Without particularly planning it, we found that in the course of the year we’d visited Cardiff, London, Dublin & Edinburgh … so we felt we had to fit in Belfast somehow. We flew over for a long weekend just to complete the set. The first impression was the friendliness of the people (instead of directing us when we asked the way people would say, “It’s not far, I’ll take you”). Then there was the openness in talking about “The Troubles”. People seemed to want outsiders to know and understand what Belfast has been through in their recent past (and we hope and pray that it is truly past). There seemed to be new building and development everywhere you looked. When international firms like Ikea and House of Fraser (or Frasier in the local patois) open in Belfast, or even just new buildings with glass frontage, the inhabitants seem genuinely touched by such confidence shown in a city that is struggling to emerge from its violent past.
When visiting a new city for the first time you sometimes have to swallow your pride and play the tourist. We took the hop-on hop-off open-top bus tour just to get a feel for what was where. We still don’t know why we were the only ones hopping on and off but it was definitely the thing to do (only I wish someone had told us beforehand that Stormont closed on Saturdays). We wondered about the black taxi political tour, fearing that locals on the estates might think it rather distasteful voyeurism. But people assured us that it was OK, and it turned out to be the most interesting and moving experience of our trip.
Looking for somewhere to get started, the Welcome Centre does what it says on the tin. There are a few good self-guide walking tours (taking in a compulsory Guiness at the Crown Liquor Emporium), and the Belfast Wheel is worth a few minutes and a few pounds. For some people the docks tour and the Titanic (“don’t blame us – it was all right when it left here”) is a big draw, but we gave it a miss in favour of the Ulster Folk Museum a few stops on the train outside Belfast. To complete our weekend we took a day-trip to Giant’s Causeway, by way of the Carrick-y-Rede rope bridge.
Eating out in Belfast is not too expensive (eg compared with Dublin) and we felt we had good value. However, Sunday night left us tramping the streets after a hard day’s tourism – places were either full or had stopped serving by around 6/7pm. We eventually discovered the bars/restaurants at the top of the new Victoria Square Shopping Centre, which may not have been the cosy romantic nook we hoped for but they were lively, good value and, above all, open.
No doubt there are many other things to do on a long weekend in Belfast but we felt that everything we did was a “must-do”, and that nothing could have been left out without missing something vital in this touristically underrated city.