Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast is home to the famous creator of Narnia, the holy St. Patrick, Giant’s Causeway and many more family attractions.
For most visitors, a trip to Ireland translates this way: visit Dublin, and perhaps a tour bus to the south’s green countryside. The North Ireland city of Belfast is usually an afterthought, but that’s a mistake. Years ago, during The Troubles, no one — and particularly families — would ever think of Belfast as a tourist destination.
“Why would they want to come here other than to say they survived a trip to Belfast?” sardonically asks Rosemary Connolly, a Blue Badge Irish tour guide. Actually, the three-decades-long strife between Protestants and Catholics ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Peace Accord, heavily influenced by former President Bill Clinton.
How safe is Belfast today? That is always a difficult question to answer because crime can be found anywhere, but tourism officials like to quote a United Nations study that found Northern Ireland’s present-day crime rate is lower than any country worldwide but Japan. Families can expect the Irish to be friendly and patient, unless you profess a British background (“The Troubles” — like the US’s own Civil War — did not come to a sudden screeching halt.)
Belfast is a Budding Tourism Center
Today, this city that never capitalized on its fame as the site where the Titanic was built is hungry for tourists to replace its once strong industrial economic base. They are starting to come to Belfast, where the number of hotel rooms has tripled in just five years. There are cranes everywhere, and the city’s finally getting around to building a museum to promote the Titanic.
Its shipbuilding and linen-making past behind it, Belfast today has two airports, two universities, two cathedrals, and a Grand Opera House with velvety red seats and gold elephants, to serve a population of 600,000. Families can find many other good reasons for coming here, including the centuries-old castles, ancient buildings and the country’s long history.
Parents old enough to remember The Troubles can appreciate revisiting the areas we used to view on the 5 o’clock news. For family members too young to remember, various tours are educational, easily available and inexpensive.
The usual children’s entertainments such as a 36-hole Pirates Adventure Golf can be found in Belfast, but in no other country can you visit the grave and Down Cathedral of St. Patrick, whose life is celebrated every year by millions of people. Another reason to visit Ireland is that it’s like going to see a first cousin. Many of our first presidents such as Andrew Jackson were born in Belfast.
A Weekend Exploring Belfast
This is not a big city such as London or New York offering endless things for tourists to do, but Belfast should not disappoint someone on a short trip.
Since Belfast is not huge, it makes a fine place to walk and families can spend hours doing so. You can get anywhere downtown with a 10 to 15-minute, often wet, stroll from City Hall. Do not miss City Hall or a visit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, which illustrates early Irish lifestyles. The Ulster Museum has perhaps the best collection anywhere of items from the Spanish Armada of 1588.
At least one local writer can appeal to the entire family. C.S. Lewis, the most famous writer in the world in the early to mid-20th century, lived and died here. Visitors can find his home and haunts, including statues that amusingly label him as a “Christian Apologist.” In addition to his religious themes that have long appealed to adults, Lewis was the author of the Narnia books, which were dramatized in the recent Disney movie, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” Some tours trace the influence of the hauntingly beautiful Irish coast and countryside on Lewis’s childhood writings.
Another person influenced by the country was singer-songwriter Van Morrison, who was born in Belfast and is a frequent visitor. You can find his home at 125 Hyndford Street. The “brown-eyed girl” he sings about lived in this modest neighborhood. City officials wanted to mark the songwriter’s home with a billboard but the unassuming Morrison wanted only a small plaque.
Belfast is Home to St. Patrick
In addition to the cultural sights, Northern Ireland has some important spiritual stops. Millions of people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but how many know where he is buried? His church and grave, merely a large granite slab, are perhaps an hour’s drive from Belfast in the small town of Downpatrick, where there’s also an award-winning international cultural center named for him.
Not a lot is known about St. Patrick, but today he is the most celebrated saint of any age. He did not chase the snakes out of Ireland because there aren’t any but he performed a much more valuable service. At a time when pagans worshipped the sun, this former slave named Patrick came to Ireland around 430 AD and spent the reminder of his life spreading Christianity throughout the country. He single-handedly kept the religion alive.
If your family likes churches, you’ll find plenty of places to visit here. There’s a church on just about every corner.
Scenic Giant’s Causeway in Ireland
Since Northern Ireland is itself small, other sights are easily managed if you don’t mind navigating the often narrow streets. If your family is driving, learn to like the left side of the winding roads. And if you need to ask for directions, don’t expect always to understand the Irish. They speak English, of course, but accents can be troublesome.
NORTHERN IRELAND ODDITIES
There are more sheep than people in Northern Ireland – 2.6 million to 1.6 million. Most of them are not sheared and sold as wool because of the poor market but instead end up on French menus.
If someone refers to craic, don’t worry about the drug police. Craic in this context means something good or that you’re having the type of good time you’re almost certain to find in the congenial North Ireland pubs.
