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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Debbie Emery takes us to what was once one of Europe’s most war-torn cities that has blossomed in recent years from the center of the IRA ‘Troubles’ into the pride of Northern Ireland and one of Europe’s hippest destinations. We’re heading to Belfast, Northern Ireland.
WHAT TO DO
Geographically located on the island of Ireland just 106 miles from Dublin, Belfast is politically and economically part of the United Kingdom, therefore the currency is British pounds – not Euros like the rest of the Emerald Isle.
With a troubled recent history that stretches back to 1920 when the Government Of Ireland Act made it the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast was the focus of the deadly disagreement between the Republic of Ireland and England as both countries staked their claim on the region, with violent and bloody results.
Terrorist attacks peaked in the 1970s and 80s as the Catholic nationalists clashed with the Protestant loyalists and British Army, leading to thousands of deaths from petrol bombs, nail bombs, and illegal and often homemade firearms fired between the rival paramilitary groups.
Once an area to be avoided by international travelers and locals alike, since the IRA (Irish Republican Army) ceasefire in the early 2000s, Belfast has transformed from a grey and frightening war zone into a fascinating and diverse tourist destination.
Despite its small size, Belfast is overflowing with history, with many tours offering an interesting education for all ages. Just over a century ago, the world’s largest (to date) and supposedly “unsinkable ship” was built in Belfast, and now the Titanic Quarter celebrates both the fantastic feat of engineering and its disastrous fate. Visit the birthplace of the Titanic in the dock area for the Titanic Experience, where you can wander around a sprawling interactive exhibit across nine galleries that include artifacts, interactive features, original photos and voices of the survivors. The mammoth exhibit tells the story of the 883-foot luxury cruise ship, from the first designs and blueprints to when it hit the giant iceberg just before midnight on April 14, 1912, sending 1,517 victims to a watery grave. A short roller-coaster ride lets experience the extravagant construction process through the eyes of a workman – culminating in the celebratory drinking session in a local pub. The museum costs 14.75 GBP, and for 18.25 GBP ($30) you can visit the nearby Titanic Dock & Pump-House and descend 44 feet into the depths of the shipyard where workmen constructed the Titanic as it sat on dry land for the first time.
Jumping forward 60 years, there was more death and destruction marring Belfast’s landscape in a much bloodier manner striking closer to home. During the many decades of warfare at the height of the Troubles, much of the violence was centered around the Shankhill Road in the western part of the city, which is now the focus of an incredibly eye-opening journey as part of a Belfast Famous Black Cab Tour, such as those hosted by Paddy Campbell. Guides are usually locals who lived through the worst of the terrorism-plagued era, and their modes of transport were an iconic part of the standoff between the nationalists and loyalists. Drivers take you to the Protestant housing estate that is filled with colorful murals – all with political and historical stories to tell, from William III who conquered the area in 1690, to a bloody red hand that staked the claim of early Viking explorers, to a masked gunman whose loaded weapon appears to be pointing at you wherever you stand in the poor estate. Even today, new murals or graffiti appear over night declaring violent divisions or threatening individuals who they claim are informants. Union Jack flags fly from some houses and red, white and blue lines are painted on the sidewalks to prove the occupants’ allegiances to England.
Separating the Protestant homes from the Catholics is the infamous Peaceline, which runs across the city dividing the two warring sides. Itself covered in murals and colorful paintings, the wall was built to keep Nationalists and Loyalists apart and to keep people out of the respective areas – as opposed to keeping them in, like the Berlin Wall. At 15 meters high, the 28 miles of wall are separated into 38 segments, all of which are 3 feet thick to sustain a bomb blast. The top of the wall is a wire mesh fence to prevent rocks, nail bombs or broken bottles being thrown over as weapons. Even the back yards of houses alongside the intimidating construction are completely covered in thick wire fencing to prevent attack. Hefty gates positioned at intervals around the wall are slammed shut as soon as night falls, as even nowadays drunken fights and riots are prone to break out between the residents on either side.
On the Catholic side of the Peaceline towards Falls Road, walled-in memorial gardens list the names and ages of the countless victims killed in the Troubles. Some are listed under Volunteer or Fian, meaning they were a member of the IRA, while others are stated as being “civilians murdered by Loyalists and British Forces during the course of the conflict.” Flowers dot the areas of remembrance, as do crude paintings of some of the victims. There are similar memorials all over Belfast for those on both sides of the war. An eerie trip to the Sinn Fein headquarters can’t fail to give goose bumps to anyone who lived through that era, as you see the political hotspot of the IRA, which now looks like an innocent red brick office building.
For those wanting to get away from the center of the political conflicts, the cab tours also go to the Albert Memorial Clock on Victoria Street, which was built in 1865 and is 113 feet high but now leans precariously 4 feet because it was built on unstable ground reclaimed from the river. Another popular stop is the nearby Crown Liquor Saloon, which is famous for its fine Italian marble tile work and embossed ceiling. Tours cost a total of 30 GBP ($56) for groups of 1-3, and for 4, 5 or 6 people it is 8.50 GPB ($13.70) each. They last 90 minutes.
