The European Cities Marketing conference brought me to Belfast in the end of February, I extended my stay to get the chance to see a bit more of the city. I came to Belfast with an open mind and not much of an idea of what to expect, I’d been to Ireland a couple of time before, but not in the Northern part. Thanks to Visit Belfast we learned a lot about the cities’ past and also got an idea of its future.
Belfast has been a struggling city for many years, Northern Ireland not really having been on the spot for many, difficult access and overshadowed by Dublin, the city has worked hard to find a place in tourism and business travel.
Part of the plan to boost interest in the Capital of Northern Ireland has been the massive investment in the new Visitor centre in Belfast city, offering tourists an interactive, modern and state-of-the-art technology to get information on the city before heading out to discover. From my professional background it was very fascinating to see how a city can outmanoeuvre itself from a tricky position in to being one of the top destinations in the UK. Additional attention came through HBO’s “Game of Thrones” which was partly filmed around the city, and the new Titanic quarters.
Wednesday – Friday: Belfast city & the Titanic quarters
The conference venue, the majestic Merchant Hotel, impressed (and intimidated) me with its modern Art Deco inspired interior and the massive Victorian Great Hall. And the Rooftop hot tub. With a great view over the city of Belfast and the perfect surroundings to a relaxing Saturday morning that absolutely was the highlight of my stay. The previous evening I tried the rooftop sauna with that same fantastic view, alone the access to that gym area would make a stay in the hotel worthwhile. Although the Full Irish Breakfast I got to enjoy after my hot top visit, was actually the cherry on the icing. I could get used to breakfasting in such a hall.
During the conference days I did some casual walking around, and just enjoyed the city and watched its people. Thursday night we were taken to the only recently (well, 2012) completed Titanic quarters. The Belfast Titanic quarters are a newly designed urban quarter on the grounds where the legendary RMS Titanic was designed and constructed, including a huge museum and visitor centre.
Unlike most exhibitions and such things related to the unsinkable Titanic and its tragic destiny, the Belfast visitor experiences takes you on a discovery of the times of its construction, what it meant for the city of Belfast. You can gaze at replicas of the ships cabins and take a projected elevator ride through the insides of the Titanic, from the engine compartments, the third class accommodation, all the way up to the first class dining rooms and the bridge. The approach that does not focus on tragedy, conspiracy theories about the sinking of the Titanic, was really quite refreshing. But I also have a thing for (cruise) ships. The following dinner included steak. I was happy.
“Well she was fine when she left Belfast!”
Saturday: St George’s Market & Sea Hill walk
Apart from walking around, I bought flat shoes and a leather jacket. I visited the St George’s Market hall as recommended by a lovely lady in the Belfast visitor centre. From back in Helsinki I know and enjoy the atmosphere of market halls, whereas St George’s is still quite different from the ones back home. Open cooking, lots of local artists selling handicrafts and jewellery – really more like a market under a roof than a market hall with little booths like the ones we have in Helsinki. I got a way too carroty carrot-apple-ginger juice and enjoyed some live music amongst locals with their breakfast.
Now that I had flat shoes, I wanted to see some nature, the seaside and do some walking. I had decided to not visit the castle at Carrickfergus, but to take a train towards Bangor, step off at Sea Hill and walk along the coast. Well, it appears that Irish people have a different understanding of distance and time, as it turned out I was sent on a 11km hike when I asked for “a nice walk by the sea” (which was indeed very nice and beautiful). After two hours of walking, breathing fresh air and listening to the sea, I decided to head back to Belfast and find some food, unfortunately it started raining very heavily, so the evening ended rather quietly for me.
So. Why should you go on a city break to Belfast?
- Once you’re there – it’s super easy to get around. The Belfast city airport is only about 8km from the centre and the city itself is easily explored by foot. Since it’s so small you won’t get lost or lose orientation fast 🙂
- Those Belfastians*! From what I got from the locals I met, they are very proud of their fellow citizens “people here are very nice, don’t you think?”. And they are! Everyone was warm and helpful, from the lovely hotel staff to the ladies I asked for a restaurant advice on the street.
- Close to nature – this is always important for me, as much as I love cities, I love them even more when I can quickly escape from them. A short train trip got me to Sea Hill. Alternatively you can visit (amongst others) Carrickfergus castle which is close-by or take a day trip to the Giant’s Causeway (where you might encounter Theon Greyjoy).
- Shoppppping – in addition to the easily overseeable shopping streets in the centre like the Royal Avenue, the Victoria square gives you plenty of opportunities to throw your money out the window. Which is good and bad.
- Affordable – London’s prices punched me in the face after I got there from Belfast. Prices in Belfast are mostly quite reasonable, from accommodation to food and also shopping, you can get around without spending too much. You can save a good amount of money by skipping public transport and make your way around the city on foot.
- If you’re interested in the Titanic’s and generally shipbuilding history, Belfast has more to offer than just the Titanic visitor experience. You can also visit the SS Nomadic, the last ship that remained from the White Star Line – unfortunately I didn’t have time for that. Also, from an urban development kind of point, the Titanic Quarters make a really interesting case study.
*At this point I’d like to express my genuine thanks to the taxi driver that saved me on Sunday morning. Thanks to a horrendous night at the Linen Hostel I was staying at, I was fully incapable of coordinating myself and my upcoming trip to London, that I almost missed my flight. With a war-cry-like “you gotta support a woman on a mission” – he hit the gas pedal and I made it. Thank you, you very nice Belfastian taxi driver. I hope I tipped you adequately.
(All pictures taken by me, except the group photo which was sent to me by Visit Belfast – thank you for that!)