Belfast is a great starting point for any journey to Northern Ireland. This Victorian, red brick city has a strong industrial past; spires, domes and cranes can be seen throughout the city. Many of Belfast's streets are lined with friendly bars, pubs and restaurants where bank buildings have been transformed, cobbled streets are spruced up and old taverns reclaim their place in the heart of the city.
The city's cultural status and distinction has grown recently with its theatres, museums, exhibitions, parks and promenades all being rediscovered in the last decade. Along the cobbled stone streets and narrow alleyways of the Cathedral Quarter, there are performance spaces and pubs where spontaneous music sessions are common. In the Duke of York, musicians play traditional Irish airs, older than the building, meanwhile the poet John Hewitt is remembered in the bar that is his namesake.
From the Classical Renaissance of the Linen Hall Library to the Victorian elegance of the Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast has remarkable architectural gems. The Grand Opera House was begun in 1894 and has been restored to its Victorian glory, with its distinctive twin domes and Moorish lantern. More recently, the Titanic Belfast towers over the quarter of the same with the building the same height as the famous ship herself.
Belfast is a compact city and most places worth seeing are all within walking distance. There are a number of organised walking, bus and black cab tours around the city; each covering different topics and aspects of the city. There are historical tours which trace the city’s seventeenth century origins, its emergence as a rich industrial city and beyond.
Literary walking tours uncover the writers, poets and playwrights who found their inspiration in the city’s people and among the hills. For pleasure and relaxation, business or education, the River Lagan Tour operates between the Lagan Lookout on Donegall Quay and Stranmillis or the Titanic Tour explores the harbour area and Harland & Wolff shipyards.
Whatever the season, there’s usually a festival on somewhere in the city. The Belfast Film Festival in March and Cinemagic in November play host to film shorts, as well as innovative and conventional film releases. The Belfast Festival at Queen’s in October is the second largest arts festival in the UK. West Belfast Festival is held each August and is Europe’s largest community festival. The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is an alternative arts festival held each May, whose venues include the MAC and St. Anne's Cathedral.
Set high in the hills overlooking the city and lough, Belfast Zoo is a safe haven for more than 160 species of rare and endangered animals and birds. Imposing Andean bears, giant Asian elephants, majestic Barbary lions, unusual Malaysian camels, hyper-active spider monkeys, light-hearted Humbolt penguins, fierce white tigers and the gentle red pandas are each popular amongst visitors. Not far from the Zoo, you'll find Belfast Castle with its grand façade, impressive views and picturesque gardens.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra captures the way of life in rural Ulster. Meticulously reconstructed farms, cottages, shops, churches and houses are devoted to illustrating the Ulster way of life in the early 1900s. The museum’s transport gallery houses the most comprehensive transport collection in Ireland. Elsewhere you'll find the Titanic Belfast; an extraodinary exhibition which decipts the creation of one of the world's largest and grandest ships. Complete a trip into the Titanic's history by heading down to the Titanic Dry Dock & Pump House.
Other aspects of Victorian life can be found in the city; within the city centre itself you'll find what was one of the city's centres for trade and commerce. St. George's Market has been in operation since it opened its doors for the first time in 1896. On the flipside, along the Crumlin Road you'll find the city's centre for crime and punishment many years ago. The Crumlin Road Gaol was finished in 1845 and operated until 1996; during this period it evolved with the times.
Belfast also has a number of peaceful green parks. Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park in the southwest of the city, the grounds at Belfast Castle to the north and the Botanic Gardens in the Queen's Quarter are beautiful retreats from the city's pace. With a tropical ravine, palm house, rose gardens, alpine gardens, walks and wide, green lawns, the Botanic Gardens attracts visitors in all seasons and is within walking distance of the city centre. You'll also find the Ulster Museum almost hidden amongst the trees of the gardens. The Museum is filled with a large number of fascinating exhibitions with something for everyone.
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