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Ireland for Visitors

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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Visiting Belfast

queen's university, belfast

Queen's University - photo Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau

by Suzanne Barrett

Belfast, a city of 300,000, is the capital of Northern Ireland and one of the great little cities of Europe. With an investment in peace well underway, this up-and-coming city takes its place on stage to offer tourists one of the warmest welcomes in Ireland. Here, the visitor can find new hotels, world-class entertainment venues, superb sightseeing and shopping, wonderful food, and a year-round program of events. Come join me in a virtual tour of this upbeat, regenerated gem of the North. Start here with a Street Map of the city.

A Brief History

John deCourcy, an Anglo-Norman, took Ulster from the Gaels in 1177 when Belfast was little more than a crossing point on the River Lagan. He built a strategic castle there, remembered now only by a city crossroad. In Elizabethan times, the Queen's favorite, Lord Essex, built a fort at Fortwilliam where he grossly mistreated the Irish. He failed to build a corporate city; that lot fell to Arthur Chichester, another man who ill-regarded the native Irish. Chichester built "a towne of good forme," which became his by its charter of incorporation, in 1613. However, another Chichester, Lord Belfast--another man of flawed character and nicknamed Gambling George--who made possible the modern city. George Augustus Chichester had huge extravagances and spent time in a debtors' prison before succeeding to the title of 2nd Marquis of Donegall and possession of the city, in 1799.

It was, however, architect Sir Charles Lanyon, whom speculators turned to and who is responsible for the shaping of the city. Lanyon-designed buildings, bridges, and viaducts abound. It is possible to build a walking tour around Lanyon-designed buildings.

Getting There

Getting to Belfast is easy. Belfast City Airport is just two miles from the city center with a rail link to Great Victoria Street Station. Belfast International Airport (Aldergrove) is a 40 minute drive via the M2 Motorway with regular Airbus service into the City Center. Dublin Airport is a two hour drive on the N1 with service to Belfast by express coach.

Sea and Rail
There is sea crossing access from both Scotland and England; regular ferry and high-speed catamaran travel the routes in as little as ninety minutes. Northern Ireland Railways and Iarnrod Eireann Express Service provide eight rail departures from Dublin's Connolly Station every day except Sunday in just under two hours.

Getting Around

Belfast, like Dublin, is a walkable city, and many sights are best viewed on foot. Allow about an hour to traverse the heart of the city, but plan to take time to see the magnificent Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian architecture. Many areas are pedestrian-only. For those wanting to see more, there are taxis, chauffeured vehicles and bike rentals. Citybus offers a full program of tours departing from Castle Place throughout the summer. Most tours are £10 or less and include a souvenir booklet. TourUlster offers guided tours for £8 that cover the old and new in the city, Cathedral to University, Shipyard to Stormont, Republican and Loyalist landmarks and murals, and the best views. If you've more time, check out the Giant's Causeway and Antrim Coast Tour for £15. Click here for a list of tour guides.


Belfast is imbued with a unique traditional charm and spirit of history that touches visitors and locals alike. Many of its attractions reflect this. Note: not all attractions are fully accessible for handicapped travelers. A phone call to determine accessibility and possible changing opening times is advised.

Belfast Castle
Just off Antrim Road and located 3 miles north of the city center, Belfast Castle sits on the slopes of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast Lough. Here visitors can sample excellent food, savor unsurpassed views and lovely gardens, or just soak up historic atmosphere. The Heritage Centre is a "don't miss" attraction. To get there take Citybus 45-51. Open daily. Admission is free. (Tel. 028 9027 6925)

Belfast City Hall
Donegall Square is the location for this Edwardian (1906) edifice of Portland stone , considered one of the finest Renaissance buildings in Europe. Home of the City Council, the interior boasts fantastic marble dome, grand staircase, and main entrance. A mural of Belfast's industrial heritage by local artist John Luke and the original Charter of Belfast (1613) are among its many attractions. The statue-filled grounds are a haven for the city's sun-bathers in summertime. Guided tours Mon.-Sat. Admission is free. (Tel. 028 9027 0465)

Belfast Zoo
The city's zoo occupies a 50-acre site on the lower slope of Cave Hill. Here over 100 species of rare and endangered animals are housed in modern enclosures which replicate their natural habitat. Restaurant, snacks, and a shop on premises. To get there take Citybus 9, 45-51. Open daily; admission charged. (Tel. 028 9077 6277)

Dundonald Old Mill
Located at 231 Belfast Road, Quarry Corner, Dundonald, Ireland's biggest waterwheel (35 feet) attracts visitors to this restored 300-year-old sandstone mill. The mill houses a restaurant, gift shop, exotic plants centre, and a Taste of Ulster coffee shop where you can find Ireland's famous Banoffee pie. To get there take Ulsterbus 5, 7, 10. Open daily, admission free. (Tel. 028 9048 0117)

Grand Opera House
Located on Great Victoria Street, this late Victorian building (renovated 1980) is Northern Ireland's premier theatre for musicals, opera, ballet, concerts and pantomime. Performances Mon.-Sat. Admission by ticket. To get there take Centrelink bus. Ticket shop tel. 028 9024 1919.

Lagan Lookout
The Lagan lookout visitor centre offers several information exhibits about the regeneration of the Laganside area, among them the working Lagan Weir. Check out the detailing on the 30 foot ceramic salmon in the piazza. Located at Donegall Quay via Centrelink bus. (Tel. 028 9031 5444)

Linen Hall Library
One of the oldest surviving subscription libraries in the United Kingdom specializing in Irish politics and culture. Admission for library tours is free, however, membership is required for checking out materials. 17 Donegall Square North. (Tel. 028 9032 1707)

The Odyssey
Ireland's biggest visitor attraction and ultimate entertainment venue. Includes a 10,000-seat multifunctional indoor arena for concerts, shows, sporting events; IMAX cinema; 14-screen multiplex cinema; and W5 Science Centre plus pavilion, restaurants, bars, and shops. Located at 2 Queen's Quay via Centrelink bus. (Tel. 028 9045 1055)

Ulster Museum
Plan to spend a full day at the Ulster Museum with its wonderful art gallery. Rich displays of archaeology, ethnography, art, history, and natural sciences. Check out the Early Ireland Gallery while you're there. A good museum for children. Stranmillis Road location; take Citybus 69. Admission free. (Tel. 028 9038 3000)

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum
Located 7 mi. east of Belfast near Holywood, the museum illustrates the way of life past and present of the people of Northern Ireland. A 1910 town, Titanic exhibition, "flight experience", country landscapes, and a folk village are there to enhance the visitor experience. Allow a full day and have lunch in the old railway station buffet. Admission charged. (Tel. 028 9042 8428)

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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St. Anne's - photo by Terry McKnight

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