Gone are the days when Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, was the target of attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in a separatist conflict that lasted for decades.
From 1998, when the peace treaties were signed, Belfast began a profound process of modernization. Today, it is one of the most entertaining cities in Europe, with Victorian pubs always full of young people and an avant-garde gastronomy.
It is worth remembering that the famous Titanic sailed from Belfast, although the locals are not responsible for its sad end; in fact, the motto of the Belfast people is that the liner “she was fine when she left here”.
Some of the attractions to see in Belfast, a beautiful city with 300,000 inhabitants, are: the Mural Route, the Titanic Museum, the City Hall, in Donegal Square, and St George’s Market, the oldest in Ireland.
One of the first places to see in Belfast is undoubtedly the Belfast City Hall, noted for its great dome of 53 meters of green color that crowns this Edwardian building of the late nineteenth century. The City Hall is one of the emblems of the city and has a beautiful park, where a statue of Queen Victoria and a secluded garden honoring the victims of the Titanic.
Here begins the famous Donegal Street, which concentrates the commercial life of the city. Very close to this colorful palace is the Belfast Wheel, a 60-meter high Ferris wheel that stopped working in April 2010, but is already part of the urban landscape of the area.
Route of the murals
Taking one of Belfast’s classic black cabs on the Mural Route is a unique experience to see in Belfast. On the streets of Falls Road and Shankill Road, west of Belfast, are located hundreds of murals that are the living testimony of the conflict between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists.
These neighborhoods, traditionally home to the working class, have iconic murals, such as that of Bobby Sands (on the Falls Road), an Irish Revolutionary Army prisoner who died in 1984 during a hunger strike. In the Catholic quarter, murals in support of the IRA and its independence struggle are displayed, while in the Protestant quarter (Shankill Road) pro-British crown proclamations prevail.
As we said, the best way to visit these two neighborhoods of Belfast is to hire black cabs, whose drivers serve as experienced guides. In addition to the tour of the murals, the drivers take tourists to the Crumlin Road Gaol, a magnificent Victorian prison that housed both Republicans and Unionists during the so-called Northern Ireland Conflict and is another of the must-see sites in Belfast. These bars housed the aforementioned Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA, who died while incarcerated. Currently, the prison is a conference center and museum, where concerts are also held.
Harland and Wolff Shipyard
The Harland and Wolff shipyards have a great merit and a great misfortune that weighs on their backs: in these docks was built the largest passenger ship in the world (until the early twentieth century), which eventually sank when it hit an iceberg, with nearly 1,500 people on board, in what was one of the largest shipwrecks in the history of navigation.
The area where the Harland and Wolff shipyard is located was abandoned for many years, until it was recovered and converted into a great tourist attraction to see in Belfast. It highlights the Titanic Museum, with nine rooms that cover the history of the failed ocean liner. This neighborhood, called Titanic Quarter, also has as an attraction the giant yellow cranes David and Golliat.
Queen’s University Belfast
Another special place to see in Belfast is the headquarters of Queen’s University Belfast, a grand Victorian-style building guarded by beautiful gardens. It was built in 1849 by Sir Charles Lanyon, along the lines of the Tudor Gothic architecture of Oxford. It is one of the great attractions of Belfast and it is worth knowing its interior; its magnificent library and its immense stately halls seem taken out of one of the Harry Potter movies.
Pubs in Belfast
To lean against the bar of a pub in Belfast is a way to feel like another Irishman. The offer of pubs in the city is huge and many of them carry a very interesting history on their backs; this is the case of The Crown Liquor Saloon, which was built in the late nineteenth century (impressed by its wooden decor carved by Italian artists) and is considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
You can also go to White’s Tavern, which dates back to 1630 (it is the oldest pub in the city). Other famous pubs are: McHugh, Robinson’s bar, John Hewitt, The Perch and Duke of York, just to mention the most renowned. Needless to say that the must drink is, in all cases, the Guinness beer.
The Marquis of Donegal built in 1870 Belfast Castle, on the hill of Cave Hill, six kilometers from the city that is one of the must-see places in Belfast. This beautiful sandstone mansion is surrounded by sumptuous gardens, which deserve to be visited. One of the legends of the place tells that the occupants of the castle will only be lucky if a white cat lives in the building. For this reason, the place was nicknamed the Castle of the Cats.
A restaurant, a visitor’s center and an antique store are located in the huge enclosure. Being one of the highest points in Belfast (120 meters above sea level), the views are wonderful. Admission is free.
Less than 100 kilometers from Belfast is the Giant’s Causeway. It is, without a doubt, the best excursion to do from Belfast or Dublin, since it is one of the great attractions of Ireland. This natural scenery, in the northwest of the country, is formed by thousands of basalt columns formed 60 million years ago, a geological phenomenon of great beauty. Visitors to the Giant’s Causeway will have the sensation of being immersed in a lunar landscape, right on the edge of the ocean.
The Belfast Botanic Garden is located next to Queen’s University and is one of the most beautiful green spaces to see in Belfast. Not only is the park pleasant, with its lush rose garden, but also hanging out in the cafes and bookstores that surround it. In the botanical gardens it is worth visiting the Palm House, a greenhouse that houses exotic plants from different continents. On sunny days, this place is full of locals and tourists who picnic and play outdoor sports. Very close to the park is the Ulster Museum, for those interested in the history of the Northern Ireland Conflict.
St. George’s Market
St George’s Market is the oldest food market in Ireland (and one of the best in the UK), having been built in 1890 in a Victorian style. This space, with a huge glass roof, houses some 200 stalls selling everything from fresh fish to produce, clothing and antiques.
One recommendation is to go up to the second floor of St George’s Market and sit down to sample the delicious dishes in the only restaurant on site. The market opens daily at 6 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. (with extended hours on Saturdays and Sundays).
Belfast Opera House
After drinking a few beers at the Crown Liquor Saloon, at 46 Great Victoria Street, it is recommended to walk a few meters to the amazing building of the Belfast Opera House, called Grand Opera House. This palace was built in 1895 by a great theater builder, architect Frank Matcham, who gave the building an oriental touch. The hall has a capacity for 1,000 people. Although it is currently closed for reservations, it is worth admiring its façade. It is undoubtedly the most iconic theater in Northern Ireland.
Cliffs of Moher
Four and a half hours drive from Belfast is one of the great wonders of Northern Ireland: the Cliffs of Moher. Like the excursion to the Giant’s Causeway, this walk is not to be missed. The cliffs, formed 300 million years ago, have a height of 120 meters and offer breathtaking views over the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay. The mandatory stop is in the picturesque village of Doolin, in County Clare, in a setting of caves and castles.