Sticking with the darker side of Belfast’s history, the Crumlin Road Gaol is the city’s oldest prison having opened in 1846. It held the worst of the worst until 1996, when it was finally decommissioned. A guided walking tour takes small groups through the process from arrival, down to the damp and dark tunnel that 25,000 prisoners followed from the gaol to the courthouse across the road. Over the 150 years it was open, the prison was home to Republicans, Loyalists, mass murderers, ODCs – “Ordinary Domestic Criminals” – and even women, as the suffragettes took up much of one wing during their fight for the vote in the early 20th century.
Much of the Victorian structure has been painstakingly renovated since Crumlin Road opened as a tourist attraction in November 2012, with different eras of its evolution being re-enacted in the large C wing – from the early days when women were put to work taking apart rope for the shipbuilding industry, to the 1980s at the height of terrorism when overcrowding bolstered the population to 1,400 with up to four inmates squashed in a cell at a time. Although there is no capital punishment in the UK any longer, executions were commonplace at Crumlin Road, with the last man being hung in 1861. You can still walk in the footsteps of the condemned, by sitting in the large cell they would occupy under 24-hour prison guard after the death sentence was handed down, to the sinister hangman’s rope on the other side of a secret door, meaning that they had been just feet away from their fate while playing board games and dining on a last meal. The 75 minute tour includes tales of sinister murders, wife killings, notorious terrorist bosses, and even some stories of successful escape. The gaol is open seven days a week from 10am to 4.30 pm and costs 7.50 GBP ($12).
For a less sinister tourist experience, head to City Hall in the center of the shopping district, where the beautiful Edwardian building houses stained-glass windows depicting stories from Belfast’s history, and statues of former leaders on the grassy lawn, one of the locals’ favorite lunch spots in good weather. Inside, photo exhibits tell the story of how the city developed over the centuries and an interactive exhibit spotlights 100 famous faces who hearken from Belfast, such as actor Kenneth Branagh and Manchester United football legend, George Best.
Venturing out of the city center, natural beauty abounds – especially on a rare clear and sunny day – so it is worth either renting a car or hopping on a tour bus to head up the Antrim coast. Drive north along the Giant’s Causeway, stop off at Portstewart at the northern end or visit Ballintoy harbor.
WHAT TO EAT
Just like the rest of Ireland, Belfast is full of friendly pubs with plenty of hearty food and drink options. Try the Paddy’s Pizza at The Kitchen – a Gaelic twist on the original made with soda bread, tomatoes, cheese, onions and meat options. Top it off with an Irish coffee with whipped cream or a classic pint of Guinness, which has been poured there since 1859. The neighboring Victoria Square shopping center has a selection of chain stores, boutiques and dining options.
Another popular drinking spot with locals and tourists alike is the Duke of York, hidden down an alley near the Cathedral with hanging baskets of bright flowers filling the walls. Inside, the low-beamed ceilings and cozy rooms offer the perfect spot for a quick tipple or bite to eat. If you are looking for more high-end cuisine, Deanes Deli Bistro on Bedford Street offers a fabulous range of fresh seafood such as meaty Hake or scallops, flavorful risotto and delightful desserts. A few doors down, The Harlem Café is a brightly decorated oasis serving warm home-baked scones, hot porridge, or a full Irish breakfast.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Belfast is served by two airports. The main airport is Belfast International Airport, which is located about 13 miles northeast of the city. The other airport is George Best Belfast City Airport, which is only 3 miles from the city center.The only US carrier that serves Belfast International Airport is United, which offers non-stop year-round service from Newark onboard one of their 757-200ER aircraft.
EasyJet is a main player here as well and offers non-stop service to Alicante, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Faro, Glasgow-International, Kraków, Liverpool, London-Gatwick, London-Luton,, London-Stansted, Málaga, Malta, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, as well as seasonal service to Geneva, Ibiza, Nice, Palma de Mallorca.
If you are trying to redeem miles to get to Belfast, consider redeeming on your preferred carrier to Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris or London, and then just buying a ticket on EasyJet over to Belfast.
George Best Belfast City Airport is served by Aer Lingus from London-Gatwick and London-Heathrow, as well as by British Airways from London-Heathrow. Flybe also has a large presence here.
Thanks to its violent history, Belfast wasn’t home to many recommendable hotels until its recent renaissance started attracting both boutique hotels and chains alike. It’s a small city, so options are still somewhat limited, though there are opportunities to use your points.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Belfast: Located on the banks of the Lagan River in a redeveloped area that used to house the Gasworks in the 19th century, the Radisson Blu has 120 guest rooms and suites with a contemporary Nordic aesthetic that feature complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, coffee and tea maker and gourmet cookies upon arrival. While there is not an on-site gym, guests have access to the LA Health and Fitness Club a five-minute walk away with high-tech equipment and workout classes for a fee of 7 GBP ($11) or is complimentary for Business Class rooms. There are two on-site restaurants, the Gasworks Bar & Cafe, which pays homage to the location’s history, and serves burgers, pizzas and sandwiches, or the Filini Restaurant for more high end food and wine. Weekend guests get complimentary parking and there is a reduced rate in the week. Room rates start at 94 GBP ($150 USD) per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 38,000 Club Carlson points for a free night.