There are many natural attractions and another stop I made about an hour’s drive outside of Belfast is certainly a family favorite. It’s the Giant’s Causeway, sometimes said to be Northern Ireland’s most famous sight. This natural pathway is a series of 40,000 stone columns that form steps leading from the cliff and disappearing into the sea.
Geologists say the startling sight of crashing sea waves over huge rocks is the result of intense volcanic activity about 60 million years ago, when molten rock poured over the landscape. But the inventive Irish have a better story.Legend has it the stones were created by two giants, the Irish Finn McCool and the Scottsman, Benandonner, who taunted each other from their shorelines. Benandonner decided to come to Ireland to fight his rival.
Finn McCool built a causeway of stones across the water. But when he saw up close how big the Scottish giant was, he had second thoughts. His inventive wife had a suggestion: put him in a baby crib. The upshot of the story was that Benandonner had tea with McCool’s wife. When he saw how big the family’s “baby” was, he feared facing a grown and presumably much bigger father Finn, and fled back to Scotland. He tore up the rocks to keep Mr. McCool from following him.
A fine Irish tale, no?
Belfast Family-Friendly Inns & Pubs
Belfast and the surrounding area features many hotels and large B&Bs, with a few that will accommodate the entire family in one room. Note that all rates noted below include breakfast, though not always the hearty “Irish Breakfast” of eggs cooked any style, soda bread, sausage, potatoes and tea that you may imagine. (By the way, Northern Ireland still uses the Pound Sterling for currency–written GBP or £–but many establishments accept Euros.)
The Causeway Hotel (028 20731226) established in 1836, is in Bushmills, convenient to the Giant’s Causeway. Room rates are as low as £35 (about US$64) per day per day, including dinner.
If you want to be reminded of what U.S. country clubs look like, the 83-room Dunadry Hotel and Country Club (028 9443 4343), only 10 minutes from the Belfast International Airport, is very comfortable. Rooms are spacious and service is outstanding in this long-favorite local hotel. Rates start at about £80 (US$147) for a family with two adults and two children under 12.
By contract, the 64-room Malmaison (028 9022 0200) is a strikingly modern retreat carved out of a landmark building in the heart of downtown Belfast. Slinky lights and plasma screen televisions are obviously of interest to the hipper set but for others the dim lighting in the rooms is a detriment. Weekend rates start at £99 (US$182) per room; two suites are available.
Jurys Inn Belfast (028 9053 3500), part of the Ireland’s moderately priced, very friendly Jury’s Doyle Hotel chain, is a dull but comfortable hotel in the city center. The 190 large bedrooms will accommodate up to three adults, or two adults and two children, at a fixed price, starting at about £50 (US$92) per night. They offer two restaurants in house, nearby parking, Internet access in the rooms and some handicap accessible quarters.
A new attraction is one of the city’s few five-star hotels. The 21-room Merchant Hotel (028 9023 4888) is a restored, former bank building circa-1860 that opened in April 2006 in the historical Cathedral Quarter of Belfast’s city center. If its Italianate style and antique-furnished, velvet and mahogany interiors don’t appeal to the family, be sure to stop by for the formal afternoon tea, sure to be an impressive example of the tradition.
When it comes to food within Ireland, it has come a long ways, even to the point where dishes are sometimes colorfully displayed. My general advice at lunch and dinner is to skip the beef stew, but the staple of vegetable soup is generally okay. If the menu advertises local salmon, it should be good. Bread is almost always homemade. And families can’t go too far wrong with fish and chips.
Nick’s Warehouse (named for the owner, Nick Price) is known as one of Belfast’s most relaxing watering holes. Warm salads with a choice of nut oils and tasty casseroles are big hits in this cool, cozy wine bar with an adjacent restaurant.
The Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street, a city landmark built in 1826, has an ornate Victorian exterior and serves good food in a pub setting.
Outside of Belfast in County Antrim, diners at the Tidy Doffer eat generous and tasty potions under one of the largest thatched roof pubs in Ireland.
Weekend visits are possible because non-stop flights from the U.S. and all European cities are available; I came via Newark, New Jersey. I must mention that the climate is dreary enough that visitors find they need umbrellas much more often than sun glasses. The joke is that if you run across a tan Irishman, it’s really rust you’re seeing.
You don’t have to go far to plan the details of your weekend getaway. In advance, you can do some research with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB at 028/9023-1221) .
The Belfast and Northern Ireland Tourist Information Centre (028-9448-4677) also has a booth in the Arrivals Hall of the Belfast International Airport. For excellent resources on local sights and events once you’re settled, stop by the Belfast Welcome Centre ( 028/9024-6609) at 47 Donegall Place.
And, if you care to hear, perhaps the second most-told joke here, at least when it comes to tourists, is the Irish shipyard worker who was asked what happened to the Titanic.
“Well, you got me,” he said. “It was just fine when it left here.”
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