Titanic Belfast Experience
A shiny new landmark of Northern Ireland
's capital Belfast
, an immersive museum of sorts dedicated to the famous Titanic
, which was built here, at the Harland & Wolff shipyards, literally just steps away from the museum's location. Housed in a purpose-built edifice of striking architecture, the hyper-modern multimedia-loaded "experience" exhibition inside is the most extravagant jewel in the whole new Titanic Quarter
development. In early 2023 parts of the exhibition were given a major overhaul.
The "Titanic Belfast Experience" is the crowning highpoint in the extensive regeneration scheme that is reclaiming previously derelict post-industrial wastelands of the Queen's Island part of Belfast harbour – once the largest docklands in Ireland.
The TitanicBelfast's creation is the expression of a remarkable change in attitude. For most of the ten decades since the Titanic's sinking, it seemed like nobody in Belfast even wanted to talk about it. The reasoning was probably: why celebrate something that was such an embarrassing failure?
With the increasing fanfare about the Titanic following James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster movie, this slowly began to change. And with the approaching centenary of the tragedy Belfast
city planners got round to the idea of giving the city a top attraction to ride on the wave of this Titanic hype. Planning started in 2005.
At last it was also realized that the Titanic legacy was actually something to be proud of, not ashamed. After all, even though the ship so tragically went down, she had still been a remarkable feat of engineering – just as her sister ships Olympic and Britannic, which are also commemorated and celebrated by the "Titanic Belfast".
The planners of Titanic Belfast certainly did their homework well, and so the exhibition could be opened just in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking, actually two weeks before: on 31 March 2012. Spot on. It coincided with a vast array of special events put on for the occasion, so Belfast was not left out of the game but became a key participant.
The Titanic Belfast attraction cost over £100 million to build, but soon visitor numbers exceeded all expectations. Envisaged were 400,000 annually, but that figure was already reached after half a year and after nine months the count stood at 650,000. This also explains the strict ticketing regime (see below
). Anyway, this success makes Titanic Belfast actually the most popular tourist attraction in Belfast
and even in the whole of Northern Ireland
, on a par with the Giant's Causeway.
After a good ten years into its operation, it was decided that the exhibition could do with some modernization and upgrades. In fact as I was planning my return visit to Belfast for around Easter 2023, I looked at the museum’s website and to my dismay found the note “temporarily closed for refurbishment”. Fortunately, though, it also said that it would reopen just in time for my stay in Belfast. And so on Easter Monday 2023 I visited the place again. The most significant changes I found are covered below. These in fact only concern the final part of the exhibition.
What there is to see:
First things first: if you're expecting something like those Titanic artefact exhibitions displaying loads of objects salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic
, then you will be disappointed. That is not what this exhibition is or tries to be at all. The tragedy of the ship's sinking is of course covered too, and since the recent overhaul there have been more artefacts added, but that's not the main focus here. Instead it covers every aspect of the ship's design and construction and puts it into a wider historical context. And that it does extremely well.
The most stunning aspect of the Titanic Belfast attraction is the building itself. It's a spectacular piece of modern architecture – designed to allude to its topic, namely in that the huge "wedges" that fan out from its central core look a bit like and are of the same height as the Titanic and its sister ships' bows as they were assembled on their slipways next door (see Titanic Quarter
The interior is also a stunning piece of design. The centre is a huge atrium, with one side made from mock riveted steel plates, like the Titanic's hull. The exhibition as such begins upstairs. It's divided into nine topically distinct "galleries".
The first theme is not yet related to Titanic at all, but sets the scene by giving an account of the history of Boomtown Belfast at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time the city was one of the fastest growing ones in the British Isles and nearly overtook Dublin
in size. This was thanks to the industries of Belfast
, which made it a veritable economic powerhouse. The linen industry was one of the backbones of this economy, but there were also major producers of things like carbonated soft drinks, cigarettes and whiskey (Belfast was once the largest producer of the stuff). The other key industry was of course the harbour and in particular its shipyards. The exhibition design is a mix of texts and images, as well as plenty of projections and CGI (computer-generated imagery). But it gets much, much better.
