BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND: This is the home of Titanic, where this famous ship was built. This is a city with lots of characters and history. This is relatively an under-discovered place compared to its neighboring big city Dublin. Belfast went thru lots of conflicts and bloodshed in the recent years among the Nationalists and the Loyalists. Whole Northern Ireland is a beautiful country with abundant scenic beauties by the coasts, giant cliffs, cozy small villages, medieval castles, and plenty of jolly Irish people.
The city is very lively around the town hall and city center. Most of the landmarks are very close by and within walking distance from here, except for Belfast Castle, Titanic Museum, and the historical murals of Nationalists and Loyalists from the “Troubled Years”. All the famous roads, places, or squares that we’ve visited had information boards providing histories and maps on that particular place. Black Taxi tour of the city is very famous here and can be arranged by any hotels.
TIME OF TRAVEL: We came to Belfast during the 2nd week of August, 2012. We thought we were going to get some rain during our visit, but luckily, the sun was shining upon us most of the time.
OUR HOTEL: Our hotel was Holiday Inn Belfast here. Being so close to Belfast Town Hall (about 10 minutes’ walk), this location was just great for us. The hotel didn’t have free breakfast or Wi-Fi (except for the computer in the lobby) but did have great customer service.
WHAT TO EAT AND BUY IN BELFAST: We ate twice in an Italian restaurant called “Pizza Express” which was very close our hotel. But something Irish that my husband tried on our way to Giant Causeway was Irish stew made with lots of potatoes and some beef looked pretty good.
There are lots and lots of things to buy from Belfast, like Celtic jewelaries, arts and CDs, leprechaun, cool t-shirts, and many more things. Also, since the famous ship Titanic being was built here, you will see lots of items related to Titanic in Belfast. There are couple souvenir stores in the city center near the Town Hall. Try looking for a store called “Carroll’s”, which is the biggest one we saw here. Also if you go to Giant’s Causeway, you will see lots of arts and wall decor on Northern Island, especially on Giants Causeway and many children book on the story of the giants of Ireland and Scotland.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Here are the things we covered in our 1 ½ days of stay in Belfast. We couldn’t go to Titanic Museum, where the ship was built and Belfast Castle. We did go in front of Victorian architecture Grand Opera House, Presbyterian Assembly Building on Howard Street, and St. George’s Market (one of Belfast’s oldest attractions) but didn’t go inside any of these. All the places that we visited were within walking distance.
1) BELFAST TOWN HALL & DONEGALL SQUARE: This is a fine example of classical Renaissance style architecture. You can take a free guided tour of the town hall from Mon – Sat: 11 – 3. We couldn’t catch it since they don’t have anything on Sundays. But we did go to the courtyard and the main lobby. The lobby looks very beautiful with some stained-glass windows, mosaic floor, and a high dome. There is a very informative exhibition on the 1st floor (for free) which features city’s past and current life style and history of the city.
The surroundings of this building are very beautiful too. Front of the town hall is a big grassy space where all the locals hang out and chill. Olympics 2012 was going on when we went to Belfast and they put a huge TV out in front of town hall. It was pretty sight of seeing all the locals so enthusiastic about the Olympics. There are many statues of different types of cows with many arts and colors. I am sure your kids will enjoy posing with those cows, I know mine did.
Donegall Square has to be the heart of the city where all the fun things are happening. This is the street right in front of Town Hall. It’s fun to just stroll here, do shopping, eat, and just enjoy the atmosphere.
2) MALACHY CHURCH: This wasn’t on our to-do list for Belfast. We were walking towards the town hall and this romantic building caught our eyes right away and we had to checkout inside of the church. Construction of this building completed in 1844. This is one of the finest examples of late Georgian-Tudor Revival Churches in Ireland. Exterior looks more like a castle than a church and the interior is something we’ve never seen before. St. Malachy’s Church, regarded as an architectural gem, with detail in textures, subtlety in color and richness of imagery, creates a peaceful sanctuary in the midst of the bustling city. Altar was more than just elegant and the design of the ceiling looks like an upside down wedding cake with many candles. The back wall of the church features 14 stages of Passion of the Christ in rich wood-curved wall hangings with great details.
