Can you name the largest cities in Ireland? If not, can you at least name 20 Irish cities and/or towns? And which of those are actually Ireland's largest towns?
Well, the capitals Dublin (in the Republic) and Belfast (in Northern Ireland) immediately spring to mind, but which other places make the grade after these two big hitters? There might be some surprises here, as more often than not Ireland's cities are reminiscent of an assortment of villages that have somehow grown together—organically in some cases, less so in others.
Take the capital of the Republic as an example: Dublin is the only city in Ireland that has more than a million inhabitants. And of those, only a fraction are living in the city proper, with many suburbs making up the bulk of the population.
When you leave Dublin (or Belfast, the other capital, for that matter) you will also notice that most towns in the country resemble nothing more than grown-up villages.
Note that Northern Ireland tends to skew the statistics a bit because it has regrouped local governments, and the new council areas in the (former) Six Counties lumped large areas together and called them "towns," even when they consisted of a central urban area with many further off rural settlements.
Definitions aside, the 20 largest towns in Ireland are:
There are only five official cities in the Republic of Ireland (the rest are towns or villages), and Dublin is at the absolute top of the list. 565,000 people call the central urban area of the capital city home, but there are more than 1.8 million people living in the metropolitan area. That means that over 25 percent of the entire population of Ireland lives in or around Dublin. From castles, to pubs, live music, great restaurants and world-class museums, there is truly something for everyone in Dublin. Step into a cathedral or pay your respects at the Guinness Storehouse, and be sure to plan enough time to see the city on foot. The largest city in Ireland is surprisingly walkable, and navigating without a car is the best way to explore the neighborhoods which sometimes feel more like villages inside the capital city.
Belfast (Northern Ireland)
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. The urban center boasts 340,220 inhabitants, but the wider metropolitan area is home to more than 670,000 people. (In fact, many of the towns which make up the Belfast metro area are also on the list of largest towns in Ireland). The city is best known for being the birthplace of the ill-fated H.M.S. Titanic and now has an incredible museum dedicated to the history of the ship. In addition to museums, the vibrant city has a famous botanical garden, a large zoo, a buzzing culinary scene and lots of cozy pubs.
With 119,230 inhabitants, Cork is one of Ireland’s largest cities but it still manages to feel like a small town with a welcoming attitude and slower pace of life. Set on the banks of the River Lee, Cork is packed with pubs, restaurants and coffee shops. After eating your fill at the lovely English Market, head for the historic Cork City Goal where prisoners were once held before being shipped off to Australia. Though it is the Republic of Ireland’s second city in terms of size, proud Cork locals joke that it is the real capital of Ireland. It is an excellent place for pints, craic, hometown pride, specialty coffee and even contemporary art.
After Cork, Limerick is the second largest city in the province of Munster and home to 94,192 inhabitants (with a total of 162,413 people living in the metro area). No one knows why those funny short poems were named after the city, but the locals are always happy to crack a few jokes—and even happier to chat about their local Gaelic sports teams. Set at the origin of the Shannon, Ireland’s longest river, the city has a pretty updated waterfront and a museum dedicated to hometown hero Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes.
93,512 inhabitants call Derry City home, but there are a grand total of 237,000 living in the metro area. The town was officially named Londonderry in 1613 and its name was reconfirmed by a court ruling in 2007, but it is widely known as “Derry.” It is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and close to the border with Donegal. Derry is famous for its city walls which date back to the 17th century and offer views over the modern city, which stretches out from the central walled area. Derry played an important role in more recent Irish history during The Troubles, and the Free Derry Corner is a well-known landmark commemorating the difficult times.
The charming college town of Galway City is home to 79,934 people (though that number expands significantly when the Galway Races are in town). Centered around Eyre Square, the small but lively city runs along the banks on the River Corrib and stretches out towards Galway Bay. The town is a popular stop for live music, and many of the area pubs have triad sessions every night of the week. Walk through the Spanish Arch and enjoy the medieval lanes, or visit the Cathedral where Christopher Columbus is said to have sat in the pews before setting sail for the new world—there is plenty to do in Galway.
Lisburn (Northern Ireland)
Located 8 miles outside of the Northern Ireland capital, Lisburn’s 71,465 inhabitants live inside the Belfast Metropolitan Area. It was considered a borough until 2002 when Lisburn was granted city status as part of the Golden Jubilee. The town’s layout dates back to 1620 and its special Tuesday market has been taking place since 1628. Lisburn has long been known for the excellent linen produced there, and there is even a museum dedicated to the fabric and the history of local manufacturing. The city center is pedestrianized and there are several green parks—making Lisburn a perfect stop for a stroll.
Newtownabbey (Northern Ireland)
Residential Newtownabbey has a population of 62,056 inhabitants and lies just outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Sometimes considered a suburb, the town was created in 1958 when seven villages were merged together under a single local government. The Belfast Zoo is located in Newtownabbey and plenty of wild birds can be spotted along the shores of Belfast Lough. Located in County Antrim, the town is also an excellent jumping off point for exploring nearby mountains or planning a fishing trip in local rivers. It is bordered by Carrickfergus and Ballymena—two other towns that also make the list of the 20 largest cities in Ireland.
Bangor (Northern Ireland)
Boasting 60,260 inhabitants, Bangor is technically a part of the Belfast Metropolitan Area. It occupies a pretty seaside spot on the south side of the Belfast Lough. The city is found about 14 miles outside of downtown and has been a popular summer vacation spot since the Victorian Era. The best way to take in the area is to take the coast path walk or settle in to watch the activity at the lively marina, which is the largest in Ireland. Other major sites in the well-to-do Irish town include the Bangor Castle and the Bangor Abbey—which was a major monastery during the Middle Ages.
