Northwest of downtown and 120m (394 ft.) above sea level stands Belfast Castle, whose 80-hectare (198-acre) estate spreads down the slopes of Cave Hill. Dating to 1870, this was the family residence of the third marquis of Donegall, and it was built in the style of Britain’s Balmoral castle. After a relatively brief life in private ownership, in 1934 it was given to the city, which used it largely for private functions for more than 50 years before opening it to the public in 1988. It’s a lovely place to visit, with sweeping views of Belfast and the lough. Its cellars contain a nifty Victorian arcade, with a bar, a bistro and a shop selling antiques and crafts. According to legend, a white cat was meant to bring the castle residents luck, so look around for carvings featuring the creature.
The foundation stone on this monumental cathedral was laid in 1899, but it would be more than a century later before it was finally completed, and even now it awaits a steeple. Crisscrossing architectural genres from Romanesque to Victorian to modern, the huge structure is more attractive inside than out, as in the nave the ceiling soars above the black-and-white marble walls and stone floors, and elaborate stained-glass windows fill it with color. Carvings representing life in Belfast top the 10 pillars in the nave. Its most impressive feature, though, is the delicate mosaic ceilings of the tympanum and the baptistery, both designed by sisters Gertrude and Mary Martin over the course of 7 years, and made of thousands of pieces of glass.
Cave Hill Country Park
This park atop a 360m (1,181-ft.) basalt cliff offers panoramic views, walking trails, and a number of interesting archaeological and historical sights. There are the Neolithic caves that gave the hill its name, and MacArt’s Fort, an ancient earthwork built against the Vikings. In this fort, in 1795, Wolfe Tone and fellow United Irishmen planned the 1798 rebellion. On a lighter note, there’s an adventure playground for the kids.
Standing as a symbol to Belfast’s Industrial Revolution preeminence, this is a glorious explosion of granite, marble and stained glass. It was built in classical Renaissance style in 1906. Its creamy white walls are Portland stone, and its soft green dome is copper. There are several statues on the grounds — a grim-faced statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of it, looking as if she wishes she were anyplace else. Bronze figures around her represent the textile and ship-building industries that powered Belfast’s success. There’s also a memorial to the victims of the Titanic disaster. Inside the building is even better than outside, with an elaborate entry hall heavy with marble but lightened by colorful stained glass, and a rotunda with a soaring painted ceiling — and it all somehow manages not to be tacky. When there’s no exhibition in the city hall, there’s a free guided tour available that will fill you in on all the tiny details.
Crown Liquor Saloon
Opposite the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street and now owned by the National Trust (the United Kingdom’s official conservation organization), the Crown is one of Belfast’s glories. Built in 1894, the bar has richly carved woodwork around cozy snugs (cubicles), leather seats, colored tile work, and an abundance of mirrors. It has been kept immaculate and is still lit by gas. Most importantly it’s a perfect place for a pint of Guinness and a plateful of oysters. When you settle in your snug, note the little gunmetal plates used by the Victorians for lighting their matches. OPEN: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 AM-midnight, Sun. 11:30-10.
Cultúrlann Macadam Óflaich
This warm and welcoming place is the center for Irish language and culture. Inside a red brick former church, it holds a tourist information desk, but the biggest attraction is the shop, which sells a good selection of books about Ireland, as well as Irish crafts and CDs of Irish music. Its pleasant cafe is a good place to stop for a cup of coffee.
Undeniably scarred by decades of conflict, the Catholic Falls Road is also a compelling place to visit, as all political hotbeds are. It is quite safe, as the residents are used to sightseers wandering through to photograph the political murals, and most people are very friendly, even welcoming. It’s an ordinary enough looking neighborhood — houses have flowers in the windows, and kids play in the streets. The big skyscraper you can see down the road is the Divis Tower — it’s all residential save for the top two floors, which were taken over by the British military in the 1970s, and are still used by them as a sort of watch tower. Just past the tower begins the long, tall imposing wall of wood, concrete and metal that has become known as the “Peace Line.” It has divided the Catholics of Falls Road from the Protestants of Shankill Road for 30 years. Its huge metal gates are open during the day, but some are still closed at night. It has become a sort of Berlin Wall of Ireland, where locals and visitors paint pictures and write messages of peace along its length. On the corner of Falls and Sevastopol Street is the surprisingly small Sinn Fein headquarters — at one end of the building is a mural dedicated to hunger striker Bobby Sands — this is arguably the most famous political mural in Belfast.
Almost as soon as you turn onto Protestant Shankill Road you pass a building that has been entirely painted with the Union Jack flag. A few blocks down the road, and off to the right, you’ll see a cluster of enormous murals, one of celebrating Oliver Cromwell, who massacred Irish Catholics in a struggle to conquer the island. Across a field from that mural is one of a man in a ski mask pointing a machine gun at the street. Locals say it’s the Irish version of Mona Lisa’s eyes, which are said to follow you around the room — no matter where you go in the area that gun is always pointing at you. Shankill is indefinably grimmer than the Falls Road — it’s more down at the heel, there are more boarded-up shops, but the people are just as friendly and you are just as welcome here. Shankill murals seem to be darker than those on the Falls, where many murals are about solidarity with the downtrodden; here they’re all about the corruption of Catholics, and a display of painted weaponry.
The Queen’s Univeristy
This is Northern Ireland’s most prestigious university, founded by Queen Victoria in 1845 to provide nondenominational higher education. The main, 19th-century Tudor Revival building may remind you of England’s Oxford, if only because its design was based on that of the Founder’s Tower at Magdalen College, but that’s hardly all there is to this university, which actually sprawls through 250 buildings, where 17,500 students are being educated at any given time. The university is a quiet, attractive place to wander, and University Square on the north side of campus is simply beautiful. At one end of the square is the Union Theological College, which dates to 1853 and which housed the Northern Ireland Parliament after the partition of Ireland.