Festivals are a great excuse to visit places that may be slightly off the beaten path. The Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival gave us the perfect excuse to head to Northern Ireland for a gorgeous long weekend in County Derry (also known as County Londonderry). Derry is conveniently located near the northern terminus of the Wild Atlantic Way giving yet another great reason to visit as part of an extended road trip. Read on and discover the wealth of things to do in Derry City.
Where to Stay in Derry
We stayed at The Merchant's House, a local, Georgian-style Bed and Breakfast in Derry City and were greeted by the resident bull dog, Bertie. The interior was lovely and refined. Our room had a view of a stately courtyard.
We soon hit the streets of Derry to explore. We couldn't have asked for a better weekend -- the sun was shining non-stop. We stopped into Bedlam, a cross between an antique mall and flea market.
Weekend Shopping, Arts and Crafts in Derry
We ambled into the Derry town centre and saw the first entrance through the town wall. A weekend market was well-underway just outside the wall. We walked through the Derry Craft Village and spent some time exploring Foyle Books, a quaint shop featuring lots of local authors. We passed Austin's department store in a grand old Victorian building. We stopped into the Playhouse near New Gate where they were holding a weekend art market.
Walk the Derry City Walls
Derry was a walled city from the 17th century. We climbed up onto the city walls to do a circuit around the town. The wall offers great views of the Bogside neighborhood and political murals below. Along the wall was a lovely church and graveyard. We also stopped to admire the cannons stationed at frequent intervals. We saw old brick buildings featuring coffee shops and an old time turret flying the Union Jack. Each gate along Derry's wall was labeled with a metal sign along the footpath. We wound our way past Magazine and Butchers Gate before making our way toward the various venues hosting jazz musicians.
Derry’s Bogside Neighborhood and Peace in Northern Ireland
We spent Sunday morning taking a quiet walk through Derry's Bogside neighborhood to get a feel for some of the political history that has troubled the area. Our first stop was the Bloody Sunday memorial, erected in honor of those that lost their lives at the hands of the British on one fateful day in 1972. We passed another monument to the hunger strikers who lost their lives in 1981 in their struggle for a unified, free Ireland. You are Now Entering FREE DERRY corner has been a frequent site of political speeches and protests. We found that the murals nearby generally had a more peaceful and hopeful message compared to those in Belfast.
When we completed our tour of Bogside, we climbed the stairs back onto the Derry City wall. We walked across town to see Hands Across the Divide, a sculpture symbolizing hope and reconciliation in a troubled city. We walked out onto the bridge across the River Foyle and took a closer look at the town crest depicted there. A thoughtful looking skeleton makes up the lower right quadrant. We saw an old fashioned travel poster for Londonderry (Derry's name as officially recognized in the UK). We finished off our walk along the town wall taking a final look down on Bogside from above.
Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival Gigs
The Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival featured an extensive and eclectic mix of performances. Best of all, most of the acts were free. We saw more than 10 performances over the course of the weekend. We started our musical adventure at Halo Pantry and Grill. Halo Pantry and Grill is a good spot for lunch or a cup of tea. A solo guitar player (half of Frankie and Ian) added to the atmosphere. I found that the restaurants in Derry had posher than expected amenities. Halo even had an upstairs Lazy Lounge with views of the town wall.
On our way to the next venue, we took the opportunity to do some more exploring around town. I particularly liked the Peace Bridge across the river. It follows a unique curvy S-shape. Our next stop was the City Hotel featuring a performance by the Jazz Ladds. They were upbeat and a real hoot! We caught a performance at Cafe Del Mondo when a roving tuba player and his mates joined up with a college jazz band for a little improvisation.
Our next stop was Bedlam where we caught a performance by Death by Casio. I have to say this was one of the oddest musical performances I'd ever seen with a guy in a cape playing the keyboard and a pale bald man chanting in an incomprehensible language. We quickly moved on to Guildhall Square to see The Slammers Maximum Jive Band playing some upbeat jazz standards.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other destination ideas in Northern Ireland? Why not spend a weekend in Belfast?
Derry is really compact so we were able to wander in and out of different venues. We popped back to Cafe del Mundo to see Balkan Alien Sound. On to Sandino's, we packed ourselves in for a performance by the Pontiax Blues Band. Sandino's was a bit too crowded for my liking so we went outside where we could still hear the music and enjoy some space and sun. We walked back to our hotel for an afternoon disco nap before heading out again. We finished off our evening at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin for a virtuoso guitar performance from the Mark McKnight Quartet.
We started our second day of Derry Jazz and Big Bang Festival gigs at the Tower Hotel with light jazz grooves from the Easy Jazz Quartet. Our second stop was Guildhall Square and the Martello Jazz Band for more upbeat jazz standards. We enjoyed blues by the Lee Hedley Band at the City Hotel in another packed performance.
The absolute highlight of the Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival for us was Brass Impact at Quaywest. We were seated for dinner along the upper balcony with a great view of the band. Iain Ewing really stole the show with amazing energy -- even dancing on the bar! Our final stop for the day was upstairs at Sandino's for the Caulbearers. The ambiance was unexpected given the pub feel downstairs but it was a great spot to finish the evening with a drink and funky beats.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT
Visit the Antrim Coast and Giant's Causeway in a DayOn our last day in Derry, we decided to explore some of Northern Ireland's natural beauty with a drive along the Antrim Coast. It was another unexpectedly spectacular day. Even from the car, the scenery was breathtaking. Our first official stop was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. You hike about a kilometer from the parking lot, for the privilege of wobbling across a rather precarious bridge. We walked across and caught a glimpse of birds nesting among the rocks. The views on the island were amazing. We made our way back to solid ground and hopped back into the car for the short journey to the Giants Causeway.
One of the most famous sights in Northern Ireland is the Giants Causeway. We hiked about a mile from the parking lot past cliffs and sea. We soon arrived at our destination, a formation of thousands of hexagonally shaped rocks formed naturally by cooling lava. The Giants Causeway is a bit of an adult playground. You can walk out among the rock formations. We nestled in among the rocks for a lunch of brown bread and peanut butter. Fed and watered, we continued to walk among the rocks -- so amazing. The scientist in me marvels at this macro-hexagonal close-packed structure. I've really only thought about this before in the context of crystalline chemistry which you don't see with the naked eye. The Giants Causeway also reminded us of a real life version of Q*bert.
We hiked out of the valley and back to the car up a steep trail. On the way up, we passed the Organ Pipes, another impressive rock formation. We continued our climb. We finally made it to the top for stunning and colorful views. The Giants Causeway itself is definitely easier to appreciate up close. The view from above doesn't do it justice. Hiking out, we passed a field of sheep. Lambs were frolicking with their mother. Adorable! We were soon back in the car and on our way to Dunluce Castle.
Dunluce Castle sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Built in the 1500s, at one point the kitchen area actually broke away and tragically fell into the sea. We spent some time exploring the ruins. The bay windows were particularly striking and an unexpected feature.
At the time we visited Northern Ireland, we were members of the Royal Oak Foundation (a scheme that provides free entrance and parking at sights throughout the UK). One of the sights on the list is Downhill Demesne. We arrived at the Bishops Gate and hiked through the gardens and across a grassy field to the ruined house. We could see Mussenden Temple in the distance on a cliff overlooking the sea. We turned around and admired the backside of the ruined estate. We could see another monument in the distance. We walked across the green to take a closer look. We walked back through the gardens and woods and encountered a plot of wildflowers. We were curious where some of the other trails led and decided to follow one that looked promising. We were rewarded with spectacular views of white wildflowers on all sides. We emerged from the woods onto a lovely lake. It was well worth the hike!