In one way, the news photo was unremarkable. On June 27, 2012, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, shaking the hand of another diplomat. She shakes a lot of hands. But this handshake was different. The hand she held belongs to the former commander of the Irish Republican Army, Martin McGuiness. This historic handshake represents another step in the journey toward peace in the decades-long struggle between the Republicans who oppose, sometimes violently, British rule in Northern Ireland and the Unionists who support it.
For many years, I regarded Belfast as a scary place. In the 1970s and ’80s, my impression of Belfast was formed by news photos of scarred buildings or a pile of rubble created by another Irish Republican Army bomb. Even on a visit to Ireland in 2004, I was warned to be careful if I ventured into Northern Ireland. While the struggles are still fresh in the memory of many people on both sides, Belfast has become a wonderful and very safe place to visit.
Remnants of the conflict (generally known as the Troubles) still exist, and the tension between the Republicans and the Unionists has not completely faded, but Belfast is moving away from that past. Visitors to Belfast will find an optimistic, lively heart wrapped in a stately Victorian coat. This modern commercial and industrial city makes an inviting stop on a trip to this vibrant green island.
Historical Mingles With Modern in the Town Center
Donegal Square, regally guarded by the City Hall, is the epicenter of Belfast. The City Hall, along with the 200-year-old Linen Hall Library and the restored Grand Opera House, take one back to times past and the glory of Belfast in the 19th century. Only a few blocks away, the sleek glass and brick Victoria Square shopping center lures consumers seeking the latest styles in fashion. Great shopping, excellent restaurants, and traditional pubs make this a wonderful area to spend a day.
Black Cab Tours
For me, the most moving aspect of a trip to Belfast is a tour along the Peace Wall in a traditional black cab. Cab drivers become impromptu tour guides as they drive though the neighborhoods and talk about their experiences during the Troubles. Separating the working-class Catholic Republican and Protestant Unionist neighborhoods from each other, the Peace Wall is an imposing concrete and barbed wire barrier and a blunt reminder of the recent struggles. A trip along Falls Road, on the Catholic side of the wall, and Shankill Road on the Protestant side takes one past colorful murals filled with images of symbols and heroes from each side of the conflict. Some of the black cab tours only visit one side or the other, but to get the best experience, one should make sure to hire a cab that visits both sides.
The doomed ocean liner Titanic was built in Belfast, and there are several exhibits around the city dedicated to the grand ship. The recently opened Titanic Belfast visitor center, located in a striking modern structure in the slipway where the Titanic was built, takes one through the entire history of construction and tragic voyage of the famous ship. The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum is an open-air, living-history museum that helps one experience the history Belfast and Northern Ireland, and the Transport section traces the evolution of transportation over the past 7,500 years.
Where to stay
Malone Lodge Hotel, located in a peaceful Victorian neighborhood near Queens University and the botanical garden, is my favorite place to stay. It is on a quiet street only a few minutes’ walk from the lively University district and a short bus or cab ride from downtown.
60 Eglantine Ave.