention: is it Derry, Londonderry or its Celtic name of Doire? The choice of name is a political one, with Irish nationalists traditionally using Derry and unionists Londonderry, the name Derry was changed to in 1613 after investors from London financed the building of the walled city. The choice of Derry/Londonderry/Doire have led some to call it Stroke City and some – not all – signs to Londonderry have been graffitied over to leave just the last five letters. To add to the confusion, the airport is called City of Derry airport, the railway station is called Londonderry and the city is still officially called Londonderry while the city council is not. However as Councillor John Boyle, the current Mayor told me, ‘I don’t care what people call it, as long as they come and visit.’

No room for confusion here – it’s the City of Derry airport which is seeing huge growth in tourist visits in recent years

And come they do: Derry is one of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland’s fastest growing tourism destinations. Regular flights from the UK by bmi and Ryanair mean that Derry is the perfect destination for a long weekend and visitors are coming not just to discover Derry’s history but also its growing food, events and cultural scene. But there’s a lot to get through in just a few days…

What to do in Derry

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in DerryThe pretty centre of Derry is small enough to get to know very quickly but a walking tour is the best way to be introduced to the city and its history

I’d say that a walking tour is essential: both to get your bearings in this compact city but also to hear Derry’s fascinating and terrible history from someone’s who’d lived through it. Garvin Kerr from the excellent Martin McCrossan walking tours – also known as City Tours – has lived and worked in Derry all his life and is everything you could want from a guide: entertaining, informative and very moving, particularly when we stood on Derry’s 400 year-old walls looking over to the Bogside district, scene of such bloodshed only a few years ago and now sparkling in the sunshine and looking like the most peaceful place you could imagine. The walls themselves are listed as one of the World’s 1001 Historic Sites to see before you die by Unesco and take centre stage in Derry’s epic Halloween celebrations (see below).

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Different eras in Derry’s history: the cannons on top of the walls of Derry overlook the formerly troubled area of Bogside

Walk across the Peace Bridge

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
The 235-metre long Peace Bridge is for pedestrians and cyclists and reaches from the Guild Hall in the city centre of Derry to Ebrington Square and St Columb’s Park on the far side of the river

The curved crossing over the River Foyle – curved, because the path to peace is never straight – cost £14 million of EU money and is a ever-present reminder of how far the city has come. Walk across here to the newer part of the city which is undergoing regeneration, with open-air sculptures, a city brewery and a new hotel expected to open in 2019.

Visit Bogside and the Museum of Free Derry

The Museum of Free Derry is a must-see for visitors to Derry and is a shocking and emotional introduction to the events of Sunday 30th January 1972, the civil rights march which became known as Bloody Sunday. Museum founder and justice campaigner John Kelly, who was 23 when his 17-year old brother Michael was shot and killed that day, spent an hour with our group talking about the lead-up to the march, the march itself and the effect it had on his family. Growing up in the Troubles, he says, ‘was like a war zone – you went out to work in the morning and you didn’t know if you were coming back… death and bombs were a way of life.’

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
A wall mural of a British soldier just down the road from the Museum of Free Derry

Kelly, who now has six sons and nine grandchildren, worked for decades to reopen the inquiry into Bloody Sunday and in 2010 was one of the first to read the verdict of the Bloody Sunday inquiry which concluded that the actions of the British Army that day were, according to David Cameron who apologised on behalf of the British Government, ‘unjustified and unjustifiable.’ Kelly is now fighting to have the individual soldiers prosecuted, such as Soldier F who shot and killed four people that day, including his brother. Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs committed by all sides, the museum is an essential part of understanding Derry’s history. Outside, the colourful Bogside murals have broken guns painted on them, to symbolise the city’s hope for peace.

Go crazy on Halloween

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Something wicked this way come… a spooky flying object heads for Derry Cathedral
Scary witches swing from trees in Derry’s week-long Halloween festival

Halloween has its origins in pagan Ireland’s Samhain festival which marked the start of winter – and a mere 3,000 years later, Derry is bringing it right back home. What started as a small fancy dress party in a pub 30 years ago is now an epic week-long epic festival that brings tens of thousands of people into the city every year.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
A skeleton has a prime seat on the walls of Derry during the Awakening The Walls Halloween celebrations

With more than 100 events in 40 venues across Derry, you’ll be spoiled for choice, with everything from a Zombie Apocalypse experience and a Zombie 5km run to haunted castles, fun fairs, cemetery tours, ghost bus rides and street theatre to entertain and terrify you. Not to be missed is the three-night long Awakening The Walls which is an astonishing collection of theatrical events, aerial displays and visual imagery.

