£175 per night
Expected price for:19 Mar - 20 Mar
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It’s fair to say that Northern Ireland has seen more than its share of conflict; sectarian violence, known locally as ‘The Troubles’, cast a long shadow over the country for many years. During this period, the tourist industry struggled, but recently, thanks to the peace process initiated by the Good Friday Agreement, tourists have returned and new hotels have opened. Now, visitors can learn about Belfast’s Titanic heritage, marvel at natural landmarks such as the Giant’s Causeway and explore locations used in Game of Thrones without the negative aspects of the past.
Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, was an industrial powerhouse. It excelled in the linen, ship building and textile industries and many of its attractions today hark back to that era. A good place to start a tour of the city is City Hall on Donegall Square. Completed in 1906, it features beautiful architecture and a garden dotted with various statues and monuments. Free daily tours of the building are available and at night it is beautifully illuminated. Just across the road is Visit Belfast which provides a wealth of tourist information; coach tours to attractions throughout Northern Ireland can be booked here too. A few minutes’ walk away, close to the River Lagan, Victoria Square Shopping Centre is the place to catch a film and enjoy a meal and its dome offers great views of the city’s landmarks. Numerous hotels are also located in this part of the city, from budget options to high-end boutique hotels.
In the 19th and 20th-century, Harland and Wolff was a pre-eminent ship building yard, constructing many world-famous ocean liners here. While its last ship launched back in 2003, the affectionately named gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath, still stand proud in the docks area. Probably the most famous ship in the world, the Titanic, was built here and forms the focus of a major tourist attraction, Titanic Belfast. It tells how the ocean liner was constructed and, soon after leaving Northern Ireland, was fatefully sunk on her maiden voyage to New York after striking an iceberg. Reconstructed cabins and interactive exhibits really bring the ship to life. The Titanic Dock and Pump House is another fascinating attraction: it’s the dry dock where the ship was launched on her one and only voyage. Not surprisingly, this part of Belfast is known as the Titanic Quarter, and an increasing numbers of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues like Odyssey Arena are locating here.
If time is short, a great way to see a lot of Belfast is to use an open top bus tour. A typical tour lasts an hour or two, or longer if hopping on and off at various sights along the way. The tickets are usually valid for a day or two as well which is really handy. Some of the popular sights covered include Shankill Road with its loyalist murals and Stormont, the seat of government in Northern Ireland. Also on the itinerary, Crumlin Road Gaol offers tours of restored prison cells, live music and a restaurant. In the evening, Great Victoria Street is the place to go for great entertainment. The Crown Bar, opposite the iconic Europa Hotel, is a lovely traditional pub with original snugs and gas lights and a few paces up the road, the Grand Opera House is a magnificent Victorian theatre and music venue.
Northern Ireland is famous for its stunning coastal landscape, with the Coastal Causeway Route one of the most popular road trips in the world. Starting in Belfast, the Coast Road meanders up through Carrickfergus with its Norman castle, Larne and the Glens of Antrim, all the way to Derry-Londonderry which features 17th-century walls and cannons. Along the way, it’s worth stopping off at the National Trust’s Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which hangs 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. It’s thrilling to walk across, but maybe not for the faint-hearted! Of course, the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast is a must-see attraction. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a collection of hexagonal stones that, as legend would have it, were created by warring giants in Scotland and Ireland. Nearby in Bushmills, the oldest working distillery in Ireland, Old Bushmills, offers tours and whiskey-tasting sessions. There are also hotels in the town, so no need for a designated driver!
Fans of Game of Thrones, the very popular HBO television programme, will be interested to know that Northern Ireland has doubled as Westeros in many episodes. Indeed, quite an industry has developed around the show with Belfast’s Titanic Studios home to the iconic Throne Room and many locals employed as extras. Conveniently, some of the key locations are near the Coastal Causeway Route such as Ballintoy Harbour, which portrays the Iron Islands, and Cushendun Caves where the character Melisandre gave birth. A short drive inland, to the south of Ballintoy, the overhanging beech trees known as ‘The Dark Hedges’ were transformed into ‘The Kingsroad’, an important thoroughfare in the Seven Kingdoms. To the south of Belfast, Castle Ward in County Down became Winterfell, home of the Starks. Here, visitors can dress up as characters from the show and learn how to shoot a bow and arrow. Overnight hotel accommodation can be found nearby in the town of Downpatrick.