Taking the theme song literally — the Titanic’s heart “will go on and on” — the city that built the classic liner is embracing the Titanic’s past and gearing up to acknowledge the April 14th centennial of the ill-fated voyage. There are plans for exhibits, tours, events and meals aimed at every age group. Adding in the city’s intrinsic wealth of historic attractions, Belfast is poised to be an ideal destination for the family.
Founded in 1613 on the slimy shores of the lough, or mouth, of the Lagan River, the Belfast settlement burgeoned into one of Europe’s leading industrial centers. Linen, tobacco and rope manufacturing were major businesses, and by the mid-1900s, Belfast had the biggest and most productive shipyard in the world.
Constructing monuments in exuberant Victorian architecture, the merchants and gentry sprinkled the streets with buildings dating from the period of prosperity, notably the fanciful “wedding cake” City Hall and eccentric Albert Memorial Clock, which was built on unstable reclaimed ground that has shifted so that the tower tilts noticeably to one side (locals say Prince Albert has both the time and the inclination).
When she embarked on her maiden voyage, the Titanic was the largest, heaviest, most expensive and most luxurious manmade moving object on the planet. Justifiably proud, grown men cried when news of the iceberg catastrophe reached the city, and after World War I, Belfast fell into decline. Now recovering from “the Troubles” — sectarian conflicts between Republican and Loyalist forces which flared from the 1970s to the ’90s — the city is bouncing back with vigor. With the second-largest retail center in Ireland, including Microsoft and Citigroup installations, low unemployment and almost half of the population under age 30, Belfast is one of the five fastest-growing regional economies in the United Kingdom.
Two gigantic yellow cranes commanding the skyline (nicknamed Samson and Goliath) are a constant reminder of the city’s illustrious past, at the time when the Harland and Wolff shipyard dominated the world. Still home to the world’s largest dry dock, with new malls and skyscrapers springing up, the city is a picturesque mix of old and new. The modern multistory Victoria Square shopping complex is mere steps from the authentic redbrick St. George’s Market, dating from the Victorian Age.
Leading Belfast’s refurbishment, the vast space that housed the derelict shipyards is being reclaimed as the Titanic Quarter, with developers spending more than $7 billion to build riverside offices, industries and apartments.
At the heart of this revitalization, authentic Titanic sites are being reclaimed for tourist opportunities. At the head of the actual slipways where the huge liner was built and launched, the new Titanic Belfast is a multimedia facility with interactive exhibits tracing the ship’s history. Designed with an exterior that emulates the ship’s actual prow, the imposing new structure houses galleries that start with a journey through 1900s Belfast and proceed through the construction, outfitting and launch of the mighty liner. Visitors view artifacts and replicas of the ship’s gear and furnishings, and the visit concludes with an opportunity to walk over a recreation of the wreck in its current resting place projected on a floor below.
At the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, “TITANICa: The Exhibition” displays cases of artifacts salvaged from the seabed: a faux-ivory hand mirror, a soup plate from the third-class dining room, a Café Parisien demitasse cup. The museum provides a special “Kids Trail” pamphlet guiding children past portholes, riveters and other historic aspects in the museum park’s Bally-cultra Town of preserved historic houses.
Besides walking tours, visitors can participate in excursions by boat, car and bus to visit nostalgic shipyard sights. The SS Nomadic, a tender built especially to take the last passengers from the dock at Cherbourg to their final voyage, is on view in the lean-to where it is being reconditioned so that visitors can set foot on an actual deck where ill-fated passengers embarked.
Exhibits at the Dock & Pump-House review the ship’s construction though the eyes of a young apprentice. Impersonating an onboard sous chef, a guide leads patrons on a gourmet food tour, sampling local fare in shops and cafés around the city. On a floating barge, dinner is served in a galley dining room next to maritime displays; and out along the lough, Rayanne House country inn serves the Titanic Menu, a recreation of the multicourse last dinner served to first-class passengers.
