The capital city of Northern Ireland
, and second largest conurbation in the whole of the Emerald Isle (after Dublin
, Republic of Ireland
). But for decades Belfast was less associated with green than with grim – owing to the "Troubles". Now that the Peace Process has more or less brought an end to that, this very legacy has become a major element in the city's tourism portfolio. Here, dark tourism meets mainstream tourism like in only a few other places on Earth.
Belfast's other claim to fame that also has a dark twist is the Titanic
. That tragic ship was built here and that fact is now celebrated massively with tours and a shiny new museum.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The name Belfast alone used to be on a par with Beirut as a worldwide symbol for a once-great city that had been drawn so deep into the quagmire of endless conflict that it was way off any tourist map. I remember that well. For outsiders like me the name Belfast stood for the whole Northern Ireland
conflict at least as much as Bloody Sunday
So when a university colleague of mine (when I still lived in Hamburg
) took up a job in Belfast in the early 1990s, we all thought he was mad to accept the offer and move there. Conditioned on the usual cue words whenever the name Belfast came up in the news, we only associated the place with bombs and bloodshed.
This has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. The end of "The Troubles" and a huge amount of regeneration investment that has flooded into the city since 1998 have totally transformed both the look and the feel of the place. It's now a really cool city destination with loads of intriguing attractions to offer that are more or less unique to Belfast (see below
But the grim past is not altogether in the past. This was brought home clearly while I was there in early December 2012 and out of the blue the old tensions flared up again. Not because of me, of course. It just so happened that on 3 December (the day I happened to arrived) the City Council decided to stop flying the Union Jack on the City Hall every day, but restrict it to only a few special days. The Unionists/Loyalists were outraged and staged a protest the same evening. At one point they even broke into the City Hall. I was blissfully unaware of all this, having narrowly missed the events and was by then sitting in a pub in a different part of town … until I was alerted to what was going on by a friend in Dublin who texted me suggesting that I tune into the BBC – adding a sarcastic "Welcome to Ireland!". Back in my hotel room I then watched the news coverage, shaking my head …
Indeed, the enraged protests and riots sparked by Loyalist/Unionists carried on for weeks and months since then and it's still not over. Fears have been voiced that this may spiral out of control again. In addition to rioting, there have even been death threats, vandalism, injuries, and – most worrying of it all – bombs were planted again (e.g. in Catholic churches), though so far none have gone off and killed anybody. But this development is as nasty and baffling to the outsider as the whole Northern Ireland
conflict has always been. One crucial difference to the past, however, is that on the party political front there is now agreement on all sides that the Peace Process must not be undermined by these recent outbursts of violence.
It is worrying, though, that there seems to be a dangerous combination of renewed underground orchestration of violence by radical organizations … the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) has been especially implicated. And that radicalism is feeding on the readiness for violent protests by mobs of angry young men (in the literal rather than literary sense). Organized masses of disillusioned angry young men is never good news. If only there was a way of suppressing young male testosterone, the world would be much easier to steer towards peace. But that's a utopian wish and this toxic combination will continue to complicate things, here and elsewhere. That's one sure prediction for the future if ever there's been one.
That said, though, the old and renewed troubles have never been directed against foreign visitors in Northern Ireland
(very much unlike in some other parts of the world today). I even heard it claimed by people from Belfast that it would always have been quite safe for a tourist to wander up the Falls or Shankill Road even back in the 1970s and 80s. That's perhaps a bit far-fetched, though. There had always been the risk of finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time when West Belfast was seeing regular bombings and violent clashes between the factions. And you don't want to become caught in the middle of either, even if you are not the chosen target in the first place.
For today, this means you can probably still go to Belfast and feel perfectly safe and not even notice much of the renewed tensions – as long as you stay away from any protests or known hotspots of trouble (such as Short Strand). Be informed. The City Hall, for instance, may not be a good place to include on your sightseeing plans on a day when a demonstration has been organized. But it may be cordoned off on such occasions anyway.
Most of Belfast's other tourist attractions, however, will remain unaffected by all this, including Black Taxi Tours … that, if anything, should actually increase your safety, because the cabbies will almost certainly be aware of where to avoid if need be.
