Exploring Northern Ireland’s Five Cities

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All About Rosa Lilla is a lifestyle and travel blog by Galway-based Nicola Lavin.

Northern Ireland is an incredible place to explore. With all its valleys, rugged coastlines, beautiful castles, there are so many amazing reasons to visit. But the cities are where it’s at! There are officially only five cities in Northern Ireland. Armagh, Belfast, Lisburn, Derry and Newry and each one deserves to be explored. Unofficially however it is common for large towns to also be referred to as cities in Ireland, but for this guide I am sticking to the five official Northern Ireland cities.

Armagh City

It is hard not to be impressed by Armagh’s lineage. This city is packed full of an ancient history, hilly lanes and streets, elaborate doorways and beautiful architecture.

Ok, when you hear that Armagh city is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland it doesn’t exactly conjure up images of an urban metropolis, but its blend of culture, cathedrals and craic make for a pretty amazing destination.

Things to do in Armagh

Visit Armagh’s churches

Saint Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Armagh

Religion does play its part and it is hard to ignore the city’s troubled past. There are a number of beautiful churches to visit. The legacy of St. Patrick is still strong in Armagh. Apparently St. Patrick built a stone church on a hill here back in 445AD. This hill is where the city of Armagh got its name – Ard Mhacha the Height of Macha. There now stands St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral where you can descend to a crypt dating from the Middle Ages to discover treasures including stone carvings of people and animals.

On another hill on the other side of the valley stands the impressive twin-spired Roman Catholic Cathedral also dedicated to St Patrick. The interior of this cathedral is beautiful and well worth a visit and I highly recommend having a guided tour there.

Stargaze at Armagh Planetarium

Armagh Planetarium

The building of the Armagh Planetarium was overseen by the world’s most famous TV astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Today, it still offers ‘out of this world’ experiences of the night sky in a digital theatre that gives awe-inspiring experiences of the planets, constellations and galaxies. You can even touch a 4.6 billion year old meteroite and literally wish upon a star!

Walk the Georgian Mall

Armagh Mall

Walk the tree-lined mall in the heart of Armagh city centre to really soak up the city’s Georgian ambiance. Here you can begin a cultural tour of the city at the Armagh County Museum that hosts an impressive collection of historical artefacts. The Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum is also well worth a visit. After this head over to the Armagh Public Library where you can view a first edition copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels with handwritten notes inside. How incredible is that?

Explore The Orchard County

If you didn’t already know, Armagh’s nickname is The Orchard County. Every May, Armagh comes alive with colour as the apple blossoms bloom. This revered variety of fruit covers the Armagh countryside – about 6,000 acres of trees, centred around the village of Loughgall, produce about 40,000 tonnes of apples each year. If you love apples, apple juice, cider, tarts, with a generous helping of fun and entertainment, then you simply must visit Armagh’s Apple Blossom Festival which happens every May.

Armagh apples

There are many things to do in Armagh. From enjoying the wildlife at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, to learning about its celtic past at Navan Fort. The Ring of Guillon is one of the area’s jewels and you can also explore the Irish gentry house and woodland estate at The Argory.

Belfast City

I am a huge fan of Belfast! I have been to this city numerous times in recent years and I fall in love with it a little more each time.

Steeped in Victorian history and experiencing an ever-evolving cultural scene, Belfast is a treasure trove of historic sites, architecture and buildings from both the past and present. Northern Ireland’s capital city is a wonderful place to visit. With an eclectic mix of new and old architecture, a vibrant street scene and plenty of character. You will simply adore your time here.

Belfast is easy enough to explore on foot and there are lots of things to do. It is also a photographers dream with an amazing street art scene to capture on camera.

Things to do in Belfast

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast, with the famous Harland & Wolff crane behind it

No visit to Belfast is complete without a visit to the Titanic museum. Titanic Belfast is situated within the heart of Titanic Quarter, just a short walk from Belfast’s city centre. Explore the shipyard, walk the decks, travel to the depths of the ocean and uncover the true legend of Titanic in the city where it all began.

Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Hall

It is one of the most visited buildings in Belfast and for good reason. The Baroque Revival structure was built in 1906 from Portland stone and the beautiful green domes are proud symbols of the capital. The interior is particularly opulent with a stunning grand staircase, marble features and a ballroom. The beautiful stained-glass windows located throughout the building are a highlight. It is also magical to see all lit up at night.

Visit the Cathedral Quarter

Pre-Covid life in the Cathedral Quarter

If you are looking for that famous Irish craic head straight to the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast’s city centre. The upbeat and hip Cathedral Quarter in Belfast is a cultural area around St. Anne’s Cathedral known for its amazing nightlife. St. Annes Cathedral is a Romanesque Church known for its organ recitals and its intriguing spire, which locals hilariously refer to as ‘The Rod to God’. Here is where you will find that renowned Irish Craic, atmosphere, bustling bars and contemporary restaurants.

