I only had one day in Belfast on my recent trip to Northern Ireland so I decided to one of those open top bus city tours. It promised a whistle-stop tour of Belfast and it was certainly fast – the driver sped around all four ‘quarters’ of the city at speeds that were a danger to hairstyles and the guide delivered commentary with super human fluency!
I’ve never been quite sure about Belfast (and Nova Scotia’s) enthusiasm for promoting Titanic nostalgia as a tourist attraction but here they have called a whole new quarter of the city after the ill-fated White Star liner. Well, as the builders of what was at the time the largest man-made moving object in the world said: “She was fine when she left here … why don’t you ask the English Captain or the Scottish Navigator what happened.”
The new Titanic Museum looks like a silver iceberg and cuts quite a figure amongst the mostly empty docklands. It has a recreation of the Titanic’s grand staircase if you want to channel your inner Kate Winslet. A newly opened attraction is the SS Nomadic, which once ferried first and second class passengers to the Titanic from Cherbourg. It is the last remaining White Star vessel afloat and has been beautifully restored.
Next door is Titanic Studios, where the Game of Thrones TV series is filmed. Nearby is the Odyssey Pavilion with the Imax cinema, event arena and science museum. The docklands are also home to Samson & Goliath – two massive Harland & Wolff ship building cranes that form the largest drydock in the world. They were actually raised 50 years after the Titanic sank but they are still a prominent symbol of Belfast’s ship building heritage. You can see the dock and pump house where the Titanic was built.
Next the bus zips along a highway and up to the hillside location of Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is a brief security check as the bus passes through the gates and the guide recommends you don’t lean down to tie your shoelace. The Portland Stone edifice is at the end of a grand avenue and was built to house the Unionist controlled government in the new capital of Northern Ireland following the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence.
This centres around the famous Falls Road and is a place where Irish language and culture flourishes, with many festivals and events promoting these. Skirting along this on the bus tour we saw a number of political murals, including both domestic issues and the ‘International Wall’ featuring the Irish community’s opinions on world affairs.
Named for Belfast’s highly regarded Queen’s University, this part of Belfast is home to leafy streets and the stylish dining and shopping strip of Lisburn Road. As well as the gothic masterpiece of a university you will also find the gorgeous Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum and the Lyric Theatre in this area.
This area around St Anne’s Cathedral contains much distinguished architecture and narrow cobbled lanes.
By contrast the Crumlin Road Gaol and Courthouse are two foreboding facades in North Belfast that face each other across a busy road and are connected by an underground tunnel that once saw prisoners. Now the courthouse looks severely dilapidated and the scales-free figure of Justice cuts a sad figure. The gaol on the other hand has its black basalt and red sandstone restored to some kind of splendour. Since it was built in 1845 ‘The Crum’ has been home to overcrowding, political prisoners, suffragettes; the target of bombings and protests. It is now a tourist attraction.
So that is a bit of a flavour of the Belfast open top bus tour. My overall verdict is that it was too fast and a bit overwhelming. There are a number of other ways to see the city – walking tours, boat tours and even segway tours that I might try next time I visit Belfast.
But the city itself – well I was impressed by the magnificent Victorian architecture that reflects Belfast’s glory days in the 19th century, when no city in the world produced more ships, linen, rope, tobacco or tea. And the friendliness of the people towards visitors, well that is still unrivalled.
By Natasha von Geldern
What are your favourite things to do in Belfast?