Where: Belfast, Northern Ireland
When: May 2017
Hotel: Ibis Belfast City Center
Why Belfast: Initially, Belfast was just a stop on our way up the coast of Northern Ireland to the Dark Hedges and Giant’s Causeway. I was actually a little wary and nervous about Belfast having grown up watching the Today Show before school and remembering the many stories of the IRA and the Troubles of Northern Ireland. However, I really wanted to explore the now calm city and see the places that only recently have enjoyed peace.
The Trip: Belfast was once part of the “Four B’s” not to visit – the other three being Bosnia, Beirut, and Baghdad – because of the issues between the Catholics (Republican, pro-Irish) and the Protestants (or the Loyalists, pro-British). However, Belfast has removed itself from that list thanks to the late 90s Peace Agreement and a relatively calm couple of decades.
We flew from Stuttgart to Dublin, and then rented a car to drive to Belfast. The drive is just over 90 minutes, and is fairly easy – except when you cross into Northern Ireland (which, if you aren’t tracking is part of the UK). Ireland uses the metric system, while the UK uses the imperial system like the U.S. Thankfully, it distracted me long enough to stop worry about driving on the wrong side of the road. 🙂
We arrived in Belfast quite late and a bit tired, so we didn’t see much that first night. The next morning, I had scheduled a Black Cab tour with what is ranked #1 on TripAdvisor…however, the cab didn’t show and after a few calls, a minivan with duct tape on the dash showed up. Um, no thanks. Our hotel sorted it all out and booked us a tour with the Black Cab Tour Company – which I highly recommend. Our driver showed up within the hour and was awesome. Lesson here – not everything ranked #1 on Trip Advisor is worth it.
If you do nothing else in Belfast, make sure to take a Black Cab tour – it will give you an in-depth look at the Troubles from both sides of the situation. (Our cabbie/guide never told us which side he was on, although I do believe he was a Republican based on some of the extra stops we made at the end). The first stop on the tour was the Shankill Road area – which was the heart of the loyalist paramilitarism. Throughout the Troubles, there were numerous killings and bombings by group from the Shankill area and attacks done in the area itself. Today, the area seems a bit rundown and its history highlighted by giant murals commemorating the workings of the loyalist groups that operated in the area as well as some of the more notable members of the cause.
The next stop was the “Peace Line,” or the peace wall – one of many running through Belfast to keep the violence down. These walls were erected to separate the more volatile Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The walls are 18 feet tall, and most were built following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought a ceasefire to the troubles. All of the walls are set to come down in 2023, however, according to our guide – many in Northern Ireland feel safer with them up and fear them coming down.
Our next stop was Falls Road – which, since the Troubles, has become synonymous with the Catholic community. (Side note, the Troubles was actually not a religious war – the religious connotation is just a way to symbolize if a person was a Loyalist or a Republican. The Troubles came about because of discrimination felt by the Republicans, who wanted to re-join with Ireland). Like Shankill Road had Loyalist murals, Falls Road was full of Republican murals and posters outlining British brutality against the Catholics and pictures of Catholics killed in the troubles. It’s weird, but when you are standing by the mural of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died at aged 27 of a hunger strike in prison, you almost sympathize with their plight. Sands, especially, as he was radicalized after being intimidated and harassed almost since birth.
The tour lasted more than 3 hours and honestly, could have been longer and still be interesting. It was crazy to be walking fear-free around a place that just two decades before was suffering from an intense civil war.
After being dropped off at our hotel, we went on a self-guided walking tour of Belfast. Here’s the thing about Belfast – it’s still pulling itself together so it’s not touristy at all, which is a nice refreshing change. It’s just an honest city that I only remember having a handful of souvenir shops. I just liked walking around and feeling like we were seeing the real Belfast in even the main areas.
We lucked out in that the City Hall was having a Food Festival, and we snacked on good food and wandered among the stalls. Again, it wasn’t touristy at all – just a really nice Saturday afternoon, relaxing on benches in front of the pretty government building.
After a brief rest at our hotel, we went on a search for dinner…and what we found was pretty much everything closed very, very early. We also found that Belfast has cute little alley ways tucked away from the main streets that are almost hard to find. We lucked out by randomly happening upon a tucked away pub with cool alleys. After a couple obligatory Jameson and Gingers and Guinness,’ we went to the oldest restaurant in Belfast, which is now a barbeque, for dinner.
Final thoughts: I wouldn’t have minded one more day in Belfast to see more of the sites – but that’s really about the max amount of time needed in the city. I truly enjoyed Belfast and would recommend a trip there for sure – the history is fascinating, the city is reviving itself and I don’t remember coming across other Americans during our entire time in the city. Our trip to Northern Ireland is one of my favorites, and Belfast is a big reason why. Of course, our drive up the coast with various stops were equally enjoyable…but that’s for the next post.