Doing Belfast right
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Funky new hotels and busy, music-filled pubs are two of the clues that Belfast is no longer a city to avoid. Many people were of course killed, or just severely deterred from visiting during the “Troubles” – a civil conflict that raged especially from 1969 to 1998. But the Northern Ireland capital has since been reborn into a welcoming, cosmopolitan hub with new cultural venues and restaurants popping up all the time. And of course: Titanic. The ship of dreams is the beating heart of Belfast and you won’t go five minutes here without someone mentioning it.
Getting around Belfast
If you’re planning on using buses during your visit, pick up a Smartlink Travel Card from an Metro kiosk. However, Belfast is pretty small - you can walk from one one end to the other in an hour, and much of the city center is pedestrian only. Most of the city’s bars, bistros, cafes and restaurants can be found on The Golden Mile, along Great Victoria Street, while the Shopping District, in front of City Hall, is home to several malls. East of here at the mouth of the Lagan River, Belfast’s waterfront district is home to Waterfront Hall and the SSE Arena.
Home of the Titanic
Get to know everything about Titanic at this six-story building packed full of fascinating facts and artifacts. The exhibit here was voted the World's Leading Visitor Attraction (World Travel Awards, 2016). The Titanic Belfast experience takes you through nine galleries where you’ll learn about the ship’s conception, her launch and her ill-fated maiden voyage. You’ll also hear the stories of those who perished, as well as those who survived when she sank in April 1912. This must-see attraction is located right by the place White Star Lines built the Titanic.
Don’t miss the stunning Belfast Cathedral when visiting Belfast (not that you’ll have a choice - it’s enormous)! The foundations of this Romanesque cathedral were laid in 1899 (the Spire of Hope was added in 2006). Take an audio guide with you around the vast interior and check out the mosaics, carvings, and the detailed nave pillars. The Italian glass mosaics in this Cathedral were made by sisters Gertrude and Margaret Martin in a project that spanned seven years. You’ll also see the Titanic Pall - a detailed, stitched cross in memory of those who lost their lives on the Titanic.
Completely free (with a suggested donation of only £3), Belfast’s Ulster Museum is an edutainment option that’s perfect for one of those rainy Irish days. This treasure trove of trinkets and info from Northern Ireland’s past and present spans five levels and covers everything from the natural environment, to local history and art. The newly-opened Modern History gallery explores the making of Ulster through from 1500 to 1968. Kids can cuddle up with the dinosaurs at occasional sleepovers, plus lectures and workshops mean it’s always worth checking ahead of your visit to see what’s on.
Belfast Botanical Gardens
These elaborate public gardens date back to 1828, when people in far puffier dresses would stroll among the flowers. It’s more casual now, but Belfast Botanical Gardens is still a pretty special place. You’ll find all manner of tropical species here and on a sunny day and it’s a nice spot for a picnic. A domed conservatory called The Palm House contains gorgeous hanging baskets, seasonal displays and fluttering birds of paradise (watch your heads!). It’s one of the earliest Victorian examples of a glasshouse constructed from curved iron and glass, crucial for growing exotic plants.
Food and booze
If you want to try some Irish Whiskey, you’ll have no trouble finding some lively Belfast bars to raise a glass in. But if you also want to get to know the local cuisine, you’ll want to do your research. Try the west coast’s plump native oysters and other shellfish (Molly Malone’s cockles and mussels aren’t famous for nothing). Soda bread is a staple, and a thick, Irish lamb stew can really warm you up on a cold day. Colcannon and champ are flavoured mashed potato variations, usually with comforting additions like cream, kale or scallions. Pack expandable trousers and try it all!