What are the main cities in Northern Ireland?

| March 29, 2023
Man holding brochure saying 'visit Belfast'

Main Cities in Northern Ireland

Although located in the northern part of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland is a separate country and part of the United Kingdom along with Scotland, Wales and England. Northern Ireland is often referred to as a province of Ireland (which geographically it is), and many southern Irish people call it “the six counties” as the country covers six of the thirty-two counties that make up the island of Ireland.

During the Irish War of Independence, British forces withdrew northward as British rule in Ireland came to an end. Under the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland was divided into two parts. The southern 26 counties became the Irish Free State, and the six northernmost counties remained under British control as Northern Ireland.

Following decades of civil strife in the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s (a period of time often referred to as “the Troubles”), Northern Ireland is now a peaceful, pleasant and picturesque country and tourist numbers continue to increase steadily year upon year.

A small country of just under 2 million people, there are not many large cities but several towns with distinct histories and charms worth visiting.


The country’s capital and by far the biggest city in Northern Ireland, Belfast, is home to around 350,000 inhabitants. Straddling the banks of the River Lagan as it enters Belfast Lough, Belfast is a major port and once an important shipbuilding centre. Home of the famed Harland and Wolff shipyard (builders of RMS Titanic), the city of Belfast also boasts a thriving aerospace industry.

The present site was first settled in the Bronze Age, and many remains from this period, as well as from the Iron Age and Middle Ages, are still to be seen today.
A major draw for tourists, Belfast has much to offer curious visitors:

  • Titanic Belfast
  • Ulster Museum
  • Crumlin Road Gaol
  • Belfast City Hall
  • St. George’s Market
  • Belfast Castle and Cave Hill
  • C.S. Lewis Square
  • W5 Science Centre
  • St. Anne’s Cathedral

While in Belfast, an excursion to the Giant’s Causeway is a pleasant way to spend a few hours. Famed worldwide, the Giant’s Causeway comprises over 40,000 polygonal-shaped basalt rocks, which experts estimate were formed by volcanic eruptions around 60 million years ago.


Northern Ireland’s second-largest city has a population of just over 85,000. It straddles the River Foyle close to the border with county Donegal, which is part of the Republic of Ireland. The city’s official name is Londonderry, but it is most commonly called Derry, deriving from the Irish word “daire” or “doire” meaning oak grove.

Dubbed “the walled city”, Derry is the only remaining city on the island of Ireland whose defensive walls remain intact. Built between 1613 and 1619, the walls run for around one mile (1.6 km) and vary from 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 10.7 metres) in height and width, forming a walkway around the city’s inner core.

Never breached, having withstood several sieges, the city walls are one of the city’s major tourist attractions but just one of many. These include:

  • The Guildhall
  • Bogside Murals
  • St. Columb’s Cathedral
  • Tower Museum
  • Peace Bridge
  • Free Derry Museum
  • Free Derry Corner
  • Siege Museum
  • St. Eugene’s Cathedral

Recalling days of old, the Craft Village features reconstructed 18th and 19th-century houses. All things Irish, including Irish dancing costumes, knitwear and hand-crafted candles, are for sale in its many artisan shops.


Originally called Lisnagarvy, the name Lisburn seems to have appeared about 1662 for reasons that are still unclear. It seems to be a mixture of “lios” which is the Irish word for “ringfort”, and the “burn” suffix may refer to the town burning down in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

A mere 8 miles (13 km) to the southwest of Belfast, Lisburn also lies on the River Lagan and has a population of almost 50,000. Built by English and Welsh settlers in the 17th century, Lisburn was a major centre for the world’s linen industry, a position it held for centuries.

Modern-day Lisburn has largely turned away from manufacturing and is now a hub for precision engineering and an important service provider. Granted city status as recently as 2008, Lisburn is noted for a large number of churches in and around the town, which attract large numbers of visitors to the area.

The most notable attractions include:

  • Hillsborough Castle and Gardens
  • Lisburn Cathedral
  • Lisburn Museum
  • Ulster Aviation Society Museum
  • Hilden Brewing Company

Another interesting way to spend a few hours is by visiting the Irish Linen Centre, with live demonstrations and interactive exhibits providing a fascinating insight into the production of high-quality Irish linen.


On the southern shore of Belfast Lough, and just 13 miles (21 km) from downtown Belfast, lies the seaside town of Bangor. Only receiving city status as recently as 2022, Bangor is home to 63,000 residents.

The origin of the city’s name is vague but is thought to derive from the Irish word “beannchar” which roughly translates as “horned curve”, which may be a reference to the curved shoreline of Bangor Bay. The town was home to numerous Scottish settlers who arrived during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century.

Historic artefacts discovered in the surrounding area lead researchers to believe there has been a settlement on the site of present-day Bangor since the Bronze Age. The famed monastery at Bangor was founded either in 555 or 558, depending on which report is to be believed. The monastery was an important seat of learning but was severely damaged by invading Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries before being replaced by Bangor Abbey.

In the early part of the 20th century, Bangor was a haven for Victorian holidaymakers who travelled out from Belfast. Tourism is still a main source of income for the town, with visitors now coming from all corners of the globe.

Small and compact, Bangor is easy to get around and has some interesting attractions including:

  • Bangor Marina and North Pier
  • North Down Coastal Path
  • Castle Park and Bangor Castle
  • North Down Museum
  • Castle Espie
  • Scrabo Tower
  • Pickie Fun Park
  • Bangor Main Street

Keen gardeners or those just seeking some peace and quiet will be well rewarded with a visit to the Walled Garden beside Castle Park. A fully restored and functioning Victorian garden, the Walled Garden is a seasonal attraction and only open to visitors in spring and summer,