THE dark side of Belfast’s history is well documented. It suffered greatly during the Troubles, and had the unenviable reputation in the 1970s and 80s as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
But since the 21st century it has undergone a sustained period of calm, free from the intense political violence of former years, and substantial economic and commercial growth. And today, Belfast has evolved into a centre for industry, as well as the arts, higher education, business, and law, and is considered to be the economic engine of Northern Ireland.
The transformation, in fact, has been nothing short of remarkable.
It is clearly a city on the rise and, most pleasingly of all, is rightly proud of its new-found status as one of the SAFEST in the world!
Our family itinerary was as tightly packed as our suitcases for what was going to be a busy four days exploring as much of the area as possible – past and present!
It was important to build in time to learn about the city’s history and the best way to do that, we were assured, was with one of Belfast’s famous Black Cab Tours.
Signs of the political turmoils still litter the city in the form of murals, adorning the sides of buildings like old battle scars. But most enlightening of all was our visit to one of the Peace Walls, originally built to keep Nationalists and Loyalists apart.
Ranging in length from a few hundred yards to over three miles, the walls are often up to 25 feet high. We were shown one of the gates which allow passage during daylight hours – but which are still, sadly, closed at night.
Our personal guide for the hour-and-a-half really made this a unique and poignant experience adding his own recollections of life as a young boy himself living among the Troubles. And we were humbled by the opportunity to leave our own tiny mark on Belfast’s history – literally – when we were invited to sign the wall. Amazing.
One still walks away however with a heavy heart.
Public discussions about the removal of the wall have been ongoing – despite a study in 2012 that revealed 69 per cent of residents still believe it is necessary because of continued potential for violence.
If in Belfast as a tourist book yourself a Black Cab tour – and decide for yourself.
(Visit: www.belfastblackcabtours.co.uk) It’s a must do. Only then can you have a true appreciation of the city’s transformation. The Troubles will always be entrenched in Belfast’s past – and of course they are a big part of what makes it the city it is today – but unfortunately they can’t yet be fully consigned to the history books. There’s still some way to go. . .
On the tourist trail, these are the places we visited. . .
THE TITANIC EXPERIENCE
More than a hundred years after the Titanic’s sinking in 1912, the legacy of this tragedy lives on.
And this is due in no small part to the ‘titanic’ efforts behind the stunning visitor attraction that so sensitively pays homage to those ill-fated passengers and crew.
Titanic Belfast is a sympathetic monument to the city’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the renovated dockyards’ Titanic Quarter where the RMS Titanic was built
Opened in 2012 – to mark the centenary – the visitor attraction is housed in a stunning aluminium-clad building reminiscent of a ship’s hull. It extends over nine interactive galleries drawing together special effects, innovative features and even full-scale reconstructions of the ship.
But it is not what many may be expecting. Far from a morose memorial, your visit here will actually dwell more on the making of and ceremony surrounding the ship itself.
There’s so much to learn here and the Titanic story, from exploring the shipyard through to its launch and final fate, is fully immersive thanks to its retelling through state-of-the-art technology.
You can also hear about Boomtown Belfast’s thriving industries and innovations that led to the ship’s creation.
The self-guided tour culminates in a fascinating glimpse into the actual wreck site on the big screen. But artifacts from the ship are not included in the museum for ‘ethical reasons’ so don’t expect a line up of dusty old exhibits in glass cases. That’s not what this place is about!
Titanic Belfast was voted World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016 – and, having been lucky enough to visit, I can confirm it’s a title that’s fully deserved.
Admission to Titanic Belfast can be combined with a visit onboard SS Nomadic, tender to the Titanic and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world.
Here you’re invited to step back in time and hear about her role in the Titanic story in a journey that stretches over 100 years.
Restored to her original 1911 glory and back home in Belfast, a visit to SS Nomadic & Hamilton Dock combines the authentic heritage and atmosphere of this historic ship with the intriguing stories of her passengers and the ups and downs of her dramatic career.
Stretched over four decks, a visit to Nomadic allows you to experience first hand what it was like to be a passenger boarding Titanic on her fateful maiden voyage.
Highlights include an insight into its history as a mine sweeper war ship as well the chance to ‘meet’ some holographic hosts keen to share with you the boat’s secrets.
In addition to experiencing the authentic grandeur, the Nomadic story is conveyed through a wide variety of both interactive and traditional storytelling methods.
As such, Nomadic is the perfect way to begin – or end – your Titanic ‘journey’ in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. For further information on SS Nomadic and Titanic Belfast visit: www.titanicbelfast.com
Still on the maritime theme, we concluded the second day of our Titanic Quarter experience with a tour of the area’s newest visitor attraction, HMS Caroline.
