By Carol Price Spurling
Photos by the author and courtesy Belfast Welcome Center
The first time I visited the Emerald Isle more than 20 years ago I steered clear of troubled Belfast. But I’m older and wiser now, and Belfast, too, has grown up, transformed from a self-absorbed, divided town into an extroverted and welcoming world-class city.
Belfast City Hall
Belfast offers Victorian charm in every quarter and has retained the best of what Ireland is famous for: warm hospitality, atmospheric historic and cultural sites, and easy access to the lush unspoiled countryside. In Belfast, they’re glad to see you, not just your wallet, and what a difference that makes.
Stormont Parliament Building, home of a new era of political cooperation in Northern Ireland.
West Belfast’s Shankill and Falls neighborhoods saw most of the “Troubles” that erupted in the early 1970s. The Peace Walls that separate them are still standing, but visitors are welcomed on both sides and the practice of customers being searched before entering a store or office was retired years ago. For those interested in an insider’s view of Belfast’s political divide, Coiste Political Tours (www.coiste.ie/p_tours.htm) offers guided tours by Republican ex-political prisoners. Or, take a taxi tour to see wall murals and other relics from the bad old days (West Belfast Taxi Association, www.wbta.net).
Taxis in Donegall Square
The center of Belfast, Donegall Square, features Belfast City Hall (www.belfastcity.gov.uk), an embellished stone edifice built in 1888 as a monument to Belfast’s bright future.
All metro buses lead to the bustling square, also home to literary gem Linen Hall Library (www.linenhall.com). In this old linen warehouse, transformed into a library in 1788, visitors can access the cozy library’s unique archives such as the Northern Ireland Political Collection and the C.S. Lewis Collection. Enjoy the library’s tranquil wood-paneled ambiance and a view of City Hall by taking a tea break in the upstairs café.
Irish cheese at St. George’s Market
On Fridays and Saturdays the oldest Victorian-era covered market in Ireland, St. George’s, fills up with local shoppers intent on finding a bargain or tracking down the best fresh food in the region (www.belfastcity.gov.uk/markets). The Saturday market is devoted to food. You won’t go away hungry, with 250 stands offering everything from oysters to Irish cheeses to seaweed tapenade to tapas to sausages in curry sauce. Look for locally made “Belfast in a box” chocolates that celebrate Belfast landmarks, accompanied by an illustrated booklet (www.citycentres.com).
Everyone knows where the Titanic met her end but did you know she was born in Belfast? The city’s proud shipbuilding heritage is still obvious with the huge yellow cranes in the Harland and Wolff shipyard –- nicknamed Samson and Goliath — towering over Queen’s Island and the Titanic Quarter on the city’s eastern edge.
(left) Sampling seaweed at St. George’s Market
Huge cranes at the Harland & Wolff shipyard
Belfast celebrates its past with the Titanic Made in Belfast Festival every March (www.belfastcity.gov.uk/titanicfestival), when free bus tours of Queen’s Island are offered by the city on Saturdays and Sundays.
My personal favorite from the tour: the inside of the design room at Harland and Wolff’s offices, where draftsmen labored under a cathedral-like arched ceiling to draw the ship’s plans.
DO YOU NEED A CAR?
Although Ireland and Northern Ireland aren’t famous for their extensive rail networks, between trains, buses, and taxis you can get anywhere you need to go in the greater Belfast area and environs without having to rent a car –- or drive on the left. Coach tours and trains also run directly north to Portrush, with convenient connections to Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, and Bushmills Distillery. Along the northern and southern shores of Belfast Lough, rail service is frequent and affordable, so getting to top attractions just outside Belfast, like Carrickfergus Castle (www.ehsni.gov.uk/carrick.shtml) or the must-see Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (www.uftm.org.uk/) is easy peasy. Day return tickets are offered at 1/3 off the standard rate if you leave after the morning rush hour, and families can get special ticket deals too (www.translink.co.uk).
