Titanic Quarter, Belfast
The harbour area of Queen's Island in Belfast
, Northern Ireland
, where the famous Titanic was built at the Harland & Wolff shipyards. A part of that company is still in operation, and its giant cranes remain landmarks of the city. Other parts had long been derelict but are currently undergoing a massive regeneration scheme. Part of this are the specific sites where the Titanic was built and outfitted that have been made accessible to tourists. And a new visitor centre/exhibition in the Titanic Quarter has become the city's top tourist attraction within less than one year of operation! Belfast's connection with RMS Titanic
is thus firmly established these days.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
For much of the 100+ years since Titanic
's fateful maiden voyage, attention has been more focused on the sinking and all the tragedy that it brought. But the building of the ship, then the largest man-made movable object on Earth, was no mean feat and deserves some recognition too.
After decades of neglect, this is now done in style at Belfast
's Titanic Quarter (and beyond – see Titanic Tours
). Original locations have been developed for tourism and an all new visitor centre with a "Titanic Belfast Experience
" exhibition was constructed to be opened just in time for the tragedy's centenary. Together, all this constitutes the largest Titanic commodification in the world.
The engineering that went into the design and building of the Titanic and her sister ships is celebrated in detail at that exhibition, while the sites outside are more history monuments – but some of truly monumental proportions to boot, especially the Thompson Dock, which is marketed as the world's single largest original Titanic-related relic.
The dock was especially commissioned to provide dry-dock space for the planned new giants of the seas and it was constructed over seven years to be completed just before the Titanic and Olympic were ready for launch. Like the vessels it accommodated it set a world record in size at the time.
This record has long since been broken, of course, but the current holder of the title "largest dry dock in the world" is located nearby at the still-operational part of the Harland & Wolff yard. This most prominently features the massive landmark gantry cranes that tower over this dock and that are locally known as Samson and Goliath. They were built (by the German
company Krupp) in the late 1960s/early 1970s. At over 300 feet (100m) height and a span of 460 feet (140m) they are indeed impressive giants.
Gone, on the other hand, are the similarly gigantic Arrol gantries under which Titanic, her sisters and subsequent ships were assembled on the slipways. They too were purpose-built specifically for the Olympic class liners and, again, were the largest steel structures of this type at the time as well. Another record. However this technology became redundant and so the gantries were dismantled in the 1960s. It could have been an even larger relic and potential tribute to Titanic, but it would probably have been too costly to preserve this monument of industrial heritage for prosperity.
Harland & Wolff's business fortunes did not, as you might have suspected, suffer a particularly serious downturn due to the Titanic disaster
. On the contrary, another sister ship, the Britannic, was built soon after and the company remained successful in the shipbuilding industry for many years. However, the decline in transatlantic passenger services (due to the emergence of air travel) ended the company's mostly proud history of construction of such liners. The last one to be launched (in 1960) was the SS Canberra – which in 1982 was drafted into the Navy as a supply ship in the Falklands
The general decline of shipyards all over Europe mainly due to the competition from the Far East reduced the workforce drastically (from a peak of ca. 35,000 during WWII
) and forced the company to diversify into other areas of heavy industry. This it appears to have managed with some success, now focusing on renewable energy technology such as wind farms and tidal water power turbines. Oil rig construction/maintenance and ship repairs are further areas of activity.
But the rest of Queen's Island is being transformed into a completely different type of environment, mainly residential and with lighter industries, in the service sector mainly. But tourism is another crucial emphasis of the regeneration. It has certainly generated renewed interest in Belfast
's connection with the Titanic
and its whole shipbuilding legacy. And that's only to be applauded.
What there is to see: The top tourist attraction in the Titanic Quarter is easily the spectacular shiny new "Titanic Belfast" at the heart of the historic shipyard area. It is therefore given its own separate entry here:
Right on its doorstep, as it were, one major part of the Titanic circuit is the place where the great ship was built alongside its sister ship the RMS Olympic. The two former slipways from which they were launched have been turned into a public space just to the north of the Titanic Belfast centre.
