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, followed a few years later by its outpost that is the SS "Nomadic"
. 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 the Titanic Belfast exhibition
, while the sites outside are more history monuments – but some of truly monumental proportions to boot, especially the Thompson Graving 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 the dock 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) in height and with 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
War. And speaking of the Navy – the latest addition to the attractions of the Titanic Quarter is yet another museum ship, namely the HMS “Caroline”
, a WW1
The general decline of shipyards all over Europe mainly due to competition from the Far East reduced the workforce in the industry in Belfast drastically too (from a peak of ca. 35,000 during WWII
) and forced the Harland & Wolff 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.
The rest of Queen's Island is being transformed into a completely different type of environment, chiefly 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. When I was first there in December 2012.
Meanwhile, however, the planned conversion of the building into an upscale hotel has been finished … and it’s called: The Titanic Hotel
! When I planned my return visit in April 2023 I included a couple of nights that hotel to complement and complete the Titanic-theme of the second part of my trip to Belfast
that year. I can report back that the hotel interiors are indeed a bit like a White-Star-Lines and Titanic museum. Not only are there preserved original features of the H&W HQ, many of the public areas such as the lounges on the first floor feature Titanic and White Star memorabilia, Thomas Andrews’ reconstructed office serves as one of the available meeting rooms and one of the drawing offices has been turned into the hotel’s main lofty bar, complete with a large scale model of the RMS “Titanic” in a glass case at the one end. And the other drawing office is now a special events space (e.g. for weddings). For any fan of the Titanic legend a stay here is almost a must (though it comes at a price), as is a cocktail of two in the ex-drawing-office bar (what better excuse could there be?).
Still undergoing refurbishment back in 2012, but now open to the public as an outside branch of the Titanic Belfast 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 once served as a tender, ferrying passengers from the port of Cherbourg the "Titanic" (and other ships). It is hence also given its own separate entry:
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 first time, in December 2012, 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 (see below) 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" would once have 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. This also got me 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 and historic film footage projected on to a screen.
When I returned to the Titanic Quarter in April 2023 I had intended to revisit the dock and Pump House again as well. But I couldn’t find any access; then I was told at the reception of the HMS “Caroline” (see below) that the Pump House and access to the dock was temporarily closed because of construction work related to the new distillery that has meanwhile moved into parts of the old Pump House. And indeed, through two of the windows you can spot a trio of shining copper pot stills. So Irish whiskey is again made in Belfast after many decades of no such business surviving in the city. I was told that the dock wouldn’t open again until the end of the month – too late for me on that occasion. So I was a bit annoyed by that … but I did try the new “Titanic” whiskey and have to admit it was really nice. I wonder though whether it’s really come from those stills, if they are so new, or whether it was just blended from bought-in spirit from other Irish distilleries. Never mind, if they manage to maintain the quality, that’s fine with me.
What I also wonder, though, is what happened to the Pump House interiors as I had seen them over a decade earlier. Will all its vintage technology still be in place and visible? And what about the exhibition I saw in 2012? The distiller’s website offers bookings for tours of the distillery as well as packages that include going down into the dock. So does that mean you can no longer go down there on your own, unguided? This remains to be found out. If anybody can enlighten me in this question, I’d be grateful (just contact
Parallel to the Thompson Graving 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
. When I was there in 2012, this vessel was still off limits, but it has since undergone refurbishment too and opened to the public just in time for my return visit to Belfast in April 2023. My interest was piqued and so I went to see it (even though it’s unrelated to the “Titanic”); and this new attraction is therefore given its own entry here as well:
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 shipyard in operation a short distance to the south-east from the old Thompson Graving 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 shipyard'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, as well as along the coastal paths, various open-air information panels have been put up that relay parts of the history of the area to visitors.
, 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 the Thompson Graving Dock and possibly a visit to the SS "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 the Thompson Graving Dock may be too technical and industrial-archaeology-focused for many. HMS “Caroline”
will appeal to those more generally interested in ships and naval history, even though this one has nothing to do with the “Titanic” as such.
various places on Belfast
's Queen's Island, the former harbour area that is undergoing regeneration as the 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:
Google maps locators:
Harland & Wolff drawing offices and HQ (now the Titanic Hotel): [54.6078,-5.9089
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).
Details: 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 former HQ of Harland & Wolff has been turned into the Titanic Hotel, and parts of it will only be accessible to hotel guests, but the restaurant and bar should be open to all. So even if you’re not staying at the hotel you could pop in for a drink in the glorious former drawing offices. The main restaurant, called the Wolff Grill should also receive outside guests – and it’s worth it, especially for dedicated foodies in this very foodie city. I had plenty of good meals in Belfast
, but the one at the Wolff Grill was one of the very best (but comes at a price accordingly).
The currently active Harland & Wolff shipyard complex is, for normal mortals, only viewable at a distance from the outside. But see also Titanic Tours
How 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
, and another 10 minutes or so further to the Thompson Graving Dock and Pump House. There are also a couple of bus lines that go there.
To get access to the inside of Thompson Graving Dock itself, as well as to the Pump House is a bit unclear at the moment. It may well be that it’s now only possible through the new Titanic distillery (see above). This offers tours, a couple of which include access to the dock and/or the pump house technology that the distillery sits atop of. Prices range from just 10 GBP for the dock-only tour to a whopping 100 GBP per person for the full “Legacy Tour” which includes everything: dock, pump house and distillery.
At least half a day could be spent here even without going to see the insides of the Titanic Belfast
and the two vessels that are accessible to the public. To do all of this at a manageable pace you’ll need the best part of two days.