Being the capital city of Northern Ireland it is not suprising that there are many things to do here. Grab some yummy food at St. George’s Market or a drink at the famous Crown Bar. I still haven’t had a chance to try it myself but I believe that a Black Cab Tour is a must in Belfast. Historical places of interest are The Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast Castle and Hillsborough Castle.

I also suggest that you spend some time in Belfast learning about what life was like there during The Troubles. It will be an eye opening experience.

Newry City

Known as the gateway to the North, Newry rests in a hollow among the natural splendour of the Mourne mountains and The Ring of Guillon. The city itself has a distinct edge with a potent mix of retro and modern. Growing up in Ireland we knew that Newry was the place to shop. Being one of the first Northern Irish cities that you come across, just after the border, you would be sure to grab a bargain or two depending on the Sterling/Euro exchange rate.

Things to do in Newry

Shop til you drop

Newry really is a shopper’s paradise. With renowned shopping centres like The Quays and The Buttercrane you will be spoiled for choice. And it is not just the large retailers to be found, you will also come across niche retailers offering something unique.

Learn about Irish Mythology at Slieve Guillon

Once you are all shopped out, Newry is the perfect base to explore some of Ireland’s most iconic sites such as Slieve Guillon. Shopping and serenity! Now you can’t get much better than that.

In the middle of the Ring of Gullion is Armagh’s highest peak, 573 metres high and with a view that will stop you in your tracks. The slopes are decked with bare stone, heather and dry heath and at the top are two cairns on either side of a lake. The cairn to the south is officially the highest passage grave in Ireland. Pay a visit to the Slieve Gullion Forest Park, which has a visitor centre, walled garden, adventure playpark and the Giant’s Lair, a themed trail in 1.5 kilometres of forest, inspired by Slieve Gullion’s rich Irish Mythology.

Slieve Gullion: A land of myth and legend

Visit the Silent Valley Reservoir

Silent Valley Reservoir

Visit the Silent Valley Resevoir in the Mourne Mountains which is the main water supply source for most of Co. Down and a large part of Belfast. The views on the drive there are just spectacular and there is also a large parkland to explore. You might even spot a Highland Cow or two.

Beautiful views at Silent Valley Reservoir

Newry might be a small city but it is full of surprises. From history saved in stone to mythical local legends. It is a place where magic and mystery linger in the mountains and the entire city buzzes with life. You will thoroughly enjoy a visit here.

Derry/Londonderry

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 and why it is one of my favourite Northern Ireland cities.

The first thing that hits you about Derry 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.

Views of Derry from The Walls

Derry or Londonderry has been known by many names. Derry, Londonderry, Stroke City ( / get it?), 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.

Derry might not be as cool 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.

Things to do in Derry

Walk the Walls

The first thing you should do in Derry to really get a feel for the city is walk the walls. Derry is the only city in Ireland that can claim the accolade of being the only remaining completely walled city. Originally built in 1614 and finished in 1618 the city has celebrated 400 years since the completion of these historic walls. The walls form a historic walkway of about 1.5km with panoramic views of the city. Taking a stroll through history will be a highlight of your time in Derry.

Walk 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. It is such a powerful feeling to walk along it. Out of all of the Northern Ireland cities that I have visited Derry still feels the most tense but symbols like this are just one step closer towards easing that.

There are so many other things to do in Derry including visiting the Guildhall, Derry Craft Village and the sobering experience of a visit to the Museum of Free Derry to learn about the horrific events that took place on Bloody Sunday. It isn’t all melancholic though, there are plenty of fun things to do in Derry. You also have to experience Halloween in Derry at least once in your lifetime.

Lisburn City

Last on my list of Northern Ireland cities is Lisburn city. Lisburn is located only about 13km from Belfast city so it is totally possible to visit them both on the same day, although I do recommend spending a bit of time in both. The nightlife in Belfast city is not something you want to miss.

Lisburn lies in a green fertile valley just beside the river Lagan. Lisburn is known for its linen but it is also a bubbly city with pretty shops, speciality coffee houses and enticing restaurants. It is certainly a food lovers dream.

Things to do in Lisburn

Learn about the city’s textile past

The linen hayday was the 18th century when manufacturing was at its peak and Lisburn was at the heart of it. Favoured by European royalty, Irish linen was the fabric chosen for the napkins on the Titanic, and was even used in Neil Armstrong’s parachute! You can learn all about its history here in Lisburn.

Explore Hillsborough Castle

Not far from Lisburn you can see just what it feels like to live like a Queen. Hillsborough Castle is the official Royal Residence in Northern Ireland where the Royal Family stay when they visit. I highly recommend getting a guided tour of the house to see just what it is like to live like a royal. The gardens and charming village of Hillsborough are worth exploring too.

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