But to see some of Northern Ireland’s diverse natural beauty and historic architecture (Environment and Heritage Service, www.ehsni.gov.uk/other-index/places.htm), a car will be very helpful. Most recommended is to make a day of driving north along County Antrim’s Causeway Coastal Route, where the craggy cliffs and wild sea spray on one side is balanced by charming villages and green pastures dotted with tranquil sheep on the other. Giant’s Causeway — a stunning outcropping of columnar basalt — can be busy during the tourist season but has been kept remarkably uncommercialized. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon for the best light at this geological wonderland (www.causewaycoastandglens.com).
Another lovely drive is west through the Fermanagh Lakelands, home of Belleek pottery, and National Trust gem Castle Coole (www.fermanaghlakelands.com).
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Celebrity chefs Paul and Jeanne Rankin have put Belfast on the culinary map with Cayenne Restaurant (www.rankingroup.co.uk) and Roscoff Brasserie. Up and down the Golden Mile on Dublin Road, foodies will be spoiled for choices of great pubs, cafés, bistros and restaurants.
Chef Michael Deane runs Northern Ireland’s only Michelin-starred eatery at Deane’s Restaurant (www.michaeldeane.co.uk); his newest venture is the contemporary bar and grill Deanes at Queens, located in the Queen’s University Common Rooms.
Coffee addicts never fear, Belfast baristas know what they’re doing. You can’t go wrong visiting any one of the seven Clement’s coffee shops, where coffee drinking is practically a spiritual pursuit, and the creamy hot chocolates are served in a large bowl.
The most beautiful place in Belfast to drink a pint is in the historic Crown Liquor Saloon (www.crownbar.com). Take note of the tiled floors, stained glass windows, intricately carved wooden “snugs” that can be reserved for lunch, and the murmur of happy pub-goers. As proudly noted on the menu, the Crown Liquor must be the only pub in the world with both a webcam and Victorian-era gaslights.
The Crown Pub and its beautiful “snugs.”
(left to right) Dining at one of Chef Michael Deane’s Belfast restaurants; Steak and Guinness pie is an Irish specialty
WHERE TO STAY
In downtown Belfast itself, a famous landmark is the 4-star Europa Hotel (www.hastingshotels.com) conveniently located just in front of Great Victoria Street rail station and the Europa Buscentre. Head concierge Martin Mulholland will make sure you get everything you need, even if you’re not as famous as some guests who’ve stayed there, like Bill Clinton, Julia Roberts and Elton John.
For a more secluded getaway try the 5-star Culloden Hotel in Holywood, overlooking Belfast Lough (www.hastingshotels.com), or The Old Inn in picture-perfect Crawfordsburn (www.theoldinn.com), both within easy reach of the city.
For less expansive budgets there are dozens of guestshouses, B&Bs, self-catering holiday apartments, hostels, and budget hotels both in Belfast and in neighboring communities. Some are chic, some charming; choose according to your mood.
The Premier Inn hotel (www.premierinn.com) boasts a great central location and is spanking new to boot. The Ash-Rowan Town House (tel. 9066 1758) offers a choice of nine gourmet breakfasts, with a side of historic significance: the Ash-Rowan was once the home of Titanic designer Thomas Andrews.
If you get out into the Fermanagh Lakelands and wish you could stay, check out Belle Isle Castle (www.belleisle-estate.com), outside Enniskillen near Lisbellaw. The old stables and coach house have been transformed into comfortable holiday rentals, with a variety of outdoor activities available, as well as day-long cooking classes taught by Irish chef Liz Moore. You can even rent the castle for a group stay, or a small wedding.
WHEN YOU GO
If you’re planning a trip to Belfast and Northern Ireland, be sure to visit the Belfast Welcome Centre website, www.gotobelfast.com. Like the office itself located at 47 Donegall Place in the city center, it is user-friendly, multi-lingual, and comprehensive. Be sure to pick up copies of their excellent themed city guides.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board website is www.discovernorthernireland.com. Another free publication to pick up: Belfast In Your Pocket (www.inyourpocket.com). Published every couple of months, it always has the most up-to-date happenings, complete with maps of the city.