Here's a problem - how do you create a visitor attraction dealing with a city's most famous ever achievement, if that achievement left almost no tangible trace, and is now lying at the bottom of the North Atlantic to boot?
Titanic Belfast, the multi-level, multimedia-savvy, and certainly eye-catching development in Belfast's old docklands seems to have pulled it off. With clever use of modern technology, and a wide open empty space.
Location, Location, Titanic Location
With the decline in industry in general, and shipbuilding in particular, Belfast was left with a legacy of wide, empty spaces. Which have slowly been redeveloped. Like into the George Best Belfast City Airport. Or the "Titanic Studios", where the blockbuster "Game of Thrones" is being filmed. And the name of the latter studios was no mere whim - it actually stands next to the docks where the Titanic was built.
And occupying the site of the actual docks these days ... is Titanic Belfast. Part of the "Titanic Quarter" (which still is very much in the process of redevelopment), just a moderate walk from the city centre, and next to another dock, in which the Titanic's old tender "Nomadic" is now preserved.
What will strike any visitor first is the stunning exterior of Titanic Belfast, all shining metal, and in the form of ships' prows. Towering over everything else in the vicinity, and making a bold statement, claiming the historic ground for all posterity. But can the actual attraction live up to its attractive exterior?
Telling the Titanic's Story - in Context
Telling the Titanic's story, should you actually find somebody who does not know it, is a very short exercise: huge big ship built with lots of hype, full steam ahead, iceberg, over 1,500 dead. Cue Celine Dion. That would make a very dull (and, with yet another rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" mind-numbing) attraction. And not do the Titanic justice at all.
Which must have been what the makers of Titanic Belfast thought as well - so they take you on a whole tour that starts with the basics of shipbuilding and ends with wreck recovery.
One thing that struck me about the whole Titanic Belfast experience is how long they actually took to get to the point. Visitors are not catapulted into 1912 and into a soon-to-be-very-wet deckchair (very much like an episode of "The Time Tunnel", actually the very first episode of which, "Rendezvous with Yesterday", is set on Titanic). Nope, instead you first are educated about shipbuilding and Belfast. In a fun way, and setting the background to the ever more ambitious projects undertaken by Belfast shipyards. The culmination of which was the construction of three sister ships for the White Star Line - Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic (the latter never serving as a liner, but being converted to and sunk as a hospital ship). You then follow the construction of the Titanic from first plans, via lots of riveting, to the launch. All very technical, but well illustrated with models and ... a ride!
Yes, somewhere in the middle you enter a theme-park-like ride through the shipyard, similar in experience to the "Peter Pan" ride at Disneyland, quite sedate, but fun. You can bypass this ride if you want, either because you don't like rides, or because there are queues (this is the only area within the attraction where that is likely to happen).
And after the launch, on you go to the outfitted Titanic. With an almost three-dimensional elevator ride through all decks, with life-size recreations of staterooms and cabins. And while this all is splendid, I must add a caveat here: you'll often see the reconstructed grand staircase that actually is in Titanic Belfast, but this is not in the exhibition, but in a conference and event room that is not part of the general tour. So do not hold your breath for this!
And after all this splendour - the iceberg. The tone of the exhibition becomes quite sombre, and you'll pass a sheer endless wall of life-jackets. Well done, and with a quite chilling effect. Especially as you then go down, down ...
... to the bottom of the sea, where yet another chapter in the Titanic story unfolds. Namely the search for and discovery of the wreck. With yet another great installation, as you can actually walk above the wreckage on a glass floor.
To round it all off, Titanic Belfast also goes into the impact the sinking of the Titanic had. On the one hand on safety at sea. And on the other hand on pop culture, bringing you the moment when Celine takes a deep breath and goes "Near, far, wherever you are ..." Thankfully the only area where the Hollywood version of the tragedy takes over. Which brings me to the question:
Educational or Disneyfication?
I am happy to say - the whole experience is highly educational, very accessible, and avoids all the tear-jerking (and often wrong) clichés. Hats off to Titanic Belfast for achieving that. It could all have gone the other way, and when we entered the ride through the shipyard I already feared it would, but the whole exhibition is done in a very low-key, non-sensational manner. To come up with an analogy: if Titanic Belfast were a newspaper reporting on a tragedy, it would be the Times, not the Sun.
True, there are moments when show elements take over (the ride, the almost ghostly inhabitants of the cabins), but they never distract form the overall more sombre tone. That manages to never become overbearing.
Titanic Belfast is also not an attraction for the ghoulishly inclined, you'll see no artefacts recovered from the wreck. To some this might be disappointing. Yet, having actually seen such artefacts, I cannot help but remark that they were quite unremarkable. Apart, obviously, from the fact that they were recovered after decades, from lightless depths, at an immense cost. But any old piece of cutlery would be "special" if brought back onto dry land under such circumstances.
What More at Titanic Belfast?
Okay, there is a gift shop which actually avoids being tacky, there are quite good restaurants and cafés, overall you are in for a treat. But one thing you should not miss is an actual walk on the decks of Titanic and Olympic. Well, almost.
The outlines of both ships are recreated in the old dock area behind the Titanic Belfast building, towards the open sea. And walking these will actually give you an impression of just how big these steamers were. And just how breezy it could get - with the wind coming from the sea, you'll want a hot cocoa after a few minutes, even on a sunny day. And on a wet, cold day ... you'll head straight for the drinks cabinet.
Opposite the main entrance of Titanic Belfast you'll also see the Nomadic, but this is a separate attraction. Though you may take a walk around the ship for free. And you should, after all it is the last surviving ship of the White Star Line!
And just a short walk away you can also visit HMS Caroline, a survivor of the Battle of Jutland, and until recently the second oldest ship of the Royal Navy!
Titanic Belfast in a Nutshell
1 Olympic Way
Belfast BT3 9EP
Website: Titanic Belfast
- January to March - 10am to 5pm daily
- April and May - 9am to 6pm daily
- June, July, and August - 9am to 7pm daily
- September - 9am to 6pm daily
- October to December - 10am to 5pm daily
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.