Why you should be visiting the UK’s other capitals – Belfast
London sits comfortably atop the table of most visited cities in the world; and with its countless sights it’s really not hard to know why. Like really, is there a more famous clocktower than Big Ben? Or a better-known Royal family than the Royal Family? In fact, London’s iconic landmarks, including its modes of transport – double-deckers, anyone? – have become synonymous with Britain and Britishness.
Yet, London is but one of the UK’s many and varied cities, actually, it is but one of four capitals in the land. The ‘home countries’ of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each proudly host their own capital cities. And each of these are as much a beacon of their nation’s culture, as an intrinsic component of Britishness. Whether it’s the swaying of kilts in Edinburgh, a love of choirs in Cardiff, or a proud shipping heritage in Belfast, there’s plenty to explore in these Great British capitals. So, if you’re planning on making a trip to the UK, think outside the (London) box and consider visiting Edinburgh, Cardiff, and/or Belfast instead.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Across the Irish Sea you find another of the UK’s capital cities, Belfast. Famed for its industrial past as one of the world’s busiest commercial and industrial ports – where the RMS Titanic was built – and more recently as one of the main locations for the filming of Game of Thrones, the city and surrounding area is a wildcard of surprises. The city has confidently shaken off the shroud of the protracted ‘Troubles’ of the twentieth century, with the numbers of tourists visiting Belfast increasing in leaps and bounds over the last few years.
Game of Thrones
Some of the recent boom in tourism has been drawn to this northern portion of the emerald isle as a result of its role in the filming of the critically acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones. From Belfast you can jump on arranged tours of some of Westeros’s most iconic sites. Whether it’s the castle of ‘Winterfell’ (Castle War, County Down), ‘The Kingsroad’ (The Dark Hedges, County Antrim), or the ‘Iron Islands’ (Ballintoy Harbour, County Antrim), there is more than enough Westeros to satisfy fans.
‘Titanic Belfast’, is one of the city’s main attractions. The visitor experience pays homage to the city’s history as a centre of shipbuilding, most famously as the location where the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship was designed, built, and launched. In the large centre you step back in time and revel in the fascinating, if sobering, facts and figures of one of the twentieth century’s most tragic shipping accidents. Expect to see replica exhibits of the ship’s interior, including plush first-class cabins and the hellish engine rooms, where operators worked round the clock to keep the steam engines fired up.
When visiting the city centre Belfast you have plenty of opportunity to do your mandatory shopping as well as to take in some of the city’s architectural delights – the Baroque Revival City Hall being par excellence. In the centre too you will encounter a surprising number of quality restaurants, where you can indulge in Belfast’s culinary renaissance. Fish is typically the speciality, and one of the best places to enjoy some fresh catch is The Ginger Bistro, whose haddock and sea bass have been delighting foodies since 2000 – make use of the pre-theatre menu (the restaurant is next to the Opera) for a better deal. Just down the road from the Ginger Bristo is one of Belfast’s most iconic bars, the Crown Liquor Saloon (aka the Crown Bar). A vestige of the Victorian era, this bar, owned by the National Trust, will not only wet your taste buds but will do so while time shifting you back 150 years.
In the centre you’ll also find the fortified Crumlin Road Gaol (Prison), whose axe-shaped wrought iron fencing are harbingers for the chilling history hidden within. At ‘the Crum’ you can take a number of tours of the prison’s various epochs. But the half-day ‘Troubles’ tour, which spans both the prison and city, is by far the most recommendable. The tour is an exposé of the ethno-nationalist conflict that long plagued the country and city, and to some extent continues to simmer beneath the surface. In the tour you meet ex-Loyalist and Republican inmates, and visit some of the city’s more notorious mural-filled streets.
The Giant’s Causeway Coast
Finally, you cannot leave Northern Ireland without making a trip to the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast, in County Antrim, on the north coast of the island. The Causeway is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of some 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed between 50 and 60 million years ago . The hexagonal columns which span a wide area of the coast are one of the natural world’s most striking wonders. And the Gaelic legend of a battle between giants makes the Causeway all the more mystical.
Find the best hotels when visiting Belfast with Nustay
Words: Jeremy Sacramento