Walking the full circuit of the walls is nothing like anything I’d experienced before: there were witches hidden in trees, fire-eaters, historic soldiers, haunted windows from which demonic nuns with red eyes could be seen, dancing skeletons and more, all to the delight of the hundreds of people doing the tour. Despite the crowds it all felt very friendly and calm, was well organised with a light touch and a truly memorable night. Halloween itself is a parade culminating in an impressive firework display and at least half the town will be in fancy dress. No excuses for not joining in!

Visit Seamus Heaney Homeplace in the village of Bellagy

The museum of poet Seamus Heahey’s life is just outside Derry in his home town of Bellagy

Less than an hour outside Derry is Seamus Heaney Homeplace which is well worth a visit even if you’re unfamiliar with his work (or had been put off at school). The museum is a fascinating celebration of the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s life and has a treasure trove of anecdotes and memories about his life, his family, his inspirations and of course, his poetry.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Spot the connection: Seamus Heaney as man and boy

I was surprised by how many poems I was familiar with (I must have paid some attention in English lessons) and loved discovering new ones, with the help of videos and audio from his friends and family.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
The museum is well worth a visit and will (re-)ignite a love of Heaney’s poetry

Cut your very own peat 

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Cutting a slice of peat requires a great deal of concentration it seems!

Ireland is famous for its peat bogs which cover a sixth of the island and which used to be a staple source of fuel. Now cutting peat is pretty much something for tourists to do, and so here’s a picture of me doing just that, outside the highest pub in Northern Ireland, the Ponderosa. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a piece to take home with you.

Where to eat and drink in Derry

Across the Peace Bridge, the Walled City Brewery was opened in 2015 and was the first craft brewery in the city centre for 100 years. Founded by James Huey and his wife Louise, the brewery restaurant is a beer-lover’s treat, with an array of ales with names such as Boom DPA – Derry Pale Ale – to Stitch, Kicks and Beerexit (particularly poignant as the border to Ireland is just a few miles away and many people cross it seamlessly every day to travel to and from work).

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Staff at the Walled City Brewery line up a tasting tray of three third-pints

The food matches the quality of the beer, with locally-sourced produce making everything from tapas-style pintxos bites, to ‘fillers’ – main courses which include 12ox ribeye steak, BBQ pulled pork, roast chicken laksa and finishing off with a deconstructed cheesecake.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Tapas (and wine) to start off the meal. (I stuck with beer though)
ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Spoiled for choice at the Walled City Brewery… I recommend having a try of pretty much everything

Back in the city centre, there’s a great choice of innovative and traditional restaurants such as Soda & Starch which prides itself on its ‘homely, rustic and comforting food’ and where I felt fully at home with a glass of Guinness and some hearty Irish stew.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
The window of Soda & Starch had a Halloween theme (like much of the rest of the city)
ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Guinness and Irish stew – a great way to start the visit

I also enjoyed Brickwork, just inside the city walls which not only did a great steak but also offers local ale from the Northbound Brewery.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
There was time for a hefty steak from Brickwork before heading off to the Halloween Ball

And of course, there’s always time for a drink in a traditional Irish pub…

Thanks to Tourism Ireland and Flybmi for hosting my trip – details of bmi’s new flights to Derry below

bmi regional factbox

bmi regional has launched a brand new flight from London Stansted to Derry, offering double daily flights except for Saturdays (when there is one flight each way). Fares from London Stansted to Derry cost from £44 one way. All bmi regional fares are inclusive of 23kg hold luggage, complimentary drinks and snacks on board, allocated seating and speedy 30 minute check-ins. www.flybmi.com

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Sarah Bridge

Every review is personally researched and written by me, Sarah Bridge, who, when I'm not writing about leisure for a national newspaper, spends my time seeking out the best leisure experiences, from city centre boutique hotels to country house estates, Michelin-starred dining to the newest openings. Some of the links on my reviews are affiliate marketing links, which means if you click through I get a small commission if you end up buying on these sites. This in no way affects the independence of my reviews, but helps with website running costs and I just wanted to let you know so as to be fully transparent.
Sarah Bridge

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