7 cultural highlights of Derry-Londonderry and Donegal

Derry-Londonderry and Donegal are two wild counties that are distinct yet dovetail perfectly on a short break. Both boast a treasure trove of cultural wonders, which lie handily close to one another...

4 mins

1. Explore Fort Dunree

Built by the British in the early 19th-century out of fear of French invasion, Fort Dunree is the best preserved of the six military fortifications built in Ireland. It’s also the most dramatic, occupying a craggy perch on the wave-battered Inishowen Peninsula. You’ll come for the informative military museum that is now housed within its wind-blasted walls but you’ll stay for the raw wilderness that surrounds it – a setting that has inspired local artists to capture it on canvas, with their work displayed at exhibitions within the museum. Treat it as your playground, with walking trails webbing the clifftops offering widescreen coastal views under circling choughs and fulmars. If you fancy getting a little closer to the water, then you can embark on adventurous guided coasteering experiences or hop in a kayak for a paddle along its shoreline to explore the caves which honeycomb its coast and have nose-to-fin encounters with harbour porpoises, otters and bottlenose dolphins.

2. Learn about the art in Derry-Londonderry

At Fort Dunree, you’re only a 40-minute drive from the creativity that runs through the city of Derry-Londonderry. The Bogside murals are one of the city’s most striking displays, where 12 pieces of art (affectionately known as the People’s Gallery) have been splashed upon the sides of houses lining Rossville Street as a sombre reminder of the Troubles. More of Derry-Londonderry’s artisanal prowess lies nearby at its Craft Village. Dickensian in its appearance with its wrought-iron balconies, thatched roofs and narrow passageways, this is the city’s cultural hub and home to over 70 crafters selling everything from Derry crystal to ceramics and handwoven cloth. Stay for a brew in one of its coffee shops, feeling like you’ve been transported back to the 19th century for a second, before spreading your wings to explore Derry’s collection of galleries. The Garden of Reflection is a regenerated courtyard comprising an amphitheatre, public art displays and a revolving exhibition, while the Centre for Contemporary Art is an invaluable platform for emerging Irish artists.

3. Go back in time at Grianán of Ailéach

The Donegal countryside has been savoured for millennia by humans, a point proven by the fort of Grianán of Ailéach, which sits atop a hill in Inishowen a mere 20-minute drive from Derry-Londonderry. Thought to date back as far as 1700BC and built by the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann tribe who built Grianán as both a strategic fortress and temple to their god Dagda. The stone circle you see today was largely rebuilt during the 19th century but one thing that hasn’t changed is the spectacular panorama you’re granted from its perch. Admire views of Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, glacial fjords that hem in the Inishowen Peninsula, which majestically spreads out like the palm of a hand. You’ll also spy remnants of ancient life in the shape of Bronze and Iron Age settlements in the countryside below, signs of how humans have enjoyed this pristine emerald patch for centuries and longer.

4. See the Seamus Heaney Home Place

Ireland’s landscapes don’t just inspire its protectors but literary geniuses as well. A Nobel Literary Prize winner in 1995, Seamus Heaney is one of Ireland’s greatest poets, cutting his teeth in Bellaghy, about an hour’s drive from Derry-Londonderry. You can see where (and how) he spent his formative years at the town’s Seamus Heaney Home Place, a museum and arts centre that’s an all-encompassing dive into the great man’s life. Its exhibitions inside feature a rich selection of photographs, poetry and artefacts that tell you about his early life and the places and people that inspired him and his work. Extra dimensions are added in the form of a faithful reconstruction of his study, while informative audio guides feature poetry read by Heaney himself, vividly bringing his words to life. The centre isn’t just designed to look back on Heaney’s masterful wordplay but also inspire the next generation of poets with its regular writing workshops and poetry reading sessions.

5. Walk the walled city of Derry

Painstakingly constructed during the early 17th century by The Irish Society around the inner city, Derry-Londonderry has outlasted all others to become Ireland’s only remaining fully intact walled city. Its nickname as the ‘Maiden City’ owes itself to the walls, as they have never been penetrated by invaders. Cemented with 300 years of history and heritage, the walls are still one of the best ways to get under Derry-Londonderry’s skin. You have two options, with the first strolling atop the ramparts (about 1.5km in length) for an elevated glimpse of its heritage buildings and original renaissance-style street layout that has been faithfully preserved. The other is the Dry Moat Walk, where you wander around the walls’ exterior, weaving in and out of its grand gates and spying a handful of its cannon-speckled bastions. Make time to admire the fine stain glass and headstones at St. Augustine’s Church, charmingly known as the ‘Wee Church on the Walls’. The best way to learn of the fascinating history of the Walled City? By walking with an expert guide. The passionate guides from Unlocking the Walled City tour will make your stroll a captivating one with their stories of the city from the 6th century right up until the present day. 

6. Head to the museums

Derry-Londonderry’s walls were built to keep intruders out but is also good at keeping its fine collection of museums in. The Visit Derry Pass (£25 per person for one day, £30 for two days), which offers free entry to ten of the city’s attractions, is your handy ticket to three of its best. The Tower Museum’s fifth-floor lookout is Derry-Londonderry’s only open-air city centre viewpoint, while its two permanent interactive exhibitions cast a comprehensive light on Derry-Londonderry’s story and Spanish Armada ship La Trinidad Valencera. The pass also grants entry to the Museum of Free Derry, which depicts the courageous uprising of the city’s oppressed working class around 50 years ago, and the Siege Museum for the 17th century blockade. Out of the city in Donegal, Inishowen Maritime Museum & Planetarium is a gripping portal into seafaring life here over the past few centuries, with exhibits on the once oft-used Drontheim (fishing boat), sunken shipwrecks rescued from Lough Foyle and the doomed Spanish Armada.

7. Listen to live local music

Music has long been ingrained in Derry-Londonderry life. Both The Undertones and indie artist SOAK were born here and, with your ears pricked, it won’t be hard to find a pub, café or even church humming with catchy riffs or melodies. If you’re after a ‘typical’ night out, Peadar O'Donnell's is a classic Irish pub which plays traditional music every night of the week. If you fancy switching up your short break soundtrack, the Gweedore Bar next door hosts live rock bands nightly; Mason’s has also become an invaluable platform for up-and-coming talent. On the banks of the River Foyle, Sandinos Cafe Bar offers a more eclectic playlist with its mix of traditional, jazz and world music – come the weekend it hosts some of the city’s most talented DJs – while the Thirsty Goat combines live music with traditional Irish food.

Feeling inspired? 

Start planning your dream visit to Derry-Londonderry and Donegal now by heading over to the official website. 
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