With its compact size, picturesque location between mountain and coast and fascinating history, Belfast in Northern Ireland is a defiant city that has emerged from decades of strife into a vibrant, buzzing destination. At the center of Belfast is the triumphant Victorian City Hall, both the focal point of the city and its best orientation point. Around the City Hall is Donegall Square, the heart of the city, and one of the few green spaces in the center of Belfast.
In front of the City Hall lies the main shopping district. This part of the city center is very compact and can easily be explored on foot. Donegall Place and Royal Avenue run down from the City Hall, and the shopping area stretches out to Victoria Street in the east, King Street in the west and up to North Street in the north. The glass-roofed Castlecourt shopping center on Royal Avenue, complete with fountains and cafes, is the largest covered shopping area in the city, and there are a number of other smaller arcades in the surrounding side streets.
The little alleyways that run between Ann Street and High Street are known as the Entries. Tucked away here you’ll find many old saloons, such as White’s Tavern, which claims to be the oldest pub in Belfast. The Entries adjoin the Cathedral Quarter around St. Anne’s Cathedral. This district of the city has seen considerable refurbishment in recent years and is now home to many new apartments, cafes and bars. The Cathedral Quarter was designed as Belfast’s equivalent to Temple Bar in Dublin, and the development of this arts and entertainment center in Belfast is one of the most exciting phenomena the city has seen in recent years.
To the south of the City Hall is Great Victoria Street, which runs up to the university area and is often referred to as the Golden Mile. This district is home to the city’s greatest concentration of restaurants, bars and cafes. Along the Golden Mile you’ll find the Grand Opera House and the Crown Liquor Saloon, which is owned by the National Trust. Both sumptuously Victorian, they offer significantly different forms of entertainment. Many restaurants and cafes line Great Victoria Street, together with the Europa Hotel, which had for many years the unenvied reputation of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. However, it is now shaking off that dubious distinction and has currently expanded into Northern Ireland’s largest hotel, a symbol of renewed confidence in the city itself.
The Golden Mile leads to the neighborhood of Queen’s University, characterized by its plethora of pubs, clubs and places to stay. Next door are the Botanic Gardens, which provide a tranquil, peaceful spot for a picnic; the Palm House in the gardens is a relative of the great glasshouses at Kew and the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. The Botanic Gardens are also home to the impressive Ulster Museum (complete with dinosaur exhibits), which is certainly a fine place to while away an afternoon. The Stranmillis Village area is about ten minutes walk away: full of small shops, restaurants and cafes, it is a most pleasant spot for lunch and an excellent refuge from the city within the city.
To the east of the City Hall is the mouth of the Lagan river. This area has seen lavish investment in recent years, and along the waterfront there are many places to enjoy the river. The Waterfront Hall is Belfast’s new pride and joy. Further along, the Lagan Lookout affords excellent views of the two great cranes – David and Goliath – of the Harland & Wolff shipyards. This is where you can get a feel for the industries upon which modern Belfast was founded.
West Belfast is where the sectarian divisions of the city are most starkly displayed. The Protestant neighborhoods are clearly demarcated from the Catholic areas; the main route through the Protestant area is the Shankill Road and the Catholic equivalent is the Falls Road. With moves towards peace, West Belfast is by no means an unsafe area, but tact and awareness should be at the forefront of any exploration. Visitors should also remember, however, that there are probably rougher areas in their own cities and that West Belfast, despite sectarianism, is just another inner-city area attempting to rejuvenate itself. Petty crime has been almost unknown in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland through the long years of the “Troubles” – a statistic that says more about the culture of the Province than any newspaper headline.
The Cave Hill dominates the northern backdrop of the city, looking down on it as P.J. O’Rourke described it, “like some kind of Caledonian Sugar Loaf Mountain”. Look out for the feature known as Napoleon’s Nose, resembling as it does a man lying down with his nose pointing upwards. It is believed that Jonathan Swift was inspired by this sight in his description of Gulliver lying on his back when he first arrives in Lilliput. Belfast Castle nestles on the slopes of the hill, with excellent views over Belfast, the surrounding countryside, the Irish Sea and (on a clear day) Scotland.