About a month ago, I had the pleasure to visit Belfast. Although part of the UK, it’s often tragically forgotten by the mainland in all fields of economics and politics.
This translates into tourism, too. Northern Ireland as a whole has long suffered from a weak tourism industry, when compared with the rest of the UK, and the thriving Republic of Ireland to the South. The city’s tourism and economic situation was heavily marred by the province’s violent recent history – the 30 year period from 1968 to 1998 where sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants spiked, known as “The Troubles”.
However, this characterisation is, thankfully, losing accuracy – Belfast is undergoing a rapid revival. A new generation of young Northern Irish are comfortable with firmly moving on from The Troubles, and are regenerating Belfast’s post-industrial streetscape with an injection of creativity and optimism. It’s an inviting environment for urban tourism.
Belfast grew from a small settlement to a commercial powerhouse during the industrial revolution, playing a key role in imperial expansion across the world, and helping to elevate the UK to superpower status. Specialising in textiles and shipbuilding, Belfast became a vast, rich, and powerful city – far more so than its Southern companion city, Dublin.
Tourists can get a flavour for this long-gone past by roving the city centre, seeing the vast City Hall and flamboyant red-brick commercial buildings, flax spinning linen factories, and vast warehouses. The City Hall has a free, permanent exhibition showcasing the industrial history of the city – focusing on the social challenges, labour movements, and street-scene of the industrial heyday.
The city has also constructed a flagship, multi-million pound museum telling the story of the Titanic – the ill-fated ocean liner that sank in 1912. The ship was constructed by shipwrights Harland & Wolff in the Belfast docks – and the museum stands in the exact spot where the gargantuan hull of the Titanic was built from scratch. The museum is well-designed and fully engaging, giving a fantastic sense of how Belfast as a whole defined itself and grew to the city-scape you can see today. There are also a number of smaller museum-ships nearby which each have their own story to tell.
Although large ships are no longer constructed in Belfast, the docklands are still full of heavy manufacturers – constructing everything from aircraft engines to wind turbines. Two massive Harland & Wolff branded cranes – known by locals as “Samson” and “Goliath” – tower over the docklands and are the tallest structures in the city. In my time there, several local people expressed pride that the city had retained a strong engineering and manufacturing industry.
A post-conflict city
While Belfast’s city centre and docklands tell one story, its suburbs tell another. For centuries, the island of Ireland has been blighted by sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants – the former prevalent since the dark ages, the latter introduced from the late 17th century by English, Scottish and Dutch colonists.
Visiting Belfast makes one thing absolutely clear: until recently, it was literally the front line of this conflict. The eruption of violence in The Troubles has left enormous scars on the landscape today – which tourists can and do take in to gain a sense of the modern history. This can feel ghoulish, yet also poignant and inspirational given the negotiation to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, culminating in the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.
The open-top bus tour, operating around the whole of Belfast, quite deliberately takes a route through some of the suburban neighbourhoods where the two communities clustered and largely self-segregated over decades as the city expanded. The bus tour takes about 90 minutes and costs £11.50 per adult / £9.50 per concession.
The Falls Road – the centre of the main Catholic area – is a sight to behold. Flags of the Republic of Ireland fly on every house, road signs are written in Irish Gaelic, and the whole street is awash with green – the colour of Irish nationalism.
Yet only half a mile away in the Shankill Road area, the street is flooded with orange – representing the Protestant Dutch King, William of Orange, who conquered Ireland in 1690. Union Flags fly from every window, proudly disavowing Irish Nationalism and pledging loyalty to the UK and the Crown.
Both areas are also filled with powerful murals depicting their communities’ loyalties and sentiments. Some contain tributes to paramilitary soldiers proudly carrying assault rifles, while others depict weapons being discarded in favour of peace. Others act as massive political adverts, attacking politicians who represent the other side in Parliament or the Northern Ireland National Assembly, which is also based in Belfast.
The areas are separated by unironically named “Peace Lines” – large fences segregating the two communities. Built rapidly in the 1970s by the British government as a temporary solution to the escalating hate crimes and violence between the two communities, they remain in place today by popular demand – polls have repeatedly shown that the majority of residents believe removing them would risk re-igniting the violence. For me as a British tourist knowing nothing of their existence prior to my visit, these barriers were sobering.
With tourism to cities booming globally, it is no wonder there is a tourist market for the niche activities which offer a different experience to the bog-standard city centre. Tourists have no qualms about stepping into the Falls Road and the Shankill Road, and local tour companies know this. There are community-run museums, walking tours with former paramilitaries and soldiers, and bus tours around these otherwise ordinary suburban neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Belfast. Tourists are generally welcomed to the areas by locals, but take care not to do anything provocative or grossly insensitive, such as insulting the communities’ leaders or boasting allegiance to the other side.
A valuable experience
Northern Ireland’s capital is a uniquely fascinating city, and I implore any tourist to make time to visit the city if touring the island of Ireland. International tourists visiting the Republic should absolutely make time to venture across the border to see Northern Ireland. It is naturally beautiful and the people are just as accommodating as in the South. While you are in the North, you could easily visit the world-famous natural wonder of the Giant’s Causeway, too – it’s about two hours by coach from Belfast.
Even if only for one day, I would implore anyone to visit Belfast – that’s enough time to explore the Titanic museum and take the comprehensive bus tour around the city. Euros are widely accepted by shops, tourist attractions, hotels and even taxis to cater to the many tourists coming over the border from the Republic.
For me as a young English traveller, visiting Belfast was ultimately a familiar, yet distant experience. The streetscape felt like any other post-industrial English city, and the landscape is akin to many areas of England (though the proximity of steep-sloped mountains to the city’s edge is certainly a novelty). However there were a plethora of differences – from the cash notes, to the thick local dialect and slang, to the ever-present undertone of a post-conflict city. This is reason enough to recommend that even British people should spend some time there.