Geometric and naturally formed basalt columns make up Giant's Causeway, a unique coastline approximately 60 miles outside of Belfast, Ireland. // (c) 2014 Visit-Belfast.com
Feature image (above): Belfast City Hall is both a government building and visitor attraction. // © 2014 Creative Commons user carisenda
Although the Catholic/Protestant pro-Irish/pro-British “Troubles” in Northern Ireland ended with the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, many travelers still associate Belfast with violence and sectarianism. However, with its bad days behind, Belfast is now one of the United Kingdom’s most interesting up-and-coming cities, offering visitors everything from political history tours to a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site.
Belfast is easily accessible by a two-hour express train ride from Dublin, as well as multiple ferries from Scotland and England and flights from all over the world. This makes the city a good and convenient stop to include in a tour of the British Isles.
The Northern Ireland capital is rich in historic and cultural sites. Here’s an overview of top attractions:
Did you know that the legendary ship Titanic was made in Belfast? The city takes this part of its heritage so seriously that there’s an entire Titanic Experience attraction, which extends over nine galleries where visitors can learn about the history of ship-building, experience a simulated ride on the Titanic and study undersea life. Savvy travelers can pre-book tickets online at a discounted rate.
Belfast City Hall
This gorgeous Baroque Revival building is the focal point of central Belfast. Once the home of a linen exchange when the city was at the height of its textile-making period, the building now serves as both a government center and a place for residents to hang out. Most days, it’s normal to see tourists and locals alike sprawled on the city hall’s vast lawn, having picnics and catching up with friends.
Saint Anne’s Cathedral
At the opposite end of the street from Belfast City Hall is the newly restored Saint Anne’s Cathedral, which was first consecrated in 1904. Although it isn’t a cathedral by technical religious definition (there’s no bishop who serves there), this building is an important part of the Church of Ireland’s heritage and contains the beautiful Chapel of Unity.
The original Belfast Castle was in the heart of the city, but after it burned down in 1708, a larger location was chosen on the outskirts of town. Now, Belfast Castle belongs to the city of Belfast. It is home to a restaurant, an antiques shop, several conference rooms and a popular afternoon tearoom. The surrounding Cave Hill Country Park is also worth exploring. Its best-known site is the picturesque Napoleon’s Nose hill, which is where author Daniel Defoe first got inspiration to write his book “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Northern Ireland’s national museum, Ulster Museum is home to a broad range of art: from classical paintings to more modern depictions of the Troubles, along with exhibitions about the native plant and animal life of the area. Be generous with allotted time when planning a visit, as you could easily spend all day here (the museum underwent an expansion in 2009).
The Giant’s Causeway
Northern Ireland only has one UNESCO World Heritage site to its name, and it’s a beauty. Located about 60 miles outside of Belfast in County Antrim, this unusual stretch of coastline called the Giant’s Causeway is made of interlocking pillars of basalt stone. The pieces are in naturally formed hexagonal and pentagonal shapes, creating dramatic cliffside views. They’re also quite fun to climb, if you’re up for the challenge. Plan to take a full day for your visit, which includes time spent traveling to reach the site. Many organized tours will also include a stop at the nearby Bushmills whiskey distillery.
As the city’s only gallery solely dedicated to photography, art lovers simply must stop at Belfast Exposed. Located inside a renovated warehouse, the gallery (which is almost always free to enter except for the occasional special exhibit) also houses a well-curated art bookshop and offers photography classes.
Black Taxi Tours
If you’re interested in learning more about the Troubles and how they affected ordinary citizens of Belfast, a black taxi tour is the best way to go. These local taxis take two to four people at a time past local sites, including Belfast’s peace walls, and provide historical context and background. Tour guides are all from the area and can speak personally about their own experiences as well. Almost every local hotel has a partnership with a black taxi company, so ask your concierge.
A pub as a cultural site? Crown Bar isn’t just a beautiful place to sit and have a drink: It’s a living example of how different people can come together in peaceful harmony. The original owner was an anti-monarchist married to a pro-monarchy woman. In a show of good will, he let his wife choose the bar’s name, but to get in a wink, he commissioned a gorgeous church-tile mosaic of a crown on the bar’s floor, where everyone would have to walk all over it to get a drink. This is a piece of Belfast history, a beautiful example of glass and tile work and a nice place to stop in for a pint at the end of the night.