I was recently given the opportunity to check off a huge bucket list item for myself, a visit to The Emerald Isle. Just over a decade ago, I lived in London for a year, and still to this day count it as one of my favorite cities in the world. During this year I took the time to visit many places in Mainland Europe and throughout the United Kingdom including three of the four countries that compose the UK, but regretfully I never did make it across the Irish Sea.
One of the surprising highlights of my recent trip, was not Ireland itself, but the small northeast corner of the island that remains a part of the British Empire, Northern Ireland. For many people, thoughts of Northern Ireland bring to mind the sensational headlines and violence that characterized its reputation in the last half of the 20th century. Well, I’m here to tell you that this small country has taken great strides to embrace a 21st century rebirth and is now a wonderful option for a relaxing and invigorating vacation destination. Don’t believe me? Here are 5 reasons why YOU should consider Northern Ireland for your next European getaway.
Like its southern neighbor and its eastern brothers, Northern Ireland is steeped in thousands of years of history. The most interesting part when you’re on the ground and in the middle of everything though is that all of these disparate eras live side by side. Neolithic structures and castles live in harmony with Victorian distilleries and modern museums.
The city of Belfast in particular manages to balance these varying time periods together to create a dynamic and interesting cityscape that is joy to explore. The city itself is merely a child by European standards, and is quite small really, a walk from one side of the city center to the other takes only around an hour. Despite its size, Belfast is filled with Victorian and Edwardian history and buildings. The early 1900’s were good to this city and it built a name for itself (and filled its coffers and the pockets of its businessmen) through a mammoth manufacturing and shipbuilding industry.
Have you heard of a little ship called the Titanic? It was built here, along with many others. This influx of capital into the local economy led to the construction of municipal buildings, theaters and other improvements that still to this day function under their original roles, as well as private homes and businesses that still stand as hotels, museums, restaurants and more. There are many museums and buildings throughout the city that detail this early history and are well worth seeing, but the one that you absolutely cannot miss is Titanic Belfast. This miraculous (and modern) museum takes you deep into the history of the ship and the shipbuilders, but more than this, it takes you well beyond Jack and Rose and brings the people who were really there to life.
Looking past Belfast’s early days to more recent history you begin to see the ways that the city has changed in the decades since it was an industrial powerhouse. The World Wars were not easy on Northern Ireland or it’s people and make no mistake, “The Troubles” of the 20th century left their fair share of scars on the city. One of these is a series of Berlin-esque walls, The Peace Lines, snaking their way through the capital. However, when viewed through the lens of modern Belfast, these walls are less a way to separate the people of the city, and more a method of expression, both from locals and foreigners alike. When strolling along the mile-long section of Lines that we visited, I was alternatively saddened by the need for such a barrier and uplifted by the words of peace and encouragement that I saw scrawled across every inch.
On a stroll across the city center, you can seemingly step from one era of the city’s history directly into the next and can truly see and experience the progression and rebirth that the city is currently undergoing. This is, I think, a very special thing.
Most of the time when someone thinks of art they think of “fine art”, paintings hanging in museums and sculptures surrounded by tinkling fountains and flowers in gardens. Belfast is a city that will make you rethink this definition, and in doing so will open your eyes to the modern renaissance that is occurring not only here, but in cities all over the world.
One of the most powerful pieces of art that I’ve seen in recent memory has thousands of artists. It was a mile long section of the Peace Lines that was covered from top to bottom with many different things including beautifully painted murals, wishes for peace written in a 5 year old’s handwriting and the ubiquitous “So and So was here” line that crops up all over the world. When viewed as a whole this living artwork serves as a reminder that there are people who care and who want to see peace prosper. This is far from the only urban art in the city. There is an entire area of the city, one that The Troubles hit particularly hard, that is covered in murals, sculptures and installations that not only serve as memorials for the people who lost their lives, but also as a reminder to future generations of the perils of fear and prejudice.
Another surprising side to the art scene in Belfast, comes not from something that is created with paint or clay, but rather with cameras and people. The film scene is booming in Northern Ireland, and with the stunning scenery available just outside the city, not to mention the tax breaks available, it looks like this will continue.
One of the cornerstones of this industry is Titanic Studios and the iconic television show that filmed there its entire run, Game of Thrones. Now that the show has wrapped up its final season, many of the sets, costumes, scripts and other behind the scenes materials from the filming have been collected together into the Game of Thrones Exhibition, which is currently in Belfast through September 1, 2019. However, Game of Thrones will have a presence in the city even after The Exhibition leaves, not only because a permanent attraction is being built but also because many of the residents of the city had their moment in the spotlight on the show, as I was told by one person I met at a local pub “There’s hardly a person in Belfast who hasn’t been a wildling, Lannister soldier or dead man over the last ten years.”
