Walking on eggshells, the people of Belfast have learned to live with the uneasy peace. It has been two decades since my husband lived in the Province and despite last night’s scuffle, parades and protests, much has changed. The shopping area is no longer barricaded, tourism is opening its arms offering a hearty welcome, and businesses are thriving. Tourists play a huge role in the city’s regeneration with new visitor attractions and experiences opening to draw a more diverse crowd. Traditionally, when you think of Irish tourism you think of lucky Leprechauns, four-leaf clovers and a good pint of Guinness. But you’ve come to the wrong Ireland here. Northern Ireland has its own offerings from the bustling city to the heart-breakingly beautiful coastline.
So let’s start in the city. At the top of any visitors’ to-do list is Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. It is housed in a futuristic six-storey building on the site of the reclaimed slipway where the fateful ship was made. Visitors are taken on a journey from Belfast’s industrial development in rope and linen making through to the construction and launch. Whether you’re interested in technology, history or interior design, Titanic Belfast has something for everyone. You can examine the hype, myths and legends propagated by the years, Chinese Whispers and Hollywood. At the same time you can get under the skin of what actually happened, and examine the evidence that led to this iconic ship sinking 101 years ago. It’s a great place to start your Northern Irish tour.
From content we went to context. Belfast is a very walkable city. Just wandering around the red brick Victorian and granite Edwardian buildings gives you an insight into a stylish past. It was granted city status by Queen Victorian in 1888, and style, hand in hand with modernity, is pushing its way to the forefront again after a turbulent political paramilitary period in the 20th century. This is a slice of the past most wish to put to rest although murals depicting the troubles are still evident, flags are still flying, and flashes in the pan can still be seen from time to time. My husband warned me time and time: “Go ahead, ask questions and be interested in people, but don’t ask their religion.”
Architecture is the highlight of most walking tours and Belfast does not disappoint. The Merchant Hotel is one such gem, and a perfect place to rest after wandering the alleys of the Cathedral Quarter. This former bank, complete with vault door, and Ireland’s largest chandelier, dates from 1860s and is the venue for any elegant celebration. When high tea is served, the warm scones are presented and the string quartet strikes up, you are transported back in time.
Belfast is a city of two halves. One half is keen to respect and preserve its historic past. The other half is embracing tourism, enduring an uneasy peace and looking forwards to a less turbulent future. Two halves that almost go perfectly together.
The practical bit
Where to stay: We stayed at Benedicts, in Bradbury Place. A clean four-star hotel within walking distance to the city centre. It has a restaurant, pub and nightclub to help you feel in the thick of it, but may be too noisy for some. www.benedictshotel.co.uk. For our Trip Advisor review please click here.
Where to eat and drink: Deanes Deli Bistro, in Bedford Street, for great food, wine and live music at the weekend.
What to do:
- Titanic Belfast www.titanicbelfast.com
- Dome viewing platform at Victoria Square shopping centre, www.victoriasquare.com
- High tea at the Merchant Hotel, Skipper Street, www.themerchanthotel.com
Need more information: www.gotobelfast.com, www.nitb.com
What to see more photos? Please visit us on Flickr by clicking here.