THE LITTLE SCOOP: [THE BULLET POINTS]
EAT & DRINK:
We tend to inhale Guinness stew, pie, and fish and chips while in Ireland. We had a great lunch at an award-winning spot that had all the hallmarks of a traditional pub, with deconstructed classic meals at the Morning Star. The prettiest pub in Belfast is at the famous Crown Liquor Saloon who also had a great pie.
A great place to start your pub crawl is to wander down the Cathedral Quarter! Lots of great spots with locals. Kelly’s Cellars calls itself oldest traditional Irish pub and is really charming, but just note not to go hungry as they do not serve food.
Be sure to bring pounds £, not Euros, for your pints in Belfast and Northern Ireland!
The Marriott’s AC Hotel Belfast was not directly downtown, but right on the docks with views of the Titanic Museum and a 10 minute walk to bars. Wonderful service, complimentary breakfast, and spacious rooms!
The Titanic Museum was opened in Belfast in 2012 and took the tourism industry by storm! Strongly recommend taking a tour and booking tickets online ahead of time.
Our clear winner and a “must-do” for Belfast is a Black Cab Tour. Local taxi drivers take you around the most prominent neighborhoods of the “Troubles” – the ethno-nationalist conflict between Unionists and Republicans throughout the end of the 20th century. Powerful and enlightening. Book online in advance!
THE BIG SCOOP: [THE WHOLE STORY]
Ireland is one of our most beloved European countries. At just five hours’ flight from Philadelphia (often faster than a flight to LA!) it’s a place we had been fortunate to visit twice before our adventure here – once on a big family roadtrip through Dublin, and the triple K’s – Killarney, Killkenny, Kinsale, Dingle, and the Cliffs of Moher – and another, on a trip to Galway and the Aran Islands.
It’s one of our favorites because it is such a chill and friendly place – you spend days marveling at the lush green countryside, and spend nights in bars chowing down in jeans/sweatshirts guzzling beers and dancing to live music all night alongside some of the warmest and kindest people in the world. There’s no pretension, no pressure or grand expectations. I wish I could be more elegant but it’s just fun.
As a result, despite how much we love it there – with so much of Europe to see with fresh eyes and the ease of getting there from the US, we decided it could be a “back burner” travel priority. Fortunately, my husband’s work schedule stepped in and he had a meeting in Cork, so oh well we had to make a trip of it!
We first flew in to Dublin and spent a night reconnecting with my old friend E from high school, who now lives there with her adorable fiance. We had a great time at the Old Storehouse in the famous Temple Bar area.
The next morning, we grabbed a car and drove to Belfast. My brave husband, a complete star, drove admirably without issue on the opposite side of the road. I happily cheered him on and was so relieved I was not at the wheel. Sadly, it really poured our entire weekend, and particularly for our day in Belfast. It took us about 2 hours from the Dublin Airport and we dried off at the AC and took a quick walk to the Titanic Museum!
Our expectations were high – this has been ranked the world’s best tourism attraction after opening in 2012. It was very impressive and clearly a huge investment was made in the nine interactive exhibits exploring the start of the ship-building, the major players, and all the way through the sinking. You might remember in the movie that while the ship took off from England, it is an Irish ship, commissioned by the White Star Line to be built at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. The launch from where the ship went off is still intact and viewable from the museum. There is a joke on a sign outside (impossible to take our cameras out in the pouring rain) – “she was alright when she left here!”
While it was a little “90s Leonardo DiCaprio-lite” for my taste (a high priority for me as you might guess from this post’s title!) there is some movie information at the end around the ship’s pop culture impact, with Celine Dion playing, naturally. The museum was very enjoyable, but given it’s accolades was definitely crowded, so pack your patience!
The rain was starting to pour so we took an always friendly cab into town to the Morning Star, on recommendation of our driver. The service was top notch, as was the Holy Water (what us cultural Catholics like to call Guinness.)
We then were picked up promptly at our hotel by our guide Mark of Black Cab Tours. In all my research this came up as a travel priority and we fully agree all visitors to Belfast should take one. At just £35 for two hours Mark drove us throughout the Shankill (Protestant) and Falls Road (Catholic) to show us the Murals and Peace Wall, and while admittedly raised in a Protestant neighborhood, gave us an unbiased account of “The Troubles.” My husband and I were eager but both knew far too little about this difficult time in history.
Mark assured us a few items at the start 1) we were entirely safe and 2) no thoughtful question would be taken as offensive.
Stated far too simplistically, the area is split amongst Unionists loyal to the British crown (who are nearly all Protestants), and Republicans, seeking “One Ireland” (who are nearly all Catholics.) Throughout the end of the 20th century, there were many outbreaks of violence throughout Belfast between the paramilitary groups that represent the Unionists (three major were the VF/UDA/UFF) and Republicans (the famous IRA.)
I don’t want to spoil too much, but while the paramilitary groups still exist (and are often more trusted than the police) fortunately violence has mostly subsided. While the populations still live separately and quite differently culturally (i.e. Protestants play soccer, Catholics play Gaelic football) much progress continues to be made throughout the divide. Perhaps our biggest takeaway is that we assumed Belfast was split with the Peace Wall down the middle – Catholics on one side, Protestants on the other. On the contrary, Belfast is as Mark says, a “checkerboard” – from one block to the next, you can easily cross neighborhoods. If you aren’t familiar with them, it’s easy to find yourself in an unfriendly spot, which is why so much conflict erupted. We were also surprised that there were Mural revering “heroes” in one neighborhood, and memorials dedicated to that “hero’s” victims just a few blocks over.
Today, most of the more violent murals have been removed in favor of themes focusing on a path forward- like this one from a woman’s group in Belfast highlighting the roles of females in their community.
You can also sign the Peace Wall – Belfast has become such a popular city that every two weeks, all of the signatures (in Sharpie) are painted over to make room for new signees. It was really inspiring.
To be safe, all the same, the gates between the neighborhoods are locked each evening.
After the tour, we moseyed through the Cathedral Quarter at a variety of pubs and visited Kelly’s Cellars for drinks before a really great dinner at the Crown Liquor Saloon.
After being poured on all day, we decided to hang it up at an earlier time than normal for us in Ireland, so that we had plenty of energy for our following day. We enjoyed a great breakfast at the AC Hotel Belfast and proceeded on the amazing Causeway Coastal drive.
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What an adventure!