The shipyard proper is the next theme in Gallery 2. It gets more interactive here – and I suppose kids would have fun playing the match-the-rivets game through an interactive walk-in projection. Hi-tech meets kids' game. There's also lots of more serious technical background info about the engineering side, a model of Thompson Graving Dock (see Titanic Quarter)
, an operational model of the gantry (you can navigate one of its cranes by pushing buttons) and so on. The Titanic's design is already picked up here too – as well as Harland & Wolff's other achievements
But the first true highpoint (literally even) of the Shipyard Gallery is the replica of one of the pillars of the gantry that Titanic and Olympic were constructed under. First you stare up at it, then you take a lift up to see it from above too – it can make you giddy looking down, and that's despite the fact that it's actually scaled down in size by a third or so, according to one of the TitanicBelfast's staff (there are people stationed at various points in the exhibition ready to help and answer questions).
From up here – another highlight! – the funfair part of the experience departs: the Shipyard Ride. You board one of several "cars" that then glide through full-scale ensembles of various parts of shipyard workshops, past a ship's rudder, smithy furnaces and so on, all enhanced by audiovisuals, before depositing visitors back at the more conventional exhibition, which continues with Gallery 3.
The topic of this third section is the launching of Titanic and Olympic, which were huge events watched by countless onlookers and attended by celebrities of the time. The biggest item hereused to be a section of a steel chain filling a triangular floor with projections of film footage of the launch superimposed onto the big windows looking out over the actual former slipways outside. For some reason this was removed in the course of the overhaul in early 2023.
Gallery 4 is about the fitting out of the ships. This ranges from the more technical sides of engines, propellers, funnels, etc. to the interior design of the cabins and public spaces onboard. There are replicas of first-, second- and third-class cabins, a few original artefacts, such as White Star Line crockery, as well as yet more interactive stations. Some interaction is computer-based, but there are also real hands-on bits. Literally. You can touch and feel various items of Titanic's interior design such as wood panelling, fabrics, ropes, tiles.
The highlight for me was the walk-in projection of a CGI-ed ride through all levels of the ship: the moving images on all sides take you from the engines up through the decks and to the bridge as if you were a ghost capable of walking through walls. I found it totally captivating and stayed for the entire duration of the film … twice!
Then it's off on the maiden voyage of Titanic in Gallery 5, which illustrates what life on board was like … but you already know what's coming next: for most people life on board was about to come to an end.
So Gallery 6 is about the sinking
of the Titanic
. I don't have to elaborate on this. The story is well known enough. Its illustration here at the exhibition features a rather crude drawing of the ship slowly tilting in a style that is almost antagonistic after all the hi-tech projections and CGI elements. But recorded interviews with survivors liven things up. More stories of victims and survivors come next, also how the news of the tragedy broke around the world. Recounted too are the rescue efforts, both the successful ones saving survivors, but also the search for those who did not survive. Only a few bodies of the dead were found and retrieved from the sea. They were buried in Halifax
– only 209 out of over 1500!
Gallery 7 is about the aftermath. This is the first part that shows a clear difference to the exhibition before the recent overhaul One piece I remember well from my 2012 visit is no longer on display, as I discovered on my return visit. That was the original scale chart used in the enquiry into the ship's sinking. the chart was several metres long showing the coloured markings indicating the presumed leaks of the gash ripped into the hull by the iceberg collision. Nor is the Titanic lifeboat (a life-size reconstruction maybe?) still there that I had seen in 2012. Instead there’s an illuminated “Never Again” on one of the walls, a series of text-and-photo panels in different angles of tilting (a bit like a row of Domino stones), and even more interactive touchscreen stations than before.
