The Best Cities in Northern Ireland for Tourists?

This year (2022) Bangor will be scrapping it out with 39 other towns and settlements in the UK to hopefully win city status as part of the Queen’s Jubilee (2022 Platinum Jubilee Civic Honours Competition). An honour that will put the seaside town of Bangor up there with other exciting cities in Northern Ireland including Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, and…. Armagh, Lisburn and Newry. Seriously? Armagh, Lisburn and Newry? And Newry and Lisburn were both awarded city status relatively recently in 2002. Anyway. It’s all a bit weird.

I always assumed there was a kind of natural progression where towns would eventually outgrow themselves to become larger cities. But this is obviously not the case in Northern Ireland, where the population of 3 existing cities (Armagh, Lisburn, and Armagh) fail to even reach 100,000 people combined (2011 census). There are literally sports stadiums with higher seating capacity. You could fit the populations of 3 Northern Ireland cities into a sports stadium. Tokyo is around 900 Armaghs.

Beyond Belfast and Derry / Londonderry

From a tourist perspective, and as someone who is forever drawn to big city lights. This is not Northern Ireland, where cities are so obscure, I’m not even sure I’ve been to them before. I once visited the Armagh Planetarium on a Primary School excursion, I think the out-of-town (or city) shopping centre Sprucefields is in Lisburn, and Newry may be that place you pass when crossing the border down south?

In Northern Ireland, size or desirability show no real significance in city status, and this again is clear with Ballymena and Coleraine joining Bangor to scrap it out for city status. Fun fact, Liam Neeson is from Ballymena. Otherwise, I haven’t a clue what the Ballymena has to offer as a town or city. Is there even a town centre? I always thought it was fields and a roundabout you pass to reach the tourist hubs of Portrush, Portstewart, and Ballycastle on the Causeway Coast.

City Status in Northern Ireland

How do Towns Become Cities? And do you not need a Cathedral to be a City? Nope. All that is needed for city status is the Queen’s say so. Traditionally, many of the existing cities fell under the cathedral requirement which was scrapped back in the 20th century. Meaning pretty much any town can now apply. But it is recommended for towns to be “of the first rank in population, size and importance, and having a distinctive character and identity of their own.” It is also possible to lose city status as Armagh did before. They’ve literally been a city twice.

Bangor as Northern Ireland’s Newest City?

If Northern Ireland were to be awarded a new city it would have to be Bangor (although I’d probably scrap some of the existing ones first). It is the third-largest independent settlement in Northern Ireland (following Belfast and Londonderry/Derry), it is well connected to the capital along the Gold Coast Train line, there’s significant local cultural and Christian heritage, and it’s just a desirable destination with regular events and with lots of investment planned ahead.

Otherwise, from a tourism perspective, there are many more places of interest in Northern Ireland, including Bangor (of course), Portrush, Enniskillen maybe, and Newcastle. Which are all relatively large/significant towns offering much more to visitors to Northern Ireland than those existing cities. Otherwise, on the off chance of anyone interested in visiting the more obscure cities of Northern Ireland, I’ve listed them below. Or at least my elves did.

Cities in Northern Ireland?

How Many Cities are there in Northern Ireland? There are 5 cities in Northern Ireland.

What are the Cities of Northern Ireland? Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Lisburn, Newry, Armagh.

Belfast (County Antrim)

The Capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast, is the largest city in the country and the 2nd-largest city on the island of Ireland (after Dublin the capital of Ireland). After undergoing a renaissance, today it has turned into a vibrant and modern city with various tourism commendations and awards to its name including additions to the best cities in the UK by Conde Nast Traveller. We’ve shared all the best things to do in Belfast many times before, and there’s just plenty to explore with many of the newer tourist initiatives in the city comparatively undiscovered. It is an ideal choice for those looking to visit a city that is full of character, yet raw.

Derry/Londonderry (County Londonderry)

Londonderry, also known as Derry is the 2nd-largest city in Northern Ireland and the 4th-largest city in all of Ireland. The city has two names due to the political dispute between the unionists and nationalists of Northern Ireland which I’ll not go into (it’s a depressing affair). Situated on the River Foyle, Derry/Londonderry neighbours Donegal county in the Republic of Ireland, and it is a good start for those following the Wild Atlantic Way road trip in Ireland. It is one of the oldest inhabited places on the island as it is believed Derry was established when Belfast was just a swamp.

Armagh (County Armagh)

Being the ecclesiastic capital of Ireland, Armagh is the headquarters of both the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland as well as the Church of Ireland, and is regularly visited by Christian pilgrims from all over the world.  St Patrick built his first stone church in Armagh, now known as Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral today. Apart from the churches, it is also known for Navan Fort, found just out from the Irish border, and is a great start for those following Ireland’s Ancient East road trip. Oh, and don’t forget the Armagh Planetarium!

Lisburn (County Antrim)

Lisburn, known as the fort of the stream, is split between two counties in Northern Ireland – County Down and County Antrim. The city has a lot of British shops popular with both locals and tourists and is well-known for its out-of-town shopping at Sprucefields. Until the 20th century, the city was mostly occupied by riverside mills, flax fields and weaving factories, and some of the better tourist attractions in Lisburn to explore include the Irish Linen Centre, Lisburn Museum, the Royal Residence nearby at Hillsborough Castle (pictured below), Christ Church Cathedral and so on.

Newry (County Armagh)

A small city in Northern Island, Newry is located close to the border of the Republic of Ireland. Founded in 1144, the city remained insignificant until the first summit canal was constructed in Newry. Today it is known as a popular destination for out-of-town shopping, museums etc. Some of the best things to explore in the city are Newry Cathedral – the most striking monument in Newry constructed in the 1820s. In the surrounding region there is then Slieve Gullion – Armagh’s highest peak, Derrymore House (National Trust in Northern Ireland) – a thatched roof house built in the 18th century, Ballymacdermot Court Tomb – a stunning vantage point on the Balcymacdermot mountain, and Silent Valley Mountain Park and so on.

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