Belfast: more than just home of the Titanic

Belfast is a city reborn over the past decade. The most obvious example of that is the Titanic Quarter, voted best tourist attraction in the world in 2016. As my guide, Billy Scott, told me, “For a long time, Belfast didn’t say much about building the Titanic here — it wasn’t exactly our greatest success. But following the huge popularity of the film, we have embraced that part of our past.”

The centrepiece is the exhibition itself, housed in a beautiful building with an exterior that represents the three ships of the White Star Line. The tour covers every aspect of the Titanic, from its construction in Belfast to the aftermath of the disaster.

The two most impressive parts are the ride that takes you through the ship as it was being built and a 270-degree immersive film area where you seemingly rise from the bowels of the ship to the bridge in about three minutes. The theatre where you watch an unmanned vehicle explore the ship as it lies on the sea floor today is quite poignant, too.

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The Titanic Quarter is a must-visit in Belfast — home to a range of heritage, sporting and cultural activities

Just opened a few weeks ago, the Titanic Hotel is worth visiting — either to stay or just for a meal. Lunch is served in Drawing Room Two, a vast open hall with huge skylights that is quite beautiful. It was here that the Titanic was designed and planned, so the draughtsmen needed all the light they could get.

One impressive detail is that the bricks of the outside wall above are white to reflect the afternoon light back inside. The beer-battered haddock lunch is both excellent and relatively inexpensive.

Food and drink
Sometimes, it seems the whole world has been turned on its axis by hipsters. Last year was Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink and it showcased the great strides taken in regional cuisine, especially in Belfast. As Simon Dougan of the Yellow Door in Portadown told me, “Over the last decade, there’s a belief that the food here is not just good but that it’s world class. The food scene from twenty years ago is unrecognisable.”

Dining at the delightfully-named Muddlers Club in Warehouse Lane, deep within the Cathedral Quarter, this was immediately apparent. The Romesco-spiced lamb was perfectly cooked and stylishly presented — a world away from the overcooked beef and mushy peas of the past.

That’s not to say that Irish quirkiness isn’t ever-present: breakfast at the Europa Hotel (that once held the title of the most bombed hotel in Europe) includes a nook where you can serve yourself porridge with local honey and Bushmills whiskey.

The bar scene in Belfast also has a new edge, but for a visitor, it’s hard to go past some of the traditional establishments. The Duke of York looks like the interior of a jewellery box.

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The Crown Bar offers both a stunning historical display and a bubbling venue for a drink

At the other end of the scale, there’s the Sunflower, standing virtually alone in an industrial wasteland. There’s nothing fancy here but it’s a great place for live music every night. And the entrance is through a security cage, perhaps the last left in the city since the end of the Troubles.

There’s one bar in town that everyone should visit. The Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria St has been operating since 1884 and its ornate exterior and array of tiny cubicles are so special, it’s owned by the National Trust.

Of course, there’s Guinness on tap everywhere, delivered to the North from Dublin, just a two-hour drive away. It’s true that Guinness really does taste different — and better — in Ireland, despite the technology in shipping it worldwide.

There’s also a microbrewery scene. And, as Billy said, “We even have a Titanic whiskey — but please don’t ask for it with ice: rather say you’d like it on the rocks,” before concluding “There’s a Titanic beer that goes down well, too.”

Van the Man’s hometown
"Hey, where did we go,
Days when the rain came?
Down in The Hollow
Playing a new game."

The lyrics to Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl were playing in my head as I took the new Van Morrison Trail from the modest two-up two-down terrace house in East Belfast where he was born, to the junction of the Knock and Loop rivers, and a small grassy common known as The Hollows. By the time I arrived, I was close to:

"Laughing and a-running, hey hey,
Skipping and a-jumping"

However, a boisterous young local school group were conducting a geographic surveying class there. The teacher told me a third of the class said they’d never heard of Van Morrison, despite going to school in his neighbourhood. Deflated, I returned to the city via Cyprus Avenue.

Back at the Europa Hotel, I was gratified to see a poster promoting an upcoming performance by Van at the hotel on December 3, 2017.

Troubles tourism
Since Bill Clinton mediated a peace plan in 1995, the sectarian rift in Northern Ireland seems largely healed. Security seems negligible, and walls are coming down to be replaced by greenways for walking and cycling.

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The murals painted along Falls Road are famously political 

However, some remnants of the Troubles remain. One of the most popular tourist activities is a Black Cab tour of the dramatic murals on the remains of the Peace Wall between the Falls and Shankhill roads. The Europa Hotel has a small display case showing the troubled history of the hotel before the Clintons came to stay.

Perhaps it’s the edge provided by the city’s dramatic past, or the great optimism with which it faces the future, but Belfast is an entertaining and intriguing city to visit. There’s much more to it than the dock that built the world’s most famous shipwreck.

Have you travelled to Northern Ireland? What were your highlights?

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