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Belfast, Northern Ireland

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The city of Belfast was a great Victorian success story, an industrial boomtown whose prosperity was built on trade—especially linen and shipbuilding. The Titanic was built here, giving Belfast, for a time, the nickname "Titanic Town." In 2012 the city commemorated the 100th anniversary of the liner's sinking on April 15, 1912, by opening a dazzling Titanic Belfast exhibition center. With nine galleries spread over six floors, the enormous multi-prow-shaped building—about the same height as Titanic and twice the size of City Hall—the center certainly has the wow factor. It has generated international interest, bringing in much-needed revenue and creating jobs at a difficult economic time. This is all a welcome change from the period when news about Belfast meant reports about "the Troubles."

Since the 1994 ceasefire, Northern Ireland's capital city has benefited from major hotel investment, gentrified quaysides (or strands), a sophisticated new performing arts center, and major initiatives to boost tourism. Although the 1996 bombing of offices at the Canary Wharf in London disrupted the 1994 peace agreement, the cease-fire was officially reestablished on July 20, 1997, and this embattled city began its quest for a newfound identity. Belfast's city center is made up of three roughly contiguous areas that are easy to navigate on foot. From the south end to the north it's about an hour's leisurely walk. Magnificent Victorian structures still line the streets of the city center, but instead of housing linen mills or cigarette factories, they are home to chic new hotels and fashionable bars. Smart restaurants abound, and the people of Belfast, who for years would not venture out of their districts, appear to be making up for lost time.

Each area of the city has changed considerably in the new peaceful era, but perhaps none more than the docklands around the Harland and Wolff shipyards, whose historic and enormous cranes, known to the locals as Samson and Goliath, still dominate the city's skyline. New developments—such as the Titanic Quarter—are springing up all around deserted shipyards, ranging from luxury hotels to modern office blocks. And in the center of the city, Victoria Square is a gigantic shopping and residential complex, replete with a geodesic dome, floors of glossy shops, and renovated Victorian row houses. In the west of the city, the physical scars of the Troubles are still evident, from the peace line that divides Catholic and Protestant West Belfast to the murals on every gable wall. Visitors are discovering that it's safe to venture beyond the city center; indeed, backpackers are a regular sight on the Falls Road, and taxi tours of these once troubled areas are very popular.

Before English and Scottish settlers arrived in the 1600s, Belfast was a tiny village called Béal Feirste ("sandbank ford") belonging to Ulster's ancient O'Neill clan. With the advent of the Plantation period (when settlers arrived in the 1600s), Sir Arthur Chichester, from Devon in southwestern England, received the city from the English Crown, and his son was made Earl of Donegall. Huguenots fleeing persecution from France settled near here, bringing their valuable linen-work skills. In the 18th century, Belfast underwent a phenomenal expansion—its population doubled in size every 10 years, despite an ever-present sectarian divide. Although the Anglican gentry despised the Presbyterian artisans—who, in turn, distrusted the native Catholics—Belfast's growth continued at a dizzying speed. Having laid the foundation stone of the city's university in 1845, Queen Victoria returned to Belfast in 1849 (she is recalled in the names of buildings, streets, bars, monuments, and other places around the city), and in the same year, the university opened under the name Queen's College. Nearly 40 years later, in 1888, Victoria granted Belfast its city charter. Today its population is nearly 300,000—one-quarter of Northern Ireland's citizens.


Belfast's main shopping streets include High Street, Donegall Place, Royal Avenue, and several of the smaller streets connecting them. Except for buses and delivery vehicles, the area is mostly traffic-free. The long thoroughfare of Donegall Pass, running from Shaftesbury Square at the point of the Golden Mile east to Ormeau Road, contains a mix of biker shops, ethnic restaurants, and antiques arcades. Another retail haven is Lisburn Road, jam-packed with nearly a hundred trendy designer shops, lifestyle emporia, galleries, and antiques stores. For a break from shopping, let the Victorian-style Maryville House Tea Rooms, just off Lisburn Road, transport you back to another era, starting with the foyer's 1792 map of Ireland dedicated to His Majesty King George III. The 20 different house teas range from a zesty Rooibos citrus to lemongrass with ginger twist.


Central Belfast, especially in Cathedral Quarter, is awash with small, quirky galleries that exhibit painting, sculpture, photography, and prints, as well as installations of digital and video work.