Having already dropped the names Falls Road and Shankill Road – what about the historical background then? Well, these two street names have become so associated with the Troubles because they are the main West Belfast thoroughfares in the Catholic and Protestant quarters, respectively, where many clashes occurred … as well as bombings.
The close proximity of the two communities even prompted the authorities to build a wall to physically separate the opposing sides from each other. It was only supposed to be a temporary measure in the early 1970s, but the wall is still there. That means it's already been in existence longer than the Berlin Wall
was! The Belfast wall is euphemistically called the "Peace Line" – and indeed there have been efforts in making in look a bit more placid and friendly. But for the most part there is no denying that it is still a grim and ugly piece of architecture. It's literally concrete evidence that not all trouble is really over. See under Black Taxi Tours
What there is to see: Quite a lot these days. More than you may expect at first. The main points of interests/activities for dark tourists to aim for in Belfast are given the following separate entries here:
These headings already indicate that there is a clear split into two main categories of dark tourism in Belfast, one Troubles-related, the other concerned with the legacy of the Titanic. The latter is a relatively new development, boosted massively by the 2012 centennial of the ship's sinking. The even darker political, Troubles-related bits, on the other hand, have been attracting attention ever since Belfast began opening up to tourism. This happened following the official end of the Troubles, marked especially by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent formation of a power-sharing government at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The home of the latter is thus of related interest: the huge Stormont estate on the eastern edge of Belfast. The imposing parliament building can be visited, there are even guided tours (at given times – check ahead), but security is tight. For good reason. In 2006, Stormont was the target of one of the most bizarre attacks, namely by the Loyalist radical and paramilitary volunteer Michael Stone. He first scrawled graffiti on the walls of the parliament building and then attempted to break in, apparently in an attempt to murder leading Republican politicians, but he was overwhelmed and disarmed by security guards. It turned out that his firearm was a fake (his knives, nail bombs and a garrotte were not, though). He later claimed in his defence that the whole charade was an "art performance" – what a joke! But the authorities were not amused. Stone had been in prison for murders committed in 1988 (at a funeral!) but was released in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement. After his almost comical 2006 stunt at Stormont he was sentenced again for another 16 years.
In the city centre, the City Hall
is also of interest. I don't mean because of its recent attraction of Loyalist demonstrations and rioting, but rather for some details in the publicly accessible parts of the interior. Note especially the stained-glass windows in the corridor leading from the central hall to the north wing. These are quite modern and include many references to Belfast's history, including the Great Famine in Ireland
and the Titanic
. When I was in Belfast in early December 2012 there was also an exhibition about the city's (and Ireland's) history set up in the north wing, but as I understand this is only a temporary thing.
Just outside the north wing stands the city's main Titanic Memorial
. The original main part is a classic affair of statues and plaques with names (including the ship's designers). Just behind it is now a more modern Titanic Memorial Garden
. This opened on 15 April 2012, i.e. the exact centenary day of the tragedy, and apart from a panel with a complete list of all those who perished in the disaster, there are also a few background information panels and a map detailing other Titanic
-related sights in Belfast (see Titanic Quarter
and Titanic Tours
A key attraction not only for dedicated dark tourists but for any tourist with an interest in the history of the place are the famous political (and these days also non-political) murals of West Belfast
. One well-established dark-tourist activity in Belfast to cover this aspect are the famous political tours by black taxi – or their equivalent walking or even coach tours – see under the separate entry for Black Taxi Tours
These tours usually concentrate on the murals on the Falls Road
and some also take in the Shankill
ones and many also stop at the Peace Line
(i.e. wall). But there are many more murals and other manifestations of the divided political positions in other parts of the city as well. However, some of these may not be as easy or safe to visit, certainly not on foot. This is especially the case for those in the Loyalist East Belfast
centres of Unionist radicalism, which has so flared up again in the wake of the Belfast City Hall flag dispute (see above
). The Catholic enclave around Short Strand
on the eastern side of the river may also be a bit dicey to visit at times. But you may well be passing some of those murals when being driven around (like I was en route to Stormont), so keep your eyes open. It may also be possible to ask for an extended customized Black Taxi tour
to take in those less touristy murals.