Out of the interactive stations the one I found most addictive was the "Myths and Legends" one. Here you can go through a list of questions and have to decide which of the given myths were true or false. I scored a decent quota of three quarters of the correct answers, but still got some questions wrong to my surprise. It reflects how strong some myths about Titanic are. For instance: I learned that it hadn't actually been claimed by the designers and the White Star Line that Titanic was "unsinkable", as many people seem to believe (including, previously myself). Some myths stem from the fictionalized accounts in the films, of course. For instance the claim that Titanic was trying to break a transatlantic speed record. It couldn't have, because it was designed for luxury not speed – the competitors of the Cunard Line at the time had several knots higher service speed capabilities.
The next section
is about deep-sea exploration
in general and, of course, the search for the wreck of the "Titanic"
in particular, pioneered by explorer Robert Ballard. His and subsequent dives down to the wreck (including film maker James Cameron’s) are well documented and displays include an ROV, or ‘remote-operated vehicle’ – a kind of deep-sea robot.
The biggest change between the old exhibition and the revamped new one is the very final part. Gone is the cinema-room-like hall where footage from the wreck of the Titanic was played on large screens. Instead such footage has been relegated to smaller screens and the hall is now filled with a spiral staircase winding its way down while in the centre a large stylized model of the Titanic is slowly rotating, illuminated by different lights from the inside. The whole hall is also soaked in deep coloured lights of changing hues. And all over the outer walls are large curved screens on which scenes from the design and building of the “Titanic” are played, followed by images from its voyage, its sinking and finally the rediscovery of the wreck. Set into the floor in the centre are a couple of such images taken at the wreck, but it’s less dramatic than the previous footage shown on the cinema screen, I found.
At the bottom at ground-floor level, a series of new display cases has been added and these now include quite a few rather spectacular items of the sort that the exhibition had previously been a bit wanting. For example, there’s an original deckchair from the Titanic, salvaged from the waters around the site of the sinking. Several other original items are on display. But the most eye-brow-raising one has to be the violin from the “band that played on”.
Right before you come to the exit is a final new addition
– and that one I found a bit cheesy. In front of crude 2D-image of the ship seen from the front is a rather simplistic 3D recreation of the railing at the bow of the “Titanic”
, and the allusion is to the well-known 1997 movie scene with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Now visitors are encouraged to “recreate” that scene – with arms stretched out sideways while taking selfies or having their picture taking by others. I abstained from partaking in that apparently almost obligatory activity and instead waited an eternity before I was able to get a shot of the exhibit without any people in it (see the gallery
below), before making my exit from the exhibition.
Back in the atrium, a few extra artefacts were on display when I was there in 2012, but these were no longer to be seen when I revisited the museum in 2023. They were props and costumes from the 1997 Cameron movie "Titanic", including the dress that actress Kate Winslet wore in the latter part of the film, i.e. the sinking scenes.
Before you leave Titanic Belfast you could also have a look at the enormous shop. Much of what's on sale is a bit on the tacky side, but there are also some interesting books. The most space is taken up by what is apparently an exclusive clothing range, which goes beyond the usual T-shirts and baseball caps.
On balance: I admit that I had been a bit sceptical before I went to this museum the first time in 2012, but had to concede that it did convince me after all. OK, some of the multimedia is a bit heavy-handed, and there are details that were not so good, but that is grossly outweighed by the truly impressive bits, including some of the CGI (it almost pains me to admit that – as in movies I am not a fan of CGI at all). This is what a modern museum design can do when done properly. Hats off.
When I went on my return visit in April 2023 I was intrigued about what would have been changed in the recent overhaul of the exhibition. I was pleased to find that all the really good bits I remembered from my first visit were still there. Back in 2012 I speculated that some visitors might miss a stronger focus on the ship's sinking – and in particular would wish for richer displays of salvaged artefacts from the wreck. This has been changed by the recent upgrade; some spectacular salvaged artefacts are on display now. Whether the change from the previous cinema room playing wreck footage to the current multi-screen show covering the entire “life span” of Titanic is an improvement I dare not decide. What I found a bit off-putting was that crude bow mock-up specifically added to invite incessant selfie-taking. But all in all, as far as state-of-the-art comprehensive coverage of everything Titanic is concerned, this museum is hard to top (see below).
in the middle of the redevelopment area of Queen's Island in the harbour of Belfast
on the eastern bank of the Lagan or rather its mouth where it opens into Belfast Lough. It's ca. one mile (1.7 km – as the crow flies) from Donegall Square in the city centre; ca. a 20 minute walk.