Botanic Gardens

In the Victorian heyday, it was not unusual to find 10,000 of Belfast's citizens strolling about here on a Saturday afternoon. These gardens are a glorious haven of grass, trees, flowers, curving walks, and wrought-iron benches, all laid out in 1827 on land that slopes down to the River Lagan. The curved-iron and glass Palm House is a conservatory marvel designed in 1839 by Charles Lanyon. Inside, the hot stove wing is a mini jungle of exotic plants such as the bird of paradise flower and heavily scented frangipani.Please note: During 2015 the Tropical Ravine House will be closed for the entire year for a root-and-branch renovation to conserve its rare plant collection and there will be no access. There's still plenty to explore though in the main grounds. Wander around the arboretum and the 100-year-old rockery, or in summer savor the colors and scents of the herbaceous borders. A fun challenge is to follow the Tree Trail which leads you around 20 trees, many planted in the 19th century, with specimens such as the Tree-of-Heaven, Japanese red cedar and the wonderful Ginkgo biloba from China.

City Hall

Built of Portland stone between 1898 and 1906 and modeled on St. Paul's Cathedral in London, this Renaissance Revival—style edifice—the cynosure of central Belfast—was designed by Brumwell Thomas (who was knighted but had to sue to get his fee). Before you enter, take a stroll around Donegall Square to see statues of Queen Victoria and a column honoring the U.S. Expeditionary Force, which landed in the city on January 26, 1942—the first contingent of the U.S. Army to arrive in Europe during World War II. A monument commemorating the Titanic stands in the grounds, and in 2012 a granite memorial was unveiled in a Titanic memorial garden opened for the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking. The memorial, on the east side of the grounds, lists the names of everyone who died in the tragedy. Enter the building under the porte cochere at the front. From the entrance hall (the base of which is a whispering gallery), the view up to the heights of the 173-foot-high Great Dome is a feast for the eyes. With its complicated series of arches and openings, stained-glass windows, Italian-marble inlays, decorative plasterwork, and paintings, this is Belfast's most ornate public space—a veritable homage to the might of the British Empire. After an £11million restoration, the modernized building has been brought into the 21st century and is now home to the Bobbin café and the "Waking a Giant" exhibition, in which historic photographs tell the story of Belfast's industrial development. Another permanent exhibition, "No Mean City," an interactive and photographic display, celebrates 68 inspirational people of the last 100 years, including Thomas Andrews (the designer of the Titanic), singer Van Morrison, and footballer George Best. In the courtyard a 60-jet fountain has been dedicated to Belfast City Council members killed during the Troubles.  

Crown Liquor Saloon

Belfast is blessed with some exceptional pubs but the Crown Bar is one of the city's glories. An ostentatious box of delights, the Crown which is owned by the National Trust (the United Kingdom's official conservation organization), has been immaculately preserved. Opposite the Europa Hotel, it began life in 1826 as the Railway Tavern and is still lighted by gas; in 1885 the owner asked Italian craftsmen working on churches in Ireland to moonlight on rebuilding it, and its place in Irish architectural pub history was assured. Richly carved woodwork around cozy snugs (cubicles—known to regulars as "confessional boxes"), leather seats, color tile work, and an abundance of mirrors make up the decor. But the pièce de résistance is the embossed ceiling with its swirling arabesques and rosettes of burnished primrose, amber, and gold, as dazzling again now as the day it was installed. The Crown claims to serve the perfect pint of Guinness—so no need to ask what anyone's drinking—and you can order a great plateful of warming Irish stew. When you settle down in your snug, note the little gunmetal plates used by the Victorians for lighting their matches as well as the newly restored antique push-button bells for ordering another round. Ageless, timeless, and classless—some would say the Crown is even priceless.

Europa Hotel

A landmark in Belfast, the Europa is a monument to the resilience of the city in the face of the Troubles. The most bombed hotel in Western Europe, it was targeted 11 times by the IRA starting in the early 1970s and was refurbished every time; today it shows no signs of its explosive history. Indeed, even with this track record, President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, chose the hotel for an overnight visit during their 1995 visit—for 24 hours the phones were answered with "White House Belfast, can I help you?" The president's room is now called the Clinton Suite and contains memorabilia from the presidential stay. An Italian marble lobby was installed in 2008 and the Europa expanded to 272 rooms, including six suites. A photographic timeline was added in 2011 to commemorate the hotel's 40th anniversary. The property is owned by the affable Ulster millionaire and hotel magnate Billy Hastings.

