Belfast is the best place to visit in 2018 - Lonely Planet said it, not me.
Belfast, it was never a city on my must-visit radar, until I met a colleague from there. In the months leading up to my trip, I started researching about the city and learnt that for three decades, Belfast was ground zero of The Troubles, a violent territorial conflict over national identity and belonging. The city was fraught with rioting and bombings and was not considered safe. But it's 2018 and on the surface, people in Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) seem to be going about life as usual. Outside of its political and religious issues, Belfast is a beautiful little city, a rising star on the traveler's bucket list, especially in the summer (quick trivia: Belfast usually sees 157 days of rain).
So there I was landing in Belfast one June morning as a guest of my wonderful colleague (let's call her Ms. Duncan). She is the daughter of a former national level rugby player - I'll call him Daddy Duncan for the sake of this post. I did not know what to expect of the Northern Irish, but the Duncan family was unbelievably hospitable. Nestled in a cozy red-brick Edwardian house on Ardenlee Avenue however, I struggled to cope with the thick Irish accent of my hosts. With their hands full caring for Riley, the adorable dog, and Harper, Ms. Duncan's cute tiny niece, I tried to be the ideal hassle-free guest ever for the busy Duncans. On day one, Daddy Duncan treated his daughters and me to lunch at his latest haunt Soul Food Cafe. After this, he took us and Bella for a stroll at Ormeau Park. Very quickly, I had a grip on the neighborhood, signalling it was time I ventured out to explore Belfast solo! I'm happy to report, in three days, I saw so much of the city, Daddy Duncan beamed with pride.
- The most bombed hotel in the world, Europa Hotel: Even with its recent renovation, Europa retains its retro interiors. Having faced over 30 bombings during The Troubles, Europa is a landmark and has housed not just tourists but also journalists and prominent politicians including The Clintons. Despite its notorious history, only 3 people have ever been killed on its premises. As a former hotel industry professional, I can tell you, with all the drama, this would have been my office of choice!
Ulster Hall and concert-goers inside were the first in the world to hear Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. People didn't think much of it then, but as they would know now, they were listening to what would be Rock's most famous ballad, as their city was amidst gunfire and rioting during The Troubles. This 150 year old Victorian building and cultural landmark continues to host music and comedy gigs. Though I missed it, I recommend going for the guided tour.
Ormeau doesn't usually make it on a tourist's itinerary and that is exactly why you must visit. You will get a feel of the Nothern Irish suburban life away from the city's hustle-bustle and cosmopolitan vibe. After spending much of the day sightseeing, I did not struggle to drag my weary legs to the park at night (it never got dark in the summer until 10pm) - I used to find a quiet spot under a Weeping Willow, read and just breathe. The lush natural expanses of the park were a treat to my sore Dubai eyes. Were I a resident, I'd even join fellow nature-lovers on mushroom foraging and bird-watching trails organized at the Park. But sigh...
Titanic Museum is located in Belfast - it was built there in 1911-12 when the shipbuilding industry was flourishing in Belfast. The museum too is built on the very site the famous ship was launched at on 31 May 1911. The museum educates one on not just the building of Titanic, the Launch Day excitement and the tragedy, but also takes you through Belfast's economy history, its shipbuilding industry and the unenviable working conditions of the shipbuilders. The original food menu and life-size mock ups of the first, second and third class rooms aboard the Titanic caught my fancy. The recorded SOS messages from passengers aboard the sinking ship echo in the museum. Jack and Rose were not far from my mind. Don't miss out on a quick tour through Titanic's sister ship the SS Nomadic located near the museum; built alongside Titanic in 1911, SS Nomadic served in WWI & WWII and is now restored to former glory.
Two shipbuilding gantry cranes with biblical names stand out majestically on the Belfast skyline. They bear historical importance for Belfast. Here's why: they represent the shipbuilding industry - at one time Belfast's largest employment generator (1900-1930). These cranes belong to Harland & Wolff (H&W), once the world's biggest shipbuilders and makers of The Titanic. Daddy Duncan proudly pointed out the cranes and insisted on photographing me with Samson and Goliath in the background for my memory.
253 ft long hand-woven tapestry depicting the story of the entire show. There can be no better tribute to the linen mills and textile industry of Belfast, the largest in the world in the 19th century. Ms. Duncan, an alumna, recommended I also pop by the next door Queen's University founded by Queen Victoria, today UK's 9th oldest university. The quiet campus grounds boasted well-manicured lawns.
Simply Fish & Chips at the historic St. George Market (built 1890). D-I-V-I-N-E. Oh and scones! When I was indulging in tea and a giant scone with cream and jam at Avoca, I couldn't help but mentally play the Downtown Abbey soundtrack. Finally the shortbreads... The Duncans indulged me with those buttery biscuits... every night, we ate one with tea after dinner and then went to bed! #BelfastLife
Giant's Causeway was the home of a giant by the name Finn McCool. Science says this site is a result of a 60 million year old volcanic activity. Whichever school of thought you wish to follow, the hexagonal rocks (some as tall as 40 ft) are unbelievable to marvel at. Bollywood fans will recognize this UNESCO World Heritage Site in this song starring Shah Rukh Khan. This year I would be one of over a million tourists setting foot in Finn McCool's home. Remember, the site is free to explore, however I recommend you pay for the audio tour - you'll learn about the myths and notice the peculiarities of this stunning landscape! After my trek, Ms. Duncan drove me to Portrush, a seaside resort town where I ate some memorable chili pasta at The Mermaid followed by salted caramel ice-cream at the famous Maud's.
-----------------Hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Do follow me as I explore more experiences: @hanishalalwani on Instagram.