Location: Central-East in Northern Ireland, 2 hours north of Dublin
Language: English, with Irish and Ulster-Scots having regional-language status. There are also Chinese, Arabic, Portugese, Polish and Lithuanian languages that have been growing in numbers in the last 20 years.
Money: the British Pound, £
Transportation: Trains and buses within Belfast.
Religion: 41% are Catholic, 34% are Protestant, with Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish being a small number as well. The topic of religion in Northern Ireland is a continual hot topic, as it caused a massive 30-year problem from 1968-1998, called “The Troubles.” While the violence isn’t really an issue these days, Belfast is still divided into Catholic and Protestant parts, as you’ll read about later.
Birthday: May 3, 1921
Safety: Despite having a troubled past between the Catholics and Protestants, Belfast is a safe city to walk around. Any continued problems between the two groups happens in those neighborhoods, rather than in the city center.
Interesting Facts: Famous author C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast. Titanic was built there, and the Belfast port became the largest ship-builders in the world in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. During the Industrial Revolution, Belfast was the biggest producer of linen in the world. There are two ship-building cranes named Samson and Goliath, that are the biggest free-standing cranes in the world. Belfast has 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of parks. U2’s famous song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” refers to Sunday January 30, 1972, during “The Troubles.”
History: While the history of Belfast goes further back than written documentation, the first mention of the area is in 637. Taken over by one local tribe after another, the land continued to be ruled by many different local kings, each one wanting to have the title of King of Ireland. In the 1160’s, the Normans conquered Ireland, leaving a legacy of more churches, castles, clearly marked land and an attempt at teaching the locals how to pay for goods and services with cash, instead of bartering. The Normans on the East Coast of Ireland settled into the land, adopted the language, and married the local people. To this day, you can still find family names dating back to the Norman people, like Roche, Power and Burke. In the late 1590’s, the Irish lost to the English in the Nine Years War, and many protestants were sent from England to Ireland, causing many problems with the local Catholics. In 1801, Ireland became a part of the United Kingdom, but it wasn’t seen as a positive move from some of the local population. In the early 1900’s, the Republic of Ireland gained its independence, which separated it from Northern Ireland, who stayed loyal to England.
Arriving In Belfast
From the airport to the city center: For public transportation, the only option is a bus, Airport Express 300. It runs 7 days a week, from 4am-9:45pm (04:00-21:45), every 15-30 minutes. From 9:45pm-11:45pm (21:00-23:45), it runs once an hour. And then there are only two buses between 11:45pm and 4am (23:45-04:00). It can take between 40 minutes and 1 hour to reach the city center, depending on traffic. You can buy your ticket from the bus driver, which will cost you £8.00 for a one-way ticket or £11.50 for a return-ticket. If you don’t already have Pounds with you at the airport, or just prefer to plan ahead, download the Translink mLink app. It’s very easy to use, and you can use it later for all public transportation in Belfast or in Northern Ireland. Click on “Buy A Ticket” and it’ll ask you what service you’d like (such as the Airport Express 300). One thing to know about the Airport Express 300 ticket is that you can buy it 30-days before your trip, so be sure and click “Activate” right before you get onto that bus. It will be active for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Getting Around: In the city center, a lot of things are easy to see just from walking around. But a few of the touristy things might be a 20-minute walk from the city center, so a bus is an easy-to-use option. There are so many buses in Belfast, that you won’t have to walk far to find the next stop. Again, you can buy your ticket from the driver by telling them which stop you want to get off, and they’ll tell you how much the ticket will be. Or you can use the mLink app, and get a ticket for the whole day, which costs only £3.00, and is active the second you buy it. Many bus stops have a digital sign showing which buses come to that stop, and when the next one is. On 2-3 of the bigger streets in the city center, there may be multiple bus stops next to each other, but they are all clearly marked, such as number 7, and all number 7 buses (7a, 7b, etc) will stop there. But on smaller streets, most of the buses just use one stop.
Things To Do In Belfast
Visit C.S. Lewis Square: On the east side of the city, is a little tribute to the Chronicles of Narnia’s author, C.S. Lewis. There is a small park you can walk through, and see some of the characters from Narnia, including Aslan, Mr Tumnus, and The White Which. There is also a coffee shop named after C.S. Lewis’ nickname, Jack. JACK Coffee Bar is in the EastSide Visitor Centre.
