The North’s largest city by some distance, with a population of some 270,000 in the inner city rising to 600,000 across its wider metropolitan area, Belfast has a pace and bustle you’ll find nowhere else in Northern Ireland. For many, however, the city will always be remembered as the focus of the Troublesthat dominated Northern Ireland’s politics for almost three decades from the late 1960s and scarred so many lives. Indeed, as the North continues to come to terms with the aftermath of the peace process, instigated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the city remains in some ways on a knife’s edge, always expecting some new predicament to emerge.
In appearance Belfast closely resembles Liverpool, Glasgow or any other industrial port across the water, and, similarly, its largely defunct docklands– in which, famously, the Titanic was built – are undergoing massive redevelopment. Though the city centre is still characterized by numerous elegant Victorian buildings, there’s been an enormous transformation here, too, not least in the greater prosperity of the shopping streets leading northwards from the hub of Belfast life, Donegall Square. Yet economic improvement is not reflected in every aspect of Belfast life. Some areas of the city display obvious economic decline, most notably North Belfast and the once-thriving so-called Golden Mile (now little more than a silver two hundred yards at each end). On week-nights the city centre can resemble a ghost town, though there’s no doubt that Belfast continues to thrive culturally. Theatre and the visual arts are flourishing, and there are plenty of places to catch the city’s booming traditional-music scene.
A couple of days are enough to get a feel for the city, although it is a good base from which to visit virtually anywhere else in the North. In the city centre, concentrate on the glories resulting from the Industrial Revolution – grandiose architecture and magnificent Victorian pubs – and the rejuvenated area from Ann Street to Donegall Street now known as the Cathedral quarter. To the south lies Queen’s University and the extensive collections of the Ulster Museum, set in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens. A climb up Cave Hill, a couple of miles to the north, rewards you with marvellous views of the city spread out around the curve of its natural harbour, Belfast Lough. The River Lagan flows towards Belfast Lough along the eastern side of the city centre and offers riverside walks, and is also the focus for the most radical development in the last few years, the Laganside, focused on the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Complex across the water. In East Belfast, across the river beyond the great cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, lies suburbia and very little of interest apart from Stormont, the former Northern Irish parliament and home to the modern Assembly. The city’s once-formidable security presence and fortifications are now virtually invisible, but the iron blockade known as the Peace Line still bisects the Catholic and Protestant communities of West Belfast, a grim physical reminder of the city’s and country’s sectarian divisions – and there are certain flashpoints such as the Short Strand in East Belfast and North Belfast’s Ardoyne area that it is still inadvisable to visit.
Belfast began life as a cluster of forts built to guard a ford across the River Farset, which nowadays runs underground beneath the High Street. An Anglo-Norman castle was built here in 1177, but its influence was limited, and within a hundred years or so control over the Lagan Valley had reverted firmly to the Irish, under the O’Neills of Clandeboye. In 1604, Sir Arthur Chichester, whose son was to be the First Earl of Donegall, was “planted” in the area by James I, and shortly afterwards the tiny settlement was granted a charter creating a corporate borough. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century though that Belfast began to grow significantly, when French Huguenots fleeing persecution brought skills which rapidly improved the fortunes of the local linen industry – which, in turn, attracted new workers and wealth. Through the eighteenth century the cloth trade and shipbuilding expanded tremendously, and the population increased tenfold in a hundred years. With economic prosperity, Belfast became a city noted for its liberalism: in 1791, three Presbyterian Ulstermen formed the Society of United Irishmen, a gathering embracing Catholics and Protestants on the basis of common Irish nationality, from which sprang the 1798 Rebellion.
However, the rebellion in the North was quickly and ruthlessly stamped out by the English, and within two generations most Protestants had abandoned the Nationalist cause. Presbyterian ministers began openly to attack the Catholic Church, resulting in a sectarian divide that as time drew on became wider and increasingly violent. At the same time, the nineteenth century saw vigorous commercial and industrial expansion, and by the time Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status in 1888, its population had risen to 208,000, soon exceeding that of Dublin.
With Partition came the creation of Northern Ireland with Belfast as its capital and Stormont as its seat of government. Inevitably this boosted the city’s status, but also ensured that it would ultimately become the focus for much of the Troubles. Though its fortunes now reflected the status of the British economy, Belfast mainly fared well, despite major German bombing raids during World War II. However, the economic status of the Catholic population was deliberately maintained at a low level by the Stormont government, largely consisting of Protestant landowners and businessmen, which saw no reason to challenge existing sectarian employment, housing and policing policies – all fuel to the fire which was to follow.
