by Leo Owen
As Northern Ireland's capital city, Belfast is perhaps most famous for its troubled history of intense violent political unrest. Not many realise, it was also once home to the biggest and most productive shipyard in the world. Or indeed, that in this very shipyard, the world's most famous passenger liner was constructed by Harland and Wolff.
Located 100 yards from where the Titanic's hull was launched, The Titanic Experience completes the 185 acre riverside development known as The Titanic Quarter. Inside the Titanic Quarter live two of Belfast's most famous residence - Sampson and Goliath. These enormous cranes tower above the city up to 106 metres high, acting as famous landmarks, dominating the skyline. Alongside the River Lagan where RMS Titanic first set sail are the drawing offices where she was designed, the Thompson Dock and Pump House where she had her final fit-out and the slipway she set sail from.
Although it's possible to visit the Titanic Quarter as part of a guided bus or boat tour, it's also easily walkable from the city centre. To get up close to the area's main historic attractions, it's necessary to either join a walking tour, book on a self-guided multi-media trail or visit The Titanic Experience. Inside this vast attraction the Titanic's story is explored in depth from its conception in the early 1900s through to its construction and the discovery of the wreck.
Belfast is an easy city to walk around with its grand City Hall acting as a useful central orientation point. St George's Market is Northern Ireland's largest indoor market and a great place to people- watch while re-fuelling on a gourmet pie or Mediterranean-infused snack. The city's Botanical Gardens may be familiar to fans of the BBC's hidden camera comedy Just for Laughs. Belfast Zoo and castle are both a short bus ride from the city centre - the latter is free to explore and provides wonderful views across the city and coast from Cave Hill.
By night a visit to the Crown pub is a must. One of the city's oldest gin palaces dating back to 1885, the Crown Liquor Saloon is such a fine example of original Victorian architecture and décor that the National Trust have taken it under their wing. Wash down Irish stew, champ (a potato, spring onion and cabbage dish) and soda bread with a brown lemonade or Harp larger while soaking in the Crown's impressive dimly gas-lit interior. Afterwards, why not take in a show at the Grand Opera House, arguably the finest remaining example of Georgian theatre architecture, enjoy a dose of local “fiddly dee” music in The Fountain pub or get a taxi along The Golden Mile between City Hall and Queen's University to take your pick of Belfast's best bars.
Although the colourful murals of Sandy Row can be seen on foot, the best way to glean any insight into the city's troubled past is by joining a private black taxi tour. Tours cost around £27 for approximately one and a half hours, taking in the famously Protestant area of Shankill Road, the daunting Peace Wall that divides the city, Clonard Republican Memorial Garden, The Falls, Bobby Sands' mural, Siin Fein's headquarters and International Peace Murals. Drivers provide a detailed history of the city's past, carefully avoiding side-taking.
For one of several “happy days” in Belfast full of lots of “craic”, a variety of companies offer tours to the main tourist attractions around the city. Driving through undulating green hills, coaches pass through Ballymeena, the city of seven towers and home to actor Liam Neeson before making a first stop at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Overlooking Sheep Island and built by fisherman in the 1600s to lay salmon nets into the sea, the bridge is now owned by the National Trust and provides fantastic views along the coast.
The Giant's Causeway is perhaps one of the most loved and visited natural wonders in Northern Ireland, making it the obvious next stop for coaches. Formed 600 million years ago with ice age rock, the causeway is more popularly attributed to a love spat between feuding giants.
Having appreciated Ireland's natural beauty, tours generally encourage an understanding of the area's history by making a final stop in Derry, via Douglas Castle and Bushmills. Also known as Stroke City or Londonderry, Northern Island's second city is famous for its 1.5km long stone walls and as the location of “Bloody Sunday”. These days, although enormous vibrant murals act as a reminder of its past, Derry has considerably cleaned up its act to recently win a City of Culture award.
Easyjet offers cheap flights from Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle while Jet2 flies from Leeds-Bradford and BMI Baby from Birmingham, Glasgow and London.
Norfolk Line and Stena Line operate daily ferries from Liverpool to Belfast. P&O Irish Sea Ferries and Stena Line originate in Scotland.
Paddy's Palace (68, Lisburn Road) offers a range of cheap private apartments, including a basic self-service breakfast and free sight-seeing tours Sunday-Thursday if booked in advance.