A step into the unknown…A guide to BELFAST, Northern Ireland

Growing up in Manchester (UK) the news channels would feature on a daily basis “The Troubles” going on over in Northern Ireland, from one week to the next another bomb would have gone off or someone else would have been killed on the street of Belfast. We even suffered our own attack by the IRA in the 1996 bombing which ironically sparked the mass regeneration and development of Manchester into the great city that it is today.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Belfast was for many years a no-go, especially for the English, it appeared harsh, rough, dangerous and a law unto itself. But in the years that have followed the signing of the good Friday agreement Belfast has grown into a city which can express it’s differences peacefully, can celebrate it’s Titanic history and offers a unique glimpse into it’s culture of contrasts though it’s dry sense of humour and gritty realism…

Dry Dock, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Impressions and expectations of visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland:

After experiencing the charm and warmth of Dublin and the Republic of Ireland we were keen to see what Belfast and the North would offer. In many ways my expectations of Belfast have been clouded by the media and culture I grew up in. It was never somewhere we could have ever imagined visiting when we were kids given the tension. We even know many who served over there during The Troubles and their stories are harrowing to say the least.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

My grandad still had his reservations about our trip and warned us to be especially careful, in the end I can happily say those worries were misplaced. But the fact remains that as much as Belfast has been regenerated since the official end to The Troubles its reputation remains, especially in the UK. But we are not ones to be put off by these things, our visit to The Ukraine last year is a testament to our willingness to see what a place is really like!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

However, apart from sporadic violence, Belfast’s streets have long since ceased to be a war zone. The tension and differences between the Republican and Loyalist populations will likely never end. But it has now become a characteristic of the city rather than an all out war. Scars remain and hearts continue to be loyal but the fact that the infamous “Peace Lines” are now scheduled to come down shows how much progress has been made.

St Marys, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

I have to say though that upon entering into Belfast I wasn’t really sure what we would be greeted with. I expected it to be harsher and grittier than Dublin and it most definitely was, even the Northern Irish accent has a tone to it which initially appears more fierce than the jovial sounding Dubliners! However this isn’t a bad thing, this is Belfast, it was built on the hardiness of it’s ship workers and the determination of it’s protesters.

Docks, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Belfast had an honesty to it which the sometimes overrun Dublin is missing (however we do very much love it there). There is a genuine warmth behind the gravelly tones of the Ulster accent and a sharp sense of humour given all this city has been though. Tourists are thinner on the ground here and real life comes much more into focus. Ask a local for some directions or advice and they will leap at the chance to tell you all about their hearty city.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for it to feel like a totally different country to Ireland. OK, I knew they were and sure, Dublin at times did feel a little different to home but not totally foreign. But Belfast really did feel a million miles away from Dublin and made the republic feel very European in comparison. Maybe part of it is the familiar things from home such as street signs, but I never expected that upon the same small island there to be such a contrast…but that’s what is fascinating about these two countries.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

So having only been in Vienna a couple of weeks before, the culture and atmosphere could not be much further apart, but that is what makes Europe such a great place to explore! Belfast has a beauty to it of a different nature to that of the traditional notions of places like Vienna. Belfast has true heart, it has no façade or trickery, it is what is it and it’s damn proud of that!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Some history and background:

In the 19th Century Belfast was one of the most important industrial cities in the world leading the way in ship building due to the likes of Harland and Wolff. In May 1911 the RMS Titanic was launched from their docks, the largest ship of it’s time it became world famous as it sank on her maiden voyage.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,
Inside the Titanic’s dry dock!

Following on from the Irish War of Independence between 1919-21 the Northern Irish State is created and remains under British rule with Belfast as its capital. In 1968 the Nationalist begin to protest the rule of Stormont as bias toward the Unionist and the British army move in, thus beginning the period known as “The Troubles”

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The Troubles officially lasted from 1968 until the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 (30 years), but violence did continue until the early 2000’s.

Some of the key events during the troubles include the December 4th UVF bombings of 1971 which killed 15 people including 2 children. Then comes the infamous “Bloody Sunday” were 14 unarmed civilians are shot dead during a Civil Rights march in Derry by the British Army. In July 1972 was “Bloody Friday” were 9 people died in Belfast due to 21 IRA bombs detonating across the city.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Another major event was the death of Bobby Sands alongside 9 other IRA prisoners in 1981 who had their political prisoner status removed and so were allowed to die during their Hunger Strike. In 1988 3 IRA members were killed in Gibraltar and loyalist Michael Stone killed 3 mourners at their funerals during a gun and grenade attack. Two British army corporals are ambushed by a mob and shot by the IRA at their subsequent funerals.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,
A post box painted green like the ones in the Republic of Ireland.

