Belfast: Exploring the Post-Troubles City for Free
Kevin Branagh’s film, Belfast, about The Troubles in Northern Ireland as seen through the experiences of a young boy growing up in the midst of the violent upheaval, has won critical acclaim. The period referred to as The Troubles lasted for about thirty years. They are said to have begun in October of 1968 when the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary charged nationalist protesters who were marching to raise awareness of discriminatory housing policies and segregation. The police savagely beat the protesters with batons. The incident was caught on camera and televised, resulting in years of “sectarian violence,” including riots, bombings, and revenge killings.
Many Americans, especially those I worked with in peace and justice groups in my youth, regarded the situation with contempt, viewing it as senseless violence caused by religious intolerance. But the Troubles were never about what church people went to. Religion was merely a way to tell one side from the other. The seeds of the Troubles were planted in the late 12th century when the Normans invaded Ireland, followed by centuries of oppression of the native Irish by the English. The history is bloody and complex. This post will not deal with it. Thankfully, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to the Troubles and peace to Northern Ireland. It has been tested at times, especially during Brexit, but seems to be holding. So, today’s post will explore the post-Troubles city of Belfast, a beautiful place where there are many exciting and fun things to see and do, many of them free.
Where is Belfast?
Belfast, the 12th largest city in the UK, is the capital of Northern Ireland. It is located on the northeastern coast of the island of Ireland, right on the banks of the River Lagan. It is easy to fly into through Belfast International Airport. The majority of the city is in County Antrim. A portion of Belfast sits in County Down. Belfast takes about a two-hour drive north from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland.
Free Things to Do in Belfast
Get ready. The list is long. Here it is.
The Dome at Victoria Square: This modern magnificent piece of architecture will enable you to get a 360-degree view of the city. Not only can you enjoy Belfast’s skyline, but there are also free tours available that help you take in the city sights, including the Albert Clock and Belfast City Hall. Onsite dining is located in the dome too.
Belfast City Hall: Visiting a government building may sound pretty boring but don’t miss seeing this one. Built in 1906, the City Hall is one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings and is considered one of the best examples of Baroque Revival architecture. Inside, you will find a stunning grand staircase with marble railings and red-carpeted stairs. The rotunda has a copper dome, there are self-guided tours of stained-glass windows, and much more. Click here to take
a virtual tour of the City Hall.
Outside, in the City Hall grounds, is the Titanic Memorial and a garden set on two levels. The upper level has fifteen bronze plaques listing all 1,512 victims of the doomed ship. The lower level is a garden with springtime flowers. The bloom colors were chosen specifically to bring to mind water and ice. It is intended to be a place of reflection.
It is important to book your visit ahead of time. Only fifteen people are allowed in every fifteen minutes. To find out more and book your tour, visit www.belfastcity.gov.uk/exhibition.
Walking Tours of Belfast: Tours leave from the Belfast City Hall every day at 11 am and 2:30 pm. The tour visits the Albert Clock, the Cathedral Quarter, City Laneway, the Docklands and the Lagan River, and the Big Fish, a 32-foot sculpture of a salmon. Also included in the tour is a discussion of Belfast’s history, culture, languages, folklore, and more.
Glass of Thrones Trail: While you’re walking the city, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you won’t want to miss the six giant stained-glass windows that make up the Glass of Thrones Walking Trails. Each glass represents different houses and iconic scenes from the television show. Click here for details about each of the windows.
C. S. Lewis Square: Located at the intersection of the Connswater and Comber Greenways, beside the East Side Visitor Centre, is the C. S. Lewis Square. It features seven bronze statues of characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, including Aslan and the White Witch. The square is open 24 hours a day and is illuminated at night.
The Ulster Museum: In addition to artwork and fossils typical to most museums, the Ulster Museum also features the CultureLab. This exhibition “poses questions about culture and offers a glimpse into how identities have been, and continue to be, shaped in Ireland and Northern Ireland.” Included is an “interactive religion calculator quiz: which tests preconceptions and stereotypes. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday but closed on Monday. While admission is free, there are a limited numbers available at the door, so booking tickets in advance is strongly recommended. Click here to find out more and book a visit.
The Botanic Gardens: For those interested in horticulture and botany and those who just enjoy looking at lovely flowers, this is a must-see destination. One of the highlights of the garden is the Tropical Ravine. Created in 1887, many of its Victorian features have been preserved and some have been restored. The building that houses the ravine has two levels. It features a sunken glen, flowering vines, leaf silhouettes, and some of the oldest seed plants in existence. There also are interactive exhibits to teach about plant collection and conservation.
Belfast Castle: Is it possible to go to Ireland and not tour a castle? Yes, but why? Fortunately, Belfast has an excellent one. Located in north Belfast in the mid-19th century, Belfast Castle is a Belfast landmark. The grounds include landscaped gardens and a nearby woodland that is home to several species of wildlife. The castle itself sits at 400 feet above sea level on the lower slopes of Cave Hill. There are five caves located on the sides of the hill’s cliffs. In addition to history, this site offers unobstructed views of Belfast.
PRONI (The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland): A great resource for genealogists, the Public Records Office archives has records dating primarily from the 17th century to today, but it also has documents from as far back as 1219. Available to the public for free are reading and search rooms, a WiFi café, as well as exhibitions.
Northern Ireland War Museum: Commemorating Northern Ireland’s role in World War II, this museum is located in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast. It tells the story of the Ulster Home Guard and the Belfast Blitz of 1941. The museum also has exhibits on the role of women in the war as well as the presence of U.S. Forces. In addition, there is a memorial screen listing the names of over 1,000 people killed during the blitz as well as Books of Remembrance for both world wars.
Linen Hall Library: The oldest library in Belfast, Linen Hall was established in 1788. It has Irish and Local Studies collections as well as the definite archive of the Troubles.
Not So Free
In case you want to spend some money, you can also visit Titanic Belfast, a star-shaped building symbolic of the White Star Line of cruise ships. This exhibition’s mission is to tell the story of the Titanic from her construction to her tragic maiden voyage. Outside, you can visit the slipways where White Star’s ships the Titanic and the Olympic were built and launched. Embedded in the slipways are life-sized outlines of the two ships. The names of the dead are listed on vertical glass panels on the slipways. The cost of taking the Discovery tour is 19.50 euros. Click here to find out more.
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Slan go foil!