Access and costs: a bit out of the city centre, but still a walkable distance; predictably expensive, but worth it.
Details: To get to the TitanicBelfast attraction you either have to walk all the way, which is doable and actually a pleasant stroll, or get a taxi. There is a Titanic Quarter train station, but it's still quite a walk from there to Titanic Belfast, so it's hardly worth bothering with that option. Buses are another alternative.
the walk-up price for a ticket is £24.45 (various concessions apply for students, seniors, etc.). However, the site's management strongly encourages prospective visitors to pre-book tickets in advance through their online sales engine
(external link, opens in a new tab) in order to guarantee admission. Apparently it can get so busy at times that non-pre-booked visitors have to be turned away! When I went the first time in 2012 it would not have been necessary, and it didn't feel too crowded at all inside the exhibition, but then again that was in early December, i.e. at an off-season time of year. For my return visit, at Easter 2023, I did make sure I had my slot pre-booked and still it was so full inside the exhibition that there were delays, especially waiting to be admitted on to the shipyard ride (see above
). There were long queues at the entrance too so I can well imagine that not everybody without pre-purchased tickets was able to get in.
Audio guide rental costs an extra £4 and can be pre-booked with the ticket online. I didn't use one so I can't say anything about their quality. Languages available include English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and Polish.
Note that when booking ahead online you have to specify an entry time; slots are every 20 minutes up until 1h 40 mins before closing, and you have to be at the entrance no later than 15 minutes before the specified entry time, or else admission cannot be guaranteed. It's quite a tough regime! Group visits are also restricted and have to be booked no less than 7 days in advance.
daily from 9 a.m. 7 p.m. in summer, only 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between October and March.
Time required: The Titanic Belfast website says that the "average visit length" is just an hour and a half. That must mean that loads of people race through the exhibition without giving it due attention or skip the majority of sections altogether. I can allege that because I even found it hard to make do with the *three hours* I had until closing time when I visited in December 2012. In the end I had to rush through the final two or three galleries at greater speed than I would have wished. So if you really want to make your visit a fully exhaustive one, give it half a day! For my return visit in 2023 I did just that and found that I needed a good four hours in the exhibition itself plus extra time in the shop and the surroundings.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
A more recent branch of the Titanic Belfast (and included in the admission ticket) is the refurbished SS “Nomadic”
, now permanently placed in a dry dock just to the south. This was a tender that shuttled passengers from the Port of Cherbourg to White Star Line ships, including the “Titanic” just before her maiden voyage.
Right outside the museum are the actual slipways where the “Titanic
” and her sister ship Olympic were laid on keel and from where they were launched in 1910/11. And right opposite the museum to the east is the former Harland & Wolff shipyard HQ building, which has been transformed into an upscale Titanic-themed hotel. This incorporates the former drawing offices of Harland & Wolff where “Titanic” was designed. One of the drawing offices now serves as the hotel’s main bar
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see under Belfast
The Titanic Belfast attraction sits in the centre of the Titanic Quarter
, which apart from its commodification of the famous ship is also a larger regeneration scheme of a major section of formerly derelict harbour area around it.
This regeneration plan has already yielded the "Odyssey", a huge sports and entertainment complex, which includes the W5 a "science and discovery centre" with lots of interactive stuff that's probably more for a younger clientele (even though they claim it's "for all ages"). Around it there's also already a marina for yachts and pleasure boats, bars, restaurants, shops and: luxury apartment blocks (some are actually available for short-term holiday rental). Architecturally these new buildings can't compete with the slick design of Titanic Belfast, but there have been worse redevelopment schemes (cf. also Hamburg
). The project still has lots more in store and eventually the whole of Queen's Island will be transformed into a whole new city of its own. We'll see what it will all feel and look like when it's finished, but for the time being, building sites and still empty expanses where construction yet has to commence will be the key landscape feature of the area.