For 25 years from 1969, Belfast witnessed the worst of the Troubles and, by the time the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, much of the city resembled a battle site. Then followed a sea change in the city’s fortunes as Britain and the EU funded a revitalization programme costing billions of pounds. Major shopping centres were built, swish hotels, bars and restaurants seemed to spring up almost overnight, and buildings such as the Waterfront Hall and Odyssey complex have fundamentally altered the city’s skyline. Young Belfast partied like never before – and to some extent still does – while the atmosphere of the whole city centre changed irrevocably.
Nevertheless, Belfast remains a city divided and all evidence suggests that sectarian attitudes are hardening, especially among young people, some of whom, though not old enough to remember the Troubles, regard the Orange Order marching season as an opportunity to confront both their “opposing” community and the police with bricks and petrol bombs. Yet while the peace is fragile, there is still optimism for the future as seen in the ambitious centenary celebrations that commemorated the launch of the Titanic, a product of Belfast’s once thriving docklands.Read More
As much a marker of an area’s allegiances as painted kerbstones or fluttering flags and bunting, the politically inspired murals of Northern Ireland are among the most startling sights not just in Belfast, but of the whole country. This ephemeral art form, which recycles the images and slogans of the Troubles, characterizes the violent struggles of the last few decades. Though many have been in place now for a decade, some of the slogans and murals mentioned here may have vanished by the time of your visit: new murals are painted over old ones or the houses they adorn are demolished. A detailed archive of Northern Ireland’s murals is maintained by the University of Ulster at wcain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick and another large collection of photographs can be found at wwww.belfastmurals.net.
For most of the twentieth century, mural painting in Northern Ireland was a predominantly Loyalist activity. The first mural appeared in East Belfast in 1908 and, like many of its successors, celebrated King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. Loyalist murals have tended to use imagery symbolic of power, such as the clenched scarlet fist, known as the Red Hand of Ulster, or flags, shields and other heraldic icons. However, the Loyalist response to the Troubles translated into what is now the most common form of painting, the militaristic mural. If King Billy appears at all, it is often with a guard of balaclava-clad, weapon-toting paramilitaries, accompanied by a threatening slogan. Inspired by the desire for “no surrender” and preservation of the status quo, Loyalist mural-painting is certainly less dynamic and diverse than its Republican counterpart. A typical example, on Hopewell Crescent in the Lower Shankill, shows two masked gunmen crouching beside a clenched red fist which is surrounded by the Union Flag and the flags of Ulster, the UFF and UDA – part of the slogan reads “Lower Shankill UFF. Simply the best.”
Recently, Loyalist murals have sought to undermine Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process by attacking the IRA – a striking five-panelled example on the Shankill Road recalls a number of IRA bombings of Loyalist targets and carries the slogan, “30 Years of Indiscriminate Slaughter by So-Called Non-Sectarian Irish Freedom Fighters”.
The greatest concentration of Loyalist murals is to be found on and around the Shankill Road, especially the Shankill Estate, to the north, and Dover Place, off Dover Street, to the south. Other areas are Sandy Row and Donegall Pass in South Belfast, and Newtownards Road, Martin Street and Severn Street in East Belfast.
Republican murals were at first limited to simple sloganeering or demarcation of territory, the best-known example being the long-standing “You are now entering Free Derry” in that city’s Bogside district. As with much else in Republican politics, however, the 1981 hunger strikes had a significant influence. Murals in support of the ten hunger strikers abounded and the (usually smiling) face of Bobby Sands – the IRA commander in the Maze prison who led the strike – remains an enduring image. Murals soon became a fundamental part of the Republican propaganda campaign and an expression of the community’s current cultural and political concerns, though militaristic images have never really dominated Republican murals as much as they have done Loyalist ones. Prominent themes have been resistance to British rule, the call for the withdrawal of troops and questioning the validity of the police.
More recently, however, Republican muralists have turned increasingly to Irish legends and history as their sources of inspiration and the only militaristic murals tend to be found in flashpoints such as the Ardoyne. Equally, artists have paid tribute to other international liberation movements, as in a striking series of murals on Divis Street just before the beginning of the Falls Road. Further Republican murals can be found nearby on Beechmount Avenue, on Lenadoon Avenue in Andersonstown, and on New Lodge Road in North Belfast.