The Good Friday agreement is signed in 1998 to give a power sharing agreement to the Northern Irish parliament and the removal of British troops from the country. However in August that year 29 people are killed by a bomb in Omagh by IRA dissidents

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,
Street furniture painted the red, white and blue of the Union.

In your pocket have a great little article here which goes into a little more detail but it’s still easily digestible: A Brief History of Belfast

Things to do in Belfast:

Titanic Museum and Quarter

The Titanic museum was opened only a few years ago in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of this famous liner. The whole area down by the docks has been renamed the “Titanic Quarter” and there are big plans for the regeneration of this area and the museum is at the heart of that.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The area around here has a really energetic feel, on a gloriously sunny day sitting on the newly built decking by the harbour is simply wonderful. It feels very much like an area in transition but at the same time still retains it’s authenticity and industrial character.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The museum is an impressive building which juts into the skyline like the bow of the gigantic ship herself. We had a great time exploring the rides, interactive displays and exhibitions within the centre but it did feel a little on the expensive side and we were disappointed by the lack of relics from the ship in display.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Over on the docks which is about 1.3 miles from city hall, take buses 26, 26b or 26c.

Hours:

January – March 10am – 5pm Daily
April – May 9am – 6pm Daily
June, July, August 9am – 7pm Daily
September 9am – 6pm Daily
October – December 10am – 5pm Daily

Cost:
Adult: £15.50
Child (5-16): £7.25
Student: £11.00

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Titanic Dry dock and Pump house

We have added this on its own because we loved it so much as it can also be visited on a combination ticket with the Museum or on its own. If you only have time for one we would say get yourselves down here and check out the most authentic piece of Titanic history in Belfast.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

At the time this was the largest dry dock in the world and hosted what would be come the most famous ship to ever be built. This is the place in which Titanic last stood before setting off on her fateful last journey, the size of not only the dock itself but of the history is quite overwhelming!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The sheer work and technology that went into making this dock at the time was state of the art and the pump house had the capacity to move vast volumes of water in and out of the huge cavern in record times. The scale of the dock and pump house equipment is a testament to the power of Victorian/ Edwardian engineering and the workforce of Belfast.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Some historical photos from when Titanic was docked here which really give you an understanding of the sheer size of her! Even stood in the huge dock its almost incomprehensible how big the ship was especially given how long ago this feat was achieved.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Continue further on along from the Titanic Museum following signs.

 Hours:
Mon to Thurs: 10:00am – 5:00pm
Fri: 9:30am – 5:00pm
Sat and Sun: 10:00am – 5:00pm

Price:
Adult – £5.00

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Belfast City Hall

Completed in 1906 this Baroque Revival building sits in the heart of Belfast and is one of the city’s most important and impressive buildings. The area around the Hall has been the heart of Belfast long before it was constructed having housed the White Linen Hall.

Belfast city hall, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

City Hall was commissioned when Belfast was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888 and so marks a pivotal moment in the history of the city. The grounds of City Hall serve as a meeting point for many of the residents and workers of Belfast and feels very much like the central hub of the city with its large screen and communal feel.

City hall, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

In 2012 it was the centre of some controversy when the City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union flag to 18 designated days. The flag had previously been flown everyday since 1906 and this change upset many of the Loyalists in the city. The evening of the vote a group of both protesters tried to storm the hall and other groups around the country became violent.

City hall, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Donegall Square

Cost:
FREE

Free public tours of City Hall at the following times:
Monday to Friday – 11am, 2pm and 3pm

Saturday – 2pm and 3pm.

Albert Memorial clock

Completed in 1869 as a memorial to Prince Albert the clock is one of Belfast’s most well know features. A mixture of French and Italian Gothic styles the tower stands at 113 ft tall in Queens square.