Titanic's "footprint" is outlined today by a line that is illuminated in blue at dusk/night so you get a good, albeit abstract idea of the size of the ship. In addition the location of where the funnels and lifeboats would have been are represented as lines on the ground. Benches have been placed in the exact relative positions to where they would have been on the promenade deck of the actual Titanic. The outline is flanked by lamp posts that vaguely indicate the former steel gantry that Titanic was constructed under. Like that gantry's columns, there are 11 poles on each side.
Also nearby, immediately to the east of the Titanic Belfast centre stands the old building that used to be the Harland & Wolff shipyard's administrative HQ. Of particular interest are the two huge drawing offices, with their large skylights in the ceiling. It was here that the detailed construction plans for Titanic and other ships were prepared. The buildings are currently not part of the tourism development of the site and were inaccessible when I was there in December 2012. However, there have been proposals for their refurbishment, including plans to integrate them into some kind of boutique hotel. It remains to be seen what may come of any of this.
Already refurbished, or nearing completion of its refurbishment, is the SS Nomadic
, the last surviving ship of the former White Star Line, the company that had commissioned and operated Titanic and her sister ships. It was a tender for the Titanic and brought passengers from Cherbourg on board for the maiden voyage that ended so tragically. Some names among the era's foremost rich and famous were amongst those passengers. The Nomadic is now permanently propped up inside Hamilton graving dock just south of the Titanic Belfast a
ttraction. The steelwork part of the restoration, incidentally, is/was provided by Hartland & Wolff shipyard itself – the same company that had originally built her and Titanic over a century before!
The very largest surviving relic associated with the Titanic is the gigantic Thompson graving dock, now marketed simply as "Titanic's Dock". This is the dry dock in which she was outfitted and given her final coat of paint. Many of the most spectacular historic photos of Titanic's huge propellers and rudder were taken here.
When I was there the dock was used as a location for some film production related to Titanic; in the marquee you can see inside the dock in one of my photos a bunch of actors were being fed Titanic-inspired food. All the while sound engineers, cameramen and other members of the film crew were scuttling around, commands were shouted into walkie-talkies, and at times visitors were asked to stay away from certain angles or not to take pictures of props and so on. But largely they didn't interfere with the regular visitors too much. A veteran car on the dockside, apparently hired for the shoot actually added a dose of "period-ness" to the whole atmosphere. Before you ask: no, I did not spot any glamorous stars.
The empty dock is impressive for its sheer size alone. You can even go in it and walk along the very keel blocks that Titanic once rested on. The original gate holding back the waters from the sea is still in place. This was constructed in a similar manner to Titanic's hull, i.e. out of overlapping steel plates that are riveted together. Similarly: a small recreation of Titanic's bow section can be see on the land just west of the stairs down to the dock. This was apparently put together for a TV documentary and now serves as a kind of monument at this appropriate location.
You can see the dock from the fence around it, which is only 20 yards or so from the dock wall edge, but to get really close and gain access to the inside of the dock you have to go through the visitor centre in the old Pump-House and pay an admission fee of £5. This also gets you inside the old Pump-House itself which used to serve the dock. It's a fairly interesting industrial heritage item in itself, if you have a taste for such things, and it's all commodified through various information panels with explanatory texts and historic photos … as well as soundtracks. Historic film footage is projected onto a screen.
At the Pump-House/visitor centre there's also a café and a shop selling all manner of Titanic memorabilia, tack as well as worthwhile informational material. They also offer guided tours, which are however not really necessary as you can do everything on a self-guided basis just as well.
Titanic's Dock and Pump-House is astonishingly rated No. 1 in TripAdvisor's list of things to do in Belfast
… but one reason for this must be that there is evidently quite some confusion over which site is which here, as is clear from the comments, many of which describe the wrong one out of these two sites.
So let's make it absolutely clear: the Titanic Belfast exhibition
and the old Pump-House and Thompson Dock are two very distinct sites with very different aims. If you want a polished multimedia exhibition about
Titanic, go to the Titanic Belfast "experience". The Thompson Dock is more for those who appreciate such a massive relic as such, but there's nothing about the story and tragedy of Titanic's sinking here. The exhibition in the Pump-House barely even touches on anything Titanic-related at all and is really only for those interested in the dockyard engineering details and industrial history. I found it all very cool, but I can well imagine than many others will find this sort of thing "boring".