Grand Opera House

Belfast's opera house exemplifies the Victorians' fascination with ornamentation, opulent gilt moldings, and intricate plasterwork. The renowned theater architect Frank Matcham beautifully designed the building in 1894. Facilities include a foyer bar, café, restaurant, and party room. Contemporary Irish artist Cherith McKinstry's exquisite angel-and-cherub-laden fresco floats over the auditorium ceiling. The theater regularly hosts musicals, operas, plays, and concerts.

High Street

Off High Street, especially down to Ann Street (parallel to the south), run narrow lanes and alleyways called entries. Though mostly cleaned up and turned into chic shopping lanes, they still hang on to something of their raffish character, and have distinctive pubs with little-altered Victorian interiors. Among the most notable are the Morning Star (Pottinger's Entry off High Street), with its large windows and fine curving bar; White's Tavern (entry off High Street), Belfast's oldest pub, founded in 1630, which, although considerably updated, is still warm and comfortable, with plush seats and a big, open fire; and the delectable Muriel's Café Bar in Church Lane, with its damask drapes and velvet seats, themed on a 1920s hat shop. Look into St George's Church, at one end of High St., a beautiful building with a magnificient portico transported by canal from the house of the eccentric Earl Bishop of Derry. Across the road, McHugh's (in Queen's Square), in what is reckoned to be the city's oldest extant building, dating from 1711.

Queen's University Belfast

Dominating University Road is Queen's University. The main buildings, modeled on Oxford's Magdalen College and designed by the ubiquitous Charles Lanyon, were built in 1849 in the Tudor Revival style. The long, handsome, redbrick-and-sandstone facade of the main building features large lead-glass windows, and is topped with three square towers and crenellations galore. University Square, really a terrace, is from the same era. The Seamus Heaney Library is named after the Ulster-born 1997 Nobel Prize—winning poet who died in 2013. The McClay Library in College Park features a multistory open atrium, 1.5 million volumes, and the Brian Friel Theatre, named in honor of one of Ireland's most illustrious playwrights. The C.S. Lewis reading room on the first floor has a replica of the wardrobe door used in the film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Queen's Welcome Centre hosts a program of exhibitions and serves as a visitor information point.

Ulster Museum

Right next door to the Botanic Gardens, the rejuvenated Ulster Museum, with its spacious light-filled atrium and polished steel is a big hit with visitors. The museum's forte is the history and prehistory of Ireland using exhibitions to colorfully trace the rise of Belfast's crafts, trade, and industry, and offering a reflective photographic archive of the Troubles. In addition, the museum has a large natural history section, with famed skeleton of the extinct Irish giant deer, and a trove of jewelry and gold ornaments recovered from the Spanish Armada vessel Girona, which sank off the Antrim coast in 1588. Take time to seek out the Girona's stunning gold salamander studded with rubies and still dazzling after 400 years in the Atlantic. The museum includes a first-rate collection of 19th- and 20th-century art from Europe, Britain, and America. The art, history, and nature discovery zones are jam-packed with hands-on activities for children. Kids also enjoy the Peter the Polar Bear exhibit, and the famed Egyptian mummy, Takabuti. There's an innovative 360-degree light-and-sound immersive experience, museum shop, café, and restaurant. Sunday morning is the quietest time to visit so get in early before the crowds, and take a picnic to the Gardens next door.

Ulster Hall

It has hosted Charles Dickens, the Rolling Stones, and Rachmaninov as well as a diverse range of Irish politicians from Charles Stewart Parnell to Ian Paisley. Built in 1862 as a ballroom, the Ulster Hall, affectionately known as the Grand Dame of Bedford Street, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012 and has continued to thrive since an £8.5 million renovation in 2009. Much of W.J. Barre's original decor has been restored and 13 historic oil paintings reflecting the history and mythology of Belfast by local artist Joseph Carey are on display in their original magnificence in the Carey Gallery. Another highlight is an interpretative display featuring poetry, pictures, and sound telling the history of the hall through personal reminiscences. During World War II the building was used as a dance hall by U.S. troops based in Northern Ireland. The hall is also the permanent home of the Ulster Orchestra. Stop by the Café Grand Dame, drink in some of Belfast's colorful history, and reflect on the fact that it was here in March 1971 that Led Zeppelin performed the stage debut of "Stairway to Heaven." At the box office you can buy tickets for all upcoming events at both Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall.

