An Introduction to Belfast, Northern Ireland's Capital

The River Lagan in Belfast, Ireland.
Neil Carey Photography / Getty Images

Belfast is Ireland's second largest city, as well as the largest city and capital of Northern Ireland - and a bustling place full of live, much changed from the days of the "Troubles". Located on the border of the counties of Antrim and Down in the province of Ulster, Belfast is at the head of Belfast Lough on the north-eastern coast of Ireland. Its population is around 330,000 (City only, the metropolitan area is estimated at around 600,000 inhabitants).

Belfast's History

Belfast was little more than a castle guarding the Lagan crossing until 1603, when Sir Arthur Chichester received the land and built a fortified town on the mostly boggy ground. During the second half of the 18th century, Belfast was rejuvenated and became the "Athens of the North", soon changing into an industrial city with linen and shipbuilding as dominating factors.

When Belfast became a city in 1888 its population had grown by 400% in fifty years, most people living in red-brick terraces and working in factories or shipyards. The late 19th century also saw the growth of civic splendor and academic as well as scientific achievement. The launch of the Titanic in 1911 represented the zenith of this development.

Being a socially as well as politically deeply divided city (the Catholic population tended to be poorer on a large scale), Belfast was made capital of Northern Ireland in 1921, hit by the depression in the 1930s and "blitzed" by German bombers in the 1940s.

After the Second World War Belfast never recovered and the start of the "Troubles" in 1969 made the city synonymous with civil unrest and terrorism. Between 1971 and 1991 a full third of the population fled the city! Only with the cessation of violence in the mid-1990s and under the impression of the Good Friday Agreement (1998) did Belfast start to recover.

Modern Belfast

Driving into Belfast one cannot help but notice signs of the troubled past. Fortress-like police stations, "peace lines" (high walls separating Protestant and Catholic communities) and sometimes garish murals remembering past heroes abound.

But the visitor will be surprised by the normality encountered in the city center. Where handbags were hand-searched at strongly fortified control points only a few years ago, shoppers stroll and the occasional street trader praises his wares.

Ex-prisoners offer guided tours to the hotspots of Republican history, souvenir shops occasionally sell paramilitary regalia and police cars are not necessarily armor-plated anymore. Despite sectarian tension occasionally flaring up in the suburbs, the city center itself is remarkably similar to other British cities. With a touch of Irishness thrown in.

Belfast for the Visitor

Belfast is a fairly modern city with a bubbly nightlife, good shopping and some sights of interest. Tourism is still being developed and attractions are neither as plentiful nor as obvious as they are in Dublin. Navigating Belfast can be unnerving in a car as well as on foot, with one-way-systems obviously designed with a rabbit warren in mind and routes not dictated by logic but by "peace lines". And you may expect to find yourself in a visibly sectarian area around the next corner.

Having said that, Belfast should be considered as generally "safe" for the visitor. Unless you are displaying offending slogans or symbols (e.g. IRA-related t-shirts are openly available, but wearing them is asking for trouble).

Belfast has no "season" as such. Sectarian tension tends to increase around July 12th and the celebrations to remember the Battle of the Boyne.

Places to Visit

City Hall, the splendid Grand Opera House, the historic Crown Liquor Saloon, the Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum are must-sees. Anyone interested in industrial or maritime heritage should have a look around Laganside, join a boat tour of the extensive harbor, admire the towering cranes of Harland & Wolff ("Samson" and "Goliath") and the new Lagan Weir. Lovers of nature can explore the Cave Hill area high above the city and stop into Belfast Castle to search for its artistic cats, or spend an enjoyable half day at Belfast Zoo nearby.

And those interested in Belfast's troubled past can do worse than take a "Black Taxi Tour" to the murals.

The best museums of Belfast are the Ulster Museum, detailing the history of the province since the stone age, the splendid Titanic Belfast with its stunning exhibition on the ill-fated liner, and the venerable survivor of the Battle of Jutland, the HMS Caroline.

Places to Avoid?

Even the Falls and Shankill Road areas, republican and loyalist strongholds respectively, are not to be considered "off limits". On the other hand, nearly every spontaneous gathering of young working-class men could spell trouble and should be regarded as a warning sign.

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