Belfast - Attractions
Belfast City Hall
Dominating Donegall Square, and indeed the city, Belfast's imposing City Hall is a neo-Renaissance monolith of Portland stone pillars, pediments and parapets. The building's facade is rigidly symmetrical once more now that the huge 'Belfast Says No' banner has gone (negating the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which for the first time gave the Dublin government a consultative role in Northern Ireland's affairs), and the interior is a sombre riot of Italian marble and oak panelling. The perimeter is dotted with statuary, notably a suitably dour-looking Queen Victoria, a monument to the victims of the Titanic and a statue of Sir Edward Harland, founder of the Harland & Wolff shipyard which constructed the doomed liner.
Donegall Square is lined with fancifully ornate edifices such as the Scottish Provident Building, littered with statues of industrial icons, sphinxes, dolphins and lions' heads. The Linen Hall Library nearby was established in 1788 'to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general inquiry'. Its famed Irish and local-studies collection includes a copy of everything written about Northern Ireland politics since 1966.
If you're all tuckered out after pounding Belfast's pavements, head for the immaculate Botanic Gardens, just south of Queen's University. The gardens' curvaceous cast-iron and glass Palm House was built by the architect of Kew's famous palm house. There's also a Tropical Ravine, an imaginatively designed jungle of tropical plants inhabited by tiny terrapins. The excellent Ulster Museum is just south of the Palm House. Pop in for the lowdown on early Irish history, Irish linen and glass, industrial machines and Irish painting, and don't miss the sumptuous gold jewellery discovered in the 1588 wreck of a Spanish Armada vessel. The gardens are also shared by the Tudorish Queen's College, built in 1849 and inspired by Oxford's Magdalen College. The Union Theological College nearby hosted the Northern Ireland Parliament until 1932, when it transferred 8km (5mi) away to the purpose-built Stormont Castle. Adjacent University Square is one of Ireland's finest terraces, with a score of student-packed cafes hidden away in its quiet, tree-lined streets.
The Cathedral Quarter has been transformed over recent years from a somewhat forlorn area of run-down warehouses into a trendified enclave of restaurants and bars. The vibrant precinct epitomises Belfast's new sense of optimism, buoyed by a strong sense of community and cultural regeneration; it's named for St Anne's Cathedral, the final resting place of Edward Carson, architect of Ireland's partition. There's a number of notable buildings in the vicinity, in particular the grand old 1860 Ulster Bank with its cast-iron lamps, columns and sculptures, interior ceilings chased with chubby cherubs, and iron railings bearing the Red Hand of Ulster, the powerful provincial symbol. The former Belfast Bank building dates back to 1769 in parts, making it the city's oldest public building.
Crown Liquor Saloon
The Crown Liquor Saloon, like the Grand Opera House, is a fine example of Robert McKinstry's restoration skills. This is Victorian pub architecture at its most flamboyant, with cut-glass, marble, mosaic and mahogany details galore, gas lighting, brocade-lined walls and multi-patterned tiled floors. If it's all too heady, try to nab one of the 'snugs', the private drinking booths that come complete with match strikers and bells for service.
Grand Opera House
One of Belfast's landmarks, the opera house is an extravagantly balconied confection of over-the-top Victoriana, replete with red satin and swirling gilded plasterwork. The venue opened in 1895 and was derelict for many years before being refurbished by master restorer Robert McKinstry in 1980.
Like most of the world's big riverside cities, Belfast is spending a heap of money and energy on the redevelopment of its docklands and waterways. The Lagan Weir launched the city's ambitious Laganside Development Project, transforming unsightly mudflats into a clean, deep river which is now attracting salmon, eels and sea trout. The weir is lit a brilliant blue at night, and features a lookout and visitor centre. The Lagan's facelift has continued apace, with the Waterfront Hall and Odyssey entertainment complexes, riverside apartments and restored warehouse accommodation, linked by a network of parks, public spaces, pathways and footbridges.
The cluster of narrow alleyways (known as 'entries') running off High and Ann Sts is all that remains of Belfast's oldest quarter, thanks to the heavy bombing of WWII. At one time the alleyways were bustling commercial and residential centres, but these days only the glorious old pubs remain. Mix some history with a spot of Guinness by dropping into Kelly's Cellars, meeting place of Wolfe Tone's United Irishmen, and be sure to visit White's Tavern, Belfast's oldest pub (1630). Other quaint hostelries in this atmospheric district include the gastronomically famous Morning Star and Globe Tavern.
For a vicarious glimpse of the Troubles' frontline, take a black taxi tour to the concrete and barbed wire of West Belfast, separated from the heart of the city by the Westlink motorway. This bleak area of low-cost working-class housing dates from the time West Belfast was the hub of the city's linen industry, and today it is almost wholly Catholic. Many of the battleworn terraces and tower blocks have gone, but the main reasons for visiting remain - those famously iconic sectarian murals. The Catholic/Republican murals around Falls Rd first appeared in 1981 in support of the hunger strikers; the mural of Bobby Sands near the Sinn Féin offices is particularly famous. Other themes include the Potato Famine, Celtic and religious imagery, the recent Agreement and the cease-fire. The loyalist murals are more militaristic, and are concentrated on Shankill Rd. The first loyalist mural was painted in 1908, and yes, you guessed it, it depicted King Billy on his white horse. Today's icons include members of the Ulster Defence Organisation, as well as those Derry apprentice boys slamming the city gates in 1688.