There is also a Park Inn by Radisson in Belfast.
Hilton Belfast: This 198-room hotel is centrally located on the banks of the Lagan River just a short walk from the city center and a 10 minute drive from Belfast City Airport. Guest rooms have complimentary WiFi with either river or mountain views and feature a flatscreen TV, work desk and marble bathroom. Amenities include the Living Well fitness center with high-tech cardio equipment. Guests can also grab a whiskey cocktail at the Cable Bar, or enjoy English and Irish cuisine at Sonoma Restaurant. Guests staying in suites or the executive rooms get access to the Executive Lounge with complimentary Continental breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and canapes. There is parking for a fee of 18 GBP ($28.60) a day. Room rates start at 84 GBP ($135) per night in October. This is a Category 5 hotel requiring 30,000 HHonors points for a free night.
Holiday Inn Belfast: Conveniently situated within walking distance from the shops at Victoria Square, Belfast City Hall and the Titanic Museum, this 170-room hotel features complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, blackout shutters on the windows, a work desk with a lamp, coffee and tea maker, stereo, marble bathroom, and film and video game rentals. The Holiday Inn Belfast boasts the Spirit Health Club, with a 15 meter swimming pool, fully equipped fitness center and a spa with treatment rooms for massages and facials, plus a sauna, steam room and jacuzzi. The Junction Bar & Restaurant serves a traditional Irish breakfast of potato bread and sausages to start the day off, or local whiskeys, modern British cooking and European wines to wind the evening down. The open plan and floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the busy street and the BBC Broadcasting House outside.There is also a business center and meeting room. Room rates start at 73 GBP ($117) per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 25,000 points for a free night.
Holiday Inn Express Belfast City: Nearby, this 3-star hotel is in the Queen’s University Quarter close to the lush botanic gardens. It has 114 guest rooms offering a choice of pillows (soft or firm), complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, desk and work lamp. This hotel is family friendly and there are a wide range of sleeping options including single, twin or double beds, and family and triple rooms with pull-out sofa beds. Guests get a free hot or Continental breakfast, and the casual restaurant offers lunch and dinner, such as pizza, steak, pasta and burgers. There is also a conference center with meeting rooms, WiFi, fax and complimentary parking. Room rates start at 52 GBP ($84) per night in October and includes free parking. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 25,000 points for a free night.
Other IHG Rewards properties include the Holiday Inn Express Antrim, which is 17 miles away.
The Europa Hotel: Once the most bombed hotel in Belfast, the Europa has had a miraculous resurgence like the rest of the city. Having housed Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities, the historical landmark has 95 guest rooms and 6 suites that overlook the Black Mountains and the west of the city. Standard guest rooms include WiFi, a flatscreen TV, coffee and tea maker, an iPod dock and a rainshower. Dining options from breakfast or afternoon tea to an extravagant dinner can be enjoyed in the Piano Lounge, the Lobby Bar or the Causerie. The Europa specializes in traditional foods made from local produce, such as Irish Stew, Champ (made from mashed potatoes and onions) or an Ulster Fry. Room rates start at 75 GBP ($121) per night in October. The Europa is a member of the Hastings Hotel group.
Malmaison Belfast: This charming hotel is small in size but but big on style, transforming a former seed warehouse into the most eclectic property in Belfast. Located close to the port, shipbuliding is the theme for the colorful 64 guest rooms that feature bathtubs of “Titanic” proportions, complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, and coffee and tea maker. The Executive Suite – nicknamed Samson – has a seven-foot bed, a purple snooker table and a fireplace. Under the leadership of Head Chef Stephen Jeffers, The Brasserie serves modern and classic Irish cuisine such as buffalo, salmon, and crab. The trendy MALBAR also serves up everything from lattes to artisan cocktails. Room rates start at 99 GBP ($159) in October.
The Fitzwilliam Hotel: This contemporary hotel has 130 rooms with 26-inch flatscreen TV’s, Sony music systems, coffee and tea makers, and bathrooms with bathtubs and separate showers stocked with The White Company products. The restaurant features communal tables, high-backed chairs and a diverse dinner menu, along with a traditional afternoon tea, or you can kick back in the bar, which is stocked with 700 spirits and a “drinks bible.” Room rates start at 105 GBP ($168) per night in October, and there is a 17 GBP ($27.40) fee for valet parking.
The Ten Square: Located close to the City Hall and the Victoria Square shopping center, this unique hotel is housed in a Grade 1 listed historical building and has 22 guest rooms with complimentary WiFi, a flatscreen TV, thick carpets, coffee and tea maker and Green Baroque amenities. The Grill Room cooks up huge steaks or fresh seafood, a long with traditional desserts and rich afternoon cream tea. Room rates start at 95 GBP ($152) per night in October.