W5: WhoWhatWhereWhyWhen

A staggering 250 hands-on exhibits allow children to explore the world through games and activities. Part of the Odyssey complex in Belfast's docks, the W5 science discovery center takes a high-tech approach to interpreting science and creativity for adults and children. Video displays and flashing lights enhance the futuristic feel and you can do everything from explore the weather to build houses, bridges and robots. After a £250,000 investment in 2013, the Start exhibits for the under-eights were rethemed featuring subjects such as spying, forensics, and nature. Make your way to the upper floors for spectacular views over the city and beyond.

St. Malachy's Church

Opened in 1844, St. Malachy's Church is one of the most impressive redbrick Tudor Revival churches in Ireland. One of the interior highlights is the densely patterned fan-vaulted ceiling, a delightfully swirling masterpiece of plasterwork—whose inspiration was taken from the chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey in London—tastefully repainted in cream. The high altarpiece featuring Pugin's Journey to Calvary was originally carried out by the portraitist Felix Piccioni whose family were refugees to Belfast from Austrian Italy. In 1868 the largest bell in Belfast was added to the church but after complaints that its deafening noise was interfering with the maturing of whiskey in the nearby Dunville distillery, it was wrapped in felt to soften its peal and vibration. Along the southeast wall of the church gazing out in contemplative mood with his brown eyes and torn chocolate brown coat is the delicate Statue of the Ragged Saint. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of the unemployed, welcomes visitors into the ethereal elegance of one of Belfast's most architecturally romantic buildings.

Union Theological College

Like Queen's University on the opposite side of the street, the college, with its colonnaded Doric facade, owes the charm of its appearance to architect Charles Lanyon. The building's other claim to fame is that, before the completion of the parliament buildings at Stormont, Northern Ireland's House of Commons was convened in its library, and the college's chapel played host to the Senate. The college offers tours by appointment.

Lagan Boat Company N.I. Ltd

A 75-minute Titanic harbor tour takes in the shipyard where the famous liner was built. The Lagan company also runs a separate two-hour boat trip, the Belfast Lough Tour at 3:30 on Sundays (June—Oct., £12.50). The departure point for both tours is from Donegall Quay near the Big Fish sculpture (a gigantic salmon covered in tiles and printed with text and imagery about Belfast).

Titanic's Dock and Pump-House Tour

The atmospheric 900-foot-long dock where Titanic was built—in its time the biggest in the world—is open to the public and ranks as one of the great attractions in Northern Ireland. Since 2012, and the events held for the 100th anniversary, Titanic's Dock—officially known as the Thompson Dry Dock—has been accessible to visitors. Steps lead deep down 44 feet (13½ meters) to the floor of the dock, where you can bask in the evocative spirit of this remarkable place well below sea level. In its heyday in the early 20th century, the dock could hold 21 million gallons of water. Today it is Belfast's outstanding relic of Titanic's legacy and strikingly represents the ship's physical footprint. Built by 500 men over a period of seven years, it was the beating heart of the shipyard's operation during the construction of the great White Star Liners—Britannic, Olympic, and RMS Titanic. But it was a tight squeeze; the Titanic barely fitted in. The original steel-casing gate (now showing some signs of rust) that enclosed the dock and kept ships watertight weighs a staggering 1,000 tons. The best way of accessing the dock and pump-house is to join one of Colin Cobb's fascinating, fact-filled walks that help visitors—through visual aids of the Titanic—imagine, relive, and reflect on both a singular marvel of engineering and the importance of shipbuilding in Belfast's heritage.

Albert Memorial Clock Tower

Tilting a little to one side, not unlike Pisa's more notorious leaning landmark, this clock tower was named for Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. The once-dilapidated Queen's Square on which it stands has undergone a face-lift and a restoration has brought the clock back to its original glory. The tower itself is not open to the public.

Belfast, Northern Ireland