Also related to the Troubles is another street in West Belfast: Crumlin Road
. Not only is the notorious Crumlin Road Gaol
here, which has been turned into another major tourist attraction. Right opposite, the dark tourist may also get a kick out of the derelict former Crumlin Road Courthouse
. This was not only associated with the Jail opposite for obvious functional reasons, but also was physically linked to it by means of an underground passage. Unlike the prison, though, the courthouse has not (yet) been developed for tourism. There had been plans to that effect, but a fire in 2009 put an end to these for the foreseeable future. So it just stands there as an imposing ruin.
Further out west still, at the very end of Falls Road, lies Milltown Cemetery
. It features a dedicated Republican/IRA section and memorials. The hunger strikers of 1981 are buried here, for instance (see under Northern Ireland
) and also IRA members who either died "in action" or were assassinated (even abroad). On one such occasion in 1988 the Milltown Cemetery Massacre took place, perpetrated by a lone Loyalist loony called Michael Stone – yes, that one: see above under Stormont.
Just off Falls Road is Conway Mill
, a former linen factory in an area that suffered severe damage during the Troubles, but was converted into a community centre from the 1980s onwards. After further recent refurbishment it is now home to various businesses, learning facilities, artist studios and a radio station. It also houses the Irish Republican History Museum
, alternately known as the Eileen Hickey Museum
(after its founder). This holds many exhibits related to the Troubles, including a prison cell reconstruction incorporating some real prison artefacts – and even IRA weapons, so I was told (on my Black Taxi Tour
). Unfortunately I found out about it too late and didn't have the time to pay it a visit. The poster I saw advertising it, however, said "everyone welcome". So next time I'm in Belfast, it will be high on my priority list. The museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., admission free.
South of the city centre, the Ulster Museum is a general museum with a wide reach thematically, but also including a small contemporary history section with some items related to the Troubles. The Egyptian section boasts a genuine mummy (called Takabuti). Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays except for bank holidays; admission free!
Bookworms or anyone who wants to dig really deep into the history and all aspects of the Troubles should head for the famous Linen Hall Library opposite City Hall. Its Northern Ireland Political Collection is simply second to none: 250,000 items of all types covering every opinion and political angle imaginable that has ever been put out about the Troubles between 1969 and the present day. Totally unique. It's open daily except Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (only to 4 p.m. on Saturdays); free.
Finally, one spot in the city centre, namely on Great Victoria Street, shall be pointed out here even though today it doesn't look remotely like any thing dark at all: the refurbished Grand Opera House and the Europa Hotel next door. The opera was badly damaged by IRA bombs in the 1990s. At the time the hotel next to the opera was the main base for journalists. So it was joked that maybe the IRA brought the bombs close to the journos so they didn't even have to leave the bar. In realty it was more likely the hotel itself that was the actual target. Today there are no signs of anything sinister at all. The Opera rather impresses through its OTT Victorian decorative opulence, which even includes carved elephants' heads and such oriental elements.
All in all, Belfast impressed me more than I had anticipated. Not only did I find it a very pleasant and friendly place (admittedly that was before the latest cycle of violence got into full swing), but also extremely interesting. I had far too little time in the city and will have to go back one day to see those bits I had to omit, explore more and also revisit some of the really cool sites I've already seen, just to check for subsequent developments, given how much the city still is in flux.
Access and costs:
fairly easy to get to overland from within (Northern) Ireland, also by air; quite variable price-wise.
To get to Belfast from within Northern Ireland
or from the Republic of Ireland
, buses are the usual form of public transport. To/from Dublin
there are also train links, but these cost about twice as much, unless you pre-book well in advance. Both the train station and central bus station are centrally located, at East Bridge Street and Great Victoria Street, respectively.
Driving by hire car in these parts can also cost you a pretty penny. It's only recommended if you really absolutely need the flexibility and want to go independently to places otherwise not so easily reachable.