Now, all this talk of these unorthodox and “modern” art forms that are flourishing in Belfast, may lead you to think that there isn’t a fine art scene in the city, and this is not the case. The Ulster Museum has an extensive collection of Irish artists as well as artworks from across the world, and the Botanical Garden that it is located in is not only a beautiful garden, but also has an amazing Victorian Era greenhouse. No matter what gets your artistic juices flowing, there’s something to explore in this city.
When you think of great food cultures, Ireland and the British Isles are not really a place that comes to mind. I mean, its not French, Italian, or Spanish food, that’s for sure and it’s hard to compete with the big flavors and fancy techniques that those cuisines are famous for. So rather than trying to fight outside their weight class, Belfasters (or are they Belfastians, no one really knows) decided to focus on simple dishes made with out of this world ingredients, which makes sense when you look at their surroundings.
Belfast is a city with rich ocean waters to the North and East, and lush pasturelands to the South and West, not to mention the many lakes and streams that are dotted around. What all of this means is that when it comes to ingredients, the people who live here are spoiled for choice. The ocean waters and local lakes and streams provide plentiful fresh seafood options, the nearby farms put forward succulent grass-fed beef and lamb and local producers create everything from small batch cheeses to a golden, creamy butter that is absolutely worth the calories. When something as simple as butter will make you cry tears of joy you know you’ve hit the culinary jackpot!
The thing about great ingredients though, is that in order to make great food you must use them correctly, and the chefs in Belfast have dedicated themselves to doing so. While there are a handful of Michelin recognized restaurants in the city and surrounding areas that will give you a wonderful dining experience, as you would expect, they are far from the only delicious options. One thing’s for sure, whether you decide to splurge on the Chef’s Tasting menu at EIPIC or Ox, or to rub elbows with the locals while chowing down on fish & chips at Longs, you won’t leave disappointed.
While the food scene in Belfast had been growing by leaps and bounds over the last few years, so quickly in fact that the city was named the best food destination in the world, the whiskey scene has always been strong. With Bushmills, the oldest (legally!) operating whiskey distillery in the world in their backyard, it’s easy to see why the cocktail scene has been strong, but this country is not a one trick pony. Yes, there are wonderful whiskeys distilled in the area, both at big name and small batch distilleries, but there are also amazing gins, ciders and beers brewed nearby. Make sure to include a bar hop during your night out on the town!
It’s officially time to move beyond Belfast! While the main city of Northern Ireland is fascinating, the surrounding countryside is filled with awe inspiring vistas, rugged cliff tops and rolling hills. One of the most beautiful (and most famous) parts of the country is the stunning Causeway Coast, winding 120 miles from Belfast around the north-eastern coast to Derry. While the 40,000 basalt columns that make up Giant’s Causeway are a must see stop on any Northern Ireland itinerary, there is so much more to explore!
Nearby the Causeway hangs Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a spindly, windblown rope and wood bridge spanning a 60 foot chasm between the mainland and the tiny island of Carrickarede. The first bridge was built by local fishermen in the 1750’s, and although it is no longer used for fishing, a bridge has hung here ever since. If you’re courageous enough, you can brave the wind (and your fear of heights!) to traverse this tightrope hanging 90 feet above the crashing waves. Afterwards, bolster your spirit with a little liquid courage during a whiskey tasting at nearby Bushmills Distillery, or head a little further along the coast to Portrush for lunch and a round at one of the two links courses at Royal Portrush Golf Club, the host of this year’s British Open.
If you venture inland, just west of Belfast, you’ll find the largest lake in the British Isles, Lough Neagh. Large enough to border 5 of the 6 counties in Northern Ireland, the Lough is filled with opportunities to enjoy boating and fishing in the many secluded bays and to walk or cycle along the 113 mile long lake shore. Don’t worry, while much of the rest of Northern Ireland is straight up and down the lakeshore is mostly flat!
I started my journey in the Republic of Ireland, so when we were headed towards the border with Northern Ireland, I was on the lookout for anything to mark the change. The only difference I could see? Road signs changed from Kilometers to Miles. No checkpoints, no border crossings, no walls, not even a sign saying “Welcome to Northern Ireland!”. This is only one example of how easy this destination is to combine with a larger British Isles, or even mailand Europe trip!
Belfast is serviced by two airports, Belfast International and George Best City Airport, and both are well connected to other major European cities. In less than an hour you can be in Edinburgh or Glasgow ready to trek through the Highlands. Two hours or less will have you exploring Mayfair in London and waving at the Queen, strolling down the Champs Elysees in Paris, or eating stroopwafel at an Amsterdam coffee shop. Want to Marvel at the spires of the Sagrada Familia or relax on the canals while being serenaded by a gondoliere? A three-hour direct flight to Barcelona or Venice makes this is a definite possibility!
With so many choices spread across mainland Europe (and even further afield!) there’s no reason not to add Northern Ireland to your next European Vacation! Need assistance with organizing your itinerary and arranging sightseeing? Looking for a Houston travel agency? Contact us or make an appointment with one of our knowledgeable advisors to get started!