The 2016 Census puts the population of Waterford at 53,504 inhabitants. While it is not the absolutely largest city in Ireland, it is the oldest. The area around Waterford was first settled by the Viking in 853 and the city’s name comes from the Old Norse for “ram (wether) fjord.” Archaeological finds dating back to this time period can be found at the Waterford Museum of Treasures. Located in the south east of the Republic of Ireland, the harbor city is probably best known for its history of glassmaking and is home to the famed manufacturer Waterford Crystal.
There are 40,956 inhabitants in Drogheda—a town which technically spreads out into two different counties. Drogheda is mostly located in Co Louth, but the southern part of the town stretches into Co Meath. Drogheda is rich with archeological finds and lies just outside of Newgrange, a complex of prehistoric monuments that is one of the top places to see in Ireland. In the 1970s, it was where Pope John Paul II came to address a crowd of 300,000 Irish fans who applauded him for 20 minutes straight. It is an important commuter town for Dublin but has plenty to do in its own right.
Dundalk is the county town in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland but it lies close to the border with Northern Ireland. Louth may be the smallest county in Ireland but Dundalk is still one of the country’s largest towns with a population of a whopping 39,000 people. The town lies almost exactly halfway between Dublin and Belfast and is the legendary home of the Irish mythical figure of Cú Chulainn. It is possible to visit the stone where the Celtic hero supposedly tied himself up so he would die on his feet, still facing his enemies. The Louth town also has the ruins of several castles and forts and is well known for its rich archeological treasures.
Coming in at a population of 42,738 inhabitants, Swords in Fingal is one of the largest towns that make up the greater Dublin metro area. Local legend says that Swords was founded in the year 560 when Saint Colmcille blessed a local well and declared it “Sord” (pure). Swords is home to one of the best castles near Dublin, but it is better known for being close to Dublin airport. With several shopping centers, it is also a major destination for serious retail therapy outside of the Irish Capital.
A mere 12 miles south of Dublin, Bray is the largest town in Co Wicklow. The seaside area is home to 32,600 people, some of whom commute back into the capital because Bray is conveniently reachable by the DART. Even out-of-towners know to beeline to Bray for a beach day under sunny Irish skies, or for an excuse to hike along the scenic cliff walk at Bray Head in nearly any weather. With the moody sea as a backdrop, Bray offers tasty food and fun pub options. There is also a popular sea life center and horse riding school for animal lovers who stop in the Wicklow town.
The only town in Ireland that is spelled the same both backward and forward, Navan is home to 30,173 people. The country town in Co Meath, Navan is the hometown of actor Pierce Brosnan and famous Irish comic Tommy Tiernan. The traditional town is close to the Hill of Tara, which is probably the most famous hill fort in Ireland. If prehistoric monuments aren’t on your agenda, there are plenty of pubs and Causey Farm—a working farm that offers tours, Irish dancing classes, and bog wading.
Ballymena (Northern Ireland)
Located in Co Antrim, Ballymena has 29,467 inhabitants. The town is close to Slemish, the mountain which legend holds was once home to Saint Patrick. Ballymena is also the real-life home of actor Liam Neeson, who has been honored by the City Council. The Northern Ireland town is known for its golf courses but also boasts more naturally occurring green spaces. Best of all is Glenariff Forest Park, one of the Ireland filming locations for Game of Thrones.
Newtownards (Northern Ireland)
With 28,039 inhabitants, Newtownards is one of the largest towns in Ireland and is part of the greater Belfast metro area. Located on the Ards Peninsula in Co. Down, the town is sometimes known simply as “Ards” by locals. From just about anywhere in town you can see the Scarbo Tower, a hilltop monument to Charles Stewart, a 19th-century nobleman who attempted to save his tenants during the great famine. The area was first settled by monks and there are several ruined abbeys just outside of town.
Newry (Northern Ireland)
Split by the Clanry River, the 29,946 inhabitants of Newry are spread out in both Co Down and Co Armagh. The area has been settled since the Bronze Age and Newry is one of Ireland’s oldest towns. Despite this long history, Newry is technically one of Ireland’s newest cities because it was only granted city status in 2002 as part of the Golden Jubilee. Today, Newry is known for its shopping centers but it is also well placed to act as a gateway to the great wide open. Both the Mourne Mountains and Ring of Gullion are nearby.
Carrickfergus (Northern Ireland)
There are 27,903 inhabitants living in Carrickfergus, on the north side of the Belfast Lough. The town is only 11 miles outside of the Northern Ireland capital city and makes up part of the metropolitan area. Though it has been eclipsed by Belfast in terms of population, Carrickfergus is actually much older and has been settled since around 1170. The modern-day town is a popular spot to depart from for day sails and has a pretty marina, but it will always be best known for the Irish folk song “Carrickfergus,” in which an emigrant pines away for the hometown he left behind.
Kilkenny’s population of 26,512 makes it the 11th largest town in the Republic of Ireland. It is the county town of County Kilkenny in Leinster. If the name sounds familiar that might be because the town became a brewery center in the 17th century and is still known for its beer. The most famous, an Irish cream ale, bears the name of the town that it originally hails from. In addition to beers, Kilkenny is known for its well-preserved medieval structures, including Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral. It is also a popular destination for its numerous gardens, as well as art galleries and traditional handicraft workshops.