Albert Memorial clock, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The tower is Belfast’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa as passing traffic over the years and its original shallow wooden foundations have caused the tower to slant 4ft to one side. Recent renovations costing millions of pounds have put a halt to towers decay as well as major cleaning works and replacement of carvings.

albert memorial clock, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The tower is over towards the docks although well within walking distance of City Hall and is a quite magnificent sight. At one point it was know as an area to pick up prostitutes due to it’s location, but today the area is a modern public space with a nice relaxed atmosphere.

Samson and Goliath

It’s not to often than a pair of cranes are on a highlights list from a city but Belfast is a little different from most cities! This pair of gigantic constructions are a proud landmark of Belfast and it’s ship building heritage. Built in 1969 and 1974 they dominate the city’s skyline they are a central part of the regeneration plans of the Titanic Quarter even after they retire.

Samson and Goliath, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

These Harland and Wolff cranes have long since seen their glory days but they are still very much part of the remaining working docks of present day Belfast. As such there is only so close that you can get but standing underneath the 315 ft and 348 ft tall cranes you really get a sense of their enormity! It would be awesome one day when they are no longer in service if visitors could ascend to the top!

Samson and Goliath, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Murals and Peace wall

The murals and peace wall are an important and unique feature of Belfast, there are so many of them and with such fascinating and sometimes horrific stories behind them that we are planning on doing a separate longer post too. But a guide to Belfast would be lacking if they were not included!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The murals are spread around the city and it would take forever to search them all out, but the main and most important are situated on the Falls Road, Shankill road and Newtownards Road. The murals actually cover a wide breadth of topics including sports, Titanic and the general legacy of the city. However they are most well know for their political themes and that was what we really wanted to see.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Once you venture into these areas of the city, which are inner city suburbs you get to the real heart land of The Troubles and the different “sides” of this city really makes themselves known. The centre feels mostly quite neutral but once you step on to The Falls Road their is no mistaking the fact that you are in republican turf. Road signs turn to Irish and the tricolour is flying high from almost every house. Murals such as the memorial to Bobby Sands are of particular significance and evidence of the atrocities committed on these streets are plain for all to see.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The murals themselves however are very much respected among each group and are a way, not only to differentiate which area of the city you are in, but to display an identity each community has in a way which doesn’t involve violence (despite the often depicted AK47!). To see children walking past painting of men wearing balaclava and holding up rifles is a strange thing, I guess the idea is to instil within each generation their identity but also to never forget what happened.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Mostly in the areas just outside of the city centre such as Falls Road, Shankill and Newtownards Road but they cover a vast area. This page has a map of all the major ones www.belfast-murals.co.uk

How:

We decided to take several buses and walk a hell of a long way to see all these murals and we ended up with major blisters! The best way to see them and hear about the history behind them is to take a “Black cab tour” with a local.

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Victoria Square Shopping centre

This might seem like a dud putting a shopping centre on a list of things to see because usually we steer clear of the places. But, this one in Belfast is pretty cool so it had to be included! Firstly it’s a bit of a strange configuration because it’s actually open at both ends which in a city with weather like Belfast seems a bit of an odd decision but it does make it feel quite different!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Now, forget the shops and all that rubbish, the thing to go and see in here is the dome! It’s open to the public for free via a lift or spiral stair case and offers panoramic views over the city! At night it can it is lit up blue and the skyline becomes a trippy, twinkling delight! It’s a great place to head up to and chill out as well as scoping out where to venture to next! Often earlier on in the day a guide will be up here too!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Victoria Square
Cost:
FREE

When:
Mon, Tues, Sat – 9:30am – 6:00pm
Weds, Thurs, Fri – 9:30am – 9:00pm
Sun – 1:00pm – 6:00pm

Cathedral quarter

The cathedral quarter is the bohemian, alternative and up and coming area of the city which has an edgy and youthful vibe to it. Most buildings are covered in amazing graffiti and it is here you will find the city’s thriving art scene alongside the gay village. The buildings are a little dilapidated and rough around the edges but it is here you will find those trendy off the wall bars, vegan restaurants, tiny galleries, print workshops and meditation centres!!
cathrdral quarter, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The area is continuing to be developed, somewhat controversially, but still retains that character many of these alternative quarters in city’s around the world have lost to commercialisation. This outdoor art gallery and cultural hub is great to explore and alongside the Murals just shows how creative and artistic Belfast is!

graffiti, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Where:

Roughly situated between Royal Avenue near where the Belfast Central Library building is, and the Dunbar Link in the city centre. From one of its corners, the junction of Royal Avenue, Donegall Street and York Street, the Cathedral Quarter lies south and east.

