Guest blogger, Jonny Blair, a Belfast local, gives us the inside scoop on his city.
Northern Ireland‘s capital city of Belfast has enough culture, vibrancy and history to entice any wandering traveller to savour its often unknown and neglected charms. Belfast sits proudly on both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide and that air of uncertainty still hangs over the city – the city has an obvious political presence whether it wants to or not. It’s not a bad thing. Despite a troubled history, Belfast is more vibrant and safe than ever. It’s a hard working city. Catholics and Protestants live, work and drink here, mostly in harmony. The Brits and the Irish do the same. The Unionists and the Nationalists do the same. The Loyalists and the Republicans do the same. Most of the time. But Belfast people don’t need to be reminded of the troubles; this city boasts more heroes, sights, characters and pubs than you’d expect. While there’s no doubt Belfast’s history is part of its charm, the present is part of its progress and a prosperous future is what this city deserves.
Narrowing the top tourist sights in Belfast down to five can be hard, but if you’re pushed, this five should provide you with that Northern Irish mix you need – architecture, politics, history, industry and booze. You might find an emphasis on politics at times, but it wouldn’t be Belfast otherwise. A city that has spawned heroes such as George Best, Van Morrison and Alex Higgins has never been shy. Northern Irish people are a happy bunch and won’t be afraid to speak their minds. They’ll welcome you to their capital.
1. Titanic Centre
The saying goes something like “Designed by an Irishman, built by the Irish and Germans, sunk by an Englishman in America”. Yes, the Titanic was built here in Belfast. In 1912, the famous ship hit an iceberg and sank. In 2012 the brand spanking new Titanic Centre opened in Belfast. Tickets for the opening weeks sold out in days.
These days the Northern Irish are proud of the Titanic. And why shouldn’t they be? Another local phrase goes “we didn’t put the iceberg there!”
Within the Titanic centre is a museum, a souvenir shop as well as a host of special events. You can also visit the dry dock where the Titanic was built.
2. City Hall
The City Hall is Belfast’s defining building. A magnificent architectural centrepiece which sits in the CBD facing Donegall Square and Royal Avenue, the City Hall is a building which dates back to 1906. Green domes and a pillar rich exterior sparkle against a backdrop of banks.
Events are sometimes held in and around it including a Christmas market. Locals mingle at lunchtime in the gardens and the ongoing flag debate has dominated Northern Irish politics the last few years. Currently the British flag flies on designated days only.
3. Political Wall Murals (Shankill and Falls Road)
Belfast has talented artists, of that you can be sure. In Loyalist and Republican areas all over the city, there are many political murals adorning walls of people’s houses. These murals are works of art as well as being political messages. They are easy on the eye and on the camera.
As a child growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the images of masked gunmen on the corner of streets might have seemed a bit over the top. But it’s a sign of what really happened in Belfast and the murals are as much a part of the history of Belfast as the Titanic, George Best and the City Hall.
The best way to see the wall murals is with a local guide who can take you safely through the political areas and advise when it’s OK to take photos. Dress in bland clothing and avoid football/sports shirts though – it’s still a sensitive issue and you want to avoid any trouble. For example you’d have to “be a right eejit” (as the locals say) to wear a Glasgow Celtic shirt on the Protestant Shankill Road. If you book a “black taxi tour” of Belfast, West Belfast offers the Republican Falls Road area with its Bobby Sands murals while the Loyalist Shankill Road boasts UFF and pro-British art.
Whether Stormont is a “white elephant” or a burden on Northern Ireland is up for debate. What isn’t debated is how admirable a building it is, and the setting of a long road up to the top makes it a really pleasant sight.
A statue of Dublin Unionist Edward Carson is the most striking image on your way to the front of the building. This after all, is Northern Ireland’s parliament. A country which was only formed in 1921.
5. The Crown Bar
You can’t visit Belfast and not go into a pub. Drinking is part of the Irish mentality. The Crown Bar exceeds all expectations. Fresh Guinness and Harp is of course served from the bar. But the beauty is in the decor. The Crown is a listed building and hasn’t changed for generations.
Old style booths downstairs provide a cosy warmth in winter months. The mosaic and interior design will keep you snap happy while the food menu offers your usual Ulster Frys, soups, fish and Northern Irish beef.
Jonny Blair is a long term backpacker from Northern Ireland. He has travelled to over 80 countries in the last decade and runs the travel blog Don’t Stop Living. Jonny is also on Twitter and Facebook.