Ireland's second city is the capital of Northern Ireland

Ireland’s second largest city, and the capital of Northern Ireland, is the Beal Feirste, or “Rivermouth Ford of the Sandy Bank.”

Belfast—hometown of Shakespearian master Sir Kenneth Branagh, author C.S. Lewis, and physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin (famous for his work on thermodynamics, the electric telegraph, the mariner’s compass, and for determining the temperature of absolute zero, which is why true science nerds measure degrees in Kelvins)—spent the 19th century growing from a sleepy town in the shadow of Cave Hill into an Industrial Revolution powerhouse, a city of more than 400,000 (the greater urban area now has a population between half a million and 640,000, depending on where you draw the “greater urban area” line).

It became known in the Victorian and Edwardian eras for its linen factories, tobacco industry, rope-making production, and shipbuilding prowess (one local shipwright, Harland and Wolff, built the Titanic, though it is a tad unclear why they still brag about that one, or why they built a massive interpretive museum about it).

Things slowed down considerably after World War I, and bombing starting in World War II (the Germans) and extending into the 1990s (local militants) wreaked havoc on the city fabric.

The Troubles

Between 1969 and 1976 alone, more than 25,000 buildings were damaged by terrorist bombs; thankfully, the bad old days of the militant IRA seem to have faded—though you can still see plenty of memorials to the era of the Troubles, notably the political murals in working-class West Belfast: Pro-Irish and Sinn Féin murals decorate Falls Road in the Catholic district; pro-Union and Loyalist ones line Shankill Road in Protestant territory. (There are interpretive taxi tours.)

Downtown Belfast

The civic heart of town surrounds Donegall Square, including the vast 1906 City Hall built of Portland stone, festooned with statues, and topped with copper domes long-since oxidized green.

The 1864 Linenhall Library at no. 16–18 was originally founded in 1788 as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge and contains thousands of rare books with stacks — though it is most popular these days for the first floor reading rooms and café, where city literati gather, and its collection of documents related to the Troubles since 1968, as well as vast resources of genealogical information for ancestry research.

A few blocks north rises the unfinished Romanesque Revival St. Anne’s Cathedral, which was started in 1899 and worked on, on and off, for 80 years. The best bits are the panels of late 1920s mosaics, meticulously pieced together by sisters Gertrude and Margaret Martin, the “Misses Martin,” who also decorated London’s Palrimanent and Westminster Cathedral.

A block west of Donegall Square, at the head of Great Victoria Street, swans Belfast’s Grand Opera House, an 1894 jewel box of red velvet and gilded plaster decorations where Sandra Bernhardt once trod the boards and Belfast native Van Morrison recorded an excellent live concert in 1984.

Even if you don’t drink, pop across the street into the Crown Liquor Saloon, an over-the-top Victorian pub complete with panelled snugs and scrolling plasterwork, built in the 1880s and now owned by the National Trust—though still very much open for business.

Belfast pubs

If you do drink, there are also a lot of good pubs along The Entries, alleyways between High Street and Ann Street; check out The Globe, The Morning Star, and especially White’s Tavern, reputedly the oldest bar in the city (est. 1630) doing a decent pub grub lunch.

Queen’s University District

There are naturally a lot more pubs — as well as great restaurants and art galleries — South of the town center in the Queen’s University District, reached by the Golden Mile that begins with Great Victoria Street and ends near the lovely Tudor-style buildings of the University itself.

Abutting the pretty Botanical Gardens—complete with an 1839 Palm House greenhouse of cast-iron and glass—is the four-story Ulster Museum, repository for the best of everything Ulster. Part history and archaeology museum, part science and natural history collection, and part art gallery, there are 100-year-old textile machines and gold from a Spanish Armada ship sunk off Giant’s Causeway; Egyptian mummies and paintings by Dubuffet, Turner, Gainsborough, and Pissarro; Bronze Age Celtic jewelry and the skeleton of an extinct giant Irish deer.

Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

If you prefer your history on a larger scale, about seven miles northeast of town lies the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum—similar to some of Ireland's other “living history” type parks, but unique in that nothing is a re-creation, but rather a reconstruction of an actual structure—mostly 18th and 19th century—moved here from wherever it was found and furnished as it would have been in the era.

The “transport” half of the museum is a hodgepodge collection of carriages and trains, historic bicycles and early airplanes. Among the many historic motorcars is a late, but quirky, entry: A 1982 DeLorean concept car, predecessor to the DMC-12 of Back the the Future fame.

(DeLorean was wooed to set up his ill-fated factory here in Northern Ireland as part of a jobs programme in which the British government footed 60% of his startup costs—much of the rest came from the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson—not cocaine smuggling, as if often wrongly thought; De Lorean was cleared of those charges as it was proved to be coercion by undercover FBI agents posing as legit investors—and De Lorean badly needed new investors. His factory closed in just under two years after producing only 9,000 vehicles.)

Ards Peninsula

The museum sites at the start of the long hook of the Ards Peninsula, east of Belfast, a scenic spot for a drive and a tour of the 1920s gardens at the 19th century Mount Stewart House.

The house itself also has a lovely interior, including a dining room furnished with 22 chairs from the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which re-divvied up Europe following the Napoleonic wars and laid down the national boundaries that would define 19th century Europe up until World War I.

(One of Mount Stewart’s owners, the Viscount Castlereagh, was British Foreign Secretary at the time and instrumental in the talks. Previously, by the way, as Acting Chief Secretary for Ireland he was partly responsible for crushing the Irish Rebellion of 1798.)

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in November 2014.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.