Great pubs, beautiful architecture and warm, friendly people. These are the things that normally come to mind when you mention Belfast. Not many would know however that it was actually in Belfast that the HMS Titanic, one of the greatest and most controversial ships that ever sailed the seas, was built and launched. Though the Titanic has sunk down in history, the city of Belfast certainly hasn’t! Keep in mind that the ill-fated liner is not all that Belfast is most famous for! Surrounded by hills, sea lough and the river valley,
you cannot help but be mesmerized by its breathtaking landscapes of mountains, rivers and streams, which have been the source of inspiration for poets, painters and writers for centuries.
In fact, it was here that C.S. Lewis, author of the best-selling book, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe”, was believed to have drawn inspiration from, as he spent most of his childhood days amidst the ringed hills of County Down and the rugged Antrim Coast of Belfast.
It was the city’s captivating and picturesque landscapes that sparked his imagination and led to the creation of a mystical land called Narnia, inhabited by mythical creatures and talking animals.
Belfast today has a population of more than 200, 000 people (almost a third of Northern Ireland’s population), making it the second largest city in Ireland after Dublin. This thriving metropolis boasts a rich cultural, architectural, and historical heritage, not forgetting the warm hospitality of the friendly and accommodating inhabitants. Hailed as one of Europe’s best kept secrets, Belfast is the perfect getaway for a well deserved city break. Filled with the charm of an old town with its quaint restaurants and pubs, the atmosphere gives a feeling of warmth and calm, leaving you feeling very much at home with the natives and culture.
The best way to get around Belfast City is on foot, as you can then experience every facet of its culture and surroundings. Just take one of the many organized walking tours around the city, and you’ll be amazed at the fine display of Edwardian, Victorian and Gregorian architecture. Perfect examples of the city’s great architecture are buildings such as the Belfast City Hall, St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast Castle and Stormont Parliament. Rich in artistic culture, there is an abundance of theatres, museums and art galleries around the city, such as Grand Opera House, Belfast Murals, the Lyric Theatre and many more. Little wonder then that this city seems to have produced some of the world’s most famous playwrights, actors, poets, painters and musicians!
When day turns to night, the city is quickly transformed into a gleaming night scene with pubs, cafes, and clubs packed with people ready and eager to have a good time! It doesn’t matter whether your thing is just sipping cocktails by the bar or hitting the dance floors with some serious dance moves, Belfast has dozens of popular pubs and clubs to choose from. In fact, so vast are the choices, you probably need more than a week to make the most of your visit!
Belfast Lough: More than meets the eye!
Most people visiting Belfast will overlook the towns and villages around the Belfast Lough, and in so doing miss out an important part of the country’s history. Belfast City and its surrounding area was once the engine of the Industrial Revolution in early-nineteenth century Ulster, where linen-making, rope-making and shipbuilding were among the major industries rapidly transforming an quiet agricultural nation into an industrial power. Today, much of that history is still visible in the towns and villages around the Lough.
To begin exploring the area around Belfast City, let’s start with the lough itself. Belfast Lough (or Loch Lao in Irish) is a large intertidal sea lough situated at the mouth of River Lagan, on the northeast coast of Ireland (Belfast City itself sits on the south-western shore of the lough). This wide expanse of water is practically free from strong tides, creating a channel up to the busiest port in Ireland, the Port of Belfast, and making it an ideal location for sailing and boat racing competitions. Besides being the perfect spot for sailing activities, the lough also houses many natural habitats and numerous species of migratory birds, which feed on the mudflats and roost amongst the shoreline.
The best place to begin your exploration of the towns and villages around Belfast Lough is by visiting Whitehead, a charming seaside village located on the opposite side of the lough, on the east coast of County Antrim. The Blackhead Lighthouse located at the top of the black volcanic cliff serves as an guide to the lough. Built in 1901 during the glory days of Belfast’s rapid development in the shipbuilding industry, the lighthouse now promises visitors spectacular views of the Belfast Lough and its magnificent shoreline.
Heading further down the coast, there is the small but unique town of Carrickfergus, which has been beautifully and elegantly restored and now exudes a modern feel, while still maintaining its historical aspects. One of the most striking landmarks in Carrickfergus is its famous Norman Castle, which has been at the heart of Northern Ireland’s political landscape since the 12th century. Today, the town is becoming increasingly popular among visitors and sailing enthusiasts because of the Carrickfergus Waterfront, which has been hailed as one of the most modern marinas in Europe. Take an evening stroll along the waterfront and you will be rewarded with excellent panoramic views of the harbour and the lough. The waterfront is especially popular amongst tourists during the summer, when it transforms to become the favoured venue for various sailing sports and major festivals.
Situated on the southern shore of the lough lies the town of Holywood, which is not to be mistaken for the Hollywood in the United States! Though the town may not exude the same glitz and glamour Hollywood possesses with its famous stars and popular personalities, Holywood attracts many well-known artists, sculptors and craftsmen, bringing an artistic dimension to its surroundings via its established art galleries. A beautiful bronze sculpture of a boy known as “Johnny the Jig” sits in the centre of town and was created by the town’s very own sculptress, Rosamund Praeger, reflecting the townspeople’s appreciation for the arts. The statue, built to commemorate a boy who was killed on the roads, was placed in the children’s playground to highlight the sanctity of children’s lives. Holywood is also famous for its Maypole, located in the centre of the town. Dating back to the 1700s, it was erected by Dutch sailors as a show of appreciation for the kind hospitality of the town residents. Today, the Maypole is painted and decorated every year in preparation for the May Day celebrations, when traditional dances and celebrations take place around it. Just outside of Holywood is the Redburn Country Park, which offers woodland walks and some amazing views of the Belfast Lough, Belfast City and the south Antrim Hills. In springtime, a lovely display of bluebells covers the area.
Moving down the southern coast of the Belfast Lough is the town of Bangor, which is actually the third largest town in Northern Ireland. There are plenty of ship-related attractions in this lovely seaside resort, as it is home to the Bangor Marina, the largest marina in Ireland and capable of berthing as many as 600 crafts! This internationally acclaimed marina regularly attracts visiting sailors from all around the world, and is a popular port during the voyages around the coast of the British Isles. The delightful Marine Gardens, situated not too far away from the marina, boasts of a wonderful stretch of coastline, perfect for evening walks while enjoying the scenic views of the Bangor Bay and the Hills of Antrim. For ship-watchers, the perfect spot to see big container ships and tankers is Wilson’s Point, where ships can be seen mooring up to the Belfast Shipyard Harland & Wolfe (which was responsible for building the great liner the HMS Titanic). The giant Samson and Goliath cranes once used in the shipbuilding industry still remain intact and untouched today at the shipyard, serving as a reminder of its glorious past. There’s plenty to see and do in Belfast City and the small towns and villages around the lough, with each offering their own unique blend of history, culture and atmosphere. By the time your tour of Belfast is over, not only will the melodic, lilting Irish accent ring sweetly in your ear but the magnificent and unforgettable panoramic views of the lovely Irish landscape, coupled with the accommodating inhabitants of this wonderful city, will make you keep coming back for more!