118km (73 miles) NW of Belfast, 63km (39 miles) SW of Portrush, 113km (70 miles) NW of Armagh, 98km (61 miles) NE of Enniskillen, 232km (144 miles) NW of Dublin, 354km (220 miles) NE of Shannon

You’d expect a city with two names to have some stories to tell. And sure enough, Northern Ireland’s second city is full of surprises. Derry—officially, but by no means universally, called Londonderry—is reveling in an identity reboot. The 20th century was unkind to this city, where some of the very worst times of the so-called “Troubles” played out. For years its name—sorry, names—may as well have been printed on a traveler’s map next to the medieval warning “here be dragons.” It was a place to avoid. But things have changed enormously in the past two decades, and in the 21st century, an undeniable spirit of optimism and renewal now reigns. While it’s still not as handsome or buzzing as Belfast, the energy propelling Derry’s cultural shift makes this a fascinating time to visit.

Derry is also strategically located, with the Northwest Passage and the Sperrins all within an hour’s drive. It’s conveniently also at the edge of Donegal’s picturesque Inishowen Peninsula, with the Giant’s Causeway and the North Antrim Coast within day-trip distance. This makes Derry an ideal base of operations from which to explore some of Ireland’s most unspoiled regions.

The city's greatest beauty -- aside from its setting amid rolling green hills -- is its noble 17th-century walls, about 1.6km (1 mile) in circumference and more than 5m (16 ft.) thick. You can climb the steps to the top of the walls and walk all the way around the town center. Although they were the focus of attacks and sieges for centuries, the 5-foot-thick fortifications are solid and unbroken to this day. Historians believe the city was modeled on the French Renaissance town of Vitry-Le-Francois, which in turn was based on a Roman military camp, with two main streets forming a central cross and ending in four city gates. It’s made for walking, combining a medieval center with sprawling Georgian and Victorian neighborhoods.

Within Ireland, though, Derry is not known for its architecture, but for the fact that, in the 1960s and 1970s, the North’s civil rights movement was born here, and baptized in blood on the streets. The “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1972, in which British troops killed 14 peaceful civil rights protesters in Derry, shocked the world and led to years of violent unrest. In the Bogside, as the neighborhood at the bottom of the hill west of the walled section is known, the famed mural reading “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” remains as a symbol of those times.

Happily, much of that sectarian strife seems to be behind Derry now, and it has begun to reinvent itself as a center of culture and commerce. Symbolic of the changes in Derry is the Hands Across the Divide sculpture that you pass as you cross the Craigavon Bridge into town. Erected 20 years after Bloody Sunday, it is a bronze sculpture of two men reaching out toward one another.

Derrry or Londonderry: What's in a name? 

The short answer is: quite a lot.

Depending on which side of the border you’re on, Northern Ireland’s second city is called two different things. Road signs and maps in the Republic say Derry; in Northern Ireland they point to Londonderry.

This stubborn dispute dates to the Plantation of Ulster in the 1600s, when English settlers were given land in Ireland as an attempt to entrench Protestant rule. A new city was founded by the City of London trade guilds and named Londonderry in their honor. Nationalists have always objected to the term, preferring Derry, an Anglicization of Daire Calgaich, the name of the much older settlement that once stood on the same site.

During the Troubles, the dispute was a cause célèbre. Many attempts have been made to find a solution, including several unsuccessful court cases. Loyalists fiercely defend the name. But having a city with two names poses a knotty problem for residents and visitors alike—what to call it?

The best advice is just to be tactful. If you’re drinking in a pub with a big Irish tricolor on the side, it’s probably best to use Derry; but if they’re flying the British flag, opt for Londonderry. Of the two, Derry is probably the more commonly used in town, and certainly throughout the Republic, so we’ve chosen to call it Derry in this book.

Fed up with having to make a political statement whenever they talk about their own city, residents have long since tried to find an acceptable solution to the Derry/Londonderry dilemma. In the ‘90s, local radio DJ Gerry Anderson suggested the wry compromise “Stroke City.” (American readers: Stroke is a slash in the U.K.) Quick-witted locals swiftly nicknamed the DJ “Gerry/Londongerry.”

To see further evidence of how far back this titular dispute goes, look no further than a United States road atlas. Near Manchester, New Hampshire, is a small old town called Derry. In the early 19th century there was a dispute over its name, so a group of residents set up a new town just to the south called—you guessed it—Londonderry.