By Rick Steves
Seventeenth-century Belfast was only a village. With the influx, or "plantation," of English and (more often) Scottish settlers, the character of the place changed. After the Scots and English were brought in — and the native Irish were subjugated — Belfast boomed, spurred by the success of the local linen, rope-making, and shipbuilding industries. The Industrial Revolution took root with a vengeance. While the rest of Ireland remained rural and agricultural, Belfast earned its nickname ("Old Smoke") during the time when many of the brick buildings you'll see today were built. The year 1888 marked the birth of modern Belfast. After Queen Victoria granted city status to this boomtown of 300,000, its citizens built the city's centerpiece, City Hall.
Belfast is the birthplace of the Titanic (and many other ships that didn't sink). The two huge, mustard-colored cranes (the biggest in the world, nicknamed Samson and Goliath) rise like skyscrapers above the harbor. They stand idle now, but serve as a reminder of this town's former shipbuilding might.
Today, big investments from south of the border — the Republic of Ireland — are injecting quiet optimism into the dejected shipyards where the Titanic was built, developing the historic Titanic Quarter. Cranes are building condos along the rejuvenated Lagan riverfront.
It feels like a new morning in Belfast. It's hard to believe that the bright and bustling pedestrian zone was once a subdued, traffic-free security zone. Now there's no hint of security checks, once a tiresome daily routine. These days both Catholics and Protestants are rooting for the new Belfast Giants ice-hockey team, one of many reasons to live together peacefully.
Still, it's a fragile peace and a tenuous hope. Mean-spirited murals, hateful bonfires built a month before they're actually burned, and pubs with security gates are reminders that the island is split — and 800,000 Protestant Unionists prefer it that way.
In a city heavy on history but light on actual sights, tours around Belfast are invaluable tools for travelers. Belfast cooperates with a wide variety of tours including historic walking tours, big bus city overview tours, in-depth minivan tours, pub tours and boat tours about the Titanic.
This grand structure was recently renovated and with its 173-foot-tall copper dome, it dominates the town center. Built between 1898 and 1906, with its statue of Queen Victoria scowling down Belfast's main drag and the Union Jack flapping behind her, it's a stirring sight. In the garden, you'll find memorials to the Titanic and the landing of the U.S. Expeditionary Force in 1942 — the first stop en route to Berlin.
If it's open, take the free 45-minute tour (call to check schedule and to reserve). The tour gives you a rundown on city government and an explanation of the decor that makes this an Ulster political hall of fame. Queen Victoria and King Edward VII look down on city council meetings. The 1613 original charter of Belfast granted by James I is on display. Its Great Hall — bombed by the Germans in 1941 — looks as great as it did the day it was made. If you can't manage a tour, at least step inside, admire the marble swirl staircase, and drop into the "What's on in Belfast" room just inside the front door.
Catholic and Protestant Neighborhoods
It will be a happy day when the sectarian neighborhoods of Belfast have nothing to be sectarian about. For a look at a couple of the original home bases of the Troubles, explore the working-class neighborhoods of the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road or Sandy Row.
Falls Road: At the intersection of Castle and King Streets, you'll find the Castle Junction Car Park. This nine-story parking garage's basement (entrance on King Street) is filled with old black cabs — and the only Irish-language signs in downtown Belfast. These shared black cabs efficiently shuttle residents from outlying neighborhoods up and down the Falls Road and to the city center. This service originated almost 40 years ago at the beginning of the Troubles, when locals would hijack city buses and use them as barricades in the street fighting. When bus service was discontinued, local paramilitary groups established the shared taxi service. Although the buses are now running again, these cab rides are still a great value for their drivers' commentary.
Any cab goes up the Falls Road, past Sinn Fein headquarters and lots of murals, to the Milltown Cemetery (sit in front and talk to the cabbie). Hop in and out. Easy-to-flag-down cabs run every minute or so in each direction on the Falls Road. Forty trained cabbies do one-hour taxi tours.
The Sinn Fein office and bookstore are near the bottom of Falls Road. The bookstore is worth a look. Page through books featuring color photos of the political murals that decorate the buildings. Money raised here supports families of deceased IRA members. A sad, corrugated structure called the Peace Wall runs a block or so north of Falls Road (along Cupar Way), separating the Catholics from the Protestants in the Shankill Road area.
At the Milltown Cemetery, walk past all the Gaelic crosses down to the far right-hand corner (closest to the highway), where the IRA Roll of Honor is set apart from the thousands of other graves by little green railings. They are treated like fallen soldiers. Notice the memorial to Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers. They starved themselves to death in the nearby Maze prison in 1981, protesting for political prisoner status as opposed to terrorist criminal treatment. The prison closed in the fall of 2000.
Shankill Road and Sandy Row: You can ride a shared black cab for an hour through the Protestant Shankill Road area (up to six people can share a cab). Depart from North Street near the intersection with Millfield Road; it's not well-marked, but watch where the cabs circle and pick up locals on the south side of the street.
An easier (and cheaper) way to get a dose of the Unionist side is to walk Sandy Row. From Hotel Europa, walk a block down Glengall Street, then turn left for a 10-minute walk along a working-class Protestant street. A stop in the Unionist memorabilia shop, a pub, or one of the many cheap eateries here may give you an opportunity to talk to a local. You'll see murals filled with Unionist symbolism. The mural of William of Orange's victory over the Catholic King James II (Battle of the Boyne, 1690) thrills Unionist hearts.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
This 180-acre, two-museum complex straddles the road and rail at Cultra, midway between Bangor and Belfast (eight miles east of town). The Folk Museum, an open-air collection of 34 reconstructed buildings from all over the nine counties of Ulster, showcases the region's traditional lifestyles. After wandering through the old-town site (church, print shop, schoolhouse, humble Belfast row house, and so on), you'll head off into the country to nip into cottages, farmhouses, and mills. Most houses are warmed by a wonderful peat fire and a friendly attendant. It can be dull or vibrant, depending upon when you visit and your ability to chat with the attendants. Drop a peat brick on the fire.
The Transport Museum (downhill, over the road from the folk section) consists of three buildings. Start at the bottom and trace the evolution of transportation from 7,500 years ago — when people first decided to load an ox — to the first veritical take-off jet. The lowest building holds an intriguing section on the sinking of the Belfast-made Titanic. Nearby are exhibits on the Belfast-based Shorts aircraft company, which partnered with the Wright Brothers to manufacture the first commercially available aircraft in 1909. Two other buildings cover the history of bikes, cars, and trains. The car section rumbles from the first car in Ireland (an 1898 Benz) through the "Cortina Culture" of the 1960s to the local adventures of John DeLorean and a 1981 model of his car.
From Belfast, reach Cultra by taxi, bus (30 minutes), or train (15 minutes). Trains and buses stop right in the park, but train service is more dependable. Public transport schedules are skimpy on Saturday and Sunday.