The futuristic DeLorean aka the Back to the Future Car, was built in Belfast in the early 1980’s before the company collapsed. “Time circuits on… Flux Capacitor… fluxing… flllluxxxxiiinnngggg…. Engine running… All right!!!”
“You what!! Are you out of your mind?! Jesus Christ you could have been killed!!!” – The reaction of my well travelled friend (he’s gotten as far as Galway) when I told him we walked down the Shankill Road in Belfast in 2013.
For those out of the loop, “the Shankill” is the traditional Loyalist Protestant heartland of Belfast – meaning those who are loyal to the British crown. As a southern Catholic Irishman, it would have been inconceivable for me to walk through the Shankill 20, heck even 15 years ago.
And to be honest, I was bloody terrified. Walking along we heard a van slow down behind us, and literally crawled along and followed us….I didn’t dare look behind and we quickly took the next left turn back towards to the infamous Peaceline. Another few metres and we wouldn’t be kidnapped and tortured!! Hurrah! Thankfully, I made it into the “Green Zone” aka the nationalist Falls Road. Now….for all I know, the van could have been a gang of Loyalist paramilitaries, or a post man…..or a milk man. But alas for me, the fear factor remained!
Despite my instilled fear of the Shankill, Belfast today has come on leaps and bounds since the dark days of the Troubles. The city is fast becoming one of the most popular weekend breaks in the UK and Ireland, with new direct flights from across Europe and further afield. The filming of Game of Thrones and other popular TV productions has provided another unexpected boost to tourism numbers.
The compact city centre, dominated by the grand City Hall, is easily explored by foot. Find your bearings by taking in the sweeping panoramic views at the iconic Dome in the newly built Victorian Square shopping centre. Expert guides will point out historic Belfast symbols such as the Harland & Wolff shipyards, Divis Hill and the Albert Clock. Best of all, the guides provide all of this for free! And don’t forget to take a #domeselfie and post it to the Dome Instagram page, with a chance to win spot prizes….. Get poutingkids!!
The redeveloped Titanic Quarter is home to the Titanic Museum, a striking building that has the appearance of a great ship steaming through the old dockyards of Belfast. 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the launch (and sinking) of the Titanic, and Belfast is surely the only city in the world that pays homage to a vessel that sank with the loss of 1,500 lives.
Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating museum, echoing the golden days of passenger cruise liners going back and froth across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. Game of Thrones, the hit TV series, is filmed close by in a massive TV studio, so keep your eye out for Jon Snow and HODOOOORRRRR!
A Black Taxi tour is the best way to learn about The Troubles – the civil strife that affected Northern Ireland between the late 1960’s – 1990’s. There are still pockets of disorder today, but nothing compared to back then and the majority of the population shun violence.
The Black Taxi tours take you to both the Nationalist (Irish) and the Loyalist (British) communities and the taxi drivers will provide an excellent insight into Belfast and how it affected them, their family and the wider communities. The drive will include a visit to the enormous Peaceline that separates the Loyalist and Nationalist communities of West Belfast, and you’ll also come across many of the hundreds of political murals that dot the city. Previously, the murals reflected the might of paramilitary forces such as the IRA or UVF, but today many focus on community heritage, sports and a bright future.
You’ll realise walking and driving through these communities that they are very similar, same accents, same shops, football everywhere….and you wonder, why were 3,000 lives taken during this dark period of Irish history???
15 years ago, downtown Belfast was a ghost town. A security cordon manned by police and army officers meant nightlife was almost non exist, and many previously popular bars were shut down due to bomb damage and lack of business. Thankfully, the city has rebounded and offers some of the best dining experiences and nightlife on the island of Ireland today.
Kurrito, on Botanic Avenue, can already lay claim to perhaps the finest burrito joint on the island of Ireland….but with a difference. It’s a fusion of Mexican and Indian foods. What, you mean curry in a burrito? Yes Sir, and it works, man oh man it comes out good! Keep an eye on Friday’s for their weekly specials.
Close by, the Empire Music Hall hosts live gigs and comedy nights. In fact, you can have you whole evening sorted out in the Empire. They do great food deals, including £3 pizzas. So pop in, grab some food and drink and then rock out for the rest of evening with some of Belfast’s best up and coming bands.
The Crown Saloon is the most famous Belfast pub, and cannot be skipped on a visit. This extremely decorative Victorian bar is full of character. Despite being opposite the most bombed hotel in Europe (the Europa Hotel has been subjected to 28 bomb attacks), it managed to survive and today the thriving bar is owned by the National Trust who have fully refurbished it’s period décor.
So that’s Belfast, go on….. get on over for a visit. Really and truly a great city, with a fascinating recent history and a resilient population who remain extremely friendly. After Belfast, why not pop on down south across the border to Dublin?
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