The city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a museum lover’s dream with a wide variety of galleries including Titanic Belfast, the Irish Linen Center and Lisburn Museum, the Ulster Museum at the Botanical Gardens filled with 15th-century art, and the Crumlin Road Gaol.
As in other large cities, traffic in the center of Belfast is congested and parking is almost nonexistent. Walking and using the Translink public transportation system of buses and trains are the best ways to get around. The hop-on hop-off sightseeing trolleys are another convenient way for visitors to orient themselves to Belfast.
From the Hilton Belfast, centrally located in the middle of the City Center, it’s only a short walk to City Hall, an ornate 19th-century edifice that stretches for blocks. Guides give daily free tours of the stunning interior.
The exterior of the Titanic Belfast, designed to look like the bow of an approaching ship, is awe inspiring. Located on the dry dock where the Titanic was built, the museum’s galleries are stacked the same way the ship’s decks were. Standing in one of the galleries guests get a sensory perception of noises that would have come from the ill-fated liner’s engine room. Exhibits not only tell about the building of Titanic but also show what a boom town Belfast was in the 19th century. Back then Harland and Wolff, the builders of the great ship, employed thousands of people. Belfast’s docks were the largest in Ireland with more than 6,000 men working them at any given time. The most extensive rope works factory in the world was here.
Textile mills spinning flax for linen ran 12 hours a day six days a week. A train ride to nearby Lisburn provides stunning views of the valley along the Lagan River. The Irish Linen Center and Lisburn Museum is housed in a 17th-century market building. The exhibit “Flax to Fabric,” with several types of antique looms on display, shows the step-by-step process of linen making. A hundred years ago 180,000 pounds of linen were shipped yearly from Lisburn.
Another part of Belfast’s history is the Troubles, the 30-year conflict between Republicans and Loyalists that plagued the city from 1968 to 1998. Nowadays bus, walking and taxi tours explore the West Belfast neighborhoods where much of the Troubles took place. The people and events of that time are memorialized in public murals.
Forget anything you have heard about food in Ireland being bland, the fare in Northern Ireland is more than boiled beef and potatoes. Chefs in Belfast have embraced the farm-to-table experience. Pubs, tea houses and restaurants around the city offer interesting and delicious menus. McHugh’s Bar and Restaurant, a neighborhood pub, serves incomparable fish and chips. Although best known for its fresh produce St. George’s Market houses a plethora of restaurants, cafes, and bakeries.
Several bus touring companies offer day trips along the Causeway Coastal Route, but visitors who want to go at their own pace should hire a car. This is the heart of Northern Ireland, the Glens of Antrim dotted with medieval villages. Carrickfergus is home to a stunning 12thcentury Norman castle, Kilroot, where Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels lived, as well as the magnificent gardens of Glenarm Castle, home to the Earls of Antrim for 400 years.
Traveling the Causeway Coastal Route can be a full day trip or a side journey of several days. The village of Bushmills makes a good home base from which tourists can easily take the Translink Causeway Rambler to the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle. Accommodations in Bushmills range from the large and luxurious Bushmills Inn to the cozy Lismar Bed & Breakfast to small self-catering houses such as Bushmills Thatched Cottage and the Village Cottage.
At Carrick-A-Rede a rope bridge 100 feet above the ocean between two cliffs bids visitors to overcome their fear of heights.
Dunluce Castle is sited close to the edge of a headland, along the North Antrim coast. Surrounded by jaw dropping coastal scenery, this medieval castle stands where an early Irish fort was once built and where its history can be traced back to early Christians and Vikings.
With its 30-foot towers and stark ruins against a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, Dunluce Castle is dramatic. Written records show the castle was built in 1513 by the MacQuillian family. As with many other castles in Northern Ireland, it was besieged, going back and forth between owners until the McDonnell clan claimed Dunluce. The family still owns the castle.
Other destinations not to be missed include Ballintoy, where scenes from Game of Thrones have been filmed, and Portrush with its sandy beaches.
Bushmills Distillery has been in operation since 1608 when King James I signed a grant allowing
a distillery on this site. The whiskey is still made the same way it was in King James’ day, with water from the surrounding streams and Irish barley.
Even though Bushmills is a working distillery, tours are given every day, at the end of which guests are offered a drop of Irish whiskey.
The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 40,000 basalt polygonal
columns and rolling green hills. Local legend claims that it was carved out by a giant named Finn McCool. Exhibits in the Visitors Centre reveal the real reason: cooling and shrinking of lava flows over 60 million years ago.
The Visitors Centre itself is a thing of beauty rising from the earth and sloping with the hills. Its grass roof affords panoramic views of the Coastal Route. The terrain is rugged and varied with walking trails that the National Trust has graded from easy to challenging.
Belfast is a city reborn. It has an industrial past that is fast becoming its greatest tourist asset. Above all, Belfast has a warmth and hospitality quite unlike anywhere else. Visitors from every continent throng the streets, drawn to a city with heart, where people have time to smile.
For further Information – Discover Northern Ireland
Images courtesy of Discover Northern Ireland