For the greater part of 30 years, Belfast endured ‘The Troubles’, the name given to the religious and political conflict that took some 3,500 lives and plagued the region from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. For three decades, unrest dominated Northern Ireland, turning much of the area into a desolate landscape that did little to welcome visitors. Fast-forward to today and Belfast, a small but mighty city, has pulled itself out from under the rubble of that extreme discord. No longer defined by bloodshed and bomb blasts (although there’s still a wall in the city separating Catholics and Protestants), the new Belfast is opening its arms to tourists and to a brighter future.
In an effort to shape its new future, Belfast has looked to its past – beyond The Troubles, farther back, to the turn of the 20th century. Belfast was a key player during the Industrial Revolution, home to burgeoning industries like linen, tobacco production and most notably, ship building. The city’s largest ship builders, Harland and Wolff, designed and built the RMS Titanic and while it may seem peculiar to focus on this historic but tragic event, that’s just what Belfast has chosen to do. In April 2012, 100 years after the sinking of RMS Titanic, Belfast opened the doors to Titanic Belfast, a museum situated right in the shipyard where the doomed ship was built.
No trip to Belfast would be complete without visiting Titanic Belfast so if you’re looking for things to do in this city, make this your first stop.
1 Visit Titanic Belfast
There’s a saying in Belfast: “She was alright when she left here.” After the Titanic sank in April 1912, the city descended into mourning. The tragedy hit particularly close to home, not only because Belfast was the birthplace of the ship but because of the number of local lives lost; many people from Belfast were crew members, technicians and passengers aboard the ship. For a long period, the Titanic was a taboo topic. But today, Belfast has embraced its role in the building of, what was at the time, an epic engineering marvel. One hundred years later, the people of Belfast have stopped feeling sadness and responsibility over the fate of the ship (which went down due to human error, we were reminded), and have resumed rightfully feeling proud.
To mark the centenary, Titanic Belfast opened and this wonderful exhibit should be on every visitor’s list of things to do. The exhibit sprawls over more than 130,000 square feet of space and features a series of galleries that focus on the building, design, launch, sinking and legacy of the ship.
2 Enjoy afternoon tea at The Merchant Hotel
The five-star Merchant Hotel is heralded as the best in Belfast. And if a stay there isn’t in the cards, swing by for afternoon tea. Served in The Great Room Restaurant at the hotel, afternoon tea is a sumptuous affair. Priced at £19.50 for the regular tea (no alcohol) or £27.50 for the Champagne tea, it’s a decadent way to spend the afternoon. Since it was my birthday while I was in Belfast, my husband took me to celebrate – it was special and memorable. Tea includes a variety of finger sandwiches (cucumber, smoked salmon, chicken and ham), banana bread, scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserve, an assortment of cakes and pastries and of course, your choice of tea from the extensive tea menu. There’s live piano music on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. During our visit, we were treated to a wonderful assortment of tunes, everything from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Whitney Houston to Bob Seger and Beethoven!
3 Shop at Victoria Square
Victoria Square, opened in March 2008, offers up some of the best shopping in Belfast and has brought certain brands like Apple and Wagamama to Northern Ireland for the first time. It’s really just a shopping mall like any other but if you tire of the indoor mall experience, there’s tons of great street shopping just outside. But before you leave the mall, be sure to take the lift all the way to the top of the shopping centre, where you’ll find a domed observatory overlooking Belfast. Great photo opps up there!
4 Visit the Cathedral Quarter
Nestled amidst some of the most beautiful buildings in Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter (so named because at it’s heart, you’ll find St. Anne’s Cathedral) has, in recent years, emerged as a bustling cultural centre in the city. It’s a beautiful spot for strolling. The cobbled streets are definitely part of the charm here (so wear comfy shoes!) Each year, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival showcases an assortment of arts, literature, drama, music and comedy events and has a rich history of printing and publishing newspapers. The Cathedral Quarter also has a growing number of bars, cafes and restaurants. Try: Coppi. This Italian restaurant came recommended to us by the popular chef Raymond McArdle who will appear on the BBC 2 show Great British Menu in January and who we met on our British Airways flight from London to Belfast. The food was delicious and the prices reasonable. Coppi has a great vibe inside, friendly service and I highly recommend it.
5 Stroll through St. George’s Market
Following mass at St. Malachy’s church on Sunday morning, my husband and I strolled aimlessly until we stumbled upon St. George’s Weekend Market. Jackpot! The market is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and is the oldest Victorian market in Belfast as well as one of the city’s oldest attractions. In fact, the Friday Variety Market dates back as far as 1604, though the current venue of the market was built between 1890 and 1896. All three markets offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, arts and crafts from local artisans, pottery, glassworks, fresh pastries and homemade goodies (I tried a Maltesers bar that was out of this world – you know, as far as baked goods go!) and all kinds of other fun stuff. You can also expect to hear live music from local bands as you stroll through – it’s the perfect way to while away a Sunday afternoon.