Parallel to the Thompson Dock is another, older dry dock called Alexandra Dock, which was built before ships of the size of Titanic were even conceived. The dock is flooded and home to the historic light cruiser HMS Caroline
, a unique relic from World War One
. It was the last warship from that area that remained in the Royal Navy's service – until 2011 (although only as a training facility and stationary, in this very location). Now it's been decommissioned there are campaigns for its preservation. A poster I saw on the fence used the "SOS" abbreviation to read as "Save Our Ship". Apparently the Northern Ireland government has pledged a substantial sum to fund the restoration of this ship. It has nothing to do with Titanic really, but is still worth a look when you're there. The ship is currently not regularly accessible to the public – but I watched a film shooting taking place on deck (whether related to the shooting at the Thompson Dock or not I couldn't tell).
Not strictly speaking part of any Titanic connections either but certainly spectacular to behold all the same are the two yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath
, at the nearby Harland & Wolff dockyard in operation a short distance to the south-east from the old Thompson Dock. If your interest in industrial engineering isn't completely limited to the Titanic alone, then these giants are definitely worth a look too – at least from a distance. Obviously you can't normally get really close to them, let alone go up, as they are behind the dockyard's fence (although during my guided Titanic Tour
by car we were at least allowed to drive right up to the fence at the base of one of the cranes).
Queens Road goes all the way from the south-western end of Queen's Island to the north-eastern tip (it's actually a peninsula). At this tip is another large dry dock, about twice the size of Thompson Dock. This is still in use for both ship repairs as well as for breaking ships up for scrap. Therefore the whole area is not accessible to tourists.
Along the lower parts of Queens Road information panels have been put up that relay parts of the history of the area to visitors.
On balance, exploring this district is rewarding for those with a leaning towards industrial and maritime heritage especially. But dedicated Titanic
fans will also enjoy the sight of Thompson Dock and possibly a visit to the Nomadic too. The slipways are a bit too polished and park-like perhaps, but with a good dose of imagination fit the formula a Titanic attraction. The remainder of the Titanic Quarter is quite probably not for everyone, and even the Pump-House by Thompson Dock may be too technical and industrial-archaeology-focused for many.
various places on Belfast
's Queen's Island, the former harbour area that is undergoing regeneration as Titanic Quarter, lies on the eastern side of the mouth of the Lagan River where it meets Belfast Lough. The main points of interest are located as follows (note that google maps currently still shows many of these sites as empty, i.e. as they were a few years ago before the development/construction work had been finished):
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
a bit away from the centre of Belfast
but reachable on foot, bus or guided tours; costs range from free to relatively steep (but justifiably so).
The former slipways of RMS Titanic and Olympic are freely accessible at all times now, as is the plaza around the Titanic Belfast building and the information panels dotted around the area. The rooms of the former HQ of Harland & Wolff are not currently accessible to the public, nor are the former drawing offices, though that may change again. The currently active Harland & Wolff shipyard complex is, for normal mortals, also only viewable at a distance from the outside. But see also Titanic Tours
. To get to the Titanic Quarter if you're not on a tour you can simply walk from the city centre – it's about 20 minutes to the Titanic Belfast visitor centre
, and another 10 minutes or so further up Queens Road to the Thompson Dock and Pump-House.
To get access to the inside of Thompson Dock itself, as well as to the Pump-House and its exhibition you have to pay an admission fee of £5. Its opening times are: daily at least from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (sometimes longer). Guided tours of one hour duration are also available but self-guided visits are perfectly sufficient unless you really want to have it all explained in detail and be part of a group. I preferred exploring the huge dock without other people as it helped enjoying the enormous space of this massive hole in the ground.
Visiting the SS Nomadic when it reopens to the public will also incur an admission fee (unless it's already included in your Titanic Tour
); when that will be, how much they'll charge and what the opening hours will be remains to be seen.
without the Titanic Belfast Experience
a few hours to half a day should suffice, together with the Titanic Belfast exhibition you'll need a full day or split it over two days even.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under Titanic Tours
and also under Belfast
in general. Most obviously, the
must-see attraction within the Titanic Quarter and the No. One tourist attraction far and wide is the Titanic Belfast Experience