3) ST. ANNE’S CATHEDRAL or BELFAST CATHEDRAL: This is a stunning cathedral inside and out. The church has the biggest Celtic cross in Northern Ireland which is located on one of the outside walls of the church. The unique stainless steel spire was added in 2006 that can be seen from far distance. It was dedicated to all the fallen of 9/11 terror attack in NYC in the presence of the Bishop of New York. The original organ was built in 1907. The church is decorated with some fascinating stained-glass windows, tablets, plaques, flags, and statues. The place is free to enter to visit every day from 8 am – 4 pm.
4) LAGAN LOOKOUT & BIG FISH: This is a nice place to sit-down for a while just to enjoy the river and the city surrounding it. If you are walking straight from Albert Clock towards River Lagan. You can’t miss the sculpture of monster blue fish of Donegall Quay called Big Fish, which is located right beside the Lagan Lookout.
5) ALBERT MEMORIAL CLOCK: This is next to “the Custom House” by River Lagan and the blue fish sculpture. This 35 meters high tower was constructed mainly of sandstone and was erected in 1865. The Albert Memorial Clock was built as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861. It leans 1.25 meters off vertical, making it Belfast’s very own leaning tower. Another place that may interest to some people is that there is a 300 years old Irish pub called McHughs in between Albert Clock and River Lagan lookout. The bar has been standing there since 17th century and one of Belfast’s most historic pubs.
6) BELFAST POLITICAL MURAL TOUR w/BLACK TAXI: This is definitely a must do in Belfast to know better of its past and how the city came to its present atmosphere. Most of these murals are located in the ghettos and were done mainly by the poorer ones. Our first stop was at Lower Shankil among all the residential neighborhoods. “Nothing About Us…Without Us… Is For Us”, this was one of the messages in a mural we saw there. Here all of the murals were done by the Loyalists or Protestants who were loyal to the United Kingdom. These are some of world’s finest house-sized murals that depict stories of the Loyalists, praise their leaders, show their anger and hatred towards the Nationalists. Some of these murals were taken down due to some violent graphics; they simply don’t want their new generations to grow up seeing pictures of men with guns, murderers, and shooters near their houses.
Then after passing the old Supreme Court and old prison we stopped at the Peace Wall. This was built by the government to separate Nationalist and Loyalist neighborhoods. Peace wall is about one mile long and now more like a message board filled with colorful graffiti. You will see quotes from many well-known people who visited this wall in the past and left their quotes on this wall, like Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Khalil Gibran etc. It’s a tradition for any visitors to leave their comments and “Peace” messages on this wall to the people of Belfast. You can easily spend a good amount of time walking along this wall and reading wonderful phrases that people left behind from all over the world.
After passing a small memorial, Clonard Martyrs Memorial, dedicated to those who were killed by Loyalists and British Forces during the course of conflict on Bombay Street, we stopped at Falls Road. This is the place where you will see all the murals done by the Nationalists or Catholics depicting their side of the stories. Lots of these graphics show faces of Nationalists who died in hunger-strike in recent years.
We took a Black Taxi tour to go see these famous murals of Belfast. These murals aren’t located all in one place. We kinda got on and off the taxi at several stops to see the murals, Peace wall and the memorial. It took us little more than an hour to go to different neighborhoods and roads to see them. Taxi charged us 30 pounds and our driver was excellent at giving us all the detail history of the past and stories of the current situation.
7) GUIDED TOUR TO GIANTS CAUSEWAY: We took a guided tour bus from Belfast to Giant’s Causeway for a whole day where we visited not only Giant’s Causeway but also some other historical sites and scenic locations of the country. The tour company, Isango, charged 10 pounds per adult and 7:50 pounds for kids 4-14 years of age. If we didn’t take this tour we had no way to visit these magnificent, natural beauties. These are the places we went as a group; we had to pay some additional fees in some of these spots but those were optional if you want to visit some additional places.
