Get oriented as the capital of Northern Ireland and the focal point of gun fights and bomb attacks, Belfast has gone through a rather bloody phase, but it put it all behind it in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It has even emerged as the safest city in the UK, since then. The old part of Belfast is concentrated within a few blocks, but the city itself is quite expansive. The best way to get a quick orientation is through the Belfast City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off tour (belfastcitysightseeing. com GBP 11.50 per person). It lasts 90 minutes and stops at the city’s main sights, with witty and informative commentary, even such self-deprecatory statements as “We went from terrorism to tourism, and it took only 40 years!” The tour gives a sampling and is a good way to decide what to see or experience in greater detail. Besides, the ticket is valid for 48 hours, and is a great way to zip around the city without bothering with public transport. It is especially great to access places like the Parliament Building, which has sketchy public transport access. If murals are an abiding interest, then head to the west of the city, especially Shankill Road and Falls Road, which have a plethora of political murals, pertaining to Belfast’s turbulent history, revolving around the Nationalists and Unionists. This will also take you through and along the Peace Walls (akin to the fallen Berlin Wall, but lesser known), built to separate the areas inhabited by Nationalists and Unionists.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Belfast is kind of obsessed with the Titanic. It’s true that the ship was built here, in the docks belonging to Harland & Wolff. In fact, the place where it was built and the surrounding areas have been named the Titanic Quarter. But more interesting is the Titanic Belfast (titanicbelfast. com; GBP 18 for adults, GBP 8 for children), a gigantic museum built at a cost of nearly GBP 100 million, and no one ever leaves Belfast without visiting it. It’s been done rather brilliantly, without stepping into the realm of the morbid. There are beautiful videos, recreations, interactive rides, informative displays, and an engaging commentary on social life at that time. In fact, for those inclined towards mechanics, engineering and marine technology, the museum is a dream come true. A live underwater experience of the research being done on the sunken ship, at the end, is rather surreal. Contrary to expectations, there’s just a passing reference to the mega movie itself, and the emphasis is on a rounded experience of much more of the ship than the disaster. Across from the museum is the SS Nomadic, one of the tenders that transferred people and mail to the Titanic and its sister ocean liner, the RMS Olympic.
For a taste of old world Belfast, walk around Donegall Square and Belfast City Hall. If you are in the mood for a more extensive and immersive experience, opt for the free Belfast Walking Tour (www. belfastfreewalkingtour.com). However, it is also fun to pick up a map from the information centre opposite the City Hall and just wander around by yourself. Much of the city’s main sights and activities are centred around here. The Belfast City Hall is an enormous and imposing structure, with a lovely façade, and it’s an easy landmark to orient oneself in the area. The Donegall Place is a road that runs north and is the main shopping street. Further ahead is St Anne’s Cathedral, a stunning 19th century cathedral and the centre of the Cathedral Quarter, surrounded by cosy cafes, pubs, bars and stores. To the east of the City Hall is the River Lagan, with a walkway housing some nice (and a few gaudy sculptures). You could take a walk here, but it is not all that extensive and is windswept for much of the year.
Though Belfast cannot hope to compete with Dublin in terms of nightlife, it has its share of vibrant hotspots. The most popular bar in all of Belfast is the Crown Bar on Victoria Street, with its distinct red facade. Going back to Victorian times, it is kitted out with old world booths, stained glass interiors and gas lights. It is historic as well as beautiful and is incredibly popular, so getting a seat is a matter of luck. Even if you don’t want to have a drink, it is worthwhile visiting and having a walk around the place. For a more leisurely evening, the best place to experience typical Belfast nightlife is in the Cathedral Quarter, which has a plethora of bars and pubs. Some other famous ones you might want to try include Kitchen Bar, Ryan’s Bar, McHugh’s, Kellys Cellars, Maddens Bar, Robinsons Bar and Rotterdam Bar. If bar-hopping is something that you like, opt for the Belfast Pub Crawl (www.belfastcrawl.co.uk)
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Like any other capital, Belfast has many accommodation options, but stay at (or at least visit) the towering Europa Hotel (www.hastingshotels. com/europa-belfast) on Victoria Street. It has earned itself the tag of the most bombed hotel in Europe, if not the world, having been attacked an estimated 36 times during the euphemistically called ‘Troubles’, the conflict between the Unionists and Nationalists which lasted over three decades. The hotel itself is centrally located and within walking distance to all the main sights. It is also a beautiful hotel, with spacious rooms, lovely views and a popular restaurant and bar.