Belfast: Worth Discovering
Belfast, Northern Ireland
One of Europe’s most charming and vivacious capitals, Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a European destination unlike any other: the city is flourishing with trendy bars and sophisticated restaurants, yet its rich and turbulent history is evident on every corner. The feel of Belfast is upbeat and hopeful, the prices are reasonable, and the inhabitants are among the friendliest in the world. It might not seem like an obvious holiday destination, but the city of Belfast is guaranteed to surprise and impress visitors with its fascinating history, warm people, and cosmopolitan charm.
Queen’s University dominates the city center, with a wonderful Botanic Garden and trendy shops (check out the Rusty Zip for vintage clothes) and ethnic restaurants. A wonderful art house movie theatre and a well-stocked university bookstore cement the city center’s reputation as the intellectual hub of Belfast.
The Crown Liquor Saloon located at 46 Great Victoria Street (across from the Europa Hotel) is a Belfast institution, with pub fare and decent drinks served in the splendor of an old time pub with incredibly ornate wood carvings. The Saloon’s interior, created by early twentieth century Italian ship workers, is absolutely magnificent. On one visit to the Crown, I was invited to a wedding reception the next day – an indication of the hospitality and warmth you’ll find when visiting this great city.
Out of the city center, visitors can take a black taxi tour of the Protestant Shankill Road and Catholic Falls Road, where you can view firsthand the waving Union Jacks and opposing tricolor lined sidewalks. This area, West Belfast, is truly ghettoized and politicized. The famous political murals, which serve as an artistic description of the historical events leading to and surrounding the Troubles, are completely engaging and unlike any other street art I’ve ever encountered. The Shankill Road murals are more crude artistically, and often more violent and bellicose (often featuring hooded men proudly displaying guns) The Republican murals tend to focus more on the political, aligning the movement with other discriminated groups around the world such as Native Americans and Palestinians.
For a city its size, Belfast has some great accommodation options. Belfast International Youth Hostel (22-32 Donegall Road) offers cheap dorms and also some private accommodations. The place is huge – not exactly cozy, but the staff is pleasant and accommodating. If you’re looking to upgrade, The Botanic Lodge Guesthouse located at 87 Botanic Avenue is a bed and breakfast type affair, still inexpensive, and in a great location overlooking Botanic Avenue with shops, food stores, restaurants, and bars. The Lodge is tastefully decorated and the Irish breakfast is superb: tea, toast and jam, eggs, sausage, and fried tomato.
Absolutely essential to a visit to Northern Ireland is a side trip to Derry, the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland. Derry also has the distinction of being the most important embarkation point for Irish emigrants headed for America. Free Derry Corner and the Bloody Sunday Monument can be found in the housing complexes of the Bogside neighborhood – residents don’t mind if you wander around and take it all in, in fact, some will probably strike up a conversation with you, curious as to where you’re from and your impressions of their city. The pubs and music scene in Derry are considered some of the best in Ireland, making Derry a perfect weekend trip while visiting Belfast. Derry is easily reached by the Ulsterbus in Belfast, operating several times daily.
So branch out next time you tour the UK or Ireland – skip Dublin, forget London, and visit the wonderful little capital of Belfast. The people are genuine, its history is captivating, and the city will leave you wondering why it took you so long to get there.