It’s not a bad idea to get to Belfast in the late afternoon. Your first impression, with the first hints of the upcoming night time, will leave you with no choice but to go for a walk, and explore some of the old pubs in the capital of Ulster before before everything goes silent at midnight.
Try Crown Liquor Saloon (Address: Great Victoria Street, 46; Tel: (+44) 28 9024 3187), one of the most beautiful bars in the world according to the locals. Much less baroque is Kelly’s Cellars (Address: Bank Street, 30; Tel: (+44) 28 9024 6058), but it’s a more than desirable option to listen to the best traditional Irish music live. And yes, with a couple of pints in your system, you’l fall in love with the city and be ready to explore it in all its glory the next morning.
The trick works, and the traveler goes for a walk the next morning wanting to discover this small town of little more than 300,000 inhabitants where everything is a stone’s throw away. The proliferation of low-cost airlines has made the capital of Northern Ireland a regular weekend getaway for many European travelers, and a possible non-traditional stopover for travelers from other latitudes.
The Waterfront, Titanic Quarter and the historic center
We ended the night in a pub and we started at the Mercado de San Jorge (Address: East Bridge, 10; Hours: LD 6.00 – 15.00), because there’s nothing better than a pint before going to bed, and a market to start a day. We love the markets. They are a good way to take the pulse of any city, and also a great idea to spend those hours between sunrise and the hour in which monuments and museums open. There are still plenty of fish, meat and vegetable stalls, but there are also good places to have breakfast and try the awesome local pastries.
From the market, we went in search of the channel of the Logan River. The Waterfront, as has happened in other European cities, has undergone a radical transformation and has ceased to be a decrepit port, and now become the ‘golden mile of the city’. We walk north to the Lagan Weir, a modern footbridge that leads to the opposite bank of the river. But first, we have to take photos with Big Fish and make the inevitable comparison between the Albert Memory Clock and Big Ben in London. It’s also a good idea to separate yourself by a couple of meters from the river to admire the superb Victorian architecture of the Customs House, the old customs house of the city.
On the other side of the Logan is Titanic Quarter; An old area of shipyards and factories that, by the grace of real estate speculation, has become one of the thriving neighborhoods of the city. The famous boat, The Titanic Belfast, was built here (Address: Queen’s Road, 1; Tel: (+44) 28 9076 6386; see Times). It’s a modern museum offering abundant and extraordinary information about the world’s most famous ship during its time.
The historic center and Botanic Garden
Back to the west bank of the Logan, where we take a walk to the city center. City Hall (Address: Donegall Sq; Tel: (+44) 28 9027 0456) is a good place to venture back and forth from the small and charming historic center of the city and see other notable buildings such as the Cathedral of Santa Ana (Address: Donegal Street), which presides over the city’s oldest streets. You can see restaurants, designer boutiques and art galleries, or the Grand Opera House (Address: Great Victoria Street, 2; Tel: (+44) 28 9024 1919; Hours: LD 10.00 – 17.00), which beyond its architectural value, has an excellent cafeteria should you need a break.
The railway line that leads to Derry divides the city in two. Inward, the main attraction of this part of the city is the Botanic Garden (Access via University Road), a huge park that, besides housing the botanical garden of the city, is seat of the Ulster Museum (Address: Botanic Garden sn; Tel: (+44) 28 9044 0000; Hours: MD 10.00 – 17.00). It has a remarkable artistic collection that goes from the archaeological remains of the country and cultures like the Egyptians or the Greek, to fossils of dinosaurs, and the remains of the Spanish ships of The Invincible Armada.
Just a few meters from this museum (which is one of the largest in the UK) is the beautiful campus of Queen’s University of Belfast which houses The Naughton Gallery (Address: Queen’s University of Belfast; ) 028 9097 3580; Hours: MD 11.00 – 16.00; E-mail: email@example.com), one of the most important art galleries in Ireland.
The city of ‘problems’
Crossing under the Westlink motorway takes you immediately to another completely different Belfast. The cityscape changes and Victorian-inspired buildings and large shopping malls give way to small, two-story blocks of houses arranged in even rows. We are only a kilometer from the ‘Waterfront’. It’s only been a mere 20 minutes of a quiet stroll down Castle Street when we suddenly come upon this section of the city that takes us back years to the time of The Troubles; a euphemism with which locals refer to the conflict between pro-British and Republican unionists.
It hit Northern Ireland for decades and reached levels of extreme violence in Belfast itself and the neighboring city of Derry, the epicenter of a conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives during 30 years of confrontation.
Falls Road is the backbone of the old republican fiefdoms. A couple of minutes after crossing under the freeway we are faced with ‘International Wall’, first of more than 2000 murals of political content that adorn the walls of the main stages of ‘The Troubles’. Mandela, Salvador Allende, the Irish who fought in the Civil War to defend the Spanish Republic …
Street art became this part of the city as a fighting weapon. At Falls Road, on the corner of Svastopol Street is the mural dedicated to the figure of Bobby Sands, which adorns one of the walls of Sinn Fein, an Irish Republican party that advocates the incorporation of Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic.
On the north side conversely, metal fences served to keep the two communities isolated. As with Republican murals, unionist panels are scattered throughout the neighborhood, although the best of them are concentrated on Shankill Road and in the vicinity of Shankill Parade. The area is safe although the Unionist neighborhood is less frequented by travelers.