There was a time not so long ago when the Northern Ireland city of Belfast conjured up images of “the Troubles,” a time of extreme political, national and religious conflict from the 1960s to its uneasy end in 1998.
That was then.
Nowadays, Belfast is a vibrant, fascinating city boasting family-friendly attractions that range from Game of Thrones tours and the interactive Titanic Belfast museum to ultra-hip musical and art venue.
The top attraction in the city is Titanic Belfast, a fascinating museum with plenty of wow factor that already attracted more than 3 million visitors since it opened in 2012. The way it works is that once you enter the museum, you “experience” the construction and the giddy hype surrounding its christening and launch, followed by the simulated voyage and ultimate sinking that let to the most famous shipwreck in history.
Multimedia exhibits include dramatic videos and audio effects depicting the sinking of the ship retold in the voices of surviving passengers; facsimiles of parts of the actual ship, including the gloomy lower cabins and the posh upper staterooms, and a realistic re-creation of the ship as it was when it was discovered in 1985.
Another plus is the museum, the outside of which looks like a massive hull of a ship, is located on the Lagan River, where there are enticing shops, cafes and restaurants enough to help you easily while away a whole day.
When exiting Titanic Belfast, don’t overlook the small warehouse behind it that, while it doesn’t look like much, is Titanic Studios, which serves as the location of some interior Game of Thrones shots.
In fact, GOT is such an important part of the Northern Ireland economy that the VisitBelfast tourist office offers a number of tours that take in filming locations in and around the city.
Another huge part of Belfast’s cultural appeal is its musical history, most notably the early punk rock scene, which thrived in the city even during some of the region’s most turbulent times.
One way to relive that musical history is to visit the Oh Yeah Music Centre on Gordon Street, where you can listen to live performances by emerging talent and where posters and other artifacts from some well-known bands are on display. You can dig deeper with an Oh Yeah Music Tour, where a guide — most likely a former DJ — will take you around to such famous sites as Ulster Hall, where famous bands like The Clash performed in the late 1970s.
Belfast has also immortalized some of its most famous musical figures in gigantic, colorful murals throughout the city. Check out the walls of the Dark Horse pub and the Duke of York Public House, for example, and see how many of the faces you and your family recognize.
Van Morrison is probably the city’s most famous musical artist, and families can embark on a self-guided Van Morrison walking tour of East Belfast. The walking tour is guided via a booklet with QR codes that send content and music to your smartphone as you explore the neighborhood.
Children’s author C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia fame also hailed from East Belfast, and the visitors center offers a trail map that leads visitors to various sites of literary interest, including a statue of the author peeking into the wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the C.S. Lewis Reading room at Queen’s University for real fanatics.
In addition to the Morrison and Lewis tours, helping revitalize a previously untrendy section of the city, East Belfast is also the best place to see the most intense display of political mural art, which depicts the turmoil of the city’s recent past.
Meanwhile, younger kids can let off steam at the Victoria Square shopping center, where they can zipline, take indoor ski and snowboard lessons and jump on trampolines at an adventure center, and families can dine and shop. Or test your fitness level by walking up the steep spiral staircase (there is an elevator if tired parents or little legs aren’t up to the challenge) up to the Dome for some of the most panoramic views of the city.
For information on visiting Northern Ireland, visit Ireland Tourism at www.ireland.com, or stop into the Visit Belfast Welcome Center in Donegall Square North across from City Hall, where you can change money, leave your luggage for a day of sightseeing, log onto free WiFi and ask about city tours.
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