But the Titanic is only one facet of the tourist opportunities offered in a city replete with history and culture. Strolling through the history-steeped Saint Anne’s Quarter by the Cathedral, visit the World War II Exhibition with touching accounts of Belfast’s brief role in the war. After viewing the neighborhood’s lively arts scene, this is a good place to poke into timeless pubs: the Spaniard, Deer’s Head, Morning Star, Duke of York and John Hewitt’s.
In the Quarter around Queens University, students bustle around bookstores and coffee shops mixed in among trendy boutiques. The Botanic Garden and its notable Palm House are located here, and the comprehensive Ulster Museum displays classic European pictures along with prehistoric artifacts; Armada treasures; and works by Irish painters, glassmakers, ceramicists and silversmiths.
Back downtown, the modern Odyssey Complex houses a versatile Arena that hosts rock concerts, shows, ice skating and the 5W (Whowhatwhenwherewhy) interactive discovery science center that’s a favorite of children, who can also enjoy excursions to the Belfast Zoo or visits to Streamvale, a family-run open farm.
Tours of West Belfast along Falls and Shankill roads, the “battleground” of the civil unrest, offer on-the-spot history lessons. Black Taxi Tours point out the extensive murals picturing heroes and martyrs and stop by the Peace Line, where visitors can add their own messages of goodwill.
Home to more than 20 hurling and football clubs, Belfast is a good place to take in a game of Irish football, which obsesses local fans. Also popular with spectators, ice hockey games featuring the local Belfast Giants are played in Odyssey Arena.
The Titanic 100 Festival (www.belfastcity.gov.uk/titanic) began last March, and 2012 events include lectures, the Titanic Belfast opening, Titanic the Musical on stage and requiem and commemoration services to be held on the April anniversary. Belfast also has plans in the upcoming months for festivals focused on film, chamber music and street buskers, plus the World Irish Dancing Championships and the Annual Belfast Spring Fair. Whether following the Titanic trail or merely visiting a historic city, families can be sure that the attractions of Belfast go on and on.
Info To Go
While flights from the United Kingdom land predominately at George Best Belfast City Airport (BHD) on the edge of town, most visitors arrive at the larger Belfast International Airport (BFS) in Aldergrove, about half an hour’s drive from city center. Bus service to town runs every hour or half-hour ($16 one way). Only approved taxis are found in the taxi rank; cab fare into town is about $40, and a taxi share scheme is available. The Belfast Welcome Centre, half a block from City Hall on Donegall Place, provides literary and music iPhone apps, free maps and extensive information. Visit www.gotobelfast.com.
Hilton Belfast Hotel: Guestrooms have spectacular Lagan River views in this glass high-rise between the train station and Waterfront Hall. Cribs, high chairs and children’s menus available. 4 Lanyon Place, tel 44 28 9027 7000, www.hilton.com $$$
Hilton Templepatrick Hotel & Country Club: The hotel on the grounds of Castle Upton has a pond, a golf course and a spa. Children under 18 stay free with parents. Castle Upton Estate, Templepatrick, tel 44 28 9443 5500, www.hilton .com $$$
Radisson Blu Hotel, Belfast: Located in the Gasworks area and an easy walk from city center, this chic hotel has access to a world-class gym and on-site parking. 3 Cromac Place, Ormeau Road, tel 44 28 9043 4065, www.radissonblu.com $$$
Metro Brasserie: A sophisticated young crowd gathers for cod and chips, baked chicken and berry sundaes in this casual, updated classic brasserie. The Crescent Townhouse Hotel, 13 Lower Crescent, tel 44 28 9032 3349, www.crescenttown house.com $$
Mourne Seafood Bar: It’s worth waiting in line for the affordably priced fresh oysters, mussels and seafood platters at this comfortable classic. Children very welcome. 34-36 Bank St., tel 44 28 9024 8544, www .mourneseafood.com $$
Nicks Warehouse: The namesake cookbook author and chef converted a Bushmills warehouse into one of the city’s most popular venues, serving classics with a contemporary twist. 35-39 Hill St., tel 44 28 9043 9690, http://www.nicksware house.co.uk $$
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