Had I set foot in Belfast exactly 20 years ago, I may well not have returned unscathed. To quote the [Northern] Irish barman I spoke to on the Monday evening of the trip, I might’ve been ‘pulled in’ – which sounds about as good as it is.
But that wasn’t the case because some 18 years after Northern Ireland’s troubles had officially ceased, I was able to explore a city that has quite a lot to offer.
Well, as a present to my girlfriend for her 22nd birthday, I decided to book a trip away for us both. Having previously been to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and being from England, it only made sense to make a visit to the only country of the British Isles I’d yet to set foot in.
In addition, the flight time is only half an hour and reasonably priced flights are available from my local airport Manchester to Belfast with easyJet.
Though it is worth noting that Belfast is served by more than one budget airliner from several destinations in Great Britain to its two airports, and Ryanair recently started operating between London Gatwick and Belfast International Airport.
Belfast may be a city intertwined with issues in more recent times, but it has a lot of history to be proud of.
Its main selling point is that it is the birthplace of world-infamous White Star Liner Titanic, which met its bitter end after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage to New York.
So Titanic Belfast, which is an entire museum dedicated to Titanic and its roots in the city, is definitely worth the visit.
As is the SS Nomadic, the only remaining White Star ship which is stationed in the dry dock outside the museum, which was the tender ship for Titanic at the port of Cherbourg. It has now been restored to its original format and visitors can see the ship both inside and out as well as utilise its interactive features such as games and fancy dress.
The ticket for the museum gains its bearer access to both Titanic Belfast as well as the SS Nomadic, so don’t have a heart attack when you initially see the prices – which are as much as £17 for an adult.
Away from the Titanic Quarter is Belfast City Hall, and free tours of the grand building, where the country’s councilors meet once a month to discuss politics, run several times a day.
And there’s no forgetting Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996, and housed thousands of criminals since it opened in the mid-1800s. It has since been renovated and guided tours are roughly every hour. It’s worth seeing, especially the execution room where no fewer than 12 people met their end by hanging.
If you’re there on a Sunday then you HAVE to go to St George’s Market. It’s also open on a Friday and Saturday, but on the Sabbath it’s full of food vendors, with some great quality grub on offer.
We got freshly-made and jam-packed burritos which kept us going for the rest of the day, and some delightful homemade cake squares for desert courtesy of Jam & Olly's Country Stall.
And last, but most certainly not least, is Giant’s Causeway. There are several tours which operate from the city centre daily, though we went with Ulster Tours, also known as Allen’s Tours, because of a half price Groupon voucher.
Usually £25, the tour lasted just over seven hours and we were treated to the picturesque route that runs along the east and northern coastline. This included frequent stops at filming locations for popular television show Game of Thrones, Carick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Old Bushmills distillery – the oldest in the world – and, of course, Giant’s Causeway itself.
The rock formation is breath-taking and although we went on a terrible day for weather, despite it stopping raining when we were actually there, the white water effect and turbulent waves made it all worth it.
Easily the worst thing about Belfast – and this is a common problem with the rest of the United Kingdom as well – is the weather. If you’re thinking of heading there, then go in the summer. In the winter it’s wet, windy, and can make it quite unpleasant if that persists throughout a day. Having to contend with the extreme wind for prolonged periods of time can also become quite tiring.
Just look at the difference between Titanic Belfast on the second day (top image) and the last (bottom image). The sun and clear skies make a massive difference.
And if you’re big on nightlife, then start early as many places close at 1am – well short of the cut off point for most major cities.
Which capital – the Republic or The North?
When thinking of Ireland, it’s more likely that the mind will wander to Dublin before Belfast. The Republic’s capital city is a big hit with tourists – especially those from across the Atlantic – so you’d be forgiven for discounting the other capital.
Like Dublin, there is quite a bit to do in Belfast, as outlined above, and the nightlife looks just as excitable – even if the night may be cut a little short.
But the main difference between the two is that Belfast is relatively unspoiled by tourism, unlike its counterpart in the south. I’d go as far as saying you’d get a more authentic experience in Northern Ireland – although both Dublin and Belfast are both great cities.