Belfast, Northern Ireland — For many people, a city break is a perfect antidote to counteract the drudgery of a working routine. For inspiration, inhabitants of the United Kingdom often turn to the sophisticated urbanity of mainland Europe. Yet a brisker, inexpensive flight across the Atlantic reveals a surprising contender.
Northern Ireland is drawing tourists in increasingly prodigious numbers. And it’s easy to see why. Belfast, the nation’s capital, is a city on the rise, exuding warmth, charm and containing a rich historical backdrop for visitors to immerse themselves in. What’s more, just over an hour from the capital is an abundance of dramatic coastline and natural beauty.
Belfast is a city rejuvenated, yet it is inextricably bound to its industrial and political history. This makes for a fascinating visit. By day, tourists can wander around iconic landmarks such as the Titanic Museum. Come evening, a stop into one of the bars can pave the way for an enthralling night of traditional Irish music and revelry.
Northern Ireland’s capital was once a titan of Industry and innovation. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, its shipyards produced the greatest ocean-faring vessel the world has ever seen. The HMS Titanic museum pays homage to this aforementioned ship and is packed full of fascinating exhibits detailing the production of the doomed ocean liner.
Fast-forwarding 50 years reveals another poignant and interesting chapter in Belfast’s past, The Troubles. Sectarian violence and tension were rife between Catholic and Protestant communities between 1969 and 1998. Belfast is recovering from its turbulent past and is now one of the safest cities in the United Kingdom; however, it does not intend to forget its events. Visitors can catch a glimpse of what life was like at the height of the troubles by visiting the Crumlin Prison in North Belfast. The former gaol is the last Victorian-era prison left and housed inmates up until 1996. Tourists can walk the eerie iron walls, gaining a perspective of life behind bars, from the prison governor’s office to the cells of political dissidents.
For those who find their interest piqued by such a visit, Belfast’s black cab tours provide further insight into the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Participants are taken to parts of the city that are still segregated by an unbiased tour guide with extensive local knowledge. This is not an experience for the faint-hearted but is as intense as it is thought-provoking.
What trip to Belfast would not be complete without spending an evening sequestered in a charming Northern Irish bar. To this end, visitors are spoiled by the sheer variety on offer. The Five Points bar situated on the Dublin Road frequently has live traditional music which can be enjoyed with a pint of Guinness, of course. Another option is Maddens, which can be found on Berry street. This bar is a little more locally orientated and also has live music every night, alongside boasting a fireplace that makes it an extremely inviting location during the winter months.
Found in Country Antrim, just a 90-minute drive from Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway is a geological moonscape of surreal beauty. Legend has it that the causeway was created amidst a violent battle between an Irish Giant (Finn MacCcool) and his Scottish adversary, as both hurled rocks at one another. The reality is no less impressive. Formed between 50 and 60 million years ago, these pillars result from molten rock infiltrating the chalky earth before rupturing horizontally and vertically.
The end result is 40,000 Basalt pillars which protrude upward in a myriad of shapes and sizes. The causeway was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986 and is now among the country’s most popular tourist attractions. It is possible to walk along the pillars and capture photos of the onrushing sea engulfing them at high tide. It is free to venture onto the Causeway, but those via the visitor’s center will be charged a small fee.
To reach the causeway, visitors have the option of booking on to a daylong tour or hiring a car and driving themselves. Those who undertake it independently are free to advantage of the spectacular hikes encompassing several kilometers of striking coastline. Full-day coach tours usually cost in the region £25.
The Dark Hedges
A half-hour drive inland from the Causeway reveals another of Antrim’s treasures. On the road between Armoy and Stranocum is a group of around 90 ancient beech trees. They lean gracefully over the road, branches intermingling to create a magnificent tunnel. Their beauty is a result of their collective longevity. Planted in 1775 and forming tunnel 0.6 miles long, the trees were intended to create a striking entrance to nearby Gracehill Estate; sufficed to say they fulfilled their purpose.
Around 90 original 150 trees remain. They have become known as The Dark Hedges, and their ability to lend gravitas to a scene has not gone unnoticed. They feature in Game of Thrones as the ‘King’s Road’ and in Transformers ‘The Last Knight.’
The best time to visit is an hour before dusk when the sun’s rays catch the trunks. The isolated serenity is occasionally punctuated by busloads of tourists stopping in, so patience is the name of the game for those hoping for a completely unobstructed photo of the whole avenue. (Something this writer didn’t quite have the patience for).
To reach the dark hedges, visitors have several options. They can book on to a day tour from Belfast, which will cost around £35, and take them to several other Game of Thrones-themed locations.
Those with their own car can drive from Belfast in just over an hour and find parking Hedges Hotel in Ballinea Road. Alternatively, those on more of a budget can make use of public transport. The Translink 178 bus takes two hours and stops in the town of ClintyFinnan, a 20-minute walk from the hedges.
Check out our complete list of affordable hotels and resorts via Agoda, or you may also see available Airbnb properties in the city.
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