Historical Indoor Market: St. George’s Market sits on an area that has had a market there since 1604. Set in a Victorian style in the 1890’s, this market is only open on the weekends, Fridays from 6am-3pm (06:00-15:00), Saturdays from 9am-3pm (09:00-15:00), and Sundays from 10am-4pm (10:00-16:00). Fridays are more of a variety market, selling things like produce, books, clothes and even fish. Saturdays offer food, as well as homemade crafts, photography, plants and even pottery. Depending on the season, you can sample things like pheasant, wild boar and venison, while listening to local live music. Sundays are a mixture of Friday and Saturday markets. Interesting to note, they have a quiet hour from 9-10am (09:00-10:00) on Fridays and Saturdays, and from 10-11am (10:00-11:00) on Sundays. No music will be playing during this time, and noises will be kept to a minimal to welcome in people who prefer a calmer environment, including those with autism. Throughout the year, they have different events there, so check with their website before going, to see what they have.
Great View Of The City: While Belfast isn’t hilly, so there aren’t too many places to get a higher view of the city, there is a very easy, free, central place to go to that allows a 360-view of the city. The shopping center called Victoria Square has a glass-dome on top, that allows for a great view of the city, especially when it’s clear weather. Each hour from 10am-4pm (10:00-16:00) is a free tour you can take, to learn more about the areas of interest, as well as the tour guides personal experiences in Belfast. After that, you can browse the shops, get something to eat and even watch a movie there in Victoria Square. Something interesting about this building, is that it isn’t completely enclosed, so you can get fresh air, as you walk around inside.
See The Creative Side of Belfast: If you’re interested to see something a little more off the beaten path, go to the Cathedral Quarter, which is a 10-minute walk north of Victoria Square. It has funky bars, cafes, restaurants and a lot of cool artwork decorating the outside walls.
Most Famous Ship In History: Since the Titanic was built in Belfast and it’s legacy has been told through newspapers, books and even movies, it’s only fitting that they would have a museum built to tell its story. But before you think the museum is strictly about the tragedy, it actually talks about Belfast as a city at the turn-of-the-century, how Titanic was made, and even about the people who finally found the Titanic in 1985. The building is made to look like the front of a massive cruise ship, and they do a good job of offering more than just walking through the museum as an experience. There’s a 10-minute ride, that allows you to hear stories from actual workers that helped build the ship, there’s also a sit-down theater at the end, where you can watch a team exploring the Titanic and what all is still visible there. The actual night of April 14, 1912 isn’t the main focus of the museum, so don’t worry about bringing any tissues with you. Your ticket is good for the Titanic Museum, as well as the last remaining White Star Line ship, which sits right in front of the museum. The opening hours vary throughout the year, but here is all of the info you need for your visit.
Pretty Part Of Town: I must say that Belfast won’t win any awards for being a beautiful city, but there is a prettier part of town that’s very pleasant to walk around, near the Queen’s University. Opened in 1849, Queen’s University is one of the best in the United Kingdom and second best in all of Ireland. The area around there is definitely geared towards students, with cheaper food options, more parks to go running in, bars, and nightlife. There are botanical gardens nearby, which is a really relaxing way to spend a few hours. Within the gardens is one of the first in the world curvy cast-iron glasshouse, housing palms and other tropical and subtropical plants.
Peace Walls: While most of us know about the Berlin Wall during the Communist days in Europe, and how the wall came down in 1989, many people aren’t aware that a wall still exists in Belfast. It isn’t just one wall though, it’s 40 separate ones. It’s called the Peace Walls, and while their function is fortunately different than Berlin’s was, it does still serve the purpose of separating people. What’s really different though, is that many of the gates open daily and only close when the sun goes down for protection. Protection? From who? Catholics and Protestants. Going back as far as the 1920’s, the walls started out as something much smaller than it is today. When visiting, you can see the different layers of height added over time, with some walls being as high as 25 feet (8 meters). While the government continually asks the people to vote to have it removed, they still feel safer with it, and say that the lack of violence is because the walls are still there. But the government is hoping that they walls will be removed by 2023.
Walk Down Memory Lane: A few streets away from the Peace Walls is another scene, full of murals. While the Peace Walls have a feel of peace and calm from all that’s written on them, showing the side devoted to Britain, the murals show the other side of the story. 3,500 people were killed during “The Troubles”, with 50,000 people injured during that time. The murals are beautiful pictures of heroes that were lost, political prisoners and even global heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and others that won their fight, no matter how long it took. Again, although the violence has stopped, the anger, frustration and feelings of discrimination are on display for all to see.
A Rainy Day Alternative: It isn’t any secret that Ireland, England, etc. get a lot of rain. While there, you may even see it rain, then not have a cloud in the sky, then become very windy within a few hours, so plan accordingly. One fun activity that I did when I was there, was to go to a movie theater. I wanted to go to the Bean Bag Cinema, where the seats are actual bean bags, and you can bring your own food and drink, but they aren’t always open like regular theaters are. So I went instead to the Queen’s Film Theater, in the Queen’s University quarter. It’s a smaller theater, but plays both mainstream movies, as well as independent movies. And if you go on Mondays, all movies, all day, are only £4.00.