Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Belfast
Since opening its doors in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage, Titanic Belfast has rocketed to the top of Northern Ireland’s tourist attractions, drawing over a million visitors in its first year. It seems fitting that the city should host the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience; after all, this was the city where the world’s most luxurious ship was built and first launched. Today, the area of Belfast Harbor that once housed the RMS Titanic has been renamed the Titanic Quarter and is dominated by the towering silver façade of the Titanic Belfast, a remarkable building fashioned from four ship-hull-shaped wings. The futuristic building is home to the state-of-the-art Titanic Belfast exhibition, which spreads over 6 floors and includes interactive discovery zones, full-scale reconstructions, real-life accounts and mind-blowing special effects.
Shankill, derived from the Irish word for “Old Church,” is a predominantly loyalist working-class area of West Belfast. It’s known as “Original Belfast” and dates back to 455 A.D., while being known for its role as a central hub for many loyalist paramilitary organizations during the time of "The Troubles."
Shankill Road, the main artery of the neighborhood, is one of the oldest settlements in Belfast and dates back to the Stone Age. The area came to prominence in the late 19th century as a center of Belfast’s linen industry. The Shankill Road Peace Walls are adorned with unionist symbols, such as Union Jacks and murals of the British Royal Family, which are key draws for tourists. The murals here are political, historical and community focused. Art on the gable walls depicts scenes as one of volunteers who died as a result of the area’s conflicts.
Falls Road, derived from the Irish word for “district of the falls or hedges,” is a predominantly working-class area of western Belfast. The neighborhood is known for its role in “The Troubles,” having served as the central hub for many of the nationalist organizations of the time, and is divided from Shankill Road by one of the peace walls of Belfast.
Many famous Republican murals can be found in the area, such as the mural of hunger striker Bobby Sands on the wall of the Sinn Féin shop and office. Sands died after a hunger strike in Maze Prison, which left nine other prisoners dead. There are a few murals where you might notice a few repetitive motifs and symbols, such as a phoenix rising from the ashes, which stands for Ireland emerging from the flames of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Dating back to 1969, the Belfast Peace Walls, or Peace Lines, are a series of barriers that were put up between Irish Nationalist and Unionist neighborhoods throughout Northern Ireland. Originally intended to be only temporary structures between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, many of the walls have proven effective, and have been lengthened, strengthened and made more permanent fixtures. Many of the exteriors have been adorned with murals, much like the former Berlin Wall, making the Belfast Peace Walls a popular attraction.
There are currently 48 peace lines in Northern Ireland, stretching over 21 miles (34 km) in total, mostly in Belfast. The peace lines range in length from a few hundred yards to several miles long and may stand as high as 25 feet in some places. The walls are constructed of iron, brick and/or steel, while there are only a limited number of gates that allow access to cross through the walls between the neighborhoods.
Crumlin Road features two imposing structures of Belfast’s criminal justice system, the Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail) and Courthouse. The jail opened in 1845 and the courthouse five years later, though neither have been in service since the late 1990ss. Crumlin Road Jail is the only Victorian-era prison remaining in Northern Ireland and is commonly referred to as “The Crum.”
The Crumlin Road Gaol is a black basalt and red sandstone structure of four wings branching out from a central circle. The jail has been the site of numerous breakouts, bombings and protests over the years, and despite being referred to as the Alcatraz of Europe, there were a number of successful escape attempts, the first in 1866. It has housed such notable inmates as Ian Paisley, Eamon de Valera, Michael Stone and Lenny Murphy. Gallows were not included in the original design, meaning executions took place in public view.
Belfast City Hall was built to commemorate the event of Belfast becoming a city, having been granted the status in 1888 by Queen Victoria in recognition of the contributions of Belfast in the industries of linen, rope, tobacco, engineering and shipbuilding. This imposing structure of Portland stone has a copper dome topping out at 173 feet high, as well as a statue of Queen Victoria celebrating her jubilee standing out front.
Many other statues and monuments can be found on the surrounding grounds, including the Thane Memorial for the victims of the Titanic sinking, which was expanded in 2012 to become the Titanic Memorial Garden. The memorial garden contains a nine-meter-long plinth containing bronze plaques with the names of all of the victims and was the first memorial to include the names of all who died, both crew members and passengers.
In the heart of Belfast and surrounding the historic St. Anne’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Quarter has become the cultural hub of the city. Once the old merchant quarter and home to the city’s trade and manufacturing districts, it was first known for the shipbuilding and linen fabrics produced there. Today, dozens of artistic and cultural organizations call the narrow streets and modern spaces of the quarter home. With some of Belfast’s best pubs, restaurants, and public spaces, it is now a hip, lively neighborhood ripe for exploration.
Still known mostly as an up-and-coming area, the Cathedral Quarter frequently has new shops and shows pop up. The area has a literary history as well — once the home of Belfast poet John Hewitt, and now nearby to many of the city’s publishing and journalism offices. There is also the former “Little Italy” area of Little Patrick Street. The Cathedral Quarter is an excellent place to get a sense of both Belfast’s past and future.