Belfast has two (!) airports. One is labelled "international", located some 20 miles (30 km) south of the city and has connections to Great Britain
, Europe and even to the USA
). The other, newer airport is George Best Belfast City Airport (so re-named after the city's notorious, flamboyantly boozing, but greatly talented footballer superstar who died in 2005). This airport is much closer to the city, only 4 miles (6 km) and also has various connections to Great Britain as well as to Paris
Getting around within Belfast is mostly doable on foot with relative ease. The centre is certainly walkable, and even to get to the Titanic Quarter
you only need to cross the river and follow the new footpaths along the other bank. To see the West Belfast murals, most people go on a tour (especially by Black Taxi
), but it is also doable on foot, if you don't mind city walking and the politically charged atmosphere that some spots exude doesn't scare you. Walking all the way to the end of Falls Road and the Milltown Cemetery will take while, though. Walking in East Belfast, where Loyalist demonstrations and activism have recently pumped up their game again, is currently not so advisable. Better get a driver for this too and follow local advice.
Accommodation in Belfast can be expensive if you go for one of the luxurious new boutique hotels, of which a couple are quite spectacular new developments; but you can also find very reasonable prices if you go for a simple chain hotel (even bang in the centre), B&B, guesthouse or hostel.
With regard to food & drink
, there's also plenty of choice these days. Furthermore Belfast sports a pub scene that can almost rival Dublin
's, and a few are veritable tourist sights in themselves (see below
). You can even book guided pub crawl walking tours.
Time required: When I visited in early December 2012 I had only two days for Belfast and that was nowhere near enough! The Titanic attractions alone can easily eat up that amount of time. So better make it four to five days, or even more, especially if you really want to explore the political aspects in detail and view the murals that are a bit off the usually trodden path.
One addition to a trip focused on the theme of the RMS Titanic tragedy could be the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum
, which is some 7 miles (11 km) outside Belfast but within the city's public transport reach at Cultra in County Down (postcode BT18 0EU). While much of the museum won't be of any particular interest to the dark tourist at all, its new "TITANICa" exhibition
certainly might be. Unlike the Titanic Belfast
Experience, this exhibition is focused on a range of artefacts salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic
that are on display (in the transport gallery). There's also another Titanic-related exhibition called "The People's Story" (in the folk museum part). The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer, slightly shorter opening hours in winter; admission: £7 (concession £4.50) for each of the two individual parts of the museum, or £8.50 for a combination ticket (concession £5).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Belfast is one of very, very few places on Earth where the prime dark tourist attractions are also in the top league of mainstream tourism at the same time. (Don't just take my word for it – check the ranking on e.g. Tripadvisor!)
But of course the city also has lots to offer beyond these. The city may not be especially pretty in many parts, but there is plenty of splendid Victorian architecture in the centre, for instance Belfast's own leaning tower, the Albert Memorial Clock Tower. It's not quite as inclined as its famous Pisa counterpart, but it is visibly tilted.
The tallest building in all of Ireland is also to be found in Belfast. It's called the Obel and is a 28-floor modern office block right by the river. As far as modern architecture goes it may be OK looking with its elegantly curved facade, but economically it's not a success. Owing to the financial crises of recent years, its office space inside remains at least two-thirds empty. One of the city tours offers a combination of going to the top of the Obel with a boat tour on the river (from Donegal Quay).
The river banks have undergone a massive refurbishment all round, though not all new architecture is visually appealing. The river itself, however, is another success story. It used to be so polluted that it stank to the heavens, now it's largely been cleared up. So much so that even salmon can migrate up its course again. As if to celebrate that fact, one of the largest public pieces of art in the city is the Big Fish by the western end of the Lagan Weir. Its tiles depict various aspects of Belfast history.
Even if you discount all the Titanic developments, Belfast also boasts other landmarks of industrial heritage, such as the old Clarendon docks north of the centre on the west bank of the river just beyond the nearby Harbour Office and Seamen's Church. The area around these landmarks, however, shows signs of city development strategies that did not exactly take aesthetic aspects into much consideration. The most drastic example is the motorway overpass that slices straight through the city like a chainsaw. Well, ugly as it may look, at least it makes road access convenient (same as, infamously, in Birmingham).
In addition, there are of course yet more museums, various churches/cathedrals, parks, a very good zoo, and so on and so forth. Shoppers can find plenty of shopping streets and shopping centres too these days – especially the new Victoria Square with its spectacular dome over the central atrium (you can go up and enjoy a fantastic view from the top). Foodies can head for St George's Market, a Victorian covered market. And Belfast's own Christmas market in December is a very cool place for foody discoveries as well (I discovered some outstanding Irish craft cheese specialities here!)