a. CARRICK FERGUS CASTLE: This was our first stop in our tour. It is one of the best preserved castles in Northern Island. This medieval castle is situated by the waterfront (Belfast Loch) and was built sometime in the 11th century. We didn’t go inside the castle, just enjoyed the nice surroundings and the harbor for 15 minutes, took some pictures, and then off to the bus again.
b. CARRICK-A-REDE & ROPE BRIDGE: Our second stop was at Carrick-A-Rede. The beauty of this place is beyond my expression. Trip to Northern Ireland would not have been full-filled without seeing or experiencing something like this. After our bus dropped us off near the entrance we had about hour and half to walk 1 km along the coast, then after about 160 steps we came to the Rope Bridge. Originally some salmon fishermen built this Rope Bridge about 300 years ago to connect a small island with mainland. On a good day as many as 300 might have been trapped in the nets that were spread out from the tiny island. Balancing their catch on their backs and holding on with one hand the fishermen ventured back and forth over the swaying rope bridge that spanned the deep chasm between the headland and the tiny island. The bridge is about 20 meters and about 30 meters above water. This is a very windy place, thus make it an adventurous journey all over. The view of the cliffs, nearby small islands, and water is incredible from here.
The admission to cross the rope bridge is 5.09 pounds for adults and 2.63 pounds for kids, and 12.45 pounds for a family (2 adults + 3 children). Here is the time-table for the bridge:
Jan. 1 – Feb. 26: 10:30 – 2:45 daily
Feb. 27 – May 27: 10:00 – 5:15 daily
May 28 – Sept. 2: 10:00 – 6:00 daily
Sept. 3 – Oct. 31: 10:00 – 5:15 daily
Nov. 1 – Dec. 31: 10:30 – 2:45 daily
c. BUSHMILL DISTELLARY: Our third stop for lunch was at this old whiskey company from 1608 A.D. This is Ireland’s oldest working whiskey distillery. You can actually go and watch whiskey making taking place and enjoy a small taster too. After our lunch, saw some people buying Bushmill’s world renowned whiskey. I am not sure if the restaurant is open to everyone or only to the groups of tour buses, but the food was reasonably cheap and very good.
d. DUNLUCE CASTLE: This was our fourth stop before going to Giant’s Causeway. It was only 5-7 minutes away from Giant’s Causeway. We could see the castle only from a distance and got out of the bus for 5 minutes just to take some picture. I am not sure how old this castle is but looked like centuries old building. The castle looked like one of those old brick castles on a giant cliff by the water from Hollywood movies. Although it was only for 5 minutes, I loved that incredible view of the castle, nearby cliffs, and the blue coast…uh, simply breathtaking.
e. GIANTS CAUSEWAY: This is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and only about 90 minutes’ drive from Belfast. This is the coastal site where visitors experience not only the incredible view of the mountains, cliffs, and ocean, but also some 40,000 interlocking basalt columns rising out of the sea. It is a mind-boggling site not to be missed. The visitor center provides you with more information on this spectacular coastal site of Northern Ireland where you can see some interactive videos, read information board, and see the mythical giants walking around (in costumes) ready to take pictures with anyone.
There is a popular myth on how the creation of Giant’s Causeway took place. It goes that an Irish giant, Fionn, was always hungry for good fight and wanted to prove his superior strength. So he decided to fight against a rival Scottish giant name Benandonner. To cross the ocean, Fionn built his own pathway (the causeway) of stepping stones (using these hexagonal stones) from Ireland to Scotland. But when he reached to Scotland, he saw just how large Benandonner was. He escaped back to Ireland right when the Scottish giant saw him. Benandonner used the causeway to come to Ireland to come and fight with the Irish giant. Fionn ran back home and asked his wife to help. His wife gave him an idea and he crawled into a crib. When Benandonner came, Fionn’s wife told him not to wake the baby up. Seeing how large Fionn’s baby was in the crib, he was scared and ran back to Scotland, breaking up the causeway to prevent Fionn following him.
This story is quiet fascinating, but the science tells us something else. The Giant’s Causeway is the result of intense volcanic and geological activity. The Causeway provides a glimpse into the Earth’s most ancient past. An epic 60 million year-old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows.