I don’t want to get myself or anybody else into trouble of any kind, so I’ll begin with a disclaimer. It is wise when visiting Belfast – just like when visiting any other city – to exercise the usual personal safety precautions. I do hope it won’t be necessary to list them here. The theme of safety is a prescient one. For all the change that has taken place in Northern Ireland over the past two decades, a simple internet search combining words such as ‘safety’, ‘Belfast’, ‘security’ and ‘tourist’ reveals that the city’s reputation can still sometimes precede it. Equally as revealing, however, are the almost universally positive responses. While nobody should ever make a decision about personal safety based solely around unverified online advice, it would be a terrible shame, at this time of progress across Northern Ireland, if anyone considering visiting the city of Belfast was to opt out of it on the basis of concerns around personal safety. This is a safe destination for visitors, as testified to by the rising number of people choosing to do so. Not only is it a safe tourism destination, but Belfast is increasingly cosmopolitan, with a growing ethnic minority population. While residential parts of the city have experienced some tension with regard to the presence of those from other parts of the world, these tensions are rooted in local communities, are not representative of those communities or the city as a whole, and entirely separate from the city’s tourist industry.
One of the most unique things about Belfast from the perspective of the tourist is that some of its most fascinating sights and experiences lie beyond the city centre and require excursions into the residential communities lying just outside it. Pick up a guidebook for the majority of cities around the UK and Ireland, and you’ll be told of areas to avoid and reassured that, as a tourist, you would be unlikely to find yourself in them anyway, intentionally or otherwise. While Belfast has one or two areas it may be best to avoid, especially at night, the city hides an array of must-see sights away from the obvious city centre locations.
The city’s past is tragic and deeply painful, but it also affords it an opportunity it is doing its best to capitalise on. And it is unlikely that anyone considering a trip to Belfast would not have some interest in that history. As such, it is essential to explore the divided communities of the city’s west, centred around the Falls and Shankill Roads. There are a host of ways to do this – under one’s own steam, as part of a guided walking tour, atop a ubiquitous red hop-on-hop-off bus or via one of the many black cab tours that have become an almost iconic facet of Belfast’s tourist trade. One of the most striking aspects of these communities – once the absolute heart of the Troubles – is their proximity to the city centre. The Falls Road in particular lies a short and straight walk in a westerly direction from where Royal Avenue meets High Street, slap-bang in the city centre. The staunchly republican, largely Catholic Falls area is separated from the loyalist, mostly-Protestant Shankill by one of the city’s famous (or perhaps infamous) peace lines – a 5km-long wall punctuated by gates, usually open during the day but always closed at night. This particular peace line is worth seeing, not just as a natural curiosity to the visitor to west Belfast, but precisely because these edifices represent a part of real life for people in these areas. They are, simply put, normal. Indeed, in some areas, they are literally the fence at the bottom of someone’s garden.
The peace lines are just one of the sights of Belfast that ought to draw visitors out of the city centre during their stay. To the west of the city, and visible from most vantage points within, stand the majestic Belfast Hills. Shrouded in mist on a regular basis, these basalt megaliths serve as a reminder of just how nearby the countryside is, and on a sunny day provide stunning vistas across the city and far beyond. Gaze across at the Western Isles of Scotland or in a southerly direction toward the even more impressive Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland’s southeast corner. For the so inclined, Cavehill provides a wonderful vantage point to watch aircraft on their descent into George Best City Airport far below.
The city’s famous Titanic Quarter, dedicated to its connections to the tragic liner and its wider maritime history, is a short walk (or even shorter taxi ride) from the city centre and offers the chance to immerse oneself in the city’s industrial past. The area’s 21st century identity and landscape is still developing and as such, has something of an unfinished feel about it. Nevertheless, visitors get a sense of the modern, changing, growing Belfast at the same time as they get to experience a vital facet of its history. At the heart of this area, adjacent to the River Lagan, is the Titanic Museum. The building itself is striking, its design based on the vessel itself. Those whose interest in the Titanic’s construction and ultimate demise extends only as far as the 1997 blockbuster movie may be disappointed – the museum makes little reference to this. Rather, it tells the story of Belfast’s life and history as a shipbuilding and maritime centre, and it is not until one reaches the end that the fateful night in 1912 is covered. And this is how any serious museum on the subject should be. To take in every exhibit and to read every piece of information would require several hours, but with sufficient interest, it is well worth it, and the enormity and sheer scale of the tragedy that befell the ship is certainly brought home by the end of the tour.
Tourists are waking up to the city of Belfast, and with good reason. This changed city is open for business and as welcoming as anywhere in the UK and Ireland. This is just a snapshot of what is on offer. I, for one, am excited about the many things still left to discover.