Even if you have never been here, you are bound to have quite a lot of opinions about this place; all coloured by the 30 odd years of news that ‘the troubles’ have delivered to our TV screens.
Its over 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement (aka The Belfast Agreement, 10th April 1998), and this might make you think that ‘the troubles’ are over; far from it…
I was genuinely shocked to discover that many parts of the city are still protected by fortified walls (90 in total), and that regular attacks are made on these fortifications. The largest wall separates the Falls and Shankill road areas and has gates through it at various cross points; the kind of gates that I last saw in Berlin. The gates are usually closed during the day, are fully closed by 7.00pm and at weekends; and any that are open during the day are monitored by security cameras.
You can take a taxi tour of the Falls and Shankill areas and the driver will give you an overview of the history and geography – apparently many of these tours are heavily Republican in flavour, but our driver was quite even handed – details here…
Doing a small tour like this is highly recommended and gives you a close up look at places that may be familiar from news items – if only by name. The tension was palpable in certain parts, hard to describe – you just need to experience it.
This type of tour gets you close to places and allows you to spend time where you want to, in my experience much better than large tours where they just charge round at a pre set pace.
There is a ‘hop on, hop off’ tour available in Belfast – we did try it, and frankly I can’t recommend it, it was about the same price as the taxi tour (as there were 3 of us) and does not get into some of the more interesting places that the taxi tour does. Also, there are not many places that are worth getting off at; Stormont is closed to the public and you would feel very uncomfortable hanging about on your own in either of the Falls or Shankill road estates…
The taxi tour will take you to other places as well – we went to the Titanic Quarter, which was interesting; there is a large dry dock and a few old buildings, the area is earmarked for massive development along the lines of Canary Wharf.
So, what about the rest of the place… Belfast is being touted as the ‘new Dublin’, well; some way to go on this score…
The city centre is compact and as a tourist you will never be more than a 10 minute walk from most places you want to be. The shopping centre is fairly pleasant and has all the stuff you can find anywhere these days, quite a bit is pedestrianised so its pleasant to walk round, but there is nothing special here and the shopping area is just that; it’s dead in the evening; like a ghost town..
Just to the north east is the Cathedral Quarter, which has more bars and restaurants and so livelier in the evenings. But what is going to thwart Belfast’s ambitions is the attitudes of the doormen (and almost every bar has them) which are firmly rooted in the early 90’s (no trainers, proper shirts required blah blah blah) and; the killer restriction: no alcohol after 1.00am – anywhere, as far as we could work out, there are restrictions on entry after this time as well – not exactly international behaviours.
Closing time police presence was heavy and they use trucks like the one shown below. It also has to be said that we saw more pissed people than I have ever seen anywhere else – whether this is because they were rushing to beat the 1.00am shut down is I suppose debatable.
Everyone was very friendly and you only had to open a map to have people asking if they could help, this friendliness seemed all the more odd when you think that this is a town where a large proprotion of people would still like to bomb their neighbours out.
Its difficult to guage real opinions on a short visit, and it was clear that most of the ‘trouble’ was centered in heavily working class areas, with high density living. Other, more middle class areas have mixed populations and manage to rub along perfectly fine – even if its with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ philosophies.
Would I go again? probably, but no rush…
Update April 2013
Belfast has a new attraction to fill your time. The Titanic Experience opened a year ago to coincide with the launch and sinking of the famous ship – built here in Belfast. Worth a visit if you are in the area.
There are food facilities in the building, but an interesting offer is just a few hundred yards away on the walk back to town; The Dock Cafe operates a ‘pay what you think it’s worth policy’, I would have to say that the coffee served knocks spots off the frothy milk concoctions dished up by most high street brands, let’s hope they survive and do well.
Some other recommendation in the Cathedral Quarter:
The Potted Hen – Bistro in St Anne’s Sq, Edward St, reservations advised especially at weekends.
Nicks Warehouse – Bistro, Hill St
Made in Belfast – Bistro. Talbot St and another branch near City Hall. Food OK, setting a bit too trendy, furniture uncomfortable and music way too loud.
For updates, restaurants and other visit information got to Go To Belfast