Not long ago, Belfast was considered a dangerous place. Most tourists avoided the city because they feared getting caught in the crossfire of the political and religious conflict that plagued Northern Ireland. Though some of the city's neighborhood remain segregated, 15 years of peace has led to a mini renaissance.
Belfast is now on the tourism radar thanks to its low prices, nightlife, hip boutique hotels, historic pubs, museums and restaurants. Some tourists come to gawk at the still-standing walls that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods and the murals that proclaim allegiances and celebrate martyrs from both sides of the conflict.
The Republican-Loyalist conflict is only one aspect of Belfast's history, albeit the one that received the most media coverage. The city is intent on bringing other parts of its narrative to the forefront.
Telling a new story
At the start of the 20th century, Belfast was a center for shipbuilding. In the days before commercial airlines, the ocean liners that were assembled here were at the heart of global travel and trade. Now, a new development seeks to bring the buzz back to the formerly bustling shipyards. This new space, along Belfast's long disused docks, is named after the most famous boat ever to be built in Belfast: the Titanic.
That's right, the ill-fated ship was born in Belfast, where it was launched to much fanfare in 1911. The city is making more people aware of its most-famous product, naming its new docklands development the Titanic Quarter. The goal of the name is probably not to remind people if the maritime tragedy, but to make them aware of the economic and industrial clout that Belfast once enjoyed.
The SS Nomadic, last of the White Star Line steamships, on display in Titanic Belfast area. The Nomadic was built in 1911 as a tender, or support boat, to the Titanic, itself a member of the White Star Line. (Photo: Nico Kaiser/flickr)
A tourism boom
Titanic Belfast is centered on a gleaming new building with wings that are meant to be shaped like a ship's hull (though some with a dark sense of humor claim they actually look like icebergs). The museum inside the six-story structure has interactive exhibits and experiential installations. These trace the story of the supposedly unsinkable ship from blueprint through christening to the tragic iceberg collision.
The Titanic provides a name and a familiar story for visitors. However, the museum is also indirectly about the boomtown that was turn-of-the-century Belfast.
Over a million people have visited the quarter since it opened in 2012. Some have criticized the new space, calling it overly touristy. However, you could also argue that the quarter is part of Belfast's effort to redefine itself. Those million visitors may depart thinking of the city as a historic place linked to one of the world's most well-known stories, instead of defining it with acronyms like IRA and UDA.
At the same time, Northern Ireland is not whitewashing the violent era that locals refer to as "the Troubles." Outside of the Titanic Quarter, one of the most popular new tourist attractions is the recently renovated Crumlin Road Gaol, which saw many IRA prisoners over its lifespan. Some taxi companies offer guided drives that are known among the locals as "bombs and bullets" tours. These trips usually pass sites of riots and street battles around the city as well as stopping by murals painted in memory of fallen paramilitary fighters from both sides.
A history of good nightlife
Tourists who explore the city further will find that today's Belfast is not really defined by either the Titanic or the Troubles. It's a charming mix of old and new. For example, White's Tavern dates back to 1630, though major renovations in the 1790s have led other bars — such as McHugh's (at right) and the Rotterdam — to claim that they are, in fact, the oldest in Belfast. Controversy remains about who holds the title, but for tourists, the main point is that all these spots have great atmosphere and many host live music or have DJ spinning until the wee hours.
Younger bars and clubs (in terms of both opening date and average age of the clientele) draw revelers from all over the city. In fact, Belfast's club nights are a tourist attraction for youthful travelers.
Others come to eat. Belfast has plenty of restaurants serving hearty, meat-centered Irish dishes. Newer spots will impress foodies and gourmands with their Michelin-starred dishes. And hungry tourists can find plenty of Italian, Vietnamese, Indian and even Mexican restaurants around the city.
The sculpture Spirit of Belfast in Arthur Square. (Photo: William Murphy/flickr)
The Belfast buzz
The mixture of good-time attitude, historic charm and cosmopolitan flair is what will impress most people who visit Belfast. The city is still considered "undiscovered" when compared to the region's other major metropolises, Glasgow, Dublin, and London. This off-the-beaten path feel adds to the Belfast buzz.
As with the rest of Europe, including neighboring Ireland, recent economic woes have created a bit of a speed bump for Northern Ireland. This hasn't been terrible for tourism, since many people consider the Northern Irish metropolis much cheaper and less touristy than its neighbor to the south, Dublin.
Belfast remains on track to grow, celebrating its past glory and trying to forget its more recent Troubles. More visitors, no matter their motivation for coming, will certainly help support a second renaissance for this historic city.
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McHugh's photo: Wikimedia Commons