Belfast has numerous festivals throughout the year and a full calendar can be found at wwww.belfastcity.gov.uk/culture/festivals.asp.
Guinness Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival wwww.belfastnashville.com. The North’s love of country music is reflected by this citywide weeklong event in late February, featuring local talent and major US names.
St Patrick’s Day wwww.belfastcitygov.co.uk/events. Carnival parade on 17 March, followed by a major open-air concert in Custom House Square.
Titanic Made in Belfast Festival wwww.belfastcity.gov.co.uk/events. More than a week of events early in the month celebrating the city’s maritime culture.
Belfast Film Festival t028/9024 6609, wwww.belfastfilmfestival.org. The second half of April sees a host of left-field movies and related events with screenings in cinemas, pubs, clubs and other venues.
Festival of Fools wwww.foolsfestival.com. Five-day international street theatre festival, held over the first weekend in May, with events around the city centre.
Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival wwww.cqaf.com. Lively arts festival, featuring Irish and international acts, spread over ten days in early May.
Belfast City Carnival wwww.belfastcarnival.com. Annual themed festival in mid-June centred around a parade and live music in Donegall Square.
Orange Order Parades Orange Order Lodges throughout Belfast commemorate the Battle of the Boyne with parades on 12 July.
Féile An Phobail wwww.feilebelfast.com. Week-long music and dance festival at the beginning of August based in West Belfast.
Belfast City Blues Festival wwww.belfastcityblues.com. Three days of 12-bar honky-tonk and foot-stomping riffs at the end of August.
Open House Festival wwww.openhousefestival.com. Rock, folk and traditional music festival held at various venues around the Cathedral Quarter early in September.
Belfast Festival at Queen’s wwww.belfastfestival.com. Fortnight-long event held in late October which claims to be Britain’s second-biggest arts festival after Edinburgh.
Belfast and the Titanic
Belfast and the Titanic
Much of Belfast’s waterside heritage is associated with English engineer Edward James Harland (1831–1895) who together with his German-born assistant Gustav Wilhelm Wolff (1834–1913) founded the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company here in 1861. Starting from a small shipyard on Queen’s Island, the company grew rapidly and over the following decades had gained a reputation for innovations such as iron (rather than wooden) decks and flatter, squarer hulls designed to maximise capacity. The firm continued to flourish after Harland‘s death and Wolff’s retirement, most notably when it constructed three steamships for the White Star Line – the Olympic, the Britannic and, most famously, the Titanic. Completed in 1912, the Titanic, then the world‘s largest passenger-carrying steamship, sank on April 14 of the same year, just four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, having collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. More than 1500 of the 2200-plus passengers and crew drowned, a tragedy that continues to hold a macabre fascination today.
Belfast has a broad range of accommodation, especially at the top end of the market. However, there’s still a relative dearth of budget places. Much of the city’s accommodation is concentrated around Great Victoria Street and south of the centre in the university quarter, particularly on and around Botanic Avenue and in the network of streets running between the Malone and Lisburn roads. Many hotels and guesthouses are geared towards business travellers and so frequently offer significant reductions for weekend breaks; most hotels offer free wi-fi.
Eating out in Belfast is very much a movable feast with new places popping up and others vanishing or relocating. There are plenty of options for food during the day in the centre and at the southern end of the Golden Mile, ranging from new cafés (many of which in the city centre stay open until 8.30pm on Thurs nights) to traditional pubs (which generally only serve lunch but in some cases continue providing food until 9pm).
Most of the city’s well-established restaurants are around Donegall Square or in the university area. Bear in mind that they are often fully booked on Friday and Saturday evenings, so reserving a table’s essential unless you’re prepared to eat early. There is a fair choice of cuisine, from modern Irish and European, with French and Italian especially popular, to a smattering of Indian and East Asian restaurants. Standards are generally high and often exceptionally good value for money. The choice is limited for vegetarians but many places include veggie options on their menus.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Belfast has numerous excellent pubs concentrated in the city centre and the club and music scenes continue to thrive on Fridays and Saturdays, although Sundays can be quiet, with many bars closing early or remaining shut all day. To tap into the city’s pulse, your best bet is to wander around the Entries or up and around Donegall Street, while there’s plenty of action at each end of the Golden Mile. For the latest information on what’s going on, the monthly listings freesheet The Big List is essential, though the Belfast Telegraph also features extensive, if somewhat disorganized, listings.