Graffiti, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Stormont Parliament building

The Stormont Parliament building might be a little out of the way to reach but being one of the most politically, socially and culturally significant buildings to the people and history of Northern Ireland, not to mentions it’s beauty, it is worth hopping on the bus for!

Stornmont, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Opened by Kind Edward VIII on 16th November 1932 it signalled a massive change in the way that Northern Ireland was ruled over and became the first permanent place for the newly formed parliament to be held. The vast estate that the building stands in provides an impressive view leading up the steep road towards the entrance.

Stornmont, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Visiting is free and they do offer tours twice a day. We turned up late on in the day but some of the guards still took us around all the public areas which was wonderful, their enthusiasm and knowledge made the bus trip worth it! To get in however you have to go through airport style security and be given a visitors badge, police presence is also quite high!

Stornmont, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The inside of the building are quite ornate and grand but yet also a lot smaller than expected. The two main halls in which the party leaders sit and debate are open to visit and feel quite intimate. One of the unique elements of the NI parliament is the power sharing assembly which is reflected by the horseshoe shaped connected benches.

Where:

The estate is around about 5 miles from the city centre, take
bus 20a or 23 which takes around 20 minutes.

Times:
9:00 am – 4:00pm Mon to Fri, Public can also view whilst parliament is in session when their is room in the gallery.

Free twice daily tours, Monday to Friday at 11.00am and 2.00pm

Cost:
FREE

Stornmont, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Crown Pub

The Crown Liquor Saloon is one of Belfast and NI’s most well know and legendary public houses as well as being a landmark for the city. The building itself is grade A listed and is protected by the national trust and had received major restoration over the years.

Crown pub, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The crown is one of the best remaining examples of a Victoria Gin Palace and is one of the most lavish and intricately detailed and decorated pub you will likely come across! The pub dates from around about 1826 and is still open for business and merriment today!

Crown pub, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

The tiled exterior continues inside where almost every surface is decorated and the floor features a huge crown mosaic. One of the best features of the pub is it’s cosy atmosphere though it’s period lighting and private snugs!

Where:

46 Great Victoria Street

Opening times:
Differs from week to week, check here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/crown-bar/opening-times

Crown pub inside, Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Titanic Studios:

Unfortunately you can’t just go in a visit the studios where they film Game Of Thrones which is pretty disappointing. I am sure they would make a lot of money from offering tours and it’s right in the heart of the Titanic quarter so a great location for visitors. But anyway here is it, inside there is the iron throne!

Belfast, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Murals, Troubles, Ulster, Political, Titanic,

Further afield:

One of the big reasons we wanted to go up to Belfast if we are honest is to see something that isn’t even in the city!! The Giant’s causeway is somewhere that has been on our bucket list for a long time and this was the main reason to extend the trip over to Ireland as last time we hadn’t had the time to head up north. We wanted to take in a country we had near been to before but also tick this off!

However, since the causeway entered our list we had become massive Game of Thrones fans and I am sure many of you are too! Quite a lot of the show is filmed in the rugged and beautiful scenery of rural Northern Ireland and this was yet another opportunity to see some of those breath taking locations.

The only problem was that the tours only ran on certain days whilst we were in Belfast meaning we only had one day to do a tour (again as you know we hate tours but unless you have transport or lots of time a tour really is the only way to see the Causeway and these locations!). Which would be choose, it was heart-breaking!!

In the end we came across the “Stones and Thrones tour” and it ticked all the boxes, we got to see some amazing places that day and it really lived up to our imaginations. We did the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, we saw Winterfell and the cushendun caves, we had a wonderful lunch in a quaint fishing village and of course made a dream come true seeing the Giant’s Causeway… post coming soon but here a couple of photos for you!

More from our recent trip to Ireland:

http://www.theroamingrenegades.com/2015/04/experiencing-crazy-dublin-on-st.html

http://www.theroamingrenegades.com/2015/04/exploring-breathtaking-Wicklow-Mountains.html

http://www.theroamingrenegades.com/2014/06/guide-and-report-to-historic-dublin.html

Have you ever been to or considered visited Belfast, what did you make of it and what did you expect?In memory of our good friend Michael Lunney who passed away this week. He visited Belfast to see his family as often as he could and was really proud of his Irish roots. R.I.P mate.

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.