I recently went to Belfast for a weekend and had a ball.
The city is modern and bustling but has a real sense of history. There are lots of lovely places to eat, drink and shop and plenty of touristy things to do.
Here are two that I really enjoyed and one that just didn’t live up to the hype.
Black taxi tour
Before going to Belfast, the one thing everyone told me to do was a black taxi tour and so I put it at the top of my list. The one we took more than lived up to my expectations.
Our driver, Ivor, picked us up at our hotel and over two hours brought us to some of the most prominent sites associated with the Troubles like Crumlin Road Gaol, the peace lines and murals representing both sides.
Ivor wove his own personal story into the tour and shared how he got dragged into the conflict.
Despite his own past as an ex-prisoner, he was really balanced and gave a rounded take on the history and how it shaped his life and home city.
It all made for a vivid and moving picture of what it was like to live in Belfast during the Troubles and what’s changed since.
We booked our tour through BelfastBlackCabTours.com and it cost £36 (around €41.20) for two – well worth it.
Crumlin Road Gaol
The gaol was one of our stops on the black taxi tour and piqued our interest so much that we had to go in.
Our hour and a half long tour with guide Trish took us around the old gaol and through its history, from Victorian times right up through the Troubles and to its closure in 1996.
The gaol now is pretty much as it was when it built and so feels incredibly atmospheric and a bit creepy.
Parts of the experience might be a little much for some.
The small room where hangings took place is completely reconstructed and makes the building’s gruesome history very vivid.
Other parts, like having a restaurant called ‘Cuffs’ and a set-up where visitors can take novelty mugshots felt almost insensitive, given how recently the prison was in use and its controversial association with internment and the treatment of prisoners during the Troubles.
This tension reflected an overall sense that Belfast is still figuring out how to balance coming to terms with its past with moving forward.
That said, I really enjoyed the tour and reckon anyone with an interest in crime or history would too.
Titanic Belfast is front and centre to the city’s attempts to establish itself as a tourist destination and so we were excited to pay it a visit.
As an attraction, it is well researched and laid out and really visually impressive – but it just didn’t do much for me.
It reminded me of visiting the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin in that it felt more like a polished brand experience than a glimpse at history.
We turned up without tickets on a Saturday and shuffled around with the throngs of other visitors there.
Learning about the city’s ship-building history and hearing the personal stories of Titanic passengers was interesting but as you’re just walking around reading and listening, the volume of people there did take away from our enjoyment.
It cost £18.50 (around €21.20) each, which seemed very steep for a self-guided tour. To be fair, we might have enjoyed it more if we had gone on a week day and booked in advance to make sure we got audio guides.
I wouldn’t not recommend it, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first place I’d tell someone to go on a trip to Belfast.