More Things to Do in Belfast
Just as Dublin has Trinity, so Belfast has Queen's. It's the city's top university and a center of green and calm. Neo-Gothic and neo-Tudor buildings mingle with less majestic fare. Over 20,000 students attend, so if you come in term-time there's plenty of people-watching to be done as the campus goes about its business.
It was founded in 1849 and its main building was designed by Charles Lanyon. However, the main pleasure for the visitor is less its history and more just strolling around the grounds enjoying the tranquil enclave and the toney streets surrounding the campus.
Belfast’s customs house was the city’s first neoclassical building, built in 1856 in the High Italian Renaissance, or “Palazzo” style. It is generally considered to be one of Belfast’s finest structures and features carvings of angels and classical deities representing manufacture, commerce, industry and peace. Figures of Britannia, flanked by the lion and unicorn of the British seal, as well as Neptune and Mercury, look down from the pediment over the entrance. The structure is meant to convey the great power of the British Empire under Queen Victoria.
The building's steps have long been a site where many of Belfast’s orators would give speeches, as well as the site of many protests. There is a bronze statue of the “speaker” that serves as a popular spot for photos. Customs House Square is also a major venue for outdoor concerts and street entertainment in Belfast.
Belfast Castle sits high above the city on Cave Hill, looking the very picture of baronial splendor (it's built in the Scottish Baronial style, like the Queen's house Balmoral).
There's been a castle on this site since the 12th century, but this one dates from the 1860s. It was built by the 3rd Marquis of Donegall. It went wildly over budget and, as the Marquis' fortunes had changed, nearly didn't get finished at all.
Today it's a working castle, earning its keep with wedding receptions, conferences, an antique store and an adventure playground. At the visitors center you can find out all about the history of the Castle Hill site.
Noticed a cat motif around the place? It's all down to a legend that says all will be well with the castle's residents as long as there is a white cat in situ.
The Albert Memorial Clock Tower is yet another symbol of the love Queen Victoria bore her consort. At 30 metres (100 feet) tall, and with a statue of Albert in ceremonial robes, it's a grandiose love letter to her departed husband.
Unfortunately, as the tower was built in marshy ground, it's developed something of a lean, leading the waggish of Belfast (and there are plenty of them) to make it the butt of their jokes.
A recent renovation cleaned the tower back to its original whiteness and restored its verticality somewhat by fortifying its wooden foundations.
Wet and cold? Spend an afternoon in Belfast Botanical Gardens and be transported to a friendlier climate. Established in 1828, the Gardens are probably most famous for their Palm House, which was built soon after. The Palm House, designed by Charles Lanyon, is of gracefully curved steel and glass with a birdcage dome and filled with seasonal displays and, in the 'stove wing', a mini-jungle.
The gardens also have a Tropical Ravine - a building with a bridge overlooking tropical varieties like banana, cinammon and orchids - an alpine garden, sculptures and rose beds.
Located in nationalist West Belfast, the Irish Republican History Museum opened its doors in 2007 in a former linen building dating back to 1842. It focuses on the Republican’s involvement in The Troubles, a war that ripped Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom apart between 1968 and 1998. The conflict opposed nationalist to royalists, with the constitutional status of Northern Ireland being at the heart of the debate. It claimed the lives of over 3,500 people and injured roughly 50,000, and although it was deemed over by the turn of the century, sporadic bouts of violence still occur nowadays.
The Irish Republican History Museum came to be after persistent campaigning by Eileen Hickey, who used to be the Officer Commanding of the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners in Armagh Women's prison during the Troubles. She dedicated most of her life to preserving the artifacts and relics she had collected throughout the war.
Considered one of the world’s scariest bridges, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is not for the faint of heart. Spanning a chasm that is almost 100 feet deep and nearly 70 feet wide, this Northern Ireland bridge connects Carrick-a-Rede Island to the mainland and attracts a quarter of a million visitors every year. The original structure was built by fishermen more than 300 years ago, and as recently as the 1970s, the bridge had only one handrail and large gaps between the slats.
The current bridge is less than 10 years old and is made of wire and Douglas fir. There is no record of anyone falling off the bridge, but it is not uncommon for visitors to get cold feet after crossing once, requiring a boat to bring them back to the mainland. Aside from the treacherous structure, the surrounding area is designated an Area of Special Scientific Interest due to its unique flora and fauna.
Fifty miles northwest of Belfast, off the Antrim Coastal Road, you will find one of the most unique and most photographed attractions in Northern Ireland: a row of trees known as the Dark Hedges. Planted by the Stuart family back in the 18th century, these beech trees are now overgrown and intertwined, creating a tunnel along the stretch of Bregagh Road that once led to Gracehill, the Stuart family manor.
Legend has it that the trees are haunted by a mysterious gray lady who weaves in and out of the trees at dusk. In addition to being a popular subject to artists, the trees also serve as a frequent backdrop for wedding photographs and have been use for scenes in the show Game of Thrones, representing the Kings Road.
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