Dubbed a place ‘where new adventures begin,’ it certainly lived up to its billing. HMS Caroline, recently voted five-star visitor attraction on Tripadvisor, uses interactive technology to immerse you into its previous guise as a battleship – the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the only major naval action of WW1.
The fascinating self-guided tour brings history to life in innovative ways – and the audio commentary you’re offered is a must and will enhance your experience! From the impressively recreated Captain’s Quarters and Marine’s Mess through to the galley kitchen and engine rooms, there’s so much to take in.
It’s an incredibly well organised collection of small spaces, some with interactive features to keep the youngsters completely engaged. Beware the steep and narrow stairways and low ceilings (it is a war ship after all!) and don’t even contemplate it if you have restricted mobility. However, it’s another family Belfast must-see from me! Visit: www.nmrn.org.uk
But, if culture is what you seek, Belfast also has much to offer.
Our quota came in the form of Ulster Museum which is home to a rich collection of art, history and natural sciences. It tells the unique human story of the area with collections that take you on a journey to all corners of the globe. Expect the unexpected as well as the usual popular exhibits as you come face to face with dinosaurs and up close to an Egyptian mummy.
Highlight for our family though was undoubtedly the temporary Game of Thrones tapestry exhibit (we’re in Game of Thrones country here you know!) This 80-metre-long medieval-style wall-hanging is made from Irish linen and brings to life the events, characters and filming locations (many local) of all seven series of the hugely popular TV series.
Apparently, once woven, a team of 30 stitchers meticulously hand-embroidered all of the finer details working under the expert eye of the National Museums Northern Ireland textile curator.
If you’re a fan – or even if you’re not – it’s worth a visit for this alone. There is definitely something at Ulster Museum to keep all ages both amused and informed and there’s so much see you can easily while away a few hours. Free admission too so a good one if you’re looking for somewhere to fill that unanticipated gap in your schedule – without adding to the budget.
With over 250 amazing interactive exhibits in four exhibition areas, this museum where arts meets science offers a broad and fascinating experience for curious minds of all ages.
In addition to permanent exhibits, the attraction also presents a changing programme of large and small scale temporary exhibitions and events including a daily programme of live science demonstrations and shows throughout the day.
There is much to see and do here so I would allow at least half a day to avoid becoming unpopular with the kids. A tight itinerary is often a must on a city break but they won’t thank you for dragging them off to the next attraction because you ‘have a schedule to keep’ so let them explore this place to the full.
For the younger ones, the Climbit exhibit is a particular draw. Decsribed as ‘a mixture of physical fun, exploration and art,’ it will keep them amused just long enough for you to rest up for a while with well-earned refreshments.
CRUMLIN ROAD GAOL
The Crumlin Road Gaol dates back to 1845 and closed its doors as a working prison in 1996. After extensive renovations the gaol has re-opened as a visitor attraction and conference centre.
We decided a visit here was too intriguing to resist so we surrendered ourselves to the tour guide and headed ‘behind bars.’
We were quickly hooked and it was fascinating to hear all about the history of the site, from when women and children were held within its walls through to the political segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners.
The experience also includes a walk through the underground tunnel that used to connect the gaol to the Crumlin Road Courthouse – it’s said the spirits of former prisoners can still be sensed down there! – as well as a visit to the Governor’s office, prison wings and even the condemned man’s cell, a precursor to the execution cell where the majority of the 17 men were hanged. A foreboding but exquisitely compelling climax to the tour.
Crumlin Road Gaol was one of the highlights of my Belfast stay and I would urge anyone to include it on their itinerary, even if it’s a short city break.
BELFAST CITY SIGHTSEEING HOP-ON HOP-OFF BUS TOURS
For those who don’t do the black Cab Tour, the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop- Off bus service is certainly a good option for getting around a city like Belfast.
With a bit of careful planning, the route can be a great way to reach your destinations as well as see and learn all about the city from entertaining and informative guides. Allow yourself plenty of time to complete the route including stop-offs to explore and enjoy some of the recommended restaurants and bars.
For those on a budget there is still plenty to keep you entertained.
Here is a list of the top free attractions in the city. Read here
And here are attractions that cost under £10 read here
Inclement weather meant we didn’t get to enjoy any of the numerous parks and gardens and there are many museums which competed for our attention. Do your homework before you visit as there is so much to see and do – indoors and out. Go to: www.visitbelfast.com
Like us, you’ll be bowled over by the surprising nature of a beautiful and booming Belfast that’s risen from the ashes of conflict. Do visit if you can.