Mark Caswell visits vivid reminders of Belfast’s troubled past and finds a city looking forward to a peaceful future.
1. The murals
The most visual reminder of Belfast’s troubled history, the city’s murals have become popular tourist attractions, and black cabs now line up to take visitors on guided tours of the Republican/Catholic and Loyalist/Protestant areas. Focal points include the Falls Road, where the IRA’s hunger-striker Bobby Sands is depicted (as well as a mural of President Bush failing in Iraq), and the predominantly Protestant Shankhill Road, which has murals of UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) masked-gunmen and commemorative pieces of events that shook the area. These two main arteries, and indeed many neighbourhoods in Belfast, are still separated by the city’s ominous-looking peace lines – iron, steel and brick walls, some up to eight metres high. It’s a fascinating and sobering insight into how far Belfast has come since the Troubles.
2. Crown Liquor Saloon
South of the murals on Great Victoria Street is the famous Crown pub (crownbar.com), which dates back as far as 1885, when legend has it the Catholic owner and his Protestant wife had a disagreement over the name of the bar. Wanting to pledge allegiance to the royal family, the wife insisted the word “crown” be used in the name, but by way of revenge the owner had a mosaic of a crown placed directly under the entrance to the pub, for visitors to trample on as they came and went. Inside, the bar has wooden booths, mosaic floors, carved ceilings and, of course, pretty much every tourist visiting the city. While you are here, note the Europa Hotel across the road, to the right. It’s reputedly the most bombed hotel in Europe, having been attacked by the IRA over 30 times between 1972 and 1994, but has still managed to attract a steady stream of stellar guests, from ministers to presidents (Bill Clinton stayed during his visits to the UK in 1995 and 1998), and it remains one of the most important hotels in the city. The property has recently been refurbished and will add 25 new rooms this winter. Visit hastingshotels.com.
3. Queen’s Quarter
Around 15 minutes’ walk south down Great Victoria Street and along University Road you’ll find University Square, which boasts some of the best examples of Georgian terraces in Belfast and is the start of Queen’s Quarter, an area bursting with cafés, galleries, arthouse cinemas and theatres, and a great place to sit and people-watch. Here too you’ll find the main university campus, and visitors are free to wander around the grounds (guided tours are available every Saturday or on request). Note the 19th-century Lanyon Building, built in Gothic Revival-style.
4. Botanic Gardens
Just south of the campus, and seemingly a world away from the city’s political and violent past, the Botanic Gardens are a peaceful oasis to the south of the city centre. Originally opened in 1828, the gardens house a number of attractions including the Palm House, a cast-iron glasshouse featuring a 400-year-old xanthorrhoea among its many species of plants and flowers. A statue of Belfast-born physicist Lord Kelvin stands at the eastern entrance to the gardens, and the city’s Ulster Museum is also located within the grounds, although this is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen in 2009. Visit belfastcity.gov.uk and ulstermuseum.org.uk.
5. Lagan Towpath
Belfast’s redevelopment of the banks of the River Lagan means visitors can now walk or cycle some 20km along the towpath from central Belfast to Lisburn. If this sounds a little too much for one day, it’s still well worth picking up the trail north-east of the Botanic Gardens next to the city’s Gasworks development, where the Radisson SAS Hotel Belfast is located (for a review click here). It’s a pleasant walk north from here, and the smart apartments lining the riverside are a reminder of how far Belfast has come in recent years. Visit belfast.radissonsas.com.
6. St George’s Market
Get off the towpath at Belfast Waterfront Hall and head a little way south down Oxford Street to St George’s Market. Dating back to 1890, it is the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast. Located on May Street opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, the building was fully restored in the late 1990s, thanks mainly to a £2.3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and currently features a popular antiques, food and clothes market on Fridays. There are around 250 stalls and it’s known as one of the best places in Ireland to buy fish (6am-1pm). The city food and garden market is held here every Saturday, offering beef from Armagh, Irish farmhouse cheeses and local organic vegetables, as well as an array of other foods from around the world. It’s a good place to watch the crowds and listen to live music (9am-3pm). Visit belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket and waterfront.co.uk.
7. Odyssey Pavilion and SS Nomadic
Back on the towpath, cross the river to the new face of Belfast – the Odyssey Pavilion, a large sports and entertainment complex located on Queen’s Quay, also referred to as “Titanic Quarter”. There’s something for everyone here, from bars, restaurants, night clubs and an IMAX theatre, to W5 (short for Who, What, Where, When, Why?), an “interactive discovery centre” with permanent and temporary science exhibitions. The Odyssey Arena hosts regular sports and music events, and is home to the city’s Belfast Giants ice-hockey team. (Visit odysseypavilion.com.) Moored just opposite the Odyssey is SS Nomadic, the last surviving White Star Line vessel still afloat, which was used to ferry first and second class passengers to the RMS Titanic for her fateful voyage. The Nomadic is currently undergoing full restoration, which it’s hoped will be completed in time for the centenary of the Titanic disaster in 2012.