As always in Ireland, the pubs are the heart of the city. The liveliest in the evenings are on Great Victoria Street, on and near Donegall Street, and around the university, and if you start drinking at the famed Crown Liquor Saloon you can manage a substantial pub crawl without moving more than a few hundred yards. Several of the finest pubs also offer regular traditional music sessions, usually free with your pint. If you’re short of time, you could always join the Historical Pub Tour, covering six of Belfast’s best-known bars. For pub reviews, check wwww.belfastbar.co.uk.
As well as the traditional music on offer in pubs, Belfast also benefits from a thriving indie and rock scene. There are always good up-and-coming bands playing in the city, just waiting to get noticed and the number of visiting international performers has increased dramatically since the opening of the Waterfront Hall and Odyssey Arena. Rock venues may charge between £5 and £20 depending on the act’s reputation. Pre-booked tickets for the biggest names will usually cost much more – between £15 and £75.
Clubs and DJ bars
Belfast’s club scene isn’t what it was ten years ago, but there are still plenty of dance dens, as well as pre-club DJ bars around. Check The Big List for who’s on when; you’ll find most venues run different clubs on different nights. Venues are scattered fairly evenly around the city centre; students – not surprisingly – tend to dominate those closest to the university area. Admission may be free early in the week (and at some places all week) and as low as £2 or £3 up to Thursday nights, while weekend prices are usually around £5 to £15. Many places stay open until 1am Monday to Thursday and till 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.
Classical music, opera and theatre
Almost all classical-music concerts take place in the Ulster or Waterfront halls, while opera fans are catered for by the Grand Opera House. Most of Belfast’s theatres are concentrated in the south of the city. Although the choice is relatively limited, there is still enough to please most tastes.
Gay and lesbian Belfast
Gay and lesbian Belfast
The main resource of Belfast’s gay scene is Queerspace, part of Cara-Friend, 9–13 Waring Street (wwww.queerspace.org.uk), a collective that aims to serve the needs and raise the profile of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community of Belfast and Northern Ireland; it holds weekly drop-in sessions on the afternoons of the first and third Saturdays of the month (3–6pm). Alternatively, there’s wwww.gaybelfast.net which provides plenty of information on entertainment and nightlife. Helplines include Cara-Friend (t028/9032 2023; Mon–Wed 7.30–10pm) and Lesbian Line (t028/9023 8668; Thurs 7.30–10pm). Belfast’s Gay Pride (wwww.belfastpride.com) week begins on the last Saturday in July.
The number of gay bars and venues has increased substantially over the last few years and the majority are geared towards men (check wwww.gaybelfast.net/scene.htm for listings) though there are occasional lesbian club nights organised by The Glory Box (wwww.gloryboxgurlz.com).
Though watching, discussing and betting on sport is as much of a pastime in Belfast as anywhere else, you’ll find very few locals expressing particularly passionate opinions about the city’s teams and players, with the notable exception of boxing. Indeed, when people watch sport here, it’s usually the televised variety, and attendances for most events are relatively small, an indifference that applies equally to the North’s national teams. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in attending a match of whatever kind, there are plenty of opportunities, and the Belfast Telegraph usually has the details.
The Northern Ireland football (soccer) team has enjoyed little success on the international stage over the last twenty years, but lit a blaze of glory in the summer of 2005 when it defeated England 1–0 in Belfast, reignited by a 3–2 victory over Spain the following year. Internationals are played at Windsor Park (the home ground of the Linfield club) near the Lisburn Road (buses #9A and #9B to Lower Windsor Avenue). The biggest club sides in Belfast – paradoxically enough – are Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers, generally supported respectively by Catholics and Protestants, as well as Liverpool and Manchester United.
Since football is the Belfast sport, success at either hurling or Gaelic football has been lacking, and County Antrim (which in this case includes Belfast for sporting purposes) has never won either All-Ireland Senior Final. You can see both sports most weekends at Roger Casement Park, on Andersonstown Road (buses #10A, #10B, #10C and #10D).
The provincial rugby-union team, Ulster, plays its games at the Ravenhill Grounds, Ravenhill Park (bus #78), and features in both the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup. Perhaps the most popularly attended matches are the ice-hockey games at the Odyssey Arena, featuring the Belfast Giants.