Where were you when you found out that the UK was leaving the EU? As I think back to the work trip I took to Northern Ireland at the end of June, I can’t help but remember it in the light of the referendum as I was there for both the day of the vote and the day of the result. The taxi driver who drove me up to Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly building, wasted no time in telling me why he was voting to leave the EU. It was also a key reference point as university professors spoke to the group of students on our trip about culture and identity in Northern Ireland. As my colleagues and I mulled over the outcome on the morning of the result, I lost count of how many students asked us how we were feeling. Life had changed; work had to go on.
Life-changing national decisions aside, Belfast, the second biggest city on the Irish land-mass, ticked all my boxes. Here’s a snippet of things I enjoyed:
Stormont is the name given to the Parliament buildings which host the Northern Irish assembly, set high up in the majestic grounds of Stormont estate. The formation of the assembly was a result of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, brought about in an attempt to end the turbulent 30-year period of troubles in the country.
The first stop in my work trip was a private tour of Stormont – a tour I would say is well worth doing. It’s a stunning architectural building, with a significant purpose, in an awe-inspiring location – what’s not to love? It was here that I was told that the national colour of St Patrick is actually blue, not green. Say what?
Public tours are available Monday-Friday at 11am and 2pm, free of charge.
(2) Taxi tour
My exposure to Northern Ireland only really began at university where I met many a Northern-Irish student who had descended on Edinburgh for their studies. My trip to Belfast enabled me to reunite with two of my university friends Fi and Dan, who had recently moved back to Dan’s native Northern Ireland. “Would you be interested in doing a taxi tour?” Fi had asked, as we made plans to meet in the city. After a quick google, I immediately said yes. I had always been a bit vague on Northern Irish history and this seemed like a good opportunity to learn more.
Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours offer a range of taxi tours around Belfast and the surrounding area, depending on what you want to see. Your driver is your personal tour guide. We opted for an hour-and-a-half tour of the political murals that are dotted around the city, largely in the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, and the infamous peace wall, a four-kilometre wall originally built to separate the nationalists from the loyalists. The taxi tour takes you to parts of the city you just wouldn’t go to on foot; in most cases we didn’t get out of the car.
So am I now an expert on Northern Irish history? Er, no. To be honest, I came out of the tour as confused as I’d entered. “I don’t even fully understand our history,” Dan reassured me. However, for those of you who are even more clueless than me, I will attempt to explain the basics.
The essence of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland stems from a divide in opinion over where Northern Ireland belongs: as part of the UK, or as part of the Republic of Ireland. Note, the very concept of a “Northern Ireland” only dates back to 1921. To broadly summarise, Catholics (nationalists) are traditionally considered to be in favour of reunification with the Republic of Ireland whilst Protestants (loyalists) are mostly content to remain part of the UK. For many, this debate has not reached a conclusion and communities are divided. In Belfast today, there are still distinct Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods and 90% of schools are still segregated.
“You can’t beat me; all you can do is kill me.”
What did become clearly apparent was the scale of the effect of this ongoing debate; so many people have died for either side of the cause, or died because they were simply in the wrong place, of the wrong perceived religion, at the wrong time. The murals are largely in memory of those people. To enhance this message of remembrance, our taxi driver took us to a graveyard. This was one of the few times we did get out of the car as he showed us the graves of particular men who had fought for what they believed in and sacrificed their lives.
“It’s almost impossible to kill a belief.”
An hour and a half tour with Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours costs £30 for 1-3 people.
(3) Giant’s Causeway
If you know anything about Northern Ireland, you probably know about the Giant’s Causeway. 40,000 interlocking columns stick out from the sea on the northern coast of the island, making up Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d been once before with another university friend but my main memory from that first visit consists of hiding behind a big rock, sheltering from the wind and rain. I was very pleased to be going for a second time, in considerably more favourable weather conditions. Thanks, work. Sidebar, Dishoom you should be paying me for this great marketing I am doing below.
So great for a general clamber. The Giant’s Causeway also has a pretty great visitor centre with lots of history about the site, an extravagant gift shop for all your tourist needs, and if you’re lucky, they might even be showing Ice Age on a big screen.
Adult entry for the Giant’s Causeway is £9 (£7.50 if booked online).
(4) Carrick a Rede Bridge
As much as it was cool to return to the Giant’s Causeway in sunshine, the highlight was yet to come. The Carrick-a-Rede bridge links the mainland to the very teeny island of Carrickarede and the walk to the bridge, along the cliffs, is simply stunning.
Dishoom, that’s twice in one blog post.
I was feeling quite chicken on this particular day and watched my friends bound over the very short (but very high!) rope bridge. Still, the view from afar rewarded regardless.
Adult entry for the Carrick-a-Rede bridge walk is £5.90.
(5) City centre
Ok, what if you are just a casual hipster, strolling the city, looking for things to Instagram? What can Belfast offer? A natural starting point is City Hall. With its central location, the Stormont-cousin-esque building essentially dividies the commerical and business districts of the city and offers daily, free public tours too. If you’re as big a fan of the building as I am, I highly recommend having lunch at Robinson and Cleaver as its first floor terrace has a rather magical view over to the other side of the road.
After I’d basked in the sun, overlooking City Hall, I met up with my old university flatmate Carys, her husband Roxy and their gorgeous wee baby Emma. Together we went to St George’s Market, the last surviving Victorian indoor market in Belfast, where you can buy fresh local produce, art, antiques, etc. In an era of chain-takeovers, I love seeing thriving markets like this in existence, especially when they are so popular with tourists and locals alike. There was live music while we were there which added to the general buzz and bustling atmosphere of the market and it seemed to be a haven for people who wanted to chill out, have a seat, and watch the world go by.
I have no photos of the market itself but how cute is Emma?!
Many cities have a claim on Titanic (Liverpool, Southampton), but Belfast has one of the biggest claims: the RMS Titanic was built here. “Built by an Irishman, sunk by an Englishman,” our tour guide at Stormont had told us. (He then went on to confess that that wasn’t stricly true as the Englishman had gone to have his dinner and it was a Scotsman, 1st Officer Murdoch, who was left at the mast. However, the Irish keep that quiet as Scotland and Ireland are pals. Naturally, I approve.)
In 2012, Titanic Belfast, a tourist attraction dedicated to telling the story of the Titanic, opened its doors to the public. I haven’t actually been here yet myself – need to keep something for my next visit – but I did handily take this great, sunny Titanic photo on another work trip last year. According to the website, it’s Europe’s leading visitor attraction in 2016, so like, no big deal.
If you’re looking for dinner, I recommend Made in Belfast, a trendy gastropub located in both City Hall and the Cathedral Quarter. The food is made from local, sustainable sources, the decor is shabby chic at its best, and the title has the word Belfast in it, which can only be a good thing when it comes to reaching out to your Northern Irish audience on Instagram.
For drinks, the Cathedral Quarter is a cool place to hang out. I met up with my final pair of university friends here, Justin and Lizzie, and whilst not discussing the ins and outs of the referendum results, marvelled over the quirky, umbrella-dangling, grafitti-covered alleyways.
Have I sold Belfast to you yet?
Big thanks to Dani Carlucci for her various photos that have featured in this blog post.